The Docks – Sarah Lerner

Rifka lies awake while her husband Avi sleeps.  He twitches and fidgets sometimes flinging a leg, sometimes an arm, towards her side of the bed.  He gets this way when money worries are bad.

She moves across to the far side of the bed and curls up on her side, her back facing Avi.  She can’t stop thinking about Mama and Leah.  Their letter said they’d be here for Rosh Ha Shona hopefully and by Yom Kippur for certain.   In August she went to the docks to meet the boat from Hamburg but there was no sign of them.  The September boat will dock today, and Yom Kippur begins tomorrow.   By now they must be close to the coast of Wales, huddled together on deck, their puchs stretched over them for warmth.

The clock strikes four.  It’s too early but she climbs out of bed and splashes her face with cold water.  She dresses quickly and brushes her hair, now streaked with grey.  Her hair was bright ginger once, thick, and long enough to sell.  She closes her eyes and feels the cold metal of scissors against her skin.

On the way to the outhouse, she passes the workshop.  She opens the door quietly.  Four workers sleep under the benches.  The air is stale with their sweat and full of stench from the steam iron. Avi says he can’t afford to pay them any more money.  They’re gruner – still learning the trade.  When she gets home, she’ll make them coffee with plenty of sugar.  She leaves the door open to change the air.

In the kitchen she lights the stove so there’s warmth for the household, makes tea and cuts a slice of bread but she’s too on edge to eat. She leaves the bread on a plate and covers it with a saucer for later.

She tightens her headscarf, pulls her shawl around her, and leaves the house.  It’s still dark and the street is quiet.  A breeze blows from the embankment where in summer she likes to wander.  Sorrel grows here.  She uses it to keep her family healthy.  It was a miracle the first time she saw it here in Cardiff, the sight taking her back to riverbanks near Gorodets where it had grown so plentifully.  She and Leah used to swim in that river on hot summer evenings before Shabbat.  They’d be with a group of other girls, hiding from the boys and splashing each other as they suppressed shrieks of laughter.  Next summer she’ll take Mama and Leah to Barry.  They’ve never had a day out by the sea.   She and Leah will swim, and Leah will be astonished at the way the saltwater helps a person float.  Mama will have her stockings peeled off, the sand between her toes.

She walks quickly to the main street and waits for the first tram to the docks.  A couple of other people are waiting also.  They eye her curiously.  She still looks foreign with her long, colored skirt and scarf, but she isn’t as wary of the locals as she used to be.

The tram arrives and she climbs on board, sitting alone at the back where no one will bother her.  Her stomach rumbles and she feels under her skirts for a sweet.  She finds a gobstopper, one of her favorites.

Going to the docks used to be a big adventure all those years ago.  For a long time Avi’s tailoring business had been hand to mouth.   Then one day an official letter arrived.  It was an offer of a contract to make uniforms for the Cardiff Tramway Corporation.   Avi turned to her pale-faced, almost frightened.  “We haven’t got enough workers Rifka,” he said.

That’s when she started going to the docks.  She went all over the place, to Cardiff, Hull and Liverpool, collecting poor Jews from everywhere, Russia, Poland and Germany.   Mostly they slept under the benches in the workshop till they learned their trade.

Now Avi has lost the Tramway contract – and they don’t need any more workers.

More people board the tram, others like her, going to the docks, for what purpose she isn’t certain. Outside it’s still dark.  The gobstopper melts in her mouth.

On Rosh Ha Shona with no Mama and Leah she had swallowed her disappointment, hoping for a good year, and a sweet one, as she dipped her apple in honey.  She looked around her table.  Her younger son Sol sat a few places down.   He’s a hard-working boy.  Soon he’ll be a skilled tailor.    Eli her oldest boy was absent as usual.  He ran off to work in a fairground at the age of fourteen and they hardly ever saw him.  It was years since he’d been with the family for Rosh ha Shona.  Perhaps it was her own fault that he had turned out so badly.   She had uprooted him when he was so little, pulling him away from his beloved granny and auntie.  It was different for Sol, he was only a tiny baby when they left Russia – he didn’t know what was happening.  She hoped that when Mama and Leah arrived, Eli would visit and be happy to see them.  If he refused to come home, or was cold and indifferent, she didn’t think she could bear it.

Ach but Sadie, her oldest girl sat at her right hand –  her hair brown like the honey cake they made for dessert. Sadie’s not just pretty but clever also.  Perhaps one day she’ll work in an office.  Next to Sadie was Rosa – thirteen and already surrounded by boys, red haired and headstrong.  You wouldn’t think she hadn’t walked for a year, after that accident with the carpet when she was only five.   Further down the table clustered together was a handful of workers.  Rifka couldn’t leave them on Yomtov with nowhere to go.

Avi sat opposite her at the far end of the table.  Next to him was his father Heime – grey haired and frail now, hardly aware of his surroundings, reciting the Hebrew prayers to himself silently under his breath.  He comes to life only when he goes to the workshop to swap stories from home. She’s always had a little feeling of resentment that Avi brought Heime from Russia before she could send for Mama and Leah.  She’ll be able to forget all that when Mama and Leah arrive.

They reach the docks, the end of the line.   The tram empties, the other passengers disappear into the dark.  She pulls her shawl around her and goes to the place where the boats from Hamburg arrive.  Out there in the estuary are waiting ships.  She can almost feel them looming in the dark but they won’t approach the harbor until dawn.   She smells the sea on the wind.  Gulls circle overhead screeching in the air.

A seaman stands nearby coiling a rope around his arm.  He was here before.

“They’ve not docked yet, but – shouldn’t be long now.”

She smiles, her stomach tightens.

More people arrive.  A group of women have crosses around their necks.  She’s seen what they do.  They offer help, but also conversion.  The waiting men are worse.  The young girls arriving alone will likely trust them because they speak Yiddish.   G-d knows if they really are Jews or what those girls will have to do in exchange for food in their bellies and a roof over their heads.   She stands apart.  There’s a limit to the number of people you can help. It isn’t like it used to be when they had money and now there are also debts from Avi’s gambling.

She hates it when men come to the house to play cards.  She hears their voices from the kitchen, sometimes there’s laughter, but also long silences, and voices raised in anger. The next morning Avi will be pale, eyes sunken, and that week there’ll be no money for housekeeping.  Sometimes he’ll tell some of the workers to leave.  It breaks her when that happens.

Luckily, she has always been careful with money, kept some back in the good times.  When she got the letter from Leah telling her about the group leaving from Kobrin she couldn’t believe it.  Finally, it was going happen – Mama and Leah would leave Russia.  She had rushed straight upstairs and uncovered the jar she kept hidden in the back of the wardrobe.  She had been saving for years and now she had enough money for their tickets. They would come by train and then by ship. She couldn’t afford a cabin for them though; they’d be out on the open deck.  They’d carry their possessions rolled up in their puchs so they’d have to unpack if they wanted to use the puchs for warmth.

The light changes, the dark becomes grey.   The ships approach slowly, and one comes towards the waiting group, the ship that carries Mama and Leah, with the group from Kobrin.

As soon as the boat docks she pushes her way on board and makes for the lower deck.  There’s a group of poor Jews looking around them, excited and confused.  She rushes towards them stepping over crates and ropes.  Mama and Leah aren’t amongst them.

A tall man looks at her, his wife and children are behind him. “What place is this?” he asks in Yiddish.

“This is the town of Cardiff in South Wales,” she says.

“But we have tickets for America.  Does this ship go to America?”

“I doubt it.  You’ll have to ask someone – tell me, where are you from?”

“We are from Brest, in Belarus.”

“That is not so far from my area.  Are there people here from Kobrin?”

He indicates with his head towards a group standing some yards away.

“I must talk to them,” she says, “One of the men down on the dock will tell you if the ship is going to America.  If you go to Chicago I have a brother there, Reuben Kaufmann.  Tell him to help you.  Say his sister Rifka sent you.”

The man nods, but still looks worried.

She pushes on looking for Mama and Leah.

A young woman sits alone holding her baby.

“Excuse me,” Rifka asks her, “Are you from Kobrin?”

“Yes,” the woman looks exhausted.

“I’m looking for my mother and sister, Sarah and Leah Kaufmann, two women travelling alone.  Have you seen them?”

The woman shakes her head. “No, I haven’t seen them.  I don’t think they’re with us.  There aren’t two women travelling alone.”

This young woman is stupid.

“But they must be, they were definitely going to travel with you.  I sent them tickets. They are from our stetl, Gorodets.”

“Ah, Gorodets.”

“Yes, surely you know them?”

“I don’t know them, but I have cousins in Gorodets.  I’d remember if I met someone from there.”

“Is someone in charge of your group?”

The woman points to a gentle faced young man.  He’s surrounded by landsleit asking him questions.  She must queue to speak to him.

“My mother and sister were meant to join you, Sarah and Leah Kaufman.  Do you know them?”

“Yes. I remember, they were due to join us, but they didn’t arrive.  Something must have gone wrong at the last minute. It happens.”

“But I sent them tickets.”

“There will be other opportunities.  Next year, my brother will come.  He will lead a group of people.”

She can’t believe Mama and Leah would have wasted the precious tickets, but she thinks ahead.

“How can I contact your brother?”

The man tears a scrap of paper from a notebook and scrawls a name, and an address.

As she leaves the ship, she passes the young woman. “Do you have somewhere to go?”  she asks.

“Not yet.”

“How can you have travelled alone with a young baby and no-one to go to?”

“My husband left for England, but I haven’t heard from him.  I am trying to find him.”

She’s heard many stories like this – men who leave and never send for their families.

“This is Wales, not England,” she says.

The woman’s face wobbles.

“England isn’t too far away,” Rifka adds quickly, “just the other side of the water.”

On the dock are those Christian women, those lecherous men.

Rifka had travelled from Russia with no husband and two young children but at least Avi was waiting for them when they finally arrived.  She doesn’t see how this woman and baby will manage.

She reaches into her pocket and takes out some coins from her housekeeping money.  Avi will never know.

“Here’s some money,” she says to the woman thrusting the coins in her hand.  “Try to stay with the others from your group until you find somewhere to stay. And there are men on the dock who speak Yiddish.  Don’t go with them, they are bad people.”

She moves away from the woman.  She has done all she can.

On the way off the boat, she sees the tall man from Brest arguing with an official in broken English.  His wife and two children, a boy and a girl are with him. She wishes she could do something for him.


When she gets home Avi is sitting at the kitchen table with Heime.  Sadie and Rosa are clearing up after the mid- day meal.   Both Rosa and Avi have a sullen expression.  Perhaps they’ve had a row before she arrived – they are so alike, strong willed and stubborn.

“Nu?” Avi says when he sees her.

“They weren’t there.”

Avi frowns. “There must be a simple explanation.”

“Try not to worry,” Heime says in a quavering voice.


She remembers that day when Rosa wouldn’t go to school.  Avi had shouted and yelled.  Rosa cried and bawled but still she wouldn’t go.  Avi had dragged her across the floor.   Her leg got caught up with the loose carpet in the hallway and twisted in it’s socket.  The child could have been crippled for life.

Rifka looks directly at Avi avoiding Heime’s gaze. “We could have sent for them before, but you kept saying we didn’t have the money.   You brought your own father, but not my family.”

“Rifka…,” he says.

She doesn’t listen.

She rushes down to the embankment and stares at the river.   Avi never said sorry for what he did to Rosa – though Rifka knew he felt guilty.  She saw it in his eyes.  A whole year the child lay in bed.  Then one day a gypsy woman came to the house selling her wares and they got talking.  Rifka told the woman about Rosa.  “You must get a cactus and put the juice on her leg,” the woman told her.    Avi snorted when Rifka did as the woman said, “Cactus juice?  Really?  Why do you believe this woman when the doctors can do nothing?”

A week later, Rosa had walked again.



On Kol Nidre, Rifka schlepps fish from the market as usual and chops it on the kitchen table banging down with her hackmesser.  She’ll leave the gefullte fish ready to break the fast.  For dinner that evening she makes chicken soup with noodles.  Filling enough to sustain them but not too heavy.  The rich smell wafts out of the kitchen – it will reach the workshop.   She’s twice as busy as usual.  Thank G-d there’s no time to think.



As night falls, she and Avi lead their household to Schul.  She goes up to the women’s gallery with Sadie and Rosa, her two girls who Mama and Leah have never met.

The melodies fill her mind.  They come to the Al Chet Prayer,

For the sins we have committed before you under duress, or willingly and for the sin we have committed before you by hard heartedness…’

Maybe Mama and Leah are lost on some frozen waste, or perhaps they were arrested crossing one of the borders.  They’d have no idea how to cope if that happened, how to bargain or manoeuvre and they’d have no money for a bribe.


“How can you do this?” Leah had asked, when Rifka said she was leaving Russia to join Avi in England. Leah clutched Sol in her arms. Mama pressed Eli against her. He hid his face in Mama’s skirts, she stroked his head.

“You can’t go with these two,” Mama said, “what will happen to them? You can’t manage them alone.”

“The Rabbi said I won’t be alone.  The Jewish people are always together.  That’s what he told me.”

“The Rabbi?  Has he helped you in this?” Mama asked.

“No Mama, it isn’t like that.”

“You’ve always been selfish,” Leah said, her eyes narrowing.

It was true, Rifka had to put her husband and children first.

“Avi has work and we’ll save money,” she told them. “As soon as we have enough, we’ll buy your tickets, and you’ll join us.”

Fifteen years had passed before she sent the tickets for them to come.


Beneath the women’s gallery the Schul is full of men. The air thickens with warm breath and prayer.  The Ark is opened.  The scrolls are clothed in white and gold. The men sway and sing,

“Avinu Malkeinu

Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You,”

Our Father our King, bless us with a good year,”

She sways also and sings under her breath.   As Avi says there must be an explanation.  Perhaps next year they’ll come.



That night she sits for a long time alone in the kitchen before going upstairs.

Avi stirs when she sits on the edge of the bed. He opens his eyes, “Are you alright?”

It isn’t like him to even ask.  She shrugs.

He reaches out and pats her arm, “You worry too much.”

If only he would actually talk to her – sit up for once and look interested.  Then she could finally say how she’s really felt all these years – but he just squeezes her arm, and then flops back on the pillow.

She gets up and pulls back the curtain of their bedroom window.  The moon shines down on the embankment, the river, and the sorrel.


She throws a shawl around her shoulders and goes downstairs.  The stove still gives out some warmth.  The smell from the chicken soup lingers in the kitchen.

She sits at the table and gazes at the flickering Jahrzeit candle.  The kitchen door opens.  It’s Yitzhak, one of the workers.  She pulls her shawl around her nightgown.

“I heard what happened, Rifka,” he says.  “It was the same thing with my mother and sister.  At the last minute, they lost the courage to travel alone.  So, we had to try again, and get someone to escort them.  Now they’re safe with my uncle in Manchester.”

Rifka sees immediately that this is the most likely explanation.  Mama is sixty already, it was too much to expect that she and Leah should travel with strangers.

“Thank you,” she says to Yitzhak and smiles.

She will write to Mama and Leah and say she understands. She will send more tickets and find a cousin, or friend of a cousin to escort them.  They can join the next group leaving from Kobrin.



Sadie gets a job in a detective agency and Rosa sells her ice skates.  They both give Rifka money. Sol gives her all his wages, and Eli sends money from the fairground.  Avi gives her extra housekeeping.   She’ll soon have enough money.   She must make arrangements.

At Tu Bishvat she comes home from the market, arms straining under the weight of her basket.

On the doormat, there’s a letter with a Russian postmark.

Hope soars inside her, at last they’ve answered.

As usual, the Rabbi has written the address on the envelope but the letter inside isn’t from Leah.  It’s from the Rabbi.

 ‘My dear Rifka,

I am sorry to tell you that there’s been an outbreak of typhus.  Your mother and Leah both got ill.  We took the best care of them we could, but we couldn’t save them.  Their suffering was not too hard or long.  They were both so excited about finally joining you in Wales.  Their courage never faltered, but alas it was not to be.  We have buried them in the cemetery, with many other of our community.

We will pray for you.  Take comfort in your husband and children.

I send you my blessings and I wish you long life…’


With trembling legs, she goes to the workshop.  When she opens the door, everyone looks up and stops working.

“What is it?” Avi asks when he sees the expression on her face.  He comes toward her.  She hands him the letter.  He reads it slowly.

He folds his arms around her. “We will sit Shiva,” he says in a muffled voice.

She goes upstairs and turns her mirror to the wall.  She finds a black shawl and covers her head.  Somewhere low stools are found for the family.  Sadie and Rosa take over the cooking.   In the evening people gather. The Rabbi says prayers.  Afterwards the girls pass round tea and beigels with herring. News reaches Eli, and on the third night he comes home.

On the seventh night, after prayers, she’s alone with Heime.  He comes over, puts his hands on her head, and prays silently.  Then he removes his hands and looks at her.

“We must mourn our loved ones,” he says, “but death is part of life.  Remember you have done your best.  You have been a good wife and mother and you have been kind to me. Thankyou.”

Something softens inside her.  When he leaves the room she pulls the black shawl around her head more tightly.

She had tried to hide her shorn head from Mama, but one morning going out to get firewood she’d forgotten to put on her headscarf.  “Rifka!” Mama cried out when she saw her, “what has happened to your beautiful hair?”

It was Mama who told Rifka they wanted a wet nurse at the big house. There were nerves in Rifka’s stomach when she knocked at the back door.   A delicious smell of roasting meat wafted towards her.  She was allowed inside and went through the kitchen passing an open fire where a pig roasted on a spit, fat splattering in the air.  Her mouth watered at the sight of the forbidden meat.  She followed the housekeeper up carpeted stairs to the nursery. The tall woman lifted the baby from its cradle and watched intently as Rifka took out her breast. She worried there wouldn’t be enough milk left for Sol as the pale faced creature tugged and sucked, but Mama had said that her body would produce what was needed.   Later the housekeeper gave her tea from a silver samovar-such a thing that her family could never dream of owning.

From her work as a wet nurse, and selling her hair, she had enough money for the land journey and the ship.

She had travelled with a group of other Jews, but they were strangers to her before she set out.  On the second day they came to a river with a narrow ford.  The water was fast moving after the thaw.  If you slipped, you could drown.  Families helped each other wade across but Rifka was alone at the water’s edge with Sol a baby in arms and Eli a four-year old child.  She couldn’t carry them both, couldn’t leave either on the bank alone.

A woman she hadn’t spoken to before had turned round to look at her from halfway across the river.  She was carrying one child and her husband another. The woman spoke to her husband then shouted at Rifka, her voice carrying across the water, “Wait there! My husband will come back for you.”

The man had come back and got them safely to the other side.  She owed them her whole life, and that of her children, but she had never thanked them properly.


For Passover the family gather around the table.  Eli is with them.  Nowadays he comes home often.  Heime sits next to Avi as usual.  Rifka feels closer to him than before.  He tries to help them.   Sometimes when Avi gambles, Heime stands outside the room, listening and frowning. She’s heard him scolding Avi and recently Avi did actually stop gambling for a couple of weeks.  It isn’t Heime’s fault how things turned out with Mama and Leah.

Avi lifts the Seder plate and says, ‘This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt, All who are hungry come and eat.’  Their ancestors left Egypt too quickly for the bread to rise.  Bitter herbs are for suffering and salt water for tears

She is still in mourning, but her family laugh and talk. The strain on the faces of the workers disappears as they drink the wine.  Eli is telling a funny story.  He enjoys entertaining people, a natural comedian, he could have gone on the stage.  The story is about a Jewish boy who becomes a knight. The women chuckle, the men splutter and guffaw.  Laughter spirals in the air.

