We’re running towards the edge of something a little like a convergence now. Perhaps a cup of tea is in order?
San Francisco, California December 1945
Anders and Tilda stood beside the railway platform at Oakland’s 16th Street Station, waiting for the arrival of the Southern Pacific’s Number 12, the Cascade, inbound from Seattle and due to arrive in ten minutes. It was chilly out that Saturday morning as an unusual cold front from the northwest had pushed through during the night, dumping rain on the city and leaving a crisp, cloudless sky over the bay after it passed. Anders felt Tilda tremble as a gust whipped along the platform so he put an arm around her shoulder and held her close. She leaned her head into him and sighed, suddenly content despite all her concerns.
“I remember making this same journey,” she said. “It was so long, and so very uncomfortable.”
“It was not so long ago, you know? And you were uncomfortable?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean it that way. The journey from home, I mean. That first winter in Quebec…I hope I am never again as cold as we were there.”
Anders laughed at the memory, but then again it hadn’t seemed all that funny at the time. “I remember that awful stove. It put out enough heat to warm perhaps one room, and wasn’t that an awful apartment.”
“We were lucky not to die of pneumonia,” Tilda sighed. “I will remember nothing but the cold.”
“Well, life is much better here, don’t you think?”
“I have never been happier, my love.”
“I know. I feel the same way, and every day I thank God we made it here. This was the correct choice for us.”
“I hope I was able to set up the new apartment well enough. I don’t know what to expect.”
“It is just temporary, Tilly. As soon as her husband is finished with that school we will help them find a house; until then they must remain close to us. We will both be needed to look after her, I’m afraid. Rosenthal’s telegram was a shock, but at least she survived the madness.”
“Is he coming?”
“Rosenthal? Yes, soon. Perhaps by spring, but I understand he is working to get as many Jews into Palestine as he can, despite the rancid objections of the British.”
“I have a bad feeling about all that, Anders.”
“Many do. Displacing so many people will not be achieved without cost.”
“All the Jews should come here,” Tilda said, perhaps only half-jokingly.
“But California was never the Promised Land, was it?”
“Only because the desert fathers had never been here. One week in San Francisco and Israel would have been built here, or perhaps in Monterrey.”
Anders chuckled. “You might have a point,” then he cocked his face into the wind and listened. “Do you hear that?”
“The train. Can you hear the whistle?”
“Ah, yes, I can…just.”
“I wonder what it is about that sound that is always so exciting?”
“Taking a trip, I think, is like getting away from all of our day to day routines, all our cares and worries…so maybe it is the hopeful sound of release?”
“You are so wise, Tilly. Yes, look right there!” he cried, pointing to the north. “See the steam, there, just above the trees?”
And yes, there above warehouses and neighborhood streets lined with bungalows pulsed vast geysers of steam – gray and black at times, then purest white…a procession of cloud-like billows rising into the blue sky – until the locomotive’s monstrously bright headlamp appeared as the train rounded a curve, then soon enough and car by car the entire train came into view. Anders and Tilda stepped back from the edge of the platform as the locomotive huffed and chuffed into the station, and then Anders looked for the Pullman sleeper that had come from Seattle.
“Which carriage is she in?”
Anders looked at his notes again, double checking his memory. “9034, a sleeping car. Ah, there it is!” he said, taking Tilly by the hand and stepping towards the car as a porter opened the door and set out his yellow step on the platform. People began filing out two by two, but they saw no Imogen Schwarzwald, and no husband with her.
Then at last a tall, almost gaunt man stepped down to the platform, then he turned and raised his hand to help a withered old scarecrow-lady down the steps…then Anders recognized Imogen and he his first impulse was to turn and run.
“My God,” Tilda whispered. “Could that be our Imogen? She must weigh fifty pounds, if that!”
Anders held his tongue but in that moment all the alleged horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution crystallized in his mind and once again his blind hatred of all things German came in a raging tide of acrid bile. His best friend, Imogen’s father, dead. Killed. Shot in the back of the head for providing medical care to resistance fighters, a captain in the Gestapo waiting in the wings to take possession of the professor’s house, then the captain turning up face down in a canal with a knife shoved into the back of his skull.
An eye for an eye, right?
That’s how the game has to be played now, right?
You don’t meet the enemy head on, on his terms. You slip around behind him, preferably under cover of night, then you slit his throat in his bed. You send a message along with your audacity: no one is safe. You cannot hide. That was the lesson Europe’s Jews had just learned, paid for with their dearest blood. That was the truth Europe’s Jews would carry with them as they returned home, to Palestine. And all that horror Anders Sorensen had hoped to push aside here in California just wouldn’t leave him. He wanted nothing to do with the old world, because he saw in California what every new arrival in California had always sought: he wanted to rejuvenate his very soul, to reinvent his life while he recovered the best facets of his other self, the life he had been forced to abandon in Copenhagen. Since the gold rush, California had become the land where people went to make their fortune, and then to enjoy the fruits of their prosperity in a land that truly was made of milk and honey.
But now Imogen Schwarzwald stood before him and everything he had run from came home in one thunderous crash, and in that sundered moment he felt all his hopes and dreams wither and die. Then he ran to her – and when Imogen recognized him she opened her arms and fell into his embrace.
“Oh my God, my sweet. What has happened? What did they do to you?” he whispered into her ear.
“You do not need to know such things, Uncle,” came her whispered reply.
“Oh my dear, I am sorry but I must tell you that you are wrong about this. I must learn what you learned of the people who did this to you, to see and feel what you experienced at their hands. I must know, you see? I must know so that it can never happen again…” He felt her grow hard and stiff so he pulled her closer still. “But not today. Today is for happiness, for you have made it to our home – to your new home – and you are safe now. I will let nothing bad happen to you ever again.”
He pulled away and saw her tears, but then he looked into her eyes.
And what he saw there left him reeling with uncertainty, for surely she was the most fragile human being he had ever seen, cast adrift on demon-haunted seas with no hope of finding a safe shore.
He pulled her close again, only this time he lifted her in his arms and carried her off the railway platform and through the station, then all the way out to his car, a black and gray Buick Roadmaster convertible, parked on the street with the top down. Imogen’s husband dashed ahead and opened the car door, then he helped Anders get Imogen seated.
Anders, seriously winded now, went to the back of his car and leaned against the rear fender, taking his time to catch his breath – and he used a handkerchief to mop his brow while he introduced himself to Imogen’s husband, Lloyd Callahan.
“You really did not need to do that, Doctor,” Callahan said, his voice a deeply unsettling Scottish seaman’s brogue. “Imogen needs to walk, to regain her strength…”
“No, Lloyd, this was something I had to do.” Anders stood tall and looked at Imogen. “I should have never allowed her father to talk us into letting them remain in Copenhagen. I should have insisted they join us, all of them.”
“It is hard to imagine what she’s been through,” Tilda said, “but I couldn’t have imagined in my worst nightmares that a human being could look so frail…”
“Oh, really?” Lloyd said, startled by this stranger’s unwarranted tactlessness. “Well, you did not see her on the docks in Copenhagen, not like I did. Clothes like rags, her skin almost yellow and her hands caked with mud. She was on death’s door then and could hardly eat.”
“And yet,” Anders sighed, “here she is with you? Her mysterious savior?”
“Aye,” Callahan barked. “Many things brought us together, Doctor. Forces, you might say, beyond all our control.”
“Yes,” Anders replied, “fate is a strange thing. So many unexpected intrusions.” Unexpected, he wanted to say, like the unforced intrusions by those who truly loved Imogen. Like the man who by sheer force of will had protected her during her long confinement. The man who through sheer force of will carried her from the Bohemian mountains surrounding Theresienstadt back to the Danish coast, back to her home. But no, he would not speak of these things today, and perhaps he never would. This brutish sailor had no interest such truth, and he doubted such a man ever could. This boorish Callahan was, after all, a useful enough idiot, but he would, in the end, never do as a husband – or as a father. No, he would not do at all.
Within a year of his arrival in California, Anders had earned enough to purchase a nice little house on 6th Avenue between Hugo and Irving, and as the house was located very close to the hospital his old routines blossomed. Anders had always loved his morning walk to the clinic in Copenhagen and here, nestled up against the Sutro Hills, he once again felt comfortable enough with the neighborhood to resume the tradition. And besides all that glorious proximity, he simply loved his new home, a narrow three story affair that, for all intents and purposes, looked more like a Dutch home lifted from a canal in central Amsterdam than the usual American bungalow that lined almost every street here in the city.
