"Avram, it's me, Uri."
Uri Nusbaum spoke firmly, but he was badly shaken. "I'm at the Dorchester. Leo has had a heart attack. He's been taken to the Middlesex Hospital. Danny is with him. I'm coming straight back to the embassy now, and I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
Though officially a senior international banker with the Israeli Bank Leumi, Uri was actually a Mossad operative, and he had known Leo since the two arrived as frightened teenagers in Palestine in 1939. Seeing his friend taken away in an ambulance, lights flashing and sirens wailing, was as if his own heart had stopped beating.
Out of the hotel and onto Park Lane, Uri approached a line of black taxis waiting at the hotel's entrance. Uri told the driver his destination, Palace Gardens Terrace, and sat back. His restless fingers folded and unfolded his wallet until his American Express card fell onto the floor. He realized what he was doing and reached to retrieve it.
How could this be happening? Uri had met Leo in the hotel lobby that evening to join four hundred or more other guests, mostly bankers and financial journalists, at one of the receptions that was taking place during the week of the World Bank's London conference. Leo was still in the midst of a distinguished banking career. Uri knew of no medical problems, at least none that Leo had shared with him. Leo's mood, in spite of everything looking up in his life, had been bleak. Now Uri wondered if that was a sign of the impending attack.
Uri tucked his wallet into a pocket and crossed his legs. Why was he going back to the embassy? Duty? Habit? Certainly, it would have been inappropriate to stay at the cocktail party. But he just as easily could have gone home. Maybe he should have gone with Leo to the hospital instead of his colleague, Danny. No. He had learned during his training as an operative that it was crucial to divert all unnecessary attention. If Danny hadn't been there, of course he would have accompanied Leo. Maybe he should have gone to the hospital anyway.
The cab pulled up outside the embassy, and in a few minutes, Uri sat with the ambassador in his study. The ambassador showed the same anxiety and confusion as Uri felt. Leo was a critical member of their team, a major contributor to their mission. Now what?
"This is bad news, Uri," the ambassador said. "Leo is a good man. Let's hope he'll be okay. As soon as we hear from the hospital, I'll call Geneva and speak with his wife."
Uri nodded. He had been perspiring for some time and his hands were sticky. He wiped them on his trousers.
"You've known Leo for a long time, haven't you?" the ambassador asked.
"Yes." Uri closed his eyes and sighed. "We first met on the way to Palestine in 1939. Nearly thirty-five years ago."
"Given the life he's led," the ambassador said, "I wonder when Leo would say his life really began. With us or earlier."
Uri looked at the man, seeing Leo's dark disposition and questioning eyes superimposed over the ambassador's narrow face and dark beard. Leo had once told Uri of a parting, years before in Nice, France, when he was fourteen. Leo said that he could never erase the memory of that painful farewell on a railroad platform in Nice, when his parents returned to Augsburg, Germany. Within a few short years, Leo had been left an orphan, a man of the world, and a man of his own making.
When Leo had told the story, he kept a palm to his heart, over the very spot where his mother's embrace pressed the family's treasured heirloom against his chest, followed by his father's hand on his shoulder, shaking him. Both of his parents had been uneasy, exhibiting a tension beyond the sadness of separation.
Ulrike, Leo's mother, had been fond of wearing the large emerald pendant on the thick gold chain within the folds of her blouse. She wasn't a woman proud of her riches. Instead, at moments, she was still the beautiful and excited bride who had received the pendant on her wedding day from the matriarch of her husband's family. Leo's eighty-five-year-old grandmother had traveled by train from Hamburg with a widowed sister, and after the wedding, she unhooked the pendant that had for decades bounced upon her formidable chest, waddled across the room, and placed it around Ulrike's neck. The act was a blessing, an acceptance, a dictum to go forward and raise new generations of Bergners.
Each time his mother hugged him tightly, Leo felt the imprint of that pendant, and at the train station, her embrace had been more deliberate than any other in Leo's memory. Then his parents boarded a train back to their family home in Germany, a Germany that would betray them.
All through his life, Leo had often placed his open palm to his chest, many times for Uri and others to see, each time bringing the past into the present. Uri had grown to understand the gesture. Leo's hand to his chest, where his mother's pendant pressed against it, signified his undying love of his family.
Leaving Leo in the safety of Nice with their cousins, Jacques and Karin Kaplan, seemed a wise parental decision in view of the fast-deteriorating situation in Germany. The fear of impending war, and the ever-increasing indignities the Jewish community had to endure, was not an atmosphere in which to raise a child. Leo's parents had planned to reunite the family in Augsburg once the great German nation had finally come to its senses. In the meantime, fourteen-year-old Leopold Bergner would continue his studies in relative safety.
A talented pianist, Leo set about establishing himself in Nice as a professional musician, available for private parties. He averaged three every week-two most weekends and one on a weeknight. He had business cards printed and distributed them at the lycée and among all the caterers in town. With his earnings, he bought himself a smart tuxedo and had a head-shot photograph taken by a professional. He sent two copies of the picture back to Augsburg: one to Professor Hailer and one to his parents with assurances that he was getting on fine and not to worry. And he was doing well.
The best place to play was at the Levys' house. They had an elegant music room, and an ebony concert grand piano imported from Berlin after the Great War. Its polish was so fine it glowed, and Madame Levy made sure the precious instrument was in tune so Leo could play Chopin for her friends. She had a melancholic streak that her friends quietly mocked. Still, they came to her parties and tipped Leo well, especially when he looked tired.
"On time, as usual," Madame Levy said when he arrived.
This particular Sunday evening, the night was clear and breezy. Leo was sorry to step inside the warm house. Still, he had written to Professor Hailer, asking him what to play, and the old man sent him Sonata No. 2. Leo had spent hours practicing to make sure that he would not be a disappointment. Now, when he played a piece he knew well, the music and warmth and background din put him in a trance that felt like the beginning of sleep.
"There's water in the kitchen for your hands," Madame Levy said. "Help yourself to the wine before the guests arrive."
"No thank you, Madame," he said in his German-accented French. "Perhaps after I play."
He soaked his hands and sat down to warm up for a few minutes. He still used the old Czerny exercises Bruno had taught him, long before Professor Hailer took over his instruction. A few of the five-note finger patterns reminded him of a phrase from Schumann, and he played for a while, imagining an orchestra filling out the rest of the score.
While he played, the room filled with guests and he realized he should be playing his Chopin. Once in a while, he answered a question about his studies or nodded in thanks if a few francs found their way into his pocket. As he played, his thoughts remained on the music and his body, a kind of instrument secondary to the piano. He wished he had made time for a nap that afternoon. But his fingers followed a physical pattern of sound in his mind, and if he lost track of the room and people, he doubted he would miss a note.
The guests were usually deep in their conversations about fashion and politics, or in gossip that was just as dull and vicious as what Leo had heard in the streets back home. They never paid him attention for long. Yet through his fatigue and concentration, he noticed the repeated gaze of one of Monsieur Levy's friends.
The man was in his fifties, with a knobby face that was somehow appealing. He also seemed to have spent too much time in the sun. Above his white-as-white collar, his ears were scorched red and looked painful. After the first few guests said their goodnights and how-lovely's, the man appeared at the upper keys. Up close, he was familiar.
"I'm Rabbi Aaron." His smile creased his sunburn. "I shouldn't shake your hand now, should I?"
Leo grinned. The joke was common, and the Rabbi's tip would be higher if Leo acted amused.
