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

Ellen Ullman
March 11, 2013
Walter Sanders/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Walter Sanders/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Walter Sanders/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Walter Sanders/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The young man lost his way. The ship’s corridors seemed to lead off in all directions. He was afraid to ask for help from the Negro porters. His father had said to meet him in the lounge. But the signs pointed to different lounges, bars, dining rooms, stairways up and down. He had never before been on an ocean liner; had never before ridden in a taxi to get to a pier; had never been on a train-trip longer than fifty miles. His name was Joseph Carlsson, and this was the first time in his life he had seen the sea.

He walked through rooms with glass chandeliers that rang as the ship rocked. There were white leather sofas, armchairs edged in sparkling chrome, five-foot-tall vases filled with lilies whose mouths seemed obscenely open. He saw women dressed in flowing dresses, strung about with jewelry, smoking cigarettes while wearing gloves; women in khaki army uniforms, jackets tight around them, skirts above their knees; soldiers in uniforms of other nations, some green, some tan, some blue; men strutting in fine wool suits with glaring white cuffs closed with links made of gold. The young man, eighteen years old last summer, touched the stiff lapel of his own brown suit and pushed up the sleeves, which were too long, he had just noticed. Where he came from, Mount Clarion, Illinois, the clothes he wore now were his best.

By a Divine hand, he thought, he came upon his father, who was named Luke Carlsson. The older man, thirty-six-years old, was sitting on an upholstered chair in the corner of the “Day Lounge.” The son was shaken when he saw his father’s suit, a rumpled rough weave, and his shoes, brown and scuffed. Joseph felt ashamed of him in the midst of all this glamor, an un-Christian thought he quickly tried to wipe clean from his mind. His father must have seen something on his son’s face because he welcomed him warmly and said, “Don’t allow yourself to be ashamed. We are on a mission from God.”

It was May 12th, 1946. Their mission was to rescue the soul of a young girl. She had been left at a convent during the confusion of the German invasion of France, said Father Redmond, the leader of their communion. The child had been abandoned by her parents; she was now two years old; she had been baptized into the Faith. The ship was en route to Hamburg. From there they would go by train to a town in Germany named Celle. A man of their Faith, a French cleric named Abbé Landschule, would meet them and unite them with the girl. Joseph was to adopt her and raise her within their Holy community at Mount Clarion.

Joseph endured the terrors of his first dinner aboard ship. The food nauseated him: beef the size of a man’s fist, potatoes in a lake of butter, carrots wasted by being cut up into the shape of little flowers. Joseph’s father smiled at him as he watched the son push the food around his plate. “We will get used to it,” said his father. The dining room held about two hundred people; in their entire communion, there were only fifty men. Seeing his father with so many others reinforced Joseph’s perception that his father truly was a handsome man; with his strong jaw and upright posture; with his dignity.

At their assigned table were four men who spoke of currencies, exchange rates, commodities, pricing models, arms markets, words that made no sense to Joseph. Father Redmond had warned them that there were many hucksters making their way to Germany to profit from the reconstruction of Europe, and to avoid them. Joseph and his father were directed to say that they were architects’ assistants helping to rebuild the city of Hanover, which was plausible, Father Redmond had said, because a third of the city had been destroyed by Allied bombs. They were to tell no one of their plans.

This was Joseph’s first time away from their communion of the Faithful; he had been schooled at home and was now apprenticing with an electrician who was a member of the community. His father was a Deacon; he own role was more modest. He was to serve the Faithful with his hands and prayer. The world he lived in was one of trust, truth, confession. He was proud that he had not learned to keep a secret. And now he feared he would confide in people he had been instructed not to trust, feared that his pride would undo him.

As the two men left dinner, there came a cymbal crash from somewhere down the corridor. Then there rose the wail of a trumpet, a boom of drums. Joseph recognized the music. Not even the communion could keep Big Bands from playing on the radio in the hardware store. And now, as they passed by the ballroom where the music played, and the heated energy steamed into the corridor, Joseph saw what he had never seen before. The dance that went with the music. Feet and legs and hips and arms in furious motion. Wild, yet all the dancers keening to the same rhythm.

His father pulled him along the corridor. They repaired to their tiny cabin with no porthole. They prayed. The ship rocked in its own slow beat. But the other rhythm remained within Joseph; it played and replayed.

Night after night. In the dark, it replayed. He should confess this temptation to his father, he thought.


The days passed quickly. Joseph wondered what adventures awaited him, arrival in Hamburg, then by train to Celle via Hanover, finally to Abbé Landschule. And there would be the child—his daughter, he reminded himself. And he thought of his wife. The woman of seventeen he had married a year ago, encouraged by his father and the elders of the Holy communion. She was simple-minded; she refused to let her husband touch her. Therefore it came as a relief when he was assigned the mission of adopting the abandoned girl. He would be a father. It was a duty as a man he could fulfill.

