The ProsenPeople

You Have to Have Been a Refugee Yourself

Thursday, September 29, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer


I know that I will provoke the criticism in some quarters that I talk too much about Jewish refugees—as though nobody else existed, as though others had not suffered too.

It is absolutely true that others—innumerable others—were made to suffer, no less than we. And I have not failed to make mention of that. I myself happen to be both a refugee and a Jew; and one who bears witness must bear witness to his own personal experiences. But there is another point, too; and that is that whatever those others were made to suffer at least had some connection—direct or indirect—with the War. Their treatment at the hands of Germany was unprecedented and absolutely without justification. But, for all that they suffered, at least it was not the case that their freedom, their existence, their lives, were forfeit—forfeit from the very outset—simply by virtue of their birth. Even Hitler did not have the audacity to question whether they were actually human beings.

Whereas Goebbels, Hitler’s official cultural spokesman, stated quite baldly in a speech immediately after the ‘Advent’ of the Third Reich: ‘If I am asked whether the Jews are not also human beings, I can only reply: are not bugs also animals?’

What was perpetrated against the Jews, moreover, had nothing to do with the War. The project was undertaken long before the War, and would have been carried out systematically—in accordance with a clearly laid-out programme of extermination—even if there had been no War. And it was perpetrated against unarmed, defenceless people, who were unable to mobilise themselves, unable to resist. Perpetrated against powerless victims, who had already been deprived of their rights, despised, insulted, and humiliated in both body and soul. Perpetrated as a result of the impetuosity—as cowardly as it was crazy—of a madman, with the willing, happy participation of his ‘Comrades of the People’.

It was perpetrated, too, without the civilised world daring to demand that it be stopped, or at least daring to make clear its abhorrence. Only later, much later—only when it was already far too late—did we begin to get all those fi ne expressions of solidarity, which came in the context of general war propaganda. And, while it was being perpetrated, states which had every opportunity to do so, and could have done so without cost, failed in their duty to open their gates to the persecuted. The granting of a visa was a process invariably attended with all manner of obstacles, restrictions, provisos and caveats, before—through a grate in the wall, reluctantly, like alms to a troublesome beggar—the document was finally dispensed. Or not dispensed, as the case might be. The lowliest consular official was suddenly a god.

No: others had to undergo all kinds of trials, certainly. But our journey of spiritual misery—to speak of nothing else—was without parallel. You have to have been a refugee yourself, to have lived as a Jew under the sign of the Swastika, to know what that really meant. And whatever anyone might say with regard to that... it would still be too little.

How could it all have happened? We survivors—we who went through it—we, surely, have the right to keep asking that question. While at the same time bearing witness—in our name, and in that of the silenced six million. The martyrs: men, women and children, whom the ‘Führer’—the Leader of his murderous Germany—hounded to their deaths.

From the book Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer. Copyright © 2016 by Moriz Scheyer, translated and with an epilogue by P.N. Singer. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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Extra Diapers, Two Bottles, Four Cans of Evaporated Milk, Five $20 Bills

Thursday, July 21, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Leaving Lucy Pear: A Novel by Anna Solomon

If they were coming, this was the night. The pears had stayed yellow and hard for so long that Bea had started to despair, but they were finally ready to pick. The moon was a quarter full. The afternoon’s wind had gone limp. Midnight came and went. Bea counted to five hundred for extra measure—silently, so she wouldn’t wake the nurse—then she took up the infant from its bassinet, wrapped it in her aunt Vera’s angora shawl, and crept down the cellar stairs in her bare feet.

The stairs to the cellar were granite, and cold. The original wooden ones had burned with the original wooden house in 1873. Bea did not know about the fire but she could smell it, because the cellar was the one part of the house that hadn’t needed rebuilding and its walls retained the flavor of ash. She moved toward the bulkhead door as fast as she could, feeling along the wall with her free hand, careful not to bump the handles of shovels and hoes, though the shovels and hoes had been through far worse. They had witnessed flood and fire. They had been variously cared for and abused by generations of gardeners, had been used to plant tulips and to dig graves. They had even, once upon a time, been in the presence of another unwed mother and her infant. Knowing this might have put Bea’s own suffering in perspective. But she did not know and she had not been taught perspective. She was eighteen, the daughter of ascendant Boston Jews who had sent her away to Eastern Point in a black, curtained limousine the day she started to show.

