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  Chapter One from
The Envelope

By Chaim Eliav 



Chapter One

Carefully -- and curiously -- Avraham Rosenbaum opened the cardboard file.

It was brown, medium sized, and unmarked. Near the edges, the color was beginning to fade with age. Peering inside, Avraham saw three envelopes lying in a pile. They were large, old envelopes, once white but yellowed now with the years. The uppermost envelope bore the number 1.

Lifting it, Avraham saw that the envelope beneath was marked with a 2. It did not take brilliant guesswork to conclude that the third one, at the bottom of the pile, would be 3. He checked anyway; it was.

“Avraham! Avraham, where are you?”

Avraham did not answer. With mounting interest, he studied the envelopes. What, he wondered, did they contain?

He had come upon the cardboard file in the top drawer of his father’s desk. His father, may his memory be blessed, had always kept the drawer locked. To Avraham’s surprise, it held nothing at all except this file.

He had just returned from the cemetery, at the conclusion of the week of mourning for his father. A minyan from the shtiebel had come along. Avraham had recited Kaddish, after which one of his father’s close friends had said the Kel Malei Rachamim prayer and then eulogized the departed man. Then they had returned -- Avraham, the only son, and his mother -- to the apartment on Jerusalem Street in Bnei Brak, still reeling from the shock of the unexpected death. It was only now that they were beginning to feel the true weight of their pain, and to sense the frightening emptiness of the small apartment. R’ Elimelech Rosenbaum, a chassid who had worked as an accountant in a local food business, had passed away on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, 5750 (1990). He had been relatively young -- no more than 65 years old. A sudden heart attack had sent him to Beilinson Hospital, where he had suffered for two weeks before finally returning his soul to his Creator.

“Avraham, come to the kitchen!”

Avraham did not hear his mother’s call. The envelopes had totally captured his attention. He turned them over, and then over again, not yet daring to open them. He was filled with a sudden fear, which he recognized as emanating from his reverence for his father. He had the uneasy feeling that he was intruding into an intimate area of his departed father’s life. There was a sense, almost, of sacrilege.

He was face-to-face with a secret that his father had kept from him. In general, his father had talked a great deal to him, on just about any topic. But never, during his lifetime, had he revealed the existence of this cardboard file or its contents. This drawer had always been securely locked, with the key resting in Elimelech Rosenbaum’s pocket.

Now, with the envelopes in his hand, Avraham suddenly recalled the startled expression on his father’s face when he had entered the room and the drawer had been open. With a quick motion of his wrist, the elder Rosenbaum had shut the drawer and locked it. The movement had been accompanied by a brief glance at his son, as though to assure himself that Avraham had noticed nothing unusual.

Avraham had assumed that his father kept personal secrets locked in that drawer, but he had never given the matter too much thought. By nature, he was not overly curious. Besides, what was at issue here? Every man has secret drawers in his heart, and he is not obligated to reveal them to another soul.

“Avraham! What happened to you? Why aren’t you coming to eat?”

But now, the drawer was unlocked. The cardboard file stood open to his scrutiny. Only the envelopes remained sealed. Avraham hesitated, and then slit open the first of them.

He opened it very carefully, almost reverently. A shower of newspaper clippings fell out of the envelope. Avraham spread the clippings over the desk and studied them.

After a moment, he realized that the articles had one thing in common: Most of them had been clipped from daily newspapers. A further examination also revealed a common theme. The articles, collected from many different years, were dated either 27 Nissan, the date of Israel’s Yom HaZikaron L’Shoah U’Legevurah -- the Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and its martyrs -- or 10 Teves. There were articles, too, from Adolf Eichmann’s trial. All the articles were about the Polish cities of Radomsk and Pinchov.

Pinchov, Avraham knew, had been his father’s hometown, where he had lived until the Nazi Holocaust. And his father’s family had been numbered among the Radomsker chassidim.

“Avraham!”

This time, he heard her. His mother sounded impatient, even a little angry. He heard her turn on the gas stove in the kitchen.

“Yes!” he called back.

“What are you doing in there?”

“Nothing special.”

Avraham moved the clippings from place to place over the desk’s surface, as though trying to put together pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

“Then come to the kitchen already, and let’s eat something.”

“Coming,” he replied absently, eyes glued to the clippings. The aroma of frying eggs wafted from the kitchen into the living room of the tiny apartment.

Rapidly scanning the articles, Avraham found that all of them were about the towns of Pinchov and Radomsk, during the Holocaust. One dealt with the day the SS entered Pinchov. Another described the time the Radomsker Rebbe was taken out by the Nazis to be killed. A third pinpointed the precise date of the aktion in which Pinchov’s residents were deported to the death camps. This last included, apparently, his father’s parents and grandparents. Avraham’s father had never spoken much on this topic. Elimelech Rosenbaum, Avraham knew, had also been sent to Auschwitz, but his father had not volunteered any details. In fact, the entire subject of the Holocaust had been shrouded in a deep, heavy silence in the Rosenbaum home.

Avraham had always hoped that his father would one day open up and provide a glimpse of his world before the war overturned it. Now, his heart constricted painfully as he realized that that time would never come. The opportunity had slipped away forever.

“Avraham!”

“All right, I’m coming.”

He quickly swept the clippings back into the envelope. Before he joined his mother, he wanted to peek into the other two envelopes.

His eager fingers opened the second envelope, and several photographs fell out onto the desk. They were family photos, unfamiliar to him. Avraham studied them attentively.

The photos featured a tall man, a woman, and a small girl. All three bore the confident smiles of youth. They stood in the shade of a spreading tree but Avraham could not identify the setting. Neither did he recognize the people in the photos. Judging by the way they were dressed, they were not observant Jews -- or, at most, observant in a very lukewarm way. A pity he could not ask his father to explain the photographs to him. On the other hand, had his father been living, Avraham would not be studying the contents of the envelope in the first place. At the right moment, he decided, he would show the photographs to his mother and see if she could identify them. Right now, he did not want her to know that he had breached his father’s privacy.

“Avraham, your omelette’s getting cold. Come already!”

Absently, he called back, “I know, I know. I’ll be right there. Just a minute!”

He hurriedly gathered together the photographs and stuffed them back into their envelope. Then he picked up the third envelope and carefully opened it.

Once again, a shower of newspaper clippings slid onto the desk’s polished surface. Avraham glanced through them with widening eyes. Here was a mystery!

The first clipping featured a picture of an armed man with black hair, a thick mustach, and eyes that were hard, dark, and deepset. Beneath the picture was a caption: The death of a terrorist. And under that, in smaller letters, the text read that that the terrorist Abu Daoud al-Razak, long wanted by Israel’s General Security Service (the G.S.S., or Shabak in Hebrew), had broken out of prison. After a difficult and heroic chase, the security men had caught up with the terrorist and killed him in the Shomron hills.

Why in the world, Avraham wondered, staring at the clipping and photo, is this in my father’s drawer?

To his astonishment, he found two words, written by his father, at the very bottom of the article: Baruch Hashem. His surprise grew as he scanned the remaining articles. They all dealt with acts of terror, chases, roadblocks, kidnappings, and the like. All of them involved the same terrorist: Abu Daoud al-Razak.

What was this about?

No matter how long Avraham stared at the strange collection, he could still make no sense of it. No answer to the mystery presented itself. What possible connection could a chassid from Bnei Brak who had, in the last years of his life, even begun to wear the spuhdik that had been customary among Poland’s chassidim, have to this terrorist?

Had his father known him? Had he perhaps even met this Abu Daoud in person? If so, where had this strange meeting taken place -- in the shtiebel? On Rabbi Akiva Street? At his workplace? Perhaps the terrorist had once been employed at his father’s business -- Who knew?

And who was the secular-looking family in the photographs in the other envelope? His father’s brother, killed in the Holocaust? Elimelech had once told Avraham about an older brother in Poland who had not been Torah observant.

Absorbed in the mystery, Avraham did not hear his mother’s footsteps. She had grown weary of sitting in the kitchen waiting for her son to eat the light meal she had prepared for him.

“What are you doing?” Her voice was sharp.

He was startled, but quickly recovered. “Nothing. Just looking at some stuff Abba left.”

All at once, she noticed the open folder on her husband’s desk, and the envelopes scattered beside it. Her eyes darted from the envelopes to her son and back again. Avraham thrust the picture of the terrorist at her. “Imma, what is this? Who is it?”

He had asked the question impulsively, never dreaming it would unleash a storm. Suddenly, he noticed that his mother’s face had gone very white and her eyes had filled with fear. It seemed to him that she was on the verge of fainting.

“Imma!” He sped around the desk to support his mother before she fell. “What happened? Have I said something to hurt you?”

He led her to an armchair and gently lowered her into it. His mother’s left hand reached up to rub her creased forehead in a nervous gesture. She burst out, “And how you’ve hurt me!”

“But what did I do?” Avraham was at his wits’ end.

His mother did not hurry to reply. Finally, when she had calmed down somewhat, she wriggled out of his grasp and said, “You did not do anything! Not a thing!” Her tone was not very convincing.

With difficulty, she rose from the armchair and darted toward the kitchen. Avraham followed, pleading, “Imma, please explain this to me! How did I hurt you, and what are those pictures of a terrorist doing in Abba’s desk?”

His mother turned and looked directly at him. Her gaze held a mixture of pain and determination. After a moment she went toward the kitchen without saying anything.

Avraham persisted. “Why don’t you answer me?”

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to answer you.”

“Why not?”

“Just because! Understand?”

“I don’t understand.”

“All right. You don’t have to understand everything.”

Confused, Avraham said, “Even so -- ”

“Even so -- even nothing! I am not prepared to talk to you about this. I can’t talk to you. Period, end of sentence!”

“But can you at least explain why? Why can’t you talk to me about it? Why won’t you tell me what’s going on? Who else do you have in the world except me?”

He thought he heard her sigh. She moved closer to him, took his hands in her own trembling ones, and gripped them firmly. Bringing her face close to that of her only son, she whispered, “Don’t ask me any more questions on this topic. I won’t tell you anything. Don’t keep trying, because I can’t talk about it. I -- simply -- cannot -- talk about it. Do you understand, Avraham? Do me a favor and don’t bring this up again. Remember, I have suddenly become a widow. I am already hurting enough.” Her voice shook.

“And I am an orphan, Imma. Do you think it’s any easier for me?” Avraham’s own voice was none too steady.

“There’s no comparison!”

A sudden silence fell between them. Mother and son stood for a long moment, staring at one another in anguish. Her eyes held a question, a pleading; at last, Avraham nodded his head in reply. He would not ask her again.

She let go of his hands and turned back to the kitchen, not asking him to follow. Avraham stood where he was, frozen in place. He heard the faucet turned on in the sink, then off again, and understood that his mother had washed her hands to eat -- alone. That hurt.

With halting footsteps, he made his way to the kitchen. He washed his hands, recited the blessing over bread, and ate the omelette his mother had prepared for him. Silence reigned for the entirety of the small, sad meal. Not a word passed between Avraham and his mother, except when she asked, “Do you want coffee?” and he muttered, “Yes, please.”

Afterwards, his mother rose, murmured something softly, and went to her bedroom.

Avraham remained at the table for some time, toying with his knife and fork. His thoughts were disorganized, flitting aimlessly from one subject to the next. He knew only one thing for sure: He was burning with curiosity to solve the mystery of the envelopes -- especially the one containing the photo of the Arab terrorist. He felt that he could find no peace until he had unraveled the riddle. He must know the secret that had been hidden from him in his own home by both his father and his mother.

He knew himself. He tended to wax enthusiastic over things, to make grandiose plans and resolutions, and then to become mired after a day or two in the routine stream of life. Angrily, he pictured this happening again now. But -- maybe not? Maybe this time he would remain determined to the very end?

After the week’s absence, he felt obliged to make an appearance at Mad-Kal, where he was employed. The firm imported medicines from abroad. At his desk, he dealt with various matters that fell under his sphere of responsibility, and from which his sudden plunge into mourning had not excused him.

It was very late by the time he returned home to Petach Tikvah.

 
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