Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 65 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.
“I’ve hardly found anything, Mr. Ludmir.” Leonid had landed back in Sydney after spending eight days searching intensively in Bratislava. Within an hour, he was in Joe’s office. “Not about Edo and not about Gustav.”
“I thought that was the situation when you didn’t update me about anything. So, was it hardly anything, or nothing at all?”
“The only thing that I found was a list of the children in the institution, where these two names appear. Next to them is the same family name – Heinke.”
“Heinke? That means that…”
“No, they are probably not brothers. One of the directors there, or perhaps the assistant director—from the lists it was hard to figure out what his exact position was—was named Theodore Heinke. Apparently he wrote his family name for these two children, just for bureaucratic purposes.”
“I know that they are not brothers.” Joe Ludmir leaned his chin on his palm. Brothers… If only he would have had a real brother, everything would have been very different. Elisha was like a brother to him, true. He had been the first to emigrate to far-off Australia, and from there, in a genuinely brotherly fashion, he had invited Joe to follow. Until then, earning a living had been so difficult. Here, he had become Elisha’s partner in the first shoe store. Afterward Elisha had left Sydney and sold him the store with its inventory, and he had remained in the city together with his wife, Martha. This was where his success had burgeoned.
But perhaps Sydney had not been the beginning of his success. Perhaps success had begun to break through on that long-ago day, so many years earlier. The day when, without any warning, he had gone from being a lone child to a member of a loving family.
“There were no birthdates recorded, only the year when they arrived and their approximate ages. The boy named Gustav came two years before Edo, and he was then about three. Edo came a year before the war ended, and he was about two and a half, at least according to the estimate of the directors.”
“I know all that already. You didn’t find any information beyond that?”
“No. It seems that indeed no one knew anything about them.”
“I see.” Joe was quiet as he gazed out the large window to his right. Why had he gotten his hopes up? “Look,” he said, after a long moment, breaking the silence. “I have to tell you that you are not the first person I’ve asked to search for details on this subject.”
“Not the first?”
“No, you are actually the fourth.”
“Really?” Leonid digested this information for a few seconds. “When was the first time you sent someone?”
“Sometime after the Soviet Union collapsed.” Joe stood up, pacing back and forth in the office. “I once traveled there myself, to nose around a bit, to remember…but I didn’t find anything. Over the years I asked two private investigators’ firms to do a search, and when they didn’t find anything conclusive, I decided to try again myself. I had to return home earlier than planned, because my business partner passed away. But a short visit to the archives was enough for me to realize how much work is involved, and to see that I’m not exactly cut out for this kind of detective work.”
“And then you contacted me?”
“Yes, after you did such good work for me this past year, I thought that perhaps you have the tools to uncover information.”
“To uncover what is there,” the investigator said gently. “Not what isn’t there. But look, Mr. Ludmir,” he added hastily, “if we’re talking about the work that I did for you this past year, I should let you know that I received some information last night which might interest you very much.”
“Information?” Ludmir nodded at the worker who carried in a tray with two steaming cups of coffee and a small silver bowl of sugar. “Thank you. So, what’s the story, Leonid? And please, have a drink.”
“Yes.” Leonid drew one of the cups closer to him, sprinkled in three spoonfuls of sugar, which promptly sank to the bottom of the cup, took a small sip, and said, “I have a friend in London. We often work together. He sent me a message this morning that someone had asked him about Alexander Korman…and about his mental state before his passing.”
“Really.” Joe approached the desk, grasping the back of his chair with tremulous fingers. “What did you tell him?”
“That if he gives me information about the people who are asking, I’ll consider answering him and shortening his path to the information.” He looked at his unofficial employer. “You know, after all, that it is probably not very hard to nose around a bit and find out that Mr. Korman was not capable of transferring a donation to anyone these past few years. So I thought it was worth finding out who was asking these questions.”
“Obviously. And was that the person’s only question, about Alex’s level of lucidity?”
“No. If that was all he was interested in, I would not necessarily have linked it to you. But he also asked,” Leonid took another sip from his cup and then pushed it away, “if the names of Alex’s parents were Peretz and Tziporah Genendel.”
Joe knitted his eyebrows and sat down. His voice was cold when he asked, “And did you promise to answer him about that also?”
“No. It came in a separate message, a few seconds after the first one. I’m not a fool, sir.” Leonid was mildly offended.
“Of course, of course,” Joe agreed. He wrapped all ten fingers around his sugarless cup. “And, did he respond about the questioner?”
“Yes. The woman asking is a Mrs. Bluma Hartstein, of London. Stamford Hill. Her husband is a very successful businessman; you may have heard of him. Gideon Hartstein.”
“I haven’t. So you confirmed to them that Alex was not at his best.”
“Yes. I did not detail to the extent of what ‘not at his best’ means.”
“So I am giving you a new job.” Joe Ludmir tapped silently on the desk. “To find out what the Hartstein family has to do with the Potolsky family.”
“If there is a connection.”
“Of course there is.” He looked at Leonid through slitted eyes.
“Right,” the man had to admit. “As always, you’re right, sir.”
Magdiel, Israel 1949
Miriam the neighbor had agreed to take Elisha home from nursery school on Wednesday afternoon. Berta Greenberg had agreed to give Batya a day off of work at the sewing shop, so Batya and Gershon set out early in the morning.
Gershon was quiet as the bus rode on and on. Batya tried to offer him water, an apple, or a cookie, but he just shook his head in refusal and kept his mouth closed in a firm line.
“But don’t be disappointed if it’s not him,” Batya said worriedly, when the bus began to laboriously climb the winding road to the holy city.
“If it’s not who?”
“I don’t know. Ernie’s son.”
“He had a daughter, not a son.” His voice was hollow. “But could be he had a son during the war, after ties were cut off.”
“Yes,” she said carefully, knowing what would be coming next. Her husband would raise all the possibilities, and then would grasp onto the identical street name, and would say that it was clear to him like the light of day that it was his relative, and then a moment later he would wonder in anguish if perhaps it was not.
The director of the orphanage greeted them in a small office, which had a large window that let in the bright rays of sunshine.
“Ludmir?” He gazed at them for a moment. “Yosef Ludmir? I don’t know if he is here.”
“What does that mean?” This was not a response Gershon had taken into consideration.
“The boy is not in a state where we can ask him any questions.”
“The boy? So he is here?”
“We have a child here named Gustav,” the director clarified. “A boy from Czechoslovakia who arrived with minimal personal information.”
“What do you mean ‘minimal personal information?’” Gershon groped for the arm of the wooden chair he was sitting on.
“The boy was placed in a Christian children’s institution at the age of three, and there is no information about his past.”
“And where in Czechoslovakia is he from? Bratislava?”
“The institution was there. We do not know where he was born.”
“So what do you know? Where is Yosef Ludmir?” Gershon leaned forward, his lips parched.
“The boy is now sick with a serious infection. He got pneumonia two months ago and was in the hospital. He partially recovered, but he hasn’t been getting better since. Every time it’s something else. Three days ago, we sent him back to the hospital.” He paused for a moment. “When his fever was raging, he muttered a lot, and we didn’t understand what he was saying. The only words we did make out were ‘Yosef Ludmir’ and ‘Peterzelka Street, Bratislava.’”
“If so, why isn’t it certain that it is him?” Bayta interjected, seeing her husband’s face whiten.
“Because he came to us as an anonymous child, and he received his name in the gentile institution during the war.” The director explained what he felt was self-understood. “If he knew his real name the whole time, why didn’t he tell anyone?”
“Isn’t it possible that while he was delirious, forgotten details may have surfaced in his memory?” Gershon swallowed. “How old is he?”
“About eight, nine, ten…”
Gershon calculated quietly. “So it’s possible,” he said with bated breath, “that he was born a year, two, or three after the war broke out?”
“And you didn’t know about it,” Batya completed quietly.
“Could be,” the director said slowly. “Why, what is Yosef Ludmir to you, Mr. Ludmir?”
“That’s it – I’m not sure exactly.” Gershon gazed at the rays of the sun that danced on the desk. “He might be my younger brother’s son.”
The director looked at him. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he murmured, “other than to wait, pray, and hope that the child will get well soon and will be able to answer our questions. There’s not much else we can do right now.”
Gershon leaned forward. “Which hospital is he in?”
“Thank you.” The Ludmirs rose.
The boy’s eyes were covered with a moist film that made them look dull; still, it was evident that they were very gray.
“I think those are Ernie’s eyes. Exactly Ernie’s eyes. Oy, Hashem…” Gershon bent over him and burst into tears. The film grew cloudier, and the boy’s eyes closed.
“Oh, no, no.” Gershon took a deep breath and put a hand on the boy’s thin shoulder. “Yosef?” he asked in a shaky voice. “Yosef Ludmir?”
The eyes opened and then closed again right away. “Yosef Ludmir…” the boy murmured. “Ludmir from Peterzelka 10… There…there are uncles in Eretz Yisrael.”
“We are the uncles,” Gershon almost choked, and Batya saw that he was forcing back the sobs. “It’s us, child, it is us!”
“Your brother had gray eyes?” Batya asked, glancing at the nurse standing silently on the side, looking on with disapproval at the display of emotion.
“No, they were brown, like mine. But that doesn’t mean anything. And the shape…I think the shape is exactly the same.”