Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 72 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.
It was when she saw the paper trembling in her father’s hand that Elisheva could no longer contain herself. She suddenly burst into a torrent of tears, but could not find a tissue. Eliyahu stood there, steady and calm, and handed his father-in-law a small pill. “Take this, Abba, please,” he said. “You shouldn’t read this fax when you’re in such an excitable state.”
“Yes, you are right,” his father-in-law said, and raised his eyes. “But maybe give Elisheva one as well,” he added, with a ghost of a smile, as he nodded his chin toward his daughter. “She’s taking this harder than I am.”
“But Abba,” she said, tears still wet on her cheeks. “How can I take it differently? To think that you have family here, perhaps brothers, cousins, their grandchildren…it’s such an amazing story that I still cannot process it! Even simple, regular things change now! Like, how will you now be called up to the Torah?”
“I don’t think that anyone will change the name Yisrael after it has been used for seventy years,” Eliyahu remarked. “At most, you add the name Yosef.”
“One of the counselors on the ship sailing to Eretz Yisrael suggested that my father choose a name from a whole selection that he gave him,” Elisheva said to her husband. “He chose,” she glanced at her father, “a first name, and a family name: Yisrael Bentzion. Everything. He thought he had no one, and that he had to start from scratch anyway…”
Her father took a cup of water, made a brachah, and sipped silently. No one dared to break the stillness.
“Ulush wrote to me about Gustav,” he said, setting the cup on the coffee table. “And that his name is actually Yosef Ludmir.” He took a deep breath. His right leg, which had never gotten back to itself completely after the stroke, began to tremble slightly. “I thought he would invite me to come to him, but he didn’t. We didn’t meet in Israel even once.”
“Now you know why,” Elisheva said, her voice gradually sounding more stable. “It’s actually a way of judging him favorably now.”
“But he once sent me a big gift.”
“Yes, for my wedding.”
“What was it?”
Yisrael Bentzion pressed his lips together and moved his tabletop shtender. He put the fax that he had been holding until now onto the table. Elisheva almost pulled a muscle in her neck from craning to read the writing. Officially the fax was addressed to her, but it had arrived now, when her father was here, so obviously, she would give it to him to read first, irrespective of whom it was officially addressed to.
Dear Mrs. Potolsky,
I am sending this later pursuant to our phone call. You can show it to your father, if you want. I cannot bring myself to write to him directly at this point.
I will not try to apologize for what was, because it would be impudent of me to apologize. Perhaps I will just describe those days a bit, with the hope that you might understand a bit of my history and why I came to committing the act that I did.
I was about three and a half when I arrived at the Lucius Jan Catholic Orphanage. I was alone in the world, with no family and no identity. I grew up in the institution with the name Gustav—the assistant director gave me that name. Two years later, in the middle of the night, a Jewish woman brought her small son and asked that he be taken into the home until the end of the war. At first, the assistant director, who liked me, didn’t want to get involved with another Jew. Bu the mother begged and pleaded, and I, who apparently was looking at her as an image of my own lost mother, asked him to accept the child. He eventually agreed. The mother gave me a piece of paper that had information about her son, and asked me to keep it for him until he grew older.
The war came to an end, and we were rescued from that place only three and a half years later. I endangered myself to go back and get the paper, without telling Edo—who was then five or six—a word about it. Then I contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. Our paths parted. I went through a lot of ups and downs, and in my wanderings, the paper got lost, although at that point I knew most of what it said by heart. But I kept everything to myself.
When I came to Israel, I was sent to an orphanage in Jerusalem, and Edo, who had come to the country before me, was sent to Beit Avot in Bnei Brak. I traveled to Bnei Brak to meet Edo and tell him about his identity, and then, for the first time, I discovered that I simply could not do it. I returned to Jerusalem. You can scream at me, and claim that what I did was criminal, and I will agree with you, because as I noted—I did not come to apologize, just to relate the facts.
I came down with pneumonia again, and then contracted other various infections. During one of my fever deliriums, I mumbled the name Yosef Ludmir. Those around me thought, apparently, that that was my name, and they submitted it to the survivors’ lists. My relatives—excuse me, Yosef Ludmir’s relatives—hurried to come and meet me. They surrounded me with so much love and warmth, that I, in the dismal situation I was in, just went along with it. I could not tell them that they were making a mistake. I think I even explicitly told them that I was Yosef.
I planned that after I would recover, I would fix the mistake, but by the time I recovered completely, it was many weeks later. By then I had been enveloped in the embrace of a warm and loving family, and I could not think of being cast back into the identity of Gustav, the anonymous boy, the boy without a name, again.
Again, you can say that there is no such thing is “I can’t,” and again, I will agree with you. I will not even ask forgiveness, because I know that what I did is simply not forgivable.
I grew up in the home of the Ludmir family in Magdiel. I attended the local school and then the high school there. Later, I learned business administration, and I married. Then my Uncle Gershon gave me a sum of money that he had been keeping for me, and which I did not know about until then. His brother, Hy”d, Aharon Ludmir—Yosef’s father—had sent some of his assets to Eretz Yisrael at the beginning of the war, for safekeeping. But Aharon had not survived, and the Ludmir family thought that his son, who had survived the war and reached their home, should take possession of the money. Well, Aharon’s son had survived, but the one who came to their home was not him but me.
With that money, I opened a large and successful timepiece business. But after two years, it ran into trouble. I tried other fields, but nothing was successful. Eventually, I moved to Australia with my wife. Here, our business started to thrive, and over the years, I felt guilty about my successes—which started with money that was really Edo’s.
I didn’t want to meet him over the years. I’m not a professional liar, and I would not have been able to keep up the façade in front of him. Once, while I was still living in Israel, Ulush wrote to me in one of her letters that he was getting married—so I sent him a gift from my failing timepiece factory, a cuckoo clock.
Unfortunately, I do not have children. I have no idea what Hashem’s accounts are, but there is no doubt that the gaping loneliness I’ve felt ever since my wife’s passing was one of the triggers for the many deep thoughts I’ve been having about my past and my future. I traveled twice to Europe to try and find old information relating to me, to Edo, to our families. I sent people to do research for me, but they all failed. I discovered that I felt no peace, and I wanted to rectify some of the wrong that I caused. I decided that the easiest thing to return was money, and that’s what I decided to try and do.
I launched a series of inquiries about where Yisrael Bentzion lives now. It was easy to find him. I was very sorry to hear that he had struggled financially all these years. So I decided to give him and his family everything I could, without revealing myself and tearing open all the old wounds.
My private investigator found out some more, and heard that your daughter was engaged. We found out the name of the chassan, and decided that we had an opening for a persuasive cover story which would enable me to transfer some money to you. I used the name of my ailing business partner for this cover story and to transfer the money. I thought you’d spend more generously, but because you were honest to an extent that I had never encountered, I had to clearly instruct you to keep the change.
Then I began to think about my friend himself, alone in an old-age home. He could not reap nachas from the family that, unlike me, Hashem had blessed him with. My investigator linked me up with an employee at the old-age home who was looking to supplement his income. He agreed to cooperate, without knowing exactly what the big picture was. At first, we presented ourselves as representatives of an American organization, and he sold Edo real raffle tickets. At the same time, I reached out to the organization, and before the big raffle, I gave them a generous sum on the condition that they’d agree to declare you the winners of the apartment that I donated. Another family won the other apartment—the original one, that was really the prize; an American family who agreed to keep their win a secret.
I asked my man in the old-age home, Emmanuel, to maintain contact with you, and to report to me regularly. He told me that you were selling a cuckoo clock—apparently, the one I gave Edo as a wedding present. I quickly sent someone to buy it for the highest possible price. Later, the old-age home worker heard that you wanted to build a suite for my childhood friend, and I was happy that finally, the penthouse apartment would be used for the purpose I had given it to you. But this initiative went badly, because I asked the worker to send you a contractor to offer to do the job—which I would pay for—but he sent someone who clearly wasn’t fit to present the story as I wanted him to.
At this point, you began to suspect. You began to make your own inquiries, and ultimately you discovered the truth about me.
That’s the story. And as simple as it may seem to write it, this took me nearly two full days. What can I say? True, I am not that old, but I am no longer young either. I am certainly closer to the end of the path than the beginning. Tell me what else I can do to atone a bit for what I have done, if you can think of something beyond what I’ve tried to do.
I hope that the day will come when I will muster up the strength to make the long flight from Australia to Eretz Yisrael, in order to meet Edo—the real Yosef Ludmir—in person, to ask for his understanding and perhaps even a bit of forgiveness.
Meanwhile, please tell him that I have not stopped thinking about him for even one day.