Note: The Lonely Tree is published by Holland Park Press of London so the punctuation is British.
Jerusalem, British Mandate Palestine
The day that Tonia Shulman first noticed Amos had begun as an ordinary one. When her tenth-grade Civics class – and the school day – finally ended she stretched and looked at her watch.
‘Feel like going to Café Atara for coffee and cake?’ Ilana Rozmann swiveled in her seat to face Tonia.
Tonia shook her head. ‘Can’t. No time.’ She had heard that the gooey chocolate cake they served was delicious, but she had to catch her bus back to the kibbutz. Besides, she had no money.
Ilana shook her wavy blonde hair and ran the fingers of her right hand through it. ‘My treat,’ she offered.
Tonia felt her face flush as she stood up. ‘No. Thanks, but I can’t. Have to work today.’ The last thing she wanted, today of all days, was Ilana Rozmann, or any of the Rozmann family, paying for anything else for her.
Ilana slid sideways from beneath the battered, ink-stained wooden desk. ‘More fields to clear?’ She raised her eyebrows and stared at the scrapes and cuts on Tonia’s hands.
Tonia held her hands out, palms up, as if to ask, what can I do? Then she busied herself gathering books while Ilana swayed toward the door to join her friends. Bunch of spoiled rich kids, Tonia thought. Let them choke on it. She shrugged into the straps of her backpack and tied the sleeves of her frayed navy blue cardigan around her waist. She could see Ilana giggling with two other girls out in the hall. They all wore brightly colored shirtwaist dresses and white patent leather pumps. Tonia watched them for a moment and her resentment faded. What did she care? She was not ashamed of her faded blue skirt and scuffed work shoes. She wouldn’t want to get a permanent wave or wear stupid nylon stockings if she had all the money in the world. That much she had inherited from her parents – a disdain for fashion and the accumulation of material goods for their own sake.
Though Tonia had little in common with her classmates, she loved her new school. Thank God her father had agreed to allow her to switch from Miss Landau’s school for religious girls to the prestigious Hebrew Gymnasium of Jerusalem. At Miss Landau’s they still taught deportment; at the secular and co-ed Gymnasium Tonia was learning philosophy, economics, and physics. A diploma from Jerusalem’s first modern high school would get her into a good university. That it was located in the snooty Rehavia neighborhood and mainly attended by the children of professors, doctors, and government officials was a minor annoyance.
Ilana stuck her head in the door and waved goodbye. Tonia smiled and waved back. Ilana was nice enough, Tonia reminded herself. Anyway, Tonia thought, it isn’t Ilana’s fault that I have no choice but to accept her parents’ charity.
Tonia descended the wide stone steps and strolled through the shady neighborhood with its elegant dress shops and flower vendors. As usual, downtown Jerusalem was deserted. Few cars passed, and the owners of many of the hole-in-the-wall shops had closed up for their afternoon nap. She window-shopped toward the Pillar Building on Jaffa Road to wait for the battered bus that would take her home to kibbutz Kfar Etzion, about a forty-minute drive south of Jerusalem. The long black bonnet of the bus soon nosed around the corner. It had high fenders and pop-eyed headlights on either side of its tall grill, and its side was covered with deep scratches and dents. Since yesterday, six of the seven windows on either side of it had been fitted with squares of plywood.
‘Hey there, Tonia, how are you today?’ The stocky driver – dressed in khaki shorts, sleeveless blue T-shirt, and sandals – left the engine running and the door open. ‘Don’t go anywhere without me,’ he called over his shoulder and raced up the street. Tonia knew he would soon be back with a large bottle of seltzer.
She rapped her knuckles against one of the wooden shields before climbing onto the bus. With the windows covered, the empty bus was dark and airless. Tonia chose the seat halfway back, next to the still-uncovered window on the right side, where she would have enough light to read.
By now Ilana and her friends would be lounging around a table at the café. That’s what they did after school, threw away their families’ money. It never occurred to any of them to get a job. To work for anything. Tonia did not envy them their wealthy lifestyle, but was determined to one day attain the security that money could provide. She was prepared to work hard for it; no one would ever have to offer to pay her way again. She was going to be rich enough for her children to eat whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. For years, she had dreamed of boarding an airplane for New York and escaping this wretched not-even-a-country. Now she was fifteen and would soon be old enough to do just that, once she saved up some money. Her children were going to grow up somewhere they could feel safe.
‘That’s only so we don’t suffocate,’ the driver said when he came back and saw Tonia next to the unprotected window. ‘No one’s supposed to sit there.’
‘At least until Bethlehem,’ she begged.
The driver shrugged, took his seat, and put his head back to pour half the contents of the bottle of seltzer down his throat. Five more passengers boarded. Three women, members of Tonia’s kibbutz, to whom she nodded, and two young men she did not recognize. She presumed they were Palmach boys, stationed in the kibbutz by the Haganah, the unofficial Jewish army. A bivouac of tents in Kfar Etzion housed a contingent of them, the isolation of the kibbutz allowing the Haganah to conduct illegal military training on its hillsides, far from the eyes of the British Mandate authorities.
‘Is there anyone I should wait for?’ the driver asked, turning around.
The passengers shook their heads, and he pulled out onto Jaffa Road. The thick pale walls of Jerusalem’s Old City soon appeared on their left, majestic under their battlements. A chaos of pushcarts, donkeys, and camels mobbed the clearing outside the Jaffa Gate. Tonia craned her neck to watch the driver of a red delivery van try to maneuver past them, but the single bare window allowed her only a glimpse.
At least the sky was clear, and she wouldn’t get drenched and muddy again. She was assigned to work in the orchards and had three hours of work ahead of her when she got back to the kibbutz. If only she could skip work, get in bed, and read, without having to squint in the flickering light of the old kerosene lantern or take her book to the dining hall. Of all the luxuries Ilana Rozmann took for granted, Tonia did envy that one – the electric light next to her bed.