The bulkhead door was heavier than she expected, its diagonal slope demanding that it be lifted as much as pushed. She had unlocked it from the outside before going to bed but she hadn’t tested its weight and now the thing didn’t budge. She pressed harder. The cellar was her only way out—she had tested the doors on the first floor and every one either shrieked or squeaked or groaned. She pushed again. If she put the baby down, it would cry. Bea started to pant with panic. The cellar roof seemed to be dropping, the walls squeezing. She climbed the bulkhead steps until she was bent nearly in two, the infant squeezed into the small space between her thighs and chest, and tried to open the door with her back. Her legs shook. Sweat sprang at her neck. She was still soft and weak from the birth two weeks before, her right eye bloodshot though she had no memory of pushing, no memory of any of it, nothing until a baby was being handed to her, clean and silent, like a doll her mother had bought. She was lucky, Bea understood—Aunt Vera had hired a doctor who had studied in Germany with the father of twilight sleep. There had been morphine, there had been scopolamine—these, according to Aunt Vera, would do more to liberate women than the vote. Bea understood that she was supposed to understand herself to be lucky. She understood that she must have pushed, and that she should be glad not to remember. She pushed now, using her neck, her shoulders, every muscle in her body. At last the door gave an inch, then two, then lightened so quickly Bea was following it—she had to scramble to catch up before it slammed on the ground outside. She looked behind her, above. The hinge had given a sharp cry. She went stiff waiting for another sound, the nurse’s heavy footsteps, her heavy call: Beatrice? She waited until her breath came and quieted her heart. Then she stepped out into the night.

Through the near trees she could see the far ones in the orchard down below. Slowly, her eyes adjusted, and she saw the pears themselves, their waxy orbs glowing greenly in the three-quarter dark. Her mouth watered and Bea, embarrassed by this bodily secretion, turned her thoughts to her Plan.

Walk to orchard.
Wake infant.
Nurse infant.
Change infant.
Check inside paper sack: extra diapers, two bottles, four cans of Borden’s evaporated milk, five twenty-dollar bills.
Set infant under most plentiful tree.
Run.

From Leaving Lucy Pear: A Novel by Anna Solomon, published on July 26, 2016 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Anna Solomon, 2016.

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Mort, May 1947

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

The domestic, feminine scene unfolding before Mort did nothing to improve his spirits. Upstairs, in his brother’s apartment, substantial preparations were being made. Not just the brushing of hair and the tying of sashes. Serious words were being spoken from man to man, from father to son. Mort pushed away his breakfast plate and frowned.

Thirty minutes before they were supposed to leave, there was a thudding of footsteps down the stairs and a quick knock on the door. “Got to go! See you there!” Abe’s voice rang with excitement. Mort had assumed they would all walk over to the synagogue together. “What do they need to get there so early for?” he grumbled at his wife. Knowing better than to defend her brother-in-law, Rose shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Mort had been dreading this day, the day of his nephew’s bar mitzvah, for months. In the weeks leading up to it, the increased noise and activity of his brother’s family overhead agitated him. He found himself imagining different scenarios to go with every thud and thump he heard. Was Abe’s wife, Helen, testing out a new cake recipe? Was his nephew Harry trying on his new suit? What were the other boys laughing about? Mort tortured himself in this manner for several weeks. He was a sharp, thin man, and in the month before the bar mitzvah he had lost at least ten pounds. His increasingly angular appearance alarmed his wife, but everyone else was too busy to notice.

Rose had been up earlier than usual that morning to make sure the girls were ready on time. Hair ribbons were neatened and his three daughters, clad in matching yellow dresses, were lined up in front of him after breakfast. “They’re like a row of spring daffodils,” Rose entreated. “Don’t you think so?”

Mort looked up, but he was an unappreciative audience. Judith was almost twelve and seemed too old for matching dresses. She was fidgeting in the line, anxious to get back to the book she had been forced to leave on the kitchen table. Every week, Mort insisted that Judith present him with her chosen pile of library books for approval. Every week, Judith asked Mort if he wanted to read one of her books too, so they could discuss it. Every week, he declined.

Mimi, the prettiest of the three, was the most comfortable on display. She was only eight, but already she carried herself with a stylish grace that Mort found unfamiliar. Mort thought she looked the most like Rose. Mimi was forever making cards for friends and family members with pencils and crayons that she left all over the house. Last year, she found her father’s card in the kitchen trash pail the morning after his birthday. She ran crying to him with it, waving it in her hand and asking why he had thrown it away. “My birthday is over,” he explained. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Dinah, the baby of the family, had the most trouble keeping quiet during Mort’s inspection. She was only five, and though she had been taught not to ask her father too many questions, she couldn’t seem to help herself. “What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out, eyes wide with anticipation. Mimi, hoping the answer might give her some insight regarding the design of next year’s birthday card, seemed eager for the reply. But the response was of no help. “I don’t have one,” Mort said.

After Mort nodded his silent endorsement of the girls’ appearance, the family was ready to go. He usually took the lead during outings like these, leaving everyone else struggling to match his quick strides. The girls knew better than to try to walk alongside him. Even Dinah had stopped trying to hold his hand years ago. Instead, they had taken to walking single file on family outings, like unhappy ducks in a storybook, with Rose bringing up the rear.

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Copyright © 2015 by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.

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Seating Arrangements

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Dinner Party: A Novel by Brenda Janowitz


Sylvia left the most difficult thing until the end. She had a habit of doing that—leaving things she didn’t want to do until the end. She’d done it before her wedding, deciding minutes before she walked down the aisle who would give her away in her father’s absence. She’d done it before Gideon’s Bar Mitzvah, deciding the day before who would light each of the thirteen candles on his cake. And she’d done it the year Sarah and Becca went away to college on the same day, deciding only two days before which parent would drive which girl.

She was doing it again now. The night before her guests were to arrive, Sylvia was finally tackling the seating arrangements. She knew the key to any successful dinner party was the placement of the guests.

She put each of the names on tiny little cards. There was her family: she and Alan, her daughters Sarah and Becca. As she wrote their names in her fanciest script, she couldn’t help but feel a tug of emotion. Another year without Gideon. She knew that his work with Doctors Without Borders was important, but she hated the idea of him spending the holiday all alone, in a tent with no electricity.

Next she filled out the cards for Becca’s boyfriend’s family. There was the Boyfriend, Henry, and his parents, Ursella and Edmond. The Rothschilds. She wrote their names slowly, carefully, adding a flourish to her script on the U in Ursella’s name and the E in Edmond’s.

Finally, she brought herself to make out cards for Sarah’s boyfriend and his mother. She wished that Sarah would break up with Joe. And she wished she hadn’t been guilted into inviting his mother. (She’d only done so after the poor woman had a near-breakdown in the market on Front Street.) If anyone could ruin this dinner party, it was the Russos. Sylvia hastily wrote out cards for Joe and his mother. She wrote them so carelessly, in fact, that their names were barely legible. Valentina looked more like Ballerina, which she most certainly was not.

Next came the tiny sterling silver apples that would hold each place card. Sylvia started with the easiest ones. She and Alan would each occupy a seat at the head of the table, hers closer to the kitchen so she could check on the food as the meal progressed. Next, the Rothschilds. The Rothschilds should each have a seat of honor, so that was easy, too. Edmond would be seated to her right, Ursella to Alan’s right, and Henry to her left. Once the guests of honor were placed, she stood back from the table to admire her handiwork.

Now came the hard part. Where would she put Joe’s mother? Valentina had never been to their home before, but Sylvia knew that she’d be the most likely to cause a scene. She always spoke a decibel higher than most other people, like Stanley Kowalski yelling for Stella. And who knew what sorts of things she considered proper dinner conversation? She would put Valentina on Alan’s left. Surely he’d be able to manage her throughout the course of dinner. Alan had a way of speaking very softly. As a child, he was cautioned to be seen and not heard. And now, as the head of pediatric cardiology for Connecticut Children’s Hospital, he was accustomed to people listening carefully to him. There was never an occasion to raise his voice; he always had the floor.

That left the girls and Joe. She put Becca next to her beau, and Sarah next to her. The only spot left for Joe was across the table from the girls, next to his mother. Maybe they would just talk amongst themselves.

From The Dinner Party: A Novel by Brenda Janowitz, on sale April 12, 2016, from St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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It's a Practical Thing, Love

Monday, March 14, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World by Susan Silverman.


The quiet of nighttime. The girls are asleep and I can sit beside them in silence, feeling in sync with their neshamot, souls. Elohai neshama she’natata bee, tehora hee. My God, the soul you gave me is pure.

Aliza slept as she had since birth, on her back with her arms straight up at her ears. Her hair was still damp and sweet from grape-scented shampoo. I kissed her soft, dimpled fingers, recalling a story her teacher had told me that afternoon. Aliza had stood in the middle of a game the kids were playing and held up her hands, like a traffic cop. “Hey, stop!” she said loudly. The other children stared as Aliza turned to Debbie, a severely hearing impaired child who often sat on the sidelines, and reached out her hand. “Come, it’s your turn now.”

I kissed my girl’s cheek and whispered how much I loved her. Then I perched on the edge of the bed where Hallel was sprawled. She had tossed and turned in her sleep ever since she could move independently—side, back, tummy—mumbling as she moved. What was she dreaming? She was a child of cheeksqueezing love (she squeezed our cheeks) and stubborn rage, who had, in her younger years, shown cannibalistic tendencies. “I love you like crazy-cakes, my funny, kind-of-scary girl,” I whispered to my now four-year-old, still fierce but no-longer-chomping- on-children child. “May you always be safe, healthy, and well fed. You mine fo-eva.”

