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Fathers

Tablet Original Fiction: A father and son go to Germany after the Holocaust to adopt a Jewish child

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(Walter Sanders/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The young man lost his way. The ship’s corridors seemed to lead off in all directions. He was afraid to ask for help from the Negro porters. His father had said to meet him in the lounge. But the signs pointed to different lounges, bars, dining rooms, stairways up and down. He had never before been on an ocean liner; had never before ridden in a taxi to get to a pier; had never been on a train-trip longer than fifty miles. His name was Joseph Carlsson, and this was the first time in his life he had seen the sea.

He walked through rooms with glass chandeliers that rang as the ship rocked. There were white leather sofas, armchairs edged in sparkling chrome, five-foot-tall vases filled with lilies whose mouths seemed obscenely open. He saw women dressed in flowing dresses, strung about with jewelry, smoking cigarettes while wearing gloves; women in khaki army uniforms, jackets tight around them, skirts above their knees; soldiers in uniforms of other nations, some green, some tan, some blue; men strutting in fine wool suits with glaring white cuffs closed with links made of gold. The young man, eighteen years old last summer, touched the stiff lapel of his own brown suit and pushed up the sleeves, which were too long, he had just noticed. Where he came from, Mount Clarion, Illinois, the clothes he wore now were his best.

By a Divine hand, he thought, he came upon his father, who was named Luke Carlsson. The older man, thirty-six-years old, was sitting on an upholstered chair in the corner of the “Day Lounge.” The son was shaken when he saw his father’s suit, a rumpled rough weave, and his shoes, brown and scuffed. Joseph felt ashamed of him in the midst of all this glamor, an un-Christian thought he quickly tried to wipe clean from his mind. His father must have seen something on his son’s face because he welcomed him warmly and said, “Don’t allow yourself to be ashamed. We are on a mission from God.”

It was May 12th, 1946. Their mission was to rescue the soul of a young girl. She had been left at a convent during the confusion of the German invasion of France, said Father Redmond, the leader of their communion. The child had been abandoned by her parents; she was now two years old; she had been baptized into the Faith. The ship was en route to Hamburg. From there they would go by train to a town in Germany named Celle. A man of their Faith, a French cleric named Abbé Landschule, would meet them and unite them with the girl. Joseph was to adopt her and raise her within their Holy community at Mount Clarion.

Joseph endured the terrors of his first dinner aboard ship. The food nauseated him: beef the size of a man’s fist, potatoes in a lake of butter, carrots wasted by being cut up into the shape of little flowers. Joseph’s father smiled at him as he watched the son push the food around his plate. “We will get used to it,” said his father. The dining room held about two hundred people; in their entire communion, there were only fifty men. Seeing his father with so many others reinforced Joseph’s perception that his father truly was a handsome man; with his strong jaw and upright posture; with his dignity.

At their assigned table were four men who spoke of currencies, exchange rates, commodities, pricing models, arms markets, words that made no sense to Joseph. Father Redmond had warned them that there were many hucksters making their way to Germany to profit from the reconstruction of Europe, and to avoid them. Joseph and his father were directed to say that they were architects’ assistants helping to rebuild the city of Hanover, which was plausible, Father Redmond had said, because a third of the city had been destroyed by Allied bombs. They were to tell no one of their plans.

This was Joseph’s first time away from their communion of the Faithful; he had been schooled at home and was now apprenticing with an electrician who was a member of the community. His father was a Deacon; he own role was more modest. He was to serve the Faithful with his hands and prayer. The world he lived in was one of trust, truth, confession. He was proud that he had not learned to keep a secret. And now he feared he would confide in people he had been instructed not to trust, feared that his pride would undo him.

As the two men left dinner, there came a cymbal crash from somewhere down the corridor. Then there rose the wail of a trumpet, a boom of drums. Joseph recognized the music. Not even the communion could keep Big Bands from playing on the radio in the hardware store. And now, as they passed by the ballroom where the music played, and the heated energy steamed into the corridor, Joseph saw what he had never seen before. The dance that went with the music. Feet and legs and hips and arms in furious motion. Wild, yet all the dancers keening to the same rhythm.

His father pulled him along the corridor. They repaired to their tiny cabin with no porthole. They prayed. The ship rocked in its own slow beat. But the other rhythm remained within Joseph; it played and replayed.

Night after night. In the dark, it replayed. He should confess this temptation to his father, he thought.

***

The days passed quickly. Joseph wondered what adventures awaited him, arrival in Hamburg, then by train to Celle via Hanover, finally to Abbé Landschule. And there would be the child—his daughter, he reminded himself. And he thought of his wife. The woman of seventeen he had married a year ago, encouraged by his father and the elders of the Holy communion. She was simple-minded; she refused to let her husband touch her. Therefore it came as a relief when he was assigned the mission of adopting the abandoned girl. He would be a father. It was a duty as a man he could fulfill.

The day before the ship was to dock in Hamburg, Joseph sat in a lounge waiting for his father. He could not take his eyes from these people who had just met each other, mixing, not really knowing each other, not sure exactly where anyone came from, who their ancestors were, what they believed or didn’t. He saw that this not-knowing introduced a sort of danger into their relationships, a vibrating alertness that charged all their interactions. A desire to know more about them jumped out at him, imp-like. He knew he should be afraid of this desire but, to his surprise, he was not afraid.

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Didn’t like this story at all. Found it naive and ill-informed about what happened to Jewish children in convents after the war. The prejudices of father and son about Jews (look like Negroes, have hooked noses) struck me as forced and implausible in 1946. And the would be romance with Anna equally unconvincing. All in all, a big disappointment.

Naïve and ill-informed, certainly. Also poorly written. Tablet, there are so many brilliant Jewish fiction writers out there, yet you’ve chosen to publish such immature work. Why?

Jessica Moore says:

I would have tried to enjoy it if I could decipher the writer’s horrible dialogue and terrible prose. The story is hardly understandable.

JOHN TRAIN says:

I did not find the 3 reactions you posted “libelous” nor “ad hominem attacks” nor hate speech. they were legitimate criticism. Thank you for posting them.

Justsomecasualcomments says:

I can’t judge but the so called “Holy Communion” doesn’t look like any Roman Catholic Parish, it resembles more a Protestant sect.

Catholic Parishes were organised differently.

I think there is a lot of fantasy and fiction in this story. Not exactly historically correct. But then I don’t want to say that I can deny with 100% certainty that there was no abuse happened to Jewish orphans, neither do I want to say that abuses happened. I think both Jews and Catholics should inform themselves by reading serious academical sources and not let themselves be carried away by their prejudices.

phoebes says:

I thought the three comments were totally legitimate. None contained hate speech or libel.. I also found the short story very badly written, which was surprising as I had read and liked Ullman’s book, “By Blood”. Its difficult to believe the same author wrote the book AND the short story.

This does not remotely resemble any Protestant or Catholic practice in Southern Illinois where I grew up. The Jewish doctor who delivered me in 1952 had been interned in nazi camps. There were several Jewish owned businesses, a synagogue,and a beautiful home for the Rabbi. This piece only fosters religious bigotry among the unlearned. In my little town, during prohibition, there was a gangster named Charlie Birger. He had a well-armed gang, and even had an airplane that he used to drop bombs on rival gangs. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. In Franklin County there were no Blacks to pick on, so the KKK picked on Catholics, driving up in the night and making them urinate on a crucifix. Charlie defended the Catholics against the KKK. Now there’s a true story waiting to be written! Charlie was ultimately tried for his crimes, and was the last person hanged in Illinois, in Benton. My grandfather went to the public hanging, but he couldn’t watch. Poor Charlie is buried in Chicago, under his Jewish name. Google the name for details.

musings1 says:

Because her novel was NYT notable book she’s above criticism? I personally don’t care for her writing at all and don’t think a NYT nomination should be cited to influence readers’ reception of her work, which should, like all literary work (and any art) stand, or fall, on its own merit.

There is no hate speech, libel, or ad hominem attack in my comment. I said nothing about the author but about the magazine’s policies regarding what makes “good” writing. I love this publication but the last two stories posted as “original fiction” have been poor examples of the wide and varied Jewish fiction out there. It’s disappointing to say the least, and even moreso that THIS is the publication’s response to my comment.

Rebecca, thanks for posting this story about your Charlie Birger and your experiences with refugee Jews iin Illinois. You’re right. That’s a hell of a story waiting to be written.

I wasn’t planning on commenting, but after seeing all the negative posts, I had to. I think this is a terrific and disturbing story, the best one Tablet has published so far. It’s just fiction, and fiction is meant to push borders. Looking forward to more like this.

9Athena says:

Marvelous! I’ve read some of the comments: they display exactly what the author is writing about. Most people live in their own tight little box (Plato called it the cave) and in that box is their whole world. Did any of you know that Jews wear ‘those’ hats because they have horns? And that Prime Minister Disraeli (a Jew) for Queen Victoria was continually caricatured in the British magazines for his foreign swarthy skin? There ARE communities of religious and non-religous all over the world and in the US who practice variations of mainstream religions and beliefs according to their own little boxes. We call them cults or sects but they truly believe what they are told in their caves or boxes. When they’re told Jews (or Moslems or Black people) are satanic, it’s the absolute truth.
So yes, my dear Froma, Rebecca et al- I know this story on a personal level. I know Joseph and his father and many many more with all different names and in different places, I got out of my own box at an early age and I’ve been dumbfounded for years at the varieties of human social inventions.

Lisa Hall says:

Not very plausible back story for the Joseph and his father. Catholicism simply doesn’t work this way. The religious community is called a parish not a communion. If Joseph’s wife refused to consummate the marriage, he would have been able to annul the marriage.

Lisa Hall says:

My concern, as a teacher of world history, is all of the people who will read this story and see it not as boundary-pushing fiction, but as a realistic portrayal of events. If a Catholic were writing about Jews, I’d expect them to get the basics right, no matter what the focus of the story was. It’s not too much to expect a Jewish writer to do the same regarding Catholics.

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Fathers

Tablet Original Fiction: A father and son go to Germany after the Holocaust to adopt a Jewish child