But the real delight was to be found outside, off the rear of the house, for the area behind all the houses on the block had been given over to a huge common garden absolutely teeming with birds and enchanted little nooks to sit and wile away a sunny morning. As live-in maids were the rare exception now in America, the practice was frowned upon, thought of as some sort of vestigial remnant of slavery and so a major taboo. Still, he had found a partial workaround that had, so far at least, worked out splendidly. He had turned parts of the top floor of the house into a small apartment and he let out the room to needy medical students, a move with less than charitable intent because in lieu of rent the tenant would help Tilly out with chores around the house, including cooking evening meals in their spacious new kitchen. Naturally enough, all the tenants to date had been female, because it wouldn’t do to have a young man wandering around the house with his wife so close, and of course all had been Jewish.
He had, to date, found California exceptionally tolerant, and because of events during the war Anders found himself drawn to his faith in ways he never had in Denmark. He’d first found a reformed synagogue near his house and began attending, not telling Tilda and never wearing a kippah anywhere but inside the temple. In this way he observed the Judaic sabbath as best he could – given his obligations at the hospital – and it was months before he even broached the subject with Tilly. Yet she was immediately interested in attending services, claiming that since leaving home she had felt something missing from her life. Perhaps reconnecting with their religious roots was that something?
And yet when they first went to the temple together he caught himself looking over his shoulder more than once, as if he might find leather coated agents of the Schutzstaffel lurking in the shadows, watching and recording their every move. Even Tilda admitted to feeling as such…and that a kind of uneasiness permeated her every move when they went to observe their faith because, she had to admit, as a Jew she would forever be a stranger in a strange land. They talked to their rabbi about their feelings, and all the elder could do was commiserate and tell them that they were not alone in their fear. The only answer, the rabbi sighed, resided in Palestine.
Yet by the time the war came to an end they had both grown comfortable in their new skin. They felt like Americans. They contributed to the war effort freely and gladly, Anders bought war bonds and Tilly volunteered at the hospital, helping out as best she could by rolling bandages and doing other menial chores. Yet she soon began to regret her lack of higher education, and then to feel inadequate.
But both Anders and their rabbi encouraged her to pursue her interests, to attend college and see where this new road might take her.
And this, she realized, was the real beauty of America.
She was no longer bound by stifling traditions, no longer limited to a role in society imposed on her by others. Because in the beginning she had simply watched the procession of young women boarders pass through their little apartment with little more than idle curiosity, but soon enough she talked to them about their own hopes and dreams as women in a male dominated hierarchy, and soon enough she realized that all hierarchies are meant to be challenged, but that in America such challenges were not doomed to fail.
So she went to Berkeley and she studied biology and chemistry and she proved to be an excellent student, if a little on the older side of the equation. Yet Tilly did not let even that dissuade her. Inspired by the women in the apartment on the third floor of their “little Dutch house”, she began to follow in their footsteps, and so no one was at all surprised, least of all her husband, when she was accepted at the medical school just down the peninsula in Palo Alto, at Stanford University.
Soon enough her routine was more than complicated. Tilly was up before dawn to make breakfast along with their medical student, and they all ate together as one family might, then she was off on the cable car to the little Southern Pacific depot to catch the morning commuter down to Palo Alto, and after school she did the reverse: catch the train then a cable car to the hospital, then walk home and prepare dinner. Maybe there was time to decompress before a couple of hours spent studying, then to bed for a few hours of desperately needed sleep.
Yet she graduated near the top of her class and began her internship at UCSF, and there the contours of her life took on the more urgent challenges and responsibilities of working inside a major teaching hospital, only now she could walk to work – with her husband. She matriculated into the residency program there, in psychiatry, and her life might have stabilized somewhat had not two people returned to her life.
Imogen Callahan went to Berkeley to teach once again, and Avi Rosenthal turned up at Stanford.
And then, against all odds, she found one morning that she was with child.
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com all rights reserved, and as usual this is just a little bit of fiction, pure and simple.