My girls were safe and cozy in the soft cotton sheets my mother had bought them. (“Honey, never buy the girls sheets with fewer than a 250-thread count.”) My mother was always so clear about what we needed. She gave us things I didn’t ever consider until we had them. Extra-soft sheets for the kids. Wrinkle-free travel clothes for Yosef. A loofah sponge for me. It really did soften the hard, dry bottoms of my feet. Our light-brown duvet cover smelled like vanilla because my mother had put a small net bag of scented gels in the wooden trunk at the end of our bed, “to give your sheets a slight scent of vanilla essence, like the scented oil you like.” “How come you’ve never noticed the vanilla?” I asked Yosef as I held the blanket to my face.

It was as if my mother had an Excel spreadsheet of what her children needed and when, from birth to death. “Oh, I guess when you’re thirty-three-and-a-half you’ll have to loofah the bottoms of your feet in the shower.” She kept me apace with what she perceived as the demands of my age. Someday, when I’m old, I’ll get a letter from her executor with a bottle of Nivea hand cream with age-spot remover with a letter telling me how I should dry my hands before applying it. Not wet, so that the cream dissolves, but damp so it traps the moisture. And she will be right. She knew what words I needed, too. As she dried the newly rinsed set of unbreakable wine goblets from Costco, I said, “What if I don’t love an adopted child like I love the girls?” She laid the dishtowel across the glasses that sparkled upside down, and said, “When that child looks up at you and you realize that you’re it for that kid, that the buck stops with you, the love will just be there.”

It’s a practical thing, love. My family appeared shambolic, but love oozed through our many cracks, through our messy attempts to know, to understand, one another. But what happens to a little boy’s thoughts when he has no one who shares them? What happens to a little girl’s memories when they haunt her? Do these memories get caught in the throat? Burn behind the eyes? The unknown-ness of each child in an orphanage—or on the streets or worse—the memories, passions, joys, fears, struggles, and what makes them laugh, all of it must increase a lonely sense of being indistinguishable from the child in the next bed as they are squeezed into shapes by necessity. We are all broken, we just are. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationship—unwieldy, vibrant, and cracked as they must be. If we are not so blessed, we need to fit to whatever form is known or available to us. Kids in institutions or making their way on the streets take on outer shells of conformity and necessity. A splay of glow stars sparkled above the girls as they slept. Standing on a ladder with her neck bent back and arms raised, Laura had painstakingly organized the stars by constellation. When she tired of following the chart that came in the box, she scattered the rest of them across the white ceiling. I was happy not to have them ordered just so. I’m not interested in finding these forms in the real sky. A belt? A dog? For me, the stars are questions, not answers. Possibility, not defined figures. The heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament shows God’s handiwork, says the psalmist.

For the sake of our child-to-be, Yosef and I would navigate forms, interviews, regulations, bureaucracy, heartbreak, and hope—swinging from star to star—to the other side, where a child will lovingly be tucked in, sung to, and kissed goodnight, just as every child deserves. And when this child grows up and has children I’ll make sure they sleep in sheets of the softest cotton.

Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press

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Who Got an American Any Longer?

Thursday, March 03, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpt from Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman.

Maya had been early to pick up Max the day he didn’t come home with the school bus. Usually she was still powering up Sylvan Gate Drive when the old yellow bus sputtered to its crown, the doors exhaled, and Max tumbled out, always before the Kroon girl because Max always took the front seat. Even in the family Corolla, it was Alex at the wheel, Max in the passenger seat, and Maya in the back. Maya had gathered that the popular children sat back of the bus. She had asked Max once why he wasn’t among them. “There’s too much noise in the back,” he had said, and she had felt a hidden satisfaction at his indifference.

That day, after a week of disabling warmth premature even for New Jersey in June, a note of unhumid reprieve had snuck into the air—Maya had caught it on her drive home from the hospital and so she had walked out of the town house early. On the rare occasions Alex was home early enough to collect Max, he drove the thousand yards to the head of the drive—Alex enjoyed the very American possibility of this convenience. But Maya walked. She was on her feet all day at the hospital, but she shuttled between three rooms and it was all indoors.

In Kiev, Maya’s mother had always awaited her by the school doors, painted and repainted until they looked like lumpy old women. The walk home was time alone for mother and daughter; by the time they reached their apartment, Maya’s father would already be at the kitchen table slouched over the sports section, the only part of the newspaper where things didn’t have to be perfect. Maya’s mother would begin their walk by asking all the questions a mother was required to ask of a daughter’s school day—even as an eight-year-old, Max’s age, Maya understood this as a formality—but then, after a discreet pause, Galina Shulman would bring her daughter up to date on the indiscreet doings of “the great circus” of their thousand-apartment apartment building.

