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Michals destiny, p.6
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       Michal's Destiny, p.6

           Roberta Kagan

  The synagogue was burned to the ground, only ashes and a few walls remained, half standing. A few of his old friends and customers were still in the village. They welcomed him, glad to see that he had escaped. From his friends, Taavi learned that the rabbi had been murdered and the Torah had been destroyed. He walked the old familiar streets, his heart sick and heavy. When he passed his carpentry shop, he felt his heart sink even lower. All of the windows were busted out and all of the furniture he’d worked so hard to create, furniture he’d carved so carefully for hours, now lay broken into pieces on the floor. He was ready to leave Russia forever. That was when he began to talk to the other villagers, to see if anyone could help him find a way out of the country. It took several visits, but Taavi was patient and finally he got what he wanted.

  That night he returned to the little house in the forest with news.

  “I’ve been to the village,” Taavi told Bepa and Michal as they sat around the cast iron stove eating soup. “Everyone who was left alive is terrified that there will be another pogrom.”

  “I am certain that there will be. These things are not new. They have been happening for generations,” Bepa said. “Why don’t you stay here, out in the forest? You will be safe here.”

  “I have no job here. I cannot earn any money here. In fact, that is what I wanted to talk to both of you about. When I went to the village, I found an old friend of mine. He has a brother who lives in Berlin. His brother has a carpentry shop. My friend said that he would contact his brother and perhaps find work for me in Berlin.”

  “Berlin? Germany? That is so far away,” Michal said.

  “Yes, I know. But I need the work. And besides, from what I’m hearing, the Germans are educated. They’re more advanced than the Russians, a more civilized people. I would be living and working in a big city. Berlin is a lively and exciting place. From what everyone is saying, it’s the center for art and science. I’m sure that there’s still some anti-Semitism, even in Germany, but the people are not ignorant like they are in Russia. We are surrounded here with villagers who are backward and terrified by old superstitions. They think Jews have tails and drink the blood of Christian babies. Jews are hated and feared in Russia. The czars throughout the ages have caused that. But, I believe Jews are tolerated in Berlin. I’ve heard that the Jewish community is thriving, that there are Jewish artists, writers, and scientists. What I think is that in Berlin, they leave us alone and we leave them alone.”

  “But things are changing here. Things will be better now that the communists have taken over,” Michal said hopefully.

  “Do you really believe that? Russia has always been known for blaming the Jews for all of its problems. There will be problems with this regime too … and then what?”

  “My father always said that the Jews needed a homeland.”

  “And we do … desperately, but for now, we need to get out of Russia.”

  “Well … if you think that’s what’s best for you…”

  “I do. But, Michal, it’s not just what’s best for me; I want you to go with me.”

  She looked away and shook her head.

  “I want to marry you.”

  “I’m still in mourning for my husband. I can’t even consider such a thing.”

  “Times and circumstances have changed us. I have feelings for you. I know you have feelings for me. I respect that you are very frum and it is unsuitable for a man and woman who are unmarried to travel together.”

  “Berlin is very far away. You are welcome to stay here. I am going out to get some water. I’ll be back. I think it’s best that you two talk about this alone,” Bepa said, and she walked out, closing the door softly behind her.

  “Bepa is right; Berlin is very far from here. I think it is very different from everything we know…”

  “But I would be very respectful of you. Very respectful. I would not do anything inappropriate. I promise you this. And I would not even consider coming near you until our union was blessed in the eyes of God by marriage.”

  She liked him. She’d always liked him. And he was there when she was in danger; he’d rescued her. He was a strong man, a man who could be trusted.

  “You could stay here with Bepa; I realize that. But I would miss you terribly and you would be wasting your life. Avram is gone, Michal. Your grief cannot bring him back. You’re still alive. You’re still young. Marry me. Come with me to Berlin, to the city. I will make a nice life for us.”

  “I don’t know…”

  “Michal,” he said, his voice soft and pleading. Then he did the unthinkable … he took her hands in his. She shuddered for a moment. It was not right for a man to touch a woman who was not his wife, and especially a woman who was married to another man. He’d promised not to do anything inappropriate, and he was doing something wrong already. But … she liked him. And she measured the situation. Her husband was dead. There was a very good chance that her family was dead as well. She had come to adore Bepa; she enjoyed the work she shared with Bepa. However, if she stayed in the forest, her days would be spent healing the sick and delivering babies. Rewarding, yes. Fulfilling, no. Michal took a deep breath. She could not hide from her true feelings. From the first time she’d seen Taavi, she had felt desire run through her like a current of lightning and, instead of disappearing, that current had grown stronger over the last several months. She could not bear to think of being without him for the rest of her life. And she knew that if he went to Berlin alone, she could probably assume that he would not return to Siberia. This was her only chance. All of the religious modesty and all of the rules she’d been raised to abide by began to lose their validity. If she stayed, she would spend her life working with Bepa; it was almost certain that she would die a childless widow. If she left … if she left … she would have a husband, a home … even, God willing, children. Was it a sin to want this life so soon after Avram’s death? She trembled as she whispered a prayer to God in her mind, “Please forgive me, Hashem, I beg of you forgive me for what I am about to do.…”

  Then Michal, with trembling hands, reached out and took Taavi’s hands in her own. She could see the shock on his face. He was hardly expecting her to touch him.

  “Yes,” she said.


  “Yes. I will marry you. I will go to live with you in Berlin,” she said and took a long breath.

  A smile broke across his face. He laughed out loud. She could hear the joy in his laughter and she began to laugh too.

  “You’ve made me very happy this day,” Taavi said.

  “And you have made me happy too.”

  “We will marry in Berlin, where we can avoid the questioning and critical eyes of our old neighbors. Until then, I will observe all of the laws and not take any liberties with you,” he said, drawing his hands away gently. “Please don’t think I don’t find you attractive. I find you beautiful. But, out of respect for you, I will wait.”

  She knew he was right. If they went down to the village where they had grown up and searched to see if anyone knew where to find a rabbi, there would be questions, there would be judgment. People would condemn her for accepting a proposal so soon after her husband’s death. Taavi was right. It was best to leave Russia as soon as possible and go to Berlin.

  “How will we get there?” Michal asked.

  “I have some money that I saved from when I was working before the pogrom, and I sold the furs from the animals I caught these last few months. There is a man in the village who has a horse and cart. I will pay him to take us to the railroad. We will take a train into Germany. Then, once we arrive in Berlin, I am fortunate to have a job waiting for me. The man who recommended me to his cousin is a trustworthy friend. We will be all right. As soon as we arrive in Berlin, we will marry.”

  Bepa had returned. She stood listening for a few moments at the door before she entered.

  “I was listening and I know you want to go. I will miss you both. I don’t think Germany is as wonderful a place as you
think it is. And I will tell you again you are both welcome to stay here,” she said, leaning against the wall. It was as if she needed support to say goodbye to Michal.

  “We want to go, Bepa. We both are very grateful for all you have done for us,” Taavi said.

  “All right then.” Bepa was suddenly strong once again “If that is your decision … then, here.” She took an earthenware pot with a heavy handled cover down off the top shelf, where she stored her medicinal herbs. She reached in and pulled out a pile of coins.

  “Take this money. I have no use for it here. You might need it to start your lives in a new country.”

  “We have enough. Thank you,” Taavi said.

  “Michal has been a great help to me. This is not charity. She earned this money as my assistant. I insist that you take this, Michal. I will not take no for an answer.”

  Bepa looked at Michal with eyes the color of a blue jay, “Take it!” Bepa said, her voice firm.

  Michal took the money.

  Bepa nodded and turned away, then she walked outside the cabin to be alone. Michal saw the sadness that Bepa tried to hide as she left and thought, she doesn’t want us to go. She will be alone again and lonely. A seed of sadness took root in Michal’s heart. But before she had a chance to let it begin to grow, Taavi began packing the few things he’d brought with him when he came to the old woman’s house. The sound of his movement around the cabin distracted Michal from her thoughts.

  “Taavi,” she said, her voice quivering, “I don’t even speak German.”

  “Yiddish is very similar.”

  “Is it? You know, it is said that Yiddish is the language of God.”

  “Yes, I’ve heard that old wives’ tale.” He smiled.

  “But it’s not an old wives’ tale. The rebbe says--”

  “Yes, and the rebbe was there to protect you and save you when you needed him, wasn’t he?”

  She looked away.

  “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. Listen, don’t worry about speaking German. I speak fluent German and I can read and write in German as well.”

  “Really?” She cocked her head to the side. Would this man ever cease to amaze her?

  “Yes, really. And, I’ll teach you.”

  “To read and write too?”

  “Yes, to speak, read, and write in German.”

  “Oh, Taavi. That would be wonderful.”

  “Yes, women should have access to books.”

  “The rebbe says that it is not good for women to learn. It takes us away from our true purpose of being wives and mothers.”

  “Again the rebbe?”

  “I do want to learn to read and write.” She looked into his eyes and her heart swelled. Any woman would find him to be very handsome. He had chosen her, and that made her feel very special. She thought that her life had ended the day that Avram died, but she was beginning to feel the joy of living sprouting inside of her. “By the way, how did you ever learn to read and write in German?”

  “My mother taught me.”

  “How did she know? Who taught her?”

  “I’d rather not talk about it, but let’s just say … she knew and she taught me,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

  Michal watched him as he talked about his mother. Something seemed to trouble him, but she dared not ask. “Well, I’m really happy that you plan to teach me.”

  He nodded his head. “You’d better get ready. I would like to leave the day after tomorrow,” Taavi said.

  So soon? So soon? Michal thought, but she just smiled in acceptance.

  Taavi was wrong. It took longer than two days for Michal and Taavi to prepare to make the trip. Taavi’s friend who lived in town suggested that Taavi wait for a return letter from his cousin, guaranteeing Taavi work before they took off for Germany. Between the weather and the distance, the letter took two months to arrive. It was not as positive as Taavi had hoped. Yes, the cousin would give Taavi a job, but business was slow. Money was tight. Germany was in a depression.

  “Are you sure you still want to go?” Michal asked, when Taavi told her about the letter.

  “Yes, I want to leave Siberia. I don’t want to face another pogrom.”

  “But the country is changing. The Bolsheviks are taking over. They hate the czar and they hate the Cossacks.”

  “Do you think they like the Jews? They say they accept us, but I know better,” Taavi said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Everyone hates the Jews…”

  “So, if everyone hates the Jews, why would things be different in Germany? Won’t they hate us just as much?”

  “Germany is a civilized country. I’ve been told that they are making tremendous advances in science, medicine, and the arts. A country like that would never do something as barbaric as a pogrom,” Taavi said. “We need to leave Russia. Whether it is governed by the Reds or the Whites, this country will always be an enemy to our people.”

  “I’ve heard differently. I’ve heard that Stalin wants to give us a part of Siberia as a Jewish homeland.”

  “I don’t believe it. As far back as my father’s father could remember, Russia has had pogroms against the Jews. I don’t want to stay here. I want to try and find a home where there is equality for our people and opportunities for work. I am resourceful. If I can’t find enough to do as a carpenter, then I’ll find another job. There are factories in Berlin. There is work in the city.”

  “Then at least agree to wait until the spring. It will be easier to travel once the weather is a little less brutal. Will you do that for me?” she asked.

  “I would do anything for you, Michal. And, yes, if that is what you want, then we’ll wait and leave at the first sign of the spring.”

  Meanwhile, Taavi spent every evening teaching Michal to speak, read, and write in German. Although she was curious, she never asked about his mother again.

  And so, after three months of planning, packing, and saying goodbye, Michal and Taavi were on their way to the city.

  Chapter 14

  Berlin, Germany, May, 1920

  Taavi set both suitcases down in front of him as they waited on the platform for the train that ran through the Jewish sector of town. Michal was nervous and excited. She had never been so far away from home. A loud whistle alarmed her as the train pulled into the station. A conductor with a dark blue cap motioned Michal and Taavi to go to the last cars.

  “People with baggage must ride in the back cars,” he said to Taavi.

  They boarded the correct car. Michal sat down beside a woman with a cute little girl that appeared to be about five years old on her lap. Michal smiled at the child, who shyly nuzzled into her mother’s chest. There were not enough seats available, so Taavi remained standing. Then the train began to rattle and move along the rail. Michal turned her body so that she was able to look out the window. Before she began this trip, Michal had never left the small village where she was born. Every sight along the way excited her and filled her with wonder, even though she was exhausted and hungry, she was mesmerized by the enormous world that surrounded her. The train rambled past road construction and automobiles. Then a large billboard hung suspended on an iron post; it was a picture of a suave-looking dark haired man smoking a cigarette. Michal saw a group of three children playing on the sidewalk. Then the train sped by two women wearing head scarves and house dresses. They were talking across a fence as each of them was hanging their laundry out to dry. There were rows and rows of tall overcrowded apartment buildings that stood in line like soldiers beside the tracks. People sat outside on the stoops, they hung out the windows, and leaned on the buildings. Some of the apartment dwellers had forgotten to close the drapes over their windows, and Michal could see inside; some were eating, reading, or talking. Then she saw one couple making love. She looked away quickly, embarrassed, hoping Taavi had not witnessed the display of what should have been a very private moment.

  They arrived at their stop. Taavi grabbed the luggage and helped Michal off the train
. The walk to the Jewish sector of town was a short distance. But once they arrived, there could be no mistaking where they were. Although more people filled the streets than Michal had ever seen in one place at one time, they all looked ethnically familiar. Yes, their clothes were different, and their accents were different, but she could overhear the familiar sounds of the Yiddish language. From the open doors and windows of the restaurants, she could smell the familiar odors of Jewish cooking. Men and boys with long curly sideburns called pe’ot and long black coats hurried down the walkways. Some wore tall hats, others shorter felt hats, still others wore yarmulkes. They had stiff white shirts and short hair. Old men with long grey beards walked slowly through the streets. Women carrying baskets of food wore long skirts that reached their ankles and blouses that covered them from their necks to their wrists. But then there were others. She saw a rich couple get out of an automobile; the woman was wearing a fashionable dress and the man looked smart in a well-tailored suit. They entered the diamond cutter’s shop. Michal admired the woman’s beautiful garment; she’d never seen such finery. Two women with dresses low enough to expose most of their heavy breasts leaned against a building. Their lips and cheeks had been painted scarlet. One of the red-lipped women smiled at Taavi and winked. Then she lifted her dress to expose her thigh. Michal felt her face turn hot. These women must be prostitutes. She’d heard about such things, but had never seen or been so close to such a person. Taavi did not respond; he ignored the vulgar display, and Michal was glad. She wasn’t sure what she would have said or done had he smiled back. A young man with bent up legs and an amputated arm sat on the sidewalk wearing his army uniform. He held out a cup. In Yiddish he asked for a few coins. He said he was a veteran from the Great War. Michal wanted to give him a few of the coins that Bepa had given her, but Taavi shook his head, took her elbow, and led her away.

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