A World War 2 survivor, near death, passes a debt of honor to her granddaughter, a duty to remember and honor one who did not stand by in silence the blood of the innocent.
People with long memories and longer resentments ensnare her in a struggle to determine what is true, who is friend or lover, or treacherous and how she can survive it all.
CHAPTER 1 – THE LETTER
It’s July and it’s hot already. We have a Santa Ana condition, hot dry winds from the desert. So much dust flies around that it plays havoc with my allergies, and my skin gets so dry…don’t even ask!
I’m in bed, facing the day from hell. Today is my day to weigh in at Weight Watchers and this afternoon is the annual Independence Day Family Picnic. That thought alone makes me groan.
As I drag myself out of bed I stare at the treadmill with dread. I don’t bother with the sweatsuit today. It’s too hot. I must look a sight in my over-sized sleep shirt, white socks and sneakers, and I studiously avoid looking in the mirror. It’s not a sight I want to contemplate, but at least I’m exercising.
A few hundred years ago, my body type would have been considered pretty close to ideal. It’s my bad luck that the ideal today is the body of a skinny fourteen year old. That definitely does not describe me. My body more closely invites comparison with the women in Titian’s paintings, the curvy body and hips suggesting the promise of fertility. Then there are my wild and unruly red curls… whatever they suggest.
Just a few days ago I was at Cantor’s, the neighborhood deli. They have a big and beautiful, sepia toned, wall mural of the city’s past there. It pictures some bathing beauties wearing the swimming costumes of bygone days. They sure covered a lot more skin than today’s bathing suits and bikinis do.
Those ladies would be viewed as positively plump today. I sigh at the thought that I was born too late to be appreciated, and I picture my zaftig body gracing that mural.
The phone rings as I step off the treadmill and it’s my sister Lucille. She’s the one who got the great looks, the great body, the great metabolism and the successful lawyer for a husband.
She didn’t have to hear, ”So what’s new? Seeing anyone?” all the time. They never worried that she’d find a fine husband, they weren’t so sure about me. I’ve faced those questions at every single extended family gathering since I turned twenty one. I hate it!
Today, Lucille sounds more agitated than usual.
“Grandma Sal is at Cedars Sinai Hospital and you’ve got to get over there right away. It’s her heart. She’s insisting she has to talk to you right away. I’ll meet you there, on the fifth floor.” She doesn’t wait for an answer, but hangs up. No comforting words, or hopeful words… nothing.
My grandmother…I picture her… she’s a character and a half. She’s been divorced for decades and grown old doing pretty much everything she wanted to, husband or no husband. She followed her own course, no matter whom she outraged, especially my very proper mother and aunts.
I wish I had inherited more of grandma’s qualities, especially her sense of adventure and fearlessness, and her resilience. I have the same hazel eyes that she does. Her hair would have been good too. Even at eighty, her gray head of hair, in the simple blunt cut that she wears, is still full, thick and shiny. Her face does evidence some well-earned wrinkles. Yet, it still indicates a certain vitality. I can’t imagine her failing physically. I’m not nearly ready for that.
Her heart problems are pretty new. My grandmother is not one who talks about her aches and pains. I feel guilty at the momentary thought that this episode in the hospital may get me out of going to the dreaded family picnic. I head for the shower and get going.
On the drive to the hospital, I replay memories of my grandmother in my mind and worry about the changes that are coming.
When I get to the hospital I find that Grandma Sal is in I.C.U. and they’re controlling her visitors. Lucille looks ashen and tells me, “It’s really bad. Word is she may not make it. How could this heart thing have come on so quickly?”
I keep to myself the thought that, at eighty, grandma would probably be delighted if, when it was time, death came quickly. She’s seen a lot of people who died slowly in her time.
I saw it myself when my dad died from Cancer. Surgeon after surgeon cut and then cut again, while dad prayed earnestly for release. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy much less on one I love!
As I’m settling down to wait, a nurse in green scrubs comes our way and asks for me. I step forward.
