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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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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.

“But something—”

“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.

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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