Michal's Destiny, p.12Roberta Kagan
One night, a man wearing an ill-fitting black suit sat down at Taavi’s bar.
“What can I get you?” Taavi asked the man, wiping the counter.
“A beer,” the man said. “You have a Russian accent.”
“Yes, I am from Russia, but I live here now,” Taavi said, putting the glass of beer in front of the man.
“I’m from Russia too.” The man coughed a little then took a sip of his beer. “I’m a professor at the local university. I’m not sure, but I think you’re a Jew?”
“Why would you ask?” Taavi looked the man strangely. It was odd to ask such a question without provocation. But Taavi wasn’t ashamed of who or what he was. “Yes, I am a Jew … and what does it matter to you?”
The man laughed bitterly. “I am a Jew too.”
Taavi then realized that the man was slightly drunk.
“Do you know that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany?” the professor answered. “It’s an undercurrent. We Jews see it growing like a strangling vine, but we cover our eyes and refuse to believe that this civilized country, this blessed Germany, would ever turn on us. But it will, just like Russia did.”
“That’s for sure about Russia. Russia had no qualms about turning on her Jews. Especially the czar, son of a bitch that he was.”
“You think it’s better now that the czar and his family are dead? You think the communists are better?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been away.”
“It’s hard to say really what’s better or worse. I don’t trust Germany and even with the changes in Russia, I still don’t trust Russia. For a Jew, I personally believe that the place to live is America.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is, but it’s not so easy to get there. It takes lots of money. And, besides … my wife is here,” Taavi said. It was at that moment that he realized he would never leave Germany without Michal. Somewhere deep in his foolish heart, he believed that they would be together again … someday.
“Take her with you.”
“I would. I could probably get by on the money I have. But I don’t know where she is. She’s left me, and … well … I still love her. America is too far away. If I go, I know that I will never see her again. If I stay, maybe somehow we will find each other.”
The old professor shook his head. “I think about leaving. I know that it would be a wise decision, but I have so much here.” He took another sip of beer, then smiled a drunken smile at Taavi. “Ah, well, we can only hope that the anti-Semitism will not get out of control. So far, we are lucky. The Weimar Republic is a liberal and accepting government. They pretty much allow us to do as we please. If only there was not such hyper-inflation. But Germany has to pay back her debts, and let’s face it, the working class is angry. They don’t have enough food … the prices are always going up. I am secretly worried that the country will either go to the communists or socialists, and I’m not sure how the Jews will be affected. But, as you know, we are the chosen people. Chosen by God. For what? I’m not sure. But from what I have seen, in my lifetime anyway, we are chosen for hatred and resentment by the rest of the world. It’s sad but true, I am afraid. Do you realize how much the world hates us? Do you?” He was rambling, but even in his drunken stupor, Taavi could hear the wisdom of his words.
“I am well aware that the world hates the Jews. My wife and I escaped from a pogrom in Siberia.” Taavi nodded. He wanted to stop this conversation, but the old professor was not allowing him an opportunity to break away. Taavi was scanning the bar for a customer who might be waiting, a reason to break free. But there was no one. It was as if he was destined to hear these words.
“Ahh, so you’re from Siberia. You must be a strong man to have lived there. Siberia is an inhospitable home for humans. I’ve heard about the Jewish settlements in Siberia. It was very kind and generous of the czar to send all of his Jews to a land with such pleasant living conditions. But not unexpected, of course.” He winked and smiled a half smile, but his eyes were sad. “But that was not all Russia had in store. Once the Jews were settled in their frozen wonderland, the pogroms began again, just like they have been going on throughout history. As I said before, we are the lucky ones, yes? Right? We are the Jews; we are the chosen people.”
“All right, all right, Professor Sapstein, come on now; it’s time to go home.” A younger man came over and helped the old drunken professor out of the nightclub. But his words still haunted Taavi.
One evening, Taavi was stocking the shelves behind the bar when he heard a familiar voice call his name.
“Tavala,” Lev called Taavi by his Yiddish name.
“How have you been? NU?”
“I’m fine … doing well. And you, how are you?”
“Ehhh, I’m all right. Still building custom furniture for the old bastard.”
Taavi laughed and came out from behind the counter to hug his old friend. After Taavi released Lev, he patted Lev’s shoulder. “What would Rivesman do without you? He can’t do what you can. You are a true artist, a wonder with woodwork. I still remember.”
“You look tired, old friend,” Lev said.
“I work long hours, but the money is good. Do you need some money?” Taavi said.
“No, I just came to see you.”
“We had some good times, didn’t we?” Lev said.
“We did. Let me get you a shot of vodka, on me.”
“I miss you, Taavi. Let’s get together sometime soon.”
Taavi poured from the bottle into the shot glass, one for Lev and one for himself.
They chugged their shots. The rich burn of the alcohol gave Taavi the courage to ask, “Have you seen Michal anywhere around the old neighborhood?”
Lev shook his head.
“Never? Not once?”
“I haven’t seen her since you left.”
Taavi shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know where she went. I hope she’s all right.”
Lev didn’t answer. There was no answer. Murders were not uncommon in Berlin. She could be dead. She may have met another man and left Germany with him. Lev had no idea, so he said nothing. But the pain in his friend’s eyes was apparent and he wished he could comfort Taavi in some way.
“We should see each other more,” Taavi said. “Come to the club.”
“Of course I will.”
“No, seriously, come more often.”
“I’ll try. But, I’m getting married, Taavi. I met someone. A nice girl. She’s from Poland. A good girl with a kind heart. She’s Jewish, but she has papers that say she’s a Christian. With these papers, she got a good job at a factory. It’s not easy, but she makes money.”
“I’m happy for you.”
“Who knows if she’ll let me out of her sight.”
“Like you’re such a catch.” Taavi laughed. Then Lev laughed too.
“She’s the catch. I’m fortunate. Let’s face it, I don’t bring much to a marriage.”
“You’re a good hard working man with a kind heart. You bring plenty.”
“You’ll come to the wedding?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Lev left soon after the conversation, but the entire night, Taavi thought about him. Taavi had more money than he’d ever thought he could earn, and he’d done things he had never dreamed were possible, some good, some not so good. But the real man inside of Taavi, the simple man from Siberia, the simple carpenter, longed for a less complicated life. In a strange way, he envied Lev. If all went as planned, Lev would be living the life that Taavi had imagined he and Michal would share. There was no doubt that with Lev’s job, he would always be struggling financially, but he would have a wife and perhaps children. And, at night, he would go home to a wholesome meal with a woman he knew was his own.
Taavi had hoped to see Michal when he went to Lev’s wedding. He searched the streets and the shops on his way, but
April, 1923, Berlin
The number of nightclubs was growing rapidly and the perversities available for purchase were being hawked by prostitutes all over the streets. The police overlooked the prostitution; it was no longer a crime and most of the prostitutes were registered with the police department and checked regularly for disease. The sexually driven killings continued and would come to be referred to as Lustmord. Inflation had been a problem since the end of the First World War and the signing of the treatise of Versailles, but now it was even more rapidly on the rise, and the middle class was quickly disintegrating. An entire life’s savings might be eaten up by the price of a sandwich. Sometimes, one of the poor citizens of Germany who had lost everything would go mad and act as a sniper, shooting from the rooftops. On the main streets, one might well see very wealthy women in lovely dresses out shopping or big business owners in well-made suits hurrying along the thoroughfare. However, behind the façade, in the back streets off the main drag, were the pathetic, the poor, and the sick. Tuberculosis was rampant, especially in children. One might pass them, coughing into bloody handkerchiefs, but still selling their young bodies for one more meal. However, for foreigners who brought francs, American dollars, or pounds, Berlin was a free for all, the most exciting city in Europe. Anything, no matter what it was, could be bought at a very low price.
The poor and the middle class German people were frustrated, starving to death, and desperately searching for a change.
Mid-July, 1923, Berlin
Richard and Gerta Fogelman had begun to argue loudly whenever he was at home. Michal could hear their constant bickering, but she never mentioned what had happened that day she’d gone to the factory. However, after that visit, she’d been fairly certain that Richard was unfaithful to his wife. She was sorry for her friend, but didn’t have the heart or the words to tell her, so she remained quiet. If there was an argument during the night, Michal lay quietly in her room, listening, her heart breaking for Gerta. But when the fighting took place in the morning, as it did on this particular day, Michal would take the children out for a walk, sometimes to the park or the zoo. Gerta had expressed her gratitude to Michal for taking Sammie away when she and Richard were yelling at each other. Although he was only five, he had already begun to show signs that his parents’ problems were affecting him. He’d begun wetting his bed, which infuriated his father. Richard would holler at the boy and shake him if he discovered the mess. However, when Michal found the wet sheets, she quickly changed them without telling the housekeeper, to prevent her from reporting Sammie’s behavior to his father.
It was early on a Sunday morning; Gerta and Richard were at the breakfast table when a heated argument broke out. Michal was dressing the children before taking them downstairs to eat their first meal of the day.
“It’s Sunday, Richard. There is no reason that you have to leave. Why can’t you ever spend any time with us? Your son hardly knows you.”
“You have no right to question what I do. There are problems at the factory. The unions are closing in on me, commies that they are. Damn the workers; they should be happy they have a job at all. They are never satisfied. I’m being destroyed.…”
“I know all about your problems, Richard, you’ve told me a hundred times, but it’s Sunday. Can’t you spend some time here with us, with your son and your wife? You can’t do much about the unions on Sunday.”
“Stop questioning my decisions. Don’t you have everything you need and want? Isn’t this house and all of these servants enough for you? You have beautiful clothes; you redecorate the house every other month. What else could you possibly want?”
“You, Richard. I want you … I don’t have a husband. You haven’t touched me in over a year.”
Upstairs, Michal wondered how much little Sammie understood.
There was no answer from Richard. All Michal heard next was the slamming of the front door. She knew that he had left. Then she heard the slamming of Gerta’s bedroom door, and she assumed that Gerta was probably crying in her bed as she had been doing so often lately. Michal had begun to worry about Gerta. Gerta had grown very thin; in fact, she hardly ate. Her once thick healthy hair had grown limp and lackluster.
Michal stood outside the door to Gerta’s room and tapped gently. Gerta didn’t answer.
“I’m going to take the children to the park. Is that all right with you?”
“Yes.” It was just loud enough for Michal to hear.
“I’ll give them some breakfast first. Then we should be back sometime around lunch.”
There was no answer, but Michal was sure that Gerta had heard her. Sammie was standing beside Michal, while Alina was playing on the floor. Michal looked down at Sammie; his little face was pale with worry. His mouth hung open. She gave him a big smile, kissed his cheek, and took his hand. Then she helped Alina to her feet.
“We’re going to the park,” Michal said to Sammie. “We’ll have lots of fun.” The little boy looked up at her and she felt her heart breaking for him. “Come on … let’s put Alina into her stroller. She’s still too little to walk. But you, Sammie, are a big boy now.”
“I am and I’m getting bigger every day. Someday soon I’m going to be all grown up and I’ll be a famous movie star like the ones we see on the screen when you take us to the cinema,” he said. Michal was glad he was distracted from his mother’s misery.
Michal felt her face grow hot. She knew she shouldn’t take the children to the cinema. They were too young, and most of the time Alina became so bored that she’d start crying so loudly that they’d have to leave. But Michal loved the theater, and she enjoyed the enchantment of the silver screen. Berlin was exploding with new film techniques and, as she sat in the dark and the curtain rose, she was swept into the magic.
Sammie held the side bar of the stroller while Michal pushed. As they walked further from the Fogelman home, Sammie became more at ease. It was obvious to Michal that Sammie felt closer to her than he did to his mother. That was because poor Gerta was always so distracted by her own problems. Michal knew that Gerta was distraught because of Richard’s lack of interest, and she was sure that Gerta sensed the presence of another woman. Michal could not be sure that Richard was cheating on his wife, but she assumed from everything she knew of him and the marriage that he was.
The park was alive with the singing of birds … birds of all colors and sizes. The leaves on the trees were different shades of green and yellow and dandelions grew along the edge of the park. They entered and walked along the walkway until Sammie saw a group of children and their mothers gathered around a man who was sitting cross-legged in the center of the crowd.
“Come on, Michal, let’s go and see what’s going on there,” he said, smiling up at Michal. He was such a handsome little boy that Michal found she had to smile and nod.
“All right, Sammie, just don’t run. I don’t want you to fall and hurt yourself.”
He started by walking, but the momentum of curiosity overtook him and the child began to run. Michal shook her head and pushed the stroller a little faster to catch up.
The man who sat in the center of the group was telling a story. Michal put her finger over her lips, signaling Sammie to be quiet. Alina had fallen asleep in the stroller from the motion of the ride. Gently, Michal pushed the stroller back and forth in a slow continuous motion to keep Alina from awakening
Sammie loved stories. Michal knew how much he enjoyed it when she came into his room at night to put him to bed and told him a story. Hopefully, Alina would sleep long enough for the storyteller to finish. Sammie sat down quietly on the cool grass and blended right in with the other children, while the mothers stood in the back, watching and whispering softly to each other. Michal didn’t know any of the women, so she stood alone.
“And the evil giant controlled all of the good people who worked to keep him happy. They did everything he asked, and yet they were hungry and their children were starving,” the man who was telling the story said, as he looked into the wide of eyes of all of the children. Then he continued.
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes