The Courtship – Toni Mehler

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We reached the village before noon the next day.

Few people were about. On one of its narrow unpaved streets, against the hostile stares of tradesmen pulling their scant wares out of the sun, Salek drew me to him. He pointed past the squat buildings that framed a cobblestone alley and a quaver in his voice, whispered, The town square is on the other side. Minutes later we crossed into the glare of the empty park; the church, small and forgettable, stood at its center. Salek pulled the bell rope and a round, heavy sound rang out. No one came. I began to turn the cow and the calf around. We’d go back to where I found them. To where I last saw my sons.

Wait, Guta, wait, Salek said.

A key rattled as if stuck in a lock, and a priest, his slight body lost under a worn and dusty cassock, opened the  door.

Salek? he marveled. Salek?

They embraced and slapped each other’s backs and in the brilliant sun the bits of dust freed from their clothes looked like incandescent creatures. For just an instant, I forgot the tiny crumbs of dirt were not living things.

Salek called me over. This is Guta, he said.

I nodded.

I’m Father Józef, the priest said.

I looked at the ground.

Wait here, the priest said and went into the church. He returned with a cardboard sign under his arm and hung it from a nail on the door. This way, he said, and after a short walk ushered us into a ramshackle cottage. I live on the ground floor. Before the war I lived upstairs and the church offices were down here, but the second floor is vacant now.

We were silent.

We’ll get mattresses, he said.

We were still silent.

You’ll stay until you’re stronger and can decide what to do next. We’ll manage. The cow will help, he said, smiling at me. The animals can stay in the field behind the house; let’s take them there and I’ll show you where to wash and then I’ll find you both something else to wear, he added, looking at our striped rags.

Thank you, we mumbled.

By evening I had washed with real soap and was wearing clothes that had belonged to someone larger and heavier but were soft and clean. Sturdy leather shoes that were too big and heavy socks that made up for it. Salek had on normal pants and a flannel shirt and a brown sweater with half of one arm missing, and Father Józef had found warm caps to cover our bald heads. We itched much less. The cow and the calf were in the field behind the house, eating grass. The priest, smiling his gentle smile, gave me a bucket and nodded toward the cow. I milked her. The little black bull calf stayed at some distance but struck the ground and shook its head until I finished. I moved away and the calf drew near its mother, prodded her udders with its nose and clamped on. The cow, scarcely more than skin like heavy canvas sagging from her hips, bore her young’s demanding mouth without complaint.

The sun set.

In the ghetto and then in the camp the night sky had been heavy with messages, warnings, even threats, but now there was nothing. It was just there.

We sat down at the small kitchen table in front of three steaming bowls of vegetable soup and three glasses of fresh warm milk. Father Józef cut thick slices of dark bread from the loaf in his cupboard. We ate. Then Salek talked about what happened after he and the others in the village were rounded up. Father Józef listened without comment and when Salek finished, crossed himself. After a time he put his hand on Salek’s shoulder and looked at both of us, endless sorrow in his eyes.

Go to bed, he said.

I wanted to say Good Night, Thank You, and climb the stairs and sleep. But all at once the food, the clothes, the soap, not having fleas and now the promise of a bed and a blanket, proved too much. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth to speak one of the sharp edges inside me would fly out and lodge in Father Józef’s chest. Salek fastened his bony fingers on my bony arm and stood, pulling me up.

*

Upstairs, painted-over wallpaper, its pattern of cheerful little flowers colorless but still visible, fell in long shreds around the flattened cardboard box that covered gaps once filled by windowpanes. The floorboards under the window were so warped their edges, like us, angled away from each other. We took a step inside. A frayed gray sheet hung between two neatly made-up pallets. Still holding my wrist, Salek wound the cloth around the string several times and said, So we can see each other. Then he moved me toward the mattress under the window, lay down on the one against the poorly patched hole in the wall and pulled the blanket to his chin.

I stared at the soft outline of the hole until white daylight angled through and sharpened it again.

Then I went to milk the cow.

*

Even if I remembered it clearly, there isn’t much to say about the rest of that spring and summer. Our stomachs learned to accept without protest, the cow’s milk and the soups made from the vegetables in Father Józef’s small garden. My hair grew long enough to lie flat against my skull. We gained weight and strength. Salek did what he could to repair the bomb-ravaged fence and windows and the hole in the wall. I mended and darned and cleaned house and milked the cow. Both the cow and the calf ate well all summer and by fall the calf was sturdy and almost grown.

One night, over bread and soup and milk, Father Józef suggested that the calf be slaughtered after the first freeze. There is already little to forage, he said, and we can trade some of the calf’s meat for hay for the cow. What’s left will feed us during the winter. If we give the butcher a piece, he won’t charge us for the slaughter.

I reached for Salek’s hand under the table.

We hung the meat in the cold shed behind the house.

Washed our hands at the pump. After Father Józef dried his on the cloth I held, he took it from me, hung it on the pump and grasped my hand. Come, he said. Twenty minutes later (he’d not said another word, but he hadn’t let go of my hand, either) we stood in front of the church.

I have a quick errand, he said. Go in, Guta. It’s too cold to wait out here.

I had never been in a church before. Paintings hung on either side of the long part of the cross-shaped structure: Jesus, carrying his wooden death sentence through the streets, is followed by a small group of people who help him when he falls along the way, surround him when he’s crucified, and finally bury him.

Slightly misaligned rows of pews, their seats hollowed by years of use, led to a table draped in white cloth. Jesus hung above it. Crucified. Blood-red threads of paint interrupted by small white craters where the plaster had cracked and peeled ran from the nails in his hands and feet, and from a cut on his right side. On tiptoe, I touched the little bloodless clefts. And dislodged some of the plaster. I cleaned the small mess with the edge of my skirt, hid the plaster fragments in my pocket and turned to leave, but in my haste I tripped. Behind the half-open door I hit were a white robe edged in lace, long brightly-colored sleeveless jackets, and narrow scarves in red, purple and green, swaying from hangers as if the impact of my body had brought them to life. One of the scarves slipped to the ground and I held it against my chest before I hung it up again. It reminded me of my husband’s prayer shawl.

When we got back to the house Father Józef asked if I would mind replacing the woman who cleaned the church. At least for now? She’s sick.

Fall turned into winter.

*

Parishioners filled the church with pine, spruce, holly, and a profusion of painted pinecones strung on hard-to-come-by thread. Two whitish candles made of rendered calf fat sat on either side of the altar, wreathed in red ribbons tied into plump bows, and there was even a small Balsam Fir which youngsters decked out in bright paper stars and childish doves and lambs and donkeys and little halo-topped angels.

The government increased rations of flour and sugar for the holiday. On Christmas day, Father Józef received gifts of small confections that he shared with us. Their sweetness was bitter on my tongue. It tasted of the gallows that the previous year, had stood in the camp beside a glistening Christmas tree.

I avoided Father Józef’s eyes when I thanked him, slipped out, and went to the cowshed. Salek was already there.

*

Once the holiday was over, Father Józef and Salek and I gathered the branches and pinecones that had decorated the church and stacked them next to the altar. Two girls whose mother had just given birth were to collect them the next day. To burn in their stove, Father Józef said. They’ll come before early Mass, Guta. Let them in through the sacristy, yes?

It wasn’t fully daylight when I got there, so I lit the candle on Father Józef’s small desk. Across the top of one of the pages that littered it, a headline, underlined twice, read: Święto Obrzezania, 1 Styczeń 1946 – Feast of the Circumcision, January 1, 1946.

My boys were circumcised. We had a feast.

After the girls left with their cartful of kindling, I pulled a scarf over my head and slipped into a pew. Święto Obrzezania.

One by one, the faithful (not as many as I thought there’d be) walked up the center nave, genuflected, crossed themselves, and knelt in prayer. After a time, two boys (twelve years old? thirteen?) wearing long black robes and white overblouses came in and moved slowly toward the altar. Father Józef, dressed in one of the elaborately embellished robes and carrying something covered by a piece of linen so often washed and ironed that it shone, walked behind them. He set the small burden on the table, turned to the statue of Jesus and began chanting in Latin. One boy, his head slightly bent, did something I couldn’t see. The other brought a pitcher of water. Father Józef turned to us:

Having come into the world in the semblance of the flesh of sin, he said, the Child God was circumcised the eighth day after his birth and received the name Jesus, which means Savior. True to His name He sacrificed Himself to redeem us from all iniquity and draw to Himself an acceptable people, pursuers of good works.

