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Underground fugue, p.18

Underground Fugue, page 18


Underground Fugue

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  She imagines her long-dead mother looking down from wherever it is the angels dwell, her dark hair fanned out behind her, her white arms raised. Her mother’s angel eyes are fierce.

  Go, her mother says.


  A stirring ripples through the refugee hall. Chairs scrape back; there is movement toward the door. A knot of people forms before the notice board on the wall. The list of immigration permits is going up. Once again the roulette wheel has been spun.

  Bored, Lonia turns the pages of one of the illustrated weeklies. The pages are filled with advertisements for fortune-tellers, palm readers, mediums, spiritualists. Could a clairvoyant tell her what the future held?

  One of the Hanoar Hatzioni girls, the religious one, squints at Lonia as she returns from checking the notice board. The girl is wearing a dowdy long-sleeved beige plaid dress with an oversized white collar, her hair tied back in childish plaits.

  “Any luck?” Lonia says.

  The girl shakes her head.

  “Still hoping to get to Palestine?” Lonia asks.

  “The British aren’t issuing any more entrance permits. You know that.”

  “My brother says there are still ways to get there.”

  The girl glances across the room. “It doesn’t matter. The Zionists want able-bodied workers who can build the country, farm the land. They have no use for old people or small children.”

  Lonia follows the girl’s gaze to a nearby table where a woman wearing a headscarf is bouncing a baby on her lap. She is surrounded by half a dozen older children—little boys with curling payes, girls in ill-fitting dresses cut from the same bolt of ugly plaid. The father was probably at shul. He’d better be praying very hard, Lonia thinks.

  “Families should stick together,” the girl says, sticking out her chin. “That’s the most important thing.”


  Back at the flat, Lonia and Hugo quarrel. They are in the study, whispering, the old cousins already gone to sleep. Hugo crosses his arms over his chest.

  “Are you going to listen to him or to me?”

  Why was everything an impossible choice? Paris or Venice? Swimming or skating? Bach or Chopin?

  “I’m just telling you what he said.”

  “What, that Hitler’s going to make a grab for Danzig? That the Jews are finished here? That’s news? I’ve been saying the same exact thing since before Austria fell!”

  “You could make a lot of money as a psychic, you know. I hear it’s all the rage.”

  “Shut up, Lonia. What the hell do you know?”

  “I don’t know anything, clearly.”

  “Then you could listen to me for once. Not some shvitzer you just met.”

  “I am listening. It just sounds dangerous to me.”

  Hugo turns away. He has not succeeded in getting immigration permits to Palestine. But there are ways to get around the quotas, he says. His latest scheme is to try to get on board a cargo ship in Constanţa that is being kitted out for refugees. An advance party has gone to Lwów to meet with a representative of the Jewish Underground from the Land. Hugo uses words that Lonia doesn’t understand: yishuv, ma’apilim, aliyah bet.

  She has been studying the map. From the coast of Romania, the ship would have to make it past the Turkish guards at the Straight of Bosphorus, across the rough Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, then past the British blockade to the port of Haifa or the beach at Tel Aviv.

  Isaac says the British will throw them into prison if they don’t first sink or run aground. Lonia has never been on a ship before. She doesn’t even know how to swim.

  “Papa won’t approve,” she says to Hugo, even though she knows this is the least persuasive of all the arguments she could make.

  Hugo just glares at her. “You do what you want, Lonia,” he says finally. “I don’t care.”

  Lonia turns away. Families should stick together, the Hanoar girl said.

  There was one moment, she remembers, after they’d emerged from the mine, when through the silence of the colliery there came the sudden sound of voices and a dog’s sharp bark. She saw panic flash in Hugo’s eyes. They had been betrayed.

  The older of the red-haired brothers scrambled to his feet. A blade flashed in his hand.

  “Hold still,” the guide hissed between his teeth.

  Lonia held still. The dog barked again. Hunched beside her, Hugo grabbed her arm. His fingernails dug into her skin. He was as powerless and as afraid as she was, she realized then.

