Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Debt

             In 1934, at a Maccabiah camp near Warsaw, Rosa, age sixteen, lost her wallet. In it was her car-fare back to her village. Shlomo, an eighteen year old camper, lent her the money.
            Afterward, they corresponded. She wanted to send him the money she owed him, but when he heard about her plans to join a “Gar’ein,” a core group of young people organizing in order to establish a kibbutz in the land promised to the Jews, he suggested instead that she give it to his sister, Sarah, who lived in Palestine.
            Fresh off the boat at the edge of the Mediterranean, Rosa and her comrades settled in the inhospitable land to toil the rocky soil and to dry swamps. They fought mosquitoes and malaria, and eventually deserted their spot and moved to another, then another, until finally they found a home at the foot of Mount Gilboa. There, they built a kibbutz far from the main thoroughfare of the country’s dramatic events.
            In all of that, Rosa forgot all about her debt.
            Rosa’s eightieth birthday was celebrated by her family. Rosa’s grandchildren gathered around her and asked her to tell them about her life. They wanted to look at pictures.
            Every bit of her history was stored in an old cardboard suitcase—the same one she had brought from Europe. Or perhaps it wasn’t the same one; Rosa could no longer recall. She hadn’t brought it down from the crawl space in the attic for decades. It didn’t matter. Now, with her grandchildren eager to hear about her life, she opened it.
            She was surprised to find there a sepia-colored photograph of young Shlomo. It had been taken by a professional photographer, and the young Shlomo’s features were distinct.
            “Oh, my God,” she exclaimed. “I forgot to give the money to Sarah!”
            “Sarah who?” asked a granddaughter.
            “Shlomo’s sister.”
            “What’s her last name?”
            Rosa no longer remembered.
            “What’s Shlomo’s?”
            Rosa shrugged. “No problem,” she said. “I’ll call Tel Aviv. It’s a big city. They’ll know.”
            She blocked out her children’s protests that things weren’t done this way.
            The next day, Rosa phoned her niece in Tel Aviv asked her to find Shlomo. He must have made Aliya—immigrated to Israel—because some time in the late 1930s he had told her that he planned to do so.
            “And what did this Shlomo do?” her niece asked.
            “Well, he trained at a Maccabiah camp, so he was athletic. He must have become a gym teacher.”
            “Why don’t you call this school on my street and ask where you can find him?” Rosa’s niece suggested, a bit impatient.
            “I will,” Rosa replied, and called the school.
            The school secretary was sympathetic to the story. “But we are all young here. You are looking for an eighty-two-year-old retired gym teacher. Let me give you the name of an old teacher who used to work here. Maybe she knows him.”
            “Do you know Shlomo, the gym teacher?” Rosa asked to old teacher in her next phone call.
            “Of course. I was at his son’s wedding. But Shlomo died several years ago.”
            How would Rosa repay her debt to a dead man? “What’s his son’s name?” she asked.
            “Yair Haberman. He was my student in third grade, as was his wife.”
            Shlomo hadn’t been Yair’s father, but his father-in-law, Yair explained when she called him.
            “Well, is your wife’s aunt Sarah still alive?” Rosa asked.
            In four phone calls she had located the family of he man who had lent her the trip fare in 1934 in a village in Poland, in a country that had been ravaged by war, of people annihilated by savagery.
            Rosa will call Sarah and will send her the equivalent of a car fare from Warsaw to a village that no longer existed. But in her world, in which simple things operate on a simple logic, nothing changed.
            (Story told to the author by Yair Haberman.)