“Are you Clara Hellman?” she asks.
A buzz of conversation starts in our little family group as the nurse informs me that they will be taking my grandmother in for an angiogram shortly, but grandma insists on talking to me first.
I follow the nurse down the hall and hear whispered questions behind me. I’m the one in the family who tries to keep a low profile. I try to be invisible. Why am I being singled out, I wonder.
We pass one room and then another. Each is painted in that boring institutional beige color. I become acutely aware of a strong medicinal smell, somehow mixed with the pungency of various cleaning solutions, used to keep infection at bay, I suppose. Instead of feeling reassured by it, I feel like I’m entering the place at my peril.
As I come into the room and approach her, I ask, “Grandma, what’s going on here?” She waves me forward. Even as I near her, I have trouble understanding her labored speech above the noises and clicks and beeps of the machinery and monitors she’s attached to.
I drag a chair close to the bed to be able to hold her hand, and place my face close to hers, that face I’ve loved so long. Her breaths are short and her voice raspy.
“Sweetie!” The mere exclamation seems to exhaust her. She begins again in a moment. “Dearest, I want you to do something for me; take over something I started a few years ago. I think I’m running out of time.”
She reaches into the bedside table and hands me an envelope and says, “Take this. When you read it, you’ll understand what to do. You have a level head and you’re smart. You always were. If I don’t make it, you’ll see to it that my wishes are carried out.” She searches my face, as if for confirmation.
“The nurses want to get me ready, so you better go.” With that she waves me out of the room. First I reach down to kiss her cheek and she pats my hand and sighs. As I turn to go, she says, “Keep this between us. Nobody else needs to know.”
“Don’t worry, grandma. I won’t say anything.” Then I slip the envelope into my bag and go back to the waiting room.
As I reach my waiting family, Lucille asks, “What was that about?” I answer truthfully, ” I don’t really know”, but add, ” She’s frightened of course. I think she just needed some reassurance.” I hope it will ward off questions that Lucy or mother might ask, but it doesn’t.
“You’re still grandma’s pet, aren’t you. She doesn’t turn to mom, to her own daughter, or to me, but to you. Always it’s you!”
“Lucy, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You know it’s true, Clara. Even my children, she doesn’t really care about. They’re her only great-grandchildren for God’s sake! Did she ask to see them? No, she just wants to see her precious Clara. She’d probably be happy to leave her whole estate to you. Is that what all the secrecy is about? You’re making sure of your inheritance?”
“Lucy, it’s beneath you to talk this way, here in the hospital; and you know I’m not like that.”
“Yeah, I’m the evil sister. You, on the other hand, are pure as the driven snow” she sneers in a stage whisper.
With that she turns away and finds a seat at the farthest part of the waiting room. My mother has followed this scene with no comment. She just shakes her head and turns away, a pained expression on her face. Whether she shares Lucy’s opinion, I don’t really know.
Eventually all of us settle down to wait and we all retreat to our own thoughts and memories. I try to put aside what just happened and sit thinking about my grandmother and the memories I have of her instead.
I recall the picture postcards grandma sent us over the years from her various trips. She always went to exotic places like India and Russia, not mundane resorts in the Catskills or Florida, like other grandmothers that I knew of. I remember one card I delighted in sharing with all my girlfriends. It pictured an elephant. Another one showed the Indian Goddess, Kali. That’s the kind of postcards we received from her, not pictures of palm trees or scenes of Miami Beach.
I don’t remember any holiday dinners at her house either. She didn’t knit baby clothes or baby-sit or come to my school performances. There weren’t all that many performances that I figured in prominently anyway. That wasn’t my forte. I don’t remember having any particular talent, actually. I wasn’t athletic, nor was I especially artistic. I was just me.
Grandma Sal was always the one I wanted to spend time with and whose approval I sought. Somehow she was the one that made me feel special and wanted. My own mother didn’t, not during my childhood and not now.