"My cousin has mentioned you," Leo answered.
"You're Leo Bergner. Your cousin Jacques is a good man. A bulldog when he is pursuing something he knows is right. In fact, he has reminded me several times to look in on you one of these evenings, and to invite you to my office for coffee."
Jacques wanted Leo to be more religious, but they had avoided discussing the issue at length. To be confronted like this, here, almost caused Leo to miss a note in an easy bass chord.
"It would just be a friendly talk, my boy," the Rabbi said. "I know you're far from home. I'll leave my card here. You may call on me someday after school, if you wish."
"Thank you, sir. Take care of your sunburn."
"And you take care of your studies." The Rabbi slipped his card and a few francs into Leo's jacket pocket, which hung on a chair by the piano. "It's late for a school night."
* * *
The next morning, Leo counted his tips from the party and came upon Rabbi Aaron's card. He studied the address and the embossed logo of the Rue De Gustave Deloye Synagogue. It wasn't far from school, but he had no intention of going. He marked his place in his math book with the card and hurried to get dressed for the lycée.
The lycée was hard work. After the informality of sitting around Herr Roitsch's dining room table every afternoon for a couple of hours, it was difficult for him to go back into a structured environment. Leo had to acclimatize himself to the routine of a formal school again, to be in a large institution with hundreds of other pupils spread across many buildings. But he made the adjustment.
His French, good as it was before, was already fluent. He made a few friends, both boys and girls, and through their families, broadened his network of potential clients for his musical soirees. These parties, however, were not the parties of his earlier childhood. He suspected that those days were gone for good with the way the world was changing.
All week long, each time Leo reached in his pocket, he found Rabbi Aaron's card. A few times, Leo thought about throwing it out, but each time he pulled it from his pocket and gazed at the odd logo, he was reminded of his cousin Jacques insisting that he should learn more about his family's Jewish heritage.
On his way home from school, Leo found himself in front of an imposing pair of wooden doors, standing beneath an archway marked with Hebrew letters. He couldn't read them. Inside, the door to Rabbi Aaron's office was propped open with a bronze bust.
"I always thought it was ugly. Some family thing." The way the Rabbi rolled his eyes reminded Leo of his father, particularly his father's attitude toward in-laws. "Please, Leo, sit down. I'm so glad you've come."
The rabbi shook Leo's hand warmly. Leo grudgingly liked him. Over tea, Rabbi Aaron said that he had been living in Nice since 1918.
"How about yourself, Leo? You must come from a musical family."
"Well, sir, it's a rather long story."
"I have time. More tea?"
Rabbi Aaron tilted the pot over the porcelain cup. Leo allowed his thoughts to turn toward home for the first time in months. To his surprise, he spoke about them aloud.
* * *
Leopold Bergner was born on April 20, 1922 and started life with a number of disadvantages. First, he was Jewish. He shared the same birthday with Hitler, and he was born in a hospital on Schleissheimerstrasse, not far from the Führer's first home in Munich. Leo was destined to be an only child and couldn't claim kinship with the well-known and wealthy Bergners, the influential and powerful banking family. So he was a Jew without connections in difficult times.
Leo settled into school quickly and was a good student. He outgrew his young friends and became more solitary. He didn't love or despise any particular subject, receiving good marks in all of them. And the classroom taught him apathy.
Then one day his parents, Sigmund and Ulrike, took him to an open-air opera at the Rotes Tor. Each member of the audience came with their own colored cushion to place on the hard seats and listened as the sun went down and the sky sparkled with stars. Leo's eyes glowed with a light his parents had never seen in them before, and he begged to see more concerts.
On Leo's eighth birthday, his parents called him into the kitchen. He threw down his satchel on the bench in the hall and wound his way to the family center.
"Happy birthday!" many voices shouted.
Candles on a cake were ablaze. He looked around the room. His mother beamed, looking very pretty with Grandmama's emerald pendant shining against her white blouse. Papa looked smart in a new suit that he had bought in Munich the week before. Other familiar faces smiled at him-Frau Brindl who came every Tuesday and Friday to clean the house; Hans and Fritz, two of his friends from school; Herr Schultz, the next door neighbor who had retired from the bank the year before and who played chess every Sunday with Papa; and another boy, older than Leo, whom he didn't recognize.
"Leo, come and meet Bruno," Papa said.
Leo walked over to the older boy and they shook hands. The boy was tall, almost as tall as Papa, and had blond hair, a round face and a friendly smile.
"Happy birthday, Leo," he said. "It's good to meet you."
"Leo, Bruno is a pupil at my school," Papa explained. "He's a very good student but needs some extra coaching in algebra and geometry. He is to come here every Tuesday and Thursday at four o'clock, and I will teach him for an hour beginning at five o'clock." His father's hand went to his pocket watch in his vest, but he didn't pull it out. "Well, aren't you going to ask me why he is coming at four, if the lessons aren't due to begin until five o'clock?"
Leo smiled, not knowing what to say. Finally, he shook his head.
"Come with me," Papa said. "Let's go into the living room."
Bruno headed out of the kitchen toward the living room and everyone followed. Leo noticed that Bruno's left shoe didn't match the right one and that he walked with a limp.
"Close your eyes," Papa said quietly.
Leo walked slowly into the room, covering his eyes with both hands.
"Now, open them."
A piano of highly polished walnut filled the large bay window. A grand Bechstein. Ulrike had already put some family photographs on it, and it was magnificent.
"Happy birthday, Leo," they all said.
"Now, Bruno is a first-class pianist." Sigmund took Leo by the hand. "He's going to give you lessons every Tuesday and Thursday. Before long, you'll be playing at the best concert halls in Bavaria."
"Please," Ulrike said, "play something for us, Bruno."
Bruno smiled, walked across the room and sat on the piano stool. He looked down at the keys. His fingers slid across the keyboard.
"This is a lovely piano," Bruno said. "It's been a long time since I played on such a beautiful instrument."
Then he sat up straight and played a Chopin piece. Leo stared, mesmerized. Ulrike beckoned everyone to sit.
"Bravo," they all shouted when Bruno finished, Papa the loudest of all.
"This time next year, Leo, I want you to play that too," he said firmly.
And so the routine began. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Bruno arrived at four o'clock to give Leo his piano lessons. For fifteen minutes, Leo would recite what he had practiced since the last lesson. Then for another fifteen minutes, he would perform scales and short drills. The final half hour was devoted to sight-reading and an evaluation of technique. They played Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and later Rachmaninoff. Every winter, Bruno added German Christmas carols. There was a dull but pleasant rightness to this hour, a kind of eternity trapped in his mother's living room, in which music notes fluttered at the windows like moths.
Besides the piano lessons, Leo developed a keen interest in military history. He nagged his mother to bring home books from the library on the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco Prussian War of 1870, and the Great War. He badgered his father to talk about life in the trenches. His birthday set so much in motion for him. Leo imagined that his life beyond the living room windows would be an interesting epic full of adventure, and yet in his heart he wanted nothing to change. He thought he was lucky to be born into his family.
After several lessons, Leo and Bruno became more relaxed in each other's company, and one day Leo plucked up enough courage to ask Bruno what was wrong with his foot. Bruno became agitated and was curt for the remainder of the lesson. Leo never approached the subject again.
Three years after coming twice each week to the Bergners, Bruno disappeared from their lives. Sigmund had less and less time to tutor Bruno, and therefore Bruno could not teach Leo the piano. Something didn't make sense to Leo.
