The Arc de Triomphe casts its shadow over the sidewalk cafe, in front of the Lido Hotel, where I’ve been seated at a small, round table. I’m watching the crowds of young couples, their arms intertwined, and old shoppers lugging packages, here on the Champs-Elysees.
Decades have passed since I sat on this spot, waiting for Georg, my cousin, who came from Berlin to warn me about mortal danger looming only a few hundred miles away.
That day, a man without legs slowly rolled by, his torso as if nailed to a wooden board. Pushing the sidewalk beneath him, he stopped at my table, cupping his hand, reaching toward me. “I lost my legs in the Great War” proclaimed a cardboard sign hanging from his neck.
So there he is again, the man without legs, but only in my memory. Another war has passed, and Georg, he isn’t coming either. Not this time.
I approach my store on the Kurfurstendamm, the major thoroughfare, lined with cafes, boutiques, and shops serving elegant men and women wrapped in furs. Yesterday, in the Reichstag, as thousands cheered, Adolf Hitler was appointed the leader of his people. What about today?
Walking briskly, then almost running, I see bold writing on the display windows of my store. Can’t make it out yet. But soon I’m standing there, reading. “Jewish Swine Get Out” and “No Jews Wanted Here” and swastikas wherever there is space. In bloody red.
I want to back off, to turn away. But no! I reach for my keys and unlock the front door. I search the shop for rags, fill a bucket with water. I grab a ladder, and now I’m washing the glass clean, clean of the filth of my enemies.
Then I wait. The saleswomen come to sell shoes made to order for ladies of the theater and films, and for wealthy women who like to mingle with the show folk. Shoes made of silk or fine leather, shiny and smooth. The workmen arrive, climbing the stairs to the second floor, where they make shoes by hand.
But where are the customers? Morning turns to afternoon. We are all there, the employees and I, and then Hela, my wife, and Ernst, our little curly top, holding her hand, stop in. No one else. Heads shaking, we file out at dusk. As I lock the door, I hear a crash, the sound of a rock smashing the store window, screams as shards of glass rain on us. I see men and women bleeding, glass penetrating their eyes, Hela shielding Ernst’s small body with her own.
Running footsteps in the dark. A voice shouting and laughing, “Damned Jews!”
“Papa!” cries Ernst. “What happened?”
What happened, indeed. “Maybe it’s time to pack,” I tell Hela as we climb into our car. My hands are shaking on the steering wheel. “We’re not wanted here.”
She is holding the boy on her lap, stroking him, calming him. She nods toward Ernst, and I get the message. Driving home gives me time to think about the future, whether we have one here in Berlin, in Germany.
When she has finished putting Ernst to bed, Hela says, “Your family and mine have lived here for generations. How can we give up everything we’ve worked for? Just pick up and leave?”
After a restless night of whispering, semi-sleeping, a nightmare (for me), and tears for Hela, we decide to wait. How long? A week? A month? A year? We don’t know. Let’s see what happens, we agree.
In the morning, a few customers filter in. No one mentions the broken window, which is replaced by afternoon. Hitler is an unspoken word. A few days later, Ursel and Lotti and Ella, chorus girls, are shopping again. Marlene, the big star, drops in at the end of the week. They pick up shoes they have ordered, or order new ones. Yet each day, when I arrive to open the store, my heart still races.
“We’re Germans,” says my cousin Georg. “You and I fought in the Great War.”
“This, too, shall pass,” says Ida, his German mistress, whom Hitler has wrapped in a new identity. Blond, blue-eyed, she is Aryan now. “I still love you,” she tells Georg, stroking his cheek as we enjoy a Saturday night dinner of pot roast and boiled potatoes smothered in gravy.
The doorbell buzzes frantically. Geiger, one of my workers, looks distraught. “Sorry to disturb you.” He tips his hat to the dinner party. “I just came from the store. I was passing by. All those writings on the windows... they’re back. Also on Herr Polak’s store, and Herr Rosenbaum... his windows were smashed.”
I invite Geiger in, but he declines. “I must rush off,” he says. “It’s late and my wife will worry.” Geiger, an Aryan, is worried too.
“Ida,” I say. “What about ‘This too shall pass?’”
She shakes her head and squeezes Georg’s hand.
Should I rush back to the store and clean the windows again? No. It’s not worth the effort.
That night, Hela and I decide to find an alternative, for our Ernst’s sake. We don’t want him to grow up afraid, hated, or worse. Later that week, thousands of Nazis in brown uniforms, swastikas on their arms, goose step down the Kurfurstendamm, right past my store, their arms extended, shouting “Heil Hitler!” I shiver.
We must get out of Germany, we decide. But where to? We meet in our apartment that evening, Georg, Hela, and I and several of our Jewish friends. Georg wants to bring Ida along, but I feel her presence could stifle the conversation, prevent people from opening up in front of an Aryan. Reluctantly he gives in.
