They went back to Wawolnice the next morning. Cleanup crews had labored through the night. If you didn’t live there, you wouldn’t have known a pogrom had raged the day before. Just as well, too, because no pogrom was laid on for today. You couldn’t run them too often. No matter how exciting they were, they were too wearing on everybody—although the Ministry of Justice never ran short on prisoners to be disposed of in interesting ways.
Putting on his ordinary clothes at the apartment had made Veit flinch. He’d swallowed a pain pill beforehand, but just the same . . . And changing into his Jew’s outfit under Wawolnice hurt even more. No wonder: the left side of his rib cage was all over black-and-blue.
“That looks nasty,” Reb Eliezer said sympathetically, pointing. “Are you coming to shul this morning?”
“Fraygst nokh?” Veit replied in Jakub’s Yiddish. Do you need to ask? “Today I would even if it weren’t my turn to help make the minyan.”
A couple of yeshiva-bykher were already poring over the Talmud when he got to the cramped little synagogue. The real books were back in place, then. The men who made up the ten required for services ranged in age from a couple just past their bar-mitzvahs to the melamed’s thin, white-bearded father. If the old man’s cough was only a performer’s art, he deserved an award for it.
They all put on their tefillin, wrapping the straps of one on their left arms and wearing the other so the enclosed text from the Torah was between their eyes. “Phylacteries” was the secular name for tefillin. It had to do with the idea of guarding. Veit’s aching ribs said he hadn’t been guarded any too well the day before. Wrapped in his tallis, he stood there and went through the morning service’s prayers with the rest of the men.
And he had a prayer of his own to add: the Birkhas ha-gomel, said after surviving danger. “Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, ha-gomel lahavayim tovos sheg’ malani kol tov.” Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who bestowest good things on the unworthy, and hast bestowed upon me every goodness.
“Omayn,” the rest of the minyan chorused. Their following response meant May He Who has bestowed upon you every goodness continue to bestow every goodness upon you. Selah.
At the end of the services, the melamed’s father poured out little shots of shnaps for everybody. He smacked his lips as he downed his. So did Veit. The two kids choked and coughed getting their shots down. Their elders smiled tolerantly. It wouldn’t be long before the youngsters knocked back whiskey as easily and with as much enjoyment as everyone else.
One by one, the men went off to their work on the village. Reb Eliezer set a hand on Veit’s arm as he was about to leave the shul. “I’m glad you remembered the Birkhas ha-gomel,” the rabbi said quietly.
Veit raised an eyebrow. “What’s not to remember? Only someone who isn’t frum would forget such a thing. And, thank God, all the Jews in Wawolnice are pious.” He stayed in character no matter how much it hurt. Right this minute, thanks to his ribs, it hurt quite a bit.
Eliezer’s cat-green stare bored into him. To whom did the rabbi report? What did he say when he did? A Jew in a Polish village wouldn’t have needed to worry about such things. A performer who was a Jew in a Polish village during working hours? You never could tell what somebody like that needed to worry about.
“Thank God,” Reb Eliezer said now. He patted Veit on the back: gently, so as not to afflict him with any new pain. Then he walked over to the two men studying the Talmud and sat down next to one of them.
Part of Veit wanted to join the disputation, too. But the services were over. He had work waiting at the shop: not so much work as his wife would have liked, but work nonetheless. Eliezer did look up and nod to him as he slipped out of the shul. Then the rabbi went back to the other world, the higher world, of the Law and the two millennia of commentary on it and argument about it.
The day was dark, cloudy, gloomy. A horse-drawn wagon brought barrels of beer to the tavern. A skinny dog gnawed at something in the gutter. A Jewish woman in sheitel and head scarf nodded to Veit. He nodded back and slowly walked to his shop. He couldn’t walk any other way, not today and not for a while.
A tall, plump, ruddy man in Lederhosen snapped his picture. As usual, Veit pretended the tourist didn’t exist. When you thought about it, this was a strange business. Because it was, Veit did his best not to think about it most of the time.
Every now and then, though, you couldn’t help wondering. During and after its victories in the War of Retribution, the Reich did just what the first Führer promised he would do: it wiped Jewry off the face of the earth. And, ever since destroying Jewry (no, even while getting on with the job), the Aryan victors studied and examined their victims in as much detail as the dead Jews had studied and examined Torah and Talmud. The Germans hadn’t had two thousand years to split hairs about their researches, but they’d had more than a hundred now. Plenty of time for a whole bunch of pilpul to build up. And it had. It had.
Without that concentrated, minute study, a place like Wawolnice wouldn’t just have been impossible. It would have been unimaginable. But the authorities wanted the world to see what a horrible thing it was that they’d disposed of. And so twenty-first-century Aryans lived the life of early-twentieth-century Jews and Poles for the edification of . . . fat tourists in Lederhosen.
Repairmen had installed a new front window at the shop. Remarkably, they’d also sprayed it, or painted it, or whatever the hell they’d done, with enough dust and grime and general shmutz to make it look as if it had been there the past twenty years, and gone unwashed in all that time. Wawolnice was tended with, well, Germanic thoroughness. A clean window would have looked out of place, and so in went a dirty one.
As Veit opened up, the voices of the children chanting their lessons floated through the morning air. He’d been an adult when he came to the village. Would the boys grow up to become the next generation’s tavern-keeper and rabbi and ragpicker . . . and maybe grinder and jack-of-all-trades? He wouldn’t have been a bit surprised. The Reich built things to last. Chances were Wawolnice would still be here to instruct the curious about downfallen Judaism a generation from now, a century from now, five hundred years from now. . . .
You learned in school that Hitler had said he intended his Reich to last for a thousand years. You also learned that the first Führer commonly meant what he said. But then, you had to be pretty stupid to need to learn that in school. Hitler’s works were still all around, just as Augustus Caesar’s must have been throughout the Roman Empire in the second century A.D.
Something on the floor sparkled. Veit bent and picked up a tiny shard of glass the cleaners had missed. He was almost relieved to chuck it into his battered tin wastebasket. Except for the lancinating pain in his side, it was almost the only physical sign he could find that the pogrom really had happened.
He settled onto his stool, shifting once or twice to find the position where his ribs hurt least. The chanted lessons came through the closed door, but only faintly. The kid who went around with the basket of bagels—no kheder for him, even though it was cheap—came by. Veit bought one. The kid scurried away. Veit smiled as he bit into the chewy roll. Damned if he didn’t feel more at home in Yiddish than in ordinary German these days.
In came Itzhik the shokhet. “How’s the world treating you these days?” Veit asked. Yes, this rasping, guttural jargon seemed natural in his mouth. And why not—fur vos nit?—when he used it so much?
“As well as it is, Jakub, thank the Lord,” the ritual slaughterer answered. He often visited the grinder’s shop. His knives had to be sharp. Any visible nick on the edge, and the animals he killed were treyf. He had to slay at a single stroke, too. All in all, what he did was as merciful as killing could be, just as Torah and Talmud prescribed. He went on, “And you? And your wife?”
“Bertha’s fine. My ribs . . . could be better. They’ll get that way—eventually,” Veit said. “Nu, what have you got for me today?”
Itzhik carried his short knife, the one he used for dispatching chickens and the occasional duck, wrapped in a cloth. “This needs to be perfect,” he said. “Can’t have the ladies running to Reb Eliezer with their dead birds, complaining I didn’t kill them properly.”
“That wouldn’t be good,” Veit agreed. He inspected the blade. The edge seemed fine to him. He said so.
“Well, sharpen it some more anyway,” Itzhik answered.
Veit might have known he would say that. Veit, in fact, had known Itzhik would say that; he would have bet money on it. “You’re a scrupulous man,” he remarked as he set to work.
The shokhet shrugged. “If, eppes, you aren’t scrupulous doing what I do, better you should do something else.”
Which was also true of a lot of other things. After watching sparks fly from the steel blade, Veit carefully inspected the edge. The last thing he wanted was to put in a tiny nick that hadn’t been there before. At length, he handed back the slaughtering knife. But, as he did, he said, “You’ll want to check it for yourself.”
“Oh, sure.” Itzhik carried it over to the window—the window that might have stood there forgotten since the beginning of time but was in fact brand new. He held the knife in the best light he could find and bent close to examine the edge. He took longer looking it over than Veit had. When the verdict came, it was a reluctant nod, but a nod it was. “You haven’t got a shayla on your puppik, anyway,” he admitted.
“Thank you so much,” Veit said with a snort. A shayla was a mark of disease that left meat unfit for consumption by Jews. His puppik—his gizzard—probably had a bruise on it right this minute, but no shaylas.
“So what do I owe you?” Itzhik asked.
“A zloty will do,” Veit said. The shokhet set the coin on the counter. After one more nod, he walked out into the street.
Those chickens will never know what hit them, Veit thought, not without pride. The knife had been sharp when Itzhik handed it to him, and sharper after he got through with it. No one would be able to say its work went against Jewish rules for slaughtering.
Jewish rules held sway here, in Wawolnice’s Jewish quarter. Out in the wider world, things were different. The Reich let the performers playing Poles here execute—no, encouraged them to execute—those convicts dressed as shtetl Jews by stoning them and beating them to death. Assume the convicts (or some of them, anyhow) deserved to die for their crimes. Did they deserve to die like that?
As Veit’s recent argument with Reb Eliezer here in the shop showed, Jewish practice leaned over backwards to keep from putting people to death, even when the letter of the law said they had it coming. He’d learned in his own Talmudic studies that an ancient Sanhedrin that executed even one man in seventy years went down in history as a bloody Sanhedrin.
Again, the modern world was a little different. Yes, just a little. The Reich believed in Schrechlichkeit—frightfulness—as a legal principle. If you scared the living shit out of somebody, maybe he wouldn’t do what he would have done otherwise. And so the Reich didn’t just do frightful things to people it caught and condemned. It bragged that it did such things to them.
Along with the quiz shows and football matches and historical melodramas and shows full of singers and dancers that littered the TV landscape, there were always televised hangings of partisans from Siberia or Canada or Peru. Sometimes, for variety’s sake, the TV would show a Slav who’d presumed to sleep with his German mistress getting his head chopped off. Sometimes she would go to the block right after him, or even at his side.
All those executions, all those contorted faces and twisting bodies, all those fountains of blood, had been a normal part of the TV landscape for longer than Veit had been alive. He’d watched a few. Hell, everybody’d watched a few. He didn’t turn them on because they turned him on, the way some people did. He’d always figured that put him on the right side of the fence.
Maybe it did—no, of course it did—when you looked at things from the Reich’s perspective. Which he did, and which everyone did, because, in the world as it was, what other perspective could there be? None, none whatsoever, not in the world as it was.
But Wawolnice wasn’t part of the world as it was. Wawolnice was an artificial piece of the world as it had been before National Socialist Germany went and set it to rights. Performing here as a Jew, living here as a Jew, gave Veit an angle from which to view the wider world he could have got nowhere else.
And if the wider world turned out to be an uglier place than he’d imagined, than he could have imagined, before he came to Wawolnice, what did that say?
He’d been wrestling with the question ever since it first occurred to him. He was ashamed to remember how long that had taken. He wasn’t the only one, either. To some of the reenactors who portrayed Jews, it was just another gig. They’d put it on their résum é s and then go off and do something else, maybe on the legitimate stage, maybe not. Down in Romania, there was a Gypsy encampment that reproduced another way of life the National Socialist victory had eliminated.
For others here, things were different. You had to be careful what you said and where you said it, but that was true all over the Reich, which amounted to all over the world. Adding another layer of caution to the everyday one you grew up with probably—no, certainly—wouldn’t hurt.
No sooner had that thought crossed his mind than the shop door swung open. In strode . . . not another village Jew, not a village Pole with something to fix that he trusted to Jakub’s clever hands rather than to one of his countrymen, not even a tourist curious about what the inside of one of these hole-in-the-wall shops looked like. No. In came a man wearing the uniform of an SS Hauptsturmf ü hrer: the equivalent of a Wehrmacht captain.
Veit blinked, not sure what he was supposed to do. The Wawolnice in which he lived and worked—in which he performed—lay buried in a past before the War of Retribution. A Wawolnice Jew seeing an SS Hauptsturmf ü hrer would not automatically be reduced to the blind panic that uniform induced in Jews during the war and for as long afterward as there were still Jews. A modern Aryan still might be reduced to that kind of panic, though, or to something not far from it.
If a modern Aryan was reduced to that kind of panic, he would be smart to try not to show it. Veit let the Hauptsturmf ü hrer take the lead. The officer wasted no time doing so, barking, “You are the performer Veit Harlan, otherwise called Jakub Shlayfer the Jew?”
“That’s right. What’s this all about?” Veit answered in Yiddish.
The SS man’s mouth twisted, as if at a bad smell. “Speak proper German, not this barbarous, disgusting dialect.”
“Please excuse me, sir, but our instructions are to stay in character at all times when in public in the village,” Veit said meekly, but still in the mamaloshen. He’d thought Yiddish was a barbarous dialect when he started learning it, too. The more natural it became, the less sure of that he got. You could say things in German you couldn’t begin to in Yiddish. But the reverse, he’d been surprised to discover, also held true. Yiddish might be a jaunty beggar of a language, but a language it was.
All of which cut no ice with the Hauptsturmf ü hrer . He laid a sheet of paper on the counter. “Here is a directive from your project leader, releasing you from those instructions so you may be properly questioned.”
Veit picked up the paper and read it. It was what the SS man said it was. “Zu befehl, Herr Hauptsturmfü hrer!” he said, clicking his heels.
“That’s more like it,” the SS officer said smugly. Veit counted himself lucky that the fellow didn’t notice obedience laid on with a trowel.
Making sure to treat his vowels the way an ordinary German would—in this shop, remembering wasn’t easy; Veit felt as if he were using a foreign language, not his own—the reenactor said, “Sir, you still haven’t told me what this is about.”
“I would have, if you hadn’t wasted my time.” Nothing was going to be—nothing could possibly be—the Hauptsturmfü hrer’s fault. He leaned toward Veit. No doubt he intended to intimidate, and he succeeded. “So tell me, Jew, what your rabbi meant by congratulating you on your prayer this morning.”
He couldn’t have practiced that sneer on authentic Jews. Authentic Jews were gone: gone from Germany, gone from Eastern Europe, gone from France and England, gone from North America, gone from Argentina, gone from Palestine, gone from South Africa, gone even from Shanghai and Harbin. Gone. Spurlos verschwunden—vanished without a trace. Off the map, literally and metaphorically. But he must have seen a lot of movies and TV shows and plays (Jews made favorite enemies, of course), because he had it down pat.
First things first, then. Veit pulled his wallet from an inside pocket of his coat and took out his identity card. He thrust it at the SS man. “Herr Hauptsturmführer, I am not a Jew. This proves my Aryan blood. I am a performer, paid to portray a Jew.”
Grudgingly, the officer inspected the card. Grudgingly, he handed it back. “All right. You are not a Jew,” he said, more grudgingly yet. “Answer my questions anyhow.”
“You would do better asking him.” Veit pressed his tiny advantage.
“Don’t worry. Someone else is taking care of that.” The officer stuck out his chin, which wasn’t so strong as he might have wished. “Meanwhile, I’m asking you.”
“All right. You have to understand, I’m only guessing, though. I think he meant I played my role well. I got hurt when the village staged a pogrom yesterday—a broken rib.”
“Yes, I’ve seen the medical report,” the SS man said impatiently. “Go on.”
“A real Jew, a pious Jew, would have given the prayer of thanksgiving for coming through danger at the next minyan he was part of. I play a pious Jew, so I did what a pious Jew would do. The actor who plays the rabbi”—Veit came down hard on that—“must have thought it was a nice touch, and he was kind enough to tell me so. Please excuse me, but you’re wasting your time trying to make anything more out of it.”
“Time spent protecting the Reich’s security is never wasted.” The Hauptsturmfü hrer might have been quoting the Torah. He certainly was quoting his own Holy Writ. He stabbed a forefinger at Veit. “Besides, look at the village. This is a new day. The pogrom never happened.”
“Herr Hauptsturmführer, they’ve fixed up the village overnight. My ribs still hurt,” Veit said reasonably. He reached into a coat pocket again. This time, he took out the plastic vial of pain pills. He displayed them in the palm of his hand.
The SS man snatched them away and examined the label. “Oh, yeah. This shit. They gave me some of this after they yanked my wisdom teeth. I was flying, man.” As if embarrassed that the human being under the uniform had peeped out for a moment, he slammed the vial down on the counter.
Veit tucked the pills away. He tried to take advantage of the officer’s slip, if that was what it was: “So you see how it goes, sir. I was just playing my role, just doing my job. If I have to act like a dirty Jew, I should act like the best dirty Jew I can, shouldn’t I?”
“Dirty is right.” The Hauptsturmfü hrer jerked a thumb at the window behind him. “When’s the last time somebody washed that?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Veit answered, which might have been technically true. He wasn’t flying—his latest pill was wearing off—but he knew he might burst into hysterical laughter if he told the SS man that window had gone into place during the night to replace one smashed in the pogrom.
“Disgusting. And to think those pigdogs actually got off on living like this.” The SS man shook his head in disbelief. “Fucking disgusting. So you remember you’re playing a fucking part, you hear?”
“I always remember,” Veit said, and that was nothing but the truth.
“You’d better.” The Hauptsturmfü hrer lumbered out of the shop. He slammed the door behind him. For a moment, Veit feared the glaziers would have another window to replace, but the pane held.
He wasn’t due for the next pill for another hour, but he took one anyhow, and washed it down with a slug of plum brandy from a small bottle he kept in a drawer on his side of the counter. The warnings on the vial might say you shouldn’t do that, but the warnings on the vial hadn’t been written with visits from SS men in mind.
He wondered how Reb Eliezer’s interrogation had gone. As they’d needed to, they’d picked a clever fellow to play the village rabbi. But the SS specialized in scaring you so much, you forgot you had any brains. And if they were questioning Eliezer, maybe he didn’t report to anybody after all. Maybe. All Eliezer had to do was stick to the truth here and everything would be fine . . . Veit hoped.
He also wondered if the rabbi would come over here to talk about what had happened. There, Veit hoped not. The Hauptsturmf ü hrer had proved that the shul was thoroughly bugged. No great surprise, that, but now it was confirmed. And if they’d just grilled one Jakub Shlayfer, grinder, the walls to his shop were bound to have ears, too. Would Reb Eliezer be clever enough to realize as much?
Eliezer must have been, because he didn’t show up. Before long, the potent pill and the slivovitz made Veit not care so much. He got less work done than he might have. On the other hand, they didn’t haul him off to a Vernichtungslager, either, so he couldn’t count the day a dead loss.
“I’m tired,” Kristi said as they walked across the parking lot to their car.
“Me, too.” Veit moved carefully, like an old man. The rib still bit him every few steps.
“Want me to drive again, then?” his wife asked. She’d thrown out a hint, but he’d tossed it right back.
“Please, if you don’t mind too much.”
“It’s all right,” she said.