"Why can't we just pay Bruno?" Leo asked. "He is a good teacher for me. You know he is quite good. Even competing in competitions."
"Leo, he comes because he needs my help with his studies," Sigmund explained. "He is not a real piano teacher."
"But I like him. I do so well with him."
"We will find you a real piano teacher," Sigmund declared. "One who is meant to teach. You will see. You will like him much better."
So Leo made peace with his father's decision and took lessons from Professor Hailer. But he often wondered about the young man who limped and played the piano with such ease and happiness. And of course, Leo would remember the things Bruno had taught him. Particularly, as Bruno was a young man whose enthusiasm at the piano made Leo enjoy the lessons so much.
Professor Hailer was a different person altogether, by style and by disposition. Certainly by age. The old man often looked troubled and sometimes lingered on the walkway that he shared with the Bergners, his neighbors. But he rarely shared his thoughts. And if he ever had a passion for the piano or teaching, Leo caught no glimpse of either.
By that time, an ill wind was blowing over the town of Augsburg, over the whole of Bavaria. Jacques had read of troubling times in Germany in the French newspaper. He and his wife, Karin, wrote to their German relatives to ask what was going on.
"They really do worry, don't they?" Sigmund said with exasperation as he waved Jacques's letter in his clenched fist. "This will pass. It's a temporary aberration. We have nothing to worry about, for God's sake. For how many generations have we been German? Am I not a holder of the Iron Cross and the deputy principal of one of the best schools in the nation? And you, Ulrike, you're now the second highest-ranking person in the town's library department. We have nothing to fear."
Like so many German Jews, Sigmund felt assimilated in the community. They were Jewish and made no attempt to deny their heritage. But they were non-observant, not even joining the local Jewish congregation. Occasionally, Ulrike lit the Sabbath candles on a Friday night. More often than not, she forgot.
"You're right, Sigmund," Ulrike said. "But you can't blame them for worrying about what they read in the French newspapers."
"Jacques hates Germany. Can't you see? He loathes Germans. How he came to marry your cousin remains a mystery to me. Next time you write to Jacques and Karin, kindly remind them about Captain Dreyfus and the French."
"I think you're burying your head in the sand," Ulrike murmured.
"How many thousands of years have Jews had to endure this?" Sigmund said, frustrated, then calmed his voice. "It's a passing phase."
"It's certainly unpleasant," Ulrike said. "You're not going to disagree with me on that, are you?"
"Of course not." Sigmund pursed his lips. "But this will all pass. There is nothing to worry about."
Leo listened at his bedroom door. He heard the note of exhaustion and sadness in his mother's voice. He also knew the frustration that his father felt. At Passover, when they took the train to Munich and the family united for Seder night at Ulrike's parents, Sigmund often confided in Leo that he dreaded these events. Upwards of thirty people sat down for dinner, perched on hard wooden chairs that were either borrowed or rented, cramped together around three rented tables.
Fortunately, the prayers were kept to a minimum, but the food and the conversation were boring. It was always with relief that Sigmund bundled his family into a cab to return to the station and take the last train back to Augsburg. Sigmund and Leo traded winks and sighs of relief, while Ulrike made herself comfortable in the cab.
"I'd like to go into Munich this coming Sunday," Ulrike said. "It's Freda's birthday. Will you come?"
"No," Sigmund replied. "I think I should stay here. I have to prepare an examination paper for the twelfth grade."
Leo guessed this was a stretch of the truth. Ulrike surely knew that Sigmund would look for any excuse to get out of it.
"I'll take Leo," she said. "I'm sure he would like to go."
* * *
Freda's birthday party was a predictably engulfing experience, attended by hordes of relatives seated around tables that groaned with the weight of the platters of food. Leo sat and talked with several young cousins while the adults stuck together and spoke in conspiratorial whispers. Maybe Grandmama was sick? She hadn't stayed long at the party. The men talked among themselves in the hallway while the women congregated in the living room. Something was troubling them. During the cab ride to the station, Ulrike seemed unusually pensive and withdrawn.
"What's the matter, Mami? Is something wrong?"
"No, not really." She picked at lint on her coat. "At least, I don't think so. Why do you ask?"
"Everyone seemed strange today. No one was in a good mood. Is Grandmama all right? She left the party early."
"There's nothing the matter with her. She left because Grandpapa was busy at the office. She worries about him working alone on a Sunday in that large brewery."
"But he does that most Sundays. Why would she be worried about him? Especially today, Aunt Freda's birthday."
"Stop asking questions. Everything is okay." Ulrike caught his chin with her hand and looked into his eyes. "Leo, we're living in difficult times. But there is nothing to worry about. I promise."
These words distressed him, to be brushed off and treated as a child. Her stubbornness was disquieting, as much as her parroting of Sigmund's lines. Leo sensed danger, but knew he held little power as a child to get more from his mother or father than either was willing to tell.
When they arrived at the station, an elderly woman was waiting for a taxi. Leo followed his mother out of their cab, and the woman noticed Ulrike's necklace.
"Oh my, your emerald is stunning," the woman said, unable to look away from the brilliant gem. "It must have cost you a great deal."
Ulrike smiled at the woman and pulled Leo closer. The woman took their vacated cab and it set off.
Leo said to his mother, "Maybe you shouldn't wear that emerald all the time. It attracts unnecessary attention."
"Nonsense," Ulrike said. "I will wear it as often as I want. You're concerned for the wrong reasons over the wrong things."
* * *
The next day, after a long lesson with Professor Hailer and a lengthy dinner during which his parents did not speak to one another, Leo stayed awake to eavesdrop on the conversation he knew was waiting beneath their reticence. Shortly after Leo closed his bedroom door, Ulrike reported on her day in Munich. All but Leo's concerns and what had happened at the train station.
"You're listening with only one ear, Sigmund," she said, aggravated with him. "My parents are moving into a small apartment in Eching. There are no Jews there, and they feel they will not attract any attention. Papa has sold his interest in the brewery to his partners. My brothers and sisters and their families have already finalized their plans to leave. People they know are making plans to emigrate, to London, Paris, Amsterdam and New York."
Leo tiptoed from the bedroom and stopped in the hall, near the kitchen door. His father sighed, and his stein rattled as it hit the tabletop. Leo was anxious to hear his father's response, but there was none, only a long silence.
"We're the only ones who have no plans," Ulrike continued. "And we're the ones with the most education, the ones who everyone in the family looks up to as the intellectuals. We haven't a clue of what we're going to do, have we?"
Leo peered around the edge of the slightly ajar door. Sigmund waved her off and went to his study. Leo followed him in stocking feet. The hall light was dark. His father continued undeterred, turned on the dim green lamp at the corner of his blotter, opened a drawer, and took out his Iron Cross. Sigmund held the medal in the palm of his hand, as he often did when something was on his mind. He gazed at it for a minute before putting the distinguished award back in its leather case. His father's dark mood made Leo uneasy.
* * *
Six months passed too quickly. The city council was now totally in the hands of the Nazis. Sigmund and Ulrike were fired abruptly from the school and library. The principal was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable, but like all the others in any position of authority, he explained that he was only acting on orders. So Sigmund took Leo out of the school.
Now every afternoon, Sigmund walked with Leo to the home of Herr Roitsch, a teacher and former colleague. Leo was always alone with his father on these regular walks, but Sigmund was usually too distracted to speak. Sigmund's spirits were low, and he strode quickly along the sidewalk, frequently looking back to see if anyone was following them.
Starting the night he had spied on Sigmund in his study, an unease had settled in Leo and inflamed his fears. Everything became more distressing and shameful. The father he had known had changed. Leo didn't know or understand this man with whom he walked each evening. Then Sigmund decided that Leo should go to stay with their Kaplan cousins in Nice. There, somehow, his father felt Leo would be safe, while he and Ulrike came to terms with what was happening in their Germany.
* * *
"There they are," Ulrike said as they disembarked the train in Nice.
She pointed ahead at Karin and Jacques standing on the platform. Leo looked to where his mother was pointing but could not pick out their hosts. He was tired after their long journey, which had involved three changes of train during which Ulrike chattered nonstop about vague childhood memories of her cousin Karin.
Jacques and Karin approached them as the other passengers moved in the opposite direction toward the gate. Leo noticed that Karin was quite a beauty, tall with long black hair, and elegant in fashionable white slacks and a yellow shirt, unbuttoned and revealing her dark tan.
Jacques darted ahead of Karin. "Let me help you with these cases."
He and Karin looked genuinely happy for the opportunity of having houseguests. Jacques was short and plump, and he had a huge moustache. His tight gray suit looked uncomfortable, a relic from more slender days, which had gone, along with his strength for lifting luggage. But he was jocular. Leo knew instinctively that they would get along well.
Within minutes, they had loaded the luggage into the trunk of Jacques's Citroen, and they were on their way to the Kaplan's flat in a street just behind La Promenade des Anglais. While Karin and Ulrike prattled over the top of each other in German, Leo's gaze was fixed on the beach and the calm blue Mediterranean Sea. He couldn't wait to go for a swim and absorb the gaiety of the Riviera while shedding the terror he'd felt so often back in Germany. The difference in ambience was surreal.
"Life is funny, isn't it, Sigmund?" Jacques's German was not as good as his guests' French, so conversation went back and forth between the two languages. "Here we are, friends and relatives by marriage. It wasn't long ago that we faced each other from opposite trenches at the Front."
"Were you in the army too, Cousin Jacques?" Leo asked.
"Certainly I was." He patted Leo on the shoulder, straining the seams of his too-small jacket. "But that is in the past and we should talk about happier things, right, Sigmund?"
"Yes," Sigmund answered. "But be prepared. Leo is a keen student of military history. He will want to talk to you a lot about the war. By the way, do you still have a piano? Leo is quite the pianist and shouldn't fall behind in his practicing."
"Ours may need tuning but you can practice on it," Karin said in German. "Every day you can play for us. How's that?"
"That would be very nice," Leo politely replied.
"Look, there's my shop." Jacques pointed as they approached the Hotel Negresco.
Jacques was successful from the appearance of his pharmacy, practically next door to the famed hotel. The store was double-fronted with a large blue awning and a big sign: J K Pharmacy.
"That's quite a location," Sigmund noted, showing increasing signs of relaxation.
This change might be good for his father, too, Leo thought. His mother was already enjoying herself, chattering with Karin and waving her hand out the window as if her fingers could capture the joy and ease that seemed to ride the air. Later she would share that she expected to be back here in just a few months. Until then, Leo should write every week.
The Kaplans lived in the ground floor flat of an impressive building constructed about fifty years earlier. Purple and red bougainvillea wove across the white exterior, giving the building a majestic yet homey appearance. Each apartment had large French doors that opened onto a balcony. Leo would often pause there to breathe in the fresh sea air and watch the seagulls as they flew toward the beach.
The Kaplan flat was luxurious compared to the Bergner home in Augsburg, and it was also much tidier. Yet as much as he liked his new environment, Leo needed no reminders to write his weekly letter to his parents back in Germany, and every other week he wrote to Professor Hailer. Leo's parents wrote every week too, though they feared the Gestapo might read their letters. So they were careful about what they committed to paper. Professor Hailer also responded to Leo's letters and gave him advice on what musical pieces he should study. Leo stored all the correspondence in the sun-bathed desk next to the piano. Jacques and Karin also received letters from Germany and always seemed saddened by them.
On arriving home after another of the Levys' soirees, Leo soaked in the open, quiet night. Though tired from playing and breathing threads of cigarette smoke that caressed his face as he played, he stood in the street for twenty minutes.
Leo patted his pocketful of francs, which he would deposit at Societe Generale the next day. Then he found his key and let himself inside. He took off his jacket, hung it in the closet, and put down the leather attaché case that held his music. He noticed the kitchen light was still on. Jacques and Karin were awake.
"Leo, come have a glass of milk and some apple cake," Karin said. "We need to talk with you."
He rinsed his hands and face at the sink. After drying them, Leo sat at the kitchen table in front of a plate of apple cake.
Jacques looked concerned. "I don't hear of you playing tennis much these days like you used to. Why don't you ever go to the movies with your friends? You're too much alone in your thoughts."
"Is that why you waited up?" A dark thought pierced Leo. "What is it? You both look so serious. Have you had bad news from Germany? Are Mami and Papa okay?"
"No, no, it's nothing like that." Jacques's reassurance was not entirely convincing. He stirred his coffee cup as if he were fishing for the right words. "I want to talk with you about the problem the Jews in Germany are facing. Well, not the whole problem, but one aspect of it."
Leo looked at the apple cake on the plate in front of him. He wasn't hungry and couldn't make himself eat out of politeness. Not until he knew what Jacques had in mind.
"The situation in Germany is terrible for the Jews," Jacques continued. "And so many of them, like your dear father, will still not accept it. They are Germans first and Jews second. They love their country with such fervor that they refuse to admit that what is going on there is anything but a temporary hiccup. Well, from here, we see things differently. It is over for the Jews in Germany. They must get out. I am going to Augsburg next week to plead with your parents to get out while they can."
Leo listened attentively and nodded in agreement to all that Jacques said. He had buried his emotions and his anger for so long. Now, in spite of himself, his eyes filled with tears.
"Can I come, too?" Leo asked.
"I'm afraid not," Jacques answered. "Here you are safe. Who knows what might happen if you go back now. They may prevent you from leaving again. I would never forgive myself for having exposed you to that."
Leo cut a sliver of cake, then laid his fork on his plate. Even a bite of cake in his mouth would have so little flavor in these circumstances.
"The German Jews," Jacques explained, "made the mistake of believing that just because they had assimilated in German society, they would be immune from anti-Semitism. Well, they've been proven wrong. In France, it is different. Here we know our place. There is tolerance and acceptance."
"But we were never practicing Jews," Leo said.
"I know. That is the issue. You were not. Now that you are here in France, you should become part of the Jewish community. We would like you to meet with Rabbi Aaron."
Leo reached in his pocket for the card he'd been given earlier that evening. "He was at the Levy's house tonight."
"Ah, good." Jacques smiled. "I have asked him several times to look in on you one of these evenings and introduce himself. Please, pay him a visit sometime this week. You can stop by his office after school."
Leo put the card back in his pocket. "If that's what you want." Leo had thought this was to be about his parents and their future safety in France. "But I'm not very interested in religion, you know?"
"Leo, I know you aren't religious. This isn't really about religion. It's about identification. Knowing who you are."
Leo felt a rising resentfulness at Jacques's suggestion, but he kept it hidden. He even helped Jacques pack. But his resentment kept him awake that night. And the next evening, Monsieur Levy commented that Leo seemed cross with the guests. Afraid that he'd lose their business, he promised himself to keep his emotions better hidden.
