Tablet Original Fiction: A father and son go to Germany after the Holocaust to adopt a Jewish child
Neither Joseph nor his father understood what Boxwood was talking about, and their expressions must have said so.
“Oh, yes,” said Boxwood wearily. “What did we think would happen? Everyone held with nowhere to go, and no way to make money. Then these aid agencies dump all sorts of things in here. Cigarettes. Coffee. Liquor.
“I wish they’d all go somewhere,” he went on. “Wherever they want to go. We’re tired of being masters of the displaced. The damned war is over.
“Santé,” he said.
Joseph had the impression that this round of gin-and-tonic was not the major’s first of the afternoon. He himself was too tired to do anything but sit there and look at the chipped plates while the major took one long draught after another from his glass.
Finally Boxwood called down the hall, “We’re ready!”
There came the sound of dishes clanking. Then a voice: “I come, I come.”
Joseph sat back and watched the beautiful woman emerge from the dark of the hallway. First came her slender hands, then the white of her forearms, which were surrounding a large ceramic bowl. Finally came her body: her skin, her hair, all igniting into brilliance as she passed through a bar of sunlight.
Boxwood smiled at her. “Thank you, Anna dear,” he said, reaching up to touch her arm.
The woman attempted a smile in return, and failed.
“Anna” was her name in English, Joseph thought.
She served the men a salad of brown-edged lettuce, chopped onion, and four slices of cucumber tasting of sugar and vinegar. Boxwood apologized for the meager salad but Joseph was pleased at its simplicity, its lack of disdain for the old but still-good lettuce.
He looked up at Anna as she served his father. He was comforted by the sight of her plain, pale blue dress, well-worn but still lovely; by her body unadorned except for the little cross; the sweetness of her attempted smile at the major, and her failure at it. He could not say why he thought so, but he felt there was something of purity in that failure.
The three men had now been served. The major smiled at the woman’s back as she retreated down the hall.
“Isn’t the young lady going to join us?” asked Joseph’s father.
Boxwood’s eyes squinted with incomprehension for a moment. Then a sad expression draped itself over his face.
“No,” he said. “She is a camp internee. Former internee. She works as my housekeeper.”
They ate their salads in silence.
Joseph could not understand why she had been interned, and why released, and, if so, why was she still here?
She returned to serve the main meal. The major said nothing but looked intently down at the table as she went from man to man; the woman did the same. It occurred to Joseph that what was passing between them—he had no idea precisely what—was like the dangerous, charged relationships on the ship.
Abbé Landschule arrived in a flurry of tossed garments and apologies. He untied a ribbon at his neck and flung off a gray clerical cape in a single, arching gesture. It pirouetted to the back of one of the upholstered chairs. “Pardon me, pardon me,” said the Abbé, spinning like his cape, until he came to a full stop and approached Major Boxwood.
The two men whispered while Boxwood poured a dark-brown-colored liquor into a glass shaped like a bulb. The father could hear nothing of their conversation.
Joseph could not imagine that a person such as this Abbé could lead a congregation of the Faithful. He had known only men with simple garments and the hands of farmers. Abbé Landschule’s nails were clean-clipped and shiny. His fingers, as he wrapped them around the bulb-shaped glass, seemed impossibly long. His face was similarly long, his skin soft and pale. The cleric’s age might be anything from forty to fifty-five, Joseph thought.
“No, no,” the Abbé said to Boxwood. “I am not hungry. Please. Do not bother to serve me anything.”
The four men went down the hallway. Along the way, the Abbé led the father and grandfather into a bedroom, while Boxwood went on alone.
The Abbé closed the door.
“I am afraid I have some discouraging news,” he said in a low voice. “The American authorities are demanding that we find a nurse for you. Absurd! As if two men cannot be trusted to care for a little girl for the length of an ocean crossing.
“My apologies,” he went on. “We have not encountered before such a situation, as the adoptive mother normally … well. Do not fear.” He sipped his liquor, once, twice. “My superiors. My orders are— Well. I will. Find a way. Certainly. Heh! We all must do our duty.
“Perhaps a nun!” said the Abbé, with a rough laugh. “Surely that would be acceptable to the Americans.
“In the meantime—he swirled his glass and drank again—you can see the village. And the countryside. It is quite beautiful now.”
“Something’s wrong,” Joseph said when they were back at the inn.
“Get some rest,” said his father.
“Yes, the woman. But you are exhausted,” said his father. “We have not slept since the ship. Go to sleep.”
But he could not sleep. He kept seeing the little cross on the woman’s breast. He suddenly feared that the girl to be his daughter was Anna’s child. He imagined the rest of his life, watching the baby girl slowly grow into the image of her mother—her lovely skin glowing as she had passed through the light—so that that he would have to relive forever this journey, this day, the sight of the woman’s servitude and beauty, and his desire for her. “God in Your mercy,” he whispered into his pillow, “I have sworn upon my Faith to raise a child in the blessings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. But I beg of You, if You love Your servant, do not try me so that the child I must foster will be hers.” He contorted his body through the scree of broken mattress springs, and soon his prayers comforted him, and sleep overcame him.
The next day they walked into the town of Celle. There was an open market, an old castle, a cafe that served bread with cheese that had a smoky flavor, which Joseph thought delicious. A crowded bus rattled through a thin forest to a village named Bergen, through which they strolled until a gray dusk crept in from the west. They returned to Celle and walked back to their lodgings, where the landlady served them a supper of cabbage soup and brown bread.
A new generation of women is being misled into assuming an ideological tension between feminism and Zionism