Despite the basement room’s damp November cold, the boy dripped with sweat. His breath fogged out in gasps as he rocked, face huddled between spindly knees that peeked out through his threadbare trousers like two dim streetlamps in an otherwise dark alley. He’d drawn himself into a ball, hugging his legs so tightly with his stick-like arms that the tips of his dirty fingers had gone white.
He’d already seen more than a twelve-year-old should have to witness, let alone process.
He grasped the individual details of the scene, many of which were by themselves familiar: the table, the flickering bare bulb dangling from the ceiling as if on an umbilical cord, his father’s sharp and varied tools.
They’d been familiar sights, but when his father had moved aside, no longer obscuring the boy’s field of view—that was when the whole had become incomprehensibly greater than the sum of its parts. That was when his heart leapt out of his skinny chest, commanding the scuffed leather-clad feet to run, run, RUN!
And he had run. Back to the empty basement storeroom, with stone walls that sweated in the summer and radiated cold in the winter. He’d spent more time down here in the basement, as the weather had grown colder, rainier, and more dismal. Since it was no longer possible to play outside in the building’s small, dingy courtyard, he’d turned the mostly empty building into a personal playground. From nooks like his current subterranean roost, up to the attic rooms whose small dormer windows, reached eagerly en point, provided a glimpse of occasional passersby on the narrow cobblestone street below—the boy knew the limestone-faced building inside-out.
Now, he drew closer to the building’s main sewage pipe, which provided faint warmth that always comforted, as long as he didn’t dwell on its origin. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near his father’s workshop in the sub-basement, the equivalent of several floors below his current refuge. “Never pass this door, do you understand? Promise me.” His father had made him promise, out loud.
And he never did pass the heavy metal door with the symbol engraved on it, which led to the brightly lit staircase curving so steeply down. But at twelve years old, with no people around, he was lonely and bored, not to mention relentlessly curious. It hadn’t taken him long to find the wide ventilation ducts that let him move surreptitiously throughout the building, down to the basement where he now hid, and even to the massive sub-basement. Today, the workshop door had been left open—irresistibly so—just wide enough for a small eye to peer through the crack....
His breathing slowed and he raised his brown-curled head tentatively, opening first one eye, then the other, checking the safety of his surroundings. The small stone storage room sat empty, and he was alone. For now.
He’d been alone the first months, too. Father had not had any time for him, between long hours in his workshop and seemingly constant dealings with the man who came several times a day, regal and straight-backed in his black woolen overcoat, fedora, leather gloves, and silver lapel pin that bore the same strange symbol as the door. Father always showed the man respect and gratitude, and made the boy do the same, because if they were polite and worked hard, the man would bring Mother. She’d been left behind in Terezin, but remained warm and secure.
The beginnings of a smile budded on the boy’s chapped lips. Soon, at least, he wouldn’t be alone. More people would come. They always did. He liked meeting them, these new people. They were kind, and hopeful, and they told stories with funny accents, which he sometimes couldn’t understand, and had strange clothes and smells. He rose to his full height, brushed the dust from the seat of his trousers, and started toward the door.
As he left the room, he turned and looked back, the light of childlike curiosity just beginning to eclipse his dark visage. He imagined the room full again with voices, smells, and hopes. Yes, he thought, now smiling fully, new people would make it so much better.
Chapter 1 – Sweetness
Prague, December 1991
A rickety tram wiggled by, its unpainted metal roof mismatched to its red paneled sides. Dual headlights peered through the early darkness like serpentine eyes as it emerged from under the building and rumbled by Vanesa Neuman. From her perch in the shadows of the four columns of the Church of the Holy Savior, the squeal of the tram’s wheels, muted by a crunchy dusting of snow, quickly faded with its passing. Only the sharp smell of electricity from the tangle of overhead wires remained, as if to preserve its memory.