The day before the ship was to dock in Hamburg, Joseph sat in a lounge waiting for his father. He could not take his eyes from these people who had just met each other, mixing, not really knowing each other, not sure exactly where anyone came from, who their ancestors were, what they believed or didn’t. He saw that this not-knowing introduced a sort of danger into their relationships, a vibrating alertness that charged all their interactions. A desire to know more about them jumped out at him, imp-like. He knew he should be afraid of this desire but, to his surprise, he was not afraid

Joseph and his father climbed up to the “Deck Three Bar,” which was full of people drinking to one another, saying their good-byes. Moderate drinking was a practice the future grandfather permitted himself—the Hebrew Bible is full of blessings over wine, he was wont to say.

They were lucky that a small group left just as they were looking for a table. His father was halfway through his drink when a man dressed in a fine tan wool suit approached them and asked if the third seat at the table were free. They said yes and invited the man to join them.

They told the man the story they were instructed to tell, about rebuilding Hanover. They heard, in turn, that the man who had joined them was a Mr. Yoel Markovitz, an accountant who had a wife named Sophie and two sons named Arthur and Jonathon.

“And what is your business in Hamburg?” asked Joseph’s father.

“I work for The Jewish Agency for Palestine,” Mr. Markovitz replied.

Joseph nearly jumped from his chair. Could this man be Jewish? How could that be? Joseph had been taught that Jews looked like Negroes. That had to be the truth—had to be. Impossible that Jews could be like this Mr. Markovitz: impossible to tell from Christian men!

“Our mission is to convince the British to open Palestine for Jewish immigration,” Mr. Markovitz went on.

Joseph watched as his father slowly lowered his glass to the table. The glass tipped back and forth. Joseph told himself that was just the sway of the ship.

Finally his father said, “We are only sad that the Jews did not accept Our Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.”

Mr. Markovitz gripped the table. His face showed anger, but he said nothing, which gave him an air of dignity. Then he stood, adjusted his tie, and reached into his jacket pocket for his wallet. He left a pile of bills on the table. He nodded but did not wish them a good night.


“Did you know, Father?” Joseph asked when they were back in their cabin. “Did you know you could not always see them?”

“Members of the communion returned from the war,” his father replied, “and they said there were some Jews you could not recognize by their dark skin and hooked noses.”

His father had been too old to be drafted. Joseph realized that all his father knew about Jews was what the soldiers had told him.


Chaos greeted them at the Hamburg train station. Bodies were sprawled about the floor in the waiting area. Would-be travelers pulled great piles of baggage through the crowd, rousing shouts and curses as the bodies on the floor were bumped by suitcases, rucksacks, boxes, even caged roosters.

Joseph and his father were in a first-class compartment at least. The train was filled beyond capacity, and the other cars were overstuffed, people sitting two to a seat and in the corridor. The two men dared not leave their seats at the same time for fear their places would be taken. Joseph walked the train and found there was no dining car. When he returned, an old man in their compartment said, in accented but perfect English, that they should not worry. Sellers would appear at the stations from time to time, and all they had to do was lean out the window.

“Will they accept American dollars?” asked Joseph’s father.

The compartment grew silent.

“I will exchange some Deutschmarks with you, if you wish,” said the old woman who sat by the window across from them.

Everyone looked at Joseph’s father, then at the woman, then back at his father.

“Thank you,” he said. “Can you exchange fifty dollars?”

Every eye watched his father reach into his jacket, retrieve his wallet, and take out a stack of bills. He counted out five new tens onto his knee, licking his thumb to be sure the bills weren’t stuck together.

The woman fumbled around in her purse. She withdrew a wad of dirty bills and offered them across the aisle.

“Is that all right?” his father asked.

The silence continued. Everyone stared at the crisp pile of tens on the his father’s knee.

“Put it away!” Joseph whispered, grabbing the money.

He was fascinated by the woman’s face. Never in his life had he seen such malice lanced through with desperation.


The train made its halting way toward Hanover—it seemed to stop at every collection of houses, sometimes in empty fields where people scrambled on and off. Then it came to some station and opened its doors. Twenty, thirty, forty minutes went by. Gradually everyone left: the people in the corridor, a fat man at his father’s feet, the old gentleman who had assured them about the food, the woman who had offered them her dirty bills.

“I guess we get off too,” said his father.

It was dark but for the last sapphire glow of the sky. The station, no more than a platform and a ticket counter, was crowded with waiting bodies. The deep blue of the sky turned to black; there were no trains in either direction; the people on the platform curled up to sleep.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer, is the author ofBy Blood, The Bug: A Novel, and the memoirClose to the Machine. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s, Salon, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The American Scholar, as well as in several Best Essay collections. She lives in San Francisco and New York City.

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