When Tonia got her dream house in America, she would fill it with bright lights and never turn them off. And it would be some place where they had too much water. Some place where you could take a hot bath every evening. You could leave the faucet running all day if you wanted. She would have a room full of books with an enormous desk and a thick rug on the floor. And a huge wooden table in the kitchen, where friends and family would gather for uncomplicated, delicious food. Mrs. Rozmann’s recipe for honey and garlic chicken. Grilled eggplant salad. Roasted potatoes. Almonds with tea after the meal. She would set the table simply, with white plates. Maybe a silver rim around the edge, but no fussy flower patterns. Tonia would sit at one end of that long table, the man who loved her at the other. The shadows of her fantasies cloaked his face, but she knew he was tall, slim, and had a warm smile. He would entertain the guests with his wit, but his eyes would always linger on Tonia.
She sighed and took out her copy of Anna Karenina in English. The bus soon jolted to a halt at the roadblock on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and an unfamiliar British police officer boarded. The regular policeman was friendly and usually waved them through. When he did stop the bus, it was to ask how things were or warn the driver about something he had heard. But this one was a stranger to them, young and arrogant-looking, brandishing a nightstick, square jaw jutting high.
‘Open that,’ he ordered Tonia and poked the stick at her backpack, which lay on the seat beside her.
His rudeness angered her and she ignored him, looking down at Anna Karenina and pretending to read.
‘This bus isn’t going anywhere, Miss.’ He almost smacked his lips on the ‘M’ of ‘Miss’ and bent down to bring his face closer to hers. ‘Not until I’ve checked that none of you Jews are carrying illegal arms. So open the bag.’
She unzipped the bag and pushed it toward him.
He turned the backpack upside down and shook it, spilling everything out. Her schoolbooks, notebooks, and the books she had bought for her father, still wrapped in newspaper, fell on the seat and floor. ‘Oops. So sorry about that. Now you can unwrap those packages.’ He tapped her father’s books.
Tonia rolled her eyes, did as she was told, and then gathered up her things while he searched the other passengers.
‘Get those wooden panels off the windows,’ the policeman barked at the driver. ‘Against traffic regulations.’
‘I didn’t put them on, and I can’t take them off,’ the driver said. ‘You’ll have to lodge a complaint with the bus company.’
The policeman wrote a citation, muttering about bloody hooligans and terrorist thugs. He handed it to the driver and gave Tonia a nasty look before getting off the bus. Then they pulled away, going south toward Hebron.
‘Tonia, get away from that open window now,’ the driver said, eyes flitting between the road in front of him and the rearview mirror. ‘Be a good girl and don’t make me have to explain to your mother that I let you sit there.’
‘I’ll tell her it wasn’t your fault.’ She picked up Anna Karenina. At least the time she spent riding the bus should be hers, to do as she pleased.
The road ran over the crest of a range of hills that formed a watershed. To the east lay the Judean Desert – naked peaks of earth and rock, glorious in their desolation. On Tonia’s right, the rocky hillsides glistened green, and tangles of yellow wildflowers clung to them. These straggly flowers could not rival the brilliant patches of pink and white cyclamen and red, white, and purple anemones that had sprung up after the first winter rains and just as quickly disappeared again, but they still afforded a better view than plywood.
They were approaching Solomon’s Pools, a water reservoir two miles south of Bethlehem, believed to have been dug during King Solomon’s reign. The area looked like a picture book. Cultivated plots near the pools surrounded small homes. Vineyards spilled down the hillside.
They had just passed the large rectangular stone building called Nebi Daniel and the driver had to slow for a curve. Tonia glanced up and saw three figures – three young men with kaffiyahs wrapped around their faces – rise from behind the acacias that hugged the roadside. She watched in paralyzed fascination as they raised their arms and threw the rocks they gripped at the bus. In the same motion they bent to scoop up a second round.
The first barrage crashed into the bus with frightening force, making the vehicle seem to shake. One of the women in the back screamed, and the engine roared as the driver tried to accelerate, but then hit the brake. Tonia could not take her eyes off one of the Arabs. He seemed to be staring right at her as he let loose the large jagged rock that came flying through the unprotected window.
It missed her head but grazed the end of her nose, and she felt blinding pain. The rock smashed into the opposite side of the bus and fell to the floor. Tonia instinctively moved her hands toward her nose, but was afraid to touch it. It felt as if the rock had torn it from her face, but she looked down and saw only a small trickle of blood dripping onto her lap. It couldn’t be that bad. She placed a finger on each side and, reassured that she still had both nostrils, let out a deep breath. The tip of her nose was bleeding, but she did not seem to be badly hurt.
The driver kept glancing at her in the mirror as he maneuvered on the tortuous road. ‘Are you all right? Can you talk?’
‘Yes. I’m okay. It’s not so bad,’ she said, resolved not to reveal how shaken she was. She wiped the blood on her sleeve.
He did not slow down until they had gone a few more miles, past the dilapidated village that stood high on a hill overlooking the highway and past the summer residence of the Mukhtar of Bethlehem. Meanwhile, the other passengers huddled around her and subjected her to a thorough inspection, clutching the overhead rack, as they were tossed from side to side by the motion of the bus.
‘God in heaven, look how you’re bleeding,’ one of the women said.
‘It’s not so bad, I don’t think, really,’ Tonia said. Her body had begun to relax, fear replaced by exhaustion. She wished they would leave her alone. She would be home soon, and her mother would take care of her. ‘Just tell me – what does it look like?’
The woman took Tonia’s chin in one hand. ‘It scraped off quite a chunk.’
One of the Palmach boys bent to pick up the heavy rock and fingered its sharp edges. ‘Could have killed you,’ he said and shook his head.’Easily. No wonder that bloody copper wanted the plywood off the windows. Bet the bastard knew. Good thing you opened the window. Broken glass could have blinded you.’ He set the rock down on the seat beside her. ‘Hang on to that. Good story for your grandchildren. You can see your blood on it.’
When the driver stopped, the Palmach boy went to the front for the first aid kit and cleaned the wound for her. She winced as he doused it in purple iodine and felt ridiculous when he taped a piece of gauze to the end of her nose. ‘Looks like it might leave a scar,’ he said, ‘but only a small one.’
The driver started up again.
‘Come, lie down in the back.’ One of the women tried to take hold of Tonia’s arm. ‘Until you can collect yourself.’
‘I’m all right,’ Tonia said.
‘The shock of these things sometimes takes a few minutes to set in,’ the woman said. ‘That thing almost hit you in the head.’
‘But it didn’t. It only scraped my nose.’ Tonia shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. She could not stand people fussing over close calls. Didn’t they know that life was one long narrow escape?
The other passengers finally retreated to their seats.
‘One more centimeter and she’d have been a goner,’ Tonia heard the woman say.
‘That girl has nerves of steel,’ the Palmach boy added, shaking his head.
‘Of course,’ one of the other women pronounced, ‘a person should have better sense than to sit there in the first place, especially after the driver asked them not to. Some people always have to do things their own way. There’s no talking to them.’
The driver caught Tonia’s eye in the mirror and winked. She raised her hands in surrender, tossed the rock out the window, and held tightly onto the seat in front of her while she moved around to sit there. She opened her book again and squinted, but could not read in the dark. It occurred to her that now she probably wouldn’t have to go to work. That was almost worth a few millimeters of nose. Finally, they turned off the Jerusalem-Hebron road, up the feeder road, and arrived at the kibbutz.
That was the first time she saw him – when she got off the bus by the gate of Kfar Etzion. He was working with the group of Palmach boys who seemed to spend every waking hour digging new outposts along the perimeter fence. He swung a pickaxe with steady strokes, and, though the air was cool, sweat poured off the taut brown muscles of his bare back. He straightened, stretched, turned to take a cigarette from the boy beside him, and grinned at something he said.
Tonia ignored the pain and tore the gauze from her face. How ridiculous she must look, her nose all purple. She stuffed the bloody bandage in her pocket and pretended to fuss with her backpack, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was tall and lean. Long brown legs stretched from khaki shorts to thick blue socks rolled down over work boots. She flushed, her gaze drawn to the backside of those shorts and down those legs. No suntan was that even, and his complexion was so dark that she would later lie in bed and think of him as ‘that Italian boy’. The yarmulke that clung to his thick black hair seemed out of place. How could a religious person exude such a physical presence? Maybe he wore it to be polite, since Kfar Etzion was a religious kibbutz. In profile, she could see his strong jaw line. No need for him to grow a pious beard. Tonia always suspected that most of the men who had them were camouflaging the lack of a proper chin.
Then he turned and noticed her. He was not handsome but striking, large heavily lashed green eyes above hollow cheeks. He stared straight at her, and his face spread into an easy smile, both friendly and challenging. Her eyes caught his for a long moment, and she felt something inside her turn warm and liquid. Then he threw down his cigarette, ground it out, and wiped his hands on his shorts. He bent to pick his shirt off the ground and started walking toward her. He was going to come and talk to her. She felt her face turn red, as she clutched her packages and fled. So much for her nerves of steel.
Tonia’s parents, Leah and Josef Shulman, sat at a small table under the oak tree outside their room, having afternoon tea and a slice of Leah’s famous apple strudel. Their three children had joined them, as they did most afternoons. They sat on wooden folding chairs that partly blocked the path, balancing their teacups and cake plates on their laps. Tonia had already assured her mother that she had been to see the doctor, and the missing tip of her nose was no cause for concern. Now Josef rose and paced as he fretted over the precarious finances of the kibbutz. He was a tall man with a mop of sandy hair and a beard that was already graying. Tonia got her dark hair and eyes from her mother.
‘Leah’le,’ he began. His intonation was pleading, but his stance and gestures said he had already made up his mind. ‘We still have your mother’s jewelry and the gold watch and chain. And that pouch of gold coins. They must be worth something.’
Leah’s usually soft eyes blazed. ‘What are you getting at, Josef?’
‘Leah’le …’ He knelt at her side, a humble supplicant. ‘How can we, how could anyone who understands the significance of Jewish settlement in Palestine, let personal greed stand between–’
‘You can’t be serious.’
Tonia exchanged glances with her brother and sister. They had heard their mother fume behind closed doors, but their parents did not argue in front of them. Certainly not outside like this, where anyone who passed by would hear.
‘No, I won’t hear of it. Those things are all we have left. I won’t hear of it. Think of your own children for once.’
‘Think of the children?’ Josef said and got to his feet. ‘Who do you think I am thinking of? Whose future are we building here?’ He turned and looked at them all. ‘What do you think a few grubby coins can buy them of greater value than a homeland? A place to live without fear?’
‘The homeland will rise or fall without my mother’s jewelry. Next thing I know, you’ll be after my wedding ring or Bubeh’s candlesticks.’
‘The candlesticks! I forgot about them. They must be worth a small fortune.’
‘Josef …’ Leah paled. Her husband knelt back down and took her hand in both of his.
‘All right, Leah, all right,’ he said softly. ‘Not the candlesticks. I understand. But tomorrow the rest of it goes to the kibbutz secretariat.’
Leah attempted another feeble protest, but he sat down and launched into a lecture on Jewish history, socialism, Zionism, and the role of the individual in the course of human endeavor. Leah leaned back, and Tonia watched her mother’s resolve drain away. Stand up to him, she wanted to shout, why can’t you just stand up to him for once?
Tonia could not bear it. What she had discovered about Mrs. Rozmann in school that morning had been bad enough. Now, after the attack on the bus, she couldn’t stand any more. She sat still, lips a tight line, digging her fingernails into the arms of the chair. Then she rose and uttered a loud, ‘No!’
Too late, she realized that her timing could not have been worse – at just that moment, a group of young men came around the curve of the path, and her outburst drew their curious stares. The Italian boy was one of them, and there she stood, with her nose still purple, shouting at her father. No wonder she hated this place – they lived on top of one another, everyone heard everything, saw everything, knew everything.
‘Abba, you can’t do that,’ Tonia said. ‘You have no right. Those things belong to all of us, not just you. And not to your kibbutz.’
Tonia looked around at her family, waiting for someone to back her up. Her sister Rina was a lost cause, as big a fanatic as their father. But she was sure her mother and her brother Natan felt as she did. She was painfully aware that the Italian boy had paused at the fork in the path and was standing there, watching her performance. She lowered her voice, but could not stop. This was too important.
