Read an Excerpt
Jakob and Bella
Lvov, Soviet-Occupied Poland ~ October 24, 1939
Bella steps carefully so as not to clip the backs of Anna’s heels. The sisters move slowly, deliberately, talking in whispers. It’s nine in the evening, and the streets are empty. There isn’t a curfew in Lvov as there is in Radom, but the blackout is still in effect, and with the street lamps extinguished, it’s nearly impossible to see.
“I can’t believe we didn’t bring a flashlight,” Bella whispers.
“I walked the route earlier today,” Anna says. “Just stay close, I know where I’m going.”
Bella smiles. Slinking through backstreets in the pale blue light of the moon reminds her of the nights she and Jakob used to tiptoe at two in the morning from their apartments to make love in the park under the chestnut trees.
“It’s just here,” Anna whispers.
They climb a small flight of stairs, entering the house through a side door. Inside, it’s even darker than it is on the street.
“Stay here for a moment while I light a match,” Anna says, rummaging through her handbag.
“Yes, ma’am,” Bella says, laughing. All her life it’s been she who bosses Anna about, not the other way around. Anna is the baby, the family’s sweetheart. But Bella knows that behind the pretty face and quiet façade, her sister is whip smart, capable of anything she sets her mind to.
Despite being two years younger, Anna was the first to marry. She and her husband, Daniel, live just down the street from Bella and Jakob in Lvov—a reality that has softened Bella’s pain at leaving her parents behind. The sisters see each other often and talk frequently about how to convince their parents to make the move to Lvov. But in her letters, Gustava insists that she and Henry are getting by on their own in Radom. Your father’s dentistry is still bringing a bit of income, she wrote in her last correspondence. He’s been treating the Germans. It doesn’t make sense for us to move, not yet at least. Just promise to visit when you can, and to write often.
“How on earth did you find this place?” Bella asks. She’d been given no address, just told to follow. They’d snaked through so many narrow back alleys on their way, she’d lost her sense of direction.
“Adam found it,” Anna says, striking a match over and over without a spark. “Through the Underground,” she adds. “Apparently they’ve used it before, as a sort of safe house. It’s abandoned, so we shouldn’t have any surprise visitors.”
Finally, a match takes, emitting a cloud of sharp-smelling sulphur and an amber halo of light.
“Adam said he left a candle by the faucet,” she mutters, shuffling toward the sink, a hand cupped over the flame. Adam had found the rabbi, too, which Bella knew was no easy task. When Lvov fell, the Soviets stripped the city’s rabbis of their titles and banned them from practicing; those who were unable to find new jobs went into hiding. Yoffe was the only rabbi Adam could find, he said, who wasn’t afraid to officiate a marriage ceremony, under the condition that the wedding take place in secrecy.
In the match’s faint glow, the room begins to take shape. Bella looks around, at the shadow of a kettle resting on a stove top, a bowl of wooden spoons silhouetted on the counter, a blackout curtain hanging in a window over the sink. Whoever lived here left in a hurry, it seems. “It’s incredibly kind of Adam to do this for us,” Bella says, more to herself than to her sister. She’d met Adam a year ago, when he leased a room in the Kurcs’ apartment. Mostly she knew him as Halina’s boyfriend, calm and cool and rather quiet—oftentimes his voice was barely heard around the dinner table. But since arriving in Lvov, Adam has surprised Bella with his ability to orchestrate the impossible: handcrafting false identification cards for the family. As far as the Russians know, Adam works at an orchard outside the city, harvesting apples—but in the Underground, Adam has become a prized counterfeiter. By now, hundreds of Jews have pocketed his IDs, which he produces with such a meticulous hand, Bella would swear they are real.
She’d asked him once how he was able to make them look so authentic.
“They are authentic. The stamps, at least,” he’d said, explaining how he’d discovered that he could remove official government stamps from existing IDs with a peeled, just-boiled egg. “I lift the original when the egg is still hot,” Adam said, “then roll the egg over the new ID. Don’t ask why, but it works.”
“Found it!” Darkness envelops them once again as Anna fumbles for another match. A moment later, the candle is lit.
Bella removes her coat, lays it over the back of a chair.
“Cold in here,” Anna whispers. “Sorry.” Carrying the candle, she makes her way from the sink to stand beside Bella.
“It’s okay.” Bella suppresses a shiver. “Is Jakob already here? And Genek? Herta? It’s so quiet.”
“Everyone’s here. Getting settled in the foyer, I imagine.”
“So I’m not to be married in the kitchen?” Bella laughs and then sighs, realizing that for as many times as she’d told herself she’d marry Jakob anywhere, the idea of wedding him here, in the shadowy, ghostlike home of a family she’ll never know, was beginning to make her feel uneasy.
“Please. You’ve far too much class for a kitchen wedding.”
Bella smiles. “I didn’t think I’d be nervous.”
“It’s your wedding day—of course you’re nervous!”
The words reverberate through her and Bella goes still. “I wish Mother and Father could be here,” she says finally, and as she hears herself, her eyes well up with tears. She and Jakob had talked about waiting until the war was over to marry, so they could hold a more traditional ceremony in Radom with their families. But there was no telling when the war would end. They’d waited long enough, they decided. The Tatars and the Kurcs had both given their blessings from Radom. They’d practically begged Jakob and Bella to marry. Still, Bella hates that her parents can’t be with her—hates that, despite how happy she is now that she’s with Jakob, she’s also guilty for it. Is it right, she wonders, to celebrate while her country is at war? While her parents are alone in Radom—her parents, who, for all of her life, have given her so much when they had so little? Bella’s memory flashes to the day when she and Anna returned home from school to find their father in the living room with a scruffy-looking dog at his feet. The pup was a gift, their father told them, from one of his patients who had fallen on hard times and was unable to pay to have a tooth extracted. Bella and Anna, who had begged for a dog since they were toddlers, had shrieked with joy and rushed to hug their father, who wrapped his arms around them, laughing as the dog nipped playfully at their ankles.
Anna squeezes her hand. “I know,” she says, “I wish they could be here, too. But they want this so badly for you. You mustn’t worry about them. Not tonight.”
Bella nods. “It’s just so far from what I imagined,” she whispers.
“I know,” Anna says again, her voice soft.
When they were teenagers, Bella and Anna would lie in bed and talk for hours, spinning stories of their wedding days. At the time, Bella could see it perfectly: the sweet-smelling bouquet of white roses her mother would arrange for her to carry; the smile on her father’s face as he lifted her veil to kiss her forehead beneath the chuppah; the thrill of slipping a ring over Jakob’s index finger, a symbol of their love that he would carry with him for the remainder of his lifetime. Her wedding, had it been in Radom, would have been far from lavish, this she knows. It would have been simple. Beautiful. What it would not have been was a secret ceremony, held in the cold carcass of an abandoned, blacked-out house 500 kilometers from her parents. But, Bella reminds herself, she’d chosen to come to Lvov, after all. She and Jakob had decided together to marry here. Her sister is right; her parents have wanted this for her for years. She should focus on what she has, not what she doesn’t—on this night, especially.
“No one could have predicted this,” Anna adds. “But just think,” she says, her voice growing more chipper, “the next time you see Mama i Tata, you will be a married woman! Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
Bella smiles, willing away her tears. “It is, in a way,” she whispers, thinking about her father’s letter, which had arrived two days ago. In it, Henry described how overjoyed he and Gustava were upon learning of her intent to marry. We love you so much, dear Bella. Your Jakob is a good soul, that boy, with a fine family. We will celebrate, all of us, when we are together again. Rather than show the letter to Jakob right away, Bella had slipped it under her pillow and decided she’d let him read it later that evening, once they’d returned to their apartment, a married couple.
Sucking in her stomach, Bella runs her hands along the lace bodice of her dress. “I’m so happy it fits,” she says, exhaling. “It’s just as beautiful as I remember it.”
When Anna became engaged to Daniel, their mother, knowing that they couldn’t afford the kind of dress Anna would want from a dressmaker, decided to make a gown herself. She, Bella, and Anna had scoured the pages of McCall’s and Harper’s Bazaar for the designs they liked. When Anna finally picked her favorite—inspired by film stills of Barbara Stanwyck—the Tatar women spent an entire afternoon at Nechuma’s fabric shop, poring over bolts of various satins, silks, and laces, marveling over how luxurious each felt as they rubbed it between their fingers. Nechuma gave them the materials they finally selected at cost, and it took Gustava nearly a month to finish the gown—a V-neck, with a white lace-trimmed bodice, long gathered Gibson sleeves, buttons down the back, a bell-shaped skirt that fell just to the floor, and a powder-white satin sash gathered at her hips. Delighted, Anna deemed it a masterpiece. Bella had secretly hoped she’d get to wear it someday.
“I’m just happy I brought it,” Anna says. “I almost left it with Mother, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. Oh, Bella.” Anna stands back to take her in. “You look so beautiful! Come,” she says, adjusting the gold brooch hanging around Bella’s neck so it sits perfectly centered in the hollow between her collarbones, “before I cry. Are you ready?”
“Almost.” Bella fishes a metal tube from her coat pocket. She removes the lid, then swivels the bottom a half turn and applies a few dabs of Peppercorn Red lipstick carefully to her lips, wishing she had a mirror. “I’m glad you brought this, too,” she says, rubbing her lips together before dropping the tube back into her pocket. “And that you were willing to share,” she adds. When lipstick was pulled from the market—the army had better use for petroleum and castor oil—most women they knew clung fiercely to what was left of their supplies.
“Of course,” Anna says. “So—gotowa?”
Carrying the candle in one hand, Anna guides Bella gently through a doorway.
The foyer is dimly illuminated by two small votives propped on the staircase balusters. Jakob stands at the foot of the stairs. At first, all Bella can make out of him is his silhouette—his narrow torso, the gentle slope of his shoulders.
“We’ll save this one for later,” Anna says, snuffing out her candle. She kisses Bella on the cheek. “I love you,” she says, beaming, and then makes her way to greet the others. Bella can’t see them, but she can hear whispers: Och, jaka pie, kna! Beautiful!
A second silhouette stands motionless beside her groom, the candlelight catching the frizz of a long, silver beard. It must be the rabbi, Bella realizes. She steps into the flickering glow of the votives, and as she slides her elbow through Jakob’s, she feels the tightness between her ribs disappear. She isn’t nervous anymore, or cold. She’s floating.
Jakob’s eyes are wet when they meet hers. In her sister’s ivory kitten heels, she’s nearly as tall as he. He plants a kiss on her cheek.
“Hello, sunshine,” he says, smiling.
“Hi,” Bella replies, grinning. One of the onlookers chuckles.
The rabbi extends a hand. His face is a maze of wrinkles. He must be in his eighties, Bella guesses. “I am Rabbi Yoffe,” he says. His voice, like his beard, is rough around the edges.
“Pleasure,” Bella says, taking his hand and dipping her chin. His fingers feel frail and knotted between hers, like a cluster of twigs. “Thank you for this,” she says, knowing what a risk he’d taken to be there.
Yoffe clears his throat. “Well. Shall we get started?” Jakob and Bella nod.
“Yacub,” Yoffe begins, “repeat after me.”
Jakob does his best not to bungle Rabbi Yoffe’s words, but it’s difficult, partly because his Hebrew is rudimentary, but mostly because he’s too distracted by his bride to keep a thought in his mind for more than a few seconds. She is spectacular in her gown. But it’s not the dress he’s taken by. He’s never seen her skin so smooth, her eyes so bright, her smile, even in the shadows, such a perfect, radiant cupid’s bow. Against the ebony backdrop of the abandoned house, ensconced in the golden glimmer of candlelight, she appears angelic. He can’t take his eyes off her. And so he stumbles through his prayers, thinking not about his words but about the image of his soon-to-be wife before him, memorizing her every curve, wishing he could snap a photo so he could show her later on just how beautiful she looked.
Yoffe pulls a handkerchief from his breast pocket, places it over Bella’s head. “Walk seven times,” he instructs, drawing an imaginary circle on the floor with his index finger “around Yacub.” Bella extracts her elbow from Jakob’s and obeys, her heels clicking softly on the wooden floorboards as she walks a circle, and then two. Each time she passes in front of him, Jakob whispers, “You are exquisite.” And each time, Bella blushes. When she has returned to Jakob’s side, Yoffe offers a short prayer and reaches again into his pocket, this time removing a cloth napkin, folded in two. He opens it, revealing a small light bulb with a broken filament—a functioning light is too precious to break now.
“Don’t worry, it no longer works,” he says, wrapping up the bulb and bending slowly to place it at their feet. Something creaks and Jakob wonders whether it’s the floorboards or one of the rabbi’s joints. “In the midst of this happy occasion,” Yoffe says, righting himself, “we should not forget how fragile life truly is. The breaking of glass—a symbol of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, of man’s short life on earth.” He motions to Jakob, and then to the floor. Jakob brings a foot down gently on the napkin, resisting the urge to stomp for fear that someone might hear.
“Mazel tov!” the others cry softly from the shadows, also straining to subdue their cheers. Jakob takes Bella’s hands, weaving his fingers between hers.
“Before we finish,” Yoffe says, pausing to look from Jakob to Bella, “I would like to add that, even in the darkness, I see your love. Inside, you are full, and through your eyes, it shines.” Jakob tightens his grip on Bella’s hand. The rabbi smiles, revealing two missing teeth, then breaks into song as he recites a final blessing:
You are blessed, Lord our God, the sovereign of the world, who created joy and celebration, bridegroom and bride, rejoicing, jubilation, pleasure and delight,
love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. . . .
The others sing along, clapping softly as Jakob and Bella seal the ceremony with a kiss.
“My wife,” Jakob says, his gaze dancing across Bella’s face. The word feels new and wonderful on his lips. He steals a second kiss.
Hand in hand, they turn to greet their guests, who emerge from the shadows of the foyer to embrace the newlyweds.
A few minutes later, the group is assembled in the dining room for a makeshift dinner, a meal smuggled in under their coats. It’s nothing fancy, but a treat, nonetheless—horsemeat burgers, boiled potatoes, and homemade beer.
Genek clinks a fork against a borrowed glass and clears his throat. “To Pan i Pani Kurc!” he says, his glass lifted. “Mazel tov!”
“Mazel tov!” the others echo.
“And it only took nine years!” Genek adds, grinning. Beside him, Herta laughs. “But seriously. To my little brother, and to his ravishing bride, who we’ve all adored since the day we met—may your love be everlasting. L’chaim!”
“L’chaim,” the others repeat in unison.
Jakob raises his glass, smiling at Genek, and wishing as he often does that he’d proposed sooner. Had he asked for Bella’s hand a year ago, they would have celebrated with a proper wedding—with parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles by their sides. They’d have danced to Popławski, sipped champagne from tall flutes, and gorged on gingerbread cake. The night, no doubt, would have wrapped with Addy, Halina, and Mila taking turns at the keys of a piano, serenading their guests with a jazz tune, a Chopin nocturne. He glances at Bella. They’d agreed it was the right thing, to marry here in Lvov, and even though she never said it, he knows she must feel a similar longing—for the wedding they thought they’d have. The wedding she deserved. Let it go, Jakob tells himself, pushing aside the familiar stitch of regret.
Around the table, glasses touch rims, their cylindrical bottoms catching the candlelight as bride and groom and guests sip their beer. Bella coughs and covers her mouth, her eyebrows arched, and Jakob laughs. It’s been months since they’ve had a drink, and the ale is harsh.
“Potent!” Genek offers, his dimples carving shadows in his cheeks. “We’ll all be drunk before we know it.”
“I think I might already be drunk,” Anna cries from the far end of the table.
As the others laugh, Jakob turns, rests his hand on Bella’s knee beneath the table. “Your ring is waiting for you in Radom,” he whispers. “I’m sorry I didn’t give it to you sooner. I was waiting for the perfect moment.”
Bella shakes her head. “Please,” she says. “I don’t need a ring.”
“I know this isn’t—”
“Shush, Jakob,” Bella whispers. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“I’m going to make it up to you, love. I promise.”
“Don’t.” Bella smiles. “Honestly, it’s perfect.”
Jakob’s heart swells. He leans closer, his lips brushing her ear. “It’s not how we imagined it, but I want you to know—I’ve never been happier than I am right now,” he whispers.
Bella is blushing again. “Me either.”