Breindl Rothstein stood up, stretched her back then tiptoed out of the boys’ room. These children had become so self-sufficient and accustomed to relying only on each other that she was afraid they didn’t yet accept the fact that they were out of danger. They didn’t understand that there were adults now to take care of them.
It hadn’t been that long since Mr. Gassner, a rescue worker, had contacted Breindl’s brother-in-law Emanuel Rothstein via telegram, informing him of three distant cousins who were in her care. He’d worked tirelessly to track down family, to avoid having to send them to an orphanage, and through his vast network of contacts, he’d been given the name Rothstein.
Emanuel had been skeptical, wondering who these boys really were, and if they were truly related. His wife Esther had taken a different approach, asking him how important the facts were when it came to three Jewish boys who desperately needed a home. Emanuel had grumbled mightily, but he’d gone the next day to the post office and sent off a return telegram to Mr. Gassner. Further arrangements were made; Emanuel sent money for the schiffskarten, and in less than a month they’d gone to meet the ship at port.
The brothers Emanuel and Mutty, along with their wives, stood anxiously at Jaffa port, waiting for the ship to dock. They had no idea what to expect, but nothing could have prepared them for the sight that met them. Mr. Gassner had sent a young man along to accompany them, and after he had steered them through customs, he held up a sign that read “Rothstein.” Trailing behind him were three young waifs, resembling drowned kittens more than children. They were so emaciated they could barely keep themselves upright.
Esther began to cry at the sight of them, and the two men stood frozen in place. It was Breindl who stepped forward and greeted the weary travelers. After presenting her identification to the courier as per Mr. Gassner’s instructions, she thanked him profusely and invited him to be their guest. He demurred, claiming he was going to visit relatives, and before she could say anything else, he’d melted into the crowd and was gone.
Breindl turned her attention then to the boys. Pity, she knew, would do them no good; they needed immediate convalescence. Luckily her Yiddish was firm, despite its lack of use; she’d kept it under her tongue all these years, and it burst forth as she kneeled down to speak to the children.
She wanted to gather them up into a hug, infusing them with the warmth and love that they had missed out on. Mr. Gassner hadn’t been able to get them to talk much, with the exception of the older one giving their names and the names of their parents.
Breindl spoke softly to them, telling them her name and who she was, that they were safe, and that from now on they would be taken care of. The two smaller ones, although they were all painfully small, clung to the arms of the older one so tightly it looked like they were trying to crawl into his body. They looked like a curious, three-headed being.
There had already been some discussion about who would actually be caring for the children. No firm decision had been made then, but it was clear to all of them now that these children would belong to Breindl and no other. Her husband and in-laws looked on as she carefully moved behind the children and placed one hand on the shoulder of the one child on the left and the other hand on the shoulder of the boy on the right, and gently nudged them forward while managing to keep them together. They took halting, tiny steps and hers were tinier, and with patience and soft words of encouragement, she steered them over to where the little group was waiting.
Having no other choice, the boys clung to Breindl as they faced the others. Until Esther lived to be an old woman she would recall the first time she looked into their little faces. Their eyes were haunted, yes, but being children, the tiniest ember of youthful exuberance, barely discernible, had remained unscathed. It was the oddest combination, Esther though, as though their inherent joy refused to be vanquished.
Breindl kneeled down in front of the boys again and pointed to each member of the family, telling the boys their names. She hadn’t once yet spoken to them directly —there would be plenty of time for talking. At this moment, food and warmth were the top priorities.
It was no easy task coaxing them into the old and wheezing taxi they had kept waiting for them, so Breindl produced a cookie from her handbag and broke it into three pieces. It wasn’t the best thing for them — they’d need broth and tea until their bodies would be able to digest proper food. They seemed to already know this because, after being lifted into the car, they sat like statues, each one holding his bit of cookie tightly in his hand.
To be continued . . .