Motti gets a letter back from Dagfin Gassner, the director of the refugee center. He can shed no light on the identities of Fisch or Berl. Motti takes Hershel out and tries to ask questions about the Sperling boys’ pre-war life.
* * *
Bohnensuppe, which was a thick white bean soup, was served by German Jews primarily on Shabbos. He was familiar with it because it was one of the steaming dishes his mother would bring in from the kitchen in her silver soup tureen. All eyes would remain riveted until she served it out bowl by bowl, until everyone had a healthy portion before them. Papa would begin first, then Mama, then Emanuel and finally Motti. By the time he was permitted to eat he was all appetite.
“Sounds delicious,” Motti replied. “Did you drink milk with it?” he asked casually.
Hershel’s face puckered in distaste. “When we asked for it Mammeh sometimes said no and sometimes she said yes.”
Motti wondered if Mrs. Sperling said no after the children ate fleishigs. “Did she put meat in the soup?”
Hershel nodded. “She or Kalonymous would bring a chicken to a man who slit its throat. I went one time with Mammeh and I threw up, so I didn’t go again. But I remember how good she made this dish. She would put some of the chicken in the pot and then the beans.”
Motti nearly exploded with joy. So far he had gleaned a hint of Shabbos and kashrus, implying that there was at least a semblance of observance in the Sperling home.
Motti proceeded carefully, tiptoeing on glass, afraid to break the mood. “And the tatteh?”
At that, Hershel crinkled his forehead then shook his head.
“I don’t think we had one. If we did I don’t remember.” More clues.
“Do you remember Berl and Fisch?” Motti recalled Kalonymous mentioning their names and telling them they were like their sons. “Were they your uncles?”
Hershel shook his head vigorously. “No, no. Or maybe they were? I don’t think so, but we stayed at their funny house, and they gave us food after we got sick from the mushrooms.”
Motti nodded, and decided to stop the questioning right there. Hershel’s story was becoming tinged with the boy’s imagination, or so it seemed. Funny houses and poison mushrooms sounded like something he had read in a story.
He did, however, believe that Berl and Fisch were real people, and his next step was to find them. He wasn’t sure where to start, ignorant even of their surnames, but it was only up to him to start.
The Danish Refugee Office would probably not be of help if the boys crossed the border alone, as Gassner’s letter implied. Berl and Fisch were relatively common names, so he would probably need some more information. Where it would come from, he had no idea. He knew he had to pick his way through slowly, but he would do it.
He wasn’t even curious. His only motive was to build some sort of a timeline of their young lives, string it together and figure out how to really help them and what they really needed.
There was an upsetting scene awaiting them at the Rothstein home as Motti and Hershel stopped the wagon in the back of the house. Motti stayed behind to feed the donkey while Hershel proceeded to the front of the house. There he found a sullen and bitter Yehuda seated on the ground to the right of the door, his back up against the wall of the house, so straight it looked like it was being held in place by a board stuck into the back of his shirt, starting from the neck. Hershel eyed him curiously, a little afraid of him but too softhearted to pass him by.
He leaned down so he could look Yehuda in the eye. “Are you sad?” he asked.
“No!” Yehuda barked into Hershel’s face. “I am mad. Very mad.”
“At who?” asked Hershel.
Yehuda closed up then, his mouth a grim line, angry enough at Kalonymous but mature enough not to take it out on Hershel. “Go inside,” he muttered instead.
Hershel stood for a moment in Yehuda’s shadow, unsure of what to do, until Breindl came out and ushered him inside.
Her intention was to shield him as long as possible from Kalonymous but, as usual, Hershel made a beeline for his brother. When he didn’t find him, he turned and looked up at Breindl, a question in his eyes.
“Is Kalonymous in his dream field?” he asked.
“No,” said Breindl, shaking her head. “He’s not here. He’s over at the Zayits for now.” This was not unusual, because Kalonymous figured out a way to be there several times a week, but something about Breindl’s tone of voice and the way she was wringing her hands clued him in that something was wrong.
“Dovid’l is with him?” he asked.
“Yes, zisskeit, Dovid’l went with.” Hershel was now fully alarmed. Breindl never called him zisskeit. It was a name she saved only for her own children. Even though she tried to convince them that they too were her sons, they knew better and could easily tell the difference, as much as she tried to hide it.
To be continued . . .