Josef stared at her, mouth open. Leah watched the two of them with an impassive expression, but Tonia thought she saw a glimmer of satisfaction in her mother’s eyes. Natan turned his face away in sad consternation. Rina stared wide-eyed at her.
‘No right?’ Josef leaned forward in his chair. ‘I have no right? Am I no longer the head of this family? Responsible for its future? I have not only the right, but a duty–’
‘You don’t even care if we want to be here. You never asked any of us. Not even Ima. We should have a choice, and that money–’
‘Enough!’ His face turned from white to red. ‘When you are old enough you can–’
‘When you were my age–’
‘I said enough! This discussion is over. First thing tomorrow morning, I’m taking the jewelry and the coins to the secretariat. I will decide what is in the best interests of this family.’
‘You always do. Decide, at least. I don’t know about best interests,’ Tonia said and stomped off, relieved to see that the Italian boy had disappeared.
She marched up the path, opened the lock on the front gate of the kibbutz to let herself out, and half-ran along the feeder road until she came to the fork where a majestic oak stood, the one that the settlers called the Lonely Tree. She knew it was not safe to be outside the fence alone, but sometimes she had to get away from her father, escape the barbed-wire confines of the prison to which he had sentenced them. At least out here she didn’t have to stifle her sobs. She sat with her back pressed into a fold of the tree trunk, elbows on knees, fists pressed into her eyes. She was trapped here, no way out. They were all going to die. Why couldn’t he see that? He would be furious if he found out she had gone outside the fence again. So if he knew how dangerous that was, how did he think they could live in this place? And her mother. What kind of a mother agreed to bring her children to a place like this?
After a while, she looked up at the orange sun hanging low in the sky and let the cool breeze calm her. They would never understand. They were stuck in a way of thinking that would never change – not until it was too late for all of them. She would turn sixteen in eight months. Old enough to get a job without his permission. Then there was no way he could make her stay here. She’d have to swallow her pride and move in with the fancy-pants Rozmanns. After she finished high school she could get a real job, typing or something, until she saved enough money for an airplane ticket. This was not her life. Not this kibbutz and not this not-even-a-country. She would leave first, but her family would follow, eventually. They’d see that she had been right all along and thank her, once Abba got it into his head that there was never going to be a Jewish state.
The sun sank lower, and she reminded herself that she had to get back before dark.
Suddenly she heard footfalls crunch in the unpaved road behind her. She started to rise, was already on her knees turning around, and then looked up and froze. She saw a gray-haired Arab man standing not five meters from her. He wore baggy white pants, a white shirt, a long gray vest, and a white kaffiyah. Her heart pounded, and she had to struggle to catch her breath. She looked around, but there was no one else in sight. He remained still, made no move toward her. Tonia got to her feet and wiped her hands on her pants. Her panic subsided enough for her to look at his face. Wasn’t this Tabet, or was his name Tahel, from Beit Umar? Hadn’t he been a guest at the party to celebrate the dedication of Kfar Etzion’s new dining hall?
They continued to stare at one another for what seemed a long time.
‘Es salaam aleikum.’ Tonia stumbled through the only words in Arabic she knew.
‘Wa aleikum es salaam,’ he responded and then asked in Hebrew, ‘Are you not the daughter of Youseff?’
‘Not good that you are out here.’ He raised his hands, palms up, and looked around. ‘If the shabab see you …’
‘I know. I’m going home.’
‘I take you.’
‘That’s all right. I’ll be fine.’
He held up a hand. ‘Yousseff is my friend. You are in my protection. No one will harm you.’
They walked in silence. Tonia could think of nothing to say to him. What kind of conversation was she going to start? Please don’t tell my father you saw me out here? Thank you for not killing me?
When they reached the gate of the kibbutz, she said, ‘Thank you very much. Tabet, is it?’
‘Yes, I am Tabet. Your father is a very good man. Don’t go outside the fence again,’ he said and continued toward his village.
When it was dark and she knew her parents would be in the dining hall having their evening meal, Tonia stole into their room, knelt down on the floor by the large wicker basket in the far corner, and lifted its lid. She had not lit the kerosene lamp, and her hands searched in the dark through worn linens and clothing. Finally, she found the two black velvet bags her mother had jealously guarded for years. Tonia slipped them into the potato sacking she had taken from the kitchen and got to her feet.
Her grandmother’s ornate silver candlesticks stood on the table by the window, and the glint of moonlight on them caught her eye. No. That would be going too far. Anyway, her father had promised. But Tonia hesitated for only a moment before adding them to her collection of treasures, just in case.
There was no place to hide anything in the room she shared with her nosy sister, so she went to the tool-shed for a shovel.
The night air was cold, but she pulled off her raggedy blue sweater and tossed it aside. She was perspiring, both from the physical exertion of carving a hole into the rocky hillside and from the anxiety of defying her father. She wiped her hands on her khaki pants and reached back to tug two handfuls of hair in opposite directions, tightening the rubber band around her ponytail. Then she picked up the shovel and continued digging, a few meters inside the perimeter fence, not far from the front gate.
The small wooden crate at her feet held the potato sack of valuables. She hated doing this, but what choice did she have? Her mother would always succumb to the onslaught of charm and energy with which Josef Shulman overwhelmed anyone or anything that stood in his path. Someone had to stand up to him. If he had his way this time, he would leave them destitute.
The shovel clanked against a rock, and Tonia peered into the black of the moonless night, half-expecting the men on guard duty to come running, weapons raised. She had heard stories about members of other kibbutzim who had wandered too far from the living compound – their comrades had mistaken them for intruders and shot them.
She set the shovel down and attempted to put the box into the ground, but removed it from the hole again with a sigh. She would have to dig deeper. She wondered if she had wrapped the precious items well enough to protect them from the damp earth, but dismissed that concern – they wouldn’t be underground that long. When she left Kfar Etzion, she would dig them up and take them with her, save them for her mother.
