Excerpts from Goya’s Ring and the Naked Maja Dancing
“Jew! We know you’re in there.”
Inside, Solomon Braverman stood to the side of the window and subtly pulled back the curtain. He had heard the knocks but was too frightened to answer. He knew what was coming.
Solomon’s wife Rifka huddled behind him and peered outside. “Gestapo!”
Solomon placed his hand on her mouth and whispered, “We’re not here.”
The knocks grew louder. Heavy footsteps rumbled up the stairs. “Jews,” a new voice shouted. “It’s time!”
Six year old Devorah and her teen age brother Arthur peeked out from their bedroom doors, terror in their eyes.
“Is it them, papa?” Arthur asked a bit too loudly.
“Shhh,” his parents hushed him.
Devorah started to cry. Her mother smothered Devorah’s face in her bosom. The muffled sobs continued. Solomon prayed the Nazis wouldn’t hear them.
“We know you’re in there,” yet another voice shouted. “You have until tomorrow morning to gather your things. One suitcase per person. Be at the railroad station at 8:00 a.m. or we will burn your house down.” The sound of boots stomped away toward nearby houses.
Solomon ordered everyone into the living room. “Children, I have been expecting something like this since last November when Jewish homes and businesses in our neighborhood were burned and looted.”
“Why would they do that?” Arthur asked.
“Because our neighbor Herschel Grynszpan killed the German Ambassador’s Secretary to France,” Solomon said.
“Why did Herschel kill someone, papa?” Devorah asked.
“His family had been ‘requested’ to leave Germany.” Solomon took Devorah’s hand in his. “Herschel, who was living in France at the time, decided to take revenge. He intended to kill the Ambassador but when he wasn’t there, Herschel took his rage out on the poor Secretary.”
“But we didn’t do anything wrong,” Devorah’s eyes pleaded “did we?”
Solomon hugged his daughter. “No dear. It just seems that being God’s chosen sometimes means we have to suffer more than others.”
He faced his family. “Stay here.”
Solomon climbed into the attic and brought down a painting he had hidden there since Kristallnacht. He hung it on the wall. “Arthur, get the camera and tripod. I want to take a picture of us together.” He suspected he wouldn’t be seeing his children again for a long time. Perhaps never.
Arthur screwed the Leica camera on the tripod and set the self-timer. He hastened to join the rest of the family who posed in front of the painting.
When the camera clicked, Solomon removed the painting from the wall, wrapped it in brown paper and tied a string around it. “I’ll be back before dark,” he said as he hastened to leave.
Rifka blocked the door. “That painting has been in our family for one hundred thirty years.” She clutched his sleeve. “You can’t sell it.”
“I’m not selling it. I’m buying our children’s future.” Gently, Solomon moved Rifka aside and headed for Prinz-Albrecht-Str-8, Gestapo headquarters. He’d have to hurry to get the film developed in time and get to the headquarters in time before they closed.
Fifteen minutes had passed and he was beginning to worry Alessandra might not show. She had sounded skeptical on the phone. He didn’t blame her. But he was sure once she saw the larger photo and heard his mother’s story, she’d sign on.
A taxi pulled up. Alessandra stepped out. She looked professional in her business suit, but out of place for the neighborhood, a working class section of the Bronx. David eagerly shook her hand. He was struck by its softness and the almost sensual way in which she returned the greeting. He watched as she looked around warily.
“Don’t worry, the neighborhood’s safe.” He offered his arm.
Alessandra hesitantly slipped her arm into his. “No neighborhood is safe in New York.”
“You’ve been seeing too many movies.” David led the way to the elevator.
David knocked on the door to his mother’s apartment.
Alessandra pointed to a small slanted oblong object on the door jamb. “What is it?”
“It’s a mezuzah.”
Alessandra arched an eyebrow.
“There’s a small scroll inside with inscriptions from the bible. In Jewish homes, it’s traditional to place the mezuzah on the doorpost of every room. It reminds us of our obligations to God.” He banged on the door. “Mom, are you in there?” “David?” A voice called out from inside.
