Michal's Destiny, p.25Roberta Kagan
One late afternoon in early September, in the golden hours just before sunset, Lotti and Alina were taking the train home from work. As the train bumped and shifted along the rails, Lotti took Alina’s hand.
“I need to talk to you about something. We have always been very close, so I want you to know that what I am about to say is for your own good.”
Alina’s eyes opened wide; she wasn’t expecting a serious conversation.
“Of course, what is it?”
“It’s none of my business, I know,” Lotti said, speaking slowly, carefully. “But, I can see the way that you and Johan look at each other. And, believe me, I realize that my brother is a handsome man. But there is something that you don’t understand about Johan. He is weak, Alina. You are Jewish and he is Aryan. If you two were to start seeing each other on a romantic basis, I’m afraid you would end up getting hurt. He could never be able to stand up to the Nazis the way that Lev and I are being forced to. Johan has never been a strong man. He would buckle under the pressure.”
“What are you trying to say?” She hated to admit it, even to herself, but she was attracted to Johan. He was different, and that made him exciting.
“Quite frankly, I am trying to tell you not to fall in love with him. It won’t work. Even as a boy, Johan was bullied at school because he never fought back. He was never one to stand up for himself. And right now with the climate of the country, an interfaith marriage would require more courage that Johan could muster. What I am telling you is to forget about him completely. It’s what’s best for both of you.”
“Lotti? I never thought you’d say that to me.”
“It isn’t because I don’t love you like a sister; I do. It’s because I know that in the world we live in, you and Johan would do nothing but hurt each other. It could only end badly.”
Alina didn’t answer. She was at a loss for words.
From that day on, Alina found herself even more attracted to Johan and, at the same time, she was quite sure that she should be planning a wedding with Benny.
On October 15th, 1938, Adolf Hitler moved his troops into the Northwest area of Czechoslovakia, which is known as the Sudetenland, and took it over. He faced no resistance from any of the Western countries.
Then, on October 28th of the same year, seventeen-thousand Polish Jews that had been living in Germany were expelled. Poland refused to admit them, leaving them stranded.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, arrived and lasted, as always, for two days. Then, eight days later, it was followed by the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Jews believe that when the shofar is blown at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah to sundown on Yom Kippur, when the shofar is blown again, the book is open. This is the book where God reads over the deeds of the previous year and decides who will live to see another Rosh Hashanah. Sundown the night before Yom Kippur, the shofar is sounded and Jews over thirteen-years-old begin fasting as atonement for their sins. Then the following day, which is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the shofar is sounded again at sundown and the book is closed, sealing the destiny of all living creatures for the coming year.
Only the children over thirteen fasted, but the entire orphanage spent a good part of the day in the synagogue praying. At sundown after the sounding of the shofar, everyone went into the main dining room where food was served and those who’d been fasting ate for the first time since the previous night. Because of her age, Alina fasted, but Gilde was too young. They both ate something small as quickly as possible, then headed home. Michal had wanted them to be at home for the holiday. She’d wanted her family with her, but Alina wanted to go to the orphanage and Gilde followed her sister. Still, they had agreed to come home for dinner.
Even though she was not religious anymore, Michal still fasted. It was an old habit from her childhood and had become more of a custom than anything else. She didn’t go to shul, but she prayed. Taavi, who had never been religious, fasted this year and thanked God for the good life he had.
When the girls got home, Michal had already set the table for the celebration. Taavi kissed his daughters on the top of their heads, then the family sat down together.
While they were dining, Taavi said to Alina, “You should have invited Benny and his family.”
Alina smiled. “I didn’t think about it.”
Michal watched the expression on her daughter’s face. Although Michal could not explain it, she had an uncanny way of feeling whatever Alina was feeling. And even though Alina would not open up to her, Michal’s heart told her that something was troubling her daughter. She would not mention anything at the table. Instead, she would wait until later and then try to talk to Alina. It was doubtful that Alina would open up to her, but Michal would never stop trying.
Gilde was rambling excitedly about auditioning for a school play. Michal was glad that Gilde’s animated conversation was filling what would otherwise have been a silent room.
As Gilde was reciting her audition piece, Michal watched Alina. Her daughter needed her; she would have to find a way to reach Alina … she had to. Whatever was bothering Alina, Michal wanted Alina to know that she was there and would always be there for her.
Later that night, after Gilde had taken her bath and brushed her long golden curls until they shined, Michal tucked her younger daughter into bed. Then she went back to find Taavi sitting under a lamp and reading in the living room. Michal sat down beside him and rubbed his arm.
“You fasted today?”
“Yes. I suppose I found God when I found you again. Today, I thought maybe I should fast for all of my sins.” Taavi had recently acquired reading glasses. He removed them and looked at her.
“I asked God for forgiveness … for everything I’ve done.”
“Oh, Taavi.” She rubbed his arm harder.