The group thinks Hela and I are overreacting. This is the land of Goethe, of Beethoven, of Kant, of Rothschild, the Jewish banking house, of Jews in the leadership of the Weimar Republic. Our friends are going to stick it out in their homeland, they say. “Besides,” Georg says, “it’s no better anywhere else.”
“There is Palestine,” Hela says suddenly. “The Holy Land. The land of the Jews.”
We all turn and look at my wife. Palestine? Two thousand years have passed since the Jews lived there. “Hela,” I say, “Arabs live there now, and it’s not much more than sand.”
“What would you do in Palestine?” Georg asks.
“I know,” I say. “Sell ladies shoes made to order. Silken shoes, or shiny leather shoes.”
“You can laugh all you want,” Hela says. “Some day you’ll see that I was right, but it will be too late.” Tears appear in her eyes, and I hurry over and put my arms around her.
Within a week I’ve sold the store to Mr. Bialek, a Jew who also thinks I’m overreacting. “All shall be well,” he tells me. I sell the store for much less than it’s worth, to expedite closing this chapter of our lives. And then I’m off to Palestine, “just to see what it’s like” as Hela suggested. She stays behind with little Ernst, until she hears from me, the scout who’ll report when he returns, and then we’ll decide.
We make urgent love that last night, as if we’re bidding good-bye forever. I feel I should be taking my wife and little boy with me, on this long journey by rail and ship to another continent. Yet we have agreed that my going alone, getting a feel for the land, makes more sense.
I wave to them from the window of the train that takes me to France, on the first leg of my journey. They stand there, on the platform, waving and crying, as I do myself, deep inside of me. Now they’re just dots, and then the train chugs around a curve and my Hela and Ernst are out of my sight.
Tel Aviv 1933
The ship docks in Jaffa, an Arabic city, because the new Jewish city of Tel Aviv has no port, and I climb down a rope ladder into a rowboat. One Arab man helps me with this acrobatic exercise, while the other keeps the boat balanced, as more passengers follow.
“Salaam,” says the man who helps me into the boat, which sounds like a greeting because he is smiling.
The luggage soon follows me into the land of the Jews and Arabs. Or maybe it’s the land of Arabs and Jews. There are so many more of them, hundreds of thousands more Arabs than Jews.
This is what Horst, another German Jew, explains on the terrace of the Kaete Dan in Tel Aviv, a small hotel on the shore of the Mediterranean. “They don’t want us here,” he says, stirring sugar into his tea. It’s five o’clock, tea time in Palestine, because the British now rule the country. “The Arabs have been living here since the seventh century, when they followed their prophet out of the Arabian Peninsula.”
“I thought that had all been settled,” I say. “The British let the Jews into the country if the applicant for the Certificate of Entry can prove to be self-supporting. You must know that.”
“Yes,” he says. “But nobody asked the Arabs.”
“Don’t listen to him,” says Kaete Dan, the hotel owner, another German Jew, who joins our conversation. “It’s our country too. Go home and get your family.”
Weeks go by, as I travel around the small country, looking for opportunities that elude me. Tel Aviv, the Hill of Spring, is no Berlin. Ladies don’t wear fancy shoes made to order. I visit a kibbutz, a communal settlement, where little Ernst would be raised by strangers in the Children’s House and see his parents only in the afternoon. I look at the chicken coops and the cows in the pasture, and the sheep and their shepherds. It’s there I would be working, with Hela on duty in the communal kitchen. Then I think of the city where I was born, the hustle and bustle of cars and buses, theaters and cabarets, operas and concerts, men and women fashionably dressed, the car we bought just a year ago, and the language. How will I ever learn the language, this Hebrew?
If not shoes, and no kibbutz, what else can I do? How can I make a living? There’s a lot of construction going on, new apartment houses. The construction workers are doctors and lawyers and teachers and merchants, now in a land where they’re starting anew. And then I’m there, too, in new khaki shorts, an undershirt, and sandals, mixing concrete, turning it into blocks. I’m together with men from Germany, Russia, and Poland, and Lithuania, and other countries, which they left for a better future in what they call the Promised Land. During breaks they talk about how they’re building a new land for their people, and what does it matter what they used to do?
Arabs on camels, their white kefiyas with black cords wrapped around their heads, traverse the sun-beaten sands all around us, like Arabian Nights come alive.
Alone in a furnished room I’ve rented after leaving the hotel, I’m getting ready for the night. Sirens in the distance are coming closer, there’s banging on my door, the landlady, and she motions to the balcony. Flames are shooting into the sky, and we stand there, wordlessly, this old woman and I.
“Arabs,” she says in the morning, a newspaper in her hands. “They don’t want us here.”
On the construction site, we stand around the charred buildings, while Arabs on camels come by and never stop. The foreman tells us, “Yal-la!” which is an Arabic word for “Let’s go.” So we start mixing the cement to turn it into blocks.