For Prague in 1991 was a like a memory, she told me before she even left Tel Aviv—and not a good memory. She’d never been to the city, and had never intended to come. She’d heard all she needed to hear over the years from her father. She knew what she needed to know, and had never once felt a need to learn more about the city. All her life, she’d heard of Prague’s beauty, Prague’s mystique, Prague’s rich history, Prague’s breathtaking architecture, Prague’s insidious betrayal, and Prague’s slow downward spiral from discrimination, through persecution, into inhuman realms of misery, pain, and death.
No thank you, she’d thought. No need to see this place.
Yet here she was, and damn it, he was late. She must be in the right place, for there was only one Church of the Holy Savior in Prague, on Krizovnicka Street, across from the iconic Charles Bridge. He was supposed to meet her right here, in the shelter of the church’s massive columns, at five o’clock. The impassive eyes of the six marble statues above Vanesa, white-cloaked in fresh snow, gazed disdainfully down at her. It was already five-thirty, and almost fully dark. Still she, and the statues, waited.
Huddled deep into dark coats and scarves, pedestrians flowed by. Streetlights flickered on, as did the gay Christmas decorations strung between the lampposts, throwing shadows dangerously into the paths of oncoming Skodas.
Vanesa pressed deeper underneath the meager shelter that the columns afforded. They loomed over her, heavy, their menace unabated by the veneer of holiday cheer that draped the city. She pulled her long wool coat tighter around her petite frame, and tugged the hat further down over her ears, making her dark curls stand out at crazy angles. Still she shivered, stamping her booted feet halfheartedly in a futile attempt to warm them.
She’d never really known actual cold. In a lifetime of nearly year-round Tel Aviv sunshine, cold—at least biting cold, like Prague’s December air—was an unknown commodity. Tel Aviv cold nipped lightly at you. The Golan Heights cold, which she’d encountered in her army service, snapped at your chin, numbed your earlobes and toes. The damp Jerusalem cold could actually get into your bones. Prague cold, however, clamped right down and gnawed on you, like a Piranha going after aquarium-dipped fingertips.
She hadn’t wanted to come, she told me, to this land where her parents’ family had lived for over 500 years, to this land from which some 85% of Jews were eradicated at places she’d read about, or heard mentioned in hushed Czech whispers when her father spoke to friends or customers at the shop.
“Of course I remember Luba!” either he or the friend would gush, confronted with a just-discovered mutual acquaintance. This elation inevitably preceded an understanding blink, a subtle nod in her direction, and a lowering of eyes, as either one or the other knowingly whispered the words—usually “Auschwitz,” but sometimes “Maly Trostenets,” “Sobibor,” “Izbice,” or simply “the transports.”
She’d come to Prague not out of want, but out of need—a need that led her to wait on this frozen street corner to meet a man she only knew through Uncle Tomas, and who’s gravelly, authoritative voice she’d only heard briefly over a scratchy international telephone line. She needed to make sense of her father’s dying gift, to fill in the vast empty space that was his life during the war. She needed to put some sort of face on this man who had raised her after her mother died—a face not lit by gaudy Tel Aviv sunshine, but rather by the same fading, winter-gray Bohemian light that currently lit her own face.
She sighed. Her primary contact in Prague was a no-show, leaving her the lone actor in a slowly-fading street scene.
A tram lumbers by, she narrated to herself, attempting to alleviate her boredom and forget the cold. A faulty streetlight flickers. Tourists straggle off the Charles Bridge, closely followed by artists lugging wares in cleverly-designed carts. Another tram, this one with a squeaky wheel. Cue more cars. Cue pedestrians. Enter boy on a bike, slipping in the patchy snow. Fewer and fewer pedestrians now. Finally, following an agonizingly slow fade, the spots darken, the street grows silent. The curtain falls.
