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248
Published
14 March 2016

Adi Landau's Pearls

This is the story of a pair of pearl earrings, narrated by several generations. Story that starts from the Jewish ghetto in Vienna, passes through magnificent Ringstrasse palaces, a small mountain village in the Alps, the war-torn Europe, the concentration camp called "Kaylaka" and the rural town of Ferdinand. History of women and men, Jewish merchants and Austrian nobility, soldiers of the German Reich and Bulgarian partisans, a Viennese boy and a Sofia girl. The beginning is in the distant past, and the end - in the near future.

This is a story of the relentless vortex of time that imperceptibly turns people into heroes or victims, and often in both heroes and victims. Reflection on the choice and freedom. This is the way of people who hope and fear, who run away and get together - and everything is so accidental, and actually never is... accidental.

About the Author
Sonya  Todorova

Sonya Todorova was born in 1979 in Sofia, Bulgaria. She studied in a German language school and graduated from the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy in Sofia. After five years of academic research at the Vienna University of Technology, she was awarded a doctoral degree in Advanced Geodesy.

All along, Sonya Todorova enjoyed writing short stories. Since 2010, she has been working as a freelance translator and is a contributing writer for the Bulgarian magazine “Jenata Dnes” (“The Woman of Today”). Her first book, “A Concise and Practical Guide to Survival for Families with Small Children and Others in Sofia” (Colibri, 2015), is a humorous, yet sharp social study of present-day life in her hometown and was nominated for the Outstanding Cultural Achievement Award of Sofia Municipality. Her debut novel, “Adi Landau’s Pearls”, was published in March, 2016. It was nominated for the 2016 “Helikon” Book Award for New Bulgarian Prose and shortlisted for the 2016 “Peroto” Award for Contribution to the Bulgarian Literary Context.

Sonya lives in Vienna with her family and is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Excerpt

Vienna, November 24, 1667

“You shouldn’t have taken them, Adi.” Hava Landau looked at the earrings her husband Adi had silently slipped into her hand. Her expression was one of anxiety rather than delight. “If it was money, sure, take it. But this … You know very well that people’ll start talking – that you stole them, that you abused a poor Christian’s misfortune, that he gave them to you so you don’t suck the lifeblood out of his son ...”
“He has no children, he’s here on his own,” Adi Landau added grimly as he tried to push a stray hen out of the kitchen with his foot.
“Alright then, the lifeblood out of his nephew or his mule, or his unborn child, what have you. Give them back to him, Adi, we don’t need things like that in the house, these earrings’ll only bring us bad luck. Here, take them, I don’t even want to hold them in my hand. There’ve been scuffles again last night, some merchants from town complained about some of ours, chased them down the streets, one of them had a stick ... Resl told me when I went over this morning. We barely see each other anymore, Aaron has forbidden her to go out alone. But I thought I’d take a few of those new furs from Prague to show her. If she likes them, we can make a deal – the Lucernas are literally swimming in money nowadays, probably because Aaron isn’t paying all his taxes, otherwise I don’t see how …  Adi, are you listening to me at all?”
Adi was fingering the earrings, lost in thought.
“Give them back, you say. Then how’s he going to pay his debt?”
“He won’t pay it, Adi, and it won’t be our first time. Please, give them back.”
The next morning the merchant Adi Landau walked toward the wooden shacks scattered along the length of ditch that had been dug in front of the fortress wall. The thick, jagged fortress encompassed the capital of the German nation’s Holy Roman Empire. On this side of the wall, the German nation was represented mainly by poor people, shivering with cold, entire families of them coming from all corners of the Empire in search of sustenance in Vienna. The wall itself had been built already, although it still needed some work. Several other construction sites were springing up over town. “It makes you wonder,” Adi thought as he walked on in the cold, windy morning, “how could one be expected to have the desire and the enthusiasm to build a magnificent palace in the new Baroque style, when one lives in a shack hammered together from planks salvaged from the river?” 

