Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 14. Enjoy!
My first stop was Reunite.com. This was a genealogy website devoted to helping Holocaust survivors find each other, the latest incarnation of a program that had been going on since the end of the war. Over the years, it had helped thousands of people find long-lost relatives. It was no longer as active as it was in the early years, but the survivor’s group that sponsored the program and the site still thought that the reuniting of families was a worthy mission. Interestingly, with the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the last ten years, the group’s activities had seen a slight increase. On the site were listings of names of people being sought, and listings of names of people searching. Going alphabetically down both lists I found nothing. Then I entered the several possible variants into the search engine, and again, nothing turned up. Nobody had contacted this site looking for any Gelbermans, and no Gelbermans had listed themselves on the site. Another dead end.
Before moving on, I paused on the home page of the site, unnerved. Again I experienced that great sense of overwhelming incomprehension I always felt whenever I thought about the Holocaust on a human level. It was one thing to learn dates, facts and numbers. And another thing entirely to think about what it really all meant, to think about being separated from Simon, from my children, from my parents, from my sister, or to think about Caleb and Hannah being separated. It was truly beyond my understanding, and the more I learned the less it made sense. One section of the site, “Lost Children,” was devoted to people who had been so young when hit by the horrors of the war that they had no memory of who they really were, of whom their families had been. In this section were baby photographs of people who had been adopted by Polish farmers, stowed away in convents, thrown out of trains on their way to sure death in concentration camps, people who had been saved by the generosity and caring of strangers but whose identities, other than being told that their parents were Jews, had been completely erased. The site tracked their progress in trying to find their identities, and in some cases there were happy endings. But most of the stories looked hopeless, impossible attempts at unearthing history long erased.
Meanwhile, my computer informed me that I had mail, a welcome interruption of the sadness of these unfinished stories. There was the message I was waiting for, from Meira, the Israeli genealogy researcher. We had never met in person, but we had developed a relationship by connecting on-line in a genealogical research list-serv and agreeing to help each other out now and then with research. If I needed something looked up in Israel that needed to be done in person, I knew I could ask Meira to help me, and vice versa. If it was a big job, I would pay her, but usually it was quid pro quo. Last year I had spent the better part of two freezing February days in a cemetery in Iselin, New Jersey, locating and then photographing gravestones for her. Now she owed me.
She had replied warmly, happy to be able to return the favor. With all the political instability in Israel, work was slow, and she was happy to have something to do. Not one to sit still when there was research to do, she had already been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Located there was an archive of those who had died in the Holocaust, as attested to by the survivors. The Germans had not, of course, issued death certificates, and so this archive was the most reliable way to get information on Holocaust-related deaths. The goal was to ultimately document the death of every Jew who died during the Holocaust.
What Meira had found was interesting, and worth every minute I spent freezing my tush off last winter. In the archives at Yad Vashem were the documented deaths of the Halizcher Rebbe Yosef Yehudah, his wife Bronia, his young daughters Sura and Chaya Esther, his son-in-law Nossen Shlomo and his daughter Basya, and his two grandchildren Leib Mendel Gelberman, and Yankeleh Chaim Gelberman. I knew that the archive wasn’t infallible. The center assumed good intentions on the part of the reportees, and simply allowed people to fill out forms stating that they knew the person had died. It was an important service to provide, and generally reliable. But if someone did have a reason to record a false death, it could easily be done. Still, it was a place to start. Meira promised to send me copies of the documents she had found later on that evening, her time, which would be in a few hours. It was going to be hard to wait to get my hands on the documentation, but I would try my best to be patient.
Before I had too long to sit and stew, the phone rang.
A shaky, elderly male voice with a deep Eastern European accent asked to speak to Mrs. Marcus. Right away I knew this call had to be connected to the Gelbermans, since no else except telemarketers called me Mrs. Marcus, and it was too early in the day for them. They only called during dinner.
“This is Abby Marcus. Can I help you?” I asked politely.
“Maybe rather I can help you,” came the reply. “I am Avrum Shapira, a childhood friend of Mrs. Freiburg. She asked me to call you.”
I sat up straight in my chair. “Yes?”
“I grew up in Halizch.”
“You spoke with her, but I understand you did not finish your talk, yes?”
“Well, then,” he continued. “She is sorry that she was not feeling well enough to finish the conversation. So maybe I will tell you some more stories, yes? You would like that?”
“Yes,” I said again, completely unable to be articulate. And never mind that it was Mrs. Freiburg’s grandson who put an end to our conversation, not her ill health. Who was this man, dropping out of the sky or at least out of my fiber-optic cables? Maybe miracles really did happen after all.
“Good then. You can come tomorrow, ten o’clock in the morning? We can meet somewhere not too far away.”
“Yes, thank you so much.” Then I remembered that I had promised to go on Hannah’s class field trip to the apple orchard. For a moment I seriously considered not going on the trip, but maternal guilt kicked in. I sternly reminded myself, family first, family first, family first. “Could we meet in the afternoon instead, at like four o’clock?”
“No,” he said. “In the afternoon I go to the doctor tomorrow. We will meet in the evening tonight instead. It is better not to wait too long. Six o’clock tonight. I will be in the Achim Brothers Dairy Luncheonette on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, near Livingston. You know where it is?”
This was not an invitation, but a summons. I had no coverage for the kids at that hour, as I knew Ronit was not going to be available, but I would figure something out. “Yes,” I said, “I know it. Across from Borough Hall?”
“Yes, that is right. I will see you tonight,” he said, and abruptly hung up.
Now I had to be doubly patient, waiting for the material from Meira, and waiting to hear what Avrum Shapira would say. But it wasn’t like I had nothing to do. For a change of pace, I decided to do some more reading. I grabbed one of the books piled on my desk, took my index cards and red pen, and went over to the couch. Soon I was back in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, watching Chasidism spread and flourish. What was becoming clear was that Emancipation and the choices that went with rights and citizenship had a major impact on the future development of Chasidism. Once Chasidism had been a movement of radical reform in opposition to the yeshiva-focused Judaism of their adversaries, the mitnagdim. In the face of the explosion of options, the two camps realized they had more in common with each other than not and formed alliances against the growing liberalization within Judaism. The differences between the groups became blurred, and the importance of scholarship began to play an important role for the later Chasidic leaders. As Orthodoxy came into being as a reaction to the movement for reform and liberalization within Judaism, and as Jews for the first time had the option of leaving the ghettoes and becoming part of the mainstream, the more conservative elements within Judaism began to emphasize the importance of tradition and look with disdain upon anything new or innovative. If the Baal Shem Tov himself had appeared in the 19th century, with his radical new ideas and ways of worshipping God, he might have been scorned by his own descendants for not being traditional enough.
The phone rang again, interrupting my thoughts. I got up from the couch and walked over to my desk, nearly tripping over a stack of files I had left on the floor. On the fourth ring I scooped up the receiver and plopped myself down in the chair.
“Yes?” I said, forgetting as usual to be appropriately professional.
A man’s voice, sounding very far away, said, “Is this Abby Marcus?”
Oh no, I said to myself. Not someone else with something they had to tell me. One surprise phone call a day was quite enough. I was getting impatient with the subterfuge. But I tried my best to be polite, and simply said, “Yes, who is this?”
“A friend of a friend,” came the reply, and this time I realized that the far-away sound was the result of someone trying to disguise his voice. “I am trying to help. Stay away from Gelberman. It’s not your business. Just keep away. And tell your red-haired friend to stay away before she gets in bigger trouble than she already is.”
Before I could reply, he hung up.
I slammed the receiver down hard. Damn! Leaning back in my swivel chair, I stared up the ceiling and knotted my hands behind my head. What the hell was going on? Who was the mysterious caller? And what was his definition of “friend,” a word he obviously liked to overuse? What was going on with this case that seemed so innocent on the surface? My first thought was that Arieh Freiburg was behind this call, but that was too implausible. I couldn’t believe he would actually threaten me, or Sarah Gelberman for that matter. More than scaring me, the call made me angry. I was angry at being lied to, which was by now abundantly clear, but I couldn’t be sure by whom. I was angry at the audacious interference of this mysterious caller. And I was angry that anyone dared tell me what to do or not to do. But I was also worried, not for myself, but for Sarah Gelberman. What kind of trouble was she in? Regardless of whatever was going on here, having taken her money I now felt partly responsible for whatever happened to her.
I dialed *69, trying to find out what from phone number the call had been made. No luck. All I got for my effort was a recording from the phone company, telling me that the number I was trying to reach was not available. He had probably called from a pay phone, or else was smart enough to plan ahead and block his phone.
My whole body was aching by now, and I needed to stretch. I got up, and walked back over to the dry-erase board. There was one more column that needed to be added. Picking up the pen again, I added a column and wrote at the top: Sarah Gelberman? I paused, the pen in mid-air, then underneath her name I wrote the only thing I could think of at that moment to write: Florida. Then I sat down and typed out a note with detailed instructions for Shuki, and left it taped to the door of their apartment so that he would see it right away when he got home from work.