At six-fifteen, she gave up and turned to walk the half kilometer back to her hotel next to Old Town Square. Halfway down Platnerska Street, she could already see the mismatched twin spires of the St. Nicholas Cathedral peeking from above the buildings and leafless trees. Her footsteps, squeaking occasionally on the patches of foot-packed snow, had begun to echo on the deserted street.
Unlike in the movies, she told me later, she’d never even heard another set of footsteps. She’d never spotted a shadowy figure trailing her, had never seen a suspicious car with a figure in a dark hat glancing furtively in her direction as it glided by. She was simply walking one second, and being pulled into the alley the next second.
Two men, both bald, both in high, black, military-style boots, grabbed her. One stank of garlic; the other reeked of alcohol, likely vodka. Once off the street, Garlic grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms behind her back, his rank breath on her neck. Vodka clamped a cold hand over her mouth. They ignored her admirable yet futile attempts at resistance, pulling her deeper into the alley and through a low doorway into what had to be a garbage room, based on the ripe stench. A metal-grated door clanged shut, abruptly cutting off any remnants of city sounds audible over Vanesa’s silent struggling.
When her father told her that her mother had died, alone at night in the off-green sterility of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, Vanesa had not cried. Neither had she cried at the funeral, nor during the shiva—the traditional seven-day period of mourning. She’d never been an “emotional girl,” she told me, because she’d always known—and frequently been reminded—that whatever her current tribulations, they paled in comparison with her parents’ experiences. What right had she, a girl who’d always had clothes to wear and food on her plate, to complain to two Holocaust survivors... about anything? Who was she to mourn a lost toy, a stubbed toe, an insult, even a single death, when her childhood memories were as populated by the ghosts of her parents’ past as by living souls?
“So, from a young age, I fought epic battles with tears,” she said. She’d won, but it had been a Pyrrhic victory. The tears, once defeated, were disinclined to return, even when needed.
Only Uncle Tomas had managed to elicit a dribble of tears from the dry well of twelve-year-old Vanesa. Uncle Tomas, with his wool coat that had in those years always smelled vaguely of carrion, and the fading blue-black number on his forearm that she’d long ago committed to memory—A-25379. His stiff Germanic manner was, she believed, only a frozen exoskeleton that the Mediterranean sun had not yet thawed. Her father seemed to alternately despise and grudgingly admire Uncle Tomas, always keeping him at arm’s length, but never farther. Despite his family status as closest living relative, Uncle Tomas wasn’t really even a relative, but rather her grandfather’s business partner, co-owner of the cramped shop on Nahalat Binyamin Street in south Tel Aviv’s working-class Florentine neighborhood.
Nor had the tears returned of their own volition when her grandfather Jakub died four years later. They’d found him slumped over his workbench in the dingy back room of the shop, a single bare bulb reflected in the stainless steel scraping tool he still clutched in one hand, his forehead resting lightly on his other hand.
Again, only in the comfort of Uncle Tomas’ stiff embrace could she mourn, as if he held some secret key to the floodgates of her grief. Thankfully, he had always been beneficent in his duties as gatekeeper.
If her parents were closed books, her grandfather had been to Vanesa a locked library, a restricted section cordoned off with gaily painted steel mesh that was superficially decorative but ultimately foreboding. Vanesa had never met a more silent person, yet he always smiled sweetly when she waltzed into the shop after school on her way home, the family apartment being just one floor above. He would look up from whatever he was scraping, stretching, or trimming, with a distracted smile, as if he’d forgotten something and her arrival had pleasantly jogged his memory—a vague “aha!” moment. Then he would lower his head, wordlessly turning back to his work, leaving her to poke around the shop until she found the piece of hard candy he placed in a different hiding place each day.
“It was like I learned, both in the shop and in my life, to look past the silence and find the sweetness,” she told me.
But no sweetness could be found in what Vodka and Garlic did to Vanesa in that dark Prague garbage room, just as there had been no sweetness whatsoever in the untimely death of her father at age 60, just six months previously.
No sweetness, and still no tears.
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