  The guide had the hungry look of a wolf, an anti-Semite’s eyes. They all knew what would happen now. The border guards would arrest them or just shoot them on the spot. The guide would top off the sum they’d already paid him with a fat reward. Probably that had been his plan all along.

  But it was not the border guards. It was just an old couple in oily hiking boots and woolen caps, out for a Sunday walk in the forest, a spaniel trotting before them on its lead, barking at squirrels, wagging its tail. The couple didn’t even look their way.

  The red-haired brother folded his knife and put it back in his pocket. Hugo let go her arm and grinned, stupid with relief.

  Now Hugo is leaning on the windowsill with his back to her, his shirt stretched across his bony shoulders, the sleeves rolled up. When they were little, he used to pretend sometimes that he was a knight and she his vassal and make her swear an oath of loyalty. She had to kneel before him and bow her head. I promise never to betray thee, she pledged.

  But now she’s tired of following him around, tired of doing what he says. She’ll be eighteen in a couple of weeks. She has her own life to live.


  Today the breeze along the river smells of river weeds and grass, a summer smell, the smell of the lazy walks they used to take with their grandparents along the Opava towpath, scavenging for wild strawberries and lady’s slippers beneath the brambles and dead leaves. The sun is hot. The sky is clear. Isaac is leaning back on his elbows, his ankles crossed. Then he turns toward her, reaching into his jacket pocket with one hand.


  For a second, she thinks he is going to propose. Maybe he has not sold her mother’s ring? But what he gives her is not a ring but a small blue booklet. It is a passport. She flips it open. It is a passport. There is her photograph in black and white. There, in purple ink, sealed with official-looking stamps, is a visa for the United Kingdom. And there, tucked into the pages of the booklet, is a pink slip of paper, a ticket for a ship. The date stamped on the ticket is three days away.

  “How on earth—? Is it real?”

  He ignores her. “What do you say?”

  Static fills her head. England was an island where it rained. The British had stiff upper lips and wore pith helmets and tweeds. They ate mutton and porridge, drank milky tea. Of the English language, she can remember only useless phrases from the primer: I am sure to leave to-morrow. He is likely to arrive by the evening train.

  Isaac is watching her closely. “Will you come with me?”

  “And Hugo?”

  He shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

  She runs her finger along the cloth cover of the passport, over the gold-stamped words and seal. She cannot speak. She just nods, Okay.

  All this time, she has not known how to choose, when in fact there was no choice at all.


  The refugee hall is nearly empty now. The three of them sit at the end of a table near the back, awkwardly sipping glasses of tea.

  Isaac’s tone is formal, his manner stiff. “I would ask your father’s permission,” he says, “but I ask you now instead. I promise you I will take good care of her.”

  Lonia feels like a piece of livestock being bartered for a prize. “It’s my decision,” she says, but no one is listening.

  “I should hope so,” Hugo says.

  “If you can wait another week or two,” Isaac is saying to Hugo, “it’s possible something will come through for you as well. If Hitler doesn’t attack be
fore then.”

  Hugo pulls himself up straighter. “Don’t go to any trouble for me—I don’t need your help. I wouldn’t go to England anyway. I’ve told you that.”

  Lonia feels as if her heart has swollen and grown as porous as a sponge. She knows her brother’s stubbornness and pride. He’ll never admit to being afraid.

  Isaac pushes back his chair and extends his hand. “I wish you luck,” he says.

  She wants to say she’s sorry, but Hugo’s jaw is set. He will not meet her eyes.


  Later, she washes and folds her sheets and towel and the clothes borrowed from the old cousins’ grownup daughter and sets a note atop the stack. She writes a letter to her father as well. Do not worry, Papa, she writes, her pen scratching at the onionskin page. It is for the best, she writes, then adds, and only for a couple of months at most, I’m sure. She taps the rounded end of her Pelikan pen against her teeth. She is finding it difficult to breathe, as if a band around her chest has been cinched tight. She flips the words around in her head, unable to decide what to write. Hugo has refused to come along with us. No. Hugo has booked passage on a special ship to Palestine. No. She tries to inhale, but her lungs have turned to lead. Hugo wants me to go with him but I cannot. No. She sets her pen down and covers her face with her hands and weeps.


  The ship belches smoke from one tall smokestack and the docks of Gdynia fall away. She stands by Isaac at the rail and breathes the briny, coal-smoke air. Far below, the water churns into a widening wake. The coast fades to a thin gray line.

  The ship’s third-class cabins are tiny slots, six narrow bunks in each, bolted to the wall. Isaac sleeps below her, a Dutch physician overhead, three snoring merchants on the other side. She spends the rest of the time on deck, wrapped in Isaac’s coat, the sleeves dwarfing her hands. They chug past Swedish freighters, Danish fishing skiffs, German warships flying huge red swastika-emblazoned flags. The flat green fields of Schleswig-Holstein stretch into the distance beyond the Kiel Canal. The crossing of the North Sea is rough. She vomits in the latrine.

  At Tilbury, she wobbles weak-kneed down the gangplank to a shed where a dough-faced British officer stamps her passport, making her an official refugee. Then they board an autobus to London where an immigrant reception center has been arranged inside a primary school, the narrow beds crammed into classrooms lined with dusty chalkboard walls. She drinks endless cups of milky tea. She memorizes the phrase: I am sorry, but I do not understand.

  In the washed-out light of England, Isaac’s hat and coat look shabby, his face pale and strained. Although he is fluent in five languages, his English is inadequate, his accent guttural and hard for the Brits to understand. How will they find work, a place to live? She twists her phony wedding band around her finger. In the refugee center, alone in the cold toilet that reeks of piss, she weeps.

  Less than three weeks later, the Germans invade Poland and two days after that the British and the French attack. WAR, the newspaper headlines scream. Lucky, lucky, everybody says. They are lucky they got out. But lucky is not what Lonia feels. She is marooned now on this dismal island, cut off, the borders closed. No telegrams will reach behind enemy lines. No telephone calls. No post. She writes letter after letter that she cannot send.

  At the newsstand on Bayswater Road, she peers at the grainy black-and-white photographs on the front pages of the English papers: Hitler and Chamberlain, goose-stepping Nazi soldiers, bombed-out buildings and rubble-covered streets. She can make out only that new word—blitzkrieg—and a smattering of familiar names: Danzig, Warsaw, Łódź. Poland is surrounded by German tanks, Isaac says, the cities pulverized by bombs.

  Here in London, there are fears of air raids too. Children are being evacuated to the countryside. Gas masks are being prepared. People are queuing up outside the shops for blackout curtains and petrol, blue low-light bulbs, sugar, lard.

  Isaac finds a place as a school cleaner in Taunton, and a family in Wolverhampton that needs a nanny takes Lonia in. Lonia and Isaac see each other once a month on weekends when he comes up on the train. She shares a bed with the five-year-old who teaches her words in English and kicks violently in his sleep. As her English improves, she tells him bedtime stories, the fairy tales her father once told her, about the twelve princesses and the underground cavern with the gold and silver trees.

  “At the beginning of a story, you must say, ‘once upon a time,’ ” the boy solemnly instructs her. “And at the end, you must say, ‘happily ever after.’ That’s the way it is with stories,” he says.

  Lonia pushes down the hollow feeling in her chest. Happily ever after, she thinks. She prays that her father has enough to eat, that Hugo has reached Palestine aboard his clandestine ship. She pictures him leaning on the rail, looking out toward the distant coast of Romania or Turkey, passing rocky Aegean islands or the green flank of Cyprus, squinting in the sun reflecting off the waves. She pictures him in Palestine, picking oranges at dawn, his chest tanned and bare. He is now a pioneer. He has changed his name to Ziv.

  In German, at the end of a story, one said: Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute, which meant, If they haven’t died, then they’re still alive today. Lonia crosses her fingers and holds her thumbs and tells herself that everything will be okay.


  There are many stories, Lonia comes to understand much later, that have no endings. For years, long after the war has ended, she hopes and waits. Letters are returned unread. Inquiries to the Red Cross turn up documents revealing that her father was transported to Nisko nad Lanem in October 1939, sent back to Ostrava in March 1940 after the dissolution of the labor camp, and deported to Terezin two years after that. Of the 3,567 Jews deported from Ostrava during the war, she eventually learns, only 253 survived. Of Hugo, there is no trace. He is unaccounted for, uncounted, lost. Did he perish trying to reach Palestine? Or might he have traveled east instead and somehow, somewhere, survived?

  How could you lose a person? Lonia wants to know what happened. She wants a body, a record; she wants to leave a pebble on a grave. Isaac tries to work his contacts in Israel and behind the Iron Curtain but turns up nothing. In place of knowing, Lonia has only the inexorable arithmetic of time. On the day her father would have turned one hundred, she lights a Yahrzeit candle and fills in a Page of Testimony for the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem. The row on the Testimony form marked “Circumstances of Death” lists a grim litany of possibilities: prison/deportation/ghetto/camp/death march/hiding/escape/resistance/combat/unknown. She leaves it blank.

  She does not light a candle for Hugo. She does not fill in a form. Maybe, maybe, maybe, she thinks. Maybe he was alive and living in Vladivostok, Sverdlovsk, Magadan. Maybe he was driving a tractor in the wheat fields of the Kazakh oblast, or hidden in a remote valley in the Siberian taiga, living off the land. Maybe he didn’t want to be found. She realizes that by now he would have aged, his skin gone slack, his hair turned white, like hers. But she cannot picture him as anything but young.


  In Lonia’s morphine dreams, she is underground. She is drifting through a glittering stalagmite-studded cavern. She is crawling through the blackness of the Tešin mine. She is huddled on a platform in the Underground, sirens wailing, Stukas roaring, bombs thudding overhead. She is streaming through the darkness of a tunnel toward a glimmering white light. Everything is shattered, everything is smashed to bits.

  Somewhere, far away, music is playing. The melody splits into fractals, circles, repeats. The great gears turn. Voices rise and fall, spinning beyond the reach of time. Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, the voices sing.

  There is a hand. She reaches out to grasp it, squinting in the light.

  “Tell him—”

  Her fingers are slipping.




  He swings his briefcase as he makes his way along the quiet residential streets toward the Tube. It is a damp, gray Thur
sday morning. There is a feeling of expansiveness, a ringing in the air. The harmonies resonate around him: that mossy wall, that white-blossomed bush, the dappled play of shade and light. He has felt this way since his night with Esther. The memory comes to him in gentle waves, catching him by surprise: the softness of her body, the sweetness of her lips. This is happiness, he thinks.

  At Finchley Road, Javad waits at the pelican crossing for the light. Four lanes of traffic sweep away the peaceful curving streets, the equilibrium of the morning, in a blur of exhaust fumes wafting up off the concrete. He checks his watch. He’s due at a committee meeting at 9:00. He’s running late.

  He’d stayed up too late the night before watching the news—good news for once—of London’s successful Olympic bid. Smug Lord Coe and grinning Beckham, Tony Blair dancing his little victory jig. The 2012 summer games, here in London. God only knows how they’d manage the security for an event like that. 2012 still sounds like science fiction. Maybe the world would be a better place by then. One could hope, at least.

  The light turns green. The signal bleeps. He crosses, makes his way around the plastic tubs of flowers, the crates of fruit, the crowds of commuters elbowing their way into the Tube.

  On Platform 4, the electronic departure board reads ALDGATE 2 MINS. It’s 8:38 a.m. Six station stops to King’s Cross, then a change for Russell Square. He sighs. He’ll almost certainly be late.

  With a rhythmic clatter, the train pulls up and squeals to a stop. The doors hiss open. The carriages are packed. He squeezes his way in and grabs a pole, setting his briefcase between his feet. It is hot and claustrophobic. Why is it so crowded? The closing bell beeps.

  At Baker Street, he grasps the pole as a mass of passengers pushes out around him and a fresh mass surges in. Again the doors hiss shut and the train jolts forward. He shoves his hand into his pocket and flips his phone open, shut. He wonders, for a fleeting moment, whether he should try calling Amir again or just leave him be. No news is good news, people always said. He has not heard from him now for going on two weeks.

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