Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 55 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.
“Hi, it’s Blumi Hartstein.”
“Oh, hi, Blumi. How are you?”
“Great, baruch Hashem. Listen, how many children do you think are going to be attending the hachnasas sefer Torah?”
“We don’t really know.” Elisheva set down the basket of wet laundry on the windowsill and adjusted the phone that was wedged between her ear and her shoulder. “We have to ask the gabbaim in the shul, and then add our own children to whatever he says.”
“Oh, the procession won’t begin in Bnei Brak? Won’t it be leaving from your house?”
“We would want it to, but it’s a bit too much of a mess to divide a hachnasas sefer Torah between two cities, you know?” Elisheva chuckled. “It will leave from Rav Tawil’s home; he’s the rav of the shul. They’ll finish writing the letters there.”
“I’m asking because we want to donate pekalach. I hope you don’t mind that I feel like I have a part in this hachnasas sefer Torah.”
“You really do have a big part,” Elisheva said warmly. “You are giving the seudah. Tell me, do you have any idea, once we’re talking, if there is room to inscribe a l’illui nishmas on the outside of the sefer Torah?”
“It’s not a velvet mantle, you know,” Blumi said. “It’s made of wood. Unless you ordered one with silver as well?”
“No,” Elisheva said, “but my husband got the phone number of an expert wood craftsman, and he’ll speak to him. I want to write that it should be l’illui nishmas my father’s family, but I’m not sure if it’s funny to ask for such a thing, if there’s no room.”
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Blumi said. “But I’ll ask my husband, or my mother-in-law, if I don’t catch him. Both of them should know the answer to that. Do you need a lot of space? Was it a big family?”
“It’s sad.” Elisheva’s laugh was hollow, and lacked any mirth. “There’s nothing to write. My father knows nothing about his family.”
“He knows nothing? What does that mean?”
“He was a little boy during the war, and he was in a Christian orphanage in Bratislava, in Slovakia. When the war ended, he was handed over to Jewish people, but no one had any information about his background. And then he came to Israel, grew up here, and that’s it…”
“Oy, it’s scary to think about it.” Blumi rocked slowly back and forth in her rocking chair. “And that’s how you grew up? Without any family on your father’s side?”
“Without family would have been normal. There were lots of lone survivors like him; he wasn’t the only one. The thing is…” She groped for the right words. “He didn’t even have memories; he had no past. When there’s no past, you have to work very hard to create a good future. As a child, he wandered from place to place, until eventually he found himself, baruch Hashem.”
“Oy, it sounds horrible…”
“Were your parents Holocaust survivors?” Elisheva put the empty basket down on the floor. “You sound about my age, more or less.”
“We might be around the same age, but if you are telling me that your father was a little boy during the war,” Blumi stood up and went over to fix the angle of one of the framed pictures on the wall, “that means that my parents were much older. My older brothers are already marrying off grandchildren; I’m the youngest.” She rubbed a finger on the frame. “My mother and father married in Israel before the war. My mother was from Yerushalayim, and her family was originally from Hungary, and my father was born in Hungary, but came to Eretz Yisrael with his family at age twelve. So I grew up with lots of relatives on both sides.”
“The type of family I always dreamed, as a girl, of having,” Elisheva concluded.
“Where do your brothers and sisters live? Do your children at least have lots of cousins?”
“They have, but from my husband’s side. I’m an only child.”
“Really! So you really grew up like that, in absolute silence.”
“Not absolute silence…” Elisheva chuckled as she pulled the shutters closed. “I was a very active girl, baruch Hashem, and my mother wasn’t too quiet either… But my father is,” she added thoughtfully.
“Is what, the quiet type?”
“Yes, the very quiet type. I have no idea if it’s an inborn trait, or if life did it to him.”
Blumi went back to the chair her daughters had bought her for her twentieth wedding anniversary. “It sounds so sad… Wasn’t it possible for him to try to figure out who he was, maybe based on his first name?”
“He got his secular first name in the orphanage. He got his Jewish name after the war. So no one knows what his real name is…”
“What’s his name today?”
“Yisrael Bentzion. I guess one of his Jewish counselors chose the name.”
“It’s a name that expresses a lot.”
“That’s right,” Elisheva agreed, and then fell silent.
“And there was no family that adopted you, or something like that, in the picture?”
Elisheva shook her head. “No,” she said aloud, remembering that Blumi couldn’t see her. She paused and then added, “On second thought, there was a couple that was involved in smuggling my father out of the Christian orphanage, and he did keep up with them to some extent. I remember there being some letters and shanah tovah cards from them, and when I was ten years old they came to Israel for a visit, and we traveled with them to the Kosel. That was the only time in my life that I got a little taste of what it is like to have a grandmother, because Ulush, aleha hashalom—that was the name of the woman—was a very warm person.”
“They both passed away already?”
“Yes. And we don’t have any connection to their children.”
“And you father didn’t try, over the years, to search for his real family?”
“I don’t think so. At least, I don’t remember any special trips or things like that during my childhood, when he would have tried searching. But on the other hand, it’s possible that there were things I didn’t notice.”
She paused. “He never told me anything. Although just a few years ago, he told me about one effort that he did make, when he was a bachur.”
The street was sleepy, baking in the burning sun. Yisrael Bentzion walked down the narrow sidewalk, which was covered with wild berries that had fallen from the tightly crowded trees, and studied the house numbers. Twenty-four. Twenty-six. Twenty-eight.
A small flight of stairs brought him to the door on the first floor. The Weiss family.
“Is Reb Akiva here?” he asked, when a woman answered the door.
“No, he’s not home now,” Rabbi Weiss’s wife said.
“Do you know where can I find him?”
“He should be coming home at lunchtime. Do you want a drink in the meantime?”
“No, thanks. I…is it alright if I come back at lunchtime?” He was ready to go back down the stairs.
The little shul that he found on the street hosted him until after Minchah. Perhaps one of the mispallelim here was Rabbi Akiva Weiss? He had been too young and confused to remember the people that had surrounded them all those years ago…
It took several moments after the end of davening until he was able to pick himself up and go again. Aside for the fact that he was a Jew, he had not a single detail to offer about himself. That was not a good place to start with any shadchan. If he hadn’t done it until now, then it was no doubt time. He had to at least try.
The street welcomed him again, much busier than it had been earlier. Again he arrived at the small structure, and this time, he was ushered into a large room.
He gratefully accepted the cup of cold water, and then Reb Akiva walked into the room, tall and smiling, and shook his hand.
“I’m not sure if you remember me,” Yisrael said shyly. “But I was referred to you by Agudas Yisrael. You were an activist with them after the war, right?”
The man nodded.
“Do you remember, perhaps, that you helped smuggle two children out of the Catholic orphanage in Bratislava, three years after the war?”
Less than twenty seconds elapsed. “Wait, Janek Cohen and his wife were involved in that story, right?”
“What’s your name today?”
“Today? Yisrael Bentzion. That’s what I wanted to ask you; perhaps you know my real name.”
“Your real name…”
“Yes. If you have any information about me, or about my family in Bratislava…”
Rabbi Weiss gazed at him for a long time. “I’m afraid not,” he said, after a moment, in a gentle tone. “I didn’t keep any information about any of the children from them. We shared everything that we knew. I remember you. Both of you, actually.”
“And you really knew nothing about our origins?”
“Nothing. The activist who took the risk to get you out of there also sneaked into the offices, but there were no details there. I remember your story to this day, because it was a bit unusual to discover Jewish children literally under our noses, three years after the war.”
“But how can it be that no one knows anything?” Yisrael’s gaze looked like that of a little chick whose legs had gotten tangled in the mesh of its cage. “Nothing?”
Reb Akiva’s eyes tried to emit softness, as if to stroke the feathers, the trapped legs, the eyes crying out for help. “Regretfully, anything was possible after the Holocaust. You are not the only one, my dear Yisrael, who began life again from zero.” He smiled at the young man. “And as far as I can see, you grew up nicely.”
“Yes. Baruch Hashem.” Yisrael smiled. A small smile—and a miserable one—but a smile nonetheless.
“I remember a few such children whose parents did not leave any details, or the information got lost. Most of them were from Poland, but there were also some from other areas…” Rabbi Weiss sighed. “Eliyahu Hanavi will answer all these questions and mysteries, when he arrives.”
“Amen…” Yisrael whispered, his mouth dry. Even the water he tried to sip could not alleviate the parched sensation.
“Where are you these days?”
“And what about Janek and Ulush Cohen? Have you kept in touch with them? Where are they?”
“In America. And yes, we are in touch, to some degree.” He stood up and turned toward the door.
“Very nice. Don’t forget to invite them to your wedding!”
“B’ezras Hashem.” He smiled again. “In the right time.”
“And me as well, okay? I’ll try to check, Yisrael, if perhaps there was some information about you that I don’t recall right now. Don’t give up.” Rabbi Weiss escorted his young guest to the door. It was clear to them both that the last sentence had been uttered only to keep that tiny ray of hope still alive.
“And in fact, no one ever found a single relative who could reveal to my father who he is,” Elisheva concluded, after sharing the story with Blumi.
*This segment is based on a true, sad incident that occurred in the home of my grandfather zt”l, in Haifa in those years. Just like in the story, in the real case as well, my grandfather was unable to help the bachur who was begging for some information about his own identity.