“No, this cannot be.” She gushed. “This is not right. We always placed the Hanukkiah at the window. Why do we have to change that now? I don’t want this. I don’t want everything to change again only because of the war.”
“Well… one cannot help it, child. The French are here and we have to live with it. Dina Malchuta Dina!”
“They are bad enough in France and in the other German lands. They cannot come here again and …”
“I don’t know… I want life to be good.”
“For now, you have to be brave and patient since life is not always good and we are bracing ourselves for difficult times. Their pride is hurt and they will take it out on the Jews.” Her father firmly placed the Hanukkiah on the table.
All Leah could do was to storm out of the room, race up the stairs to the chamber under the roof, yank the door open, and then slam it with all her strength.
These French! This Napoleon! This genius! Couldn’t they return to their country? Oh, well, they were returning but no… No, they had to come again. First, they stomped through to Moscow, stole everything they could and now, this… they were back. They fought again and the sons and brothers were… gone. Every young man who could be a Chatan to her was gone.
She didn’t want to think about it.
Didn’t these beasts ever have enough? This was Berlin and times were modern. No more Ghetto, no more walls. Education, literature, Enlightenment. It all awaited them. For her, for her brother, for ….
The good life. It was so near, one could almost taste it.
No soldiers again. No war, no fear.
Now, father had said that she had to be brave but HE would not place the Hanukkiah in the window.
She clenched her fists and stomped her foot but it did not help.
The Hanukkiah on the table and ‘quiet’ games.
She took up a hairbrush and threw it at the door.
“I am brave.” She shouted at the door. “For all of us.”
Father hadn’t sold books for a long time and pretended to be a teacher. Not a bookseller, not a printer.
“You are the one who is not brave.” She addressed the door. She gasped for breath and strode the three and four paces of her attic room.
If she was a man…
If she was… Chaim… Chaim was a man.
He could not always be a student. He had to want to go out. He yearned to be a hero. Didn’t all men want this?
Chaim would fight! She would make him!
She always convinced him of what was right, and now, being brave was right. Didn’t father say so?
He would fight and be a man. A real man. She just had to tell him.
Wiping her tears and washing her face, she returned downstairs and looked for her brother.
Chaim sat in his room and studied in silence.
“Chaim?” Came her sweet voice. “What are you doing?”
“I am learning.”
“You are not. I noticed you watching the street when I entered.”
“Just for a moment.”
“Did you see the soldiers over there?”
A soldier stood on the opposite side of the street.
“Yes, I did but what is it matter?”
“Don’t they look fetching?”
“… like real soldiers.”
Leah inhaled deeply. Sometimes her brother’s indifference was testing her patience.
“Don’t you think they look brave?”
“If you say so.” Chaim bent over his book and tried to read in spite of Leah’s teasing but he knew she would not leave him alone until she had her way.
“What is it?”
Leah triumphed, “I am just showing you the soldiers. Nothing else.”
The sweet, innocent tone did not fool him. He knew his sister.
“I just spoke to father and he asked us to be brave since it is Hanukkah.”
Chaim thought for a moment. She was right, Father had said such a thing and he was honest and upright. He would not want his children to be cowards who hid. He would want his children to be the true heirs of the Makkabees.
“Look at them.”
Chaim hadn’t even noticed the soldiers.
She had positioned herself at the window. “Arrogant. Does this street belong to their fathers?”
Chaim gave a tentative look. He could see nothing arrogant but he agreed with Leah because he was used to doing so. It was easier this way.
“Arrogant, I tell you and how he looks… Is he French? No, they look different. Maybe Italian. Or Polish? No…”
Chaim wished she would go and bother Father but he knew better than to hope for early freedom from prattling.
“Look, they are waiting for something.”
Chaim looked again and she was right. They were pacing the pavement as if waiting for something.
“They are looking at our house.” She merely breathed the words.
“Why are you whispering? I thought you wanted to be brave?”
She slapped him on the shoulder. “I am brave. I am watching the enemy.”
“Enemy? Since when are these poor scarecrows our enemies?”
“Chaim! They are French.” She returned to whispers.
“They are not and you are silly. You don’t need to hold your breath. They can’t hear us.”
“Why was he looking up?”
Chaim had enough and returned to his seat. “Go and ask him if you want to know.”
She stopped and gazed at her brother. This was not like him. He had raised his voice… oh, what a pleasant change. He might be a man after all.
“I will.” She took a deep breath and all her courage and headed to the door.
“You are insane.” Came a muffled voice from the study but she was already at the door.
She opened the door on hearing more calls from inside and looked at the soldier. He was French!
It was not good to be seen when French soldiers were about. Father had always said so. They took their liberties with the girls and maybe even more so in a Jewish street.
She quickly closed the door and returned to her seat near the window panting.
The soldier continued pacing to and fro on the other side of the street.
What if he had seen her? What if he had heard her? What if he was waiting for the others to arrest father?
Oh, had she only been quiet! Stupid, stupid bravery.
She got up and scanned the street again.
Yes, he was still there. She retreated into the kitchen, her heart pounding.
“Jaques, there you are. I have been waiting for you.”
“Have you seen that?” Jaques asked.
“There was a girl at the door.”
Daniel reverted his look to his friend. “I was looking out for you, not at the door.”
“Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Chaim said it was.”
Jaques frowned. “How can you be sure?”
“They will put the Hanukkiah into the window soon.”
“Leah,” Chaim called from the study, another unusual occurrence, “Your friend has brought a friend.”
