A text by the 2011 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Lee Romer Kaplan
June 6, 1982
On the eve of the Lebanon War, on a kibbutz in Northern Galilee, after the all-clear siren sounded, Eva emerged from the underground shelter into the bitter, smoke-laden air. Along with the other girls selected for this special task, she walked in silence toward her post at the entrance to the kibbutz; the girls' sandals skimmed the beaten dirt path as they walked, side by side. She was excited to have been chosen—one of several teenage girls who would greet the soldiers, offer them food, a smile, a little encouragement. Unlike the others, she was a recent Israeli, born in America to an Israeli father and American mother. Unlike the others, she was not a child of the village, though she liked to think that someday, once she had proven herself worthy, the village might claim her as its own.
The entrance to the kibbutz, a wide paved stretch of road half a kilometer long, was flanked by a stand of sky-scraping eucalyptus trees planted long ago by the founders, the sturdy forebears of the other girls. In the shadow of the eucalyptus, the girls stopped. Round-eyed and silent as fish, they listened to the eerie hush. It was June in the Galilee, the air ripe with summer fruit, the calls of frogs, sparrows, goats silenced by the rockets that until just a few moments before, split the air, whistling on their way down. Quietly now, their voices sharp against the soundless sky, the girls began to speak, and agreed upon who would stand where. The American-born girl took her post outside the guard shack. She leaned up against the unpainted wood, rough against the back of her bare legs, and eyes closed, listened as slowly, once again, the songs of birds filled the sky.
She stood at her post, one hand shielding her eyes from the glare, and looked up at the Golan Heights, at the caravan of army vehicles snaking its way up and over the mountains and into the hell that Southern Lebanon was fast becoming. She watched and waited for the soldiers, most of them not much older than she was, who would stop at the kibbutz before continuing their journey.
Soon, the soldiers began to arrive, and the air vibrated with the smack and roll of rubber against road, the clanging of metal against metal, the tinny laughter of boys on the verge of something new and exciting and terrifying. One soldier, sitting on top of an armored personnel carrier, tried to catch her eye. She looked up, saw dark hair backlit by the sun, a pair of long legs swinging against the metal flank. The soldier grinned, winked at her. She smiled back and after exchanging a few pleasantries, handed him a packet of food wrapped in brown paper.
When she handed him the packet, their fingers touched. In this moment, unbeknownst to Eva, the soldier imagined taking her small hand in his, climbing down off his Zelda, and still holding her hand, allowing her to lead him to some quiet place, a clearing just on the other side of the trees. The moment passed. Eva retrieved her hand and raising it, waved him forward.
Later, as he crossed the border from home into the unknown, as he moved towards Beaufort Castle where his life would change forever and for no good reason, the soldier would note the bag's contents: two cheese sandwiches, a can of the finest Galilean cider, a packet of slightly stale Osem tea biscuits, two Macintosh apples, and one dented orange. As she promised the many soldiers who pressed slips of paper with phone numbers scrawled in adolescent handwriting into her palms, the girl called to reassure the soldier's mother. He remembered her startling blue eyes, her hesitant Hebrew, and the anklet of tiny white shells encircling her shapely ankle. She remembered him only as one among many, and by the time they met again, she did not remember him at all.
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.
Her youngest brother, the former Jacob Baecker, now Hebraicized to Ya'akov Barak (his chosen surname, the Hebrew word for "lightning") has always been quite the romantic as well as a Zionist, neither of which Friedl would ever be described as being. Given their secular upbringing, their parents' essential Germanness rather than Jewishness, her brother's longing for Zion, and his actual move there as an adolescent pioneer, surprised them all. However prescient she now believes her brother to be, at the time, she thought him daft to leave behind the comforts and excitement of Berlin for the hardships and uncertainty of the Levant.
Friedl might not be a romantic, but she's known her share of romance. In her youth, the former Frieda Baecker was considered a heartbreaker, though she felt fortunate to have met her Albert before her reputation as a woman of mystery had become one of disrepute, which it might have, had other, overly ardent suitors prevailed. She had always liked jaunty hats and well-made clothes that showed her shapely figure, been just a bit vain of her oft-praised milky complexion, blue-black curls and pretty hands. At her debut solo concert at seventeen, the critics used substantially more ink exclaiming the virtues of "Fraulein Baecker's scandalous figure" and "regal profile" than on her playing, though that too garnered praise.
As Friedl passes the looking glass in what will soon no longer be Johann's room, she is startled by what she sees: the gray hair around her hairline frizzed and unkempt, the lips nearly bloodless without a trace of lipstick. She looks like a tired middle-aged woman, which indeed she is, and not at all the way she wants her son to remember her.
Albert will be home soon, and after dinner, together, they will break the news to Johann: Tomorrow, Johann will be on his way to London. Before she goes downstairs, she must be sure to comb her hair, apply a bit of color to her lips and cheeks. She wants Johann to remember her poised and smiling. She wants Johann's last day with them to be a good one, not out of the ordinary, but a calm, happy everyday kind of day, the kind of day he will look back on and feel safe remembering. After what he almost saw in the park a week earlier, that gang of Brownshirts descending upon an elderly couple, she knows the time has come. Even though Johann only glimpsed a moment of what ensued, and heard less (thank goodness she kept her wits about her and quickly pressed the boy's face into her coat, covered his ears with her hands) he trembled all the way home, despite the promise of his favorite cake, Käsetorte mit Sauerkirschen.
The next day, Johann asked her whether the youths in the park had "hurt those people because they were old." She'd had to turn away before answering. "No liebchen," she told him, trying to keep her voice steady. "Not because of their age, but because they were Jews." Later, Albert told her that Johann said that he didn't think they should be Jews anymore. "It's not good for the health," he'd said, to which Albert answered that he supposed that at present, that might seem true, but that being Jewish was a blessing nonetheless.
Friedl Lerner is a woman who can count the number of times she has prayed in her life on one hand. Until recently, she considered religion as a whole and Judaism in particular to be rather backward. Music has been her form of prayer, the concert hall her cathedral. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler—these have been her prophets. Still, she prays now, not in Hebrew nor with any knowledge of the liturgy, but with eyes closed and quietly, under her breath, hands resting on the small green suitcase she will send, along with her boy, to a faraway place she's never been. She does not kneel, knowing this much: Jews do not kneel, and prays that her child will live.
Lee Romer Kaplan, a 2011 Sozopol Fiction Seminar Fellow, spent her early years in Berkeley, California and in northern Israel. While studying at Haifa University, she taught theater and literary arts as conflict mediation tools in a program for Muslim, Jewish and Christian youth. She's performed, written and directed shows with theater companies in the United States, Israel and Europe. In addition to an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, Lee holds a law degree from University of California at Berkeley, and practiced as a civil rights and poverty lawyer before returning to the arts. For now, she lives in New York City, teaches writing at Borough of Manhattan Community College and is on the teaching artist roster at Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Her first novel, The Flight of the Lesser Kestrel, set primarily in Jerusalem during the first Lebanon War, is forthcoming.