I was the first grandchild, a kind of an insurance that the family would survive. Perhaps that’s why my grandmother treasured me.
Even after Lucille was born, I think my grandmother still saw me, her first, as the assurance of a future, an imprint that has lasted since the day I was born. I never had to earn her approval. I never had to be skinnier or prettier or more popular. It was enough for her that I was me.
Several years ago, when I finished my training in accounting, I applied for a job at the FBI as an investigator. Grandma Sal was the only one in the family that didn’t view the whole thing as ridiculous.
When I didn’t pass the physical, Lucille could barely contain her self-satisfied gloating. She’s the athlete in the family… tennis, golf…You name it, she’s good at it.
My mother felt relieved that I had avoided getting into a career that she considered me totally unsuited for, one in which I would most likely embarrass myself, and probably her too.
My grandmother, on the other hand, assured me I’d find a way to do what I wanted and was meant to do. She advised patience.
As it turns out, I’m doing just about what I originally intended, but without the gun or badge I would have carried as an FBI agent. I investigate financial crimes and fraud. Sometimes I look for hidden assets that an angry spouse is hiding during a divorce. Much of my work is on the computer, digging up what people want to keep hidden.
Grandma has kept a lot hidden too. She’s very private about her past. I know she came to the United States as a young woman around 1950. Her two sisters preceded her, sponsored by a relative. I know nothing about her life before the United States.
The few times I asked her about her past, she changed the subject.
“Who can remember? Who wants to remember such things?” That was her standard reply to questions about her past.
A portrait of her, as a handsome young woman with three little girls, hangs in the hallway of her place. In the picture, her long hair is drawn back, held by a pair of light tortoise shell combs, which contrast with her rich brown hair.
I never knew her husband, my grandfather Max Berman, whom she divorced before I was born; nor have I seen a picture of him, come to think of it. He died many, many, years ago, when I was still a child.
As I sit there thinking back, I remember grandma Sal taking me to movies and museums when I was little. Whatever I didn’t understand, she always patiently explained.
For my fourteenth birthday, she took me to an Opera. It was Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I was enchanted by the music and the whimsical story, and moved by the way she loved them both.
One day, we were at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Before going home, we stopped at Tower Records, an immense music and record store that is gone now. As she looked through some old 45s, she started humming a song I’d never heard before. The name on the record was “Meyn Shtetele Beltz”, (my little hometown, Beltz) by the Barry Sisters. Funny that I should remember that now.
She looked away as I saw a tear running down her face. She didn’t talk about it, not the tear and not the music. She was always private, about her past and about her feelings.
I find myself humming the tune as I recall the memory. Embarrassed that I might be overheard, I get up and start pacing, thinking of the envelope in my purse.
I head for the ladies room and enter the nearest stall, responding to curiosity more than the “call of nature.” The cloying smell of room deodorizer sets off my allergies and a sneezing fit. I place my purse on the pull down shelf, pull out a Kleenex and reach for the envelope.
Inside, there is a small key, a signature card for a safety deposit box at a local bank and a small picture. There is also a letter from my Grandmother Sal.
Clara my sweet,
You are reading this letter because I am preparing for the possibility that I may die soon and I have left something important undone, and it weighs on my conscience.
I want you to take up the job for me because you have a sweet and loving heart and a good soul, not like the other women in this family. I don’t need, nor do I want them to know my business.
I don’t need them judging me, nor what I choose to do with my money. You, I trust to understand and to do what can be and should be done.
It will take some time and you’ll have to take time off work and travel some, so I have left cash in a safety deposit box for you. I put your name on the box as co-owner. All you have to do is sign the card and turn it in to the bank. Do it right away, please, before anything happens.
If I get through this heart thing, God willing, we can finish it together. If not, it’s up to you.
The money will make it possible for you to take a leave of absence for a while. Whatever money’s left, enjoy it. But do not tell your mother or sister about it. You hear me?