“Don’t you have your key?”
“Just wanted to be sure you were dressed.” He touched his lips with two fingers and then touched the mezuzah.
Alessandra appeared perplexed.
“It’s good luck,” David said. “Keeping the tradition will grant long life for our children and us.” He turned the key and opened the door. “We have company,” he shouted. Alessandra put two fingers to her lips and touched the mezuzah, then hastily crossed herself and followed David through the door.
Devorah Edlestein wore a smudged apron over a frayed housedress. Her gnarled hands feverishly diced some celery and carrots at the Formica kitchen counter. She barely looked up as Alessandra and David entered the room.
David sauntered over and hugged her. She turned to face him. Her eyes sparkled as they lit on Alessandra.
“Alessandra, this is my awesome mom, Devorah Edlestein.”
Devorah wiped her hands on her apron, and grasped both of Alessandra’s hands in hers. “Such a shayna maidel. So, you’re from Spain?”
“Our ancestors originally came from Spain.” Devorah reached out, “Come, let me take your coat.”
As she reached for the coat, Devorah’s eyes lingered on the cross dangling from Alessandra’s neck.
“So, how long have you two known each other?”
“Mom! Alessandra’s only here to help identify the painting.” David motioned for Alessandra to follow him.
One month after completing the special diving classes, Alessandra nestled in a booth at an elegant New York eatery with her father Manuel by her side. A cheese trolley stood nearby. There were many partially empty wine glasses on the table and a plate of artisan cheeses.
Olive skinned and impeccably dressed, Manuel looked like the courtly don he was. He handed Alessandra a small box. “Feliz compleanos! It’s from Father Carlos and myself. He is sorry for missing your birthday. I almost had to cancel myself. We had some trouble with frost in the vineyards but he promised to send some church workers over to get it under control.”
“How is Uncle Carlos?”
“He didn’t feel up to traveling this far.” Manuel pointed to the box. “Go ahead.”
Alessandra tore at the paper covering the box and eagerly opened it. A small gold key gleamed inside. She looked at her father quizzically.
“I am afraid you will have to wait until you return home before using it. It opens something on our estate.”
“That’s not fair.”
“It is what your uncle desires. He wants to be there when you use that key.”
“But what is it to?”
Manuel took a sip of port. “So, what is this good news you couldn’t wait to tell me about?”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“A father’s prerogative.”
“Can you at least give me a hint?”
Manuel shook his head and smiled.
“I’m sure whatever it is, it’s worth waiting for.” She slipped the key onto her necklace. “This way, I will be reminded every day to come home soon.” She touched her father’s arm. “Papa, I’m going to find a priceless painting the world has never seen.”
Manuel raised an eyebrow.
“Really, papa. I met this man, David Edlestein, who introduced me to his mother, Devorah, who has – – ”
“What about Gregor?”
“That’s over. We’re friends now. In fact it was Gregor’s idea. Well, in any case we need to go to Palau to dive – -.”
Manuel smiled the smile of a father who has heard it all before. “After your mother died, I tried to give you the best education, to train you to become anything you wanted in life; ballet lessons, singing lessons, even fencing lessons. But, It wasn’t my idea to give you SCUBA lessons – -”
Alessandra put a finger to his lips. “But you did.”
“I found it very difficult to deny you anything. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t concerned. And I – -”
Alessandra kissed her father. “No girl could ever want a better papa.”
“And I didn’t like it when you went off mountain climbing with Gregor. But at least he could protect you, so it gave me some comfort. Is he going?”
“No papa. I asked if he wanted to come, but as usual, he’s off doing his own thing. But enough about Gregor. I’ll be fine. I’m going with David.”
“And this David, is he trained like Gregor?”
“Well, he’s a CPA.”
“Did I tell you we think the painting’s in Russia. But they may not even know they have it.”
“Such an important painting and they don’t know they have it?” Manuel sliced a piece of cheese and offered it to her.