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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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Joseph and his father climbed up to the “Deck Three Bar,” which was full of people drinking to one another, saying their good-byes. Moderate drinking was a practice the future grandfather permitted himself—the Hebrew Bible is full of blessings over wine, he was wont to say.

They were lucky that a small group left just as they were looking for a table. His father was halfway through his drink when a man dressed in a fine tan wool suit approached them and asked if the third seat at the table were free. They said yes and invited the man to join them.

They told the man the story they were instructed to tell, about rebuilding Hanover. They heard, in turn, that the man who had joined them was a Mr. Yoel Markovitz, an accountant who had a wife named Sophie and two sons named Arthur and Jonathon.

“And what is your business in Hamburg?” asked Joseph’s father.

“I work for The Jewish Agency for Palestine,” Mr. Markovitz replied.

Joseph nearly jumped from his chair. Could this man be Jewish? How could that be? Joseph had been taught that Jews looked like Negroes. That had to be the truth—had to be. Impossible that Jews could be like this Mr. Markovitz: impossible to tell from Christian men!

“Our mission is to convince the British to open Palestine for Jewish immigration,” Mr. Markovitz went on.

Joseph watched as his father slowly lowered his glass to the table. The glass tipped back and forth. Joseph told himself that was just the sway of the ship.

Finally his father said, “We are only sad that the Jews did not accept Our Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.”

Mr. Markovitz gripped the table. His face showed anger, but he said nothing, which gave him an air of dignity. Then he stood, adjusted his tie, and reached into his jacket pocket for his wallet. He left a pile of bills on the table. He nodded but did not wish them a good night.

***

“Did you know, Father?” Joseph asked when they were back in their cabin. “Did you know you could not always see them?”

“Members of the communion returned from the war,” his father replied, “and they said there were some Jews you could not recognize by their dark skin and hooked noses.”

His father had been too old to be drafted. Joseph realized that all his father knew about Jews was what the soldiers had told him.

***

Chaos greeted them at the Hamburg train station. Bodies were sprawled about the floor in the waiting area. Would-be travelers pulled great piles of baggage through the crowd, rousing shouts and curses as the bodies on the floor were bumped by suitcases, rucksacks, boxes, even caged roosters.

Joseph and his father were in a first-class compartment at least. The train was filled beyond capacity, and the other cars were overstuffed, people sitting two to a seat and in the corridor. The two men dared not leave their seats at the same time for fear their places would be taken. Joseph walked the train and found there was no dining car. When he returned, an old man in their compartment said, in accented but perfect English, that they should not worry. Sellers would appear at the stations from time to time, and all they had to do was lean out the window.

“Will they accept American dollars?” asked Joseph’s father.

The compartment grew silent.

“I will exchange some Deutschmarks with you, if you wish,” said the old woman who sat by the window across from them.

Everyone looked at Joseph’s father, then at the woman, then back at his father.

“Thank you,” he said. “Can you exchange fifty dollars?”

Every eye watched his father reach into his jacket, retrieve his wallet, and take out a stack of bills. He counted out five new tens onto his knee, licking his thumb to be sure the bills weren’t stuck together.

The woman fumbled around in her purse. She withdrew a wad of dirty bills and offered them across the aisle.

“Is that all right?” his father asked.

The silence continued. Everyone stared at the crisp pile of tens on the his father’s knee.

“Put it away!” Joseph whispered, grabbing the money.

He was fascinated by the woman’s face. Never in his life had he seen such malice lanced through with desperation.

***

The train made its halting way toward Hanover—it seemed to stop at every collection of houses, sometimes in empty fields where people scrambled on and off. Then it came to some station and opened its doors. Twenty, thirty, forty minutes went by. Gradually everyone left: the people in the corridor, a fat man at his father’s feet, the old gentleman who had assured them about the food, the woman who had offered them her dirty bills.

“I guess we get off too,” said his father.

It was dark but for the last sapphire glow of the sky. The station, no more than a platform and a ticket counter, was crowded with waiting bodies. The deep blue of the sky turned to black; there were no trains in either direction; the people on the platform curled up to sleep.

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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