* * *
After putting it off for days, the meeting with Rabbi Aaron wasn't as bad as Leo had dreaded it might be. The rabbi was gracious, offered tea, and listened attentively as Leo told the story of his life in Germany, and why his parents had sent him to Nice.
"They were wise to do so," Rabbi Aaron said. "These are troubling times."
Leo got up to stretch after telling his story. The rabbi inquired about Leo's studies, and further offered to take Leo under his wing, give him a crash course in Judaism and Hebrew, even officiate at his bar mitzvah as soon as the rabbi felt Leo would be ready.
As Rabbi Aaron talked, Leo wandered to a bookshelf and browsed through the titles. He was delighted to discover that the rabbi shared his interest in military history.
"I was an army chaplain in the war," Rabbi Aaron explained. "I spent a lot of time with the officers and men in the trenches. It ignited my interest. War is a terrible thing. Let us hope that mankind has learned something from the horrors of the last war."
"Isn't it funny? My father was in the German army at the same time you and Jacques were in the French army. In fact, my father was awarded the Iron Cross."
"This." Rabbi Aaron picked up a framed photograph from his desk. "This photograph is of my late brother. He was killed at the Battle of the Somme. He was only twenty." He put it back. "Life certainly is funny. But now all that is over. European Jews have other problems which we have to confront."
"I'm quite angry with my cousin, Rabbi." Leo stared at the picture. "Jacques has gone to Augsburg to visit my parents. I wanted to go with him. I haven't seen my parents for so long, but he wouldn't take me."
"Leo, Jacques was right." The rabbi laid his hand on Leo's shoulder. "You never know what could happen in Germany. You might be prevented from returning to France. Don't be angry with your cousin. He made the right decision. Now my home is yours. Please come and see me whenever you want. We have so much in common, and I look forward to getting to know you better."
Rabbi Aaron seemed to understand something about Leo, something that Leo didn't. But Leo did understand how it felt to be far from home. Before the turmoil began, Augsburg was full of kind people. People who opened their doors and their hearts to Leo, as Rabbi Aaron had done today. How lonely he had been in Nice until now. This man, this rabbi, Leo would visit him again soon. And next time, he wouldn't go reluctantly.
* * *
Jacques sat down at the kitchen table and sighed, exhausted by his trip. Karin poured him a coffee and slid a plate of cookies closer to him. Leo stared at Jacques across the table, his lips pressed into a tight line.
Jacques loosened his tie and ran his fingers through his hair. He looked first at Karin, then at Leo. A deep sigh escaped his lips, deflating him until his shoulders sagged.
"Karin," Jacques began. "You have no idea about the hatred I saw in Germany toward the Jewish community. In shops and restaurants everywhere, I saw placards that read 'Jews not admitted' and 'Jews enter at their own peril.' Jews are even banned from public parks, swimming pools, and public transport. Germans are being encouraged not to use Jewish lawyers and doctors, and there are mass firings of Jewish civil servants and teachers." Jacques took a cookie from the plate on the table, then turned to Leo and softened his voice. "Leo, despite all these indignities and boycotts, and the shameful sight of the Sturm Abteilung picketing Jewish-owned shops, your father remains unmoved." Jacques brushed crumbs from his chin and looked at Karin. "Even after I reminded him that he no longer has German citizenship. The Nuremburg Laws have stripped him of that."
"What about Ulrike?" Karin asked. "She knows they should leave, doesn't she?"
"She said her place was with her husband. She would do whatever he decides. She is a good wife but this is not a good time."
"Mami isn't coming either?" Leo asked.
"I screamed at your parents, they're being stupid, your father is finished in Germany, even told him to throw that damned Iron Cross down the toilet. I shouted at him to get the hell out of that rotten inferno before the Nazis stop them from leaving. But no, they wouldn't listen." Jacques sipped his coffee and reached for another cookie.
Karin asked, "Is there no one who can convince them?"
"I had one ally, Leo's dear friend, Professor Hailer." Jacques shifted to Leo. "He really loves you and your parents." Then Jacques explained to Karin, "This Professor Hailer is a kind man. You would like him. A real mensch. He's a widower and lives alone in an apartment in the building next to Sigmund and Ulrike. Whenever they're away, he waters their plants and takes in the mail. While I was there, he popped in to check on their place. He had received a letter from a friend at the university in Heidelberg informing him that three Jewish professors had left. One went to Paris, another to London, and one to Palestine. He was deeply distressed. He wanted us to understand that not all Germans are Nazis."
"Of course not," Karin said, then looked at Leo. He nodded, thinking he should agree, but unsure of what to say.
"Professor Hailer's first wife was Jewish," Jacques explained. "She died of cancer in 1909 and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin. The professor had just returned from visiting her grave, and he was horrified by what he saw." Jacques paused as Karin refilled his coffee. "The cemetery had been desecrated," he continued. "Headstones were broken. Swastikas are painted everywhere." Jacques looked at Leo. "Professor Hailer is very worried for your parents. They have a good friend in him."
"Why can't there be more Germans like Professor Hailer?" Leo asked without expecting any answer.
"The professor asked your parents if they had a plan." Jacques looked across at Karin. "It's obvious they have no plan. I couldn't stop myself. I banged my fist on the table and shouted, For God's sake, isn't it obvious what you must do?"
This disturbing news should have made Leo sad, to know the separation from his parents would only continue, but all he felt was anger toward his father's refusal to leave Germany. When he grew up and was no longer a child, he would always hold his head up high, show strength and take control of his own destiny, no matter what. And he would not put his faith in such trinkets as an Iron Cross.
As for his mother, of course she would do whatever his father demanded. In that respect, he had to admire her. But at the same time, he loathed his father's stubborn attitude, and wished she would convince him that they both should flee.
Leo stood from the table and walked to his bedroom. At least he had Jacques, Karin, and even Rabbi Aaron. But he wanted his parents.
Every Wednesday after school, Leo visited Rabbi Aaron for tutoring. His bar mitzvah was to take place in just under a year, although he didn't remember agreeing to such a schedule. At first, their Wednesday meetings were simply conversations about military history and the lycée, consisting almost wholly of Leo talking and the rabbi at ease in the otherwise uncomfortable chairs, one leg crossed and a hand cradling his chin. After every meeting, Rabbi Aaron would see Leo to the front door, take his shoulder, and look at him from under his whiskery brows.
"You will visit again, no?" the rabbi would ask.
"Next Wednesday as usual would be great," Leo would answer, though he still bore a smudge of guilt. "And would you like me to bring anything from Jacques's pharmacy?"
Rabbi Aaron then began to ask more difficult questions at their meetings. The rabbi was both good-natured and rather sly. Now when Leo left, he promised himself that he would not stay so long the next time. Certainly not let himself be interrogated so easily by the rabbi. But that was the problem. Rabbi Aaron posed his questions as tangents-tangents so interesting that Leo felt compelled to respond.
One time, the rabbi recounted an argument between two medics in a trench. They were trying to decide which one of them should climb out of the trench to retrieve a wounded officer. The older medic argued that he had a wife and two sons at home, so the younger one should do it. The younger argued that the older had already gotten to experience ten more years of life than he had. While they argued, the officer died.
"I often ask myself," Rabbi Aaron said, "what I would have done in their position."
"They're cowards," Leo replied. "Both of them."
"But in the morally cloudy situation of war, who should have gone over the top?"
"Whoever got there first. Helping fallen soldiers is their job."
"Yes, Leo, that's very noble, and I agree. I couldn't agree more, in fact. But imagine yourself exhausted, terrified, starving and sick-your thinking is cloudy. You're tired of risking your life. You've watched your officers and friends lose their sense of decency. It's another day and another battle, and you woke that morning with an uncanny sense that of all days, God would not take your life until next Tuesday. The officer is a stranger to you. The other medic is forever shirking his duties. What would you do?"
Leo would then embark on a crumbling road of arguments, where every step seemed to be the wrong one. But Rabbi Aaron's interest would only encourage him to go further. And Leo would talk and reason and continue.
Their meetings lasted longer each time. Eventually, Leo expressed interest in Hebrew. So their meetings also included casual lessons that somehow became bar mitzvah tutoring appointments. It was during one of these appointments, as Leo chanted shakily from a tikkun, that he felt an illogical tug to return to Jacques's apartment. He looked at the clock. Four o'clock. He often stayed until after five with never a flutter of urgency. Today he stopped chanting.
"Rabbi, I'm sorry," he said, "but all of a sudden, I feel I need to check on my cousins. May I come back later?"
Rabbi Aaron helped him into his coat and offered to phone the pharmacy.
"It's all right," Leo said. "I'll go there if he isn't home by now."
He was already out in the street, jogging through the shadows of buildings, as Rabbi Aaron's concerned voice called after him. The streets and cafes seemed busier this time of day. People were still returning home from work, and a train must have come into the station-a steady press of white-clad travelers moved along Avenue Jean Medicin.
Leo checked the big clock. He was far too early to find Jacques at home, so he diverted his path and went to the pharmacy. Jacques would probably work late anyway, selling aspirin and lotions and toiletries to newly arrived tourists. But when Leo rounded the corner, he could see from across the street that the lights were off. The door was locked, too. Jacques was portly, and sometimes complained of a fast heartbeat. Perhaps the ambulance had already come and gone. Perhaps Leo should stop now and run directly to the hospital. Fearing the worst, Leo turned for home.
His feet carried him all the way to the apartment. He arrived heaving for breath and hot with dread. His key chattered against the lock. He got it in and turned it, but the door was already open. So unlike Jacques and Karin. They never left the door open. Leo rushed into the foyer and hallway. He heard voices in the living room. Familiar voices.
He paused, and it was another moment before he allowed himself to believe what he was hearing. His father and mother had come to Nice. He ran toward his mother who swept him into her arms, her fingers touching and rubbing the muscles of his back, her embrace more a swirl of emotion than the tight hug that he had anticipated. Leo's delight was almost complete. It would have been had his mother not felt somehow distant.
"It's been a year since we have all been together," Ulrike announced, clapping her hands together. "But thank God that we are all safe and united again."
Sigmund was on his feet, and he embraced his son while tears streamed down his face. Jacques and Karin watched from the table, holding hands. No one had ever seen Sigmund display such emotion. He was of the old stoical school that believed showing emotion was a sign of weakness. Ulrike moved to her husband and held him tightly. Leo wrapped his arms around both of his parents, and Sigmund ruffled his son's hair, a gesture that he had never made before.
"We didn't want to tell you we were coming," Sigmund mumbled. "In case our plans changed."
Leo noticed something odd about his mother's face. Around her brow and cheekbone was a greenish haze under the skin. She kept turning away when Leo glanced at her, and she seemed uncomfortable, even guarded, each time Sigmund embraced her. Her hands seemed to move independent of her words, often clapping together or patting her chest just below her throat, her index finger drawing a line at her collarbone.
"Mami, what happened?" Leo asked. "Is something wrong with your eye?"
"It's a long story," Sigmund said, taking his wife's hands and kissing her fingers. "Let's wait and I'll tell you about it later."
* * *
It wasn't until dinner the next night, when everyone had regained their composure, that Sigmund broached a serious discussion. But he wouldn't address anything about what was happening, or had happened, in Germany. Instead he wanted to discuss his family's plans, how they might survive in Nice. Sigmund talked about how he and Ulrike had handled their finances since the troubles in Germany began, and that their old neighbor, Professor Hailer, was looking after their money now. The professor would send it to them as they asked for it.
"But what I want," he said, "Wish. What I wish is to find some work in the meantime. And somewhere to live."
"Sigmund," Jacques said, "there is no rush. Karin and I have spoken about all this. First, you don't have to find anywhere to live. You are our family. Our apartment is big. There's a bedroom for you and Ulrike, and one for Leo. What more do you need? Why go to the expense of finding an apartment? It's nonsense."
Jacques took a heavy sip of wine. Karin left the table and went to the kitchen, and brought out food. She had cooked a bouillabaisse. Jacques cleared a space on the table for her large blue porcelain bowl. Everyone gathered around.
"Wow, that smells good," Leo said, beaming.
"Jacques, you're very kind," Sigmund said, but the fine meal only made him look more cowed. "But what about work? We need work."
"I can propose this," Jacques said. "I have a lady who works for me at the pharmacy. Pascal. She works with me behind the counter. She is leaving at the end of the month to live in Perpignan. Her husband has a new job there."
Sigmund turned to face Ulrike. Again Ulrike's hand went to her throat. Leo watched her, noticing that she wore a high-necked blouse. And he couldn't see the chain of her pendant.
"Mami..." Leo began.
"Wait." Jacques raised his hand to Leo. "Let me finish. I need to replace Pascal. Ulrike, if you like, you may take over her position, and I will pay you the same as I pay her. Simple. I do not believe there are too many restrictions against me employing a German national, but I will check with my attorney. That would give you a steady income in exchange for forty hours a week."
"That is good," Sigmund said, nodding. "Ulrike will be happy. But, instead of paying her, why not let that be her contribution toward our board and lodging with you?"
"No, no," Karin insisted. "Don't talk about that. It is a mitzvah for us."
"But what about me?" Sigmund asked. "I cannot sit every day gazing at the sea while my wife is on her feet working. What can I do?"
Jacques explained that he knew of a private school, and they could use Sigmund a few hours each week, to give some of the boys extra coaching in mathematics. Also, the Hotel Angleterre needed a nighttime clerk three days a week. The manager was a customer of the pharmacy. The hours were not good, but it was a guaranteed thirty a week. The hotel's owner, Maurice Laidler, was Jewish and sympathetic to the problems Leo and his family faced in Augsburg. As it turned out, Jacques had been making preparations for weeks.
"You have been so kind," Sigmund said. "And I have been very foolish, putting this off for so long." He dropped his forehead into his hands, descending to a new depth of sadness. "You know..." He looked up at Jacques. "The bastards stole Ulrike's emerald. Took it from her. Tore it from her."
Leo sat paralyzed. Mami's emerald? Gone?
"Yes, we noticed." Jacques nodded, finished chewing his food, and frowned. He wiped his mouth. "Karin mentioned that she had never seen Ulrike without it. We wondered what happened. Whether it had been sold or hidden in Germany with the professor, along with your other valuables."
"No, it was stolen." Sigmund reached out to take Ulrike's hand in his. "The same night as the brick hit her on the forehead. Kristallnacht."
"Oh, Mami," Leo mumbled.
