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 II, Chapter 2. Enjoy!
My new hotel was a step up. This one had Crabtree and Evelyn bath products on a marble top vanity, a real shower curtain in addition to the vinyl liner, a great view of the marina, and a coffee maker with coffee, herb teas, and hot cocoa. I was paying more for these luxuries, but safety was important, and Sarah Gelberman had given me money for expenses. I had repeatedly looked behind me as I drove, making sure no one was following. Before checking in, I had driven around the parking lot, but didn’t see the white car or any sign of my secret admirer. I tried repeatedly to reassure myself that everything was fine, that nothing strange was going on. I could have just gone home, but I was in this too deep and I had to see it through. And the truth was, though I wouldn’t have admitted it to Simon, there was something exciting about the sense of danger.
Too antsy for t.v., I pulled out my file on the Gelbermans and glanced at the last message from Meira. How could these people have been reported dead if they were in fact alive? I glanced at her message again, trying to find a hint that would help me solve this ever-increasing mystery. My eyes slid over the lines, reading and re-reading the names of family members who had supposedly perished in the Holocaust. But then I paused—someone was missing. I had been so busy before focusing on the appearance of Leib and Yankeleh’s names on the list that I had not noticed whose name was missing. Suddenly I remembered a piece of information gleaned from the marriage certificate in Altoona, and I got an idea. It was a little farfetched perhaps, but maybe, just maybe, there was a connection here.
Luck was with me, and Leah was actually in her office. This was hunch built on a long shot, but clichés aside, but it was worth a try. There was only one problem—I needed the help of an insider.
“Hey, Reb. I need a favor,” I said. “I don’t have a lot of time right now for preliminaries, but tell me, do you know the rabbi at the Jewish Memorial Home in the Bronx?”
“Hello, how are you, okay, never mind. You’ll fill me in later. Yes, I do know her. Her name is Miriam Kreiner. Really nice, a JTS graduate, a second-career rabbi who went to rabbinic school in her late forties. They love her over there. Why?”
“It’s a long story, but I met Jack Gelberman, and I think he might have a relative there. Only I don’t know her name, or if she’s in any shape to talk to me. I want to ask the rabbi for some help.”
Leah laughed. “Well, give her a call and see. This is getting more interesting by the minute.”
“I promise, I promise, when this is all over I’ll fill you in,” I said. “I’ll be your best congregant. I’ll even serve on the Religious School Committee, if you really want. Or the Capital Campaign. Or the Ritual Committee.”
“No you won’t, and we both know you won’t,” Leah answered. “But you know, if you keep on like this, you might as well go to rabbinic school yourself. Think how useful it would be in your line of work.”
I could just picture Leah at her big desk, surrounded by piles of papers and books, pushing her hair behind her ears and grinning at me over the phone. “Not in a million years, but thanks,” I answered. “Better you than me.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say. Now a favor from you–when you’re sitting on the plane, bored to death, read my sermon over and let me know what you think. I’m having trouble with it, and I need feedback.”
I groaned. “Okay, okay, I promise. Quid pro quo.”
“You’re a pal. Look, I’ve got to run–meeting with the President to talk about tomorrow’s board meeting. When you call Miriam, mention my name. We’ve done some work together. And keep me posted. ”
“I promise, I promise. Would I lie to a rabbi?”
We both laughed, and I hung up.
Rabbi Miriam Kreiner was polite but stiff.
“How can I help you?” she asked, after I introduced myself and established my connection to Leah.
I hesitated briefly, then plunged right in. I wasn’t going to lie, but I didn’t have to burden her with superfluous details either. “I’m looking for someone who is a resident at the Home, someone whose name may be Chaya, maybe she goes by Chaya Esther, a woman who would be at least in her late 70’s if not 80’s, and who is most likely a Holocaust survivor. Her maiden name would have been Markusevisz but I don’t know what name she uses now.”
“I’m sorry,” Rabbi Kreiner said, her voice tighter and more formal. “I can’t give out information on residents.”
“Yes, of course, I understand,” I assured her. “It’s just that, well, this is sort of complicated. I’m an investigator, and I was doing what seemed at first like routine genealogical research, but it’s turning into something else entirely. The young woman who is my client is in danger, and if I’m right that such a resident does exist at the Jewish Memorial Home, she may be in danger as well. I know it sounds totally far-fetched. Please, call Leah if you want to confirm that I’m for real. If I could just find her name, I could come speak to her. I think she could help me.”
Rabbi Kreiner was silent for a moment as she thought. “I’m sorry. This is very, um, unusual. Let me call Rabbi Brown, and I’ll get right back to you. I hope you understand. It’s unethical for me to speak to you about this, unless I’m sure there’s a compelling reason.”
Trying not to sound overly eager or annoyed, I agreed that that was a good idea, and gave her my cell phone number. She was right, but I was impatient. It was always a surprise to meet people, even rabbis, who took ethics seriously, rather than being driven by the values of expediency, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. But I had no doubt that Rabbi Kreiner would call me back, and soon enough, my phone rang.
Rabbi Kreiner spoke, her voice softer than before. “Okay, I’m sorry I had to do that, but I hope you understand. Leah told me it was okay to talk to you, but please understand that I am doing this only because it may save someone from danger. I’m not entirely sure I should be doing this at all. So, okay, yes, there is someone here who fits your description. Her name is Chayale. That’s what everyone calls her here. Chayale Markusevisz.”
“Yes, that must be her!” I blurted out. How strange—I had seen the name on Jack Gelberman’s marriage certificate in Altoona, but I’d been so focused on him that it hadn’t hit me. Markusevisz had been my own grandfather’s name before he changed it to Marcus at Ellis Island. Could we possibly be related? If I remembered my father’s stories correctly, it was my Marcus grandparents who had the Chasidic roots back in Poland. But there was no way we were connected. That just couldn’t be.
“Are you all right?” Rabbi Kreiner asked with concern.
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. It’s just that–never mind. Please go on.”
She sighed. “Honestly, I don’t think that Chayale will be much help to you. She’s, well, a gentle soul. A special person here at the Home. But things, terrible things, unspeakable things happened to her during the Shoah, when she was just a teenager. She was quite beautiful, and, well, you know the stories. Apparently she was never the same afterwards. She has lived most of her life in a kind of darkness. She doesn’t speak, she only sings and chants, Chasidic niggunim, prayers and blessings, verses from Torah. She’s been like a child for all of her adult life, as if she reverted back to a safe place before the horrors of the war.”
I gulped. “Oh my God, I had no idea.”
“Her nephew is her only legal next-of-kin. I’ve spoken with him a few times when he’s been here. He doesn’t live in New York, and only comes occasionally. But to be honest, and maybe this is connected to what you’re working on, there have been some strange things lately.”
I kept myself calm. “Like what?”
“Well, a few months ago a volunteer doing bikur cholim, you know, visiting the sick, came to her room. It was a Chasidic woman—they’re great at organizing people to come visit our residents—an older woman who was herself a survivor. Chayale was singing away. And this woman somehow recognized her from before the war and started shouting. Maybe she just recognized the name, I don’t know. I don’t think she meant to upset Chayale, actually I think she was happy to see her. Apparently she had thought that Chayale had died during the war. But Chayale began to scream and cry and tried to push the woman out of the room. She was frantic—no one here had ever seen her like that. She somehow managed to pull her mirror off the wall and she threw it at the woman, who finally left. It took a long time for Chayale to return to herself. For days she was crying and whimpering.”
“I’m sorry, it sounds terrible.”
“Yes, it caused a big uproar,” she continued. “The staff was upset, and no one understood what had happened. Of course, how can we ever understand what she must have gone through during the war? But it’s hard to watch that kind of pain, whatever the reason. I tried to spend some time with her, talking calmly and quietly, brushing her hair. She loves to have her hair brushed. She has long braids, they’re gray of course, but every day the attendants braid it for her. They’re all quite fond of her, because usually she’s so sweet.
“So after that, it was decided that no strangers should visit Chayale. We all made the decision together, me, the social worker, the head nurse on her floor, the nurses who work with her everyday, and of course in consultation with her nephew. But there was another strange incident not too long after that. There was an occupational therapist who was fairly new to the Home. One day, not too long after the other incident, she went in to see Chayale, and apparently Chayale had a similar reaction. She screamed and cried, but instead of throwing something at her, she tried to rip off the therapist’s name tag, and she pulled at her hair. One evening shortly after that the therapist was found going through Chayale’s file. I don’t mean going through files that might have pertained to her work. I mean the confidential files that are kept in the main office. She was fired, of course. But still, it makes you wonder. And then some of her co-workers reported that she had been asking questions about Chayale, who she was, where she came from, who her nephew was, where he lived, things like that. But when she was fired, well, we just put it behind us.”
“But you made sure to tell her nephew.”
“Someone did, yes. I’m sure they did. And about the bikur cholim visitor as well. Yes, because he called me after that to ask me to please keep an eye on her, to make sure to continue to visit her. That’s what I do anyway, of course, but it’s good for the families to know that someone here cares. It’s very hard to put a loved one into a residence. I know her nephew feels guilty about having her here. But it’s really best for her here, she gets good care and her needs are too great to be cared at home.” She sighed. “Is this any help?”
“Maybe. One more question. Do you know the occupational therapist’s name?”
“Humm, let me see.” She thought for a moment. “It was biblical. Rebecca? Ruth? No. Oh, yes, Rachel. Yes, that’s right, because after she left Chayale’s room, apparently for some time after that Chayale sang the name Ruchel over and over. I don’t remember her last name. But it sounds like this is all making some kind of sense to you.”
“Yes, it might be,” I answered. “But I need to know one more thing. This Rachel, did she have red hair?”
Rabbi Kreiner was startled. “Why, yes, yes she did. How did you know that?”
[To be continued….]