Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 67 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.
Magdiel, Israel 1949
Gustav gaped in fascination at the large bundle that the woman was holding. “Please,” she choked out. “They told me that here, at Lucius Jan’s orphanage, you will agree to take him. There’s payment here for you… He’s already two and a half, sir, and his name is Yosef Ludmir.” She gazed one last time at the bundle. Gustav rose up on his tiptoes, but he couldn’t see anything. “Ludmir.”
Theodore locked the gate and took the little boy, wrapped up in the blankets. Gustav lingered at the gate, and the woman remained standing on the other side. “You are a Jew,” she whispered to him. “And you promised to help watch him. You promised.” She fumbled in her coat and took out a piece of paper. “Give this to him, to my Yosef, after the war ends. His details are written here, along with the address of his uncles in Eretz Yisrael, in Magdiel. He should go to them.”
She waved the piece of paper in front of his eyes until it blocked Gustav’s entire field of vision, including Yosef’s mother. But he knew she was there. He heard her screaming: “Why didn’t you give it to him? Why didn’t you tell him?”
“I wanted to tell him!” Gustav cried, tossing in his bed in Magdiel. “But I couldn’t find him. And then…then…”
“Why didn’t you tell him?! Why did you go in his place?!”
The wind suddenly swirled around him, carrying the voice far away, and Gustav continued twisting and turning in his bed.
“Yosef?” The hand that suddenly rested on his forehead halted his tortured movements. The light that hung from the ceiling sent yellow rays directly into his eyes.
“Enough!” he said, covering his eyes with his hands. “Enough, enough!”
“Yosef.” Gershon hugged him. “Is everything okay?”
Gustav coughed long and hard. No, everything was not okay. He was not yet completely recovered; his head and his back hurt him a lot. They were taking care of him very well, this Ludmir uncle and aunt. Much better than in the orphanage. If he went back there, he would probably get sick again. At least, that’s what he heard the doctors saying.
So he would just recover and get a bit stronger, and then he’d tell them that this was all a big mistake. Maybe he would wait until he got much stronger, not just a bit. And then he would tell Edo/Yosef Ludmir’s lovely aunt and uncle that he was not their nephew. That he really didn’t know why he had nodded in the affirmative when Gershon had asked him if he was Yosef Ludmir.
But Gustav got well.
And stronger yet.
Still, he did not say that it was a mistake.
Nine and a half weeks after his arrival at the Ludmir home in Magdiel, the director of the orphanage in Jerusalem came for a visit. He had made the long trip from Jerusalem, and Gershon and Batya were extremely moved by his gesture. The director was ceremoniously led inside to the table in the main room, where he sat down and smiled at Gustav. He gently pinched Gustav’s cheeks, and the cheeks of the other children dancing around them, and asked how everyone was doing. Then he took an envelope out of his gray pouch.
“This is from the Cohens in America—you know, your other uncle.”
“Uncle?” Gershon leaned forward. “You have uncles in America, Yosef? From your mother’s side?”
“No, they are not really relatives.” The boy spoke quickly, gazing at the envelope. “They are very good people from Bratislava who helped me, and…my friend, escape from the Christian institution. We lived with them for a little while afterward.”
“From Bratislava?” Gershon inquired. “Cohen? Which Cohen?”
“Janek and Ulush Cohen. But they may have only come there after the war…I don’t know.” He tore open the envelope and took out a sheet of paper, hoping that the adults would not notice his trembling fingers. What was there to be afraid of? Even if Janek knew Gershon from before the war, and even if Ulush had written something about Edo, it made no difference. No one knew anything about him or Edo.
He glanced quickly at Gershon, who was talking to the visitor, and then turned his eyes back to the paper. As usual, Ulush had written the letter; Janek had just added a few words at the end, with his best regards.
We miss you very much, Ulush wrote. But I hope that you are settling in and are getting used to your friends. It’s probably wonderful to live in the Holy City. Edo wrote that he is very envious of your big zechus, and that he might want to switch to your dormitory. He wants to also come visit you, but they don’t let him travel alone to Jerusalem. The counselors at his place are very responsible for their young charges. Maybe you can travel to Bnei Brak to visit him? I see that even though I sent your addresses to one another, you weren’t able to write to each other.
“I’m very pleased to see you looking happy here with your uncle and aunt. They seem like such nice people,” the director said to Gustav, winding up the visit. “Baruch Hashem you found one another. It’s not so simple, in our times, to find relatives…” Again, he pinched Gustav’s cheek. “I wish you lots of success in your new life, Yosef!”
“Thank you,” the boy said shyly. He accompanied his guest to the door, along with Gershon. There, he saw Gershon slip a few bills into the hand of the director, who thanked him effusively. They spoke a few more words, and then parted.
“Is that why he came all the way here?” Miriam, the Ludmir’s oldest daughter, asked. “So you could give him some money?”
“Of course not! But he certainly deserves whatever we could give him,” Uncle Gershon said simply, and pinched Gustav’s cheek (third pinch of the day!). “He took such good care of our Yosef. Baruch Hashem we found Yosef, but how can we ignore the fact that there are so many lonely orphans without family, children who are still in orphanages like his? It’s so heartbreaking to be without any family in the world…”
“That’s right,” said Gustav, nodding vigorously.
Tzippy filled a bucket with water, added some floor cleaner, and with the other hand, grabbed a mop and rag and went out to the kitchen. She put everything on the floor and then stood up straight, looking around her. The floor wasn’t particularly dirty, but neither was it sparkling. Not that there was anyone who saw if it was clean or dirty. Peretz didn’t pay much attention to these things, and except for her in-laws, who had dropped in for a short visit two and a half weeks ago, no one had visited since Pesach. Her mother was very busy; so was Miri. Everyone was busy, it seemed; she, on the other hand, was only sometimes busy (when she got short graphic jobs, but they were always short ones. No one had ever assigned her a more serious job), and more often than not, bored.
Baruch Hashem, she was in a calmer state now. She had already designed a weekly newsletter for a school, a thin booklet of chaburos for her father’s kollel, and an advertisement for a diaper and formula sale for her neighbor. Then she’d spent a whole week substituting for her friend Avigail as the afternoon secretary in a cheder. She’d reverently watched these small amounts entering her bank account, and knew that this was how it started.
Next year, b’ezras Hashem, when she’d finish her final school projects, she’d be able to start looking for a more permanent kind of job. Now, when she needed to drop off a geography report one day, take a first-aid test on another afternoon, or go into school to meet her mentor, she couldn’t commit to something regular. So she had many free mornings, which she spent cleaning, cooking, reading, and chatting with friends who were in similar situations.
This morning she’d actually decided to go visit Saba, after not having been there for two weeks. But it was a waste of her effort. How had she forgotten that Saba had an appointment with the orthopedist this morning? Ima had told her about it a few days ago, and asked if she wanted to take her over at the daycare center. “Because Saba might stop in to us for a visit afterward,” she’d said. “I want to discuss a few things with him about the apartment suite we want to make for him.”
But Tzippy hadn’t wanted to. Taking care of children in a daycare center was not really her thing, and Ima’s boss had found another substitute—Bini Gold, who had been in Tzippy’s elementary school class. Ima had told her about it casually, and Tzippy was relieved that her mother didn’t sound resentful about it at all.
“It’s really hard work,” Ima had agreed with her. “It’s a lot of hours, and the work is quite physical, not to mention that it’s a huge responsibility… I definitely hear why you don’t want to do it. That’s why I sent you to study graphics, and not to become a playgroup teacher! But it’s not easy to find work in anything these days, is it?”
How had she forgotten about this conversation and decided to go visit Saba this morning, of all mornings? Oh, well. Hashem would calculate her good intentions as if she had done the mitzvah.
What was strange was the behavior of the worker in the nursing home, the man who had sold Saba the raffle tickets. He was fixing something in the window in the hallway just as she’d come, and he saw her knocking at the door to Saba’s room, and after there was no answer, trying to open it herself.
“Don’t force things, Potolsky,” he had grumbled. “Tell that to your parents. Doors don’t like force. Just like tables don’t like force. And just like I don’t like force.”
She really should have told Abba and Ima about this. But it had escaped her mind until this very moment. Not that she thought her parents would understand what the man was talking about, but maybe they would… She poured half the contents of the bucket onto the floor and began to scrub with her new microfiber rag. It was the last of the package that her mother had bought for her before the wedding. Ima had bought her six rags, and they were all rather ratty already. Well, if her floors met with those rags three times a week, it was no wonder the rags looked like…well, rags.
She opened the living room window wide so that the sun could shine on the marbleized floors, and then began to scrub the window panes as well. She’d call Ima and give over the man’s message.
“Really?” Elisheva pondered the information for a long moment. “That’s what he said? Interesting. That means that he’s admitting that he knows something, but he doesn’t want us to pressure him about it.”