“Tevye, you know as well as anyone what it required to build the little corner of Eden that we have here among the mosquitoes and bees and wind and rain and mud. That struggle is nothing compared to what is ahead. It will take more than shovels and hoes and plows to create a state. Everyone will have to do their part. We are so few that we cannot afford to have anyone watch from a safe distance. Each of us, young and old, men and women, must contribute in some way to fight for our homeland.”
“You talk like a Prime Minister. Perhaps that will be your destiny in our Jewish state.”
Bernice laughed and then began to cough.
“No Tevye. I don’t want to be involved in politics. I am doing my part now to win the war, but after we’ve won — and I have no doubt we will win — and we have our state, I want to come back here and live out my days watching our children and grandchildren grow old. That is the reward I crave.”
She put her hand on my cheek and smiled. For a moment, I felt like her child and was grateful for the comforting words she had spoken.
“And speaking of grandchildren, I understand you will finally get to see yours. Mazel tov. You must be very excited.”
She switched subjects so abruptly I was dumbstruck. It was one of Bernice’s incomparable skills, the ability to speak as comfortably about world affairs as personal ones.
“You are excited, aren’t you?”
“I feel like Noah when he saw the rainbow from the ark,” I said, recovering my balance.
“That’s wonderful. I can hardly wait to meet your daughters. You know everyone in the movement knows about Hodel. She’s a heroine.”
“My Hodel, a heroine? I don’t understand.”
“Pertschik was very well known, and apparently liked, by our leaders in Russia. He was one of the people who had the courage to speak out against the Tsar and to denounce the Communists early on as hypocrites. Even in prison, he was organizing the resistance and preaching the need for Jews to find a homeland where they could enjoy the fruit of their labors.”
“Pertschik was quite a man.” I said, suddenly realizing Feferel had been more influential than I’d ever imagined.
“Yes, he was, Tevye. Did you know that Jonathan tried to visit him in prison?”
“No. He never told me.”
Bernice lit another cigarette.
“He might not have realized Pertschik was your son-in-law at the time. In the end, Jonathan couldn’t reach him. But he knew of his work, and his courage. And much of what we learned about Pertschik came from his wife, your daughter. She would write down Pertschik’s thoughts and have them printed and smuggled out of Siberia. She tried to carry on his work after he was executed, but the authorities came to arrest her. We think she was captured and escaped. She fled and apparently hid for a while in small towns in the Pale. I think that was about the time you lost track of her.”
“I remembered how worried we were when her letters stopped coming. We feared the worst Tzeitl didn’t know where she was. We were so worried; I think the uncertainty contributed to Golde’s sickness.”
“Well, from what I’ve heard, she continued to organize even while she was on the run. I have a feeling that before she reached Tzeitl, Hodel had to leave Russia or face her husband’s fate. I don’t know if she convinced Tzeitl to leave Poland, or it was the other way around, but I understand from our contacts in Warsaw they left about a week ago. They are supposed to board one of our ships sometime next month.”
“They’re on their way?” I said. It was too good to be true.
“Tevye, I have to be honest. Even if they make it safely to the ship, I’m afraid there’s no guarantee they’ll make it to Palestine. With new restrictions on immigration sure to follow this last round of violence, the British are liable to turn the ship around. That’s why I’d like Devorah to go and help smuggle them out.”
So Bernice had another card to play if I hadn’t agreed to let Devorah be part of the mission. It was easy to see why she was an effective politician.
“I thought you said you just needed her to be a nurse.”
“Yes, on our ships carrying illegal immigrants, like the one that Tzeitl and Hodel will have to use.”
“Three of my daughters on the same ship, in danger. I don’t think that I can take it. I know the anxiety will kill Golde.”
“That’s why we aren’t going to tell her.”
“Are we?” Bernice repeated, looking at me with the same steely stare she used when she asked me to let Devorah go with her.
I closed my eyes. My temples throbbed. It felt like all my sayings from the Bible were trying to burst out of my head at once.
“I won’t say a word.”
“Good. God-willing, we will see all of them here in a few weeks.”
“Inshallah,” I muttered.
“Oh, just a saying I’ve picked up from the Arabs.”
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s novel, After Anatevka – Tevya Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.