By Kathryn Winter
This story is the third-place winner of the 2009 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2009 stories were judged by novelist, satirist and poet Erica Jong. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Jong and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
by Kathryn Winter
Her mother called her Mirenka. To me she was Mirka, but the times she cried in my arms, she’d be my Mirušenka, Mirušenka moja.
Mirka was four years old when Pani, the missus, hired me as housekeeper. It wasn’t love from the start. I never had children or liked them much, and the little one cried for Elena, the housekeeper they had to let go because of the new law. At the time, I was keeping house for my brother Andrej but glad for a chance to get away.
Andrej was a bully even as a child. We were raised in the same foster home, him and me. He’d call me by my Christian name, Teresa, only when he wanted something. Other times, I’d be Tekvica. A squash. Born without a brain. And when my goiter got bigger, he taunted me with turkey sounds. “Gobble, gobble, Tekvica. Gobble, gobble.” But sometimes he surprised me with some trinket from the county fair—a colored ribbon for my braid, a comb, a bag of sweets. He gave me the picture of Saint Teresa, my patron saint.
Elena lived in my village. She came to see me the day she got back. “Your chance to get away from Andrej, Teresa,” she told me. “See what it’s like, living in a town. Pan and Pani are good people. I told them about you.”
A couple and a little girl, she said. That, I thought, I could manage. I had kept house for an invalid woman for years until she died. That’s when Andrej took me in, as he put it. There’s not much else I can do. I don’t read very good, I forgot how to write, and I don’t like factory work. It’s the little girl that made me hesitate. She’d be in the way, tease me about my goiter.
Andrej shouted when I told him, shook his fist at me.
“He doesn’t want me working for Jews,” I told Elena.
“He doesn’t like losing a free housekeeper,” she said. “Don’t mind him, Teresa. Go.” She said she’d write a letter to let the couple know when I’d be coming. I was not to worry, she said. Pan would be there, waiting for me at the bus station.
I wasn’t sure what to do, but the louder Andrej shouted, the more I wanted to get away. The day I was to leave, I packed my few things into a bundle and walked out the door.
On the bus I was thinking, I’ve done the right thing. Andrej will get along without me just fine. He knows how to look out for himself, he always has. I’ve been scrubbing floors since I was ten. Not Andrej. He’d lie, cheat, sweet-talk his way out of heavy work. Smart, too. Smart to switch to the Slovak People’s Party, smart to join the Hlinka Guard. How handsome he thought himself in his black uniform, his high, polished boots. How mighty, with that holster on his belt. A bully that knows how to play humble. Knows who to bark at and who to crawl for. It’s the Party that gave him his house.
I must have dozed off, for when I looked out the window, I didn’t recognize the countryside. No mountains, no river. Flat fields as far as I could see. I was forty-three, but I had never been out of my village more than the ten kilometers to the county fair. How would I manage in a town? What would I do if the letter Elena wrote to Pani got lost and nobody waited for me at the bus station? And what about living with Jews? I’d seen pictures of them. Funny-looking. Sidelocks. Squinty dark eyes, noses the size of turnips. And people were saying they smelled bad.
“Jews are Slovakia’s enemies,” Andrej had shouted. “They’re parasites. Cheats.”
Was he right, not wanting me to work for them? Was he right that I wouldn’t last long outside our village?
“You’ll come back crawling, Tekvica, but don’t count on me taking you in a second time.”
Those were the words he shouted after me. Andrej is mean, but he is family, I thought. My only family. Had I better turn back?
Pan, the mister, waited for me at the station. Tall, nice-looking. No sidelocks, no Jew nose. Curly brown hair, eyes the color of forget-me-nots. He took my bundle from me, carried it, steered me by the elbow through the streets like I was a city lady come for a visit. My heart was beating fast. So many cars. Such tall buildings. People rushing past each other without a look or a greeting.
“You had a comfortable trip, Teresa?” Pan asked.
I shrugged and felt myself blush.
After we walked awhile, Pan pointed out stores and places: “Here we buy bread and rolls. There we get our milk, cheese, and eggs. Up that street is the fruit market, and behind is the park where Mirenka likes to go. The church on the corner is the closest one to us. You might want to go there on Sunday.”
I won’t be here on Sunday, I was thinking, I’ll be back in my village. This town isn’t a place for the likes of me. I’d never find my way through the streets, never come up alive trying to cross one. Andrej was right. I shouldn’t have come.
Their building was five stories high. They lived on the fourth floor, Pan said. He pressed a red button, and a giant cage, all lit up, came down. I wouldn’t step inside it.
Pan smiled. “You’ll get used to it, Teresa.”
I never did. The two years I lived with them, it was the stairs for me.
Pani talked to me in the sitting room. A small, pretty woman. Dark hair cut short, lively gray eyes. A pleasing, perky voice. Expensive clothes, I could tell. Her dark blue woolen suit fit her just right. Every time she leaned closer to me, I smelled jasmine, like what our priest, Father Danko, grows along his garden fence. Her fine white hands had never scrubbed a floor.
She and Pan owned a bookstore in town, Pani said. They’d come home for the midday meal and a short rest, then go back to work until six.
“You’ll have your own room, Teresa, and time off from Saturday noon till Sunday night. Most evenings, too. Once or twice a week Pan and I like to go with friends to a cafe or the theatre.”
The pay she offered was double what I expected.
Little Mirka screamed when she saw me. “Go away, I want Elenka. I don’t want you!”
“Elenka can’t come back,” Pani told the child. “She is getting married. Be nice to Teresa. She’ll take good care of you.”
Later Pani explained: “We lied to Mirenka about the reason Elena had to leave. The new law would not make much sense to a four-year-old.”
To tell the truth, not letting Christian women younger than forty work in Jewish homes made no sense to me, either. Elena was happy working for the family. The child loved her. Where was the harm?
For a few days, Mirka sulked. I didn’t woo her. Let her come to me on her own, I thought. Slowly, she did. She’d come out of her room with her stuffed bear, sit in a far corner of the kitchen, watch me do chores. Eyes the color of her mother’s. Brown curly hair like her father’s. The child was lonely, no one her age in the building. Seven Jewish families in town, Pani said, but none with young children. The parents hugged and kissed their little one when they came home, often brought her sweets or a new picture book, but they were in no mood to play with her. A week after Pani hired me, their bookstore was taken from them and given to a Christian couple. Pan and Pani were paid wages and made to teach the new owners about the business.
“In a few more weeks they’ll no longer need us,” Pani said. “And then what?”
I remember the morning Mirka left her corner in the kitchen. She came over to me, looked up, and then raised her little hand to meet mine. A warm feeling flooded me, like the time Father Danko told me my goiter was a gift from the Lord.
“It means you’re special to Him, Teresa,” he said. “It’s a sign of His special love for you.”
Starting that morning, Mirka’s hand stayed in mine for hours every day. It was she who led me to the butcher, the dairy, the bakery, she who showed me the swings in the park, the fruit market, the fancy stores on Hlinka Street to look at pretty things. My first thoughts on waking each day were of Mirka, and for the first time in my life I was getting up because I wanted to, not because I had to. Mirka would be in her room talking to her dolls, singing to herself. Her face would brighten when she saw me. Her little arms would reach out to me. “Tesa, Tesa.” That’s what she called me. I’d scoop her up, tickle her, carry her to the tub. She’d giggle and squirm in my arms.
In the tub she’d play Mama Duck to the three rubber ducklings she named Minka, Tinka and Pinka. She’d change her voice for Mama and for each of the ducklings. The sweet chatter had me giggling and wanting to hug her, all wet and soapy as she was. After the bath it’d be my turn to play Mama. She’d be the doll I never had. A doll to love, to dress in pretty clothes, to talk to, to take on walks, to put to bed. Mirka would sit on my lap while I brushed her light-brown curls and tied a ribbon in her hair. I’d want to kiss the nape of her neck and often did. How good she smelled, the child. Made me think of a fresh-baked cinnamon bun.
Months went by. More laws passed. Jewish children were no longer allowed in the playground. This time it was me lying to Mirka. “We can’t go to the park. A bad dog’s been coming there, biting little children.”
Next year she’ll be in school, I was thinking, able to read the signs showing up all over town: ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN TO JEWS. OR FORBIDDEN TO DOGS AND JEWS. It’ll be no use making up lies then.
I often begged God to help me understand those laws. Not allowing Mirka on the swings in the park? Taking businesses away from the Jews? Pan and Pani were good people. If their bookstore was harming our country, why didn’t the government shut it down? Instead, they took it from them and gave it to Christian Slovaks. What about “Thou shalt not steal”? Wasn’t what they were doing breaking the commandment? Yet it was our president, Jozef Tiso, signing those laws, and he was a Catholic priest. Who was I to question? Might I be committing a sin by just wondering about those laws? “Dear God,” I prayed, “I am only trying to understand. Father Danko said I was special to You. Please help me.”
Ten days before Christmas, Pan brought home a tree. “I thought you’d want one, Teresa,” he said. He also gave me money. “Buy what you need to make decorations. Mirenka will enjoy making them with you.”
I bought hard candy and sheets of silver paper. We wrapped each candy, twisted the ends, tied a string with a loop on one end and hung it on the tree. I made a star to put on top.
I wished I understood what made the family Jewish. For sure, they didn’t look like the Jews shown in pictures. Mirka prayed at bedtime, she thanked God “for everything” and asked Him to take good care of her parents, me, herself “and everyone in the whole world.” I never heard her parents pray at home or saw them go out to where Jews pray. They didn’t have holidays special to them, didn’t have icons or pictures of their saints in any of the rooms. In my room I hung a crucifix above my bed and next to it the picture of Saint Teresa that Andrej gave me.
Another new law made Jews wear a star on their clothes—in front, by their hearts. A yellow six-pointed star with blue borders. Pani and I sewed them on her and Pan’s coats and jackets. I thought the stars looked pretty, but I knew they were meant to shame the Jews. It’s me who felt shamed, sewing them on.
Between Christmas and the New Year the family left for the mountains. I went back to my village. That week felt like a year to me. I missed Mirka, missed her chatter, her cinnamon smell, our walks with her hand in mine.
Elena laughed when I told her. “You’re the one who doesn’t care much for children, right?”
I confessed to Father Danko that I had trouble understanding the new laws. I asked if just wondering about them and loving a Jewish child were sins. After a long while he said, “Truth lives in the hearts of the humble. Listen to your heart, Teresa. The Lord has a special love for you.”
All that week Andrej kept nagging me to leave the Jews. “You’re harming my chances to advance in the Party,” he said. In the front room he had hung framed pictures of his heroes. A large picture of President Tiso, and under it, three smaller ones of ministers Tuka, Vasek and Mach.
“Pan and Pani are good to me, Andrej,” I told him. “And they’re human, like us.”
He scowled. “Human. Is that what you said? Sit down, Tekvica, and listen. Maybe something will sink into the bit of brain you’ve got.” He took a folded piece of paper out of a drawer and read out loud what was printed on it:
“‘When the Devil wanted to take on a human form, he created the Jew. The Jew is not the creation of God but of the Devil and, therefore, not human—he only looks so. And whosoever supports and defends him will not escape God’s punishment.’”
It shook me. Mirka, a creation of the Devil? My heart was telling me, “No, that can’t be true.” But I’d only had two years of school. All the smart people, the educated, important people of my country, my church, all of them were saying bad things about the Jews. And what Andrej read was in print! Was the Devil setting a trap for me?
Two days later I was back in town. I waited for the family in the courtyard. When Mirka saw me she opened her arms and ran to me. The words my brother read sounded in my ears as we hugged.