“I’m afraid, Michal. Not for myself, for myself I don’t care. But it is for you and the girls that I am worried. Things here in Berlin are getting worse for Jews. Look at what happened to Gilde at school. And then look at how the teachers reacted. It’s becoming acceptable to torment Jews. Who knows how far this will go? A pogrom? I hate to say it, but it is possible.” He sighed. “I don’t know how you are going to feel about this, but I want to sell the business and take what we can get for it and then try to see if some of my black market friends can help us to get to America. I didn’t want to do this. After all, we have built a good life here. Our best friends, Lev and Lotti, are here. Everyone we know is here. Alina and Gilde will have to leave everything behind, their friends, their school. And, in the beginning, until I can establish myself again, we won’t have the nice things that we have now.” He shook his head, “But, believe me, I have been doing a lot of thinking and I think it’s for the best.”
Michal took a deep breath; she let it out slowly. “Taavi,” she said. “I will miss Lotti and Lev. I will miss the butcher shop and Mrs. Glick, the butcher’s wife. I’ll miss the rabbi and the neighborhood. And, I have to admit, I’ll miss the comfortable life we have. I’ve been poor. I know how hard it is not to have what you need. And I can see where it will be difficult to start over, but I trust you and I trust your judgment.”
“I love you so much, Michal. How foolish we were when we were young? Both of us so prideful.”
“You’re right; I think about it sometimes and wish I could have all those years back again. I love you with all my heart.”
“We are lucky to have the love we have for each other, and we both love the children. No matter what kind of struggle is in store for us, we’ll be alright, because we have each other. But, I think it’s best that we don’t say anything about this to Alina or Gilde until everything is set. I’ll start to make arrangements to sell the business.”
“What about Alina and Benny?” Michal said.
“I don’t know. So far, there’s no talk of marriage. We can’t wait much longer for them to declare themselves. Then, if they are getting married, we have to see if they will want to come with us to America. Leaving
“Yes, I agree. But, I couldn’t bear to leave Alina here. They would have to go with us.”
“Well, let’s try to give them a little time. Let’s see if they get engaged.”
“I like him and I want her to be happy. But I won’t leave her behind.”
“All right. Let’s not make any decisions today. I’ll begin looking into selling the business, just to get some idea of how much it’s worth. But I won’t make any definite arrangements until we know what Alina and Benny are going to do.”
Michal had planned to go and talk to Alina, but after her conversation with Taavi, she was spent, exhausted, and worried. Taavi would never be planning to leave Germany unless he had a serious sense of impending danger. His words were weighing on her. She washed her face with hot water, then changed into her nightgown and got into bed. But she couldn’t sleep. She lay in bed looking out the window at the full moon.
When Taavi came to bed an hour later, Michal was still awake. She felt the mattress move as he got in beside her. The sound of his breathing soothed her and she rolled softly into his arms.
“You’re still awake?” he asked.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
He gently caressed her back. “Michal, Michal. Please, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and the girls. It’s my responsibility as your husband and the man of this house. I won’t let anything happen to you. Do you trust me?”
“Yes, of course I trust you.”
“We came here from Russia and started our lives over. We will do the same in America. It is not for you to worry about how we will get along. This is my job and I do it willingly because, for me, it’s not a job, it’s an honor to take care of my family. Put your faith in me, Michal. I won’t disappoint you.”
She kissed him. He turned her over and softly ran his hands over the sides of her face. Then he kissed her passionately, and for the next few hours, in the comfort of each other’s arms, they forgot the challenges that lay ahead.
It was mid-October and the children at the orphanage were gathering leaves and branches to build a sukkah* outside the building in order to celebrate Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) The crisp fall air and brightly colored leaves added to the excitement of the event.
Lotti and Alina supervised the children, who sang as they worked. A blanket of leaves in crimson, deep orange, and burnt umber kicked up with the wind, which tossed Alina’s hair about her head. She’d been wearing a silver clip to tame her locks, but the wind loosened the hair ornament and dropped it into a deep pile of leaves. Alina bent to search for her barrette. She heard the dead foliage crunch, and when she looked up she saw Johan.
“Alina, how are you?”
“Are you looking for something?”
“Yes, my barrette fell out of my hair and I can’t seem to find it.”
“Let me help you.” He bent down beside her and began sifting through the dried foliage. “What does it look like?”
He smelled like good cologne. Not a strong odor, just a hint of fragrance.
“It’s silver with four small pearls,” she said, sifting the leaves with her fingers.
Their hands brushed. Alina felt her face turn hot. She dared not look up, lest he see that she was attracted to him.
He touched the side of her face. She looked at him, stunned and embarrassed. “You look so pretty with your hair tussled.”
She laughed, uncomfortable. “Thank you…” her voice was a whisper.
Johan moved just close enough for his lips to brush hers. Her heart began to race. He moved even closer, his lips soft, warm alive were now fully upon hers. Alina trembled and sighed as he kissed her. One of the children ran by, breaking the spell of the moment. Alina straightened up. The only man she’d ever kissed besides her father was Benny. And she’d never felt like this when Benny kissed her. This was magic. She was confused, frightened, excited, wanting more, and wanting less…then remembering what Lotti had told her. What was she doing?
