I felt the pressure in my teeth the moment we touched down in Bogota, as if someone had tightened a monkey wrench around my jaws. After a long delay in customs dealing with our little Yorkie’s travel papers, I walked out onto the street, trying to manage the trolley with the suitcases bearing everything I’d need for a year away while holding the leash. Sparky trotted nonchalantly through the door and cocked his head at the feel of the fresh air on his face.
My jaw bones now were pulsing with pain. I made my way to the taxi stand. The driver had a kind manner and was patient with my halting Spanish. Speeding along the highway, I held tightly onto Sparky, who squirmed in my lap, furiously panting, craning to see out the window.
“It’s okay,” I cooed, and he looked up at me with his sweet, trusting face, though I saw panic in his eyes. “Really, Sparkles, everything’s going to be fine.”
For some miles, the buildings were modern and boxy and in various stages of dilapidation. Barbed wire in imaginative forms sprouted everywhere, like an invasive species of blooming nightshade. People swarmed, though there was something orderly in the feel of it, something practiced about the choreography that I associated with life in the big cities I’d known. I felt like I was in a Colombian Truman Show movie, all of it a vast stage set where the actors had been instructed to make me feel invisible—to shut me out and refuse to engage.
What had happened to my delight in exploring new places? Why this feeling of bloodless panic, the sense that even the clouds in the sky were banks of anodyne refusal? Weary from the journey and feeling vulnerable from the pain ricocheting around my teeth and jaws, I was eager to reunite with my husband and son. Perhaps once we were back together, I’d feel enthusiastic about being here.
“We’re almost there,” the taxi driver announced. “This is the Plaza Usaquen.”
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We were skirting an elegant square surrounded by towering trees where people milled about, sitting on benches, walking the pathways, or talking in the mottled shade. I rolled down the window: the smell of roasted corn on the cob and barbequed meat wafted in. Vendors dotted the space, selling their steaming foods, and also iridescent balloons, hand-painted wooden toys, and leather goods stitched with patches of brightly colored tapestry. We turned off the square onto a side street and the driver pulled up in front of a metal gate set into a high brick wall topped with metal spikes and giant barbed-wire coils.
I got out and rang the bell. A uniformed doorman opened the gate; behind him, I could see a small courtyard dominated by a glorious Chicalá tree, its yellow bell flowers in full bloom, and edged with carefully tended beds with species of flowers I’d never seen before—orangey-red stars; wheels of purple, tendrilly spokes; and what looked like miniature sunflowers hanging from velvety gray stalks. The courtyard was encircled by six tiny, narrow townhouses, one of which was to be my new home.
Sparky set up watch on a turquoise ottoman in front of the picture window looking out onto the courtyard, a front row seat to the outside world he’d never had access to in the elsewheres he’d lived. He sat there for hours in a state of serene alertness, tracking anything that moved—the gardener raking, residents coming and going, the Colombian variants of sparrow and thrush hopping about. Such a sweet dog, patient with the life he’d fallen into when we’d found him nine years earlier in a small village in the south-central mountains of Mexico. I counted the countries he’d lived in on my fingers: Mexico, the US, France, Spain, and now Colombia. Three shy of the countries I myself had lived in, which included Israel. South Africa, my birthplace, and Australia, where I’d grown up.
“We’re nomads, hey,” I said to him that first day. He swiveled his head to face me.
Not really, I read him saying. We just like to live in different places.
He seemed to be shaking his head. Nomads don’t have homes.
An hour later, my son arrived back home on the school bus just as my husband walked in the door; they were excited to share stories of their adventures since we’d last been together. I was especially eager to hear how the new school was working out.
The pain in my jaw had grown steadily worse. I waited until our son went upstairs to start his homework to say something about my throbbing jaw. My husband called his colleague whose wife was a physician. Baradontaglia, she said, from the altitude, adding that it would settle down after a few days.
That first week, while my son was at school and my husband was teaching, I went out for long walks, looking for coffee shops where I might sit and write, but every time I ventured out, I found myself slamming up against a sense of impenetrability. Several weeks passed and the jaw pain got worse, so I got the name of a dentist from my husband’s colleague.
“It’s the root,” the dentist declared once he’d had a chance to examine my mouth. “Let me take you to the endodontist down the hall.”
