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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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The two men were about to settle into their beds, when their landlady called up to them, “There’s someone here for you!”

“What—now?” said Joseph’s father.

“She says something about a major, that you know her from a major,” said the landlady. “I understand little. She is some Pole. I can send her away.”

Joseph’s father went to the head of the stairs. He looked at Joseph then shouted down, “Give us a minute please, then you can send her up.”

The two men had just tightened the belts on their bathrobes when she appeared: first her golden hair, then her pale shoulders, then torso, waist, hips, legs.

“Misters,” she began.

She was winded from the climb up two flights of stairs.

“I—” Anna began again.

She pulled her earlobe and pointed to her mouth.

“What kind of craziness is this?” asked Joseph’s father

“You hear something?” asked Joseph, touching his own ear.

She shook her head.

She touched her lips and then pointed to Joseph’s ear.

“You’re telling me something?” he asked.

She nodded.

Then, in signs, gestures, pantomimes and halting bits of English, she made them understand that they were being lied to about the child. And that she knew who the mother was.

“Then tell us the truth,” said Joseph’s father. He pointed at her and then touched his own heart.

Anna shook her head.

“What do you think she means? Why is she saying no?” asked his father.

Again they engaged in their pantomime until Joseph knew what she was saying. She was not the mother—his prayer had been answered! He was so filled with joy that the horror of what she had said did not fully come to him until he spoke.

“She will tell us about the mother if we take her with us to America,” Joseph said.

His father stepped back, then forward. He pointed at her cross and asked her, “Catholic?”

She nodded.

“And Boxwood. Catholic?”

“No,” she said.

“Then there is no question of her marrying him,” said his father. “Don’t you agree, son? We must take her away from this situation.”

Yes, it was the right thing to do, thought Joseph. But he did not want to do it. She would live among them in the communion. Daily he would see her—her beauty, its temptation.

“She can be of help in the community. She can help you care for the girl.”

This was more horrible yet to Joseph. It would be just as if she were the child’s mother; and he would wish she were his wife.

“I can marry her when Grace dies,” said Joseph’s father, referring to his own wife, who was ill, but not yet gravely so.

When my mother dies, thought Joseph, Anna will be my father’s wife. My stepmother. The thought was unbearable and he knew he had to find a way for this not to happen.

“Tell us who the mother is,” said his father.

Again she shook her head.

“Swear,” she said.

Her gestures said they had to swear they would take her with them.

She raised the gold cross from her bosom.

Joseph’s father slowly walked toward her. He touched the little cross. “I swear,” he said.

***

From the rest of their pantomimes with Anna, Joseph and his father came to understand that the mother was still alive. That she was interned in the camp. And that she was Jewish.

“We must refuse the child!” Joseph protested to his father the moment Anna left. “How can we bring a Jew into the communion!”

“Father Redmond told us she had been baptized,” said his father.

“He also told us the child had been abandoned! No one wanted her!”

“I have just sworn an oath to her, said Joseph’s father. “Anna said the mother is French but speaks English. We are obligated to find out the truth.”

***

At six the next morning, the major’s car arrived for them. Boxwood had promised to help them, Anna gestures had told them. They must go back to Boxwood’s quarters. The girl’s mother would be there.

The major himself opened the door. His jacket now unbuttoned to the waist, showing a yellowed undershirt. He gestured toward the bedroom. “In there,” he said.

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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