Michal's Destiny, p.7Roberta Kagan
“It’s a mitzvah to help the poor,” Michal whispered to Taavi.
“We don’t have money to be giving to anyone. Right now we need to find a place to stay and ensure our own future.”
She knew that Taavi was not a Talmud scholar. He was a survivor, and he knew how to be selfish when he had to be. So what had she expected? She glanced at him. His face was hard, determined. She didn’t like this side of him, this lack of caring, lack of kindness, but she should not have been surprised; after all, he was right. They did need to take care of themselves.
“The first thing we must do is find a place to stay,” Taavi said to Michal. He turned to a man who was walking in the opposite direction and asked him, “Where is the nearest hotel?”
The man answered him in Yiddish with a Russian accent. “You are from Russia?” The man asked Taavi.
“Me too. You want a hotel? Or you want to go to the homeless shelter? It is free. You can stay there until you find a place to live and a job.”
Taavi looked at Michal. “A shelter? Vos iz dos?”
Taavi had asked the man what a hostel was in Yiddish, and the man explained it was a homeless shelter. “They’ve built it for refugees. You’ll find a lot of other people from Russia staying there until they can get settled.”
“Only from Russia?”
“No, from all over the east. Jews running away from the pogroms. It’s not so bad here in Germany.”
“Ech, I wouldn’t say that. But at least they don’t come in the middle of the night and attack us. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it is better.”
Taavi nodded. “Better is a good thing. Where is this hostel?”
“I’ll give you directions,” the man said and he did.
Taavi and Michal walked for another three blocks. She glanced into various store windows, many of the names of the stores were written in Hebrew letters on the front windows. She saw a large sign for shoe polish and another for chimney sweeps. Children with dirty faces and knotted hair chased each other and played on the sidewalks. Women hollered to each other out the windows of their apartments. A door was propped open to what appeared to be a tavern. In the back of a darkened room, a group of men wearing fancy suits without head coverings sat whispering and playing cards. She bit her lower lip as they continued towards their destination on Wiesenstrasse. When they turned the corner, they saw the large stone building that had a sign hanging from a post that said, “Homeless Shelter.” Michal was relieved.
A woman with finger-waved brassy blonde hair that looked as if it had been bleached with peroxide sat at a worn wooden desk. Her nasal voice had a slight twinge of annoyance as she greeted Michal and Taavi. While Taavi was registering with the woman, Michal looked around. There were rows of beds, children playing on the floor, and overcrowded rooms that smelled of dirty laundry, perspiration, and cigarette smoke. The lost and destitute faces of the people frightened her. She’d come to Germany for a better life. Perhaps she should have stayed with Bepa. She reminded herself why she’d come to Germany. She wanted a home, a husband, children, and so she’d followed Taavi.
“This is only temporary,” he said, as he came up behind her. It was as if he’d read her mind. “I’m going to go out and find someone who can make us papers for the right price. If we have papers, we can go to the hostel. From what I understand, it is much better there. We must keep a good eye on our things here. I don’t trust that they won’t be stolen. I am also going to see about the carpentry job tomorrow. So, once we have some income that we can count on, we can feel a little more secure about spending our money to find a place to live.”
She felt her shoulders drop in despair.
“Don’t be afraid. I’ll take care of you,” he said and rubbed her arm. “Now, listen. I’m going to leave the luggage with you while I go out and buy something for us to eat. Try and get a little rest.”
They found two small cots, she in the women’s room, he in the men’s. She was beyond tired, but she couldn’t sleep. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, people were asleep on their cots. For Michal, the circumstances surrounding her were far too frightening to allow her to close her eyes. She felt that if she let her guard down even for a moment, everything that she and Taavi had brought with them would be taken.
She picked up the suitcase and put it in the bed under her. It was uncomfortable, but at least she knew it would be safe.
Michal lay on top of her suitcase with the scratchy gray wool blanket covering her, watching the other women in the room. She could hear a hodgepodge of languages, but most of the women seemed to be speaking in Yiddish. From the conversations around her, she gathered that all of them were displaced persons, Jews without a homeland. What strange twists her life had taken since her marriage to Avram. She’d grown up believing that she would spend her days in the same village of her birth, bearing and raising children of her own. She would be a frum and faithful wife, going to synagogue, sitting in the women’s section every Sabbath, preparing meals, sewing clothing, caring for a home. None of it had happened as she had once believed it would. Well, she dared not linger too long on the twists and turns of her past or she would find herself lost in fear of the future. The only option left to her was to go forward, and so she knew she must. Even though she had no skills to speak of, she wanted to try to find work. Perhaps she might find a midwife who needed an assistant. She wasn’t confident that she was skilled enough to work on her own, but she knew she was qualified to be a valuable assistant.
It began to rain outside. Michal could hear the crash of thunder and the burst of lightning. It seemed to shake the walls around her and the walls inside of her heart in unison. Somewhere across the hallway, a fight broke out. The voices of two angry women screeched in Yiddish, echoing throughout the shelter. From what Michal could make out, they were arguing about a hair brush, something about lice in a hair brush. The very thought of lice made Michal’s skin crawl and she felt a shiver of disgust run up her spine. LICE!
Taavi seemed to take forever to return. The darkness of evening began to settle over Berlin, and Michal wondered if Taavi had abandoned her. If he had, what would she do, where would she go? She must be crazy to be considering this; why would he do such a thing? Perhaps once he saw the conditions in Berlin, he’d changed his mind about taking on the responsibilities of a wife. Her eyelids twitched with the sting of tears that she was trying to hold back. It was best not to show weakness in this terrible place. These women surrounding her appeared desperate, some with children who they needed to feed; others were alone looking like lost souls. How would they respond if they knew how vulnerable she was? Would they take advantage of her? Steal everything she had? Buried deep in her bra, she had the money that Bepa had insisted that she take. When she and Bepa were alone, Bepa had given her extra cash, but she’d warned Michal not to tell anyone that she had the resources, not even Taavi.
“This is emergency money. It is for you in case you should need it. I am not saying Taavi is a bad man, but you will be alone with him in a foreign country. Just in case you find yourself in peril, you will have at least a little something to help you.”
The words reverberated over and over in her mind as she sat on the bed watching the sky grow darker outside the window.
It was nearly eight o’clock when Taavi returned. He’d been gone for over five hours. He knocked on the door to the women’s rooms. The head mother agreed to bring Michal out to him. When Michal heard that Taavi had returned, she felt her heartbeat slow down with relief. Then she went to the door.
“Come out; I brought some food and lots of news,” Taavi said.
“You were gone a long time. I was worried about you.”
“I’m sorry. I wanted to see the carpentry shop, so I walked all over town until I discovered that it is right next door to a hotel on the corner of Grenadierstrasse and Hirtenstrasse. I stopped at the boarding house on Grenadierstrasse. It is a lot
“I would like that,” she said.
He brought two thick heels of bread, a small container of herring in sour cream, and an orange. Michal took her suitcase and then two of them went into the communal room. The table was sticky, but there were no napkins to lay out the food. She felt herself wanting to gag. Taavi peeled the orange and split it between them. A crowd of hungry faces with wizened eyes watched them eat. If she wasn’t so hungry, Michal would have given her food to one of the children, but she had not eaten since the previous morning and she was famished. The simple fare caused her taste buds to explode and she greedily ate the small portion of food that Taavi had brought.
Once they’d finished, Michal cleaned up the mess. Taavi took their belongings and Michal followed him out into the street.
It was a short walk to the boarding house, but now Michal could see that the streets were populated with prostitutes and men who wore suits unlike the suits of the religious men she knew. She heard two men talking as Taavi hurried her along. They said something about the odds being five to one. She had no idea what that meant. Odds? Five to one? But there was little time to dwell on that. They arrived at the boarding house at almost nine o’clock.
“We’re all full,” the guard at the desk said.
“I have money to pay,” Taavi answered.
“How much is it a night?”
“Two marks for the room and two marks for me being kind enough to let you in at this late hour,” the guard said.
Taavi looked at Michal. She could see the distain he felt for the guard in his eyes. But he said nothing. Instead, he pulled the money out of his pocket and paid.
“Go to the back of the building. You have to take a bath and be disinfected and deloused before you can have a bed. But once you’ve finished bathing, you will both receive a bowl of hot soup.”
Taavi and Michal separated and both went to bathe. Michal was happy to feel the water cleanse her body. She’d felt filthy from traveling and from the shelter.
Once they were both clean, they were offered bowls of hot soup. Then they were given one bed, as if they were husband and wife. Michal was appalled, but she dared not question or complain. This boarding house was much cleaner than the shelter and she didn’t want to be sent away. She lay beside Taavi, both of them fully clothed and careful not to touch. At first it was uncomfortable, but exhaustion took over and she felt so safe with Taavi beside her that Michal fell into a deep and restful slumber.
When she awakened, Taavi was not beside her. Michal assumed he’d gone to the carpentry shop to announce that he had arrived in Germany. She stretched and sat up. It was strange to awaken in a place with so many people all around her.
“There is bread and a little butter in the kitchen,” a young girl who had been sleeping in one of the cots a few beds away from Michal’s said. “My name is Yana; I’m from Bryansk.” Yana spoke Yiddish. The dialect was slightly different, but Michal had no trouble understanding her. As time went by, Michal would hear many different dialects of Yiddish, but each would be close enough to the others to be understood.
“I’m Michal. I’m from a small village in eastern Siberia.”
Taavi came in carrying a slice of bread and a cup of watered down coffee made mostly from turnips. Real coffee was hard to come by and terribly expensive. With the inflation going on in Berlin, one could easily spend a million marks for a pound. This was a mixture of spices, turnips, a little coffee, and lots of water. He handed the food and drink to Michal and sat on the bed beside her. “I’ve found a rabbi here. He is willing to marry us. Four men who I met in the kitchen are willing to hold the poles for a canopy. We could be married today.” He smiled brightly.
She sipped the hot liquid. There was no cream or sugar, neither was readily available, especially in a shelter. Perhaps they could be bought for a price on the black market, but neither Michal nor Taavi were about to spend needlessly until they had a better idea of where the future was going to lead them. Besides, they had no black market connections. On their way to the shelter they saw men who looked as if they would be involved in illegal dealings, but Michal would not have trusted them.
Looking away from Taavi’s eyes, Michal felt guilty. All of her teachings had told her that it was wrong to take a husband so soon after Avram’s death. It was disrespectful. But she couldn’t live in such close quarters, alone in a strange country with Taavi without being wed. She sighed.
“You’re feeling bad about Avram?”
“There is nothing you can do for him anymore. Mourning will not do you or anyone else any good. If you would like, I will arrange a minyan every night for a week. But that is all I can do. We don’t have a year to mourn. I have to begin working and we have to get settled into our new life. This shelter is only temporary. I don’t plan for us to live here. I want to find an apartment where we can raise a family.”
She looked down and ran her fingers over the wool blanket. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes.
“Michal,” Taavi began again, his voice softer, more compassionate than before, “I am sorry. I know you grew up with very strong beliefs about things. I understand that, even though I don’t agree with most of it. However, things are not the same for us as they would have been if we were still back in Russia. Now we are here in a new country. There is little time to mourn the past. If we stay stuck in the past, we’ll fall into poverty and ruin and miss any opportunities that might come up for a better future.”
She knew he was right. It was only guilt and all that she’d been taught that were keeping her from moving forward. If they were to survive, and maybe even thrive in this new land, she must be willing to abandon everything she believed.
“Can you make all of the arrangements?” she asked.
He smiled brightly and gently caressed her shoulder. “Of course.”
They were married in a simple ceremony in the main room of the boarding house. Instead of celebrating with friends and family members, they said their vows of eternal devotion surrounded by displaced persons with blank staring eyes, who were lost in a country far from their homes.
Once the rabbi and the four men who held the posts that were draped with a tablecloth to create a canopy had been paid, Taavi slipped a thin gold band on the first finger of Michal’s right hand.
For a split second, she remembered how she’d felt when Avram had put his ring on the same finger. Then she forced the thought from her mind.
“Where did you get this?” she asked about the ring.
“Never mind where I got it. Let’s just say I got it to show you how much I love you.”
“Oh, Taavi, thank you,” Michal said. She turned away from him, looked down at her hand, and then at the posts and tablecloth that just a few moments before had been a makeshift chuppah, and Michal began to weep.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. She was thinking of Avram, of the future, of this strange country, of this man who claimed to love her. Frozen in time at this very instance, everything in her world felt so terrifying and uncertain.
Taavi took both of Michal’s hands in his. “We won’t spend our wedding night in a homeless shelter. I wouldn’t do that to you. Let’s get a room at the hotel next door to the carpentry shop. By the way, I saw the hotel when I went by the shop last night. The hotel looks very nice.”
“A hotel?” Michal said. She’d never been in a hotel. In fact, before the pogrom, she’d never eaten food that was not kosher. She felt like she’d fallen into a spiral that was rapidly going downward, undoing stitches of her life. Things were happening so fast that she didn’t have a chance to adjust to one strange and new situation before another arose.
“Yes, at least it will be private. Here, we have no pr
“Then what, after the hotel … the night … I mean, then what?”
“Shaa, don’t be so afraid. Trust me, Michal. I will take care of you. I promise. You’re going to have to trust me. We will spend our first night of marriage together in the hotel. I will take you to a restaurant and we will enjoy a pleasant dinner and some wine.” He smiled at her and lifted her face with his thumb gently on her chin. Gingerly, she returned the smile. He took both of her hands in his. “Your hands are freezing,” Taavi said and held them to the warmth of his cheeks. Then he opened the palms and kissed each one. “Don’t worry. After our first night together, we will return here to the shelter. But only for a very short time. Then once I begin working and I get settled in at my job, we’ll move. As you know, we have some money, but I’d like to hold on to it if we can. I would like to have my first pay from my new job before we find an apartment to rent. It should only be a week or two and then we will have a place to call our home.”
She nodded. He was so strong. It was good to lean on him. “Yes, all right,” she said. Her heart pounded in her chest. Tonight she would be expected to allow Taavi to act as a husband to her. There was no doubt that she cared for him. And now that she’d been married to Avram, she knew that sex could be pleasant. Poor Avram, her unions with Avram had been sweet, if not passionate. But, even so, the memories of that terrible day of the pogrom, still gave her nightmares, that horrific Cossack standing over her forcing himself inside of her, invading the most sacred place in her body. She felt as if the small opening to her womb had closed after that assault. It was like her womanly parts had been wounded and now the scar was healing them closed forever. But, even so, more than anything, she wanted children, and the only way to have children was … It was all so confusing, so embarrassing, so conflicted, how could she ever explain all of this to Taavi?
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes