Jakub Shlayfer opened the door and walked outside to go to work. Before he could shut it again, his wife called after him: “Alevai it should be a good day! We really need the gelt!”
“Alevai, Bertha. Omayn,” Jakub agreed. The door was already shut by then, but what difference did that make? It wasn’t as if he didn’t know they were poor. His lean frame, the rough edge on the brim of his broad, black hat, his threadbare long, black coat, and the many patches on his boot soles all told the same story.
But then, how many Jews in Wawolnice weren’t poor? The only one Jakub could think of was Shmuel Grynszpan, the undertaker. His business was as solid and certain as the laws of God. Everybody else’s? Groszy and zlotych always came in too slowly and went out too fast.
He stumped down the unpaved street, skirting puddles. Not all the boot patches were everything they might have been. He didn’t want to get his feet wet. He could have complained to Mottel Cohen, but what was the use? Mottel did what Mottel could do. And it wasn’t as if Wawolnice had—or needed—two cobblers. It you listened to Mottel’s kvetching, the village didn’t need one cobbler often enough.
The watery spring morning promised more than the day was likely to deliver. The sun was out, but clouds to the west warned it was liable to rain some more. Well, it wouldn’t snow again till fall. That was something. Jakub skidded on mud and almost fell. It might be something, but it wasn’t enough.
Two-story houses with steep, wood-shingled roofs crowded the street from both sides and caused it to twist here and turn there. They made it hard for the sun to get down to the street and dry up the mud. More Jews came out of the houses to go to their jobs. The men dressed pretty much like Jakub. Some of the younger ones wore cloth caps instead of broad-brimmed hats. Chasidim, by contrast, had fancy shtreimels, with the brims made from mink.
A leaning fence made Jakub go out toward the middle of the narrow street. Most of the graying planks went up and down. For eight or ten feet, though, boards running from side to side patched a break. They were as ugly as the patches on his boots. A hooded crow perched on the fence jeered at Jakub.
He had to push in tight to the fence because an old couple from the country were pushing a handcart toward him, and making heavy going of it. The crow flew away. Wicker baskets in the handcart were piled high with their fiery horseradish, milder red radishes, onions, leeks, and kale.
“Maybe you’ll see my wife today, Moishe,” Jakub called.
“Here’s hoping,” the old man said. His white beard spilled in waves halfway down his chest. He wore a brimless fur cap that looked something like an upside-down chamber pot.
Chamber pots . . . The air was thick with them. Shmuel Grynszpan had piped water in his house, as his wife never tired of boasting. Not many other Jews—and precious few Poles—in Wawolnice did. They said—whoever they were—you stopped noticing how a village stank once you’d lived in it for a little while. As he often did, Jakub wished they knew what they were talking about.
Signs above the tavern, the dry-goods store, the tailor’s shop, Jakub’s own sorry little business, and the handful of others Wawolnice boasted were in both Polish and Yiddish. Two different alphabets running two different ways . . . If that didn’t say everything that needed saying about how Jews and Poles got along—or didn’t get along—Jakub couldn’t imagine what would.
He used a fat iron key to open the lock to his front door. The hinges creaked when he pulled it toward him. Have to oil that, he thought. Somewhere in his shop, he had a copper oilcan. If he could find it, if he remembered to look for it . . . If he didn’t, neither the world nor even the door was likely to come to an end.
He was a grinder. Anything that was dull, he could sharpen: knives, scissors, straight razors (for the Poles—almost all the Jewish men wore beards), plowshares, harvester blades. He was a locksmith. He repaired clocks—and anything else with complicated gearing. He made umbrellas out of wire and scrap cloth, and fixed the ones he’d made before. He sold patent medicines, and brewed them up from this and that in the dark, musty back room. He would turn his hand to almost anything that might make a zloty.
Lots of things might make a zloty. Hardly anything, outside of Grynszpan’s business, reliably did. Wawolnice wasn’t big enough to need a full-time grinder or locksmith or repairman or umbrella maker or medicine mixer. Even doing all of them at once, Jakub didn’t bring home enough to keep Bertha happy.
Of course, he could have brought home more than the undertaker made and still not kept his wife happy. Some people weren’t happy unless they were unhappy. There was a paradox worthy of the Talmud—unless you knew Bertha.
Across the way, the little boys in Alter Kaczyne’s kheder began chanting the alef-bays. While Alter worked with them, their older brothers and cousins would wrestle with Hebrew vocabulary and grammar on their own. Or maybe the melamed’s father would lend a hand. Chaim Kaczyne coughed all the time and didn’t move around very well anymore, but his wits were still clear.
Jakub went to work on a clock a Polish woman had brought in. His hands were quick and clever. Scars seamed them; you couldn’t be a grinder without things slipping once in a while. And dirt and grease had permanent homes under his nails and in the creases on top of his fingers. But hands were to work with, and work with them he did.
“Here we are,” he muttered: a broken tooth on one of the gears. He rummaged through a couple of drawers to see if he had one that matched. And sure enough! The replacement went into the clock. He didn’t throw out the damaged one. He rarely threw anything out. He’d braze on a new tooth and use the gear in some less demanding place.
The woman came in not long after he finished the clock. She wore her blond hair in a short bob; her skirt rose halfway to her knees. You’d never catch a Jewish woman in Wawolnice in anything so scandalously short. She nodded to find the clock ticking again. They haggled a little over the price. Jakub had warned her it would go up if he had to put in a new gear. She didn’t want to remember. She was shaking her head when she smacked coins down on the counter and walked out.
He eyed—not to put too fine a point on it, he leered at—her shapely calves as her legs twinkled away. He was a man, after all. He was drawn to smooth flesh the way a butterfly was drawn to flowers. No wonder the women of his folk covered themselves from head to foot. No wonder Jewish wives wore sheitels and head scarves. They didn’t want to put themselves on display like that. But the Poles were different. The Poles didn’t care.
So what? The Poles were goyim.
He sharpened one of his own knives, a tiny, precise blade. He often did that when he had nothing else going on. He owned far and away the sharpest knives in the village. He would have been happier if they were duller, so long as it was because he stayed too busy to work on them.
A kid carrying a basket of bagels stuck his head in the door. Jakub spent a few groszy to buy one. The boy hurried away, short pants showing off his skinny legs. He didn’t have a police license to peddle, so he was always on the dodge.
“Barukh atah Adonai, eloyahynu melekh ha-olam, ha-motzi lekhem min ha-aretz,” Jakub murmured. Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who makest bread to come forth from the earth. Only after the prayer did he eat the bagel.
Yiddish. Polish. Hebrew. Aramaic. He had them all. No one who knew Yiddish didn’t also know German. A man who spoke Polish could, at need, make a stab at Czech or Ruthenian or Russian. All the Yehudim in Wawolnice were scholars, even if they didn’t always think of themselves so.
Back to sharpening his own knives. It had the feel of another slow day. Few days here were anything else. The ones that were, commonly weren’t good days.
After a while, the front door creaked open again. Jakub jumped to his feet in surprise and respect. “Reb Eliezer!” he exclaimed. “What can I do for you today?” Rabbis, after all, had knives and scissors that needed sharpening just like other men’s.
But Eliezer said, “We were talking about serpents the other day.” He had a long, pale, somber face, with rusty curls sticking out from under his hat brim, a wispy copper beard streaked with gray, and cat-green eyes.
“Oh, yes. Of course.” Jakub nodded. They had been speaking of serpents, and all sorts of other Talmudic pilpul, in the village’s bet ha-midrash attached to the little shul. The smell of the books in the tall case there, the aging leather of their bindings, the paper on which they were printed, even the dust that shrouded the seldom-used volumes, were part and parcel of life in Wawolnice.
So . . . No business—no moneymaking business—now. Bertha would not be pleased to see this. She would loudly not be pleased to see it, as a matter of fact. But she would also be secretly proud because the rabbi chose her husband, a grinder of no particular prominence, with whom to split doctrinal hairs.
“Obviously,” Reb Eliezer said in portentous tones, “the serpent is unclean for Jews to eat or to handle after it is dead. It falls under the ban of Leviticus 11:29, 11:30, and 11:42.”
“Well, that may be so, but I’m not so sure,” Jakub answered, pausing to light a stubby, twisted cigar. He offered one to Reb Eliezer, who accepted with a murmur of thanks. After blowing out harsh smoke, the grinder went on, “I don’t think those verses are talking about serpents at all.”
Eliezer’s gingery eyebrows leaped. “How can you say such a thing?” he demanded, wagging a forefinger under Jakub’s beaky nose. “Verse 42 says, ‘Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are an abomination.’” Like Jakub, he could go from Yiddish to Biblical Hebrew while hardly seeming to notice he was switching languages.
Jakub shrugged a stolid shrug. “I don’t hear anything there that talks about serpents. Things that go on all fours, things with lots of legs. I don’t want to eat a what-do-you-call-it—a centipede, I mean. Who would? Even a goy wouldn’t want to eat a centipede . . . I don’t think.” He shrugged again, as if to say no Jew counted on anything that had to do with goyim.
“‘Whatsoever goeth upon the belly . . . among all the creeping things that creep upon the earth,’” Reb Eliezer repeated. “And this same phrase also appears in the twenty-ninth verse, which says, ‘These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth;—’”
“‘ —the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind.’” Jakub took up the quotation, and went on into the next verse: “‘ And the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.’ I don’t see a word in there about serpents.” He blew out another stream of smoke, not quite at the rabbi.
Eliezer affected not to notice. “Since when is a serpent not a creeping thing that goeth upon its belly? Will you tell me it doesn’t?”
“It doesn’t now,” Jakub admitted.
“It did maybe yesterday?” Eliezer suggested sarcastically.
“Not yesterday. Not the day before yesterday, either,” Jakub said. “But when the Lord, blessed be His name, made the serpent, He made it to speak and to walk on its hind legs like a man. What else does that? Maybe He made it in His own image.”
“But God told the serpent, ‘Thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast in the field: upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.’”
“So He changed it a little. So what?” Jakub said. Reb Eliezer’s eyebrow jumped again at a little, but he held his peace. The grinder went on, “Besides, the serpent is to blame for mankind’s fall. Shouldn’t we pay him back by cooking him in a stew?”
“Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. But that argument isn’t Scriptural,” the rabbi said stiffly.
“Well, what if it isn’t? How about this . . . ?” Jakub went off on another tangent from the Torah.
They fenced with ideas and quotations through another cigar apiece. At last, Reb Eliezer threw his pale hands in the air and exclaimed, “In spite of the plain words of Leviticus, you come up with a hundred reasons why the accursed serpent ought to be as kosher as a cow!”
“Oh, not a hundred reasons. Maybe a dozen.” Jakub was a precise man, as befitted a trade where a slip could cost a finger. But he also had his own kind of pride: “Give me enough time, and I suppose I could come up with a hundred.”
A sort of a smile lifted one corner of Reb Eliezer’s mouth. “Then perhaps now you begin to see why Rabbi Jokhanan of Palestine, of blessed memory, said hundreds of years ago that no man who could not do what you are doing had the skill he needed to open a capital case.”
As it so often did, seemingly preposterous Talmudic pilpul came back to the way Jews were supposed to live their lives. “I should hope so,” Jakub answered. “You have to begin a capital case with the reasons for acquitting whoever is on trial. If you can’t find those reasons, someone else had better handle the case.”
“I agree with you.” The rabbi wagged his forefinger at Jakub once more. “You won’t hear me tell you that very often.”
“Gevalt! I should hope not!” Jakub said in mock horror.
Reb Eliezer’s eyes twinkled. “And so I had better go,” he continued, as if the grinder hadn’t spoken. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
“And you, Reb,” Jakub replied. Eliezer dipped his head. He walked out of the shop and down the street. A man came in wanting liniment for a horse. Jakub compounded some. It made his business smell of camphor and turpentine the rest of the day. It also put a couple of more zlotych in his pocket. Bertha would be . . . less displeased.
Shadows stretched across Wawolnice. Light began leaking out of the sky. The rain had held off, anyhow. People headed home from their work. Jakub was rarely one of the first to call it a day. Before long, though, the light coming in through the dusty front windows got too dim to use. Time to quit, all right.
He closed up and locked the door. He’d done some tinkering with the lock. He didn’t think anybody not a locksmith could quietly pick it. Enough brute force, on the other hand . . . Jews in Poland understood all they needed to about brute force, and about who had enough of it. Jakub Shlayfer’s mobile mouth twisted. Polish Jews didn’t, never had, and never would.
He walked home through the gathering gloom. “Stinking Yid!” The shrei in Polish pursued him. His shoulders wanted to sag under its weight, and the weight of a million more like it. He didn’t, he wouldn’t, let them. If the mamzrim saw they’d hurt you, they won. As long as a rock didn’t follow, he was all right. And if one did, he could duck or dodge. He hoped.
No rocks tonight. Candles and kerosene lamps sent dim but warm glows out into the darkness. If you looked at the papers, electricity would come to the village soon. Then again, if you looked at the papers and believed everything you read in them, you were too dumb to live.
Bertha met him at the door. Sheitel, head scarf over it, long black dress . . . She still looked good to him. She greeted him with, “So what were you and Reb Eliezer going on about today?”
“Serpents,” Jakub answered.
“Pilpul.” His wife’s sigh said she’d hoped for better, even if she hadn’t expected it. “I don’t suppose he had any paying business.”
“He didn’t, no,” the grinder admitted. “But Barlicki’s wife came in for her clock. I had to swap out a gear, so I charged her more. I told her before that I would, but she still didn’t like it.”
“And God forbid you should make Barlicki’s wife unhappy.” Bertha knew he thought the Polish woman was pretty, then. How long would she go on giving him a hard time about that? The next couple of days ought to be interesting. Not necessarily enjoyable, but interesting.
He did what he could to show Bertha he appreciated her. Nostrils twitching, he said, “What smells so good?”
“Soup with chicken feet,” she replied, sounding slightly softened. “Cabbage, carrots, onions, mangel-wurzel . . .”
Mangel-wurzel was what you used when you couldn’t afford turnips. Chicken feet were what you put in soup when you wanted it to taste like meat but you couldn’t afford much of the genuine article. You could gnaw on them, worrying off a little skin or some of the tendons that would have led to the drumsticks. You wouldn’t rise up from the table happy, but you might rise up happier.
He stepped past her and into the small, crowded front room, with its rammed-earth floor and battered, shabby furniture. The little brass mezuzah still hung on the doorframe outside. He rarely gave it a conscious thought. Most of the time he only noticed it when it wasn’t there, so to speak. Stealing mezuzahs was one way Polish kids found to aggravate their Jewish neighbors. Not only that, but they might get a couple of groszy for the brass.
Bertha closed the front door behind him and let the bar fall into its bracket. The sound of the stout plank thudding into place seemed very final, as if it put a full stop to the day. And so—again, in a manner of speaking—it did.
Jakub walked over to the closet door. That the cramped space had room for a closet seemed something not far from miraculous. He wasn’t inclined to complain, though. Oh, no—on the contrary. Neither was Bertha, who came up smiling to stand beside him as he opened the door.
Then they walked into the closet. They could do that now. The day was over. Jakub shoved coats and dresses out of the way. They smelled of wool and old sweat. Bertha flicked a switch as she closed the closet door. A ceiling light came on.
“Thanks, sweetie,” Jakub said. “That helps.”
In back of the clothes stood another door, this one painted battleship gray. In German, large, neatly stenciled black letters on the hidden doorway warned AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Being an authorized person, Jakub hit the numbers that opened that door. It showed a concrete stairway leading down. The walls to the descending corridor were also pale gray. Blue-tinged light from fluorescent tubes in ceiling fixtures streamed into the closet.
Jakub started down the stairs. Bertha was an authorized person, too. She followed him, pausing only to close the hidden door behind them. A click announced it had locked automatically, as it was designed to do. The grinder and his wife left Wawolnice behind.
Men and women in grimy Jewish costumes and about an equal number dressed as Poles from the time between the War of Humiliation and the triumphant War of Retribution ambled along an underground hallway. They chatted and chattered and laughed, as people who’ve worked together for a long time will at the end of a day.
Arrows on the walls guided them toward their next destination. Explaining the arrows were large words beside them: TO THE SHOWERS. The explanation was about as necessary as a second head, but Germans had a habit of overdesigning things.
Veit Harlan shook himself like a dog that had just scrambled out of a muddy creek. That was how he felt, too. Like any actor worth his salt, he immersed himself in the roles he played. When the curtain came down on another day, he always needed a little while to remember he wasn’t Jakub Shlayfer, a hungry Jew in a Polish village that had vanished from the map more than a hundred years ago.
He wasn’t the only one, either. He would have been amazed if he had been. People heading for the showers to clean up after their latest shift in Wawolnice went right on throwing around the front vowels and extra-harsh gutturals of Yiddish. Only little by little did they start using honest German again.
When they did, the fellow who played Reb Eliezer—his real name was Ferdinand Marian—and a pimply yeshiva-bukher (well, the pimply performer impersonating a young yeshiva-bukher) went right on with whatever disputation Eliezer had found after leaving Jakub’s shop. They went right on throwing Hebrew and Aramaic around, too. And the reb and the kid with zits both kept up a virtuoso display of finger-wagging.
“They’d better watch that,” Veit murmured to the woman who had been Bertha a moment before.
“I know.” She nodded. She was really Kristina Söderbaum. They were married to each other out in the Reich as well as in the village. The people who ran Wawolnice used real couples whenever they could. They claimed it made the performances more convincing. If that meant Veit got to work alongside his wife, he wouldn’t complain.
The guy who played Alter the melamed caught up to Veit and Kristi from behind. In the wider world, he was Wolf Albach-Retty. “Hey, Veit. Did you see the gal who flashed her tits at me this morning?” he exclaimed.
“No! I wish I would have,” Harlan answered. His wife planted an elbow in his ribs. Ignoring her, he went on, “When did that happen?”
“It was early—not long after the village opened up,” Wolf said.
“Too bad. I was working on that clock for a lot of the morning. I guess I didn’t pick the right time to look up.”
“A bunch of the kids did. Boy, they paid even less attention to me than usual after that,” Albach-Retty said. Veit laughed. The melamed rolled his eyes. “It’s funny for you. It’s funny for the damn broad, too. But I’m the guy who had to deal with it. When I was potching the little bastards, I was potching ’em good.” He mimed swatting a backside.
“Nothing they haven’t got from you before,” Veit said, which was also true. Everything the villagers did in Wawolnice was real. They pretended the curious people who came to gawk at them weren’t there. But how were you supposed to pretend a nice set of tits wasn’t there (and Veit would have bet it was a nice set—otherwise the woman wouldn’t have shown them off)?
“Worse than usual, I tell you.” Wolf leaned toward self-pity.
“You’ll live. So will they,” Veit said. “If they don’t like it, let ’em file a complaint with the SPCA.” Kristi giggled, which was what he’d hoped for. After a moment, Wolf Albach-Retty laughed, too. That was a bonus.
The corridor to the showers split, one arrow marked MEN, the other WOMEN. Veit stripped off the heavy, baggy, dark, sweaty outfit of a Wawolnice Jew with a sigh of relief. He chucked it into a cubbyhole and scratched. The village wasn’t a hundred percent realistic. They did spray it to keep down the bugs. You weren’t supposed to pick up fleas or lice or bedbugs, even if you were portraying a lousy, flea-bitten kike.
Theory was wonderful. Veit had found himself buggy as new software more than once coming off a shift. So had Kristi. So had just about all the other performers. It was a hazard of the trade, like a director who happened to be an oaf.
He didn’t discover any uninvited guests tonight. Hot water and strong soap wiped away the stinks from Wawolnice. He took showering with a bunch of other men completely for granted. He’d started as a Pimpf in the Hitler Jugend, he’d kept it up through the Labor Service and his two-year hitch in the Wehrmacht, and now he was doing it some more. So what? Skin was skin, and he didn’t get a charge out of guys.
Reb Eliezer and the yeshiva-bukher were still arguing about the Talmud in the shower. They were both circumcised. Quite a few of the men playing Jews were. Prizing realism as it did, the Reenactors’Guild gave you a raise if you were willing to have the operation. Veit kept all his original equipment. He didn’t need the cash that badly, and Kristina liked him fine the way he was.
He grabbed a cotton towel, dried himself off, and tossed the towel into a very full bin. A bath attendant in coveralls—a scared, scrawny Slavic Untermensch from beyond the Urals—wheeled the bin away and brought out an empty one. Veit noticed him hardly more than he did the tourists who came to stare at Wawolnice and see what Eastern Europe had been like before the Grossdeutsches Reich cleaned things up.
You were trained not to notice tourists. You were trained to pretend they weren’t there, and not to react when they did stuff (though Veit had never had anybody flash tits at him). It was different with the bath attendant. Did you notice a stool if you didn’t intend to sit down on it? More like that.
Veit spun the combination dial on his locker. He put on his own clothes: khaki cotton slacks, a pale green polo shirt, and a darker green cardigan sweater. Synthetic socks and track shoes finished the outfit. It was much lighter, much softer, and much more comfortable than his performing costume.
He had to twiddle his thumbs for a couple of minutes before Kristi came down the corridor from her side of the changing area. Women always took longer getting ready. Being only a man, he had no idea why. But he would have bet the ancient Greeks told the same jokes about it as modern Aryans did.
She was worth the wait. Her knee-length light blue skirt showed off her legs. Veit wasn’t the least bit sorry the Reich still frowned on pants for women. Her top clung to her in a way that would have made the real Jews on whom those of Wawolnice were based plotz. And the sheitel she had on now was attractively styled and an almost perfect match for the mane of wavy, honey-blond hair she’d sacrificed to take the role of Bertha Shlayfer.
“Let’s go home,” she said, and yawned. She shook her head. “Sorry. It’s been a long day.”
“For me, too,” Veit agreed. “And it doesn’t get any easier.”
“It never gets any easier,” Kristi said.
“I know, but that isn’t what I meant. Didn’t you see the schedule? They’ve got a pogrom listed for week after next.”
“Oy!” Kristi burst out. Once you got used to Yiddish, plain German could seem flavorless beside it. And Veit felt like going Oy! himself. Pogroms were a pain, even if the tourists got off on them. Sure, the powers that be brought in drugged convicts for the people playing Poles to stomp and burn, but reenactors playing Jews always ended up getting hurt, too. Accidents happened. And, when you were living your role, sometimes you just got carried away and didn’t care who stood in front of you when you threw a rock or swung a club.
“Nothing we can do about it but put on a good show.” He pointed down the corridor toward the employee parking lot. “Come on. Like you said, let’s go home.”
The corridor spat performers out right next to the gift shop. Another sign reading AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY and a prominently displayed surveillance camera discouraged anyone else from moving against the stream. A ragged apple orchard screened the gift shop and the parking lot off from Wawolnice proper. That was good, as far as Veit was concerned. The gift shop was about paperbacks of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and plastic Jew noses and rubber Jew lips. Once upon a time, no doubt, the village had been about the same kinds of things. It wasn’t anymore, or it wasn’t exactly and wasn’t all the time. As things have a way of doing, Wawolnice had taken on a life of its own.
Veit opened the passenger-side door for his wife. Kristi murmured a word of thanks as she slid into the Audi. He went around and got in himself. The electric engine silently came to life. The car didn’t have the range of a gas auto, but more charging stations went up every day. Though petroleum might be running low, plenty of nuclear power plants off in the East made sure the Reich had plenty of electricity. If they belched radioactive waste into the environment every once in a while, well, that was the local Ivans’worry.
He drove out of the lot, up the ramp, and onto the Autobahn, heading east toward their flat in Lublin. A garish, brilliantly lit billboard appeared in his rearview mirror. The big letters were backwards, but he knew what they said: COME SEE THE JEW VILLAGE! ADMISSION ONLY 15 REICHSMARKS! The sinister, hook-nosed figure in black on the billboard was straight out of a cartoon. It only faintly resembled the hardworking reenactors who populated Wawolnice.
“I hate that stupid sign,” Veit said, as he did at least twice a week. “Makes us look like a bunch of jerks.”
“It’s like a book cover,” Kristina answered, as she did whenever he pissed and moaned about the billboard. “It draws people in. Then they can see what we’re really about.”
“It draws assholes in,” Veit said morosely. “They hold their noses at the smells and they laugh at our clothes and they show off their titties and think it’s funny.”
“You weren’t complaining when Wolf told you about that,” his wife pointed out. “Except that you didn’t see it, I mean.”
“Yeah, well . . .” He took one hand off the wheel for a moment to make a vague gesture of appeasement.
Lublin was about half an hour away at the Autobahn’s Mach schnell! speeds. It was clean and bright and orderly, like any town in the Grossdeutsches Reich these days. It had belonged to Poland, of course, before the War of Retribution. It had been a provincial capital, in fact. But that was a long time ago now. These days, Poles were almost as much an anachronism as Jews. The Germans had reshaped Lublin in their own image. They looked around and saw that it was good.
“Want to stop somewhere for dinner?” Veit asked as he pulled off the highway and drove into the city.
“Not really. I am tired,” Kristi said. “We’ve got leftovers back at the flat. If that’s all right with you.”
“Whatever you want,” he said.
They could have afforded a bigger apartment, but what would the point have been? They poured most of their time and most of their energy into the village. If you weren’t going to do that, you didn’t belong at Wawolnice. They used the flat as a place to relax and to sleep. How fancy did you need to be for that?
Kristina warmed up some rolls in the oven. A few minutes later, she put sweet-and-sour cabbage stuffed with veal sausage and rice into the microwave. Veit’s contribution to supper was pouring out two tumblers of Greek white wine. “Oh, thank you,” his wife said. “I could use one tonight.”
“Me, too.” Veit went on in Hebrew: “Barukh atah Adonai, elohaynu melekh ha-olam, bo’ re p’ ri ha-gafen.” Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who bringest forth the fruit of the vine.
“Practice,” Kristi said as they clinked the big, heavy glasses.
“Aber natürlich,” Veit agreed. “If you don’t use a language, you’ll lose it.” He assumed the flat had microphones. He’d never heard of one that didn’t. How much attention the Sicherheitsdienst paid . . . well, who could guess? Then again, who wanted to find out the hard way? If you started praying in the dead language of a proscribed Volk, better to let any possible SD ear know you had a reason.
The microwave buzzed. Kristina took out the glass tray, then retrieved the rolls. Veit poured more wine. His wife put food on the table. He blessed the bread and the main course, as he had the wine. They ate. He made his portion disappear amazingly fast.
“Do you want more?” Kristi asked. “There is some.”
He thought about it, then shook his head. “No, that’s all right. But I was hungry.”
She was doing the dishes when the phone rang. Veit picked it up. “Bitte?” He listened for a little while, then said, “Hang on a second.” Putting his palm on the mouthpiece, he spoke over the rush of water in the sink: “It’s your kid sister. She wants to know if we feel like going out and having a few drinks.”
She raised an eyebrow as she turned off the faucet. He shrugged back. She reached for the phone. He handed it to her. “Ilse?” she said. “Listen, thanks for asking, but I think we’ll pass. . . . Yes, I know we said that the last time, too, but we’re really beat tonight. And there’s a pogrom coming up soon, and we’ll have to get ready for that. They’re always meshuggeh. . . . It means crazy, is what it means, and they are. . . . Yes, next time for sure. So long.” She hung up.
“So what will we do?” Veit asked.
“I’m going to finish the dishes,” his wife said virtuously. “Then? I don’t know. TV, maybe. And some more wine.”
“Sounds exciting.” Veit picked up the corkscrew. They’d just about killed this bottle. He’d have to summon reinforcements.
They plopped down on the sofa. TV was TV, which is to say, dull. The comedies were stupid. When a story about a cat up a tree led the news, you knew there was no news. The local footballers were down 3-1 with twenty minutes to play.
And so it wasn’t at all by accident that Veit’s hand happened to fall on Kristina’s knee. She made as if to swat him, but her eyes sparkled. Instead of pulling away, he slid the hand up under her skirt. She swung toward him. “Who says it won’t be exciting tonight?”she asked.
Getting ready for the pogrom kept everyone hopping. The reenactors who played Wawolnice’s Jews and Poles had to go on doing everything they normally did. You couldn’t disappoint the paying customers, and the routine of village life had an attraction of its own once you got used to it. And they had to ready the place so it would go through chaos and come out the other side with as little damage as possible.
A couple of buildings would burn down. They’d get rebuilt later, during nights. Along with everyone else, Veit and Kristi made sure the hidden sprinkler systems in the houses and shops nearby were in good working order, and that anything sprinklers might damage was replaced by a waterproof substitute.
Veit also moved the Torah from the Ark in the shul. A blank substitute scroll would burn, along with a couple of drugged and conditioned convicts who would try to rescue it. The Poles would make a bonfire of the books in the bet ha-midrash—but not out of the real books, only of convincing fakes.
People slept in their village living quarters, or on cots in the underground changing areas. Hardly anyone had time to go home. They wore their costumes all the time, even though the laundry did tend to them more often than would have been strictly authentic.
Eyeing a bandage on his finger—a knife he was sharpening had got him, a hazard of his village trade—Veit Harlan grumbled, “I’m Jakub a lot more than I’m me these days.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Kristina said. His wife was also eligible for a wound badge. She’d grated her knuckle along with some potatoes that went into a kugel.
“We’ll get to relax a little after the pogrom,” Veit said. “And it’ll bring in the crowds. Somebody told me he heard a tourist say they were advertising it on the radio.”
“‘ Come see the Jews get what’s coming to them—again!’” Kristi did a fine impersonation of an excitable radio announcer. It would have been a fine impersonation, anyhow, if not for the irony that dripped from her voice.
“Hey,” Veit said—half sympathy, half warning.
“I know,” she answered. Her tone had been too raw. “I’m just tired.”
“Oh, sure. Me, too. Everybody is,” Veit said. “Well, day after tomorrow and then it’s over—till the next time.”
“Till the next time,” Kristi said.
“Yeah. Till then,” Veit echoed. That wasn’t exactly agreement. Then again, it wasn’t exactly disagreement. Wawolnice moved in strange and mysterious ways. The Reich’s Commissariat for the Strengthening of the German Populace knew in broad outline what it wanted to have happen in the village. After all, National Socialism had been closely studying the Jewish enemy since long before the War of Retribution. Without such study, the Commissariat would never have been able to re-create such a precise copy of a shtetl. Details were up to the reenactors, though. They didn’t have scripts. They improvised every day.
The pogrom broke out in the market square. That made sense. A Polish woman screeched that a Jew selling old clothes—old clothes specially manufactured for the village and lovingly aged—was cheating her. Rocks started flying. Jews started running. Whooping, drunken Poles overturned carts, spilling clothes and vegetables and rags and leather goods and what-have-you on the muddy ground. Others swooped down to steal what they could.
When the melamed and the boys from the kheder fled, Veit figured Jakub had better get out, too. A rock crashing through his shop’s front window reinforced the message. This part of Wawolnice wasn’t supposed to burn. All those elaborate fire-squelching systems should make sure of that. But anything you could make, you could also screw up. And so he scuttled out the front door, one hand clapped to his black hat so he shouldn’t, God forbid, go bareheaded even for an instant.
Schoolchildren, plump burghers on holiday, and tourists from places like Japan and Brazil photographed the insanity. You had to go on pretending they weren’t there. A pack of Poles were stomping a man in Jewish costume to death. One of the convict’s hands opened and closed convulsively as they did him in. He bleated out the last words that had been imposed on him: “Sh’ ma, Yisroayl, Adonai elohaynu, Adonai ekhod!” Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!
Another performer playing a Pole swung a plank at Veit. Had that connected, he never would have had a chance to gabble out his last prayer. But the reenactor missed—on purpose, Veit devoutly hoped. Still holding on to his hat, he ran down the street.
“Stinking Yid!” the performer roared in Polish. Veit just ran faster. Jews didn’t fight back, after all. Then he ran into bad luck—or rather, it ran into him. A flying rock caught him in the ribs.
“Oof!” he said, and then, “Vey iz mir!” When he breathed, he breathed knives. Something in there was broken. He had to keep running. If the Poles caught him, they wouldn’t beat him to death, but they’d beat him up. They couldn’t do anything else—realism came first. Oh, they might pull punches and go easy on kicks where they could, but they’d still hurt him. Hell, they’d already hurt him, even without meaning to.
Or they might not pull anything. Just as the reenactors in Jewish roles took pride in playing them to the hilt, so did the people playing Poles. If they were supposed to thump on Jews, they might go ahead and thump on any old Jew they could grab, and then have a drink or three to celebrate afterward.
A woman screamed. The shriek sounded alarmingly sincere, even by Wawolnice standards. Veit hoped things weren’t getting out of hand there. The less the senior inspectors from Lublin or even Berlin interfered with the way the village ran, the better for everybody here. “Jews” and “Poles” both took that as an article of faith.
Veit ducked into one of the buildings where Jews lived in one another’s laps. As long as nobody could see him from outside . . . A woman in there gaped at him. “What are you doing here?” she asked—still in Yiddish, still in character.
“I got hurt. They banged on my teakettle once too often,” he answered, also sticking to his role. He grabbed at his side. Would he have to start coughing up blood to convince people? He was afraid he might be able to do it.
What kind of horrible grimace stretched across his face? Or had he gone as pale as that village miracle, a clean shirt? The woman didn’t argue with him any more (for a Wawolnice Jew, that came perilously close to falling out of one’s part). She threw open her closet door. “Go on. Disappear, already.”
“God bless you and keep you. I wish my ribs would disappear.” He ducked inside. She closed the outer door after him. He fumbled till he found the light switch. Then he went to the inner door, identical to the one in his own crowded home. He was an authorized person, all right. On the far side of that door lay the modern underpinnings to the early-twentieth-century Polish village.
Now he didn’t have to run for his life. Slowly and painfully, he walked down the concrete stairs and along a passageway to the first-aid center. He had to wait to be seen. He wasn’t the only villager who’d got hurt. Sure as hell, pogroms were always a mess.
A medical tech prodded his rib cage. “Gevalt!” Veit exclaimed.
“You don’t have to go on making like a Jew down here,” the tech said condescendingly. Veit hurt too much to argue with him. The neatly uniformed Aryan felt him some more and listened to his chest with a stethoscope, then delivered his verdict: “You’ve got a busted slat or two, all right. Doesn’t seem to be any lung damage, though. I’ll give you some pain pills. Even with ’em, you’ll be sore as hell on and off the next six weeks.”
“Aren’t you even going to bandage me up?” Veit asked.
“Nope. We don’t do that anymore, not in ordinary cases. The lung heals better unconstricted. Step off to one side now for your pills and your paperwork.”
“Right,” Veit said tightly. The tech might as well have been an auto mechanic. Now that he’d checked Veit’s struts and figured out what his trouble was, he moved on to the next dented chassis. And Veit moved on to pharmacy and bureaucracy.
A woman who would have been attractive if she hadn’t seemed so bored handed him a plastic vial full of fat green pills. He gulped one down, dry, then started signing the papers she shoved at him. That got a rise out of her: she went from bored to irked in one fell swoop. “What are those chicken scratches?” she demanded.
“Huh?” He looked down at the forms and saw he’d been scribbling Jakub Shlayfer in backwards-running Yiddish script on each signature line. He couldn’t even blame the dope; it hadn’t kicked in yet. Maybe pain would do for an excuse. Or maybe least said, soonest mended. He muttered “Sorry” and started substituting the name he’d been born with.
“That’s more like it.” The woman sniffed loudly. “Some of you people don’t know the difference between who you are and who you play anymore.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Veit wrote his own name once again. “Nobody wants to break my ribs on account of who I am. That only happens when I put on this stuff.” His wave encompassed his shtetl finery.
“Remember that, then. Better to be Aryan. Easier, too.”
Veit didn’t feel like arguing. He did feel woozy—the pain pill started hitting hard and fast. “Easier is right,” he said, and turned to leave the infirmary. The broken rib stabbed him again. He let out a hiss any snake, treyf or kosher, would have been proud of. The medical tech had been right, dammit. Even with a pill, he was sore as hell.
“We have to be meshuggeh to keep doing this,” Kristina said as she piloted their car back toward Lublin at the end of the day.
“Right now, I won’t argue with you.” Veit wasn’t inclined to argue about anything, not right now. Changing into ordinary German clothes had hurt more than he’d believed anything could. The prescription said Take one tablet at a time every four to six hours, as needed for pain. One tablet was sending a boy to do a man’s job, and a half-witted boy at that. He’d taken two. He still hurt—and now he had the brains of a half-witted boy himself. No wonder his wife sat behind the Audi’s wheel.
She flashed her lights at some Dummkopf puttering along on the Autobahn at eighty kilometers an hour. The jerk did eventually move over and let her by. Veit was too stoned for even that to annoy him, which meant he was very stoned indeed.
Kristi sighed as she zoomed past the old, flatulent VW. “But we’ll be back at the same old stand tomorrow,” she said, daring him to deny it.
“What would you rather do instead?” he asked. She sent him a reproachful side glance instead of an answer. Wawolnice offered more chances for honest performing than almost anywhere else in the Reich. Television was pap. The movies, too. The stage was mostly pap: pap and revivals.
Besides, they’d been at the village for so long now, most of the people they’d worked with anywhere else had forgotten they existed. Wawolnice was a world unto itself. Most of the kids in the kheder really were the children of performers who played Jews in the village. Were they getting in on the ground floor, or were they trapped? How much of a difference was there?
Veit didn’t feel too bad as long as he held still. With the pills in him, he felt pretty damn good, as a matter of fact. Whenever he moved or coughed, though, all the pain pills in the world couldn’t hope to block the message his ribs sent. He dreaded sneezing. That would probably feel as if he were being torn in two—which might not be so far wrong.
Moving slowly and carefully, he made it up to the apartment with his wife. He started to flop down onto the sofa in front of the TV, but thought better of it in the nick of time. Lowering himself slowly and gently was a much better plan. Then he found a football match. Watching other people run and jump and kick seemed smarter than trying to do any of that himself.
“Want a drink?” Kristi asked.
One of the warning labels on the pill bottle cautioned against driving or running machinery while taking the drugs, and advised that alcohol could make things worse. “Oh, Lord, yes!” Veit exclaimed.
She brought him a glass of slivovitz. She had one for herself, too. He recited the blessing over fruit. He wasn’t too drug-addled to remember it. The plum brandy went down in a stream of sweet fire. “Anesthetic,” Kristi said.
“Well, sure,” Veit agreed. He made a point of getting good and anesthetized, too.
No matter how anesthetized he was, though, he couldn’t lie on his stomach. It hurt too much. He didn’t like going to bed on his back, but he didn’t have much choice. Kristi turned out the light, then cautiously straddled him. Thanks to the stupid pain pills, that was no damn good, either. No matter how dopey he was, he took a long, long time to fall asleep.
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.
As the medical technician had warned, getting over a broken rib took about six weeks. The tech hadn’t warned it would seem like forever. He also hadn’t warned what would happen if you caught a cold before the rib finished knitting. Veit did. It was easy to do in a place like Wawolnice, where a stream of strangers brought their germs with them. Sure as hell, he thought he was ripping himself to pieces every time he sneezed.
But that too passed. At the time, Veit thought it passed like a kidney stone, but even Kristina was tired of his kvetching by then, so he did his best to keep his big mouth shut. It wasn’t as if he had nothing to be happy about. The SS didn’t call on him anymore, for instance. He and his wife went back to the Boar’s Head again. One treyf dinner after an interrogation might let analysts draw conclusions they wouldn’t draw from more than one. And the food there was good.
He was pretty much his old self again by the time summer passed into fall and the High Holy Days—forgotten by everyone in the world save a few dedicated scholars . . . and the villagers and tourists at Wawolnice—came round again. He prayed in the shul on Rosh Hashanah, wishing everyone L’ shanah tovah—a Happy New Year. That that New Year’s Day was celebrated only in the village didn’t bother him or any of the other performers playing Jews. It was the New Year for them, and they made the most of it with honey cakes and raisins and sweet kugels and other such poor people’s treats.
A week and a half later came Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. By that extinct usage, the daylong fast began the night before at sundown. Veit and his wife were driving home from Wawolnice when the sun went down behind them. He sat behind the wheel; he’d been doing most of the driving again for some time.
When they got to their flat, Kristi turned on the oven. She left it on for forty-five minutes. Then she turned it off again. She and Veit sat at the table and talked as they would have over supper, but there was no food on the plates. After a while, Kristi washed them anyhow. Neither a mike nor utility data would show anything out of the ordinary.
How close to the ancient laws did you have to stick? In this day and age, how close to the ancient laws could you possibly stick? How careful did you have to be to make sure the authorities didn’t notice you were sticking to those laws? Veit and Kristi had played games with the oven and the dishwashing water before. In light of the call the SS Hauptsturmführer had paid on Veit earlier in the year (last year now, by Jewish reckoning), you couldn’t be too careful—and you couldn’t stick too close to the old laws.
So you did what you could, and you didn’t worry about what you couldn’t help. That seemed to fit in with the way things in Wawolnice generally worked.
At shul the next morning, Kristi sat with the women while Veit took his place among the men. How many of the assembled reenactors were fasting except when public performance of these rituals required it? Veit didn’t know; it wasn’t a safe question, and wouldn’t have been good manners even if it were. But he was as sure as made no difference that Kristi and he weren’t the only ones.
After the service ended, he asked his village friends and neighbors to forgive him for whatever he’d done to offend them over the past year. You had to apologize sincerely, not just go through the motions. And you were supposed to accept such apologies with equal sincerity. His fellow villagers were saying they were sorry to him and to one another, too.
Such self-abasement was altogether alien to the spirit of the Reich. Good National Socialists never dreamt they could do anything regrettable. Übermenschen, after all, didn’t look back—or need to.
And yet, the heartfelt apologies of an earlier Yom Kippur were some of the first things that had made Veit wonder whether what people here in Wawolnice had wasn’t a better way to live than much of what went on in the wider world. He’d come here glad to have steady work. He hadn’t bargained for anything more. He hadn’t bargained for it, but he’d found it.
You needed to ignore the funny clothes. You needed to forget about the dirt and the crowding and the poverty. Those were all incidentals. When it came to living with other people, when it came to finding an anchor for your own life . . . He nodded once, to himself. This was better. Even if you couldn’t talk about it much, maybe especially because you couldn’t, this was better. It had taken a while for Veit to realize it, but he liked the way he lived in the village when he was Jakub Shlayfer better than he liked how he lived away from it when he was only himself.
People who worked together naturally got together when they weren’t working, too. Not even the ever-wary SS could make too much of that. There was always the risk that some of the people you hung with reported to the blackshirts, but everyone in the Reich ran that risk. You took the precautions you thought you needed and you got on with your life.
One weekend not long after the High Holy Days, Wawolnice closed down for maintenance more thorough than repair crews could manage overnight or behind the scenes. Autumn was on the way. By the calendar, autumn had arrived. But it wasn’t pouring or freezing or otherwise nasty, though no doubt it would be before long. A bunch of the reenactors who played Jews seized the moment for a Sunday picnic outside of Lublin.
The grass on the meadow was still green: proof it hadn’t started freezing yet. Women packed baskets groaning with food. Men tended to other essentials: beer, slivovitz, shnaps, and the like.
One of Kristi’s cousins was just back from a hunting trip to the Carpathians. Her contribution to the spread was a saddle of venison. Her cousin was no shokhet, of course, but some things were too good to pass up. So she reasoned, anyhow, and Veit didn’t try to argue with her.
“Let’s see anybody match this,” she declared.
“Not likely.” Veit had splurged on a couple of liters of fancy vodka, stuff so smooth you’d hardly notice you weren’t drinking water . . . till you fell over.
He waited for clouds to roll in and rain to spoil things, but it didn’t happen. A little dawn mist had cleared out by midmorning, when the performers started gathering. It wasn’t a hot day, but it wasn’t bad. If shadows stretched farther across the grass than they would have during high summer, well, it wasn’t high summer anymore.
Kids scampered here, there, and everywhere, squealing in German and Yiddish. Not all of them really noticed any difference between the two languages except in the way they were written. Lots of reenactors exclaimed over the venison. Kristi beamed with pride as Reb Eliezer said “I didn’t expect that” and patted his belly in anticipation. If he wasn’t going to get fussy about dietary rules today . . .
They might have been any picnicking group, but for one detail. A car going down the narrow road stopped. The driver rolled down his window and called, “Hey, what’s with all the face fuzz?” He rubbed his own smooth chin and laughed.
“We’re the Great Lublin Beard-Growers’Fraternity,” Eliezer answered with a perfectly straight face.
All of a sudden, the Aryan in the VW wasn’t laughing anymore. The official-sounding title impressed him; official-sounding titles had a way of doing that in the Reich. “Ach, so. The Beard-Growers’Fraternity,” he echoed. “That’s splendid!” He put the car in gear and drove away, satisfied.
“Things would be easier if we were the Greater Lublin Beard-Growers’ Fraternity,” Veit remarked.
“Some ways,” Reb Eliezer said with a sweet, sad smile. “Not others, perhaps.”
Alter the melamed—otherwise Wolf Albach-Retty—said, “There really are clubs for men who grow fancy whiskers. They have contests. Sometimes the winners get their pictures in the papers.”
“Our whiskers are just incidental.” Veit stroked his beard. “We raise tsuris instead.”
Wolf hoisted an eyebrow. Yes, he made a good melamed. Yes, he was as much a believer as anyone here except Reb Eliezer. (Like Paul on the road to Damascus—well, maybe not just like that—some years before Eliezer had been the first to see how a role could take on an inner reality the Nazi functionaries who’d brought Wawolnice into being had never imagined.) All that said, everyone here except Wolf himself knew he was a ham.
If the SS swooped down on this gathering, what would they find? A bunch of men with beards, along with wives, girlfriends, children, and a few dogs running around barking and generally making idiots of themselves. A hell of a lot of food. No ham, no pig’s trotters, no pickled eels, no crayfish or mussels. No meat cooked in cream sauce or anything like that. Even more dishes than you’d normally need for all the chow.
Plenty to hang everybody here, in other words, or to earn people a bullet in the back of the neck. Suspicious security personnel could make all the case they needed from what was and what wasn’t at the picnic. And if they weren’t suspicious, why would they raid?
Someone here might also be wearing a microphone or carrying a concealed video camera. Being a Jew hadn’t stopped Judas from betraying Jesus. Even the so-called German Christians, whose worship rendered more unto the Reich than unto God, learned about Judas.
But what could you do? You had to take some chances or you couldn’t live. Well, you could, but you’d have to stay by yourself in your flat and never come out. Some days, that looked pretty good to Veit. Some days, but not today.
Reb Eliezer did what he could to cover himself. He waved his hands in the air to draw people’s notice. Then he said, “It’s good we could all get together today.” He was speaking Yiddish; he said haynt for today, not the German heute. He went on, “We need to stay in our roles as much as we can. We live them as much as we can. So if we do some things our friends and neighbors outside Wawolnice might find odd, it’s only so we keep them in mind even when we aren’t up in front of strangers.”
Several men and women nodded. Kids and dogs, predictably, paid no attention. What Eliezer said might save the reenactors’ bacon (Not that we’ ve got any bacon here, either, Veit thought) if the SS was keeping an eye on things without worrying too much. If the blackshirts were looking for sedition, they’d know bullshit when they heard it.
“All right, then.” Eliezer went on to pronounce a brokhe, a blessing, that no one—not even the most vicious SS officer, a Rottweiler in human shape—could have found fault with: “Let’s eat!”
Women with meat dishes had gathered here, those with dairy dishes over there, and those with parve food—vegetable dishes that could be eaten with either—at a spot in between them. Veit took some sour tomatoes and some cold noodles and some green beans in a sauce made with olive oil and garlic (not exactly a specialty of Polish Jews in the old days, but tasty even so), and then headed over to get some of the venison on which his wife had worked so hard. Kristi would let him hear about it if he didn’t take a slice.
He had to wait his turn, though. By the time he got over to her, a line had already formed. She beamed with pride as she carved and served. Only somebody else’s roast grouse gave her any competition for pride of place. Veit managed to snag a drumstick from one of the birds, too. He sat down on the grass and started filling his face . . . after the appropriate blessings, of course.
After a while, Reb Eliezer came over and squatted beside him. Eliezer seemed a man in perpetual motion. He’d already talked with half the people at the picnic, and he’d get to the rest before it finished. “Having a good time?” he asked.
Veit grinned and waved at his plate. “I’d have to be dead not to. I don’t know how I’m going to fit into my clothes.”
“That’s a good time,” Eliezer said, nodding. “I wonder what the Poles are doing with their holiday.”
He meant the Aryans playing Poles in Wawolnice, of course. The real Poles, those who were left alive, worked in mines and on farms and in brothels and other places where bodies mattered more than brains. Veit stayed in character to answer, “They should grow like onions: with their heads in the ground.”
Eliezer smiled that sad smile of his. “And they call us filthy kikes and Christ-killers and have extra fun when there’s a pogrom on the schedule.” Veit rubbed his rib cage. Eliezer nodded again. “Yes, like that.”
“Still twinges once in a while,” Veit said.
“Hating Jews is easy,” Eliezer said, and it was Veit’s turn to nod. The other man went on, “Hating anybody who isn’t just like you is easy. Look how you sounded about them. Look how the Propaganda Ministry sounds all the time.”
“Hey!” Veit said. “That’s not fair.”
“Well, maybe yes, maybe no,” Reb Eliezer allowed. “But the way it looks to me is, if we’re going to live like Yehudim, like the Yehudim that used to be, like proper Yehudim, sooner or later we’ll have to do it all the time.”
“What?” Now Veit was genuinely alarmed. “We won’t last twenty minutes if we do, and you know it.”
“I didn’t meant that. Using tefillin? Putting on the tallis? No, it wouldn’t work.” Eliezer smiled once more, but then quickly sobered. “I meant that we need to live, to think, to feel the way we do while we’re in Wawolnice when we’re out in the big world, too. We need to be witnesses to what the Reich is doing. Somebody has to, and who better than us?” That smile flashed across his face again, if only for a moment. “Do you know what martyr means in ancient Greek? It means witness, that’s what.”
Veit had sometimes wondered if the rabbi was the SS plant in the village. He’d decided it didn’t matter. If Eliezer was, he could destroy them all any time he chose. But now Veit found himself able to ask a question that would have been bad manners inside Wawolnice: “What did you do before you came to the village that taught you ancient Greek?” As far as he knew, Eliezer—Ferdinand Marian—hadn’t been an actor. Veit had never seen him on stage or in a TV show or film.
“Me?” The older man quirked an eyebrow. “I thought everyone had heard about me. No? . . . I guess not. I was a German Christian minister.”
“Oh,” Veit said. It didn’t quite come out Oy!, but it might as well have. He managed something a little better on his next try: “Well, no wonder you learned Greek, then.”
“No wonder at all. And Hebrew, and Aramaic. I was well trained for the part, all right. I just didn’t know ahead of time that I would like it better than what had been my real life.”
“I don’t think any of us figured on that,” Veit said slowly.
“I don’t, either,” Reb Eliezer replied. “But if that doesn’t tell you things aren’t the way they ought to be out here, what would?” His two-armed wave encompassed out here: the world beyond Wawolnice, the world-bestriding Reich.
“What do we do?” Veit shook his head; that was the wrong question. Again, another try: “What can we do?”
Eliezer set a hand on his shoulder. “The best we can, Jakub. Always, the best we can.” He ambled off to talk to somebody else.
Someone had brought along a soccer ball. In spite of full bellies, a pickup game started. It would have caused heart failure in World Cup circles. The pitch was bumpy and unmown. Only sweaters thrown down on the ground marked the corners and the goal mouths. Touchlines and bylines were as much a matter of argument as anything in the Talmud.
Nobody cared. People ran and yelled and knocked one another ass over teakettle. Some of the fouls would have got professionals sent off. The players just laughed about them. Plenty of liquid restoratives were at hand by the edge of the pitch. When the match ended, both sides loudly proclaimed victory.
By then, the sun was sliding down the sky toward the horizon. Clouds had started building up. With regret, everyone decided it was time to go home. Leftovers and dirty china and silverware went into ice chests and baskets. Nobody seemed to worry about supper at all.
Veit caught up with Reb Eliezer. “Thanks for not calling Kristina’s venison treyf,” he said quietly.
Eliezer spread his hands. “It wasn’t that kind of gathering, or I didn’t think it was. I didn’t say anything about the grouse, either. Like I told you before, you do what you can do. Anyone who felt differently didn’t have to eat it. No finger-pointing. No fits. Just—no game.”
“Makes sense.” Veit hesitated, then blurted the question that had been on his mind most of the day: “What do you suppose the old-time Jews, the real Jews, would have made of us?”
“I often wonder about that,” Eliezer said, which surprised Veit not at all. The older man went on, “You remember what Rabbi Hillel told the goy who stood on one foot and asked him to define Jewish doctrine before the other foot came down?”
“Oh, sure,” Veit answered; that was a bit of Talmudic pilpul everybody—well, everybody in Wawolnice who cared about the Talmud—knew. “He said that you shouldn’t do to other people whatever was offensive to you. As far as he was concerned, the rest was just commentary.”
“The Talmud says that goy ended up converting, too,” Eliezer added. Veit nodded; he also remembered that. Eliezer said, “Well, if the Reich had followed Hillel’s teaching, there would still be real Jews, and they wouldn’t have needed to invent us. Since they did . . . We’re doing as well as we can on the main thing—we’re human beings, after all—and maybe not too bad on the commentary. Or do you think I’m wrong?”
“No. That’s about how I had it pegged, too.” Veit turned away, then stopped short. “I’ll see you tomorrow in Wawolnice.”
“Tomorrow in Wawolnice,” Eliezer said. “Next year in Jerusalem.”
“Alevai omayn,” Veit answered, and was astonished by how much he meant it.
They wouldn’t have needed to invent us. For some reason, that fragment of a sentence stuck in Veit’s mind. He knew Voltaire’s If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Before coming to Wawolnice, he’d been in a couple of plays involving the Frenchman. Frederick the Great had been one of Hitler’s heroes, which had made the Prussian king’s friends and associates glow by reflected light in the eyes of German dramatists ever since.
If a whole Volk had nobody who could look at them from the outside, would they have to find—or make—someone? There, Veit wasn’t so sure. Like any actor’s, his mind was a jackdaw’s nest of other men’s words. He knew the story about the dying bandit chief and the priest who urged him to forgive his enemies. Father, I have none, the old ruffian wheezed. I’ ve killed them all.
Here stood the Reich, triumphant. Its retribution had spread across the globe. It hadn’t quite killed all its enemies. No: it had enslaved some of them instead. But no one cared what a slave thought. No one even cared if a slave thought, so long as he didn’t think of trouble.
Here stood Wawolnice. It had come into being as a monument to the Reich’s pride. Look at what we did. Look at what we had to get rid of, it had declared, reproducing with typical, fanatical attention to detail what once had been. And such attention to detail had, all unintended, more or less brought back into being what had been destroyed. It was almost Hegelian.
After talking with Kristina, Veit decided to have the little operation that would mark him as one of the men who truly belonged in Wawolnice. He got it done the evening before the village shut down for another maintenance day. “You should be able to go back to work day after tomorrow,” the doctor told him. “You’ll be sore, but it won’t be anything the pills can’t handle.”
“Yes, I know about those.” Of itself, Veit’s hand made that rib-feeling gesture.
“All right, then.” The other man uncapped a syringe. “This is the local anesthetic. You may not want to watch while I give it to you.”
“You bet I don’t.” Veit looked up at the acoustic tiles on the treatment room’s ceiling. The shot didn’t hurt much—less than he’d expected. Still, it wasn’t something you wanted to think about; no, indeed.
Chuckling, the doctor said, “Since you’re playing one of those miserable, money-grubbing kikes, of course you’ll be happy about the raise you’re getting for going all out.”
“As long as my eel still goes up after this, that’s the only raise I care about right now,” Veit answered. The doctor laughed again and went to work.
Bandaging up afterward took longer than the actual procedure. As Veit was carefully pulling up his pants, the doctor said, “Take your first pill in about an hour. That way, it’ll be working when the local wears off.”
“That would be good,” Veit agreed. He got one more laugh from the man in the white coat. No doubt everything seemed funnier when you were on the other end of the scalpel.
He didn’t have Kristi drive home; he did it himself, with his legs splayed wide. He couldn’t feel anything—the anesthetic was still going strong—but he did even so. He dutifully swallowed the pill at the appointed time. Things started hurting anyway: hurting like hell, not to put too fine a point on it. Veit gulped another pill. It was too soon after the first, but he did it all the same.
Two pain pills were better than one, but not enough. He still hurt. The pills did make his head feel like a balloon attached to his body on a long string. What happened from his neck down was still there, but only distantly connected to the part of him that noticed.
He ate whatever Kristi put on the table. Afterward, he remembered eating, but not what he’d eaten.
He wandered out into the front room and sat down in front of the TV. He might do that any evening to unwind from a long day of being a Jew, but this felt different. The screen in front of him swallowed all of his consciousness that didn’t sting.
Which was odd, because the channel he’d chosen more or less at random was showing a string of ancient movies: movies from before the War of Retribution, movies in black and white. Normally, Veit had no patience for that. He lived in a black-and-white world in Wawolnice. When he watched the television, he wanted something brighter, something more interesting.
Tonight, though, with the two pain pills pumping through him, he just didn’t care. The TV was on. He’d watch it. He didn’t have to think while he stared at the pictures. Something called Bringing Up Baby was running. It was funny even though it was dubbed. It was funny even though he was drugged.
When it ended and commercials came on, they seemed jarringly out of place. They were gaudy. They were noisy. Veit couldn’t wait for them to end and the next old film to start.
It finally did. Frankenstein was about as far from Bringing Up Baby as you could get and still be called a movie. Some of the antique special effects seemed unintentionally comic to a modern man, even if the modern man was doped to the eyebrows. But Veit ended up impressed in spite of himself. As with the comedy, no wonder people still showed this one more than a hundred years after it was made.
He took one more green pill after the movie and staggered off to bed. He slept like a log, assuming logs take care to sleep on their backs.
When he woke up the next morning, he wasn’t as sore as he’d thought he would be. And he’d rolled over onto his side during the night and hadn’t perished, or even screamed. He did take another pill, but he didn’t break any Olympic sprint records running to the kitchen to get it.
“You poor thing,” Kristi said. “Your poor thing.”
“I’ll live.” Veit decided he might even mean it. Once he soaked up some coffee and then some breakfast—and once that pill kicked in—he might even want to mean it.
Caffeine, food, and opiate did indeed work wonders. His wife nodded approvingly. “You don’t have that glazed look you did last night.”
“Who, me?” Veit hadn’t been sure he could manage indignation, but he did.
Not that it helped. “Yes, you,” Kristi retorted. “You don’t sit there gaping at the TV for three hours straight with drool running down your chin when you’re in your right mind.”
“But it was good.” No sooner had Veit said it than he wondered whether he would have thought so if he hadn’t been zonked. Kristina’s raised eyebrow announced louder than words that she wondered exactly the same thing.
Maybe he wouldn’t have enjoyed the silliness in Bringing Up Baby so much if he’d been fully in the boring old Aristotelian world. But Frankenstein wasn’t silly—not even slightly. Taking pieces from the dead, putting them together, and reanimating them . . . No, nothing even the least bit silly about that.
As a matter of fact . . . His jaw dropped. “Der Herr Gott im Himmel,” he whispered, and then, “Vey iz mir!”
“What is it?”Kristi asked.
“Wawolnice,” Veit said.
“Well, what about it?” his wife said.
But he shook his head. “You weren’t watching the movie last night.” He didn’t know what she had been doing. Anything that hadn’t been right in front of him or right next to him simply wasn’t there. She’d stuck her head into the front room once or twice—probably to make sure he could sit up straight—but she hadn’t watched.
And you needed to have. Because what was Wawolnice but a Frankenstein village of Jews? It wasn’t meant to have come to life on its own, but it had, it had. So far, the outsiders hadn’t noticed. No mob of peasants with torches and pitchforks had swarmed in to destroy it—only performers playing Poles, who were every bit as artificial.
How long could they go on? Could they possibly spread? Reb Eliezer thought so. Veit wasn’t nearly as sure. But Eliezer might be right. He might. One more time, alevai omayn.
“Shtetl Days” copyright © 2011 Harry Turtledove