How could he consider selling it all to buy more saplings, more feed for the animals, and more illegal weapons for the British to confiscate? No one – not even the nutcase Communists who ran this place, who thought Moses had forgotten to chisel in the Eleventh Commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no private property’ – had ever suggested that members donate their families’ Shabbat candlesticks to the common treasury. Only her father was that big a fanatic.
Everyone knew that five Arab armies were getting ready to invade the minute the British pulled out. Why should they die on this barren hillside, defending an indefensible position, in a war they could not win? One day, when it was all over, he would thank her for salvaging this pittance. Her foresight would provide her family with some means of support.
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, dreading the confrontation that must come when her father discovered what she had done. Her thoughts wandered to the story from the Book of Genesis – Rachel on her camel, sitting on the household gods with which she was absconding and lying to her father, Laban, claiming that she did not know where they were. Had the commentators approved of her actions? No. Rachel may have had lofty intentions – preventing the perpetuation of Laban’s idolatry – but she had been punished for defying her father.
Beads of sweat formed on Tonia’s forehead, and she wiped them away. Nonsense. ‘Honor thy father’ can’t mean that a child is supposed to stand aside and do nothing while a parent destroys himself and his family. And Abba had been defying his father when he dragged them from Poland to this place.
She stopped digging and tried again. At last, the hole gaped deep enough. Tonia pressed the crate down into the ground, shoveled the displaced earth over it, stomped it down, and kicked the excess soil and rocks away.
Then a loud scraping sound pierced the silence, and she froze. A few meters from where she stood a tiny burst of fire appeared and quickly receded into the flame of a match. Someone seated on a large, flat boulder lit a cigarette. In the fleeting halo of light, she recognized the features of the Italian boy. He flicked the match away, and took a long drag on his cigarette. Though his features were no longer illuminated, she knew he was grinning.
‘I guess you’re always going to get your own way,’ he said. ‘When you want it bad enough.’
Tonia dropped the shovel and fled from him again.
The dreaded confrontation with her father never came. Neither Leah nor Josef asked Tonia about the missing items. The next day was Friday, and Rina, Natan, and Tonia gathered in their parents’ room for Sabbath Eve candle-lighting. A pair of squat brass candlesticks stood on the table, two small bright beacons that they all pretended not to notice. Leah placed candles in them, pulled her blue silk scarf over her hair, held a match to the wicks, and covered her eyes to say the blessing.
Tonia imagined she could hear the grinding of her father’s teeth, but he said nothing. Natan and Rina exchanged questioning looks, but neither asked what had happened to the silver candlesticks. Leah always embraced her children after welcoming the Sabbath and wished them each ‘Gut Shabbes’. Tonia thought the hug she received from her mother that week was especially warm.
When Tonia returned to her room after dinner, she found something hanging from the door handle – the old blue sweater she had left lying on the ground by the gate. Whoever had put it there had woven a sprig of jasmine through the holes in its front.
Tonia was barely four years old in 1934 when her parents packed up wooden boxes and wicker baskets and traveled from Poland to Vienna, to Trieste, to Alexandria. From there they took the train to Cantara. She remembered clutching a cloth doll with black buttons for eyes and long thick strands of orange yarn for hair. The rest of her memories of that time were a confusion of actual recollections, contents of letters she had read, and frequently retold family stories.
The Shulmans bounced in the back of a donkey cart that delivered them to a sun-baked street in the seaside town of Tel Aviv. It stopped in front of a three-story block of flats built on stilts and encased in dingy gray stucco. Josef helped the driver pile their belongings in the street.
‘Leah, you take the children up. I’ll stay and watch our things,’ Josef said. ‘Send Natan back down after he’s had something to drink.’
The three exhausted and quarrelsome children straggled up three flights of stairs behind their mother. A short, bearded man in a sleeveless white undershirt, gray pants, and red suspenders opened the door. An even shorter woman with patches of scalp showing through her thinning hair looked over his shoulder.
‘Hello, I’m Leah–’
‘Come in, come in.’ The woman nudged her husband aside and pulled Leah through the door into the small entry hall. ‘You must be so tired, after such a trip. Come, come, sit, I’ll get you something to drink.’
‘Rina, Natan, Tonia …’ Leah turned and lightly tapped each of their heads. ‘This is Uncle Shmuel and Aunt Rivka. They’ve been kind enough to invite us to stay with them for a while.’
‘Kind, shmind,’ Aunt Rivka said as she herded them inside. ‘You’re family. Where is your Josef?’
‘Downstairs, waiting for Natan to come back down and keep an eye on our things while he starts carrying them up.’
Uncle Shmuel moved toward the stairs. ‘No need for that, I’ll give him a hand.’
The tiny flat reflected white from every surface. White-tiled floors. Whitewashed walls. Windows bare of curtains. They could barely fit into the small entry hall, which was already crowded with a table and chairs.
Aunt Rivka maneuvered them into the living room. It held a simple wood-frame sofa and two matching chairs, their flat cushions covered in dull brown fabric. A low coffee table stood before the couch and an enormous bookcase covered the wall next to it. Aunt Rivka left them there while she went to the kitchen. She returned with a tray of not-quite-warm bourrekas, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with chopped parsley, and a bottle of seltzer water.
‘We’ll have a real dinner later,’ she said as she moved chairs from the hallway into the living room to accommodate all of them. She pulled her own chair close to where Leah sat on the couch, anxious to hear about her relatives in Poland.
Tonia backed out of the living room to peek through the other doorways. There was only one bedroom, so where were they supposed to sleep? Wasn’t there a little bed, like the one she had at home? Where was she going to put her special pillow with the flowers? She didn’t want to stay with these old people. Aunt Rivka was scary, with her sparse red-tinted hair and the big bump growing on her forehead, and Uncle Shmuel smelled funny. When she heard Uncle Shmuel coming up the stairs she fled back to the living room and climbed into her Ima’s lap.
‘When are we going home?’ she asked, interrupting Aunt Rivka.
Ima gave Tonia a hug while she explained that this was their home now, but she sounded so tired and strained, as if she was making an enormous effort not to lose her temper, that Tonia didn’t dare to ask any more questions.
Abba and Uncle Shmuel each made several trips up the stairs. By the time they finished, they had buried the table and every centimeter of floor space in the front hall.
‘It won’t all be staying here,’ Ima said. ‘A lot of that is for the kibbutz, and we brought some things to sell.’
‘Yes, we’re sorry about the mess,’ Abba apologized. ‘And to be putting you out like this.’
Aunt Rivka leaned forward to glance through the doorway, looking a bit dismayed, but put a brave hand on Ima’s arm. ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. Once you’ve unpacked, it won’t look like so much. We didn’t think three children came in a pillbox. Maybe we don’t have so much room, but we’ll manage,’ she said. ‘What’s important is that you’re here. With these beautiful girls of yours.’ Aunt Rivka managed to reach out and pinch Rina’s cheek, but Tonia hid her face in Ima’s lap. ‘And this handsome young man.’ She beamed at Natan, who leaned back in his chair, avoiding her touch.
Then the room grew silent and Aunt Rivka rose. ‘I’ll start getting supper. You must be famished. Oh, but first let me show you where you can freshen up. We have indoor plumbing,’ she said proudly.
Ima offered to help with the meal, but Aunt Rivka wouldn’t hear of it. ‘You need a good rest after such a long trip.’
Abba and Ima sat side by side on the couch, hands in their laps, too exhausted to speak. Tonia sank to the floor and lay face down on the cool tiles, resting her forehead on the backs of her hands, trying not to cry. She had never seen her bossy father so quiet. Maybe that was good, she thought. Maybe he was busy figuring out how to take them back home. She peeked at her brother and sister. Rina and Natan had left their chairs and sat cross-legged on the floor, patiently waiting for the grown-ups to tell them what to do. Why were they so quiet? she wondered. Why weren’t they crying? Didn’t they see how awful it was here?
Uncle Shmuel wiped his brow, crumpled his large white handkerchief back into his pocket, and stood in front of Natan, making funny faces and snapping his red suspenders.
‘I don’t want to stay here,’ Tonia complained later, while Ima was putting them to sleep on two layers of quilts on the living-room floor.
‘It won’t be for long. Some of our friends from the Community of Abraham are already here and more will come soon, and then we’ll go live on a new kibbutz.’ Ima stroked Tonia’s hair and kissed her forehead.
‘Abraham from the Torah?’ Tonia asked, imagining a bearded man in flowing white robes, leading his flocks from Poland to the Promised Land. In her mind Abba’s strange friends skipped along behind the goats, singing and carrying hoes over their shoulders.
‘No, I’ve told you before, we named our group of pioneers after Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Abraham Itzhak Hacohen Kook. He’s a great Rabbi and believes that all the Jews from all over the world will come to live here in Eretz Israel.’
Ima thought for a moment. ‘People who are the first to do something. Who clear the way for others.’
‘What’re we gonna clean up?’
‘Not clean … I meant make a new way. We’ll get some land and grow things on it. Build houses on it. And make a new kind of community, where everyone is equal. Where no one is poor or rich.’
‘Then how can we ever get rich?’ Natan asked.
Tonia later heard Ima repeat this question to Abba, and they both laughed. She didn’t understand why. She thought her brother had asked a perfectly good question.
By the time Tonia woke the next morning, Abba was standing by the door with his backpack on, ready to go out looking for work.
‘No,’ Tonia protested loudly. She clutched his leg, shouting, ‘No, no,’ and began crying.
Abba bent to pick her up. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going far. Just to a work camp where they’ll give me a job. Maybe picking oranges or helping build a road. Wouldn’t you like me to bring you some nice juicy oranges?’
‘No. No oranges. Home. I want Baffy.’ She had never cared much for Baffy, the small fluffy dog Rina had adopted in Poland, but now she claimed to miss her terribly. Tears ran down her cheeks, but she didn’t resist when Ima pulled her from Abba’s arms.
Leah was left behind to manage with the children on her own. During the months and years to come, she never complained, never blamed Josef for the hardships of her life. As she grew older Tonia thought her mother looked at her father the way a mother contemplates an adored, gifted child with whom she cannot cope. Only Tonia blamed him. Seldom out loud, but in her heart constantly. Why aren’t you ever home? Why does Ima have to work so hard, up on the roof doing other people’s disgusting laundry? Can’t you see how tired she is? Why can’t you be like other fathers? They don’t go away.
On the rare nights that her father came back to share a roof with his family, he was wrapped up in the kibbutz they would establish, the new social order they would help create, the new Jew about to be born. Late at night Tonia often heard him declare that he worshipped the ground beneath Leah’s delicate feet. So why, she wondered, did he lose interest in his wife and children after about five minutes?
When more members of the Community of Abraham arrived in Palestine, they gathered in a camp farther south, outside the city of Rehovot. They shared it with another group of young people who were preparing themselves for their new lives, learning how to farm. Later that year more of the group came from Poland, and Josef went to live with them in the training camp. After that, his family saw even less of him – Leah and the children remained with Uncle Shmuel and Aunt Rivka in Tel Aviv.
‘Why don’t we go live with Abba?’ Tonia constantly asked Ima.
‘I told you. It’s not a place for children. They’re living in tents.’
Tonia’s eyes lit up. ‘I want to live in a tent.’
‘Anyway, we couldn’t go now, even if we wanted to. Some of the other people in the community don’t think that we belong with them. They are all much younger and don’t have children yet,’ Ima answered while she brushed Tonia’s hair.
‘So there’s no place for children to live where they are now. And a brand new kibbutz might not be able to cope with children. Not at first anyway. There will be only simple rooms to live in, and no children’s houses. And there won’t be a school, or any of the other things that children need.’
‘So why is Abba there?’
‘He’s trying to convince them. He says that no matter where the kibbutz ends up, there will have to be a school somewhere nearby. So then there won’t be any reason that we can’t go with them.’
Tonia frowned, considering everything Ima had said. ‘What’re children’s houses?’ she asked.
‘Special houses where all the children live together.’
‘Without their Ima?’ Tonia asked, horrified.
‘Don’t worry,’ Ima gave her a hug. ‘The children go see their parents every day, after the grown-ups are done working. They have a few special hours just to be together. No one’s busy with cooking or cleaning or laundry – all that time is just for their children. Then the children go back to the children’s houses to sleep. It will be great fun, you’ll see. Like having a sleepover with your friends every night.’
Silent tears ran down Tonia’s face as she contemplated the prospect of the horrible life her Ima was describing.
Only once did Ima take her and Rina and Natan to visit the temporary lodgings of the Community of Abraham, and that was on a day when it was pouring rain. Suddenly Uncle Shmuel’s tiny flat didn’t look so bad, compared to the sea of mud that swamped the tents in Rehovot. At least in Tel Aviv she could make pee-pee without having to pick her way to the disgusting latrines in freezing rain, over a trail of slippery rocks and slats of wood. She was on her way there late that night when she overheard the voices of two men in one of the tents. They were talking about Abba. She had never been so wet and cold, but stopped to listen.
‘That Shulman won’t give up. I don’t see why the man refuses to face simple facts. There’s no way we can take three kids that age.’
‘What’s he going to do? What would you do in his shoes? Because the man has a family, he’s going to give up his ideals?’
‘So what, you think we should accept them?’
‘I think we should wait and see. Let the Jewish Agency offer us a location. Maybe some kind of an arrangement can be worked out. You have to admit, he contributes more than his share.’
‘He puts in a good day’s work. We all do that.’
‘And then give a Torah lesson every week? And volunteer for extra duty in the dining hall? And be the first to fill in whenever someone else is sick? You have to admit, the man is a phenomenon.’
‘And what about that middle-class wife of his? She’ll never fit in.’
The other man sighed. ‘Yes, I think you can count on her to solve the problem. I can’t quite see her fitting in. Not much of a kibbutznik.’
You’re mean … you can’t talk about my Ima like that, Tonia wanted to shout. My Ima would be a better kibbutznik than any of you stupid people.
At the same time, however, she was praying with all her heart that Abba and Ima would never, ever, ever take her to live in a terrible place like this.
Shortly afterward the Community of Abraham – and Josef – moved north to Kfar Pines. They settled into yet another training camp, more tents, still temporary, but more permanently temporary. It was even farther away than Rehovot, and letters remained their main form of contact. Leah read many of his aloud at the dinner table. ‘The bigger the obstacles in our path, the stronger our determination and devotion to our cause.’ The letters all sounded the same to Tonia, and she barely listened. But Leah had no friends to talk to and discussed their contents at length with her young children. She was visibly distressed that the Jewish Agency seemed to have abandoned the small group of pioneers to cope on their own. Using their own resources, they had cleared a plot of land, put up a small building, and planted a vegetable garden. But they received no financial help and depended on whatever they earned as day laborers in the neighboring orange groves and construction sites.
Finally, Josef wrote that the Jewish Agency had granted them their first loan, enough to put up a building.
Leah smiled widely when she read that letter to them. ‘You see, children, it will be all right. They take us seriously. Official agencies don’t throw good money away.’
Josef returned to Tel Aviv only when there was no work available near Kfar Pines. Then he’d turn up on Uncle Shmuel’s doorstep bearing a basket of vegetables or eggs or brandishing a scrawny chicken by its feet.
The ‘little while’ that they were supposed to stay with Uncle Shmuel and Aunt Rivka stretched into several years. The Jewish Agency was in no hurry to allocate land to the Community of Abraham. Sleeping on blankets on the living-room floor came to seem normal to Tonia. Their clothes remained in the stack of boxes beside the couch. Tonia didn’t mind. She liked school and spent her afternoons jumping rope and playing Five Stones with the girls who lived downstairs. She had stopped worrying that one day her father might come and whisk them off to a kibbutz. That was a fairy tale her parents enjoyed telling.
Tonia was in the second grade in the fall of 1938 when news from Europe began to overshadow their lives. The grown-ups huddled around the radio every evening, speaking in hushed tones. The announcer droned on. Jews can’t do this. Jews can’t do that.
Leah always turned the volume down when the children were in the apartment, but when Josef was home he insisted they listen. The strange names and places had nothing to do with Tonia. The news did not frighten her; but she resented the amount of attention the grown-ups lavished on the radio. She often felt like taking a hammer and smashing it to bits.
Then one chilly afternoon Uncle Shmuel came up to the roof where Ima was stirring a tub of laundry. Tonia sprawled nearby doing her homework, but sat up when she saw the letter in his hand. The arrival of mail was always cause for excitement, so why was Uncle Shmuel chewing on his bottom lip like that?
‘Leah, this came for you.’ He held out the thin envelope. ‘It’s from Over There.’
Ima set down her long wooden paddle, dried her hands on her apron, took the letter, and opened it. The color left her face as she read.
‘Tonia, go downstairs with Uncle Shmuel,’ she said. ‘I have to go to the chemist’s and phone Abba.’
Ima seemed too upset to notice that Tonia hadn’t obeyed her. She doused the fire under the tub of laundry and hurried down the stairs, without bothering to duck into the flat to arrange her disheveled hair and take off her apron. Tonia had never seen Ima go out in public looking so untidy and followed her down the stairs.
‘I’m coming with you,’ Tonia said, running to keep up. ‘What’s wrong? What happened?’
‘My Aunt Celia. The Germans, may their name and memory be blotted out, deported her and my Uncle Stephan. Threw them over the border like trash.’
‘What’s deported?’ she asked, but Ima wasn’t paying any attention to her.
When they reached the chemist’s, Ima asked to break in front of the three other people waiting in line to use the telephone. That was very strange, Ima had never done that, it wasn’t polite. People often quarreled about such requests, but Ima looked so frantic that all three stepped aside and the man using the phone cut his conversation short. Ima gave the operator the number for Kfar Pines and tapped her foot.
‘I need to leave an urgent message for Josef Shulman,’ Ima said. ‘What? He’s there in the office? Oh, thank God, please call him to the phone.’ Ima’s foot stopped tapping, and Tonia saw a familiar expression of relief wash over Ima’s face. She knew what her mother was thinking. Josef knows people. Josef will make everything all right.
Ima’s eyes lit up when Abba came to the phone. ‘Josef, a letter arrived from my Aunt Celia … Yes, the one who moved to Hanover when I was a child. They must have lived there twenty years, she and her husband have German citizenship, perfectly legal, but the filthy Nazis have expelled them, just dumped them on the Polish border. You have to go to those people you know at the Jewish Agency, find out how we can contact the Red Cross, how we can send them–’ Ima stopped to listen for a moment, then held up the envelope to study the postmark and reread the contents of the letter.
‘She didn’t mail the letter until October 21st, but it happened before, on the 18th. Men from the Gestapo pounded on their door, said they had to leave early the next morning. One suitcase, nothing else. They couldn’t even get to the bank to take out money. The next morning the men came back with dogs and bayonets.’ Ima’s voice sounded strange, and she began mumbling, ‘Good Lord, they must be in their seventies by now, dogs and bayonets–’ Ima paused again to listen to Abba.
‘They’re at a Polish border station called Zbaszyn. They have nothing, no money, no food, nowhere to go. They are sleeping in a stable.’ Ima glanced up at the calendar on the chemist’s wall, squares of paper to be ripped off, day by day. ‘It’s been almost three weeks, we have to–’ Ima paused again. ‘Yes, Josef, all right.’
Ima hung up, thanked the people for allowing her to make the call, and asked the chemist for quantities of aspirin, iodine, and cough syrup. Then Tonia traipsed along with her to the grocer’s, where Ima asked the man behind the counter for bars of chocolate, packages of dried milk and eggs, and tins of sardines, beans, vegetables, and peaches. When they turned to leave, Ima asked the owner if she could take one of the empty cartons stacked out on the sidewalk.
‘Thank you for coming with me, Tonia,’ Ima said, calm and determined. ‘I couldn’t have carried it all alone. You can help me pack a box to send them.’
Tonia couldn’t believe her ears. Ima had bought all those things to send Over There, after she was always saying they didn’t have any money for toys or new clothes. She never bought them chocolate or tins of sweet peaches. But Tonia watched Ima nervously and didn’t dare complain.
When they got home, Ima began going through their belongings, looking for warm socks, sweaters, hats, and gloves to pack with the food and medicine. The sad-looking box with nowhere to go stood in the living room for days. Ima went to the chemist’s every few hours to ask if there had been a message from Abba. On the fourth day, Abba appeared at the door, cap in hand, looking sad and very tired. He tossed a newspaper onto the end table, then put a hand on Ima’s shoulder and gently guided her to the couch.
‘They’re both dead.’ he said in Yiddish. Her parents spoke only Hebrew at home and thought of Yiddish as their secret language, but Tonia understood what Abba said. ‘A man from the Jewish Agency found them on a list of the dead that he got from a Red Cross representative. The Red Cross got their names from one of their neighbors, who was expelled together with them. The neighbor found them in the morning, lying in some hay. There was an empty chemist’s vial in her purse. He thinks that perhaps …’
Ima clutched his forearm, but she didn’t cry. She looked more angry than sad.
‘There’s an article in there about the Polish Jews being expelled.’ Abba nodded at the newspaper he had brought with him. ‘Says that the Germans dumped about 12,000 people at that station. Nobody knows how many of them have already died.’
‘And the bodies?’
Abba lifted both hands, palms up. ‘Presumably the Poles took them away. The paper doesn’t say anything about that. And we won’t be getting any more newspapers. It was on the radio – the Germans have closed down the Jewish press.’
‘I used to spend my summer vacations with Aunt Celia and Uncle Stephan,’ Ima said softly. ‘Aunt Celia made me paper dolls. She drew them herself, on the sheets of cardboard that the laundry put in Uncle Stephan’s shirts–’
The door to the flat opened and slammed. Uncle Shmuel came in, pale and out of breath. ‘Turn on the radio!’ No one asked why.
‘… but we are getting similar reports from all over Germany,’ the announcer said. ‘Mobs breaking into the synagogues, hacking the furniture to kindling, dousing everything with petrol, and burning them to the ground. The police stand by watching, do nothing to prevent even the beating of Jewish men. If the police do take any action, it’s to arrest Jews and load them onto trucks.’
Uncle Shmuel switched to another station – that announcer was describing a mob that had pulled the terrified children in a Jewish orphanage out of their beds and taken axes to the furniture.
Ima let out a short cry and put her hands to her cheeks. She looked at her three children, and Tonia knew she was going to tell them to go into the bedroom and shut the door. But Abba batted his hand in the air.
‘No. Let them listen,’ he said. ‘This is the world we live in.’
Every radio station in the world seemed to be broadcasting from Berlin.
‘They aren’t even ashamed of what they’re doing.’ Abba shook his head. ‘All the newspapers have sent reporters to watch and write about it, and they don’t care.’
On another station, a foreign diplomat told a reporter in English, ‘Early this morning we found a young woman wandering in the street outside our home. She was in a daze, still in her nightgown. We brought her inside and managed to calm her down, so she could tell us what happened. She and her husband were in bed – it was still dark – when they heard their front door being smashed open. A gang of men burst in, swinging axes at everything in sight. They threw the china out of the cupboards, broke the piano to splinters, ripped pages out of books, and poured wine and jams on the carpets. When her husband went down and tried to save their wedding album, they dragged him back upstairs and threw him off the porch. She called for an ambulance, but when the driver saw it was a Jewish home, he turned around. She ran up the street to get their doctor, but they had broken into his house too and thrown him onto a truck. By the time she stumbled back home, her husband was dead.’
‘Thank God neither of us has any more family in Germany,’ Ima whispered.
Abba stood up and switched the radio off. ‘At least, they’ve finally hit bottom. It can’t get any worse than this. There will be an outcry. The German people won’t stand for what these criminals are making of their country.’
Tonia didn’t understand why they were so upset. They didn’t know anyone else in Germany. When they listened to the radio Tonia always felt a vague sense of guilt, as if she may have done something wrong. She hated the stories on the radio, the way they described the Jews. They said the Jews were frightened, scurrying, terrified, helpless, hopeless, begging. It was nothing to do with Tonia. Her family wasn’t anything like that.