I toss in my bed at night, seeking sleep, but finding, instead, Brownshirts marching and new buildings burning. Yet Hela’s weekly letters contain no bad news. Ernst has a new tooth. He keeps asking for me. Sometimes he cries. She loves me and misses me. I think, perhaps things have settled down. Perhaps we should reconsider.
“Germany may not be the place for us,” I write to Hela, “but after a lot of struggle and sleepless nights, I’ve come to the conclusion that Palestine isn’t either. There’ll never be peace between Jews and Arabs. Yet I have no idea where we could go. I’ve thought of America, but they’ve got economic problems there. So I’ll be heading home soon. Let’s discuss other possibilities then.”
A week or so later, a cable arrives from Georg. He is leaving Berlin and wants to meet me in Paris on my way home. I cable back where and when I can be reached in Paris. On the boat to Marseilles, I watch the Promised Land, this disputed sliver of land, recede in the distance, and I think, my God, what next?
The Arc de Triomphe casts its shadows over the sidewalk cafe of the Lido Hotel, where I’ve been seated at a table in the front row, watching the crowds for Georg. He arrives, then, a chunky man, his red hair over his freckled forehead, smiling at me. I rise and we embrace.
In my room, we sit face to face, and Georg tells me he has fled Berlin. Ida is well connected, has a relative in the SS. The Nazis have plans for the Jews. They want Germany to be only for Aryans, Ida told him. They want to cleanse Germany of Jews, like exterminating roaches from a house. It’s get out or die, she said. So he is stopping in Paris on his way to Holland, to warn me.
I gasp. “When... when is this going to happen?”
“Not today, not tomorrow,” Georg says. “But they’re making plans.”
Making plans. Another Spanish Inquisition. Burning at the stake. Again.
“Don’t even go back to Berlin,” he says, his light blue eyes looking at me intensely. “Bring Hela and Ernst to Paris. She is ready to pack, to take all the money out of the bank, take the child, and get on the train. Just call her up. And watch what you say.”
“Have you told anybody else what Ida has said?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “but without mentioning her name. She could get in trouble.”
“And what did they say?”
“Nobody believes me.” He shrugs. “It’s always simpler to do nothing.”
We talk about his plans. Why Holland? He has Dutch friends who will help him get settled. What about Ida? She’s staying behind, where she feels she belongs. She will try to visit him in Amsterdam. After all, Holland is just across the border.
“I often wonder,” Georg says. “The Bible tells us we’re the ‘Chosen People.’ Chosen for what? Persecution? Extermination?”
I have no answers.
Georg rises. His train for Amsterdam leaves in an hour. We were children together. Will we ever see each other again? I take him to the station, where we relive moments from our common past, as we wait for his train to arrive. When it pulls in, he finds his car and we embrace once more. I thank him for having made this special trip to Paris; he may well have saved the lives of my little family. We wish each other good luck. “And safety,” George says. As he steps into the car, he turns and shouts, “Auf Wiedersehen! Till we meet again!”
Soon I’m at the train station once more, and there they are, my Hela and Ernst, stepping off the train from Berlin to the platform, where I stand, waving to them, then hugging and kissing them, taking the suitcases from the porter.
“Papa! Papa!” Ernst shouts. He’s only three years old, but he says, “I don’t believe it. My Papa!”
Hela joins me at the table on the sidewalk. The passing years, life in the hot sun of Palestine, now Israel, have taken their toll. Her dark, wavy hair has turned white, furrows on her once lovely face. As for me, instead of making fancy shoes, I repaired sandals. I reached my prime on the Kurfurstendamm, when I was only thirty years old. But my family and I are alive, thank God, spared annihilation.
Returning to Paris had been Hela’s idea. Visiting the hotel, walking on the Champs-Elysees, driving out to Saint Cloud. “Remember when we lived on that second floor, in those rooms in the farmhouse. It had no kitchen, and I cooked on the toilet seat cover?”
“So when you cooked, we couldn’t go to the bathroom.” I nod, smiling. “It wasn’t funny then,” I say, remembering how I sold shoes door-to-door, until the French said, “Voila, time is up. Your visa has expired.”
And so, two years after arriving in France, we wandered once more, hopefully for the last time. It was to the land of the JewsJews and Arabswhere I knew there would never be peace, but where Hela and I decided we would be among our own.
Ernst is no longer little, but married, with children of his own, and living in America. We, in our retirement, are revisiting the past. After Paris comes Berlin.
Today, at our little round table, Hela and I tell each other how we wished Georg could be here with us, at this cafe, to which he once came to save our lives. We recall a day in May, 1940, when we and some friends were gathered around the short-wave radio in our apartment in Tel Aviv. We heard the guttural sounds of the Radio Berlin announcer reporting that his Fuehrer’s troops were marching into Holland. Georg, who had sought a haven there, soon would be wearing a yellow Star of David, to proclaim his identity, his vulnerability, as he walked the streets of Amsterdam.
Yes, what about Georg? And Ida?
We shall visit them, too. At the memorial in Auschwitz.