* * *
The nice place where Bruno had sent Berl and Fisch was his own. He had broken the cardinal rule of rescue work by bringing it home, but he couldn’t help himself. Meeting the two men had reminded him of when the Sperlings had arrived. There was a similar sense of vulnerability and confusion, but to see it on grown men was somehow even more heartbreaking.
After a week of five-star service at the hands of Bruno and his accommodating mother, Berl grew suspicious. “What’s happening here? Are we being held prisoner?”
“No, G-d forbid,” said Bruno. “You are my guests, and you are free to leave any time you like. My mother and I were just trying to make you comfortable before you moved on.”
Berl wasn’t so easily appeased. “Well, the food is good, at least, and Fisch could use a little fattening up, but we do need to get to Palestine. I was wondering if you could assist us.”
A week of good food and rest had mellowed him and opened his mind to reason. If anyone had asked Bruno’s opinion, he’d have said the two men were on the verge of collapsing from starvation, exhaustion or both, without taking into account the effects of their bullet wounds. He still hadn’t mentioned their arrival to Gassner, who would be very upset indeed when he discovered Bruno’s omission. Bruno had his defense all prepared in his mind. “I wanted to get them into better shape before any decisions were made,” he’d say. If Gassner asked him why he’d brought them specifically to his own home, his reply — If you’d have seen them, you’d have done the same — would be accurate, but inadequate. He knew he’d have to come clean, and the sooner the better, but he’d grown attached to the odd pair.
He let another two weeks go by, watching carefully as their cheeks began to fill out and regain some color. They loved sitting outside on the balcony, talking and watching the world go by. Berl did most of the talking while Fisch sat close by his side, Berl’s arm draped protectively around his shoulders. He kept up a steady patter, talking to Fisch as though he understood every word, pointing out things both down on the street and up in the air. Bruno’s mother supplied them with endless cups of tea and offered them quilts when the air grew chilly.
When Bruno returned from the refugee center each evening, he’d bring them warm slices of fresh cinnamon kokush cake and sit with them a while, listening to their stories. Never once did they bring up the night at the border, but they told some charming stories about the Sperlings.
“How long were they with you?” asked Bruno. “How did you meet them?”
Berl’s face closed up. “Why do you want to know? Is there something you aren’t telling us?”
Bruno realized that the time had come to inform Gassner of their whereabouts and attempt to contact the Rothsteins. Part of the reason why he was, in a sense, detaining them was because he was afraid they would be rebuffed, and their disappointment would be impossible to bear. What if the Sperlings had moved on with their lives and forgotten their benefactors? What if their sponsor refused to acknowledge them out of fear or jealousy? What if Gassner decided there was nothing to be done and sent them on their way? For all these reasons he’d hesitated, but he promised himself he’d tell all to Gassner the following day.
He arrived at the center and, with much trepidation, prepared to confess his misdoings to his superior, only to find Gassner already at his desk with a bemused expression on his face.
“Do you remember those kids?” he asked, handing the newly arrived telegram, still warm from the telex machine, over to Bruno. “All they talked about were Berl and Fisch. I guess they must still be talking about them, because the family we sent them to are asking about them. Did we ever get any follow up information on them? They want to know where they’re buried.”
If Bruno hadn’t held the telegram in his hand and read it with his own eyes, he’d have thought that Gassner knew all along what he was up to and was trying to call him out. It was a lot of words for a telegram, which gave Bruno hope that if the Rothsteins could afford such a wordy telegram they could afford to send shiffskarten to the Rosenfelds.
He knew he might be fired, but he had no choice but to tell the truth. “Berl and Fisch are alive,” he said simply.
Gassner knew that Bruno never joked around, so he had no choice but to take him at his word. “I beg your pardon? How do you know?”
“Because they are at the moment lodging in my apartment,” said Bruno.
To be continued . . .