Father Józef lifted the linen and revealed the goblet and plate I had polished an hour before. Everyone kneeled. One of the boys rang some little brass bells. From time to time Father Józef, praying, elevated the goblet or the plate toward the ceiling and then the boys gently raised the back of his embroidered robe. Eventually they knelt before him. He held up a round, almost translucent wafer and put it in his mouth. He gave one to each of the boys, too. Everyone started toward them. Time to leave, I thought as I made for the entrance, but it was blocked by a small, mumbling crowd. I turned back, pulled my scarf down so it would hide my face, bent my head, put my hands together as if in prayer and joined the people moving toward the altar, intending to slip into the sacristy. I’ll get out that way instead. But the undercurrent of sound washing in from the entrance grew urgent and all movement toward the altar stopped. Heads snapped toward the doors. Father Józef raised his eyebrows, silently entreating his flock to settle down. They didn’t. He turned to the statue of Jesus, kneeled briefly, crossed himself and faced us.

What is it?

Everyone talked at once: Soldiers. Demanding food. Drink. Guns. Women.

An old man and his wife came forward, both making the sign of the cross, the man holding a bloody kerchief to his face. He sobbed, Our daughter…

Father Józef looked to the ceiling, crossed himself, announced, Ite missa est, and rushed into the sacristy. I pushed past the pleading congregation and followed him.

Stay here, he said when he saw me. You’ll be out of harm’s way here. After the smallest pause, and in the same dusty black cassock and sad eyes he’d worn that first day in the square, he left.

*

A couple of weeks earlier, a parishioner had made Father Józef a Christmas gift of a coat. It was my uncle’s, the man said. After he left, Father Józef smiled and said, It’s big enough for several priests isn’t it? Salek cleared his throat and muttered, chin to his chest, I was a tailor before the war. He remade the coat in Father Józef’s size, artfully cutting out the threadbare parts and patching them together into a vest. There was a fitting in front of the stove. Father Józef laughed with pleasure.

Now, the coat over one arm, a loaf of bread and a small, unvarnished box cradled in the other, Salek burst into the sacristy:

Russian soldiers, he said. A potato truck comes through here at dawn. Going west. We’re getting on it.

How can you be sure the truck will stop? That the driver will take us?

It always stops. Salek held up the note, then the box. It’s money, I think, he said. Or jewels.

Where would Father Józef get money or jewels?

Salek shrugged and wrapped me in Father Józef’s coat. At first light, he divided the bread we hadn’t eaten during the night and gave me half. In case we’re separated, he said.

The large truck stopped just where Father Józef said it would. The driver adjusted its dirty canvas and relieved himself by the side of the road. When he finished, Salek approached him with Father Józef’s note and the small box. The driver read the note and opened and closed the box. He handed each of us a large sack and pulled back the tattered fabric he’d straightened moments before. Get underneath the potatoes, he said. If we’re searched, they’re less likely to find you.

It was not the first time I’d hidden in the back of a truck.

*

My husband had pleaded, But Guta, it’s pointless. You’ll never find them.

I have to try. You know I have to, I said and opened the door to the street.

Overloaded people pushed overloaded handcarts: clothes and blankets and pots and books and strange odds and ends – a small chandelier; a birdcage. Bicycles weighed down like donkeys jangled their bells; motorcycles leaning into overburdened sidecars and sedans piled high with cases and vans carrying entire establishments and trucks covered in bulging fabric honked their horns. And the riders and drivers shouted at the crowd to let them pass. A couple of hours later I had gone only a block. I was about to give up and turn back, when one of the drivers, his gestures toward the rolls of cloth thrusting from the back of his van as exasperated as if the fabric were perishable, started honking more and screaming louder than the others. I recognized him. When we were still allowed in stores I bought fabric in his. I elbowed my way through to his window and knocked. His eyes softened and he raised thumb and forefinger to his lips as if holding a cup of coffee. He remembered. I mirrored the gesture and looked toward the back of his truck. He nodded and I climbed in among the cottons and wools. There may even have been a roll of silk.

We reached my hometown, Kielce, just before sunset. I rang the doorbell to my parents’ house and a thin, older woman appeared, broom in hand. The sleeves of her shabby dress were rolled up and as she raised her hands to the flowered kerchief that sat askew on her head, the skin on the back of her arms fluttered like old, pale wings that could no longer fly. I felt sorry for her.

Yes?

I told her that this was my parents’ house; that I’d moved away when I married. The woman’s body seemed to fill and grow. Her eyes flashed. She flung the door as wide as it would go and placed the broom, now held in both hands, in front of her.

This is my house now.

I could see our living room furniture through the open door.

Maybe you want to wait for the police, she said.

No. I… Do you know where they went? My parents?

She slammed the door.

I walked all night and ended up at the train depot. It was almost dawn and a train was pulling in. As it slowed I read its placard: Westbound. A German officer emerged from the first car, and even before he stepped onto the platform I heard a story about a domestic servant who had worked for a wealthy family. It was coming from my mouth.

…They left when your great army marched in, Officer. I have nobody here. I’m frightened and have no money and haven’t eaten in two days. Please, Sir. Please. Help me get back home. Let me ride your train.

My story seemed to appeal to him but he shook his head.

Rag-wrapped bundles and dirty children hunchbacked the unkempt men and women that arrived in twos and threes. Before long, a crowd swarmed around us. A gray Mercedes Benz coupé hurtled in blowing its horn. The throng parted widely. The car disgorged two men wearing the long black overcoats of the SS and they approached “my” soldier. His right arm shot forth in a fierce salute and his heels snapped together smartly; the SS men raised bent arms in desultory rejoinder, said something to the soldier, got back in their vehicle, and left as stridently as they had appeared. The mass of people closed over the space they left behind.

A light drizzle began to fall.

The train rumbled awake. My soldier, who had already boarded, leaned out of his coach and called, gesturing toward the back, You can ride with the cattle.

I found a place against the side of the cattle car and settled into the mostly clean straw.

We’ll find your parents somehow, my husband said in bed that night. He held me close.

*

I still felt my husband’s arms around me as the potatoes (probably loosed from their sacks when Salek and I burrowed in among them) struck my face. I grabbed two and put them in the pockets of Father Józef’s coat. The truck lurched to a stop, the driver pulled the canvas back and whispered hoarsely, Get out quickly.

We were barely on the ground before the driver started the engine. Thank you, Salek called after him. For everything, I added, my hands on the two potatoes I had stolen.

The red pinpoints of light diminished faster than I thought possible.

Pulling Father Józef’s coat tight, I said, We didn’t ask him where we are, Salek.

I know where we are. It’s only a few miles to town.

I wanted to ask him what town and what we would do once we got there but instead I said, Maybe we better wait until morning.

We huddled close together under a tree. After a while we ate what was left of Father Józef’s bread and still hungry, decided to eat the two stolen potatoes. Better not light a fire, Salek said, biting into one.

They tasted almost like apples.

*

Salek’s penciled map outlined Dinkelsbühl’s moat as well as the tower-studded medieval stone wall that rose behind it. We crossed the moat, now dry and brown, and walked through an opening in the wall, all that was left of a once heavily fortified gate. Inside, timber-frame houses unscathed by time or war and topped by sharp, angled roofs sprang cheerfully from slender cobblestone streets. Salek jabbed at the map with his forefinger and pointed east.

Noerdlinger Strasse 52 (it had once been a brush factory, we learned later) rose flat and worn. The woman who answered the buzzer ushered us along a dim hallway, through a courtyard lined with trashcans, and into a large, industrial-looking structure in which the seemingly endless rooms we passed one after the other were overfilled with people talking, eating, sleeping, laughing. Families? Then down some stairs to a sizeable area studded with showerheads.

I thought you’d want to wash, she said. And I’ll bring you some clean clothes. Then you can have something to eat, and we’ll talk.

I took Salek’s hand and pulled him toward the door marked “Ausgang.”

Please. Please, she said. Is it the showers? Look, she said, and ran from one to the next, turning them all on until water rained everywhere and she was soaked.

Salek and I took turns showering. I was relieved to have clean things against my skin again but after the briefest hesitation, shook the potato dirt from the skirt and sweater Father Józef had found for me and put them on, too.

In the kitchen the woman gave us potato soup and black bread. She brought three cups of chamomile tea, sat down and took a sip. The people here don’t like Jews, she said.

That explains the families. I thought. Nazis have families.

The woman continued, There’s an assembly center not far from here where there are many Jewish people. The Red Cross truck that goes there, I know the driver. And he’ll be here soon. She reached into her pocket for a small piece of chocolate and broke it into three pieces.

*

The camp was not, as the woman had said, not too far away from here but it was still, thank goodness, in the American sector. The blue-eyed intake officer, almost a child really, assigned Salek and me cots in different barracks, told us what time to report for the evening meal and said, while adjusting and readjusting his glasses, that we would be processed (whatever that meant) the next day.