Maya was exhilarated by these walks for she felt her mother spoke as if Maya was not present, or if she were, then as an equal, a friend, not a daughter to whom convention described responsibilities. So—a silent hello to a woman now five thousand miles away—Maya picked up Max from the school bus. It wasn’t particularly necessary—the danger was not in the distance Max would have to cover down to their town house, but in his time out in the world. But it was Maya’s only time alone with her son. She used it to try to understand why she couldn’t always speak with Max in the same easy, unspooling way her mother had spoken with her. Maya did not have her mother’s imagination; that was part of it, certainly. Nor did she have her mother’s curiosity about her neighbors, though Maya knew that this was a failure of her looking, not their living. But none of that seemed the answer. Maya asked her son about school, questions he answered politely and briefly—she never failed to marvel at the unkinked Russian speech of her not-Russian son—and then both fell silent. All she could think was to take his hand, and he let her hold it. She felt she was failing him in some way. Failing him, and couldn’t say how; she felt thick and graceless.

They had been lucky, the adoption supervisor had kept reminding them, as if he worked on commission. American parents often had to go abroad to find children: Malaysia, Korea, Romania. Bribes, endless waiting, no medical records. Whereas the Rubins got an outright American. Who got an American any longer, and a brand-new baby instead of a child old enough to have been terrorized by somebody else? Maya had the ungrateful thought that she did not want an American: She felt that she would have more to say to a Romanian child. In the sleepless hold of another interminable night, she had shaken awake Alex and said so. He closed his fingertips around the knob of her shoulder, as if she were a loose lightbulb: “He’s a newborn. Was New Jersey familiar to you when you moved here? This house? But now it’s all home.” He turned onto his side, cupped one of her breasts from behind, and said: “Sleep, Maya—please.”

She had picked out the weary magnanimousness in his voice—he had to indulge not only her willingness to adopt, but her anxieties over it. Only who wanted a child more than he did? However, a biological solution being impossible, Alex’s desire had just one condition—that he not be made to confess it. And so she carried on as the secret advocate for them both. His contribution was to disparage the woe conjured up by her railroad mind at two in the morning. “Railroad mind”—that was Alex’s term for the hive of Maya’s brain. Railroads made him think of motion, steam, frantic activity. What he really meant was that she was like some Anna Karenina—superfluously melodramatic. And Maya understood what he really meant only because she had a railroad mind.

Alex had been ten years younger than Maya’s eighteen when his family had come to America; the Rubins had come for good, whereas Maya had come on an exchange program in 1988, the first year such things were possible. After college, Maya was supposed to return to the USSR—a plan altered by her love affair with Alex and the end of the USSR. Alex had taken to America—he spoke with confidence about Wall Street, the structure of Congress, technology. Maya conceded his authority. Only once had she exclaimed that in twenty years he had almost never left New Jersey, so what did he know? Alex had looked at her as if at a child who doesn’t understand what it means to say things one will later regret, and retreated upstairs. He did not speak to her for three days, their sullen meals spent communicating through Max and his grandparents, and Maya never said that again.

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Copyright © 2016 by Boris Fishman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Moscow, 1953: The Czardom of Black Cats and Black Marias

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Yid: A Novel by Paul Goldberg, published by arrangement with Picador.


In the early morning of March 1, 1953, when Iosif Stalin collapsed at his dacha, he was preparing to solve Russia’s Jewish Question definitively. Military units and enthusiastic civilians stood poised to begin a pogrom, and thousands of cattle cars were brought to the major cities to deport the survivors of the purportedly spontaneous outbursts of murder, rape, and looting. Stalin intended his holocaust to coincide with the biggest purge Russia had seen.

The West would have to choose between standing by and watching these monstrous events or taking the risk of triggering a world war fought with atom and hydrogen bombs. Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, the day his pogrom was scheduled to begin.

Act I

1

At 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, 1953, Narsultan Sadykov’s Black Maria enters the courtyard of 1/4 Chkalov Street.

A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.

At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.

The arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, is routine. An old, likely decrepit Yid, Levinson lives alone in a communal flat at 1/4 Chkalov Street. Apartment 40. No hand-wringing wife. No hysterical children. No farewells. No one to hand the old man a toothbrush through the bars of a departing Black Maria.

In the parlance of state security, arrests are “operations.” This operation is easier than most: collect some incriminating rubbish, put a seal on the door, help the old man into the truck, and a little before dawn, the Black Maria drives back through Lubyanka’s armored gates.

