Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 31 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
At 6:40 a.m., when Binyamin was awakened by the tumult around him, he still felt quite ill. But when he opened his eyes a second time an hour later, he felt somewhat better.
“Ima?” he croaked, half asleep—and then suddenly blushed into his pillow. Why was he calling his mother like a little boy?
He washed his hands into the basin that someone had placed near his bed, and got up. Yes, he was more steady on his feet than yesterday. No, actually not. He sat down again quickly.
The morning noises that he loved, and which he’d almost forgotten, wafted into the dining room. Dishes clinking in the kitchen, and cries of, “Where’s my brush?” and, “Who’s helping me find Nati’s other shoe?” and, “Ima tell him to stop; he’s touching my chocolate milk!” Rapid footsteps, a falling chair, a giggle, a whiny wail, and Devoiry’s voice asking Itzik to please tell her already what he wanted in his sandwich.
“Binyamin?” Ima walked into the room. “How are you? How was your night?”
“Baruch Hashem, I think I feel a little better.”
“Really?” She looked at him doubtfully. “Because you don’t look better. I’m leaving to work in a few minutes. I made you some tea in a thermos. I want you to make sure to drink a lot, okay? Do you want another blanket?”
“No, if I get cold I’ll take one of the blankets from the other boys’ beds.”
“Fine, they’re folded up in Nati’s crib.”
“Thanks.” He tried to smile, but his facial muscles ached. He must really have the flu or something.
Little heads kept popping in from behind the accordion door.
“Get well soon!”
“Don’t leave before we get back, okay?”
The door of the house opened and closed repeatedly for the next ten minutes, until there was finally silence. Binyamin rose to get dressed. If he remembered correctly, there was an 8:15 minyan in the shul right near his house.
But what about his tefillin? His tefillin were in yeshivah!
As he was wondering which of the shuls near his yeshivah had a minyan soon, the door opened and Abba walked in. “Good morning, Binyamin,” his father greeted him warmly. “Hey, where are you going?”
“To yeshivah. I left my tefillin there.”
“You are not going to yeshivah now,” his father replied. “You’re burning up with fever. Take my tefillin; they should fit you more or less.”
“I…” Suddenly Binyamin felt dizzy, and he quickly sank down onto a kitchen chair which, fortunately, was outside the kitchen right now.
“Daven at home, Binyamin,” his father urged. “You need another day of rest.”
The doctor that he went to that evening determined that it was a severe case of the flu, but Binyamin did not need the doctor to tell him how severe it was. He spent the next four days burning up with fever, which kept climbing and then dipping.
Only by Friday did he feel some semblance of a reprieve.
Joe Ludmir was awakened by the ringing phone next to his bed. With his eyes closed, he lifted the receiver.
“Mr. Ludmir, this is room service. You noted that at this time we can already suggest our breakfast menu to you,” a voice said.
“Mmmm…a few more minutes,” the mister replied. He looked around in confusion. The alarm clock on his cell phone hadn’t rung yet—or actually, it probably had rung, but he hadn’t heard it.
“Excellent. The menu is waiting for you on the doorknob of your room. Please mark what you’d like to order and hang it back up when you get a chance.”
“Yes, yes,” he replied drowsily. He lay there for a few more minutes, and then, when his thoughts finally began to come into focus, he got up and went to wash his hands.
After marking the leather-backed menu with his breakfast choices, he returned it to the doorknob and took his tallis and tefillin out of his valise.
He’d daven and eat breakfast, and then he’d start searching a bit. He had to try and find some more details about his past. Right now all he knew was that, as a child during the war, he’d had a one and only friend.
The friend to whom he owed his life.
He stood in front of the old Bratislava city hall, a complex of buildings erected in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Behind him, the driver leaned on his car, smoking. “Did you check when the archive is open, sir?”
“Yes,” Joe replied. “But it’s not so simple to get in there. Let’s see how much they ask for. In general, they don’t like people nosing around in old documents here, especially not when they are Jews.”
“The Bratislava City Museum is also open now. If you’re going inside already, you might as well visit there.”
“I was there last time.” Joe waved off the suggestion. “The papers that I’m looking for are not worthy of public display, to be sure.”
“So what you’re looking for is in the archive?”
“If I would only know what exactly I am looking for… They tell me at the new city hall building that they transferred all the documents from prior to the 1950s to here. I don’t know if they are right, but I’m trying.”
He didn’t plan to discover already on his first day that the old building that had housed the Catholic orphanage was no longer in existence. It had still been standing fifteen years ago, though not as a monastery anymore; it was some type of high school, and no one there had heard of a Theodore Heinke.
But back then, he hadn’t been paying that much attention to the matter. In any case, Theodore was probably long dead. Joe had spent those two weeks scouting out the length and breadth of Bratislava, visiting ancient parts, new streets, famous sites, and, l’havdil, the Jewish cemetery and the gravesite of the Chasam Sofer, which was in a cement structure in the ground. Back then, he’d just wanted to inhale, to breathe, to reacquaint himself and try to remember.
But today, he was here because he wanted to search a bit deeper.
The driver waited for him outside. Polite clerks sent him here and there, and finally he found himself facing the door of the archive. Next to the door was a huge, impressive painting of the Bratislava Castle going up in flames. When had that happened? He gazed at the tongues of flames reaching for the clouds and coloring them dark gray, while he bent down to check the date on the caption.
“Nice painting,” a voice said beside him. A young man with a light blue shirt and a tie pushed the door to the archive open. “Don’t you think?”
“Oh, yes,” Ludmir replied. “When did the fire happen?”
“A good two hundred years ago. Afterward the Castle stood in destruction for a long time, and it was only restored about fifty years ago.”
“In the end everyone recovers,” Joe Ludmir said slowly.
The man nodded politely, holding the door open with his foot. “Did you want something?” he inquired courteously.
“Do you work in the archive?”
“Excellent. I’m looking for information about children who were in the Lucius Jan Catholic children’s home during the World War.”
The younger man’s forehead creased. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’m only here eight months. First or Second World War?”
“Then come inside. Bruno Mistari is here today, and he likes to talk about the War. Bruno?” He threw the last word into the archive as he strode inside, followed by Joe. The door closed behind them, and Joe found himself standing in a massive, ancient cellar that looked like it hadn’t been renovated in a very long time. At least there were new air conditioners; Joe noticed them right away, as they worked to air out the stuffiness of the cavernous room.
“Yes, Mark?” a deep voice replied from inside.
“There’s someone here looking for information,” the younger man said. “You’ll probably be able to help him.”
“Let him come here to me.”
“He’s there, behind those cabinets.” The younger worker pointed with his right hand.
Joe turned in the direction, expecting to meet an elderly man, perhaps confined to a wheelchair. At the very least he thought the man would be his age. But to his surprise, he found a giant of a man, standing well over six feet, emptying the contents of a metal locker into a large carton.
“Are you Bruno?” Joe asked.
“I am,” the man said as he straightened up. He couldn’t be older than forty.
“Mark told me that I could find out from you where I might find some old information.”
“Information about what?”
“About children who were in a Christian institution during World War Two. I understood from him that you have a lot of information from those days.”
“Oh, yes,” the man said. “My father was very involved in studies of those years. The Communists sent him to prison. He was released when I was nineteen, and what I did until then was read all his books and research papers. But I don’t know what exactly we have here and what not; the new municipality threw us tons of material here. We had to shred some of it almost without checking it, and some of it hasn’t been touched yet. Which institution are you interested in?”
“A Catholic one, named for Lucius Jan. It was located not far from here, but now a tall building is being constructed on the site. The orphanage was demolished.”
The man scratched his head. “When Slovakia was part of the Soviet Union, it surely wasn’t Catholic anymore. What was it used for during that time?”
“A high school, apparently,” Joe said. “Do you know what I’m talking about?”
The giant dropped the binder he was holding into the open carton and went over to a table on the side. “I can try and check it in the computer,” he said.
After a few seconds, without raising his eyes from the screen, he asked, “Are you Jewish?”
“And you were there during the war?”
“Were you one of the children in that institution?”
“I realized that you are Slovakian, because your accent is good. Look, it’s mentioned here, but with very few details. The staff changed over the years… I have no idea what they did with all their paperwork, if it was even kept.”
Joe raised his eyes to the dozens of shelves that surrounded him, and just as he was about to ask what Bruno would suggest that he do, his phone rang.
He looked at the screen. A phone call from Australia? Now? From Sam?
“Hello?” he answered breathlessly. “What happened, Sam?”
The Korean was whimpering, and his voice was a bit unclear because of the noise on the line. “Mr. Ludmir?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Mr. Alex Korman died last night.” The Korean’s whimpers turned into full-blown sobs.
“Died?” Joe gripped the nearest shelf.
“But I spoke to him yesterday morning by phone, and he sounded okay; everything was fine!”
“That’s right…” Korman’s aide choked out. “But in the evening he was having trouble breathing, so we called the doctor and they took him to the hospital. But they couldn’t stabilize him. We were in the ICU all night.”
Joe Ludmir bit his lips. “When is the funeral?”
“We want to wait for you for that. When can you get here?”
“Not before tomorrow night…” Joe paced up and down in the archive, ignoring Bruno who had abandoned the computer and gone back to his metal locker. “I need to find out if I can get a flight out today.”
“We’ll wait for you,” Sam said, and then he began sobbing again. “Oh, my poor Mr. Alex…”
Joe returned to Bruno. “Thanks for trying to help me. I have to leave now,” he apologized. “My business partner died last night in Australia, and I need to get back there.”
“Was he a young person?” the giant man asked politely.
“No, not young at all.” Joe stood for a few minutes, staring into space, and then stuck his phone back into his pocket.