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Tablet Original Fiction: A father and son go to Germany after the Holocaust to adopt a Jewish child

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Joseph walked down the hall, terrified that the mother would look dark-skinned and hook-nosed, that the girl therefore would also look like an ugly Jew, and everyone in the communion would know her origins. At the next step he feared that the mother would be pale and blond, another of those Jews who walked invisibly through the world, which would mean they were thousands of them, tens of thousands, a hidden army of unbelievers. Two more steps and they were in the bedroom.

A tiny woman sat on the bed. Her hands were locked between her knees. She may have been twenty or thirty—Joseph couldn’t tell. Her hair was dark brown; her skin fair; a thick scar slashed her left cheek. She stood. Her head was cocked back, surveying them.

“So you are the ones taking her away,” she said.

She waited for them to reply, and when they didn’t she said, “Thieves. All of you.”

Father and son stared at the woman.

Then Joseph’s father said, “We are here for the truth.”

“What are your names!” she demanded. “At least I want to know the names of men who would steal a woman’s child!”

“Don’t tell her!” said Joseph.

“Luke Carlsson,” said his father. “And my son is Joseph Carlsson.”

“And which of you will pretend to be her father?” She pointed at Joseph’s father. “You?” Then at Joseph, “Or maybe you. You boy.”

“My son,” said Joseph’s father.

She stepped forward to within a foot of Joseph. “So now you—Joseph—now you will know my name—”

“I don’t want to know!” shouted Joseph.

“My name is Helene Weiss. My husband’s name was Marcus. My daughter’s name is—

Joseph covered his ears.

“Elizabette! She was born in Lyon. She grew up in Paris. I left her with the priests in Foix when I was sure I was going to die.”

And her story poured out. And Joseph was forced to listen. She and her husband had fled south after the Germans marched into Paris. A farming family gave them refuge then betrayed them for a gift of two horses. She was sent to a labor camp; her husband was taken away; she never saw him again. After the German defeat, she made her way back to Foix, where the priests told her that Elizabette was in a safe monastery not far from Celle. She journeyed to Celle and joined the great horde of the displaced. She met Anna in the camp; Anna went to the monastery and returned with the terrible news: Elizabette had been baptized. The child could not be surrendered to anyone who was not of the Catholic Faith.

“What kind of monster refuses to give a child to her mother?” she said.

Helene held out her arms, curled as if still holding her baby.

“Please,” she said. “If just to see her.”

“Please,” she said again.

They were all quiet for several seconds. Then in a mild voice Joseph’s father asked, “May I sit down?”

Helene nodded.

His pulled over a chair that had been in the corner and sat down very close to her.

“And you are sure your girl was baptized.”

“What right did they have to baptize her!”

Joseph’s father stood up and pushed back the chair.

“Then the child is one of us now. You may not see her. There is no question of her going back to you.”


The Abbé ran his fingers back and forth across the upholstery. The major had put his elbows on the back of his chair. His head was bent full forward until it was nearly nose-deep into the cushion. Joseph and his father stood upright behind the remaining two chairs. The day had come up cloudy. A dim lamp threw a dirty light into room. The four men stared into the little circular table while they waited for the Abbé to say something.

“I did not know,” he said, rubbing back and forth more vigorously across the nap of the stained velvet. “How could I—. Do you think—. Do you believe my superiors tell me every detail!”

“There was no need for deception,” said Joseph’s father.

“But everything was true. The child had been surrendered to the Church. She had been baptized.”

“Nevertheless … “ said Joseph’s father. He took a breath. “In any case, the result is the same. The girl must come with us.”

“Well,” said the Abbé. “Of course. We must—. All of us—”

“I have a simple solution for the problem of the nurse, said Joseph’s father. “It will allow us leave quickly.”

He hesitated for just a moment. Then he said:

“Boxwood. Your housekeeper comes with us.”

Boxwood’s head came upright for the first time in the conversation. It lolled left then right. A smile paused over his lips. It was the smile of someone with no choice, Joseph saw. Boxwood’s arrangement with Anna could not last. Then Joseph thought that, before all this, he never would have understood the defeated look of a man without choice.

The Abe’s eyes fluttered for a long five seconds.

Joseph knew that at any moment it would all be decided. Anna would come with them and nurse his ill mother until her death, then tend to his father’s wishes, then to the wishes of the communion, until the end of her own days. He also knew that somehow he would get away. That he would abandon his wife. And leave behind the little Jew girl.

“Get me the woman’s papers,” the Abbé said to Boxwood. “I will get the documents prepared.”

Then the Abbé reached down for his cape where it had been curled up on the chair. He had some trouble settling it over his shoulders, and Joseph watched with satisfaction as the little duped man fussed and strained until he believed he had arranged everything perfectly: the ribbon at his neck, tied tight, just so.

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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.


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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Tablet Original Fiction: A father and son go to Germany after the Holocaust to adopt a Jewish child

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