Lieutenant of State Security Sadykov is slight and pale. His hair is straight and dark red. He is a Tatar, a dweller of the steppes, a descendant of the armies of Genghis Khan, an alumnus of an orphanage in Karaganda. With him are two soldiers, naïve nineteen-year-old boys from the villages of Ukraine, dressed in anemia-green coats, each armed with a sidearm. One of the boys carries a pair of American handcuffs.

Another night, another knock-and-pick. The function of the green, covered light trucks that fan through Moscow at night is clear to everyone. There is no reason to hide their purpose or to flaunt it. It’s best to approach through the courtyard, turn off the engine and the lights, and coast gently to a halt.

The driver, one of the nineteen-year-olds, skillfully pilots the vehicle through the dark, narrow cavern of an archway built for a horse cart. With the engine off, he surrenders to inertia. Bracing for a burst of frost, Sadykov and the boys step out of the Black Maria. A thin coat of crisp, pristine snow crunches loudly underfoot. Sadykov looks up at the darkness of the five-story buildings framing the sky above the courtyard. The night is majestic: dry frigid air, bright stars, the moon hanging over the railroad station, pointing toward mysterious destinations.

Whenever possible, Sadykov avoids going through front doors, favoring tradesmen’s entrances. The back door of 1/4 Chkalov Street is made of heavy oak, devilishly resilient wood that has defied a century of sharp kicks and hard slams. Protected by an uncounted number of coats of dark brown paint, it stands impervious to weather and immune to rot. Opening the door, Sadykov and his entourage plunge into darkness.

Since 1/4 Chkalov Street is close to the Kursk Railroad Station, travelers use the building’s stairwell as a nighttime shelter. As they await morning trains, these vagabonds curl up like stray dogs beneath the staircase, their bodies encircling suitcases and burlap sacks. If it’s your lot to sleep beneath those stairs, you have to be cold or drunk enough to tolerate the overpowering smell of urine.

Ignoring the odor and the sound of a man snoring under the stairs, the three soldiers feel their way to the second floor. Sadykov lights a match. A blue number on a white enameled sign identifies apartment forty.

With the match still lit, Sadykov motions to the boys. When duty takes Sadykov and his comrades to large communal flats, the arresting crew has to wake up someone, anyone, to open the door and, only after gaining entry, knock on the door of the person or persons they’ve come to collect for the journey through Lubyanka’s heavy gates. More often than not, the proverbial “knock on the door” is a light kick of a military boot.

Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight. They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.

On the tenth kick, or perhaps later, the door opens. Sadykov discerns a frail face, an old woman. Blue eyes set deeply behind high cheekbones stare at the three men. These old crones are a curse, especially for those who arrest people for a living.

Whenever a Black Maria or its crew is in sight, a Moscow crone is certain to start mumbling prayers. Sadykov regards prayers as futile, yet he secretly fears them. He has an easier time with handwringing middle-aged wives; their hysterics affect him no more than a distant cannonade. (As a product of an orphanage, Sadykov has had no exposure to familial hysterics.) For reasons Sadykov cannot fathom, a prayer threatens, even wounds.

“Does Levinson live here?”

Making the sign of the cross, the old woman disappears into darkness of the hallway. The three men walk in. It’s a long hallway of a five-room apartment, with three doors on the right facing Chkalov Street, and two on the left, facing the courtyard.

Sadykov lights another match.

He hears a door creak. It has to be the old woman. She is watching. Her kind always watches. No, righteous she can’t be. She may be the resident snitch, and now she lurks behind the door, pretending to drag God into this purely earthbound affair while in fact savoring the results of her anonymous letter to the authorities.

Sadykov doesn’t know which door is hers, yet hers is the door he wants to avoid.

According to instructions, Levinson’s room overlooks the courtyard. That leaves a choice of two doors.

During operations, neighbors sit behind closed doors, like trapped rodents. And in the morning, they feign surprise and indignation. Just to think of it, Levinson, an enemy! A loner. Always grumbling. Had no use for children. Hated cats. Fought in the partisan bands along the Trans-Siberian Railroad during the Civil War. Would have thought he was one of us, a simple Soviet man, but with Yids nothing is simple. Treachery is their currency of choice. And if he really is a traitor, fuck him, let him be shot!

Have you seen old Yids creaking down the street, going wherever it is they go, carrying mesh bags and, in their pockets, rolled-up newspapers? With the pigmentation of youth wiped off their faces, they still look dark, bird-like, bleached angels ready to fly to God, or the Evil One.

Such is Sadykov’s mental image of Levinson.

Lighting his third match of the night, Sadykov steps up to another door. This time, he doesn’t order the boys to kick.

He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect.

“Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian.

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June 19, 1953

Monday, November 23, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Hours Count: A Novel by Jillian Cantor.

On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe.The humidity clings to my skin, my face wet with sweat, or maybe tears. It is hard to tell the difference. To understand one thing from another anymore. It’s as if the world were ending the way I always imagined it would. And yet I’m still here. Still driving. Still breathing, somehow, despite the heavy air, despite what I have done. The sky is on the edge of dusk. No mushroom cloud. No bodies turned to dust.

I’m driving Ed’s Fleetmaster up Route 9, the road to Ossining, along the sweltering Hudson. There are a lot of cars, all headed the way I am, slowing me down. I push anxiously on the gas, wanting the miles to speed along, wanting to get there before it’s too late. I hope the car will make it, that I haven’t damaged anything that will cause it to stall now at the worst possible time.

I wish I could’ve left earlier, but I had to wait until I was able to take Ed’s car. I suppose you even might say I’ve stolen the car, but Ed and I are still married legally. And can a wife really steal a car from her own legal husband?

So much has already been stolen from me, from all of us. From

Ethel. And that’s why I’m driving now.

My stomach turns at the thought of what might happen to me when I tell the truth at last. And I glance in the rearview mirror at the backseat. For so long, I have taken David with me everywhere, and it takes me a moment to remember he’s not here. It’s just me in the car and David’s gone.

But Jake will be there, at Sing Sing, I remind myself. He has to be. And if I can just see him one last time, one more moment, then it will make everything else I am about to do, everything I have lost and am losing by doing this, all worth it.

I think now about the curve of Jake’s neck, the way it smelled of pipe smoke and pine trees, just the way the cabin on Esopus Creek smelled. I inhale, wanting him to be here, to be real and in front of me again. But instead my lungs fill with that thick air, the dank smell of the Hudson, a humid summer afternoon turned almost evening. A few fireflies begin to gather just outside my window, their bodies glowing, a little early. It’s not quite dark. Not yet the Sabbath. I’m almost there, so close, and I will the darkness to hold off. Just a little longer.

Up ahead, there are dozens of red taillights and I realize that traffic has come to a standstill. I stop and put my head out the window. Farther up the road, it looks like there are barricades set up. Police with flashlights, though I’m hoping FBI, too. I switch on the radio and listen anxiously, wanting so badly for there to be good news. A last-minute stay. A decision to halt things until after the

Sabbath has passed. More time.

I switch the stations, anxious for something. Anything. But all I get is music: Ella Fitzgerald singing “Guilty.” It feels like a cruel joke, and I switch again. At last I find news, but it’s not good. President Eisenhower has denied a stay of execution, saying Ethel and Julie have condemned tens of millions of people to death all around the world. No. Ethel and Julie are still set to die at eight p.m. An hour from now.

I switch the radio off, pull the car to the side of the road, and kill the engine. I take a cigarette from my purse and light it with shaking hands. I inhale the smoke and for a moment consider not getting out of the car but just waiting here in the line of traffic. But I know I can’t.

I push open my door and step out into the steamy air. I stomp out the cigarette with my worn heel. I stare at the back window and picture David there on the other side, staring back at me, his round brown eyes like the pennies he so loved to stack. “Come on now,” I would tell him if he were here. “We have to hurry if we’re going to find Dr. Jake.”

His mouth would twitch slightly at the mention of Jake’s name, and I’d wonder if maybe it might even be a little smile.

Jake’s here, I tell myself instead. All I have to do is find Jake.

And I shut the car door and begin running up the road.

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Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 Jillian Cantor.

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That Man Suffer!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Pawnbroker: A Novel by Edward Lewis Wallant.

His feet crunched on the hard-packed sand. On his left was the Harlem River, across the street to the right was the Community Center, and beyond was the vast, packed city. At seven thirty in the morning it was quiet for New York. In that relative silence, his footsteps made ponderous, dragging sounds that were louder and more immediate in his own ears than the chugging of the various river boats or the wakening noise of traffic a few blocks away on 125th Street.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

It could almost have been the pleasant sound of someone walking over clean white snow. But the sight of the great, bulky figure, with its puffy face, its heedless dark eyes distorted behind the thick lenses of strangely old-fashioned glasses, dispelled any thought of pleasure.

Cecil Mapp, a small, skinny Negro, sat nursing a monumental hangover on the wooden curbing that edged the river. He gazed blearily at Sol Nazerman the Pawnbroker and thought the heavy, trudging man resembled some kind of metal conveyance. Look like a tank or like that, he thought. The sight of the big white man lifted Cecil’s spirit perceptibly; the awkward caution of his walk indicated misery on a different scale from his own. For a few minutes he forgot about his furious wife, whom he would have to face that night, forgot even the anticipated misery of a whole day’s work plastering walls with shaky, unwilling hands. He was actually moved to smile as Sol Nazerman approached, and he thought gaily, That man suffer!

He waved his hand and raised his eyebrows like someone greeting a friend at a party.

“Hiya there, Mr. Nazerman. Look like it goin’ to be a real nice day, don’t it?”

“It is a day,” Sol allowed indifferently, with a slight, side-wise movement of his head.

As he plodded along, Sol watched the quiet flow of the water. Ironically, he noted the river’s deceptive beauty. Despite its oil-green opacity and the indecipherable things floating on its filthy surface, somehow its insistent direction made it impressive.

He narrowed his eyes at the August morning: the tarnished gold light on receding bridges, the multi-shaped industrial buildings, and all the random gleams that bordered the river and made the view somehow reminiscent of a great and ancient European city.

Oh yes, yes, a nice, peaceful summer day; quiet, safe, full of people going about their business in the rich, promising heat. A dozing morning in a gNo fear that he could be taken in by it; he had the battered memento of his body and his brain to protect him from illusion.

Suddenly he had the sensation of being clubbed. An image was stamped behind his eyes like a bolt of pain. For an instant he moved blindly in the rosy morning, seeing a floodlit night filled with screaming. A groan escaped him, and he stretched his eyes wide. There was only the massed detail of a thousand buildings in quiet sunlight. In a minute he hardly remembered the hellish vision and sighed at just the recollection of a brief ache, his glass-covered eyes as bland and aloof as before. Another minute and he was allowing himself the usual shallow speculation on his surroundings.

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From The Pawnbroker: A Novel by Edward Lewis Wallant. Reprinted with permission from Fig Tree Books, LLC.

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Alizée, 1939

Tuesday, November 03, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Muralist: A Novel by B. A. Shapiro.

Alizée painted at a makeshift desk, an overturned shipping crate with one side sawed off to accommodate her legs. According to the label, it once held uniforms for butchers; she hadn’t known butchers wore uniforms. She worked in a warehouse that jutted into the Hudson River where eight different mural projects were being created side by side, and armies of artists clutching charcoal or brushes or marble pestles bustled through the yawning space.

Two years ago, she’d returned to the States after seven years in France. Seven more than she would have chosen, but she’d learned early on that the vagaries of fate had far more power than she did. She was nineteen at the time and had been living for that moment, had done battle with her family, her friends, even her art teachers, to realize it.

Nevertheless, at the first sight of Lady Liberty, she was swamped by a wrenching sadness and that odd sense of floating above her own head. From afar, she watched the shadows darken the space around her as she stood on the ship’s deck, searching for people bustling with energy and opportunity, the ones she remembered and the ones she knew weren’t there anymore.

Obviously, the country was in the midst of a depression, and she’d thought she was prepared for this. But the mute shipyards bounded by weathered warehouses, their wide doors swung open to reveal their lack of wares, unsettled her. It was well into the morning of a working day, yet grimy men, newsboy hats cocked, sat on posts along empty piers, smoking cigarettes and watching the boat’s arrival with no interest whatsoever.

This was where the memories lived, and that would be difficult, but it was, she somehow knew, the only place her real life could begin. And she was right. Now, although the empty warehouses and grimy men were still perched on the New York City docks, she’d beaten back most of the sadness and moved on.

“Looks swell.” Lee leaned over her shoulder and squinted at the tiny four-by-six-inch canvas she was painting. “If you like wooden patriotism.”

“My favorite,” Alizée said dryly. Although she got a kick out of making fun of the stiff, overly enthusiastic style imposed by the WPA, she wasn’t about to complain about receiving a paycheck to produce art. Even if other artists actually designed the works she was painting, it was a hell of a good gig.

Lee squatted, looked more closely at the small panels. She’d taken over directing the mural from a boy who’d gone to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War, receiving the unacknowledged and unpaid promotion because she’d worked for the WPA longer than any of the other assistants. She was ostensibly Alizée’s boss, although neither of them thought of it that way; they’d been friends long before this particular project. Lee frowned at the six four-by-six-foot pastel studies Alizée was miniaturizing, the original WPA-approved drawings for the mural.

Alizée didn’t like the frown. “What?” she demanded in mock dismay, then lit a cigarette. “Now you want to change it after I’ve worked my butt off for a week?”

It would take time to redo her efforts, but that was all it was: An effort. A job. Her own paintings were her real work. And those were very different from these: less tangible, more multidimensional, more in the process of becoming something else. When she worked on the mural, she was outside it; it was separate from her. With her own canvases, there was no space in between.

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From The Muralist: A Novel by B. A. Shapiro. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books.

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