Michal's Destiny, p.9Roberta Kagan
“Thank you so much. I am so sorry that my son disturbed you. He is just so uncontrollable at times.”
“It’s perfectly alright. I understand,” Michal said.
“May I buy you a cup of coffee or a sandwich?” the woman asked. “By the way, my name is Gerta Fogelman, and this active little fellow is Samuel, but I call him Sammie.” She smiled. Her teeth were perfect like tiny white gemstones, almost iridescent like opals. I’m waiting here for my husband; he had to come into town to see his accountant. It seems that my husband is so busy that we never see each other, so when he invited Sammie and me to come along, I was glad to spend some time as a family. Now, I’m wishing I hadn’t come; this child is driving me over the brink of insanity today.”
“It’s not necessary that you buy me anything to eat or drink,” Michal said. “But you are more than welcome to join me if you like.”
“I’d love to. It would be wonderful to spend some time talking with an adult my own age for a change.” Gerta smiled. “Do you live near here?”
“Yes, just a few blocks away. And you?”
“No, we are Jews, but we live outside the Jewish sector. We own a house in town.”
“Your own home, that must be wonderful.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. My husband owns a large garment factory. You may have heard of Fogelman’s Frocks? My husband is Richard Fogelman.”
That accounted for Gerta’s lovely cashmere coat with the silver fox collar.
“I’m sorry; I’m new here in Germany. I don’t know much about the different factories. But your coat is lovely.”
“Thank you. It’s a product of my husband’s company. Are you married?” Gerta asked.
“Yes. My husband is a carpenter here in this sector of town.”
“Do you have children?”
“No, not yet.”
“So, not to be nosy, but are you an artist? Or are you employed?”
“No, neither. We’ve only been in Germany for a short time. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I’m probably going to look for work.”
“Well, the good thing is, life is changing for women here in Berlin. It now seems as if ladies are permitted to follow their dreams. It’s a very exciting time. In fact, if I didn’t have a youngster, I would go back to school. Perhaps I’d become a professor.”
“I’m not sure what kind of job I can get; I’m not really qualified to do anything at all,” Michal said.
Gerta gestured for the waiter to come over to the table. She ordered them both sandwiches, potato salad, and coffee. Then she turned to Michal and said, “I insist that you have lunch with me,” and smiled.
Michal liked her right away. The boy was tearing through the restaurant again. The owner gave Gerta a nasty look.
“Well,” Gerta said, tapping the spoon on the side of her coffee cup. “I hope you won’t be offended by my asking, but … how would you like to work as a nanny for me?” Gerta asked. “God knows the boy is a handful and I could use the help. Then perhaps, if you think you can handle him, I might be able to go to university for a few hours a day.”
A Job? This was an answer to Michal’s prayers. She would earn money, she could leave Taavi, be free, be on her own.
“Where do you live, and how would I get there?”
“You could take the train or you could stay at our home during the week. I have plenty of space. You would have your own room, and I would pay you salary, plus room and board. If this is acceptable to you, you could return home on the weekend. Would you like some time to think about it?”
Michal glanced outside at the snowy sidewalk, then back at Gerta. The boy was a handful, no doubt about it. The job would not be easy. But she felt empowered; she would teach Taavi a lesson. She would show him that she didn’t need him, that he dare not treat her the way he had treated her the previous night.
“Nothing to think about. My answer is yes.”
“When would you like to start?”
“Today? I could go home and pack a small bag and meet you back here. I wouldn’t be long.”
“That would work out just fine. My husband has an automobile. He’ll drive us back to the house.”
Taavi didn’t go home after work. He was ashamed of his behavior the previous night and didn’t want to face Michal.
So after work, Taavi and Lev left the Jewish sector of town and went into the city of Berlin. Neither of them had been raised to be religious and both wanted to leave the Jewish ghetto. Berlin was an exciting place to live, and both men wanted to infiltrate themselves into German society. Lev worked as a carpenter, but he had a secret desire to be a painter, a real artist, he always said. Often, he’d spend his meager wages to hire prostitutes to pose nude while he intensely sketched and then painted their portraits. Taavi knew that if he were somehow able to find employment outside the ghetto, he could earn more money. They took the S-Bahn and arrived in a city wilder than either could ever have imagined. Paper boys stood on the street corners, hawking papers that advertised predictions for the future by famous psychics and astrologers. Taavi and Lev continued to amble down the strange streets, looking at the bewildering world surrounding them.
Lev was excited by the newness of everything. This was a place unlike anything either of them had seen before. They peeked inside of an elegant club called the Cabaret Montmartre on the west side of Berlin. On the stage, they saw two women completely naked caressing each other. Taavi was dumbstruck and mesmerized by their beauty. The audience seemed immune. They were a sophisticated group. Taavi watched as a couple got out of a long black car and were greeted by a doorman who wore a special uniform. They walked into the club, never looking at Taavi or Lev, as if both men were invisible. Lev pushed Taavi along. They glanced into the window of another nightclub. This one was called “Marquis de Sade in der Holle.” There they saw a woman naked on the stage, hogtied with rope, a stick had been placed between her teeth. A man was standing over her, wearing a black suit and cracking a whip across her back. Taavi trembled. He’d never seen such a heinous performance on a stage and he began to feel as if he’d walked into some sort of hell.
“Come on, there’s more,” Lev said.
Taavi cocked his head and gave Lev a strange look, but he followed him. He couldn’t help it; he was intrigued. This was quite an experience for a young man from a remote village in Siberia.
Women dressed as men with their arms around each other passed by him; they whispered into each other’s ears with soft voices. Two men dressed as women with lovely wigs, elegant gowns, high heels, and sparkling earrings slipped in to a doorway that had a marquee above it that said “Cabaret of the Spider.” Taavi was not a child, he had heard of such things, but he had never seen them displayed so openly before. He was not offended, but he had to admit he was shocked.
A sign said, “Peep Show,” at the corner of two busy streets.
“Let’s go in,” Lev said.
Taavi shrugged his shoulders. “How many marks is this going to cost?”
“I don’t know; we’ll see.”
They sat down in a booth that was closed off from the other booths so that the customers could not see each other. In front of them was a curtain. Once they paid their money, the curtain was raised. On the stage in front of them was a woman. She was one of the most beautiful women Taavi had ever seen. Her long golden wavy hair reached to her waist. She began to remove her clothes. Slowly piece by piece. Just as she was about to take off her bra, the curtain closed.
“If you want to see the rest of the show, you must pay more money,” a man at the door said.
Lev was engrossed; he refused to walk away. He gave the man a wad of paper bills and again the curtain rose. This closing and opening of the curtain for additional money continued until the woman was naked.
Watching her, Taavi was breathless. He’d never seen such a beautiful goddess, and he’d never seen a woman entirely naked before.
The curtain went down.
“Wait,” the man who ran the show said. He was standing in the doorway to their room. “The next act is something that I guarantee you have never seen before. It’s a phenomenon. You just can’t miss this.”
“What is it?” Taavi asked.
“It’s a man and woman in the same body. You can see their parts, both parts in the same body.”
Taavi felt a chill tingle in his spine. This wasn’t something to be gawked at; this was a deformity. He’d always hated it when he was a child and the freak shows came to town. His friends had been fascinated, but he’d always found himself pitying the poor souls who had been born malformed. “I don’t know…” he said.
“Come on, I want to see it,” Lev said. “I’ll pay if you don’t want to.”
Taavi gave in; he didn’t want to spoil the evening for his friend.
Lev paid and the curtain rose. What Taavi saw standing beneath the curtain took away all of the sexual desire that had built up inside him as he watched the beautiful girl just moments before. All he could feel was compassion for the poor creature that was shivering, standing naked and openly displaying a birth defect for a thrill-hungry audience.
“I can’t watch this, Lev, I’m sorry. I’ll wait for you outside.”
Lev just nodded; he couldn’t take his eyes away from the scene in front of him.
Taavi stood in front of the building and lit a cigarette. What he’d just witnessed made him feel a little uneasy, sick to his stomach. The cold wind brushed across his face as a raggedly dressed man walked up to him.
“Can you spare a few coins?”
The man was dirty and wrinkled, his hair disheveled. His body was hunched over like the body of an old man, but looking more closely at him, Taavi realized that he could not have been more than twenty.
“Sorry,” Taavi said, turning away from the homeless boy and feeling slightly guilty. He wanted to throw him a coin, but after all, Taavi wasn’t earning enough to squander his salary; he was watching every penny. There was no doubt he’d spend a few marks on a beer or two at some point during the evening, but he worked hard and he deserved a little release.
Once Lev came outside, Taavi dropped his cigarette and pressed it into the sidewalk with the toe of his shoe. Then he and Lev began walking. It was recently that Taavi had begun smoking. All of the men at the shop smoked and at first he had refused cigarettes, but then slowly he began to accept when the others offered him a smoke. Now, he went through a half of a package a day.
Again, they continued walking through the strange streets. A large poster advertising a masturbation wheel stood boldly in the window of one of the clubs. What is a masturbation wheel? Taavi wondered as he turned away, his face red with shame.
It was getting colder outside. Lev pulled his wool scarf tighter around his neck. “Let’s go inside somewhere and have a drink; I’m freezing,” he said.
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Taavi answered. For some reason, even with all of the excitement to distract him, Taavi could not stop thinking about his wife. He’d hurt Michal last night. He’d never meant to. It didn’t matter that she had denied him for so long; he’d acted like a brute, an animal instead of a man. Taavi loved Michal; how could he have been so crass? Looking around him at all of the odd people, he suddenly felt sad and alone. He wished Michal was by his side; he wished his arm was resting on her shoulder. A man wearing a dapper brown uniform, a matching hat, and an armband that bore a strange symbol passed them. The symbol was black, red, and white. It looked like a black widow spider on a red background. For now, Lev and Taavi thought nothing of the man or his uniform. They were innocent of what was to come. But, years later, they would learn the name of that spider-like symbol. It was a swastika.
In many of the alleyways that they passed, they saw war veterans still wearing their old uniforms, huddled over fires that burned in steel trash cans. They were trying to stay warm against the German winter. Many of these veterans were missing limbs. Both Lev and Taavi pretended not to see the broken men who’d been left with their destroyed bodies and loss of self-esteem after defending their country only to lose the war.
There was a tavern a few blocks up. As they passed the window, Taavi asked if Lev wanted to stop for a drink. This place didn’t look expensive. There was no show, just men and women sitting at small tables and at the bar. There was a group at the table next to them discussing books they were writing and books they had recently read.
Lev recognized a famous artist sitting in the corner by himself. He mentioned it to Taavi. A couple entered and the bartender acknowledged them loudly as famous performers in the Berlin Philharmonic. Two couples sat at a table on the other side of Taavi and Lev. The women were together and the men were together. They were discussing politics and philosophy.
“Berlin is something, isn’t it?” Lev said, as they ordered another beer.
“Yes, it certainly is. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Taavi said, not entirely sure that he liked what he saw.
Taavi was a striking man, far more handsome than Lev, whose looks were pleasant but unmemorable. Tall and well-built, with golden-brown hair streaked blond by the sun, a strong jaw, and high cheekbones, Taavi turned heads everywhere he went. Tonight was no exception. Lev, on the other hand, had dark straight hair that he’d combed back with pomade, a prominent nose, and a weak jawline. The bartender, a wizened looking fellow with a penetrating stare stood behind the bar eyeing them both. Taavi noticed the older man watching him, and wondered what was on the man’s mind. In 1920 Berlin, it could be anything. The man might find him attractive and be considering him as a prospective lover, or he might be thinking of a con to pull on Taavi and his friend. Taavi frowned, he was not game for any new adventures that this bartender might have in mind, and he would make it clear if the man should approach him.
But although he kept a clear eye on Taavi, the man did not approach him. He and Lev sat drinking their beer slowly, both of them wanted to enjoy the warmth for awhile before braving the cold on their way back home.
A woman with long lean legs and a shock of short bleached blonde hair that had been bobbed strutted over to the table where Taavi and Lev were drinking. Without asking, she pulled out a chair and sat down next to Lev, facing Taavi. In the dark bar, he could not determine her age, or even if she was pretty. All he could see clearly was her hair, so blonde that it was almost white. She sat boldly like a man with her legs spread apart and her arm draped on the side of the chair. She wore a well-made, fitted man’s suit in a dark grey pinstripe. Until Taavi came to Berlin, he’d never seen a woman wearing pants.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” she said. “I’m Frieda, and this establishment belongs to me.” Frieda looked at Taavi and misinterpreted his facial expression. She barked a harsh laugh. “So? What is it? You find it hard to believe that a woman owns such a place as this? From the way you’re dressed, and I mean no disrespect,” she giggled a little, winking, “I have a funny but distinct feeling that you’re foreign. You’re not Berliners. Where are you from?”
“Russia,” Taavi answered, giving Frieda a look of disdain. She’d insulted him.
“Don’t be so touchy. You’re certainly a good looking fellow. You can wear whatever you’d like and it doesn’t make a hell of a difference. Women with a good eye can see right through those clothes,” she said. Lev watched her, toying with his beer mug.
“Do you have a name?”
“Taavi Margolis,” Taavi said.
“Well, that is a good Russian name. You’re a communist, perhaps?”
“Did I say I was a red?” Taavi said, unable to contain the anger in his voice. “I don’t care at all about politics. In fact, I’m sick of all of the talk of the Red Terror and the White Terror. I’m just trying to make a living and survive here in Germany.”
“Relax. It’s all right. I wasn’t looking to have a fight with you. I don’t pass judgment. Plenty of the
What a strange woman, Taavi thought. She was bold, coarse and too outspoken. Frieda threw him a book of matches, then put a cigarette into her mouth. “Light it, you silly fool,” she said.
He struck the match and watched the end of her cigarette turn orange. Then she drew a long puff and leaned back in her chair. He’d never known a woman who smoked before.
“How would you like a job?” she asked, licking her lips.
“I would,” Lev answered.
“Not you.” She turned to Taavi and looked directly into his eyes “You.”
Taavi took a long breath and sighed. He knew his boss was having a hard time affording to keep his men employed. Money was tight. Business was slow. Part of it was Rivesman’s fault; he was difficult and not flexible. He wouldn’t even try to compete with the factories. Taavi knew that if he were in charge, he could turn the shop around. But, Rivesman was stubborn and every day when Taavi went to work, he was afraid that the owner of the shop would have to let him go. “A job doing what?” Taavi asked.
“Tending bar. I’ve been wanting to get rid of that lazy good for nothing behind the bar. You’re handsome, and you look strong enough to carry the cases of liquor.”
Michal's Destiny by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes