He is only a little boy, she thinks, as she packs a small suitcase, singing softly under her breath. He is my boy, my only boy. A boy with dark eyes and a cowlick that insists on springing up, no matter that she combs it back repeatedly as it dries, lacquers it in place with a bit of his father's hair crème and yes, she admits, her own saliva. He minds when she does this, she can tell by the set of his shoulders, the quivering lower lip, but he submits to her ministrations without comment. Johann is a child who metes out his words with a stoicism she does not quite understand, which in the past worried her, though now, this quality seems essential to his survival. She loves both her children, but Johann, her late-in-life child, the one most like her, needs her love more fiercely than his sister. Named after Friedl's beloved Johann Sebastian Bach, his German name comes from the Hebrew, Yonatan, given by God.
He really is her gift from God, born years after she and Albert stopped trying for a second child. It was Albert who noted the meaning of Johann's name in Hebrew, the roots of the German in the ancient language of the Jews. Friedl, who has seldom entered a synagogue, who has never much thought of herself as a Jew, is now grateful for her husband's greater knowledge and connection to the faith. It comforts her: trusting in the Hebrew meaning of her son's name. She must trust in this connection to something more powerful than herself to protect her boy, her beautiful boy, because she herself no longer can.
She looks at her hands, the slender pianist's fingers caressing the bone buttons on a woolen union suit, as though the buttons were piano keys and the pressure of her fingertips might release their music. But her fingers tremble; hers are no longer the steady hands the maestro often praised. She is a passionate rather than sentimental woman, but nonetheless finds herself kissing the collar of the union suit before placing it in the suitcase, as though the imprint of her lips will remain there, close to Johann's skin, a warm reminder of her love.
She's asked her daughter Eva to keep Johann occupied while she finishes packing his case; she can hear Eva's laughter from the downstairs parlor, a sound rarely heard of late. Johann is so intent on pleasing his sister; it is to Eva, more than to Friedl herself, that Johann brings tokens of love. He courts her with sweets, poems copied in his childish hand, tied with ribbon scraps from his grandmother's sewing basket.
At eighteen, Eva is too old for the kindertransport; the children's transport takes only those ages five to seventeen, and even so, some within the age range who look older than their years have been turned away. When she spoke to Eva about her plans for Johann, the girl looked stricken, but said only, "Do what you think best, Mama." Just a year earlier, she would never have shown such deference. Before things changed in Germany, before her daughter's beau, Erhardt, renounced Eva as unworthy, saying that despite the "essential Aryanness" of her features, she was, after all, a Jew, Eva had shown signs of wildness: staying out past curfew, coming home with her clothes rumpled and smelling of cigarettes. These days, Eva is hardly herself, but rather, a somber, paler version of the girl she was; easier to handle, perhaps, but sobering to witness.
They haven't told Johann yet, but the boy's passage to London is secured. Money has changed hands. A great deal of money. The right people have been persuaded to stamp (and in some cases, falsify) documents, wave him on, look the other way. Her brother waits for Johann in Tel Aviv, a city she never imagined visiting, much less envisioned for her son, but Jacob promises he will be safe there.
Safety is something upon which the Lerner family can no longer rely. As Friedl rises from the bed and scans the room for anything she might have forgotten to pack, she thinks how early on, it seemed as though they might escape the fate of the others. But now, even Friedl's former patron, the one who swooned over her playing and spoke of her as the "daughter of my heart," even Herr Anselm can no longer help her. The last time she saw Herr Anselm on the street, he would not meet her eyes, and passed her by without so much as a nod. She has come to accept such distancing from others, but from this man she loved like a second father? That night in bed, as Albert brushed her hair, he said that perhaps Herr Anselm had his reasons; his grandson, their Eva's childhood playmate, was now a Nazi officer, rising quickly through the ranks. Albert had seen young Heinrich just the other day, swaggering down the street in uniform, his boots so highly polished they looked wet.
Albert has already been stripped of his medical practice, and one night last month, the Gestapo came for him. She thinks of her gentle husband, his eyes bleary from sleep, standing in his nightshirt in the parlor; the reprieve came only when one of the thugs turned out to have heard "the marvellous Frieda Baecker" in concert years earlier. The price of Albert's freedom: a 3:00 am impromptu recital, played in her dressing gown.
Tomorrow, they will put their only son on a train. To London first, a city Friedl knows and loves, having played several concerts there in years past. At Liverpool Street Station, Johann will be met by Bruno Vitemberg, Albert's childhood friend. Bruno's son already lives in Palestine, and as soon as Bruno has secured visas for his wife and three children (though in fact, Bruno and Frau Vitemberg have only the two younger girls) they'll board a ship for Palestine, with Johann traveling under the guise of the Vitemberg's fictive youngest son.
Palestine, a land of orange groves, rioting Arabs and obsessed Jews intent on making the desert bloom; a very strange and not altogether safe place to imagine her Johann, but still, the only option she has. Her brother has described his life in Tel Aviv, and she is hard-pressed to imagine her Johann, a boy who likes things just so, who is afraid of horses and anything large or loud, a boy who speaks softly and seldom and would rather read a book or play alone in his room than with other children, in that wild, unformed place they call Palestine.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers