About the Book
A close-up account of societal, religious and political events in Romania in the 1930s, Prelude in Black and Green brings to light little known details about the pivotal years in history leading up to World War II. Told through the eyes of a well-to-do Jewish family in Bucharest, the novel weaves the period’s growing unrest and transition together with the personal stories of the Steins and their relatives, whose comfortable way of life is increasingly marked by uncertainty and foreboding.
The List of Characters
The Stein Family
Adrian Stein……………………………. Electrical Engineer, 39
Nina……………………………………… His Wife, 36
Suzy……………………………………… Daughter, 13
Nadia…………………………………….. Daughter, 8
Nina’s Relatives (all maternal)
Uncle Ariel Geller……………………. Her mother’s oldest brother, 80, Chief Rabbi of London, Famous Linguist and Zionist
Clara Geller………………………….. His youngest daughter, 21
Aunt Josephine Gold……………….. Uncle Ariel’s youngest sister, 64
Uncle Leon Gold…………………….. Her husband, 70
Joel Gold……………………………… Their son, Pediatrician, 28
Mathilda Gold………………………… Joel’s wife, 22
Stella Frühling………………………… Nina’s sister, 32
Sorel Frühling…………………………. Stella’s husband, Pediatrician, 35
Theo Frühling…………………………. Their son, 9
Corinna Frühling……………………… Their daughter, 11
Emil Regen…………………………….. Construction Engineer, Nina’s oldest brother, 41
Dora Regen……………………………. His wife, 36
Liviu Regen…………………………….. Nina’s middle brother, Internist, 40
Bea Regen……………………………… His wife, 33
Silvia…………………………………. Governess, 23
Dr. Victor Georgescu………………. Psychiatrist, Director of the Mental Hospital, 54
Dr. Eugen Milo………………………. Psychiatrist, Assistant to Dr. Georgescu, 27
Charles Kass………………………… Electrical Engineer in Switzerland, 41
Edward Stiller………………………… Representative of the International Red Cross at the Swiss Embassy, 43
Fräulein Lilly…………………………. Governess, the Stein children, 28
Domnisoara Braunstein…………….. Adrian’s Secretary, 27
Skender………………………………. Tartar boy at the Black Sea, Theo and Nadia’s friend, 14
Fritz…………………………………….. Adrian’s chauffeur, 41
Marish………………………………….. Maid, 25
Ilona…………………………………….. Cook, 37
It is after seven when the guests start ringing the doorbell. The first to arrive is Aunt Josephine, Uncle Ariel’s youngest sister, with her husband Leon, their son Joel and his wife Mathilda.
“Is Uncle here? Did he arrive?” they ask, all at once.
“He’s on his way. Emil and Dora are bringing him in!” Nina kisses her aunt on both cheeks.
Aunt Josephine has the same rich, wavy hair, the same broad forehead, lively eyes and white, transparent skin as Uncle Ariel used to have. But she is hard of hearing and has to be spoken to loudly, through an ivory horn which she wears suspended from her neck with a silver chain. Sometimes she speaks loudly and sometimes softly, like most people who are hard of hearing and cannot adjust their voice.
“Good to see you on happy occasions!” says Uncle Leon, shaking Adrian’s hand. He is a short, fat man of about 65, with red cheeks flushed with perspiration. Uncle Leon is an oriental rug dealer, and his handwoven carpets come from Persia, Bokhara, Isfahan, and sometimes from India and Afghanistan. Many are old and have belonged to the richest princes of the world. Now he sells these carpets to wealthy Romanian princes, and even to the King himself, a great collector of oriental rugs.
Next to Uncle Leon stands the young couple, Joel and Mathilda, holding hands and smiling at each other. They look more like romantic lovers than a married couple and have been nicknamed Romeo and Juliet.
Joel’s unruly dark curls frame his face like a halo and fall over his forehead, while his clothes look slightly rumpled and too large for him. With her free hand, Mathilda tries to smooth out his open collar. Even though she is in her twenties, there is something girlish about her. She laughs and blushes easily, and covers her mouth with her hand when she does so.
“How is medicine?” asks Adrian.
“Fine!,” Joel smiles and pushes his curls out of his eyes. “Sorel promised me his old X-ray machine. I can’t wait to get it!”
Adrian remembers that Joel has recently finished medical school and is in the process of establishing a pediatrics practice at home in his living room. The large foyer can serve as a waiting room. Adrian also remembers that Joel would have liked to do pediatric surgery, but, as a Jew, he cannot work in a hospital.
“Is he here?” The question is asked again, this time by Stella, Nina’s sister and her husband, Sorel, who have just arrived.
Sorel, Nina’s brother-in-law, also a pediatrician, has deep set blue eyes which are always smiling. His head is perfectly round and totally bald. His features are fine and smooth as if chiselled in marble. He has rolled up his shirtsleeves and has opened his collar. During the summer he never wears a tie or a jacket.
Stella, his wife and Nina’s sister, follows him, her face half hidden behind a large black fan of feathers and lace from Barcelona. She is batting her large brown eyes with their long lashes. A tortoise shell comb gathers her hair in a bun, while her large bosom makes her look voluptuous, not only exotic.
“Is he here?”
“He’s on his way. Emil and Dora are bringing him over.” Adrian compliments Stella on her new fan and her French perfume, but is interrupted by a loud curse which explodes behind his back.
“Du-te la dracu! Du-te la dracu! Go to Hell! Go to hell!” screams a high pitched voice. Adrian turns around and sees a large green and red parrot in a cage, flanked by Liviu, Nina’s brother, and his wife Bea.
Liviu’s gold-mounted pince-nez glitters in the half-light, partly hiding his protruding eyes. His big, handle-bar moustache covers his mouth and his cheeks. Like usual, the stethoscope is draped around his neck. Nobody should ever forget that he is a doctor. Now he steadies the metal cage with both hands.
“My patient is too sick to take care of his parrot. He had to go to the hospital. So I did what had to be done: I took the bird, and here it is!” Liviu lifts the cage for all to see. His wife Bea, who is taller than him, helps him lift it up. Her grey eyes are highlighted by her lavender dress. She wears a long string of pearls and matching pearl earrings.
“I hope you accept this uninvited guest at your party!” she asks Nina and Adrian.
“Du-te la dracu!” curses the parrot. Then it starts to whistle the aria of the Torreador from Carmen and everybody whistles along.
It is then that Uncle Ariel arrives, accompanied by his daughter Clara who travels with him, and by Nina’s oldest brother, Emil and his wife, Dora. They had picked him up from the Gara de Nord train station at 1 p.m., arrival time of the Orient Express from Vienna, and took him first to their apartment.
Uncle Ariel is tall and walks very erect. His well trimmed beard and his hair have turned gray, almost white, but it is still wavy and thick. His face too is still handsome and smooth, his dark eyes still full of sparks. He is wearing an old fashioned stiff collar and a black “lavalière” like in Nina’s old family picture. Only his pince-nez has been replaced with gold-rimmed spectacles with thick lenses. In his hand he carries an ebony cane with a silver handle. He is flanked by Emil and Dora.
Watching them, Adrian is always struck by the resemblance of the two brothers. They have the same protruding eyes, regular features and pale, transparent skin. But Emil’s moustache is small and smoothed with pomade and he always wears a monocle. His summer suit is perfectly tailored and a starched handkerchief decorates his breast pocket. His patent leather shoes are shiny and polished like a mirror. His wife Dora who is holding onto Uncle’s arm, has straight black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes, which make her look oriental. If she wore a kimono, she would be taken for a Japanese woman.
“Hooray! Here they are! Welcome home! Welcome to your old family!” Everybody screams, as they all run to the entrance to hug Uncle. Sorel and Adrian have to stop the others from knocking him over in their enthusiasm.
“Welcome! Welcome home!” they keep shouting and clapping their hands. Joel and Nina help Aunt Josephine get close to her brother. As she stands on the tip of her toes and kisses him on the cheek, tears run down her face and she reaches for a handkerchief. “I thought I will never see you again!” she whispers.
“I would never let this happen!” says Uncle Ariel, stroking her hair.
“Everybody please come to the table!” Nina says after a while. “Let’s sit on the terrace!” she adds, as she takes Uncle’s arm and leads him out on the terrace, while the others follow.
“Take a seat! You must be tired… the long trip from Vienna, and then the walk here… You didn’t get any sleep and you must be exhausted!” Nina is pushing a chair toward him.
“No, no,” says Uncle Ariel. You are mistaken. I always sleep on the Orient Express. I sleep even better than in my own bed at home! I always loved trains. As a kid I even wanted to become a stationmaster and signal the trains in and out of the station with the red and green semaphore. Sometimes I still dream about it and think that it would be fun!”
“Well, you slept on the train… But then you walked…”
“So what’s wrong with that?” It is healthy to walk. Even though I am 80 years old, I walk every day, summer or winter, for an hour on the banks of the Thames. And then here, I was eager to breathe again the familiar air of Bucharest. I missed it. I missed its dusty smell and I wanted Clara to feel it too!”
Clara, Uncle Ariel’s youngest daughter nods and smiles. “Yes,” she says. “Tata told me so much about Bucharest, that I had to come and see it myself!”
She speaks Romanian with a strong English accent which delights everybody. She too has the same broad forehead and pale skin as her father and Aunt Josephine, but her hair is reddish-brown, her eyes are green and her face is full of freckles. She is in her twenties, but since she wears no makeup she looks like a teenager.
“Don’t move! Stay still everybody! I want to take a picture before the sun goes down!” Adrian whips out his camera and takes pictures of all of them together. He is a skilled photographer, focusing quickly and snapping the shots without wasting any time.
When he has finished, they all sit down at the round table on the terrace, under the blooming wisteria. A cool breeze reaches them from the garden, and they can hear the twitter of young birds in a nearby nest.
Marish, the Hungarian maid from Transylvania, brings up a crystal bowl with black caviar and passes it around. It is followed by a tray of smoked whitefish with black olives and slices of lemon.
“Are you eating this food? It isn’t kosher!” Nina asks Uncle Ariel while Adrian is pouring old tzuică into small crystal tumblers.
“Oh! yes, I know. But even I can sin once in a blue moon! I will do kapuras and ask for forgiveness at Yom Kippur.” This is worth it! A real treat! I haven’t eaten these things in a very long time. And the English fare! I can tell you their cucumber sandwiches are no French cuisine! And English kosher food is an abomination I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
Everybody laughs, and after they finish with the whitefish, other trays with gourmet appetizers and treats appear on the table.
Now Joel keeps refilling the tumblers with tzuică, and, after replenishing Uncle’s glass, he asks him what brings him to Bucharest this time and how long he is planning to stay?
Uncle Ariel looks at him thoughtfully and strokes his beard. “I’ve been invited to a Philological Conference in Warsaw and I’ve decided to stop here and see all of you. I’m not coming this way very often, as you well know. And besides, Nina has sent me a gorgeous selection of stamps for my collection,” he adds. “Tomorrow I want to see the Geller Temple, the family temple and the Moria school, if they still stand?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.
“Yes, they stand,” Joel answers.
“And I will meet with Professor Popovici to coordinate our presentation on Romanian folklore. I see him more often than any of you, since he attends all International conferences. I also wanted Clara to meet the family and see the place of my birth.”
He turns toward her, waiting for an answer, but she has gotten up and has walked to the other side of the table. Nina too is standing by the door. Her two daughters, Suzy and Nadia, are coming to meet Uncle Ariel. They are accompanied by Silvia, their governess. For a moment, Nina is resting her hands on the girls’ shoulders, then she pushes them gently toward Uncle Ariel.
The two children, Suzy 13 and Nadia 8, advance slowly, intimidated by Uncle Ariel and by so many guests. Their faces are red. Suzy is biting her lower lip while Nadia is pulling at her skirt. They are both wearing white sailor dresses, with striped collars and ties. But here the similarities end: Suzy is tall, with long legs and arms, straight brown hair, green eyes, and the white, transparent skin of the Gellers. By contrast, Nadia is short for her age, with wavy dark hair tied in a bow, brown eyes, buck teeth, and Adrian’s bronzed skin.The girls have eaten dinner separately, in the children’s room, with the governess, for Nina, who is following the fashion of the day, doesn’t allow the children to eat at the parents’ table when there are guests.
Now they stand in front of Uncle Ariel and say: “Hello! How do you do?” and “Welcome home!” in English. After he kisses them on the forehead and pats each of them on the shoulder, they walk around the table and greet everybody. When they finish, they stop near Silvia, their governess. After Nina signals everybody to be quiet, they start singing “My Bonnie lies over the Ocean,” accompanied by Silvia on her guitar.
“My Bonnie lies over the ocean,
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh! bring back my Bonnie to me!
Bring back, bring back
Oh! bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Bring back, bring back
Oh! bring back my Bonnie to me.
They sing while Adrian is watching them. Why does Nina make the children perform in front of guests? They’re neither clowns nor circus animals, he has told her. Let them be themselves and have a good time. This will only make them hate parties and company!
But Nina couldn’t be convinced. She said that this provides good motivation for the girls to learn English and is also a perfect opportunity to show the girls off in front of the family. Adrian thinks that this “showing off in front of the family” is Nina’s main reason to make the girls sing. For rivalry is fierce between his wife and her three siblings, and they always manage to involve their children in this competition.
Adrian turns to the girls’ governess, Silvia, who is playing the guitar, touching the strings lightly with her long fingers and who sings with an American accent. Silvia was born in Iowa, where her father, a German farmer from Transylvania, had emigrated after the Great War. But when the Depression came and he lost his livelihood, he packed up his family and his belongings and came back to Transylvania. That is why Silvia has an American accent.
Silvia is tall and slender with blue eyes and blond braids which she wears wrapped around her head. But today, as he is watching her, Adrian is struck by her sickly appearance: her face is pale and drawn, with lines around her mouth. Her forehead is damp with perspiration and her glazed eyes stare fixedly in front of her. Her hands shake when she is not touching the strings. Adrian has never seen her like this and he wonders whether she has the flu or an indigestion. Hopefully it is nothing serious.
When they finish with the first song, the children sing Frère Jacques and everybody chimes in, clapping their hands and laughing. After the French version they sing the Romanian, and then the German and English versions of the song. They are clapping and singing and making so much noise, that the parrot becomes agitated and starts to scream and curse at the top of his voice. Liviu has to get up, take him away with his cage and lock him in the pantry, far from the commotion. When he returns to the terrace everybody has calmed down, and Uncle Ariel surprises them with a Gypsy version of the song. He has a deep, melodious voice and it is easy to imagine him preaching in the synagogue as a rabbi, or singing like a cantor, which he sometimes does.
He finishes singing and the guests cheer and applaud again, while the girls and the governess say good night and depart.
“Dinner is ready! Please come in everybody!” Nina stands at the door of the dining room. “Please come in! Uncle Ariel with Clara and Aunt Josephine with your family, come in first!”
Clara follows her father into the dining room. He makes a few steps to the left and stops in front of a richly carved sideboard. “Our old sideboard from home! Look, here is the mark I carved out of the wood to test my new pocketknife!” Uncle Ariel points to a corner of the chest where the eye of a wooden dragon has been scooped out with a knife.
“And here are mother’s old candlesticks,” he adds, touching the silver candlesticks which stand on top of the sideboard. “Mother always lit the candles on Friday nights and on the holidays! She knew all the songs and the prayers by heart. It wasn’t easy to keep up with her, even after I became a rabbi myself.” Uncle Ariel raises his hands over the candles like in a blessing, and looks up toward the ceiling. “And here is the oil painting which hung in the foyer!” he says, looking at a large painting hanging over the sideboard, which shows a few shabby peasant huts and a primitive fountain in the middle of an empty field. “Look, Josephine, see this mark on the frame? You were about 6 when you threw a ball at the picture, and you got a good spanking for that. You cried the whole day, remember?” He points at a black stain on the gilded frame. “I hated that painting. It was so depressing. You must have hated it too, Josephine, otherwise you wouldn’t have thrown the ball at the picture!” says Uncle Ariel.
“Maybe… You’re right… You’re always right!” Aunt Josephine nods and smiles. It isn’t clear whether she’s actually heard her brother’s words.
They finally sit down for dinner. Uncle Ariel at the head of the table, flanked by Aunt Josephine, Clara and Uncle Leon to the right, and by Joel and Mathilda to the left. The table is covered with a starched damask tablecloth and in the middle stands the bouquet of lilies and peonies from the garden.
As soon as they have finished the borsht with sour cream, Marish fills their plates with gefilte fish with horseradish and boiled potatoes. Adrian pours old wine of Cotnari in their glasses and Uncle Ariel gets up to make a toast for Nina:
“Your food, this meal of tonight is really food for the soul. It refreshes my heart because it tastes just like the food I ate in my mother’s house. It always had a special taste, just like this. But, after I left, it was never the same any more…”
“By the way Uncle, tell us how it was when you left,” says Joel, when Uncle Ariel has finished speaking. He bends over the table, trying to get closer to him.
“Yes, yes, tell us how it was when you left,” everybody now wants to know.
“Oh!” says the Uncle with a sigh. “October 22, 1885. I’ll never forget that day!” He falls silent for a minute, collecting his thoughts. “It was a beautiful autumn day, with bright sunshine and a blue sky… My whole family and all my friends came to the train station to see me off. I was wearing the gold medal, the Order of Merit First Class the King had given me… There were eleven of us expelled on that day, all writers, teachers, intellectuals. Outside, people were screaming and yelling… The police had to come and keep order. For all the streets leading to the train station were filled with crowds. On one side stood my friends, my colleagues and my students, all those who mourned my departure and, on the other side, stood those who hated us and were happy to see us leave. They were carrying banners with the words: “Hooray! Hooray! Dr. Geller is finally leaving with his friends!”
“But your family, your parents, they must have been upset with this forced exile?” asks Joel.
“Yes, but they never showed it. My mother didn’t allow it! On the day before my departure she took me into the living room, sat me down on the green couch, and told me this story.
Once upon a time there was a couple. The man tried many trades, but was never successful, and gave up in despair. One night he heard his wife crying.
‘What is the matter?’ he asked.
‘I had such a frightening dream, I don’t even want to tell you.’
But he pleaded until she finally told him that she was in heaven and there she saw some angels mourning and crying. When she asked what was the matter, they said: ‘Don’t you know? God is dead!’
When she heard these words, said the wife, she got such a fright that she woke up crying.
‘How can you believe such a thing? God never dies,’ said the husband.
‘Oh!’ answered the wife. ‘If God never dies, why do you despair? God is everywhere! You need not despair. Wherever you go, God will protect you.’
“What an extraordinary woman!” says Mathilda.
“Yes,” nods Uncle Ariel, as he takes off his spectacles and wipes them with his handkerchief. “This was my mother, your grandmother, the daughter of the Rabbi from Berditchev in the Ukraine. She was a descendent of the famous chassid, Rabbi Levy Yitzhak of Berditchev who lived in the late 1700’s, an exalted, fearless and inspiring man, who fought with God, insulted Him and made angry demands.
“My mother, your grandmother, was strong and just as fearless as the Rabbi—and willful. She only listened to her own ideas. Once she almost got us in terrible trouble because she agreed to hide, in our house, a young Jewish woman, a Nihilist refugee from Russia, who was hounded by the Police after Tsar Alexander II was killed by a bomb in 1881. The bomb was set up by six Nihilists, one of them a Jewish woman. These revolutionaries crossed the borders illegally into Romania, where they were also chased and arrested by the local gendarmes. I remember my mother hiding the young woman in the attic, and even though there were threats from the Police and even though our street was swarming with informers, she didn’t give up. She kept the woman in the attic, until she got help from other Russian refugees. One night she was able to leave and escape, hidden in a carriage, and dressed like a man. The woman and her companions took the train to Giurgiu, near Bulgaria, and on a moonless night she crossed the Danube into that country.”
“A frightening story!” says Bea. ”I wouldn’t have the courage to get involved. Didn’t the police also arrest the Romanian accomplices of these Nihilists?”
“Yes, you’re quite right,” says Uncle. “As a matter of fact a number of people were arrested and accused of complicity, particularly if they were Jewish. But my mother was not…” The rest of his words are lost in a sudden commotion.
“Come on, everybody! We’ll have dessert and coffee in the living room! The chairs are more comfortable, and it’s much cooler there!” says Nina.
They file one by one into the large, high-ceilinged living room, where platters of camembert and other French cheeses and baskets of cherries and apricots are waiting for them.
The room is cool and breezy with a large window reaching from floor to ceiling open toward the garden. There is soft, indirect lighting which makes it feel cozy and intimate. Marish, the maid, brings cups of Turkish coffee, while Adrian pours French cognac in their glasses.
They pull the deep armchairs in a circle around Uncle Ariel.
“Go back to your story, Uncle!” says Joel, bending toward him.
“I don’t understand: you had a gold medal, the highest decoration, given to you by the King. How could they expel you? What right did they have?”
Uncle Ariel looks at him stroking his beard. Then he adjusts his glasses and says: “I know it’s hard to understand, but the Prime Minister and his friends accused me of being an agitator against the government, a troublemaker who was spreading denigrating information about the country abroad…”
“Was it true? Did you do that?” asks Stella, looking up from behind her fan.
The Uncle stares at the big, black feathers and keeps silent for a minute. “Maybe I did,” he finally says. “From their point of view, you see, I did fight for the rights of the Jews and against anti-Semitism. I had become a militant Zionist when they threw me out.”
“But why? What was going on?” Joel is sitting on the edge of his chair. “After all, you were so involved and so successful in matters of Romanian language and folklore. When did you get mixed up in Jewish problems?”
“You’re wrong: I was always concerned with Jewish problems! That was the tradition of the family. Remember that my father’s father had built the Geller Temple and a school for Jewish children. And when I came home from Breslau, after finishing my rabbinical studies, I saw that all of us Jews of Romania were in trouble: we had no citizenship, so we had no rights! Even though we were born in this country for many generations, we were not Romanian citizens. We were considered ‘foreigners,’ and were not protected by any government. This meant that we couldn’t go to a public school or university. We couldn’t own land and we couldn’t work in any public institution. Also, at any time, any of us could be ordered out of the city or even out of the country in less than 24 hours. The mayor, the police chief or any public authority could give such an order. And when this happened, everything was lost. The people had to leave behind all their belongings, their houses and their furniture. They suddenly became beggars with no place to go!”
The uncle’s hand trembles as he speaks, and he wipes his forehead with a handkerchief.
A really tragic situation! thinks Adrian. “And was there no hope for change?” he asks.
“Yes, there was. Under the pressure of the Western countries, we were supposed to receive citizenship around 1880’s. But there was so much corruption and so much anti-Semitism that only a few very wealthy Jews succeeded in getting their citizenship. Most of us, including my family and myself remained ‘unprotected foreigners’ like before.”
The Uncle stops and strokes his beard, while Dora, Bea and Uncle Leon who are sitting further away, pull their chairs closer to him. And nobody stirs when Marish brings in a large tray with plates of strawberry parfait and a carafe of ice water. Trying to make as little noise as possible, Nina gets up and helps Marish distribute the plates of ice cream to everyone and to fill their glasses with water.
Uncle Ariel eats a strawberry and goes on: “But that wasn’t all. At about the same time, there was a sudden wave of official anti-Semitism, supported by the government itself.”
“So what could be new?” asks Sorel who has grabbed Stella’s fan and is sweeping the air with it. “It seems to me that the government has always been anti-Semitic!”
“Shhhh!” says Stella. “You and your anti-government obsession! Shut up and listen. Maybe you learn something new!”
Adrian watches Sorel with some apprehension. He knows that his brother-in-law is both opinionated and short tempered. But Uncle Ariel is not disturbed.
“Well, there was something new,” he says. “It was the time of the big pogroms in Russia, and many Jews escaped to Romania, and the Government didn’t like it. There were big riots here, and those who started them were not punished, not even brought to trial.
“In one case the attacker was actually promoted to the position of mayor of Bucharest! In our city, too, gangs of students stormed the Great Choral Temple, breaking the sacred ark with the Torahs inside. They also ransacked the entire Jewish neighborhood, looting and setting fire to houses and stores. But after they tried to set fire to the Geller synagogue and broke our windows, we organized a fraternity of young Jews who were so tough that they broke the bones of our assailants. The police had to come to their rescue!”
Adrian shakes his head and smiles, imagining the gangs of students beaten to a pulp by a group of angry Jews!
Then the Uncle tells them how, about the same time, bands of hooligans started attacking Jewish funeral processions on the way to the cemetery. “I was walking in Aunt Rebecca’s funeral cortege on Calea Griviţei when the goons came out of the pub armed with sticks and rocks, and attacked us, yelling, “One today, tomorrow a hundred!” After several such incidents we decided that every procession should be protected by a few strong Jewish men armed with iron bars. This plan was successful. After several bloody encounters, the attacks ended.”
“And,” asks Adrian, was that all?”
“No,” says Uncle Ariel, “it wasn’t all.”
“During all this time, I also wrote and published articles and letters of protest about these violent attacks. After a while, I noticed that I was followed and watched very closely. Every word I said was recorded. I felt hounded like a felon obsessed by his crime.” Uncle Ariel’s face turns somber and tense. He looks in all directions like a man in imminent danger.
Adrian keeps staring at him. What courage! What iron determination! These are the people who make history, who make things happen. He understands Nina’s veneration for this uncle and he is proud to have him as a guest. But at the same time he feels that, in his youth, he must have been reckless, even provocative.
Adrian’s thoughts are interrupted by Nina and Marish who come to collect the empty plates of parfait. Uncle Ariel has barely touched his own, and it has melted down to a pink, sticky liquid. Nina lifts his plate carefully so as not to spill the pink sauce on his pants.
As some guests get up to stretch their legs and to help themselves to fruit and cheese, Sorel and Joel pull their chairs closer to Uncle Ariel.
“You were followed and watched, all right, but I heard that in spite of this, you organized the first group of Jews to emigrate from Romania to Palestine. Am I right?” asks Sorel.
“And you also had a hand in setting up the first colony of Romanian Jews in Palestine!” adds Joel. They both stare at the uncle with much admiration.
“Yes, it is true!” says Uncle Ariel. “But I became a Zionist only after I saw that things went from bad to worse. After 1879, when we couldn’t become citizens, there were many bad laws against us. People who had lost their livelihoods because they were Jews couldn’t even be street peddlers. They were arrested and expelled from the cities. But they were not allowed to use horses, or travel by wagon or train. They were forced to walk, escorted by police, even if they were old and sick. And only after I saw friends and neighbors breaking down on the road, without any hope, I decided to do anything I could to help them go to Palestine.”
“It must have been quite difficult to set up such a program?” says Adrian.
“It wasn’t easy,” says the Uncle with a sigh.” And to tell you the truth, we were often accused of leading these poor souls to starvation and catastrophe!”
“How discouraging! Nothing seems so bad as making efforts and sacrifices which are not recognized,” Adrian concludes.
But he cannot hear Uncle’s reply because he must rush to the other end of the room, where there is unusual agitation: people are laughing, chairs are pushed around.
Remembering that the parrot hasn’t received any food, Liviu has brought the cage into the room and has put it on a table. Then he opened the door of the cage and lured the bird outside with a slice of apricot. The parrot hopped out, took the fruit in its beak, and flew to the next table, where he ate it. When it came back for more, it glimpsed Clara’s small diamond ring which she had taken off to show to Bea, holding it loosely on the tip of her finger. It is a small ring with a bright stone which she had received from her father on her 18th birthday.
As quick as lightning, the parrot picked up the ring in his beak and flew with it up to the curtain rod near the ceiling. Now he is sitting there, perched on the metal rod, ruffling its feathers and staring at the people below. What will he do next? Will he fly out the window? Will he swallow the ring? Will he drop it in a hidden corner—behind a couch or the bookcase? Everyone is holding his breath.
Adrian quickly closes the window, and tries to think of a strategy. He .knows that, if they come chasing after the parrot and scare him, he will either swallow the ring or drop it in a hidden place. Finally, he has a plan: “We must leave a plate of cherries and apricots on the table and pay no mind to the bird. We must ignore him. Pretend that he doesn’t exist. Sooner or later he will get hungry again and feel tempted by the fruit. Then he will return to the table, hopefully bringing the ring in his beak.”
Everybody is happy with this plan. For a while they are quiet and speak in a low voice, even though they feel tense. And, just as Adrian has predicted, a few minutes later the parrot is back on the fruit dish. It drops the ring on the table and snatches a cherry. Instantly Liviu throws a big napkin over him, crying “I got you! I got you!” Then, holding the bird with both hands, he slips it inside the cage. And, when the door is locked, the stunned parrot explodes in a torrent of curses: “Du-te la dracu! Du-te la dracu!” which forces Liviu to take the cage back to the pantry and soothe the bird with more cherries and apricots.
Meanwhile Clara is stupefied. She is pale and can barely move. Slowly, as she recovers, she slips the ring back on her finger, and turns to Adrian, asking him not to say anything to her father. “I don’t know what he would do if I lost the ring. He might never speak to me again!” Her eyes are larger and greener than ever.
“I won’t say a word!” Adrian promises. Then he rushes to the other end of the room, where a heated discussion is going on. It involves the Uncle’s forced banishment.
“About this expulsion, didn’t you also have some personal troubles with the prime minister?” says Emil.
Uncle Ariel raises his eyebrows. He takes off his glasses and polishes them with his handkerchief. “You know more than I wanted to tell! The prime minister, who was also a linguist, strongly disagreed with me about the origins of the Romanian language. He tried to convince everybody that the Romanians are descendants of the Romans who colonized the country in ancient times and occupied Transylvania. This, in his political mind, justified the annexation of Transylvania to Romania. But I gave a talk that summer, and I showed that the names of many cities are not Latin at all. This made his theory weaker and weaker.
“The King was there, as well as many important people. They all agreed with me and the King thanked me for my speech. The prime minister turned pale when he heard that. And three months later he expelled me with eleven other Jewish intellectuals.”
Uncle Ariel stops and takes a sip of cognac. Then he goes on. “But I met him ten years later in Paris at an International Philological Conference over which I was presiding. He came to greet me and said that I should thank him for my fame and success. Because, if it weren’t for him, I would still be sitting in Bucharest, and I would have never become the famous scientist I am today! I looked at him and I replied that I was not going to thank him because this was not what he had in mind when he threw me out of the country.” Uncle Ariel pounds the floor with his cane and smiles triumphantly.
