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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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Somewhere deep in the night they were awakened by the sound of a locomotive and cries from the platform. Father and son raced up and down calling, “Hanover? Hanover? Hanover?”

“Nein,” someone said. “Bremen.”

They slept again. They awoke to a hot, dry morning. Hours went by. Noon. Finally another train.

“Hanover? Hanover? Hanover?”

“Nein,” someone said. “Osnabrück.”

Another night on the platform, two more awakenings from sleep: trains to Bremen, Bremerhaven.

His father asked Joseph to kneel with him. “Dear God,” he said. “We are coming to collect Your child. Grant us the fortitude to persevere and so we may keep her in the goodness of Your salvation.”

Suddenly Joseph hoped that the difficult journey was not a test of faith but a sign to retreat.

Morning was still far from the sky when a train rumbled in. It was bound for Hanover, which they reached in one hour. The connection to Celle was waiting on another platform. Through God’s intervention, his father said, they had been guided to their destination.

It was five in the morning. The sky was brightening before the sunrise. By another miracle, it seemed, a man with a placard bearing their names was waiting for them.

“I represent Abbé Landschule,” said the man with a foreign accent. “We have met every train,” he said with a smile. “And finally you have come. Your luggage, somehow, has preceded you. Well. We will get you to the inn and see that you are settled. Then Major Boxwood would be honored to see you for a Sunday dinner at four, in his quarters within the camp.”

He led them to an open motor car, and off they drove. They could see the ruins of buildings against the sheen of the eastern horizon. Once they were past the outskirts, the sun began to rise and the air grew hot and dry. Soon they were in the countryside. Cows were grazing; fields were being plowed; tree branches were ahaze with tender new leaves. It was their perfect idea of Germany: woods, villages, farms, flower boxes, geese, cows, ladies in dresses with aprons.

They came at last to a town. They marveled at the ancient half-timbered houses, the steep tiled roofs, the bustling central square. It was a Sunday. Church bells pealed. The sun was sparkling in the fresh grass of the square. They sighed. They had survived the transport.

***

A car arrived at four in the afternoon; a British flag flew from the aerial; the driver was a soldier. After a ten-minute drive, they came to a barbed-wire fence with a sign saying “Hohne Camp.” What kind of place had they come to? Joseph wondered. And why was it surrounded by barbed-wire?

They drove inside the perimeter, then the car abruptly stopped. Forty or fifty men were running toward them from the right. They were singing and marched double-time behind a flag with a big blue star on a field of white. “Jewish star,” Joseph’s father whispered to him. Then a contingent came at them from the left. They were hale and hearty men, which terrified Joseph, because if such men were Jews, they could move about the world in secret.

The car drove on to a compound of some sort. The driver then parked and walked them through a warren of buildings, down bisecting hallways to Major Boxwood’s quarters.

A beautiful woman opened the door. She bowed shallowly and murmured something in a language Joseph did not understand. The woman was no more than five-foot-one. She had a full, rounded figure, and golden hair that rose around her head in curls. Her eyes were hooded, and from their depths came flashes of clear bright green. Her skin was a creamy white from her face to her neck to the frayed low edge of her pale blue dress. Joseph looked down. A tiny gold cross glinted back at him.

His father told her their names. “I think Major Boxwood is expecting us?” he said.

She pointed to her chest and said what sounded like “Ah-nah-nah.” Then she turned and walked down a dim hallway. She seemed young, just a little older than his wife, but something in the woman’s bent posture made her seem worn.

They waited in a small sunny room furnished with four heavy, upholstered chairs arranged around a circular table. A large man came out of the shadows to greet them.

“I see you did make it after all,” he said.

He was in uniform but with a stained, open collar. This stain somehow undid the full authority of the man’s height, which was about six-foot four, and of his broad shoulders, which strained against the cloth of his jacket. His dark hair was oily. On his chin were reddish dots, which appeared to be dried blood from shaving cuts. He seemed to Joseph to be about the same age as his father, but his father would never appear before another man looking like this.

Major Boxwood’s handshake was moist and fleshy as they exchanged introductions. He mopped his brow, although the day was pleasant.

“Abbé Landschule called to say he would be late,” said the Major. “Some arrangements about … well, whatever brings you here. I’m to entertain you until he arrives.”

Boxwood steered them into a compact dining area. The room’s lone window was dusty and uncurtained; the walls were bare. The table was set for four. He went over to a small bar at the end of the room and dropped ice into three glasses.

Joseph and his father politely declined a drink.

“Mind if I go on by myself? Gin and tonic. Gin. The only liquor available at the moment from our lively black market.”

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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