Chap­ter One

Esther Grünspan arrived in Köln with a hard­ened heart as her sole luggage.

An uncom­mon­ly swel­ter­ing Sep­tem­ber day was her wel­come, as well as a lan­guage that sound­ed like her native Yid­dish yet for­eign in struc­ture and com­pre­hen­sion. A for­mi­da­ble deter­mi­na­tion guid­ed her actions.

Stantsye, ikh darf a stantsye. Lodg­ing, I need lodg­ing,” Esther demand­ed of the first per­son in uni­form that crossed her path. Vu ken ikh opzukhn stantsye? Where can I find lodg­ing?” Her artic­u­la­tion was clear and direct, emphat­ic. Quizzi­cal, the man’s eyes skimmed this plain-faced young woman from her fad­ed, long-sleeved cot­ton frock with white round­ed col­lar to her scuffed, lace-up shoes. Small in stature with thick blonde hair pulled away from her face in a tight bun, she was unadorned and clear­ly out of place.

Was? Ich ver­ste­he Sie nicht! I don’t under­stand you,” he said, wav­ing her away and point­ing toward the train terminal.

With­out a note of thanks, Esther head­ed in the direc­tion he indi­cat­ed. Once inside the ter­mi­nal, she strode through the cav­ernous build­ing to con­sid­er every booth, kiosk, and stand until she found a cor­ner counter with a large sign over­head announc­ing Infor­ma­tio­nen. This was close enough to the Yid­dish infor­mat­sye” for Esther to push her way to the front of the line, dis­re­gard­ing the glares and loud protests of those in her way. She paid them no heed. Patience was no longer a part of her frame­work. It had been dis­placed by enti­tle­ment and self-preser­va­tion. The recent, dev­as­tat­ing turn of events — Tadeusz’s action, his rejec­tion — and such a pub­lic spurn — of her, of them, of all their plans — had shaped an impos­si­bly con­ceived sce­nario. Esther’s one pri­or­i­ty now was Esther.

She repeat­ed her request to the man behind the counter three times. Each time she enun­ci­at­ed every syl­la­ble more pre­cise­ly, then more slow­ly but col­ored by ris­ing frustration.

The offi­cial, while clear­ly annoyed, noticed her youth and asked, Wie alt sind Sie?

Alt? Esther thought quick­ly, alt—old. Just like in my lan­guage. Although the oth­er words made no sense, she cor­rect­ly assumed he was ask­ing her age.

Zibit­sn,” she said.

The man shrugged his shoul­ders, rolled his eyes, and turned to help the per­son next in line. Esther leaned over and grabbed the pen on his desk. In clear, thick let­ter­ing she wrote the num­bers one and sev­en on her palm. Stand­ing on the tips of her shoes, she stretched her left arm high and held it up close to his face.

With a snort, he reached into a pile under his desk and thrust a piece of paper in Esther’s expec­tant hands. She looked intent­ly at the page’s Goth­ic script and line draw­ing of a building.

This must be a place for young peo­ple to stay, she deduced, for next to a name and address 16 – 22 was print­ed. A map of the area with a large X seemed to mark its loca­tion. Express­ing no appre­ci­a­tion, Esther turned quick­ly, jos­tled the three peo­ple beside her, and ven­tured out into her first metrop­o­lis — a loca­tion as far away from all she had ever known as her mea­ger resources enabled. A place with an assur­ance of anonymi­ty and seclusion.

If she could still muster grat­i­tude for any­thing, it would be for this.

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And in the only way anguish can be sub­dued, if not entire­ly van­quished, Esther nev­er stopped mov­ing dur­ing those first self-exiled months. She couldn’t. She could not allow her­self to sit idle, not even for a few min­utes, for if she did, mem­o­ries of him, of them, of what was, would del­uge her mind. Emo­tions that she now strained to destroy or deny ever exist­ed would take over, and she would be ren­dered help­less, pow­er­less, as she had been and as she promised her­self she would nev­er be again.

She devot­ed her time to estab­lish­ing a for­mu­la for sus­te­nance. Sewing was her foun­da­tion. While she strove to grasp the rudi­ments of Ger­man speech, her willpow­er pro­pelled her to walk up and down the streets of Köln seek­ing work. She entered every dress bou­tique and tai­lor shop she could find with sam­ples of her hand­i­work as call­ing cards.

Schauen Sie—Look!” she ordered those she met, hold­ing up one of her taste­ful blous­es for inspec­tion. The cal­iber of her skill and artistry sup­plant­ed lan­guage barriers.

She was reward­ed with small assign­ments from four tai­lors after just two weeks. Basic tasks — short­en­ing a dress and repair­ing a pants cuff — were soon replaced by more com­plex respon­si­bil­i­ties, for her mas­tery was revealed in the sim­plest exer­cise. Her stitch­es were pre­cise, her hems and seams were even, and the pre­sen­ta­tion of each project was flawless.

Stitch­ing, bast­ing, pleat­ing, hem­ming, alter­ing, darn­ing, tuck­ing, grad­ing, embell­ish­ing, block­ing, mend­ing — these activ­i­ties were sec­ond in nature only to breath­ing for Esther. Dai­ly she sewed from the first hint of light to its last shad­ow to ensure her new clients received the qual­i­ty work of which she alone was capa­ble. No mat­ter if her eyes burned, her neck strained, or her fin­gers ached with­out respite.

Here, in the win­dow­less room cramped by a sin­gle bed, rick­ety table, rough wood­en chair, and hot plate at the noisy, dilap­i­dat­ed youth hos­tel, Esther’s sto­ic nature took root — grow­ing deep­er and thick­er by each day’s pass­ing. She bare­ly spoke, except as need­ed to secure a sewing assign­ment, pur­chase nec­es­sary sup­plies, or tell one of the oth­er res­i­dents to qui­et down. It was a rau­cous build­ing, filled with too many young peo­ple, con­stant com­ings and goings, stair stomp­ings, door slam­mings, and shout­ing. For much of the day, with her focused con­cen­tra­tion on work, she was able to ignore any dis­trac­tions. Such sounds were com­mon to some­one who had grown up in a home with twelve sib­lings. But when she couldn’t, Esther found her nerves rat­tled, her pos­ture test­ed. At these instances, she for­bade the pent-up tears behind each eye to fall and quashed all but the most basic thoughts if one dared enter her head.

After dark­ness fell, she spent the bet­ter part of the night trudg­ing along the river­front. In 1923, Köln was a chiaroscuro palette of grays and blacks with a few patch­es of deep brown or the dark­est blue break­ing through the visu­al monot­o­ny. Most struc­tures housed three sto­ries; a few had four or even five. Although some were stout like marsh­mal­lows, and a hand­ful of oth­ers were lean as poles, each was indis­tin­guish­able in design, col­or, and pat­tern from its neigh­bor. Esther fad­ed eas­i­ly into this cityscape, apart from the occa­sion­al street­lamp illu­mi­nat­ing her face’s stony glaze.

On these walks Esther con­tem­plat­ed how long it would take the cold, fast-mov­ing Rhein to swal­low the tor­ment that she, as yet, could not ful­ly ignore. The mem­o­ry refused to dis­si­pate: every feath­er, over­cast, and edg­ing stitch in her sim­ple white dress; the posies in her hands; fam­i­ly and friends gath­ered in the town cen­ter, their excit­ed chat­ter over­laid by klezmer music as the musi­cians frol­icked; and she, stand­ing unac­com­pa­nied under their ten­der­ly craft­ed chup­pah. Wait­ing. Until too much time passed. Until she could no longer remain there — alone. Sure­ly the weight of Tadeusz’s aban­don­ment would super­sede her abil­i­ty to swim.

Judith Teit­el­man has strad­dled the worlds of arts, lit­er­a­ture, and busi­ness since she was a teenag­er and worked her first job as a sales­per­son at a B.Dalton/Pickwick Book­store. Life’s jour­neys took her from book­stores to com­mer­cial fine art gal­leries, to the non­prof­it arts and cul­tur­al sec­tor, in which she has worked as staff con­sul­tant and edu­ca­tor for more than three decades. Through­out this time, Teit­el­man con­tin­ued her pur­suit of all things lit­er­ary. Guest­house for Gane­sha is her debut nov­el. She lives in Los Ange­les with her hus­band and three beloved cats.