“He is not my friend,” Leah snapped but she could not deny her curiosity and rejoined him at the window.
They were still there, still looking over. Arrogant, both of them.
Arrogant yet elegant. If they were not in French uniform one could say they were … handsome. Tall and handsome. No, this must not be, this thought is traitorous. They are not handsome! They were the enemy, and Father was right to put the Hanukkiah on the table.
She peeked around the corner and saw her brother still learning.
Leah could still hear his teasing.
Chaim would laugh at her.
“Little soldier.” He would call her.
“Silly.” He would say.
“Brave.” He would tease.
Chaim got up and headed for the kitchen. “I will go for a smoke.”
“No, you know Father does not approve.”
He had closed the door before her words had passed her lips.
Straightening her hair, she laid down more plates on the table. She quickly checked herself in the looking glass and calmed down.
Yes, passable and presentable again.
Why did it matter? Nobody was there to look anyhow.
Daniel looked at the window. “Are you sure there was a girl?”
Jaques shrugged and prepared to leave. “Maybe only a maid.”
“There should be Hanukkiah, it is the right time.”
“It is the wrong street and it is cold, let us go.”
“I don’t like to miss the lightning of the first flame but…”
“What about the girl?”
“Pretty enough, I guess.”
“You think Chaim has a sister?”
“Don’t know.” Daniel hunched over against the wind he looked up. “I think I will come back tomorrow. You don’t have to come if you don’t like it.”
Jaques was his best friend. They had been together on all the roads, in Moscow and out of it, through the snow and the ice, but he could not offer the information Chaim offered.
Daniel squinted. Maybe he had missed it. Maybe it was not there. Maybe they were in the wrong place.
Leah closed the door and sighed in relief. Her heart fluttered as she returned to the parlour and spoke to herself.
“It is the first night of Hanukkah and nothing will happen. And Father is neither a bookseller and nor a printer but a learned man. They will not harm a simple teacher and his innocent family. All is going to be well.”
The Hanukkiah was on the table, not on the window sill. One candle on the right, one in front. Some Dreidels on the table and some old coins and nuts.
They would be brave and hide.
They would do the same tomorrow and the day after that.
One day, things would change.
Her father was still watching the fire and waiting.
“Yes, my dear?”
After a deep sigh, he said, “Times are bad and not everybody is a warrior at heart.”
“Yes?” Impatience tainting his voice.
“On the other side of the street, there are soldiers.”
“Don’t be silly. French soldiers have nothing to do here.”
“But they are French. At first, there was only one and now there are two.”
Making an opening between the drapes with care, he peered out the window. Leah joined him and they cowered at the sides together, ready to close the gap in an instant.
“You are right.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know.” He answered in a low voice.
“Look, there comes a third one.”
“So, it is…”
“Are they going to shoot someone?”
“Don’t be silly. They are too busy marching and fighting in the south besides, they are happy to be alive.”
Two young men remained on the street and they talked and laughed as if the street belonged to them.
“Go to the kitchen. When these scoundrels are around, it is better that girls are not seen.”
Without uttering a word she turned around, but not fast enough to miss his second instruction, “Tell Chaim to stay out of sight too.”
“What is it now?” Her mother asked.
“Papa sent me to help you.” She lied.
“So, does he?”
“You can go right back and place the potato cakes on the table.”
“Mama….” Fear in her voice made her mother look up.
“What? What is it? … Leah?….”
“Where is Chaim?”
“He went out for a smoke, but don’t tell Father.”
“There are soldiers.”
“Nonsense, there are no soldiers in the house.”
“Not in the house. On the other side of the street. They are French.”
Colour drained from her mother’s face. “Stay here. I will go and see what it is.”
Her parents froze at the window as they watched the street. Leah held her breath and tiptoed to the kitchen door.
Soft murmurs came from the big room.
With two steps, Leah was in the living room as well. “Papa, what is it?”
He gestured for them to go back. “Nothing. We will just wait with the candles until they are gone.”
Leah glowed. “Will you light it near the window? It is only one candle.”
He looked at his daughter as a resolve formed in his mind. “Yes. I will. We have defied the Hellenists. My children will learn to be brave.”
Before Leah turned, a gasp escaped her throat. “Papa, look. They are coming over. To our house!”
Two young men approached the house. Leah swallowed hard, looked at her mother, and held her breath.
The backdoor squeaked.
Her father straightened his shoulders and looked at them, determined. “I will light the candles and if it is the last thing I do, it should be a Mitzvah.”
“No Papa, don’t.” Leah gasped.
He placed the Hanukkiah at the window sill.
“Where is Chaim?”
“Where have you been? I want…”
“I tried to have a better look at the soldiers.” Whispering between themselves, brother and sister exchanged knowing looks.
Their father shrugged and said the blessing, before a knock on the door silenced them.
“I have to answer the door.”
“Don’t go.” Mother pleaded.
“No… Chaim… don’t…”
He was faster and reached the door.
“Oh, there you are, I thought you would never light the candles.” A voice came from the hall and then, “Was that pretty girl your sister? Should have known you are hiding something.”
“Daniel, come and meet my parents and my brave little sister.”
R. Shlesinger holds an MA in Literature. Her mother tongue is German which she teaches as a foreign language. She is writing historical short stories with a Jewish background for the English speaking audience and occasionally tries her hand in modern short stories. For the last twenty years, she has been living with her husband in Israel.