There are some stock shares in the box too. If anyone pries, you bought these a long time ago.
Actually I did it for you, but they don’t need to know that. The shares are in your name. If people get nosy, tell them you decided to cash the shares in and have some fun, travel a little.
Your sister got the big wedding and the honeymoon travel. I helped finance that, not that it’s anyone’s business. She has that lawyer husband to provide for her too.
Why shouldn’t you get something from me too, just because you’re not married? Anyway, it’s not their business.
Get your passport in order. You’ll have to go through the packet of papers in the box and to contact Zbigniew Walenski in Warsaw.
He’s a genealogist and investigator. His contact information is in the box and he’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to.
The last item I look at is a picture. It’s of a little girl with a big white ribbon in her hair. She’s maybe four or five years old and standing with a young soldier in uniform. On the back of the picture is written a date, May 28, 1946 and there’s a name, Phillipe. My first thought is that the little girl looks a lot like me at that age, except for the hair.
I wonder if grandma Sal had a child before my mother, but the numbers don’t add up. The date on the back of the picture is 1946, and the child in it looks around four or five years old. Grandma was born in 1930.
If the little girl in the picture were hers, grandma would have given birth when she was around eleven! That’s highly unlikely. That’s assuming the birth date that she claims is accurate, of course.
“Grandma” I ponder, “why is this picture so important to you? Is it the man, Phillipe? Was he an old lover, perhaps?”
I place the envelope back in my purse, finish my business and rejoin the family. My mother and Lucille are talking to the doctor who reports on grandma’s tests.
“She will be monitored and a decision will be made about her ability to withstand bypass surgery at her age and in her condition. Most probably they will use a stent to deal with the blockage instead of bypass surgery.
The cardiac team will be reviewing the film of the angiogram at the end of the day and decide how to proceed. Meanwhile she’s been sedated and will probably sleep through the night.”
He recommends that we all go home and return in the morning.
We stand around figuring out what to do next. The family picnic is already underway at Roxbury Park, which is in Beverly Hills. None of us are inclined to go…not in the mood. Nobody has to twist my arm to pass on the picnic. Mother will send our apologies and explain.
We go down to the hospital cafeteria, as none of us is quite ready to just leave. A bite of food would be good about now, even hospital food!
I break away and head home at the first respectable moment. My head is full of questions and anxiety. This I didn’t expect today.
Generally, I’m not one that does things on a whim. I weigh and measure and plan. Even so, I feel drawn to the thought of tossing it all and going off on this…whatever it is…this adventure.
It’s just like Grandma Sal to drag me into it. Nevertheless, part of me is starting to look forward to it. A bit of change and excitement might be just the thing!
After a sleepless night I call in to the office and tell them I need a few days off . I explain that my grandmother is gravely ill and that I need to take care of some things.
When I get to the hospital the next morning, the doctors have already taken her in for the placement of the stent. It will be a while. I tell Lucille that I have to take care of several things and will be back by noon.
The bank is nearby, so I decide to take a look. The person in charge of the Safety Deposit Section is a Miss Adler. She accepts the signature card after checking my picture I.D. then goes to the copying machine and makes a copy of my driver’s license.
It seems odd, but then I’ve never had a safety deposit box, so maybe it’s routine. She staples the copy to the card, places it in the in-box on her desk, then seems to think better of it and puts it in the desk drawer instead.
I’m glad she didn’t just leave it for anyone to see. In these times, identity theft is a definite concern. I notice a book lying on her desk. I can’t make out the title from where I’m standing, but notice a prominent swastika on it and wonder what she’s reading.
She locks her desk and then escorts me into the vault where she uses her key and mine to open and withdraw the box. It’s one of the over-sized boxes. We walk over to a cubicle with a desk, where I can have privacy. She shows me the intercom so I can call her to return for me when I am done.
Inside the safe deposit box are several large manila envelopes and a cardboard box. I open the box carefully. The first thing I see is a bundle of stock certificates, Apple shares, 500 of them, in my name. I see that they were purchased quite a few years ago, about the time of my sister’s wedding. I do a quick mental calculation and am amazed at what they are now worth. At $353 a share, it adds up to $176,500! I happen to know the price per share, seen it quoted a lot as it’s gone up and up.
Under the bundle of stocks there is cash, a lot of cash. A note on top of the money says, “Clara, this is for the investigation and the rest is for you. Enjoy!” I take a small stack and toy with it. I count out 20 fifty-dollar bills and slip the $1,000 into my bag. I lay the rest of the cash aside and look through the manila envelopes.
There appear to be a lot of genealogical charts there and letters, to and from Poland, regarding research and investigations. There are also receipts for payment of a few hundred dollars here and a few hundred there, as well as a recent one for $2,000.
The latest mail from Mr. Walenski is dated only six weeks ago and suggests it’s time that my grandmother come in person. There appears to have been a breakthrough and some decisions will need to be made.
He suggests a date, less than two weeks away, when he can set aside some time for her and a hotel where she could stay while in Warsaw. He has requested a hold on a room at the Royal Meridien Bristol in Old Town Warsaw. I notice that it needs to be confirmed within a few days.
He proposes that they travel to a couple of towns to meet with the archivists of the local historical societies. One town is Lublin and the other town is Belz.
I’m startled by the name of the city. Besides Warsaw and Krakow, it’s probably the only other Polish town I know of. I don’t know much about it, just that song, the lullaby, by the Barry sisters – the record that my grandmother cried over the day we were at Tower Records.
A look at my watch reminds me that I should head back to the hospital. I put the stocks and balance of the money back into the safety deposit box. I glance at the genealogy charts and put them back too and gather up mostly the letters and Emails between grandma Sal and Mr. Walenski and a couple of things I can’t identify.
Then I pick up the intercom and inform Miss Adler that I am ready to go. She uses both her key and mine, returns the box to its slot, locks it and escorts me out.
I make sure the large manila envelope I took is secure in my big Coach bag. That purchase was a special and rare treat I gave myself last spring. I head back to the hospital.
On the fifth floor I find Mom and Lucille. There’s no news yet, so I sit down to wait. I take out my I-phone and check for calls or messages. There’s nothing much there. I fiddle with this and that and check CNN for news.
I go on Google and enter the word BELTZ and glance briefly at Lucille. She’s looking through a fashion magazine. She’s not watching me.
I look on Wikipedia. It says that Beltz, it’s also spelled Belz, goes back to the 10th Century and has, at various times, been part of Lithuania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland and the Ukraine. There’s also a town by that name in Moldava which may be the one referred to in the song…that song again!
Beltz is associated with a famous Hasidic Dynasty and also with the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. That’s a lot of fame for a small town.
I glance at Lucille again, but she’s absorbed in the magazine that she’s reading.
Then I enter LUBLIN. It is the ninth largest city in Poland and dates back to the middle ages. People then came from all over Europe to study at the Yeshiva, a place of religious study, there.
The Jewish population of Beltz was pretty much wiped out during the Second World War. Most were deported to the extermination camp of Belzec and the rest to Majdanek, which was the first of the Concentration Camps that were liberated. Unfortunately, it was too late to save more than a few of the prisoners.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the doctor approaching. I turn off my phone and quickly join my mother and sister.
Lucille is the first to speak. “So how is she, doctor?”
“Dr. Lawrence”, his name tag says. He looks drawn and seems reluctant to commit himself. “She made it through, but it’s tough on an eighty year old. It’s hard on anybody. For a moment, we almost lost her. We’ll have to watch her closely. There’s always the danger of blood clots. She’s in recovery and I don’t expect her to be awake and talking much for several hours. Maybe you can see her very briefly this evening.
I recommend you go home for the next few hours at least. I have your contact information, in case anything develops. Go get some rest. I’ll check in on her during evening rounds, about six o’clock. The nurses will keep a close watch on her.”