The endodontist was disarmingly beautiful and dressed like a fashion model, high heels and all. I couldn’t imagine how she stood all day over open mouths on those heels. When she was through getting into the tooth, she exclaimed, “My god, this is awful! The infection is raging!”
A rotting odor filled the air and then, with a wondrous look on her face, she pulled something out of my jaw and held it up. A skinny, blackened worm.
“Necrotic root,” she announced, impressed. “The infection has dissolved a piece of your jawbone—the size of a large olive.”
I could not speak, since my mouth was being held open by a wooden chunk, jimmied into place by the woman I had unwittingly come to think of as my beautician. I closed my eyes, allowed my consciousness to swim along the current of the strange, inviting/repelling term, necrotic root. Perhaps she’d meant to say necrotic nerve, but root seemed more apt.
My mind settled on an image: a worn chair with faded blue upholstery before a narrow window, looking down at a cramped street below. Seated in the chair, peering out the window, was an elderly woman, simply dressed and wearing a bonnet. I knew the image immediately—from a book I’d been reading the past few weeks, in my haze of pain, by the historian Amos Elon. It was about Mayer Amschel Rothschild, patriarch of what would become the Rothschild dynasty, born in 1744 in a slum tenement in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt. One of Europe’s first ghettos, established in 1462 outside the city wall, the ghetto was on a sliver of land, originally intended to house the city’s handful of Jewish families. As the population grew, they were denied permission for extra land; houses were built behind and in front of the original ones; floors were added, jutting into the narrow Judengasse—Jews’ lane—until the upper stories almost touched. By Rothschild’s time, the ghetto was crammed with three thousand souls—ten percent of Frankfurt’s population and the largest concentration of Jews in Europe.
In Mayer’s youth, the status of Jews was still governed by a decree issued by the fourteenth century Duke, Ludwig of Bavaria: You are Ours in body and possession, We may make, do and deal with you as it pleases Us. For forty-two years, Rothschild lived in a tiny, decrepit tenement; then, having amassed a small fortune in his business, he moved his growing family to a house on the Judengasse. The exorbitant cost of Rothschild’s modest new house would have bought a splendid mansion across town, like the one Goethe lived in with his family. But Jews were not allowed to live, or buy property, outside the high ghetto walls.
I pictured Mayer Amschel Rothschild in his later years, beset by debilitating ailments, hobbling down the Judengasse to the synagogue, glancing up at the window to nod to his wife, Gutle Shnapper. She bore nineteen children, ten of whom survived to adulthood, and would outlive her husband by thirty-seven years. As the endodontist labored over me, I held onto the image of the elderly Gutle, sitting in that faded blue chair into her nineties, long after her progeny were living outside the ghetto, in the fresh-aired world that for centuries had been denied to Jews. They entreated Gutle to leave the ghetto house and join them in their freedom. She refused.
The tradition was that the matriarch bless all marriages in the family; her grandchildren and later, her great-grandchildren, would return and mount the narrow stairs of her house. Their carriages were too wide for the narrow Judengasse, so they were dropped at the high metal gate to traipse in their finery down the grimy streets, as ghetto dwellers stood and watched.
What, I wondered, was Gutle clinging to? As I focused on the image of her face in my mind’s eye, woozy from the anesthetic and struggling to peer through the miasma of time, something marvelous occurred. An artist’s rendering of a decorative swirl, a vivid shade of Prussian blue, grew from Gutle’s seat as if the faded chair had all these years harbored a tank filled with bright paint. A marigold yellow striated the blue swirl as it thickened and grew—Van Gogh’s stars plucked from the starry night to fall into the earth. The soil grew around the burrowing swirl, which straightened as it grew.
The voice of the endodontist broke through. I snapped open my eyes.
“The infection is deep in the jaw,” she said. “I’m having trouble clearing it all out.”
My eyelids sank back down. I could return to Gutle. A woodland had sprung up around her, obscuring the window and all traces of the confining house. What had started out as a swirl beneath her chair had become an enormous root, thick as a tree trunk.
Growing up, in Melbourne, we were a small island of six: my mother, father, three siblings. On distant continents were three grandparents, countless aunts and uncles, dozens of first cousins. I’d been told, from earliest memory, that the Jewish people, who had wandered homeless from Biblical times, through more years and generations than my young mind could make sense of, were my people. Their saga converged with the record of my own extended family, who were mythical since I’d not met any of them.
My grandparents fled Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, when their villages were being set on fire by Cossacks, the slaughter given a name—Pogroms (Russian for “devastation” or, more specifically, “destroy by use of violence”). I was struck by the rich terminology attached to the brutalities in the annals of this people I was told were mine: exile, expulsion, ghettos; crusades and inquisition; concentration camps, medical experiments, gas chambers. The umbrella term for this latest terminology, Holocaust, is derived from the Greek translation, Holocauston, of a Hebrew word, ‘olah, meaning burnt sacrifice, chosen, it is thought, because the ovens the Nazis built in the extermination camps burned bodies whole. This Holocaust had sucked up numbers of my own family—great aunts and uncles and cousins, whose names surfaced rarely and in hushed, alarmed whispers, ending with they perished in the camps. The word perished caught in my throat, as if my relatives had died in some unfortunate natural calamity, an avalanche or mudslide. The Nazis weren’t shy about using the more accurate word, extermination.
To escape the pogroms, my grandparents fled the villages their families had inhabited for generations. They ended up in South Africa, a place my own parents left as a young married couple for Australia, which I first left when I was seventeen, acting on the plan I hatched at the age of twelve. I wanted to get away. It’s as if there was something in my blood, a kind of historical fever that sought relief in flight, a pattern, perhaps, laid down in the setting of the epigenetic switches deep in my DNA—a propulsive response to just, well, being alive. As if somewhere below my consciousness, an ancient algorithm developed in the name of survival exerted its influence: we were forced to leave 🡪 you’re going to have to leave 🡪 you better make sure you leave.
When you fly for long hours—twenty or more at a time, with brief stops to refuel—you discover that time and space collapse. On those many journeys, static in that propulsive silver projectile, I glimpsed that history was like the impenetrable ocean beneath me, pulsing with life in the darkness. I had only to squeeze my eyes shut to know it, to see it, to find little bits of it, like dark-glimmering shards from the seabed, jagged in my hand.
My niece from Australia met a young South African and they fell in love. They planned to get married in South Africa, during the year we were living in Bogota. I booked a flight that went through Atlanta, but on the day of travel, a rare, extreme storm closed down the Atlanta airport. I scrambled to find another route—found a fare via Germany, with an eleven-hour layover in Frankfurt.
Once I touched down in Frankfurt, it occurred to me that I needn’t spend the long layover sitting in the airport as I’d planned to do; why not try to grab a quick taste of the city? I Googled Tours of Frankfurt and clicked on this: Jewish Sites in Frankfurt am Main. The page that popped up opened with this:
Jews have lived in Frankfurt continuously for nearly 900 years, longer than in any other German city. They worked as merchants, bankers, politicians, philanthropists, artists and scientists. In 1949, after the National Socialist devastation, the Jewish community was reestablished. It now has some 7,200 members, half of whom come from the former Soviet Union.
“After the Nationalist Socialist devastation.” Really? Here again—as if it were all a natural disaster, Hurricane Adolf. The rest of the page was equally startling, a compressed account of nine centuries, mostly a through line of persecution, beginning with the first listed pogrom of 1241, with an accounting of others that burned through the centuries, and then the establishment of “Europe’s first ghetto” outside the city wall (other accounts dispute this dubious distinction). “For four centuries,” the webpage stated, “the ghetto was the only place Jews were allowed to live.” The writer noted that in 1933, there were 26,163 Jews in Frankfurt, with 160 survivors in 1945, and ended with a breezy, affirming flourish:
From that time on, the Jewish population has been engaged socially, economically and culturally, supporting numerous public institutions such as the Alte Opera, the Clementine Children’s Hospital and later, Goethe University.
At the bottom of the page was a link to tours. I clicked and dialed the number.
Helmut, the tour guide, offered to pick me up at the airport.
I guessed him to be in his early fifties; he was short and slender, wearing a leather cap and a blue sweater, the same color as his deep, blue eyes. He greeted me courteously and wheeled my carry-on bag to his car, a compact, well-worn yellow Renault.
“I’d like to apologize for how strange that city webpage is,” he said, as we pulled away from the curb. “I suggested revisions to City Hall, but I’ve had no response. Particularly sorry about the Nationalist Socialist Devastation bit.”
He glanced in the rearview mirror.
“How long have you been giving tours?” I asked.
“About two years,” he said. “It’s a hobby, really. The idea came to me, after my father died.”
In the rearview mirror, his eyes were now appraising. “My father was conscripted when he was seventeen. He was sent to Poland early in the war.” Helmut’s voice was steady and flat.
I was curious about his father, but Helmut seemed to have said as much as he wanted to say.
We began our tour at the old Jewish cemetery, a higgledy-piggledy collection of ancient stones, leaning askew, covered in moss and vines. Surrounding the cemetery was a beautiful park— stretches of bright green grass presided over by towering trees in full leaf. I wondered how this cemetery had survived, since so much in Frankfurt had been destroyed. We made a quick visit to the Jewish Museum, housed in the former home of one of the Rothschild descendants, an urban manor house of grand proportions, and then drove on to the Judengasse Museum, located on the site of the old ghetto. Helmut then took me to the memorials, commemorating one atrocity after the next. Reading the plaque at The Neuer Börneplatz Memorial felt like the last straw.
A centrally placed 5 x 5 m stone cube constructed from remnants of the Judengasse, and a grove of 60 sycamore trees define the 4500 sq. m space. The ground is covered with crushed basalt, with a molten asphalt area delineated by a stainless steel band tracing part of the floor plan of the destroyed Börneplatz Synagogue.2 The northern side borders the Old Jewish Cemetery, whose 286 m long enclosing wall contains approximately 11,915 small steel blocks,
All the careful, conceptual planning filled me with despair. I understood the urge to memorialize but this elaborate, stylized precision felt existentially off-kilter. What did the centrally placed 5 X 5 stone cube have to do with the reality it was commemorating? What design could do justice to the cry of a woman and her child being shot into a pit? And yet what else could they, could any of us, do? In place of this meticulously planned memorial, I pictured a stretch of ruined land—scorched, burned, poisoned, where for eternity nothing would ever again grow, not a single blade of desert grass.
Helmut glanced at me with concern as we walked back to the yellow Renault.
“It’s time for lunch,” he said.
It was a short drive to the restaurant, a simple place with checkered red-and-white tablecloths offering local German specialties. I ordered the dark-beer onion soup; Helmut made do with coffee, bread and butter. When the soup came, I stared at the frothy brown surface; it emanated a pungent yeasty odor.
“You don’t have to eat it,” he said.
“I don’t know, I thought I should have something distinctively German.”
Helmut signaled for the waiter to take away the bowl and ordered more bread and butter. The crusty rye was surprisingly light; slathered in thick butter, it was delicious. An unsettled silence hung between us. I found myself gazing into Helmut’s blue eyes in a way that was more intimate than was natural for the circumstances. I was losing myself, unable to gauge the situation, aware only that I was falling. Finally, our bread eaten and down to the last of our coffee, Helmut spoke.
“I have a feeling you came to Frankfurt for a reason,” he said.
“Actually, it was unexpected,” I said. “I’m going to South Africa for a wedding. My plane was cancelled. Storm—in Atlanta.”
“I see,” he said. It was silly, but I had the feeling he didn’t believe me.
“It’s very unusual,” I said. “Such storms in Atlanta. Unheard of, in fact.”
“Well, Frankfurt is an interesting city,” he said mildly, though his eyes still had that unnerving, overly familiar sheen. “You seem to have some interest in its history.”
Only now, did I remember Gutle.
“You’re right,” I said, feeling like I was admitting something, as if I’d been deliberately keeping this under wraps. “I’m interested in the history of the Frankfurt ghetto. I was recently reading about Mayer Amschel Rothschild and his wife, Gutle Schnapper.”
Something wavered in Helmut’s eyes. “Would you like more coffee?” he asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Well then, there’s something that might interest you.”
Helmut paid the bill—lunch was included in the tour—and we got back into the yellow Renault.
We rode in silence through the streets of Frankfurt until we were back in the place where earlier he’d shown me the pile of bricks, all that was left of the Judengasse, and I’d spent a few moments looking at the anonymous building of the Public Gas Works that had been built over what had been the main street of the ghetto. We wound towards the river, the Fluss Main, and turned onto Mainzer Landstrasse and then into the parking lot of a storage facility, oddly named First Elephant Storage Unit, its sign in English. Helmut drove around the back and pulled up in front of a row of units, each wooden door painted a different color, some faded and peeling, others freshly painted. He retrieved a key from his pocket and opened a blue door so shiny I imagined the paint was not yet dry.
Inside, Helmut reached for a cord hanging from the ceiling, and a bare bulb buzzed, filling the space with naked light. He closed the door and then locked it. Metal shelves on the far wall held a dozen or more packages of various sizes, the shape of framed artworks. Helmut’s reserve melted away, and everything about him suddenly seemed different. It was as if a character in a book had leapt off the page right before my eyes, sprung to improbable life. His eyes burned, only there was something else behind that, a liquid vulnerability that cut me to the quick.
“You seemed interested in my family,” he began. I had not in fact said anything when he told me his father had fought in Poland during the war. “I sensed you wanted to know more.”
“My mother died when I was five,” Helmut said. “I hardly knew her, though I remember she had a warm laugh. After she died, my father disappeared—there in body, but not in spirit. I was born in 1962—the war had ended only seventeen years earlier, but growing up, it seemed very far away. My father worked for the city. Public transportation. After my mother died, he told me nothing about her. I didn’t think much about either of them, really. I was just a schoolboy who liked football.
“One day, a man came to our apartment. I was about eleven. We seldom had visitors, so it stuck in my mind. When the bell rang, I answered the door to find a well-dressed man I’d never seen before. He was holding a hat, a fine-looking fedora, I could see the brand name, Mayser, on the lining. He mentioned my father’s name, and I asked him to come in. My father was as surprised as I was.
“The man did not introduce himself. My father asked him where he was from. Munich, the man said. That satisfied my father. The man gave me a sidelong glance and asked if he might speak to my father alone. I was told to go read in my room.
“Like many boys my age, I was fascinated by spycraft. I had gone so far as to break through the baseboard of my bedroom, which was adjacent to the living room, to make a small tunnel that served as a sound chamber. I removed the painted wooden block that covered the hole and got out my listening device. One of those contraptions you can make from household items—I’d found the instructions in a book at the library. Pressing my ear up against the device, I could hear them just fine.
“The man was telling my father he had some things that had belonged to my mother. He said they were valuable, and he wanted to return them to their rightful owners. He asked that my father not tell anyone about his visit. That if my father chose to sell the items, he must not reveal where they came from.
Later, I asked my father what the man had wanted. ‘A business matter,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t concern you.’ He never said another word about it. I put it out of mind.
“My father lived in that apartment all those decades—he was ninety-one when he died.” As he looked at me, Helmut’s eyes seemed to be searching. What was he hoping to find? “And the timing was striking.”
We’d been standing for some time in the unheated storage room; my legs felt suddenly tired.
“I’m so sorry,” Helmut said, as if reading my mind. He retrieved two packing crates from the corner for us to sit on. Seeing me hug my thin coat around me, Helmut removed his jacket and handed it to me.
“The timing?” I prompted.
“Yes. A few weeks after my father died, a remarkable story appeared in the newspaper—it made headlines around the world. There was also a picture—of the man who had come to our apartment all those years ago. Much older, now, of course but he had a distinctive face—I knew it was the same man. And now, I learned his name. Cornelius Gurlitt. Son of a famous art dealer
Helmut looked at me with concern.
“But this is a lot of information…”
“It’s okay,” I said, aware of an oddly comforting feeling growing within me. “Please, continue.”
A dim memory emerged, a few patchy facts—an elderly German hermit, discovered to have an enormous cache of valuable artwork, much of it presumed looted by the Nazis during the war.
“Yes, I think I read about that. Something about paintings—”
“Exactly. Well, there’s a lot more to the story.”
Helmut glanced at his watch. “Heavens, we’ll have to get back, soon. You need to check in two hours ahead of your flight. Let me be brief. As I said, I was clearing out my father’s apartment. He had a large, metal lock box that he kept on the top shelf of his closet—I knew about it, from my days as a young spy. But I’d never found the key. When I was going through his belongings, I came across the key in a coffee tin, in a basement storage room. I’d not known we had such a space until after he died, and the janitor took me there to remove his belongings. I knew it had to be the key to the lock box, and it was.
“The box didn’t have that much in it. Two notebooks that looked very old, filled with my father’s handwriting. And in an old, yellowed envelope—another key.”
He reached into his pocket and held up the key he’d used to open the door to the storage space.
“In the back of the one of the notebooks was the address of this storage space. He clearly intended me to find it. The two notebooks were identical and had the same price marking on the back. But the handwriting in each was a bit different—both were my father’s, but in one, the writing was very neat, and the pages were almost entirely filled. Text, numbers in columns, hand-drawn charts. A young person’s writing, like someone who still cared about the penmanship drilled into you at school.
“The other notebook had less writing in it and was written in the handwriting of my father’s that I knew—looser, not so controlled.” Helmut checked his watch. “Oh, the time! I’m so sorry—”
“Really, it’s okay,” I said. “Please, continue.”
“I read both of the notebooks that day. All the way through. The one written in my father’s youthful handwriting was a detailed account of his experiences as a soldier.”
He gave the word soldier special emphasis.
“His battalion was assigned to drive around the Polish countryside and shoot Jews. At each village, they would go from door to door and round them up, then take them to a field and instruct them to dig. The Jews were told to stand around the edge of the pit and they were shot so that they fell forward. The soldiers would then fill the pit back up. Sometimes, they’d keep out a few Jews to fill the pit almost to the top and then shoot them in last. They kept a detailed accounting—names of villages, dates, numbers of men, women and children exterminated in each.
“He also described certain events. This one struck me the most. One morning, their commander assembled the battalion. The soldiers were suffering from exhaustion and their leader was worried about them. My father described him as a good and compassionate man, someone who cared about his troops. He told the men he knew the killing of Jews was placing a strain on them, that it was hard and painful work. It was their duty to follow orders. But he wanted to give the soldiers an opportunity to withdraw from the detail. Not everyone is cut out for this, he said. No one would be penalized, he assured them, and the men believed him. There would be no problem reassigning them. Now was the chance to step forward.
“My father wrote that he had wanted to step forward, and so had many of his fellow soldiers. But no one did. Later, a few talked about why they hadn’t withdrawn. No one mentioned fear of being punished; they’d believed their commander, who was a father figure to them. What each man said in his way was that he didn’t want to let the others down. Someone had to do the shooting—it was a matter of honor and duty to share the burden. It’s hard for all of us. And we’re a team.”
Helmut fell silent, spent a few long moments looking down at his shoes.
“In the second notebook,” he continued after a time, “I discovered that my mother had been Jewish. I’d had no idea. Which of course means that I was Jewish as well. My father raised me with no religion—I asked him about that once. I must have been quite young. We had religious instruction at school and many of my friends went to church. I asked him if he believed in God. He waved his hand dismissively, like my question was a fly and he was swatting it away.
“The information about my mother—and there was not a lot—was in the notebook he’d clearly written later. He noted down everything my mother had told him, I guess. A woman named Hilde, who had worked as a maid for my mother’s family before Hitler came to power, raised my mother. She told people my mother was a cousin from the country, and because my mother did not look like a Jew—she had blue eyes and fair hair—she was able to pass. After the war, Hilde didn’t tell her anything about her origins. My mother had almost no memories of her family. The night before my mother’s wedding, Hilde told her the names of her parents—Rachel and Helmut. Her father had been a journalist. Her mother had been an opera singer. They’d both been fired from their jobs the day after Krystallnacht. Later, they were sent to Buchenwald. The night before they were told to report—for work duty, that’s what the letters said—her father had sneaked out with his daughter, defying the curfew for Jews, and managed to reach Hilde’s house undetected.”
Helmut looked at me meaningfully, as if he knew I’d had a lifelong preoccupation with the horrors of the Holocaust.
“The gentleman who had come that day told my father he had in his possession a number of artworks that had belonged to Rachel’s father and that had, through a series of unpleasant circumstances, ended up in his own father’s hands. He had spent years trying to find the rightful owner and was pleased now to return them to my father. I don’t remember the man saying any of this—perhaps my crude listening device had not been so effective after all. In any case, this is what my father wrote in the notebook. He said nothing about how the artwork was returned, only that it could be found in a climate-controlled storage space he had rented, still in the original wrappings, which Herr Gurlitt had assured him involved state of the art preservation materials that would protect the artworks for more than a hundred years.
“That was interesting to me, that my father would write that down. More than a hundred years.”
“Have you seen them?” I asked.
Helmut nodded. “I brought a colleague here, an art historian. I didn’t want to risk damaging anything. I didn’t know what to do. It was all so—anyway, none of that’s the point.”
“You can imagine our surprise—my surprise, the surprise of my colleague—when we discovered a Van Gogh, a Matisse. And several other drawings and sketches by important artists.”
I could hardly believe what Helmut was telling me. Was he in fact about to show me masterpieces that no one besides he and his colleague had seen since the 1930s?
He seemed to be reading me, now; Helmut’s eyes saddened, and he held up a hand.
“I’m sorry, I won’t be able to undo the wrappings now. Not on those paintings. You see—” Again, he anxiously checked his watch. “What I wanted to show you was something else. It’s an unsigned drawing. There’s nothing about it that suggests it has any real value beyond the historical. Of course, to me, that’s the most valuable thing of all. But then, I’m a historian.”
This was the first time Helmut had mentioned his occupation.
“I believe the drawing will hold some interest for you. That is why I’ve brought you here.”
“Why do you—” I began.
“You’ll see straight away, once I unwrap it.”
Helmut rose and took a small package from the highest shelf then sat back down. Carefully, he began loosening the knots on the twine holding a thick wad of waxed, brown paper in place.
“When I asked you about your interest in these sites…You’re different from the other tourists…” He was having trouble with a particularly tight knot on the final piece of twine. “You mentioned Mayer Amschel Rothschild and his wife.”
I’d felt uncomfortable when I mentioned that, having been so recently caught up in the drama of my necrotic root and dissolving jaw, aware there was something peculiar in my fixation on the image of Gutle Shnapper, Mayer’s wife, sitting in the faded blue chair before the window above the Judengasse.
“Yes,” I said. “I wondered why she stayed in the ghetto. Right up until her death. She could have gone anywhere—”
Helmut gave me a quick glance. “Well, I suppose there’s a certain logic to it,” he said.
The last piece of twine fell away. Helmut slowly unpeeled the layers of waxed paper. Time slowed. And then, there she was, in a rendering by an artist of modest but worthwhile talent. I recognized her from an image I’d seen in my online research.
“Gutle Shnapper,” I said.
The image was of her face and upper torso. To her right was a window, through which the Judengasse was plainly visible, depicted from some height.
“Strange, right? One of those—” he started but let his sentence dangle.
“—coincidences,” I said.
“Yes, I suppose that’s the word for it.”
A sudden loud rattling filled the room. Helmut glanced up at the ceiling. “It’s not supposed to rain…”
“So loud,” I said.
“Corrugated tin roof,” Helmut said. “Sounds like artillery.” He looked at his watch. “Oh my, we really must be getting back.”
Repackaging the painting, Helmut’s hands flew. It was like watching a film in fast forward, the way he wrapped the pieces of waxed paper, one by one, until they were all back in place, and then twirled the various piece of twine around, securing them with a series of tight knots.
Night had fallen. Outside, everything glistened from what seemed to have been a flash flood; water dripped down from the rain gutters. Helmut abandoned his prior careful driving for a more reckless speed. For the first time since I’d stepped out of the airport to find Helmut waiting for me at the curb, I felt a spear of real fear. From the back seat, I studied the reflection of his eyes in the rearview mirror. In the darkness, I saw only the top half of a stony face, though the surprising thought came to me that Helmut, as he sped through the night, was shedding silent tears.
At the airport, Helmut retrieved my bag from the trunk and then opened the rear door.
“I would like you to have it,” he said, his eyes now unreadable nubs.
“I’m sorry—?” I asked.
“The sketch. Gutle. Your address? I’ll have it shipped.”
I had no time to think—and besides, now I was also worried about making my connecting flight. I took the pen he was offering, then noticed he was also holding out a notebook, one that looked very old, the cover almost in tatters. He’d opened it to a blank page towards the back. I could see a few narrow slivers of some of the turned back pages, noted the cramped, neat handwriting, that of a young person trying to produce their best penmanship. Several numbers popped forth. 73. 342. 119.
I scribbled my name and address, realizing only then that though Helmut had introduced himself to me, I had only taken his hand and shaken it, without offering up my own name.
He read aloud the Brooklyn address. I could never remember our Bogota address. Besides, he’d asked me where I lived. Brooklyn, I supposed, was home.
Helmut gave a solemn little bow, got back into his yellow Renault, and was gone.
~~~Of course, I never did receive the sketch in the mail that Helmut promised he’d send. No package would arrive, but I would always remember Helmut and the mood of our meeting, and the way I felt when I watched him reveal the sketch of Gutle sitting there, in her favorite chair, before her window above the Judengasse.
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