***

Adi’s long winter kaftan swept the dust along the filthy walkway that twisted around the pit where the fortress was being built. The wind whistled in his ears, carrying the rotten smell of burned trash, potato peels and unclean bodies, the familiar stench of poverty. Many years later, the proud Ringstrasse would pass through here, the splendid crown of the Empire’s mighty capital. In about two centuries, close to what was now a row of reeking shacks, the University, the Opera, the Parliament building and the City Hall would appear. As would the marvelous city palaces of the amazingly rich families of aristocrats and industrialists, among them the Jewish Rothchild, Ephrussi, Koenigswarter, Epstein ... But this would be later, now the outside of the fortress wall towered over the shanty town where the construction workers and their families lived.  
Gloomy, emaciated faces peered out of the windows. At the look of Adi Landau’s large hat and long, curly beard, their eyes filled with fear and contempt. It made no difference that the requirement of sewing a yellow piece of cloth on the outer garments was reversed over forty years earlier. “And rightfully so” Adi was thinking, “why waste fabric and spoil clothes when people know and hate a Jew as soon as they lay eyes on him?”  
The hefty, calm and collected Adi Landau had almost become accustomed to this attitude and kept his composure. He walked through the icy November morning without looking around too much. And yet, these simple-minded peasant faces, the faces of people he had never harmed, on the contrary, to be fair, he was, in fact, helping them – how many of them actually paid their debts? One out of three? And how many of them remembered to use words like “please” or “thank you!”? Maybe just one, and it was a woman, so it didn’t count. But Adi Landau was used to this and controlled himself. Until a bunch of grimy, frozen children started running around his feet, yelling insults at him and pulling at his kaftan. Adi stopped, bent down to look the most insolent of the kids in the eye, bared his teeth and growled “Boo!” The children fled, crying and screaming, while Adi went on his way, trying to hide his guilty satisfaction.

***

Vienna, August 1938 – February 1941

It was now the Landau family’s turn to cross the yard hauling suitcases and a wall clock. Lita carried only a linen bag with her book and a few of her gardening tools. The thin, but sturdy and strong Ravid dragged two suitcases, several rolled-up blankets and his big backpack stuffed full of papers and kitchenware.
Ravid was supporting Adina, who was loaded with canvas bags and the clock. He looked absurdly cheerful as he encouraged his two girls to walk with their backs straight. Dazed with anxiety, fatigue and fear, he found it ominously comic that the ancient family history, shoved out of sight and out of mind for so long, was repeating itself. In the exact same way, even along the same streets. “What an idiot I was to think all this was over and done with. Modern times, I said to myself, humanism and enlightenment, civilization and the triumph of the will. We are part of the whole, we fought for our country, educated ourselves for it, we work for it and love it, we’re far beyond reproach. So we live happily in a big apartment full of books and tea sets, with a beautiful garden, warm food and clothes, even with house help. And all this time, the canvas bags were sitting in the corner, smiling maliciously, silently mocking our gullible stupidity. They sat there, waiting for my time to come, when I’d fill them up with passports, pots and pans and drag them down the street, banished. With all my university degrees, years of salaries and paying taxes, my goddamn backpack outsmarted me!” These were the thoughts going through Ravid’s head, making it difficult for him to conceal his compulsive laughter. He walked vigorously on, leading his family down Taborstrasse, the very same street his great-great-great grandparents Hava and Adi had fled one terrifying night, half-dressed, with their bags and a couple of hens tucked under their arms.
The Landau’s former neighbors passed them in the street and guiltily looked away when Ravid greeted them with an ecstatic, theatrical politeness:
“Hello, how are you today, Herr Ebner? Nice weather, isn’t it? We decided, with Frau and Fraulein here, as you can see, to take a walk in the neighborhood with the suitcases.”
By now, Ravid was laughing out loud and looking scarier by the minute.
Herr Ebner nodded hastily and walked on by, slouching, with a miserable little smile, his chin buried in the collar of his shirt. Adina, who walked beside her husband with a perfectly frozen, expressionless look on her face, pulled Ravid’s sleeve and whispered in his ear:
“He’s scared, too, Ravi, stop it, please, it’s embarrassing.”
Ravid laughed sarcastically and made a right into Glockensgasse, past the law offices of Dr. Kantor Gross, where the shutters had been closed for several weeks already. That evening, Adina, Lita and Ravid Landau moved into the shared quarters at 14, Glockensgasse, in Vienna’s Second District, a few blocks from their old apartment. The building was decrepit and filthy. The apartment had two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The families Wasserstein, Silberblat and Halevi had already moved in, along with Mrs. Silberblat’s three cats – Katzi, Matzi and Shatzi. Lita was the only child in the quarters. The Silberblats and the Halevis had one room, the three Landaus were to share the other one with Frau and Herr Wasserstein. There was a schedule for using the kitchen and the bathroom, while Katzi, Matzi and Shatzi lived wherever they chose and the whole apartment smelled of cats. With the belongings of all four families, the apartment was crammed, to say the least. Fortunately, it had a small courtyard and Lita was allowed to play outside, quietly. She immediately took to sprucing it up, which was not easy – the courtyard was dark and cold, its soil much too dry. Lita followed the gardening tips in the The Vienna Gardening Illustrated and decided on ivy and succulents, mostly sedum and sempervivums.
Life in the common quarters was uncomfortable and very stressful. The adults were sullen and anxious. None of them went to work anymore. Only Leoni Wasserstein, who was a dressmaker, was always seeing clients in the shared room and then rattling away on her sewing machine late into the night. The monotonous hum of the Singer and the gloomy light put Lita to sleep, but terribly annoyed Ravid, who had been unusually hostile as of late. Unlike him, Adina confronted the inconveniences with dignity. She took care of the household, as far as that was possible in the jam-packed 14 Glockensgasse, she listened to Lita’s gardening woes and tried to keep something of a proper tone and a spirit of mutual understanding in the living quarters. In the present conditions of poorly concealed fear, cat stench and sudden poverty, however, her efforts yielded little to no results. More and more often, Lita would find her mother simply staring into the space before her. Around about that time, much to the surprise of Lita with her lighthearted agnostic upbringing, Adina suddenly started keeping the Sabbath.

***

Poland, February – March 1941

One afternoon, about a month after their arrival in Opole, Ravid returned to barrack 326, unsuccessfully trying to hide a triumphant smile. He pulled Adina outside. Lita could see them through the window, facing each other, Ravid excitedly explaining something. When they came back in, Adina looked like she’d been crying.
That same night, Ravid secretly left the barrack.
“That’s the way it is, Mr. Landau,” Anton Oberle spoke very quietly and kept looking around nervously. “We can try to get your wife and the girl out, but for you it would be too dangerous. Women don’t flee alone very often, so they’re not followed that closely. If you go with them, you may manage to get out of the ghetto, but at the crack of dawn they’ll set out with the dogs to look for you. And with this snow, you won’t get far enough to escape them.” 
“You’re probably right. But I’m sure you understand, I can’t leave them by themselves,” whispered Ravid. “They’ll need help to get out of here – the guards, the fencing, the dogs ...”
“The guards shouldn’t even see them. I’ll lead them through the basement of the big warehouse and I’ll be on the lookout until they’re at a safe distance. I know it’s a hard decision, but you have to take it now, I don’t want to risk seeing you again.”
Ravid’s fingers toyed with a protruding branch, his mind racing.
“Is it dangerous?” he asked after a moment.
“Well, it’s not safe,” Oberle replied. “But we can take advantage of the circumstances. It’s a mess now with all the newcomers, it turns out there are too few guards and they haven’t reassigned their duties yet. And besides, I have another bottle of Ukrainian vodka in my bag, and none of those on duty at the warehouse know that my birthday is not in March. In other words, it’s dangerous, yes, but I think it’s worth a try. And now is the time, it’ll get more complicated later. As for you, I could try to arrange a different way, but I’ll need something valuable.”
“Now we’re talking,” thought Ravid with disgust. But out loud he said, “Herr Oberle, you’re young and maybe have no family of your own yet, but please put yourself in my shoes. We’re talking here about my wife and daughter – the most valuable thing I have in this world. I have one other thing, of less importance. A pair of old earrings with precious stones, the only valuables I managed to salvage from my previous life. I’ll give them to you if you guarantee to do everything possible to save my girls without failing. But if you are proposing to do this only to make a profit ...”
“I understand what you’re thinking, sir, but this is not the case. You see, I ...” Something rustled in the bushes behind them. The two men started, looked anxiously about and took cover in the dark shadows. There was nobody there.
“Please, Herr Oberle,” Ravid was whispering again. “Please be honest with me! For God’s sake, man, please tell me, is there actually a chance for us to get them out of here!?”
“Listen to me, Herr Landau. It’s the duty of every good Christian …err… human being, it’s the duty of every human being to protect the life of their fellow man without expecting a reward. Keep your earrings, I don’t need them. They’ll be useful to you and your family somewhere along the way. These are bad times, bad for you, bad for us.”
Ravid looked at him in dismay. Oberle went on:
“It’s terrifying for you now, I know, don’t get me wrong. But your people are used to this, you’ll get through it, you’ll survive somehow and move on. You see, for us … how we’ll get out of this muck, how’ll we look at ourselves in the mirror and what we’ll say to our children one day, this I don’t know … What I suggest is this. Tomorrow night, at 11 p.m. on the dot, I’ll wait for your wife and daughter in front of the warehouse. You decide if they come or not, but I sincerely advise you not to accompany them. I’ll try to get you out later on as well, but I’ll need at least one of the earrings for that. An escape would be extremely risky for you, so I’ll try to buy your safety from the superintendent at least for the first few hours after you leave the ghetto. If I don’t manage to do that, I’ll give you back the earring, I don’t need it. Because, Herr Landau, I’m not doing any of this in the hope of making a profit. I’m not even doing it for you or your people. It’s for myself that I’m doing it. Because, Herr Landau, I’ve been losing sleep for weeks now – my conscience is eating me alive. That’s what it is.”   
   At that very moment, in the darkness of the small alleyway by the fence of the Polish ghetto, Ravid decided to trust this small, energetic, candid young man. To trust him implicitly. They planned everything for the following evening and parted ways, Anton with a small purple pouch in his hand, which contained one of the old pearl earrings Ravid’s father had passed on to him.
The following night, Lita and Adina secretly left barrack 326, never to come back. Lita carried her pet rat Gustav under her shirt and Adina had a miniature bundle tucked in her left stocking. It contained the other pearl earring. Ravid stayed in the ghetto and had nothing left.

***

Sofia, December 2014

On Christmas Day, for a number of reasons (sunny weather, mass disgust with jingling bells and reindeer, the approximate anniversary of the death of Margie’s maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, a common soft spot for the location, etc., and the kids could use a walk) the entire family met in front of the church of the Sofia Central Cemetery, which was drenched in bright December sunshine. There was no snow yet, it was almost warm outside and the rare visitors who walked the lanes for their own personal reasons wished each other a Merry Christmas in passing. Margie’s parents quickly showed the group the three family graves, all of them in close proximity to the church. The children dragged big sticks and ran about, laughing. Margie’s father mentioned that he had recently located the grave of his maternal grandparents. Nobody was in a hurry, a full thermos of tea and homemade shortbread biscuits were at their disposal, so they all decided to go on an expedition to the Jewish part of the cemetery.
As they walked down Resurrection Lane, trying to prevent their younger child from diving into the ditch that ran along it, Margie and Finn stopped before some of the tombstones. They pointed out interesting or familiar names and observed some of the strange-looking monuments. At one point, to their surprise, they both realized that a large part of the dead whose cenotaphs caught their eye were in fact their age, or just slightly older. Of course, it was normal for the grave marker of a young person to be more elaborate and striking, as a reflection of their families’ shock. Margie looked at her parents’ backs as they walked ahead, called out to her children to be careful running with their sticks along the uneven ground, and suddenly felt that, on this sunny morning, she and Finn, utterly unaware, had crossed some invisible line. A thin, easy-to-miss border, one that appears gently and calmly, kindly, yet without mercy – the line that marks the middle of the road. Margie smiled at this rather sentimental notion, most probably provoked by all the Christmas and family business. And so what – the middle of the road was a perfectly adequate place to be. Stand up straight, call out to the kids one more time and walk on.
Meanwhile, they’d reached the perpendicular lane that divided the Bulgarian from the Jewish part of the cemetery and the landscape changed in an unusual way. In the beginning, Margie couldn’t figure out what exactly was different. Apart from the fact that names like Georgiev and Dimanova had given way to Arié or Niño. One of the things that stood out in all the Jewish graveyards she had seen were the names – they were the same everywhere. Names that bring about a feeling of community and difference, of ancient knowledge and a meticulously guarded secret. But also of a thin, fading line, which runs through Europe, connecting two parts of the continent that seem worlds apart. From the lavish Gothic graveyard looking out on the Mediterranean, inhabited by countless standoffish Barcelona cats, through the straight, tidy lanes under the Munich drizzle, to the rather scary-looking crooked gravestones you can catch a glimpse of through the elevated stone fence if you’re not willing to pay the entrance fee demanded by the Municipality of Prague for their Old Jewish Cemetery. The strange names that pop up here and there among the usual surnames for a given location, always standing out from the rest in their foreignness – Pinkas, Alevi, Behor, Delareya … And yes, the names were different, but there was also something else. The Jewish part of the Sofia Central Cemetery lacked the eternal tranquility the other part, dank and overgrown with ivy and bushes, emitted. The living, with their sporadic sloppiness, had left no traces here, no withered or dried-up flowers, no plastic plates and leftover food, no extinguished candles and cigarette butts poking out of the soil. The Jewish part looked bizarrely open and unprotected, simultaneously twisting and still, somehow frozen in the warm sun, as if its dead were more dead than the rest. The gravestones were tightly packed and the writing on them was diverse – mostly Bulgarian, often with the old script, but also in Hebrew, in German and in a strange kind of Spanish – Ladino, as Margie found out it was called when she Googled it later that evening. And the headstones, the monuments, the graves, even the lanes running between them were so crooked, tilted at every possible angle, some bulging out of the earth, others sinking into it, that the whole area resembled a shrapnel-riddled battlefield.

Vienna, November 24, 1667

“You shouldn’t have taken them, Adi.” Hava Landau looked at the earrings her husband Adi had silently slipped into her hand. Her expression was one of anxiety rather than delight. “If it was money, sure, take it. But this … You know very well that people’ll start talking – that you stole them, that you abused a poor Christian’s misfortune, that he gave them to you so you don’t suck the lifeblood out of his son ...”
“He has no children, he’s here on his own,” Adi Landau added grimly as he tried to push a stray hen out of the kitchen with his foot.
“Alright then, the lifeblood out of his nephew or his mule, or his unborn child, what have you. Give them back to him, Adi, we don’t need things like that in the house, these earrings’ll only bring us bad luck. Here, take them, I don’t even want to hold them in my hand. There’ve been scuffles again last night, some merchants from town complained about some of ours, chased them down the streets, one of them had a stick ... Resl told me when I went over this morning. We barely see each other anymore, Aaron has forbidden her to go out alone. But I thought I’d take a few of those new furs from Prague to show her. If she likes them, we can make a deal – the Lucernas are literally swimming in money nowadays, probably because Aaron isn’t paying all his taxes, otherwise I don’t see how …  Adi, are you listening to me at all?”
Adi was fingering the earrings, lost in thought.
“Give them back, you say. Then how’s he going to pay his debt?”
“He won’t pay it, Adi, and it won’t be our first time. Please, give them back.”
The next morning the merchant Adi Landau walked toward the wooden shacks scattered along the length of ditch that had been dug in front of the fortress wall. The thick, jagged fortress encompassed the capital of the German nation’s Holy Roman Empire. On this side of the wall, the German nation was represented mainly by poor people, shivering with cold, entire families of them coming from all corners of the Empire in search of sustenance in Vienna. The wall itself had been built already, although it still needed some work. Several other construction sites were springing up over town. “It makes you wonder,” Adi thought as he walked on in the cold, windy morning, “how could one be expected to have the desire and the enthusiasm to build a magnificent palace in the new Baroque style, when one lives in a shack hammered together from planks salvaged from the river?” 

***

Adi’s long winter kaftan swept the dust along the filthy walkway that twisted around the pit where the fortress was being built. The wind whistled in his ears, carrying the rotten smell of burned trash, potato peels and unclean bodies, the familiar stench of poverty. Many years later, the proud Ringstrasse would pass through here, the splendid crown of the Empire’s mighty capital. In about two centuries, close to what was now a row of reeking shacks, the University, the Opera, the Parliament building and the City Hall would appear. As would the marvelous city palaces of the amazingly rich families of aristocrats and industrialists, among them the Jewish Rothchild, Ephrussi, Koenigswarter, Epstein ... But this would be later, now the outside of the fortress wall towered over the shanty town where the construction workers and their families lived.  
Gloomy, emaciated faces peered out of the windows. At the look of Adi Landau’s large hat and long, curly beard, their eyes filled with fear and contempt. It made no difference that the requirement of sewing a yellow piece of cloth on the outer garments was reversed over forty years earlier. “And rightfully so” Adi was thinking, “why waste fabric and spoil clothes when people know and hate a Jew as soon as they lay eyes on him?”  
The hefty, calm and collected Adi Landau had almost become accustomed to this attitude and kept his composure. He walked through the icy November morning without looking around too much. And yet, these simple-minded peasant faces, the faces of people he had never harmed, on the contrary, to be fair, he was, in fact, helping them – how many of them actually paid their debts? One out of three? And how many of them remembered to use words like “please” or “thank you!”? Maybe just one, and it was a woman, so it didn’t count. But Adi Landau was used to this and controlled himself. Until a bunch of grimy, frozen children started running around his feet, yelling insults at him and pulling at his kaftan. Adi stopped, bent down to look the most insolent of the kids in the eye, bared his teeth and growled “Boo!” The children fled, crying and screaming, while Adi went on his way, trying to hide his guilty satisfaction.

***

Vienna, August 1938 – February 1941

It was now the Landau family’s turn to cross the yard hauling suitcases and a wall clock. Lita carried only a linen bag with her book and a few of her gardening tools. The thin, but sturdy and strong Ravid dragged two suitcases, several rolled-up blankets and his big backpack stuffed full of papers and kitchenware.
Ravid was supporting Adina, who was loaded with canvas bags and the clock. He looked absurdly cheerful as he encouraged his two girls to walk with their backs straight. Dazed with anxiety, fatigue and fear, he found it ominously comic that the ancient family history, shoved out of sight and out of mind for so long, was repeating itself. In the exact same way, even along the same streets. “What an idiot I was to think all this was over and done with. Modern times, I said to myself, humanism and enlightenment, civilization and the triumph of the will. We are part of the whole, we fought for our country, educated ourselves for it, we work for it and love it, we’re far beyond reproach. So we live happily in a big apartment full of books and tea sets, with a beautiful garden, warm food and clothes, even with house help. And all this time, the canvas bags were sitting in the corner, smiling maliciously, silently mocking our gullible stupidity. They sat there, waiting for my time to come, when I’d fill them up with passports, pots and pans and drag them down the street, banished. With all my university degrees, years of salaries and paying taxes, my goddamn backpack outsmarted me!” These were the thoughts going through Ravid’s head, making it difficult for him to conceal his compulsive laughter. He walked vigorously on, leading his family down Taborstrasse, the very same street his great-great-great grandparents Hava and Adi had fled one terrifying night, half-dressed, with their bags and a couple of hens tucked under their arms.
The Landau’s former neighbors passed them in the street and guiltily looked away when Ravid greeted them with an ecstatic, theatrical politeness:
“Hello, how are you today, Herr Ebner? Nice weather, isn’t it? We decided, with Frau and Fraulein here, as you can see, to take a walk in the neighborhood with the suitcases.”
By now, Ravid was laughing out loud and looking scarier by the minute.
Herr Ebner nodded hastily and walked on by, slouching, with a miserable little smile, his chin buried in the collar of his shirt. Adina, who walked beside her husband with a perfectly frozen, expressionless look on her face, pulled Ravid’s sleeve and whispered in his ear:
“He’s scared, too, Ravi, stop it, please, it’s embarrassing.”
Ravid laughed sarcastically and made a right into Glockensgasse, past the law offices of Dr. Kantor Gross, where the shutters had been closed for several weeks already. That evening, Adina, Lita and Ravid Landau moved into the shared quarters at 14, Glockensgasse, in Vienna’s Second District, a few blocks from their old apartment. The building was decrepit and filthy. The apartment had two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The families Wasserstein, Silberblat and Halevi had already moved in, along with Mrs. Silberblat’s three cats – Katzi, Matzi and Shatzi. Lita was the only child in the quarters. The Silberblats and the Halevis had one room, the three Landaus were to share the other one with Frau and Herr Wasserstein. There was a schedule for using the kitchen and the bathroom, while Katzi, Matzi and Shatzi lived wherever they chose and the whole apartment smelled of cats. With the belongings of all four families, the apartment was crammed, to say the least. Fortunately, it had a small courtyard and Lita was allowed to play outside, quietly. She immediately took to sprucing it up, which was not easy – the courtyard was dark and cold, its soil much too dry. Lita followed the gardening tips in the The Vienna Gardening Illustrated and decided on ivy and succulents, mostly sedum and sempervivums.
Life in the common quarters was uncomfortable and very stressful. The adults were sullen and anxious. None of them went to work anymore. Only Leoni Wasserstein, who was a dressmaker, was always seeing clients in the shared room and then rattling away on her sewing machine late into the night. The monotonous hum of the Singer and the gloomy light put Lita to sleep, but terribly annoyed Ravid, who had been unusually hostile as of late. Unlike him, Adina confronted the inconveniences with dignity. She took care of the household, as far as that was possible in the jam-packed 14 Glockensgasse, she listened to Lita’s gardening woes and tried to keep something of a proper tone and a spirit of mutual understanding in the living quarters. In the present conditions of poorly concealed fear, cat stench and sudden poverty, however, her efforts yielded little to no results. More and more often, Lita would find her mother simply staring into the space before her. Around about that time, much to the surprise of Lita with her lighthearted agnostic upbringing, Adina suddenly started keeping the Sabbath.

***

Poland, February – March 1941

One afternoon, about a month after their arrival in Opole, Ravid returned to barrack 326, unsuccessfully trying to hide a triumphant smile. He pulled Adina outside. Lita could see them through the window, facing each other, Ravid excitedly explaining something. When they came back in, Adina looked like she’d been crying.
That same night, Ravid secretly left the barrack.
“That’s the way it is, Mr. Landau,” Anton Oberle spoke very quietly and kept looking around nervously. “We can try to get your wife and the girl out, but for you it would be too dangerous. Women don’t flee alone very often, so they’re not followed that closely. If you go with them, you may manage to get out of the ghetto, but at the crack of dawn they’ll set out with the dogs to look for you. And with this snow, you won’t get far enough to escape them.” 
“You’re probably right. But I’m sure you understand, I can’t leave them by themselves,” whispered Ravid. “They’ll need help to get out of here – the guards, the fencing, the dogs ...”
“The guards shouldn’t even see them. I’ll lead them through the basement of the big warehouse and I’ll be on the lookout until they’re at a safe distance. I know it’s a hard decision, but you have to take it now, I don’t want to risk seeing you again.”
Ravid’s fingers toyed with a protruding branch, his mind racing.
“Is it dangerous?” he asked after a moment.
“Well, it’s not safe,” Oberle replied. “But we can take advantage of the circumstances. It’s a mess now with all the newcomers, it turns out there are too few guards and they haven’t reassigned their duties yet. And besides, I have another bottle of Ukrainian vodka in my bag, and none of those on duty at the warehouse know that my birthday is not in March. In other words, it’s dangerous, yes, but I think it’s worth a try. And now is the time, it’ll get more complicated later. As for you, I could try to arrange a different way, but I’ll need something valuable.”
“Now we’re talking,” thought Ravid with disgust. But out loud he said, “Herr Oberle, you’re young and maybe have no family of your own yet, but please put yourself in my shoes. We’re talking here about my wife and daughter – the most valuable thing I have in this world. I have one other thing, of less importance. A pair of old earrings with precious stones, the only valuables I managed to salvage from my previous life. I’ll give them to you if you guarantee to do everything possible to save my girls without failing. But if you are proposing to do this only to make a profit ...”
“I understand what you’re thinking, sir, but this is not the case. You see, I ...” Something rustled in the bushes behind them. The two men started, looked anxiously about and took cover in the dark shadows. There was nobody there.
“Please, Herr Oberle,” Ravid was whispering again. “Please be honest with me! For God’s sake, man, please tell me, is there actually a chance for us to get them out of here!?”
“Listen to me, Herr Landau. It’s the duty of every good Christian …err… human being, it’s the duty of every human being to protect the life of their fellow man without expecting a reward. Keep your earrings, I don’t need them. They’ll be useful to you and your family somewhere along the way. These are bad times, bad for you, bad for us.”
Ravid looked at him in dismay. Oberle went on:
“It’s terrifying for you now, I know, don’t get me wrong. But your people are used to this, you’ll get through it, you’ll survive somehow and move on. You see, for us … how we’ll get out of this muck, how’ll we look at ourselves in the mirror and what we’ll say to our children one day, this I don’t know … What I suggest is this. Tomorrow night, at 11 p.m. on the dot, I’ll wait for your wife and daughter in front of the warehouse. You decide if they come or not, but I sincerely advise you not to accompany them. I’ll try to get you out later on as well, but I’ll need at least one of the earrings for that. An escape would be extremely risky for you, so I’ll try to buy your safety from the superintendent at least for the first few hours after you leave the ghetto. If I don’t manage to do that, I’ll give you back the earring, I don’t need it. Because, Herr Landau, I’m not doing any of this in the hope of making a profit. I’m not even doing it for you or your people. It’s for myself that I’m doing it. Because, Herr Landau, I’ve been losing sleep for weeks now – my conscience is eating me alive. That’s what it is.”   
   At that very moment, in the darkness of the small alleyway by the fence of the Polish ghetto, Ravid decided to trust this small, energetic, candid young man. To trust him implicitly. They planned everything for the following evening and parted ways, Anton with a small purple pouch in his hand, which contained one of the old pearl earrings Ravid’s father had passed on to him.
The following night, Lita and Adina secretly left barrack 326, never to come back. Lita carried her pet rat Gustav under her shirt and Adina had a miniature bundle tucked in her left stocking. It contained the other pearl earring. Ravid stayed in the ghetto and had nothing left.

***

Sofia, December 2014

On Christmas Day, for a number of reasons (sunny weather, mass disgust with jingling bells and reindeer, the approximate anniversary of the death of Margie’s maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, a common soft spot for the location, etc., and the kids could use a walk) the entire family met in front of the church of the Sofia Central Cemetery, which was drenched in bright December sunshine. There was no snow yet, it was almost warm outside and the rare visitors who walked the lanes for their own personal reasons wished each other a Merry Christmas in passing. Margie’s parents quickly showed the group the three family graves, all of them in close proximity to the church. The children dragged big sticks and ran about, laughing. Margie’s father mentioned that he had recently located the grave of his maternal grandparents. Nobody was in a hurry, a full thermos of tea and homemade shortbread biscuits were at their disposal, so they all decided to go on an expedition to the Jewish part of the cemetery.
As they walked down Resurrection Lane, trying to prevent their younger child from diving into the ditch that ran along it, Margie and Finn stopped before some of the tombstones. They pointed out interesting or familiar names and observed some of the strange-looking monuments. At one point, to their surprise, they both realized that a large part of the dead whose cenotaphs caught their eye were in fact their age, or just slightly older. Of course, it was normal for the grave marker of a young person to be more elaborate and striking, as a reflection of their families’ shock. Margie looked at her parents’ backs as they walked ahead, called out to her children to be careful running with their sticks along the uneven ground, and suddenly felt that, on this sunny morning, she and Finn, utterly unaware, had crossed some invisible line. A thin, easy-to-miss border, one that appears gently and calmly, kindly, yet without mercy – the line that marks the middle of the road. Margie smiled at this rather sentimental notion, most probably provoked by all the Christmas and family business. And so what – the middle of the road was a perfectly adequate place to be. Stand up straight, call out to the kids one more time and walk on.
Meanwhile, they’d reached the perpendicular lane that divided the Bulgarian from the Jewish part of the cemetery and the landscape changed in an unusual way. In the beginning, Margie couldn’t figure out what exactly was different. Apart from the fact that names like Georgiev and Dimanova had given way to Arié or Niño. One of the things that stood out in all the Jewish graveyards she had seen were the names – they were the same everywhere. Names that bring about a feeling of community and difference, of ancient knowledge and a meticulously guarded secret. But also of a thin, fading line, which runs through Europe, connecting two parts of the continent that seem worlds apart. From the lavish Gothic graveyard looking out on the Mediterranean, inhabited by countless standoffish Barcelona cats, through the straight, tidy lanes under the Munich drizzle, to the rather scary-looking crooked gravestones you can catch a glimpse of through the elevated stone fence if you’re not willing to pay the entrance fee demanded by the Municipality of Prague for their Old Jewish Cemetery. The strange names that pop up here and there among the usual surnames for a given location, always standing out from the rest in their foreignness – Pinkas, Alevi, Behor, Delareya … And yes, the names were different, but there was also something else. The Jewish part of the Sofia Central Cemetery lacked the eternal tranquility the other part, dank and overgrown with ivy and bushes, emitted. The living, with their sporadic sloppiness, had left no traces here, no withered or dried-up flowers, no plastic plates and leftover food, no extinguished candles and cigarette butts poking out of the soil. The Jewish part looked bizarrely open and unprotected, simultaneously twisting and still, somehow frozen in the warm sun, as if its dead were more dead than the rest. The gravestones were tightly packed and the writing on them was diverse – mostly Bulgarian, often with the old script, but also in Hebrew, in German and in a strange kind of Spanish – Ladino, as Margie found out it was called when she Googled it later that evening. And the headstones, the monuments, the graves, even the lanes running between them were so crooked, tilted at every possible angle, some bulging out of the earth, others sinking into it, that the whole area resembled a shrapnel-riddled battlefield.

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