With this he turns and walks away.
My mother and sister and I comfort one another with the fact that she is still with us and that’s a good sign. We make plans to meet back at the hospital at 5:45. Lucille calls home and tells the nanny that she’s on her way back. She calls her husband and brings him up to date then turns to me and, with a perfunctory hug, as if there had been no ugly scene earlier, she leaves with mom.
I go to the nurse’s station and hand the duty nurse my card and underline my cell-phone number. I ask the nurse to call me as soon as my grandmother is awake, then I leave.
I find a Starbucks in the neighborhood. It has WIFI. I order one of their healthy looking salads, although when I check the calories, I am taken aback. Healthy looking but 700 calories! I resolve to drink my coffee black, but don’t like the taste, so I use a “Sweet and Low” instead of sugar. Okay, so it only saves ten or twelve calories. I put the crackers back on the counter.
The place is not too busy at the moment, so one of the plush armchairs is available. I turn on the I-phone.
There are no messages except from Rudy. “Is everything alright? They said you’d be out of the office all week.” Rudy is a sweet guy and one of the few I’ve connected with at the office. I wish he were straight. I really like him.
You’d think that in a forensic accounting office with mostly men, I could find someone interesting, or interested in me, but they’re mostly married and mostly too old for me.
The young ones want action. I wouldn’t mind so much but I want at least the illusion that there is some interest in me as a person, not just as a one-night-stand. Also, they talk about the action they get, ad nauseam, and I don’t like the thought of being the subject of that kind of talk in my office.
I text Rudy that my grandmother is in the hospital; it’s a matter of her heart. I assure him that I’ll let him know as soon as I know her prognosis and I thank him for thinking of me.
I work in an office where we do research for litigation support and some investigation into crimes dealing with finance. I don’t carry a gun and most of my work is in the office, but some of my cases have been pretty interesting.
When the stock manipulations in one case came to light, it caused a 500 Point drop in the stock market overnight, not to mention criminal charges and arrests of a number of people.
More often, however, I deal with cases of divorcing couples where one, usually the husband, is trying to hide assets from the other, usually the wife.
A suspicious nature is something my colleagues and I either come by naturally or soon develop in this line of work. It comes from seeing people’s greed, meanness and sometimes criminality at work on a regular basis. It doesn’t take much to set off my colleagues’ suspicions, that sense in the gut that something is up. It goes with the territory.
I dig into my salad and promptly break the plastic fork. I guess I’m pretty tense. I get up for another, take a few bites of the salad and toss the rest in the trashcan. It’s one of those rare times when I don’t have an appetite.
I look up the procedure for getting a new passport and decide to head for the Federal Building, but first I find a camera store where they take passport pictures. I figure I may as well get that out of the way.
After spending a couple of hours at the Federal Building, I still have some time to kill. The Westside Pavilion is nearby so I head for it. I find a parking space and meander up to Macy’s.
I pass the luggage department and spend a little time there. The suitcases I have are old hand me downs and they don’t even have wheels. Maybe I should get something new.
I suddenly remember the bundle of cash in my bag but immediately stop myself. What a time for a splurge, with my grandmother lying in the hospital, I think guiltily! I thank the salesman and he hands me a brochure, which I slip into my bag. Maybe later I’ll come back. We’ll see.
I may as well head back to Cedars Sinai. The traffic on Wilshire Boulevard is it’s usual mess but I’ve got time, so I settle down for the long drive.
If I do take a leave, this might be a pretty good time to do it. I’ve just finished a major case. I’ve been with the firm for seven years. The idea of a break sounds pretty good, but will it be a break or another investigation? Is that why grandma picked me for this task?
I’m sitting at a light and reach into my bag and feel around for the little picture. As I draw it out, I’m wondering if I can identify the military uniform and what country it’s from.
I have a date to start with. It’s 1946, around the end of World War II. The military uniform doesn’t appear to be either American or German. I guess that figuring that out that will be step one.