She thinks of the opening words of the Passover service, ‘All who are hungry, come and eat’, not just a person’s own family but all who are hungry.  An idea comes to her, a way of making her life feel more worthwhile.


The next morning, she rises early and leaves Avi sleeping.  On the way to the outhouse she opens the door to the workshop and lets out the foul air.  The men are still lying like dogs on the floor.  Later when she gets home, she’ll bring them coffee with extra sugar.

In the kitchen she lights the stove so there’s warmth for the household.  She makes tea and takes a piece of matzo.

She leaves the house and walks quickly along the embankment. The birds have been clamoring since early morning.

By the embankment daffodils have started to bloom.  They glow yellow in the pale morning light.  In the summer when it gets warm, she’ll persuade Avi to declare a holiday and take the whole household to Barry.   The workers could do with a day out by the sea.


At the docks there’s that same man coiling a rope.

“Hello – I haven’t seen you for a while.”

She smiles and moves on to her normal place where the ship from Hamburg will dock.  There are the people she’s suspicious of.  The Christian women, the Jewish-seeming men.  The sun rises in a clear blue sky.  The birds circle and screech.  She pulls her shawl around her.

The ships are on the distant water. They approach slowly and one docks near where she is standing.   She pushes her way on board and makes for the lower deck. There’s a group of Jews huddled together, their puchs wrapped around their meagre belongings, confused, and excited.

She was so poor when she left Russia and the journey so hard.  Eli had cried constantly from hunger and cold, the thaw had started but the mud just made the walking harder and all-around snow still lay on the ground.  With no papers she had to keep the children quiet when they crossed the borders.  She had spoken to Eli sharply to keep him stumm.  He stared at her eyes full of resentment.

A man comes up to her, small, with red hair and a beard.  Next to him are his wife holding a baby, two little boys and an older girl.

“Is this ship going to America?” he asks.

“I doubt it.”

“But we have tickets for America.”

“Let me see.”

He shows her the ticket.   She recognizes the letters though she can only read properly in Yiddish.

“This says ‘Cardiff’, you’ve reached the end of your journey,” she says.

“But we’ve used all our savings on this ticket, we’ve been tricked,” the man tells her.

“I am sorry.  The world is an evil place.”

“We have cousins in America.  Here we have no-one.”

Rifka knows what she’s going to do, whether Avi likes it or not. This is what she has come for.

“It’s alright I can help you,” she says, “come with me.  My husband Avi will give you work.”


“So how many people are you planning to bring here Rifka?”  Avi asks that night when she climbs into bed.

He has barely spoken to the new arrivals, but he hasn’t been rude to them either or told them to leave.

“That’s it for now until there’s more space.”

“And what about money?  They have nothing I suppose, and we don’t exactly have plenty of work.”

“I’m sure they can make themselves useful,” she lowers her voice, “and now we don’t have to feed Mama and Leah.”

“They’re not our family, Rifka. They’re not our responsibility”

“They are Jews like us, and they are strangers in this land.  Besides if you’re so worried about money why don’t you finally stop gambling, like you keep promising your father?”

She looks down at her hands and waits for him to speak.

“It makes you feel better to help people doesn’t it Rifka?” he says after a while.  His voice is gentle – thoughtful almost.  He doesn’t sound angry.


They look at each other.

“Alright,” he shrugs. “If that’s how you feel. ”

“Thank you.”

She kisses his cheek. His beard is prickly. He kisses the top of her head and falls back on the pillow.  Soon he’s snoring.

In the morning she’ll wander down by the embankment.  She’ll pick daffodils for the table and try to find sorrel.  Some time, in a month or a year, they’ll have more space, or more work and when that happens, she’ll go back to the docks to fetch more people.


Sarah Lerner combines fiction writing with her work as a legal aid lawyer representing migrants and other vulnerable individuals.  Much of her writing is about migration and the parallels between the Jewish experience and that of other communities. She lives in London with her partner, their two daughters and two cats.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.