The parents tried to keep their worries from the child, but gloom hung about the house like spider webs. Pani, small to start with, seemed to have gotten smaller. Her eyes were no longer lively, her voice not perky. Pan walked about with bowed head and stooped shoulders. No more cafes or theatres. Forbidden to Jews. Not even a walk after supper, on account of the early curfew for them. They were no longer wanted in the bookstore. The new owners had shown them the door with a “Thank you and don’t come back” as soon as they had learned from them what they needed to manage on their own. Pani started going out mornings to homes of rich ladies. She’d take their measurements, then bring home the sewing. Pan, too, was leaving mornings early and coming back late, his briefcase bulging with papers. Some businesses were hiring him to do accounting for them. Maybe they felt sorry for the family. Or they just wanted the work done cheap.
Some evenings, after dark, strangers would come by. They’d whisper with Pan and Pani behind closed doors, then leave, not to be seen again. The next day I’d notice empty spaces in the china closet, bare floorboards where rugs had been, hooks with nothing hanging on them where paintings had hung before.
Mirka became a quiet child. She didn’t ask questions or want attention in ways children do. She had stopped talking to her dolls, singing to herself or chatting in the tub with her rubber ducks. I couldn’t tear the love I felt for her out of my heart, and God wasn’t letting me know if that was a sin.
Pani cried the day she told me they had to let me go. She said the government had rules as to the amount Jews were allowed to take out of their savings accounts each week, and that amount kept getting smaller. It was no longer enough to pay for their groceries.
I went to my room and started packing. The thought of leaving Mirka was a thorn tearing at my heart. It took all this time for me to know happiness, the kind that comes from loving a child. I wasn’t about to let it go. I remembered a woman who lived on the first floor. Her daughter had asked me some days before if I knew anyone who could help her out a few hours a day. I thought, Mirka will be starting school soon. I’ll work for the woman mornings and be back when the little one comes home. I could do chores for Pani for my room and help pay for groceries. By this time I had savings of my own.
Pani didn’t say anything when I told her. She took my hand and held it against her cheek.
The day Mirka and I went to buy her a school bag, she was her old self, chatting and skipping at my side. She chose a blue one with shiny silver buckles and wouldn’t change her mind. I thought the bag was too pretty, a thing to tempt the evil eye. It also cost more than the money Pani gave me. I added some of my own.
The first day of school some children cried, clung to their mothers. Mirka waved to me and ran off to her class, a happy child.
Most days Mirka came home from school all excited. She’d tell me what she learned and rush to do her homework. I was learning with her. Her hand over mine, we practiced writing the alphabet I had long forgotten. It was Mirka who taught me to sign my name.
Her joy did not last. Pani was called to the principal’s office. She came back crying, her face the color of milk. The principal had shouted at her, she told me. Why wasn’t Mirenka wearing a star? he wanted to know. She was over six years old, was she not? Had Pani no respect for the law? No, she did not respect a law that made children suffer, she wanted to say, but instead, she pleaded. Mirenka was the only Jewish child in her class, she reminded him. The star would set her apart, turn her into a target for bullies. She begged him—was there no way to get around that cruel law?
Things turned out as Pani said. At first Mirka kept it to herself that children followed her from school and taunted her. Then one day she came home with her nose bleeding, her knees and elbows bruised, the blue schoolbag ripped open. Her cries tore my heart. I took her into my arms, rocked her like a baby. “Miruška, Mirušenka moja.” I did not forget the words Andrej had read to me, “and whosoever supports or defends them will not escape God’s punishment,” but I said to myself, Let it happen. Let lightning strike me dead. If God won’t protect this child, I will.
From then on I walked with Mirka to and from school. The bullies still followed us. They called her “Christ killer,” and me “Turkey woman,” but they never touched her again.
A notice arrived. Mirka, a Hebrew, would no longer be allowed to attend public school. The notice trembled in Pani’s hand.
“Teresa, how do I tell this to my daughter?”
I don’t know what or how she told her, but no cries came from Mirka’s room. For days after that, the child kept to herself, not speaking, hardly touching her food. What was she thinking? I wondered. Was she trying to make sense, as I was, of what seemed so unfair?
On Saturdays, Sundays and some evenings, Pan himself taught Mirka. They made a pretty picture: two heads with curly brown hair leaning toward each other over open books.
I started working for the old woman downstairs, and when Pan and Pani were out, I took Mirka with me. Saturday afternoons I stayed in my room, listening to the radio. Always the angry speeches about the Jews.