Again Jacques raised a hand to him. Leo held his words, but he wanted to scream. His parents should have listened to Jacques and come to Nice sooner, before they became targets. Now every Jew had become a target. Leo wished he were grown, he would go back to Augsburg, find who did this, and punish them. Make all of them stop persecuting the Jews. But they were Germans, the same as his family. Had his father been wrong to fight for Germany? After all, he had been awarded the Iron Cross. Little good it did him now.
"Leo is doing so well, you know," Jacques said in a quiet voice. "He is a wonderful boy. He is earning good money playing piano, and he saves. Why, he has an account at the bank, and every week he makes a deposit. He has a few friends and everyone likes him."
Leo squirmed, uncomfortable with the praise. Especially in light of the news of the pendant, and the bruises that were now obvious on his mother's face.
"Listen," Jacques continued. "There is something else I need to discuss with you, Sigmund. I took the liberty of introducing Leo to a rabbi. I know you have no interest in religion, but I took it upon myself to see that he gets some exposure to Judaism. It cannot hurt." Jacques looked at Sigmund. "Even though you aren't a practicing Jew and were totally assimilated in Germany, and had not one, so I believe, Jewish friend, it didn't help you in the end, did it?"
The news of Leo's meetings with Rabbi Aaron was no surprise. Leo had already written in his letters about the sessions with the rabbi. Still, Leo expected his father to protest, just as Jacques expected. But Sigmund nodded with a look of sadness and resignation.
"Leo sees the rabbi on a regular basis," Jacques explained. "He is teaching him Hebrew. The plan is that in a few months, he would have a bar mitzvah here at the synagogue. But, Sigmund, you and Ulrike are his parents. Now you're here, this is a decision for the two of you. Karin and I will back off. But I have to tell you, Leo likes the rabbi and he enjoys the lessons. He's made some nice friends and contacts through the synagogue."
"No, Jacques," Sigmund replied. "I support this. I will not interfere. Maybe it's a good thing. I don't know. I never had any Jewish schooling in my life, nor did my parents. We were Germans. Nothing else counted for us."
Jacques exhaled with emphasis, hiding his disgust poorly. He had already let his contempt for the German Jews-who put their pride in being Germans above all else-often slip through during his discussions with Leo. In turn, Leo wondered at his own feelings on the subject. Especially as his relationship and respect for Rabbi Aaron grew.
* * *
Within a week, the Bergners were established in Nice, both in new jobs and as residents. Sigmund began a habit of writing regularly to Professor Hailer, letters in which he expressed concern about what was happening in Germany. But he was careful not to embarrass Professor Hailer in the event that the Gestapo intercepted the letters. Leo would add an extra page with his news and progress on the piano. He wrote that he felt more relaxed now that he was reunited with his parents.
The professor's replies were guarded. Sigmund guessed that the situation in Germany was fast deteriorating. Any prospects for returning home in the near future were slim. In any event, he didn't want to broach the topic with Ulrike. She had just read a letter from Freda that had spelled out the latest regulations that had been promulgated against the Jewish community.
"Thank God we got out when we did," Ulrike muttered.
She handed the letter to Sigmund. His face froze in anguish as he read his sister-in-law's account of the new restrictions imposed after Kristallnacht. Jews were now required to turn over all precious metals to the government. Pensions for Jews dismissed from civil service jobs were arbitrarily reduced. Jewish-owned bonds, stocks, jewelry and artwork could only be transferred to the German state. Jews were physically segregated in German towns. Jewish driver's licenses were confiscated, along with Jewish-owned radios. A curfew was imposed to keep Jews off the street, and the laws protecting tenants were made non-applicable to them. He said nothing and handed the letter back to Ulrike.
* * *
Ulrike enjoyed her work at the pharmacy. She enjoyed seeing so many happy, smiling, fun-loving people. A constant flow of customers, locals and tourists alike, took her mind off concerns about what was happening in Germany. And working with Jacques made her feel safe in this new community.
Sigmund enjoyed his work as well. He hadn't taught for some time, and only when he was teaching was he happy. Monsieur Laidler at the hotel was exceptionally kind, too. He was elderly, and he had owned the hotel for many years. After his wife died in 1910, he had left his two adult children in Paris and moved to the Riviera in pursuit of sea air and a better climate. He already knew of Leo, as he had heard him play at parties, and because Rabbi Aaron had mentioned his name. Soon he offered Sigmund more work and even a promotion.
That night, to celebrate, Sigmund took the whole family, Jacques and Karin included, to dinner at Le Gentilhomme, a new restaurant close to their home. They ate and drank, and for once, even Sigmund looked content. It was the first time in years that Leo had seen him look so relaxed.
* * *
Several days later, the doorbell rang at the Kaplan's apartment, at five in the afternoon. Leo had just returned from his Wednesday appointment with Rabbi Aaron, and his mother had just set a plate of cheese and meat on the table for him. He hadn't eaten since lunch. Still he went to the door.
A tall, elderly man stood at the open doorway. He was German, judging by the style of his clothes, which, being made of dark gray winter cloth, were ill-suited to the Riviera. He had a healthy tan and a head of thick white hair. Ulrike showed a flutter of panic. Leo determined to stay near.
"Good afternoon," the man said. "I am sorry to disturb you. My name is Hofmann. Professor Hofmann. I am from Augsburg. Please, may I see Frau Bergner?"
"That is I," Ulrike answered. "How can I help you?"
"Please, Frau Bergner, may I come in? Please do not be nervous. I am a friend of Professor Hailer. He asked me to come and see you."
"Of course, please come in." Ulrike gestured for him to enter the hallway. "I'm sorry if I appeared rude."
"No, not at all," the man said. "It is quite understandable. Certainly these days."
Leo stepped back from the doorway. Karin came into the hall, curious to find out who the unexpected visitor was. After Ulrike made introductions, Karin went back into the kitchen to prepare coffee. Ulrike led the visitor into the living room, and Leo followed.
"How is dear Professor Hailer?" Ulrike asked. "He is a wonderful friend to us."
"He is well, but he is a very sad man," Professor Hofmann answered, then took a seat on the sofa. "I see him twice a week. We play chess together and listen to music. He still goes to all the concerts. But he is revolted, as many of us are, by the Hitler Youth, those uniforms, the ridiculous salutes, the flags and 'Heil Hitler' this and 'Heil Hitler' that. He is deeply depressed."
"The poor man. I am so sorry. My husband told me this morning that he planned on writing to him this evening. We had received a letter only a couple of days ago."
"Frau Bergner. The professor does not want you to write to him anymore."
"Why not?" Ulrike looked up, shocked.
"My wife and I are moving to Nice. She is French and has hated living in Germany for the last three years. So we are moving here, taking an apartment three blocks away from you, on Rue Lafayette."
"But why does the professor no longer wish to communicate with us?" Ulrike's hand reached again for the base of her throat. "Have we offended him in some way? Goodness, he still has all our valuables and money."
"My friend is worried," Professor Hofmann said. "The Gestapo may now, or in the future, intercept all mail that leaves Germany destined for Jews. Also from Jewish people abroad, back to Germany. We have all heard stories about such things happening. The professor is worried this may happen in your case."
The visitor was uneasy in his chair. He leaned forward, clasping his hands and resting his elbows on his knees. Ulrike sat more forward on her chair. Leo felt all the tension between them, and even Karin's, as she stood in the doorway of the kitchen.
"Professor Hailer," the man said. "He tells me that many of the letters between him and your husband contain references to assets he is looking after for you. He would hate for these letters to be read by the Gestapo."
"I see," Ulrike said. "I see."
"The professor proposes that he will write to me in the future. Then I will deliver messages from him to you. Of course, if you wish to write to the professor, from now on you should do that through me, too."
Hoffman rose to leave before Karin returned with the coffee. Ulrike rose too. Leo moved to his mother's side. The man looked into Leo's eyes and conveyed a sadness that Leo felt was increasingly a part of his family's life.
"Thank you, Professor Hofmann," Ulrike said. "I appreciate your help and your visit. I will be sure to tell my husband when he comes home."
* * *
Later that evening, Leo sat with his mother and Karin as Ulrike repeated the conversation she'd had with Professor Hofmann to Jacques and Sigmund. Ulrike's voice was calm and confident. But Leo watched his mother's clasped hands grip and relax. She was worried, and Jacques and Sigmund were skeptical.
"Suppose he's not kosher," Jacques said. "How do we know who he is? Maybe he's Gestapo, too, and wishes simply to intercept everything at this end. They do have spies operating on the Riviera. We already know that."
Jacques looked at Karin and she nodded. She stood up and moved to the wall where she crossed her arms and leaned back. Ulrike's expression remained the same, but her eyes seemed to reach out to Sigmund, to somehow make sense of all this.
"I've been told," Jacques continued, "by one of my customers that the concierge at the Negresco is believed to be a German spy. One of the croupiers at the casino may be one, too."
"Well," Sigmund added, "we certainly need to find out before we exchange any more correspondence with Professor Hailer."
The next day was Wednesday. Sigmund had no classes and appeared at Rabbi Aaron's house to pick up Leo from his lesson. And to ask a favor of the rabbi, who had a son in Paris.
"Could your son make inquiries on our behalf in Augsburg?" Sigmund showed his discomfort by clearing his throat. "It would help set our minds at ease. We're fearful of calling Professor Hailer directly."
"Of course, I will call him now." He brought Leo and his father back into the study, and put through the call. "David, it's me, Papa." His son's voice was loud on the line, and Leo heard him start to answer, but Rabbi Aaron charged ahead. "Now I need you to telephone someone in Augsburg. Take a pencil and I'll give you the details in a minute. I want you to say to this person that you are telephoning on behalf of friends in France. He should know it's the Bergner family, but do not mention the name. Make the conversation as short as possible. Tell him that your friends have had a visitor, and ask him to verify the visitor's name. Tell him that the visitor wishes to be in regular contact with them. Verify that that is okay, and it's not a trap."
"Papa, is this very important to you?" David asked.
"I have not mentioned this to you yet," David said. "I am on a committee here in Paris to help our brethren in Germany. One of our people will be in Munich next week. It will be better to deal with this face to face than over the telephone. Can it wait for a couple of weeks?"
Rabbi Aaron looked to Sigmund, who nodded. Rabbi Aaron dictated Professor Hailer's address from Sigmund to David, then he signed off abruptly. Leo was impressed, as though his friend, the Rabbi, had just admitted that he was a successful spy.
"We French Jews are well-organized, Herr Bergner," Rabbi Aaron said. "You will have your answer about Professor Hofmann soon. In the meantime, I would suggest you have no contact with him. Just in case. Be sure to tell your wife, too."
By the end of the month, Sigmund had his answer. Professor Hofmann was clean. There was no reason to doubt him. Everyone felt easier with this news. Especially Ulrike, who worried more and more about what she did, afraid that she might make her family vulnerable in some way that she didn't understand.
Leo discovered her fears one night when Sigmund mentioned something about a cab driver at the hotel. Ulrike tightened up, touched her hand to her chest where the emerald pendant used to hang, and looked to Leo. He remembered the woman who had commented on the jewel when he and his mother were returning from Aunt Freda's birthday in Munich. It was clear to Leo-his mother was remembering that same incident.
* * *
The night was especially warm and lush in the fragrances of the purple and red bougainvillea. Leo sat in a corner of the patio reading a Hebrew text loaned to him by Rabbi Aaron. Sigmund was enjoying a rare night off. He stepped out onto the patio to join Jacques for a cognac and a cigar.
"Jacques, I'd like to ask your advice, please." Sigmund sat down next to Jacques and trimmed his cigar. "I am now earning a decent wage, and you have steadfastly refused to take anything from me in addition to the arrangements you have with Ulrike. Leo too is earning money and saving it."
"That's good," Jacques answered. "So what can I do for you?"
"All my capital is in Germany." Sigmund puffed on his cigar. "Who knows if I will ever see it again, or if it is lost forever. I need to make what money I have here work for me here."
"You have an idea about that?" Jacques asked.
Leo put a marker in his book and closed it. He hoped his father wouldn't notice him there. This business about the family's money was of interest to him. With his bar mitzvah coming up, he listened to Rabbi Aaron's lessons about being a man, and he took to heart his advice. Now he wanted to know how his father did things, more than what kind of soldier his father had been, the only stories he had ever shared with Leo.
"There is a piece of land for sale," Sigmund said. "I saw it the other day when I went with Monsieur Laidler to look at some new furniture for the hotel lobby. It's near the railway station. Looks interesting. Maybe you should take a look at it, too."
Within a few months, Sigmund and Jacques had made their first investment, a shop with three apartments above, and the rental income more than covered the outgoings. This initial joint venture ignited a passion for real estate that neither of them had known before. Instead of sitting at home playing chess, the two men would take long walks around the city and disappear for hours, looking enthusiastically for properties that were for sale.
"For goodness sake," Karin said, "don't you two have anything to talk about these days other than real estate? You're getting very boring."
Leo agreed, but for another reason. His mother grieved for the loss of her emerald. It was dangerous to put money in objects. What if his father's buildings burned down? Or if there were a flood? From his soirees he had earned a considerable sum in tips, and he also looked forward to some money from his bar mitzvah. After watching the discreet flow of money through Professor Hailer to the stranger in Nice and to his father, he was impressed by its fluidity and speed.
By the end of the year, Sigmund and Jacques had invested in three more properties and had taken in a new partner, Maitre Talais, a lawyer who had been a customer at the pharmacy for many years, buying his catarrh pastilles and medication for his arthritis. Jacques had considerable respect for him, and with great relief, put all the legal work, tenant leases, and bank finance negotiations into Maitre Talais's hands. Sigmund's role was to scour the city for suitable investments, and Jacques was free to use his formidable skill for striking a bargain with the sellers. They made a good team. Prosperity seemed to have returned to the Bergner family. But Ulrike still worried, and Leo watched her.
* * *
Leo celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Nice synagogue. Afterward, Monsieur Laidler hosted a party at the hotel. Many members of the congregation attended to show their support for the Bergners. Additionally, Leo was an established local musician in great demand, and he had his own circle of friends.
The evening was a blur, but Leo knew he would remember one thing-his father, sitting in complete bewilderment. It was only the second time in Sigmund's life that he had ever been to a synagogue. The Hebrew made no sense, and his total ignorance of the prayers and ritual compounded his discomfort. Nonetheless, tears of happiness slid down his cheeks. His pride in his son was evident and undeniable.
Rabbi Aaron rose to propose a toast. Leo listened attentively and basked, with some measure of modesty, in the lavish praise that the rabbi bestowed on him. Rabbi Aaron glanced at Leo's father and gave him a reassuring smile, as if Sigmund were the shy child and himself the protective parent. The irony didn't escape Leo.
... continued ...