Charlie Kane sat at the head of the dinner table among those he cherished most, concealing a hideous truth. He wondered how he was able to swallow down his food, to joke, lightheartedly, with his sisters. Had he always expected this outcome, or was he still in a state of complete denial? The letter, in its terse delivery, forced the reality he had failed to imagine.
He thanked God that his brother, Louie, and son, Roy, had been out to lunch when the letter was delivered to the office. Only Margaret, his 70-year-old bookkeeper, had watched him collapse into his chair after he read it. Every muscle felt weak, as if his body were made of rubber. At least Margaret had shown the decency to turn away until he was able to rise to his feet, his face drained of color. He methodically tucked the letter inside his suit pocket and walked over to the water fountain. It was an easy place to cry, the cold water moving over his lips and mouth, then his eyes, nearly numbing the sockets. But nothing could deaden the images conjured up by the letter’s cruel message.
Less than half a page, the letter was handwritten by a man named Isaac Shultz. He was a member of the Jewish Council and a former business associate of Charlie’s with strong ties abroad, yet not strong enough to have helped him obtain the necessary visas. While this information came from someone he knew, its delivery lacked all traces of empathy and sentiment. Instead, the words pulsed like Morse code, reporting that Charlie’s brother, Mordecai, along with other members of his family, had been among those murdered by Nazi soldiers in Vilna during the first roundup just days after the German occupation. Witnesses reported their entire ghetto had been first sought out by a squad of Lithuanian and Polish youths, ordered by the Gestapo to bring Jews out of their homes and onto the streets. Sometime later, Mordecai Kaninsky was marched into the Ponary Forest where, along with over 300 members of his ghetto, he was executed. Others had perished that day in one of the two synagogues that were set on fire. However, it would be impossible to determine if that had been the fate of other family members.
Charlie had read the letter over and over again in the stall of the men’s room, hoping to find an error, some mistake or loophole to negate the horrible truth. Tears fell onto his blue-striped shirt and golden tie as he rubbed his eyes, desperately needing to remember the last time he saw his brother. Then what followed was the stabbing realization that his mother was also gone. He was catapulted to the time of his own brief youth and remembered how fair and patient she had been with the daily ruckus of raising three sons and two daughters. How her wry sense of humor had always kept them close and filled the days with laughter. What a cruel end, he thought, to such an arduous and loving life. Images of when he had last seen them bombarded him as if to say: Remember this, please, do not forget us!
It was the summer of ’36, when Charlie and Ina had traveled through Europe to celebrate their anniversary. They had first spent a joyful week in Paris visiting the Eiffel Tower, walking the Champs Elysée, and antiquing on the Left Bank. Ina had fallen in love with a teal and gold Limoges tea service. And, as was his nature, Charlie balked at the price, but eventually gave in, especially when the antiquarian noted the prestige attached to such a rare item from a French courtesan. Not until they brought the item back to the states did they notice the so-called antique was made in Hong Kong.
On the last leg of their journey, they took a long tedious train ride to meet Mordecai in the gloriously thriving city of Vilna, what was called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. They had spent a week with him and his wife, Ester, and their little girl, Rosha. Charlie had tried to entice his brother with pictures of the house on Avenue T, the nearby beach at Coney Island, and summer trips to the Catskills. But Mordecai only glanced at the images amused, solidly stating his position.
“Look around you bruder,” he’d said, wearing his proud smile. “How could any place on earth be more beautiful than here? Smell the air, rich with the fragrance of wildflowers, and always, in every village square, people gather daily to listen to the most magnificent music. These are our roots. Someone has to stay and cultivate the soil. I must remain here to carry on the family name.”
Mordecai’s argument was indeed convincing, but Charlie believed the real truth was that Ester’s parents resided in a nearby village. It was obvious neither of them had a glimmer of thought about leaving Vilna. Charlie, however, could not hold his tongue. He reminded Mordecai that Riga had been the real place of their family’s roots —where their parents had owned a successful haberdashery for over 40 years — and that his two sisters and two brothers were living in America, all waiting for him. By the time he and Ina were ready to return home, there was noticeable tension pulsing between the two brothers, but Charlie’s pride and stubbornness kept him from attempting an apology.
It had been exactly a month since anyone had heard from Mordecai and now there was deep concern. Charlie had taken it upon himself to call the New York office of Shell Oil to see if any contact could be made through other executives employed overseas and was assured someone would follow up on the matter as soon as possible. He thought it likely that the oil conglomerate’s top executives had been notified immediately of what had recently occurred in Vilna’s ghettos and did not want to be the bearer of such tragic news. He guessed, as a thriving corporation, they wished to keep their distance from all things political, especially when it pertained to slaughter.
Tonight though, the burden fell upon him and only him to tell his sisters and brother that their worst fears had materialized. The atrocities that seemed to be part of another world had indeed penetrated theirs, and they, too, would never be the same. He knew the women of his house well and imagined they would grieve interminably. He believed the best thing for all of them now was to stick together. It would be his job to keep everyone close and involved at home. He had no choice.
The letter pressed inside his breast pocket like a piece of jagged steel, its message piercing all hope. Charlie could barely breathe. He needed to tell them, but his first business at hand was to deal with the problem of his daughter. He would forbid his Mira to run off to California, especially now, all to chase some half-assed, crazy dream.
As if on cue, the tea kettle sent its shrill sound throughout the room. Ina motioned Mira to help clear the table for dessert. She chided the men, begging that there be no more talk about Europe, the war, or any situation about which they seemed to have only bits and pieces of information. But Mira, especially, wanted to learn what was really going on; she couldn’t comprehend why J.J. was so fearful, and why she had not been given any concrete answers to the rumors she heard mushrooming throughout her school. Almost every day there was graphic talk about trains transporting Jews, both young and old, to special camps where many were being gassed to death. People rounded up and arrested just because they were Jewish? All these rumors were beyond her comprehension. Mira tried to block them from her mind. How else could she enjoy her life, which on good days was spread before her like a borderless picnic blanket set on a lush and rolling hill?
Charlie ended all his meals with a shot of his favorite schnapps. He pushed himself away from the table, walked to the mirrored bar, and poured himself a drink from the cut crystal decanter. The honey-colored liquid went down in one swift gulp followed by the habitual, “Ahhh!” Dinner was officially over. Tonight, however, Charlie took a second swig. He asked Mira to stop clearing the table and summoned her into the grand dining room. It was there that, expending few words, he would ultimately wipe away his daughter’s dreams.
Sande Boritz Berger, who lives in Bridgehampton, received a master of fine arts degree in writing from Stony Brook Southampton, where she was awarded the Deborah Hecht Memorial Prize in fiction. “Letters and Lies” is an excerpt from her novel, “The Sweetness,” which will be available in bookstores in September.