“Is it not right for a nation to want to get rid of its eternal enemy?” President Tiso asked. “We’re doing so according to God’s command—Slovak, get rid of your pest.”
I kept listening, waiting to hear how the Jews were harming the country. No one ever explained that. I guess they thought they didn’t need to because everyone but me knew.
Hlinka Guardists were helping Germans round up Jews to send to work camps. I asked my brother about those camps when I saw him at Easter.
“Yeah,” he said without looking up from the newspaper. “It’ll free our soldiers from digging ditches. The soldiers are needed at the front.”
“They want Pani and Mirka to dig ditches?” I asked.
“No, no. We’ll take good care of them. Look.”
He showed me pictures in a magazine taken at those camps. Happy-looking children building castles in the sand, playing on swings.
“They wouldn’t be staying there long,” he added. “A month or two. Let the Jews learn what real work is like.”
In August, Pani asked me to the sitting room. She wore the same dark-blue suit as when she hired me, only now it was frayed at the sleeves and much too loose on her. She looked worn and pale. She started to say something, but her voice broke. She tried again.
“Teresa, my husband and I want to ask something of you. We know how fond you are of Mirenka and she of you. We wouldn’t be asking were the situation not so serious.”
I noticed her hands were trembling. So was her chin.
“Pan and I were thinking . . . we can’t travel, you know, we no longer have citizenship. Would you take Mirenka to Hungary? They’re not deporting Jews from there. You could keep her with you, say she was your daughter or niece, or place her in a Christian orphanage. We’d get false papers for her and give you money and jewelry you could sell.”
I stared at the woman. Had she lost her mind? What was she thinking? It was one thing to make up little lies—Elena leaving to get married, a dog biting children in the park—but false papers? Haggling in dark alleyways over the price of a ring or a necklace? Lying to the police?
“Pani,” I said, “how can you ask that of me? I’m a simple countrywoman. I wouldn’t know how to keep up the lies. The camps aren’t that bad, Pani. They have playgrounds for children. I saw pictures. And you’d be back in a month or two.”
She sighed. “There are rumors, Teresa. Terrible rumors. We’re hearing that the camps . . . that they’re not work camps. They are killing people there. We are looking for a way to save Mirenka.”
“What are you saying, Pani?” I’d never have believed that I’d raise my voice to her—she never had to me—but now I was shouting. “What do you take us Slovaks for, murderers?” At that moment I hated her, thinking, it’s true what they’re saying about them. Jews will lie, cheat, spread false rumors; they’ll not stop at anything to get out of doing real work. I glanced at her fine white hands. Let her scrub floors for awhile. Let her find out what calluses feel like.
When I calmed down, Pani apologized. No, she said, she did not take Slovaks for murderers, of course not. Wasn’t she herself a Slovak? Weren’t her parents and grandparents, and had they not always lived in harmony alongside their Christian neighbors? I was right to be angry, she said. Those rumors couldn’t be true. She thanked me for bringing her back to her senses.
Two weeks later they were called up for deportation. They had a day’s notice to get ready. One piece of luggage allowed for each.
Pan told me he had already paid the rent for the two months ahead, and I could stay in the apartment for that time if I wished. He showed me a small safe hidden inside a wall behind a bookcase.
“When you leave, Teresa, would you take the safe with you, keep for us what’s left? It will help us, should we . . . when we get back.”
I cried when it was time to say goodbye. I told Mirka I’d take good care of her things, that in two months, when the weather turned cool, I’d have all her winter clothes aired and hang in the closets.
“The time will pass quickly, Mirka. There’ll be children your age and lots of space for playing. And the day you come back I’ll bake a poppy seed cake with walnuts and raisins.”
She smiled, but her eyes had no spark and looked past me.
From the doorway I watched the three walk down the street. Terror squeezed my guts, same as the day at the duck pond when a viper slithered over my bare feet. W hat if the rumors Pani heard were true?
The next morning there was a pounding on the door. Two Hlinka Guardists stood in the doorway. They walked past me like I wasn’t there. From room to room they stomped, opening closets, pulling out drawers, knocking books off the shelves.
“People are moving in tomorrow,” one of them said to me. “Make sure the place is clean before you leave.”
“There’s a family lives here,” I told him. “They paid rent for the time they’ll be gone and said I could stay.”
He pushed me against the wall and shoved his fist into my stomach. “You stay today, to clean up. You’re out by noon tomorrow. Is that clear?”
I couldn’t speak for the pain. I nodded.
Before they left, they sealed the closets and dresser drawers except for the ones in Mirka’s room. I knew which were her favorite dresses, books, games. In storage I found two suitcases I could carry. I packed my few things and as many of Mirka’s as I could fit in. She had long since stopped chatting with her rubber ducklings in the bathtub, but I took those too, for me to have while she was gone. Seeing them made me smile. I took the safe from behind the bookcase and slipped it under the clothes. The next morning I left.
In Andrej’s house I kept to my room. He was busy and left me alone. Every few days I’d visit with Elena. She had gotten married and was expecting. One day when I came back from Elena, Andrej was sitting at the table in the front room. On the table was the safe—open! I felt my face burn. He’d been to my room, gone through my things. A silver pocket watch on a chain dangled from his finger. He winked at me.
“Pretty, eh? And monogrammed. You won’t believe my luck. Someone high up in the Party ranks has the same initials. He’s sure to appreciate this.”
“How dare you,” I shouted. “These things aren’t yours to give away. They belong to— ”
“Calm down, Tekvica, you’ll bust your goiter. Sit down. Here, take something for yourself, a keepsake. This bracelet or the ring. The Jews won’t need them anymore.”
“They will,” I screamed, “they will! That’s all they’ll have to start with when they get back.”
He looked at me as if I were some insect he’d never seen. A rumble started inside his throat and turned into a fit of coughing and laughing so hard I thought he’d bust a vein. He had to shove his chair away from the table to make room for his heaving belly. “‘Back,’ she says. For ‘when they get back.’”
The laughing stopped. He leaned forward. His face came close to mine, his eyes narrowed into slits. “Five hundred reichsmarks,” he said. “Five hundred. That’s what we Slovaks paid Germany for each Jew they took off our hands. With one condition—that they don’t come back. A contract, Tekvica. Understand? Germans honor their contracts. No Jew is coming back.”
I was looking at the pictures on the wall behind him, Tiso and the ministers. They were hanging crooked. I was thinking, I need to straighten them. And, thinking, tomorrow is market day, I’ll get some wool. Elena’s baby will need a warm cap and booties. I saw Andrej gulp down some more beer and stretch out on the sofa.
I must have sat for awhile. I guess it was sometime after sunset that I walked to my room and lay down on my bed.
I woke in the dark. I was groping for Mirka’s hand. It had just been in mine. We’d been walking in a strange city. She was little, like when I first saw her, but she had her blue school bag, and she was reading signs above the stores.
“BU-DA-PEST BA-KE-RY.” In the store window, on a tray, were cinnamon buns.
“Tesa, I want one.”
“No,” I said. “You can’t have any.”
“Please, Tesa,” she begged.
“They’re not real,” I lied. “They’re made of rubber.”
She started to cry. That’s what woke me, her crying. And I was still hearing it. Was she in the room? Had Andrej let her in?
“Mirka, are you here?” And then I understood. It was like when a beam of light cuts through mist and suddenly you see what’s been there all along. Mirka couldn’t be here. Five hundred reichsmarks. The Germans honor their contract.
I got up. I walked into the front room. The only light came from the moon. It showed Andrej sprawled on the sofa. He had not taken off his Hlinka Guard uniform, only the holster with the gun. It was on the table next to the open safe.
I was shaking, all of me was shaking with rage. I heard a scream, I heard shouts. “Murderers! Child-killers! Devils!” And I saw my hand reach for the gun.
Kathryn Winter lives in Berkeley, California. Her short stories have appeared in various publications. In her first novel, Katarina, Winter drew on her own experiences growing up as a Jewish girl in Slovakia during World War II.