We are in prison again, Salek.

It’s an assembly center, Guta.

It’s surrounded by barbed wire. The soldiers are armed.

Salek avoided my eyes. I… I need to sleep, Guta, he said.

The American soldier who “processed” us the next morning said we were not allowed beyond the barbed wire and couldn’t be in touch with the outside world “except through the office.” You were right, Guta, Salek said. We’re in prison again. I put my hand on his shoulder. We aren’t being murdered, I said. We’ll be released one day. I’ll go back to Kielce once that happens. If someone in my family survived they’ll head there too. I’m sure of it. What about you, Salek? I don’t know, he said. But a couple of months later, as he climbed onto the back of a truck that took inmates to work at a nearby farm, the look on his face told me that he’d found an answer. For him, like for the others tensed beside him on the wooden bed of the truck, the assembly camp had become a way station to a different life, poles from anything any of them had ever imagined.

Their own land.

The land of their dreams was a British Mandate in the Middle East. And Great Britain limited Jewish immigrants to fifteen hundred a month. Sometimes a few more got through – escapees from assembly centers who walked astonishing distances to be smuggled onto dilapidated Aliyah Bet ships. Most were stopped by British naval patrols and their passengers sent to internment camps, usually on Cyprus. Salek wanted to attempt it so much you could see it in his breathing; it was quick and shallow, as if he were preparing for a race. I didn’t want him to end up behind barbed wire in Cyprus. So, to keep him from bolting, every chance I got I repeated all the decent things I saw: We were allowed to practice our religion. There was a little more food. Jews no longer had to live with Nazis. We had a school. An orphanage. By fall we’d have a newspaper.

He didn’t bolt. But I didn’t go to Kielce, either.

During the German occupation the Nazis had seized all the Jews in Kielce, me among them. By the summer of 1946, about two hundred survivors had returned to look for other survivors. One hundred and sixty lived in the city center, on Planty Street. On July 1st, Henryk, an eight-year old Christian boy who lived not too far away, went missing. He returned a couple of days later, claiming (according to his father) that a Jew had kidnapped him. Or maybe a Gypsy.

The police searched the Planty house for the place where Henryk had been kept, as well as, while they were at it, for bodies of other Christian children who may have been murdered as part of Jewish rituals. They found no evidence of either kidnapping or murder but sixty Jews were gravely injured during the investigation and forty-two were killed: Two bayonetted. Nine shot. Thirty-one beaten and stoned to death.

The attack at the Planty house fizzled by midafternoon. The violence in Kielce did not. Wounded Jews en route to the hospital were beaten and robbed by soldiers. Once there, those patients not confined to bed assaulted them. At the railway station, guards shot thirty more “trying to escape”.

Salek and I read about it on page four of Nasze Slowo, the Warsaw newspaper. By the time the single sheet reached us it was rubbed so thin by the many hands that held it before ours, the newsprint was almost translucent and whole words were missing.

But enough were left.

Salek put his arm around me. After a while he said, You are alone and I am alone. We can be alone together.

His words turned the sand under my feet into the Persian rug in my parents’ living room, and the scattering of stones, into my family. My grandmother sat in the wing chair, rolling yarn into a ball. My grandfather, smiling, helped her. My mother scolded my younger brothers for fighting with each other and as my father walked by them, a copy of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness behind his back, he shook his head. Surprise, he said when two steps later, he reached me and placed the book in my lap. He kissed my forehead. Watching your brothers pretend remorse? he asked. No, Papa, thinking about who I’m going to marry, I teased. Any candidates? he asked. I shook my head. I didn’t know David yet. My sons wouldn’t be born for years. Well, my father said, rolling his eyes in mock despair, Don’t give up hope.

The rug became sand again. My family turned back to stone. I belong dead, I thought.

Salek stood.

As he had the morning we walked into Father Józef’s village, he drew me to him.

Let’s go home, Guta, he said.

End

 

Toni Mehler was born in Regensburg, Germany. She holds a PhD in Human Development and has provided treatment to Holocaust survivors and their children since 1987. The “Courtship” in the title of this excerpt refers to the “courtship” of the couples who married in Displaced Persons camps after the war. Sadly, and except in rare cases, this was largely the developing understanding that they “could be alone together.”

Another excerpt of this novel (The Beautiful Gathering) “Friends,” was published this past August by Narrative Magazine. http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/stories-week-2015-2016/story-week/friends-toni-mehler .

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