“We should all go to Palestine!” cries Sorel. His face is flushed and his eyes are shining.
“And be killed by the Arabs or die of malaria!” says Stella, pointing an accusatory finger at him.
“Why leave? Why go to Palestine?” asks Emil. “We are all citizens now, we have equal rights since the Great War!”
“Equal rights my foot!” grumbles Sorel. “It’s only on paper. You’re the only Jew I know with an executive position at a State Agency. And it’s all because of that strategic bridge you built over the Danube. But I still can’t work in a city hospital and neither can Liviu or Joel.” His eyes are flashing with anger.
“Things will get better. Be patient. The Western powers—France, England and America–have invested in our oil fields in Ploeşti. They won’t let us down. They care about our rights!” Emil makes big gestures with his hands, trying to convince Sorel.
“So how long should I wait? When will they show me that they care?” Sorel shouts at the top of his voice, getting up and advancing toward Emil.
“Enough, enough already!” cries Stella, covering her ears with her hands, while Nina is watching them anxiously. Adrian tries to step between Emil and Sorel, only to be pushed aside.
“Do something! Don’t let them kill each other in front of Uncle Ariel,” Nina whispers to him. “Turn on the radio… Give them some music… I don’t want Uncle to see them like this!”
Adrian walks quickly to one corner of the room and winds up the Victrola, while Marish and Nina roll up the carpet, exposing the shiny parquet. In the next minute, the saxophones of the orchestra invade the living room.
You leave Pennsylvania Station at a quarter of four
Read the morning paper and you’re in Baltimore…
The Chattanooga Choo-Choo…”
roars the voice from the record player.
Adrian walks over to Clara, bows deeply in front of her and takes her hand, inviting her to dance. She gets up, her eyes smiling in her blushing face. At some distance, Sorel and Emil keep arguing, but their words are soon drowned out by the beat of the drums and the sound of the trombones.
Nothing can be finer
Then to have your ham and eggs in Carolina…
The Chattanooga Choo-choo…”
Liviu turns to his wife Bea, takes her arm, and they both follow Adrian and Clara to the improvised dance floor. Soon, all the young people turn and twirl in the living room. Some are dancing a classical foxtrot, while others experiment with a free-style of dancing.
After the “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” Adrian plays the hit of the season, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which is repeated several times . While the music is still playing, Liviu steps out of the room and comes back immediately wearing a black top hat and an old-fashioned ivory handled cane. He takes Bea by the hand, and together they start tap dancing, performing a flawless imitation of Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers. Liviu is light and graceful, his feet rhythmically touching the floor. Bea is matching his movements, pirouetting in and out of his arms, as if she were Ginger Rogers herself. Everybody stops dancing to make space for them and watch.
“To Hollywood! You must go to Hollywood where you belong!” All the couples are shouting when they have finished. Even Uncle Ariel is applauding and agrees that that’s where they belong.
Liviu bows, takes off his hat, clicks his heels and kisses Bea’s hand escorting her to her seat. But he still has boundless energy and now invites Clara to dance. “Let’s do the rhumba!” he says, standing in front of her and taking her hand, while the gramophone is playing the fast dance.
“But I don’t know the rhumba,” she says, her cheeks on fire.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll teach you the steps. When you go back to London, you’ll tell your friends that you learned to dance the rhumba in Bucharest.”
Everybody is dancing now—those who know the rhumba and those who pretend to know. Adrian and Nina, too, are turning quicker and quicker, while the saxophones sound louder than the trumpets of Jericho. Only Uncle Ariel, Aunt Josephine and Uncle Leon are left in their seats, watching the dancing couples.
“I bet this music is too loud for the old folks and the drums must drive them crazy! But I didn’t want Uncle to see them fighting like cats and dogs!” Nina whispers to Adrian.
After the first rhumba they dance another one which is followed by a hot foxtrot with a loud beat. They sway and turn and laugh happily, and just when they are at the height of merriment, there is a shrill ring at the door. Who could it be? Everyone freezes.
Adrian walks to the door and opens it. In front of him stands Mrs. Segall, the neighbor from downstairs, blinking her eyes. She wears a pink robe and large paper curlers in her hair.
Adrian takes a step backwards when he sees her. “Why… what brings you here?” he stammers. But she pushes him aside and runs into the room. The paper curlers in her hair look like a flock of butterflies ready to take off.
“Shhhhh! Listen! Don’t you hear anything?”
Nina has stopped the record player. In the silence, they can hear the high pitched scream of a child.
“Nadia!” yell Nina and Adrian at once, as they storm out of the room.
“This has been going on for fifteen minutes!” says Mrs. Segall, shaking her head.
Liviu and Sorel follow their hosts on the long corridor. As they approach the children’s room, the shrieks grow louder and louder.
Adrian turns on the lights and sees Silvia, the governess, sprawled across Nadia’s new bed. A blue silk scarf is tightly wound around her neck, and purple splotches have appeared on her face. Her breathing is shallow and rasping. One hand is pulling at the fringed end of the scarf, while the other is clasping a small black and white photograph. Adrian comes closer and sees that it is a photo of Joel with his bicycle. The picture has red stains of lipstick, which look like traces of kisses.
In her bed, Nadia has tried to get away from the governess. She is curled up near the wall, screaming in terror, her face buried in her small hands.
Nina quickly scoops her up in her arms, and together with Suzy, takes her into another room. At the same time, Adrian and Liviu try to unwrap the scarf which is wound around Silvia’s neck. But as they touch her, she scratches and bites their hands and pushes them away,
“Hold her arms and her legs,” says Liviu to Adrian and Sorel, while he unties the long scarf.
As soon as he is finished, her breathing becomes more regular and the purple patches vanish from her face. Liviu places a towel soaked in cold water on her temples. The wet compress makes her open her eyes, but at the same time, throws her into new convulsions and inarticulate shrieks.
“I have to give her a calming injection!” says Liviu, shaking his head.
He rummages in the leather briefcase which Bea has brought over after they ran out of the room. He pulls out a shiny metal box and a vial of Luminal. Inside the metal box is a sterile syringe and two needles.
“It’s a miracle that I had no time to go home and change. I wouldn’t have brought my medical kit with me, and a sterile syringe in the bargain. Hold her arm so I can give her the shot!” He breaks the vial with his hand and fills the syringe. Then he soaks a ball of cotton in alcohol which Nina has prepared and wipes a spot on Silvia’s arm.
“Hold her down!” he says to Sorel and Adrian.
With her eyes closed, Silvia moans and tries to move out of his reach. But Sorel and Adrian are holding her tight and Liviu plunges the needle through her skin. Silvia gives a short cry, opens her eyes and stares at the men. Then she closes them again, takes a deep breath, and goes to sleep.
“We’ll have to take her to the Mental Hospital!” says Liviu. “We can’t leave her here with the children, nor can she be alone without supervision. It’s too dangerous!” He pauses for a moment, watching Silvia.
“But we can’t use my car. It’s too small and it’s an open convertible—not recommended for driving a crazy woman who tries to commit suicide. I had enough trouble driving through town with the parrot. He screamed and cursed all the way, and people laughed and ran after us as if we were the Klutsky circus!” Liviu shakes his head and runs his fingers through his thin strands of hair.
“We can use my car!” says Sorel. He is tucking his shirt in his pants and wiping his bald head with a blue handkerchief.
“It’s all right! Besides, Stella and I know the doctor who works there tonight. Our children are friends. He’ll be helpful to us.”
For a moment, they stand near the bed, watching the sick woman. Her crisp uniform is all creased now and her blond braids are in disarray, with locks of hair escaping in all directions. Her face looks pale and drawn; her eyes are closed. Adrian sees her lips moving as if calling a name, over and over again. He bends toward her and hears that she is calling Joel’s name. He picks up the small photograph and wipes the red stains with the palm of his hand. He remembers taking this picture at Joel’s 18th birthday, when he had received from his parents a new bicycle and a fashionable English sport suit. In the photograph, Joel is smiling broadly, and looks very proud.
Adrian remembers that Joel often came to play with the children. On their birthdays he always had unusual surprises: he would bring Charlie Chaplin or Mickey Mouse movies, which he showed with his own small projector. The screen was a white wall or a bedsheet stretched over the armoire. Other times he improvised an elaborate puppet theatre with lively shows.
Silvia always helped him on these occasions. She knew how to pull the strings of the marionettes, how to animate the puppets which were moved by the fingers and how to speak in different voices, or bark, meow, crow or roar like an animal. In return for her help, Joel brought his harmonium and accompanied her when she played her guitar and sang songs with the children.
Had there been a romance between them?
Joel had often visited the family during their summer vacations in Sinaia, the fashionable mountain resort with the King’s summer palace, where he taught the children how to ride their bicycles. For several years, Joel, Silvia and the two girls, Suzy and Nadia, seemed to have a great time together.
Had there been anything? Adrian winds his watch back and forth as he often does when he is perplexed by something. It is true that, after he met and married Mathilda, Joel barely spent any time with the children, and last summer he didn’t come to Sinaia at all. Come to think of it, in the last few months, Silvia had become absentminded. She had lost her appetite and the glowing color in her cheeks. Her uniform now seems too large for her.
As he stands near the bed, Adrian picks up the blue scarf which had slipped to the floor. He and Nina had bought it in Paris for Silvia because it matched her blue eyes. She was happy and thankful for it, and wore it with her best outfits on special occasions. He had never expected what was happening now.
* * * * *
Nina walks in with a small valise in which she has packed a few of Silvia’s belongings—her green toothbrush, her soft slippers, pajamas, her comb, her hairbrush and a bar of soap.
“Yes, we can go.”
Liviu and Sorel wrap the governess in the blanket and carry her out of the room. Liviu supports her head while Adrian and Sorel hold her feet. They walk through the corridor and through the pantry, where Marish and Ilona, the maid and the cook, make the sign of the cross as they pass. The parrot has been moved away to the terrace, so as not to scream with excitement. Behind the doors of the living room, the guests speak in soft, muffled tones.
The three men carrying Silvia slowly descend the marble stairs and stop near the waiting car. It is decided that Adrian, Sorel and Stella will drive her to the hospital, while Liviu and Bea will stay with Nina and the other guests. Later, they will drive Uncle Ariel home.
(Photos courtesy of the author.)