Veit translated that as I mind, but not too much. He waited till they were pulling onto the Autobahn before saying, “Let’s stop somewhere in Lublin for supper.”
“I’ve got those chicken legs defrosting at home,” Kristi said doubtfully.
“Chuck ’em in the fridge when we get back,” Veit said. “We’ll have ’em tomorrow.”
“Suits me.” She sounded happy. “I didn’t feel much like cooking tonight anyway.”
“I could tell.” That was one reason Veit had suggested eating out. It wasn’t the only one. He hadn’t told her anything about what had happened during the day. You had to assume the SS could hear anything that went on in Wawolnice. You also had to figure they could bug an Audi. But you had to hope they couldn’t keep tabs on everything that went on in every eatery in Lublin.
“That looks like a good place,” he said, pointing, as they went through town.
“But—” she began. He held a vertical finger in front of his lips, as if to say, Yes, something is up. No dope, Kristi got it right away. “Well, we’ll give it a try, then,” she said, and eased the car into a tight parking space at least as smoothly as Veit could have done it.
When they walked into the Boar’s Head, the ma î tre d’blinked at Veit’s flowing beard. They weren’t the style in the real world. But Veit talked like a rational fellow, and slipped him ten Reichsmarks besides. No zlotych here. They were village play money. Poland’s currency was as dead as the country. The Reichsmark ruled the world no less than the Reich did. And ten of them were plenty to secure a good table.
Veit and Kristi ordered beer. The place was lively and noisy. People chattered. A band oompahed in the background. It was still early, but couples already spun on the dance floor. After the seidels came, Veit talked about the Hauptsturmf ü hrer’s visit in a low voice.
Her eyes widened in sympathy—and in alarm. “But that’s so stupid!” she burst out.
“Tell me about it,” Veit said. “I think I finally got through to him that it was all part of a day’s work. I sure hope I did.”
“Alevai omayn!” Kristi said. That was a slip of sorts, because it wasn’t German, but you had to believe you could get away with a couple of words every now and then if you were in a safe place or a public place: often one and the same. And the Yiddish phrase meant exactly what Veit was thinking.
“Are you ready to order yet?” The waitress was young and cute and perky. And she was well trained. Veit’s whiskers didn’t faze her one bit.
“I sure am.” He pointed to the menu. “I want the ham steak, with the red-cabbage sauerkraut and the creamed potatoes.”
“Yes, sir.” She wrote it down. “And you, ma’am?”
“How is the clam-and-crayfish stew?” Kristi asked.
“Oh, it’s very good!” The waitress beamed. “Everybody likes it. Last week, someone who used to live in Lublin drove down from Warsaw just to have some.”
“Well, I’ll try it, then.”
When the food came, they stopped talking and attended to it. Once his plate was bare—which didn’t take long—Veit blotted his lips on his napkin and said, “I haven’t had ham that good in quite a while.” He hadn’t eaten any ham in quite a while, but he didn’t mention that.
“The girl was right about the stew, too,” his wife said. “I don’t know that I’d come all the way from Warsaw to order it, but it’s delicious.”
Busboys whisked away the dirty dishes. The waitress brought the check. Veit gave her his charge card. She took it away to print out the bill. He scrawled his signature on the restaurant copy and put the customer copy and the card back in his wallet.
He and Kristi walked out to the car. On the way, she remarked, “Protective coloration.” Probably no microphones out here—and if there were, a phrase like that could mean almost anything.
“Jawohl,” Veit agreed in no-doubt-about-it German. Now they’d put a couple of aggressively treyf meals in the computerized data system. Let some SS data analyst poring over their records go and call them Jews—or even think of them as Jews—after that!
Again, Veit got in on the passenger side. “You just want me to keep chauffeuring you around,” Kristi teased.
“I want my ribs to shut up and leave me alone,” Veit answered. “And if you do the same, I won’t complain about that, either.” She stuck out her tongue at him while she started the Audi. They were both laughing as she pulled out into traffic and headed home.