“Oh, it’s all right. It wasn’t real anyway,” Alina said, standing up quickly.
“I’m sorry? I mean, I don’t understand? What wasn’t real? It was real for me,” Johan said.
“The hair clip. It wasn’t real silver; it was plated, and the pearls were glass.” Her knees felt weak and they were trembling.
“Oh … oh,” he said.
“I have to go.” She turned away from him and began to walk away quickly.
“Alina … Alina…” he called after her. “I hope I didn’t offend you.”
She dared not look back. Her entire body was shaking, but she’d never felt so alive.
After Alina and Johan kissed, Alina decided that it was best if she started to take her relationship with Benny more seriously. In the back of her mind, she heard Lotti’s words repeated continuously. “Johan isn’t strong enough for an interfaith marriage. He would not be able to stand up to the Nazis.”
Alina thought about all of Benny’s attributes. There was no doubt that Benny was a nice boy, a good boy. He was a hard worker and he came from a good stable family. But, most importantly, he was Jewish and she was Jewish. And that made all the difference in the world in Nazi Germany in 1938. Alina repeated these attributes to herself whenever her thoughts drifted to Johan.
So to move things along more quickly, Alina suggested marriage to Benny. It was unheard of for a girl to be so bold. At least Alina felt that it was a little outrageous. But the sooner she and Benny were engaged, the better. After all, she would be far too busy planning the wedding to think about that fateful kiss with Johan.
Benny was elated. He told Alina that he planned to ask her many times, but he was always afraid that she would refuse. He was glad she had asked.
“Let’s get married in the spring,” he said.
“I thought maybe June of next year would give us enough time to make plans.”
“June would be perfect. I can’t wait to tell my family. They’ll be so excited. I want you to meet them, and we can tell them together. I’ll tell my mother that I want to bring you to dinner on Wednesday. Instead of going out to the café, we can go to my house and announce our engagement.”
“That sounds perfect.” Alina smiled, but her heart was sad and empty. This is for the best, she thought.
“When should we tell your family?”
“Let’s talk to yours first. Once we’ve told your family, we can make arrangements to tell mine.”
The days passed, and the closer Wednesday came, the more Alina was rethinking her plans to marry Benny. It was strange that trying not to think about Johan had brought him front and center in her mind. In fact, she’d begun to think about him most of the time. Her mind had begun to play tricks on her. She’d see small scenarios in her mind’s eye where Johan came to her house and forbade her to marry anyone but him. Or she would imagine dancing in his arms, waltzing as the music played in a candlelit room.
Silly, she thought. (There can never be anything between Johan and me. Never)
On Monday, there was talk at the orphanage about something political. Everyone seemed upset, even Lotti. Alina didn’t care at all. They were mumbling about a Jewish man who killed someone in France. The more everyone chatted about the event, the less she wanted to hear. How could the murder of a secretary of the German Embassy that took place in Paris, which felt like a million miles away, have anything to do with her? Right now, Alina had far more important things on her mind. She was about to make an announcement to marry Benny, which would change her life forever. Over lunch, Lotti was going on about the murder in Paris. Lotti told Alina that she was frantic because it had been committed by a Jewish man. Alina just nodded. She was bored with the subject already. And even if the killer was Jewish, what did that all have to do with her?
Benny arrived on time on Wednesday night, as he always did. He always made a nice appearance, but tonight he had dressed up even more than usual. Alina wore a simple three-quarter sleeve brown dress and low-heeled shoes. Tonight she was going to meet her future in-laws. And every step she was taking towards a future with Benny felt like a mistake. If she didn’t back out now, in a few months she would be a married woman. Benny was smiling at her. She could see in his eyes how happy he was that they were going to be husband and wife. Perhaps she would learn to love him.
Her future in-laws welcomed her into their home. It seemed to Alina that they already knew what she and Benny had come to tell them. Surprisingly, Benny’s mother was a smart dresser with her amber-colored hair in perfect finger waves. This was not at all how Alina had pictured her. Benny’s father was a slender man, tall, and distinguished, with perfectly groomed silver white hair.
The house was decorated with fine furniture, but it was not overdone. Alina knew, because Benny had told her, that before Hitler had come into power, Benny’s father had been a successful businessman. The quality of their home and its furnishings reflected the money he’d earned in the past. Benny’s parents were gracious hosts. They asked Alina about her family and her work at the orphanage. Everything she said seemed to meet with their approval.
After everyone had finished eating, Benny’s mother got up to clear the table. Alina began helping.
“No, please, you are our guest. Go and sit down in the living room. I’ll clean up and when I’m done I’ll bring some coffee and dessert.”
“Are you sure I can’t help you?”
“Absolutely positive. I’ll just be a few minutes.”
It wasn’t long before Benny’s mother appeared carrying a tray with a silver coffee pot, china cups, and a dish of cookies. She poured coffee for everyone. Then, as they sat sipping, Benny made the announcement.
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes