Michal's Destiny, p.14Roberta Kagan
Michal noticed how the mothers who’d brought their children to the book signing looked at Otto with desire. Some of the women made crude sexual innuendos to him as he signed their children’s books, while others just stared shyly. After the book signing, Otto gave Alina and Sammie each a piece of candy, and then he accompanied them home on the S-Bahn.
Richard Fogelman was out of town again. He was supposed to be selecting fabrics for the fashions of the coming year. Gerta stopped mentioning the fact that her husband was staying away overnight more and more. But Michal knew that Gerta was distressed over the way that Richard had distanced himself from his family.
When Michal and Otto returned with the children to the Fogelman house, Gerta invited Otto to join them for dinner. It was unusual for the mistress of the house to extend an invitation to her nanny’s boyfriend, but Michal and Gerta had become such close friends that it wasn’t awkward for either of them. Otto was unsure and uncomfortable. He had reservations about making friends with anyone who was rich but not an artist. He hated businessmen and the Fogelmans were owners of one of the biggest garment factories in Berlin. In Otto’s mind, these were the type of people that he considered the enemy. They were ruining Germany with their greed. But Michal looked so pretty when she told him that she really wished he would stay, that he couldn’t refuse her.
All through dinner, Otto had to hold his tongue. The waste and entitlement of the upper class was repugnant to him. Servants served heaping platters of food. Food like this was unattainable to the poor and disappearing middle class. As he ate, he felt his throat close. It was hard to enjoy such luxuries while others suffered. To anyone else, Gerta would have been considered a charming hostess. But to Otto, she was a spoiled woman who was blind to the coming doom that he saw clearly. Right now, the Weimar Republic was a democracy, fair to all. But just lurking in the shadows was a group that he knew was intent upon destroying the entire Jewish population in Germany. Before Otto had become emotionally invested in Michal, he’d hated the National Socialist Party with its hatred-spewing doctrine, but he’d not taken them seriously. Yes, of course, he’d gotten into street fights with them on occasion. Their demonstrations irked him. But, now he was taking their threats to heart. Michal’s Jewish heritage frightened him. He was smart enough to realize that Germany was unstable, and he feared for her safety. That weird little crippled fellow, Joseph Goebbels, was both brilliant and terrifying. He followed his leader, Adolf Hitler, around like a puppy and was determined to have him appointed chancellor of Germany. Goebbels was using the anger and hatred of the underprivileged Germans toward Jews like the Fogelmans to create a following for his leader. People were not taking Hitler seriously, but Otto was not able to dismiss the little man with the silly mustache so easily. Especially when the woman he was falling in love with was in question. Indeed, they were on the precipice of a time of grave danger.
After dinner, Gerta retired to her room, and Michal asked Otto to remain in the parlor while she put the children to bed. He agreed to wait while she got them ready, but then offered to tell them both a story. Michal was delighted and so were the children.
The excitement of the day had exhausted Alina and she was asleep before she could hear any of the folk tale that Otto was telling. But not Sammie. His eyes were wide as Otto sat on the edge of his bed and told the little boy a story in his melodious voice.
Michal stood in the doorway of the bedroom and watched. Sammie was enthralled. Otto was gentle and engaging. She saw the need for a father in Sammie’s life and she knew that Alina would have a better chance at a good life if she had one too. Especially a father like Otto.
Sammie began laughing. Otto was saying something, his arms raised over his head animatedly.
It was at that moment that Michal decided that she wanted to be free of Taavi and to spend her life with Otto. She decided that he would be a good father for Alina. But to divorce Taavi would mean she would have to see him, talk to him. She dreaded the very idea of telling Taavi that she’d found another man. It unnerved her. There was something about Taavi that she just couldn’t let go. Worse, if she did want to break up the marriage, she would have to go to a rabbi and talk to him in order to be awarded her “Get” her Jewish divorce. Yet, how could she spend her life married to a man whom she never saw? Michal was confused, but as she watched Otto with Sammie, she was starting to care for Otto.
Sammie didn’t want to go to sleep, but Otto was firm and insistent until Sammie finally agreed.
Once both children were in bed, Otto and Michal were sitting alone in the parlor.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked him. The moonlight filtered through the window and caught her eyes, which sparkled like gray diamonds. Her hair was lit by the moon as well.
“No, thank you,” he said. There was so much he wanted to say, so much he needed to say. But he dared not speak, lest he spoil the moment.
For the first time, he touched her hand. She did not move it away. His heart swelled. Dare he try to kiss her? She gazed into his eyes. Neither of them spoke. Otto swallowed hard as he touched her face ever so lightly. She smiled. He hoped he was reading her signals correctly. In slow motion, he leaned over and kissed her.
Michal kissed him back.
Michal had never felt so guilty and happy at the same time. She spent all week in eager anticipation of Otto’s arrival on Sunday. He took her to dinner. They spent hours walking. As they walked, he asked her about her life, and unlike most men she’d known, he listened. He not only listened, but he cared, he asked questions. Otto was interested in everything she had to say. Her views on politics, art, and music were just as important to him as her likes and dislikes in fashion. Nothing was off limits in their conversations. Taavi had been harder to talk to; he was more practical. If she began rambling about things that didn’t matter, he would hear her, but not listen the way Otto did. Otto was always attentive. He made her feel as if everything she had to say was important to him. However, not only did they discuss general things, but they conversed about her deepest feelings. Michal told him about her marriage to Avram, then to Taavi, and finally on one evening when the sky was lit with stars they sat together on a bench, she told him about the rape. She hung her head and wept until her slender shoulders shook. He didn’t attempt to touch her. He just sat beside her and listened, waiting until she reached for his hand. Then gently he brought her palm to his lips.
“He could have killed me. And sometimes I wish he had,” she said in a small voice.
“And then what of Alina? She would never have been born. You gave her life, Michal. Life is a wonderful gift to give someone.”
“Yes. I suppose. Mine hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. I was wrong; I should have made things work with her father. I owed her that much. My marriage to Taavi failed because I couldn’t be a wife to him after the rape. When he tried to touch me, all I could think about was that horrible man and that he’d soiled the inside of my body.”
“But he didn’t. He was there, it’s true. But if he had really soiled you, you could never have had such a beautiful child. He hurt you. I understand that. But because you can’t let go of what he did, you keep reliving it, and it is keeping you from ever finding happiness. As long as you keep the Cossack alive in your mind, he will continue to destroy you. He is gone … nothing but a ghost from the past. Let him be gone. Do you understand me?”
She nodded. “So what can I do? How do I ever get over this?”
“We are friends, right?”
“Good friends. You trust me, don’t you?”
“I am not saying this to seduce you, although I want you. I have wanted you from the first moment I saw you. But, it’s more than that, Michal. You need me too. I understand you. I know what you’ve been through. This may sound self-serving, and in a way, it is, but not completely.” Her hair had fallen over her eye. Gently, he moved it away. “Let me kiss you. Let
Her heart was beating fast. She was terrified, but when she looked at Otto, she didn’t see the Cossack’s face. For a moment, she felt a pang of guilt over Taavi. “I don’t know, Otto. I am still married.”
“Yes, but you can’t talk to your husband the way we talk to each other. He can’t help you. I can.”
Michal felt slightly dizzy. She couldn’t believe her own needs. She wanted Otto to kiss her. She was willing to try with him. In fact, she actually wanted to go to his bed, even if it was a sin. It felt natural and it had been so long since she’d felt comfortable in her own skin as a woman. “Yes,” she whispered, clearing her throat. “Yes, let’s try.”
He took her hand. Silently, they walked back to his flat. His sister, Bridget, and Alina had become very close. Alina was the sister Bridget had always longed for, and she loved the way Alina emulated her. When Otto and Michal were out, Bridget allowed Alina to play dress up with her clothes and even try the lipstick that she’d stolen from the general store. They baked cookies that were terrible because they never had enough sugar to make them properly. Then Bridget would lay out the good china that her parents had left to her and Otto. Bridget would boil water and she and Alina would have tea parties. Alina spoke well enough to say things that made Bridget laugh. And Bridget loved reading to her. When Otto and Michal walked in, they saw that the two girls had fallen asleep together on the sofa. Otto raised his finger to his lips. “Shhh…” he whispered, leading Michal to his room.
She was trembling so hard that for a moment he just held her in his arms. Michal pushed all thoughts of guilt and fear from her mind. Instead, she laid her head on Otto’s shoulder. He kissed the top of her hair and whispered, “It will be alright.”
Slowly, very slowly. Gently, very gently. He raised her face to meet his and kissed her lips. His hand tenderly caressed her body, and then finally with his gentle heart, he loved her back into the world of the living.
November 10th, 1923
Michal raced past the tree-lined houses until she arrived at the small café where Otto waited for her. His thick dark hair hung in a heavy wave over his eye as he sat sipping his coffee. When he saw her, he lifted his head and a smile warmed his face. She felt the warmth caress her like a blanket on a winter night. She sat down across from him and rubbed her hands together to combat the chill that had set in outside. He took her hands in his and then brought them to his lips, blowing on them and rubbing them.
“Your hands are freezing.” He gently turned her hands over and kissed the palms.
“I know … It’s getting cold; the winter is coming.”
“Where are the children?” Otto asked.
“Would you believe that Gerta insisted on watching them so that I could meet you? You see, not all employers are bad,” she said.
“Not all, just most.”
She shook her head “You’re incorrigible.”
“What are you reading?” she asked.
“Oh, I was reading the newspaper while I waited for you.”
“Anything interesting?” She picked up the newspaper. On the cover was a group of men wearing brown uniforms with red armbands with strange black spider-like insignias on the bands.
“You see that silly looking little fellow in the middle of the group? The one with the comical mustache?”
“Yes … I see him.”
“His name is Adolf Hitler. For the last two days, he’s been causing all sorts of trouble in Munich. I’ve been watching him for a while now. He tried to take over the government.”
“Is he a communist?”
“Not at all. He’s a bastard. A power hungry son of a bitch. Besides all that, he hates Jews, blames the Jews for everything that’s wrong with Germany. It’s a good thing that they threw him in jail or he might have come to Berlin, and who knows what he and his cronies would do? There would be fights in the streets, that’s for sure.”
“Do you think these people are anything to worry about?”
“No, they have the leader under control. The government will toss him in jail for a while; by the time he gets out, everyone will have forgotten him. Nothing to worry about, my love.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course.” He smiled. “By the way, the cold air suits you. It makes your cheeks a lovely shade of pink. You are far too fetching today to worry about anything.”
“I do worry, Otto. It’s hard not to worry. I have a child and the economy is so bad.”
“Yes, but you have a wonderful employer. Remember?”
“Yes, she is a wonderful person. Even if she is rich. And I know how you hate the rich.”
“I only hate the businesspeople who take advantage of the workers.”
“Yes, Otto. But Gerta doesn’t take advantage of anyone. I work for her and she treats me very well.”
“Yes, of course she does. But her husband, now he owns a factory and he treats his employees like they aren’t even human. I know you don’t want to blame her for this, but where do you think all the money she has is coming from?”
“I don’t want to think about it, Otto. I can’t change things. I’m happy that Gerta is taking care of my daughter and me. It’s nice of her to allow my child to live with me in her house. I’m grateful to her. But I do have worries. It’s a long time away, but I don’t know how I will ever have enough money to provide a decent dowry for my daughter. I save every penny, but every day our money is worth less and less.”
“There will be a change, my love, but it will be a good change. When the communists take over, there will be plenty for everyone. The rich will be forced to share what they have.”
“Otto, I don’t know. I went through this in Russia. I’m not sure what happened after the communists came in, but while the White Army was leaving, it was terrible for the Jews. You don’t understand because you aren’t Jewish. But it’s always been this way for Jews. We have been hated throughout history. And a change of government usually means danger for us.”
“Sweetheart, please, don’t worry … not today. A friend of mine is reading from his new novel at the library this afternoon. I was hoping we might go … His books are very good.”
“I would love to, but I have to get back to the house. I can’t expect Gerta to watch my child all day while I’m out with you. She’s paying me to watch my daughter. It doesn’t seem fair.”
“All right, then just sit with me for a few more minutes and let me look at you. That in itself is a gift.”
She shook her head. “Otto, you are so silly sometimes.”
“I’m not. I’m an artist and an artist can’t help but be lost in your beauty.”
She was flattered. How could she resist? He made her feel beautiful and it had been so many years since she’d been with a man, so many years since Taavi had said sweet words to her.
Otto didn’t want to alarm Michal, but although everyone said that the National Socialist Party had no chance of ever being elected, he was worried. Every time he read or saw something featuring the escapades of the little man with the small mustache and his cohort limping beside him, Otto felt uneasy.
Winter swept in with a gust of snow a week before Hanukkah that year. Gerta Fogelman bought gifts for Alina as well as her own son. Michal was so grateful for the kindness. Gerta had become a true friend. And to Gerta, Michal was the only person whom she could trust. She could not speak honestly to any of her family or friends. Gerta had begun to express great concern to Michal over Richard’s constant disappearances.
At night, when Richard was in town, Michal would hear Gerta and Richard fighting as she lay in bed. She knew that Gerta was still in love with Richard and she felt sorry for her friend.
Then the inevitable came. Richard wanted a d
“Baby,” Sammie said.
“That’s not nice,” Michal said.
Alina stuck her tongue out at Sammie.
Just then, Gerta came upstairs, her face red with tears.
“I need to talk to you,” Gerta said to Michal.
“You two, go into Sammie’s room and play. We’ll go downstairs for breakfast in a few minutes,” Michal said.
“But I’m hungry,” Sammie said.
“Please? Just this once, Sammie. Take Alina into your room and play for a few minutes. Do it for me?” Michal said.
Sammie’s shoulders slumped “Come on, Alina,” he said and took her hand.
Once the children were in Sammie’s room and the door was closed, Gerta sat down on Michal’s bed.
“Richard wants a divorce. He has another woman. They’ve been seeing each other for over a year and he wants to marry her.” Gerta was sobbing as she spoke. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and continued. “My heart is broken. I’m going home to my family in Frankfurt. He says I can keep the house. But I can’t stay here. The whole town will be talking about it and everyone will stare at me wherever I go. They’ll know that my husband left me and they will think it’s because I’m not good enough. They’ll think I’m pathetic.”
“You are good enough. It isn’t you. It’s him. You are a beautiful woman, smart.…”
“I am not. I’m a failure.”
“Please, no more. I don’t want to discuss this any further; I am leaving Berlin.”
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes