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A Strange New Place

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It took them almost two months to walk to Krakow, and by the time they got there Tzeitel had never been more exhausted in her life. She would have marveled at the size of the great city, had she any energy to marvel with. Instead, she trudged silently beside Motel, one hand on the baby in its sling. None of them had ever been to Krakow before, of course, but the people they'd stayed with the night before had given them an address to go to and directions on how to navigate the Kazimierz to find it.

The woman who opened the door to them looked them up and down: all seventeen of them from Annatevka who had come to Krakow, either as a final destination or as a stop along their way. "What village are you from?" she asked, opening the door to them.

"Annatevka," said Todrish Gaimsky, the oldest of them. "Near Kyiv. They expelled all the Jews."

The woman nodded and sighed. "Well, we'll soon get you settled." She stood aside from the door. "Come in, come in! We don’t have room for all of you here, but there’s another boarding house down the street that should have a room or two. You can help out around the place until you have jobs to pay with, but that’s tomorrow’s problem."

Tzeitel and Motel, being in better shape than some of the older people of their group, were sent down the street to another boarding house, and given a room that they would have to share with another family from their group. They were fed a hot meal that Tzeitel was grateful for, but too tired to taste.

The first thing she saw the next morning was Motel's sewing machine, crammed with the rest of their things between the bed and the wall. She stared at it. If they had still been in the process of saving up for it, they might have had enough to join Mother and Father and the rest on a direct trip to America; even if they couldn't, they wouldn't have had to push the heavy thing in a wheelbarrow all the way from Annatevka to Krakow. Perhaps they might have been able to take the train to Krakow with Chava and her Russian husband.

The sound of the door opening drew her attention, and she turned to see Motel stick his head in. "Ah, good, you're awake!" he said. He entered the door, baby in arms. "I changed his diaper, but you need to take him now."

"Give him here," Tzeitel said, sitting up in bed.

Motel picked his way around the other bed and the piles of the other family’s belongings. "Here you go," he said, handing little Yankele to her.

Tzeitel lifted the baby to her breast as Motel settled in beside her. "There's food waiting when you're done here," he said. "They've been asking me if I want to set up shop for myself, like I did back in Annatevka, or if I want to work for another tailor here."

"Nobody knows you here," Tzeitel said. "Will they buy clothes from a man they don't know?"

"I'm told it's different in cities," Motel said. "But it would still take time to build up enough business to live on, much less save anything. On the other hand, once I did have business built up, I'd earn more money with my own shop than as someone else's employee."

Tzeitel bit her lip. "And I suppose there will be laundry work for me." She'd taken in washing, back home in Annatevka, to help make ends meet, in addition to tending house and keeping poultry and growing most of their food in her garden. But how did that work in a city when you lived in a room in a boarding house? Perhaps someone needed a servant, and wouldn’t mind her bringing a baby along?

"Probably," Motel said.

"And we'll have to share this room, until we have enough money to rent a room of our own," Tzeitel said, thinking.

"I would rather have a smaller income that starts sooner, than take a chance on starting my own shop," Motel said.

"I think you're right," Tzeitel said. "Why open a shop if we're just going to close it and move to America as soon as we have the money?"

Tzeitel was eating breakfast in the dining room, contemplating the luxury of a day in which her heaviest chore would be caring for little Yankele. The women running the house had already told her that while of course she would be expected to help to the best of her abilities, first she must rest and recover from the long journey.

The woman from the first boarding house they’d stopped at sat down on the bench beside her. "You're Tzeitel from Annatevka, yes? I am Mindel Lenga. I didn't remember last night in all the hubbub, but I think I have met your sister Chava Popova."

"Oh?" Tzeitel said warily. There had been a lot of talk, and a lot of unpleasant comments, when Chava had first married Fyedka, but it had all died down eventually, especially after Papa had made it clear she was dead to the family. Tzeitel was not looking forward to more of the same here in Krakow, especially not from people on whose charity they would depend until she and Motel could get jobs.

"She's been by, asking about you," Mindel said. "I can give you the directions to the restaurant where she's working, you can go visit her today if you want."

"Chava is working in a restaurant?" Tzeitel said. "But … she's a terrible cook!"

Mindel shrugged. "Then maybe she's washing dishes."

Tzeitel shook her head in wonder. "Mama would be so surprised—but pleased!—to hear that she's working in a restaurant, even if it's only washing dishes. Maybe she'll learn something." And Mindel didn't seem to have any problems with her; with a name like Popova, “priest,” it was obvious she’d married a gentile. Perhaps the woman who ran the house they were staying in would be understanding, too. "How far is this restaurant?" she asked. "Will it be hard to find?"

Mindel hesitated. "Well, it is in Krakow proper, not the Kazimierz, and if you had money I'd advise you to use the streetcar, because it would be much easier and quicker …"

Tzeitel nodded. She'd heard of the streetcar, which was a sort of small train that ran inside the city, but hadn't seen one yesterday. "But I don't have money for the streetcar," she said.

"Well, it shouldn’t be that hard to find," Mindel said, and gave her directions.

The boarding house didn't have much privacy when you were sharing a room with another family, but Tzeitel managed to find a quiet corner and drag Motel into it. "Chava's here, in Krakow," she said. "She left a message for me with one of the women who run this place. She's working in a restaurant outside the Jewish quarter."

"Chava is working in a restaurant?" Motel said, pushing his glasses up in bewilderment, probably remembering disasters Chava had been responsible for back home. They'd eaten them, of course, you couldn't waste food, but it hadn't been pleasant.

"I know!" Tzeitel said. She took a deep breath to fortify herself. Motel had never tried to forbid her anything, but there was a first time for everything. "I want to go visit her today."

"I can't go with you, they've given me the name of some tailors to ask for a job from," Motel said.

Tzeitel paused. She hadn’t been expecting him to yell, he wasn’t Papa, but she hadn’t been expecting him to offer to go with her. “Of course,” she said. “That’s more important.” She bit her lip. She longed to see her sister, but the thought of finding her way alone, in the goyische part of the city, was daunting. When she had thought she would have to argue for the right to go, she had pushed that thought aside. Now it came rushing back. “There’s nobody I could ask to go with me,” she said.

None of the others from Annatevka would go visit the girl who married a Russian. Even the ones who had been sympathetic before had hardened their hearts after being forced to leave. “I suppose it’s foolish to be so anxious. It’s only been two months since I saw her last, and it was almost six months between the day she left home and when we saw each other before we left.”

Motel shrugged. “We’re in a strange place, and back in Annatevka you knew she was safe, even if you couldn’t talk to her. Of course you want to see that she's doing well here.”

Tzeitel smiled and hugged him. This was why she loved Motel. He always kind and thoughtful. “I do want to go, but I don’t know if it’s worth the risk to go alone,” she said.

“I don’t know any more about that than you do,” Motel pointed out. He adjusted his glasses. “But I’m sure if it was dangerous to be out on the streets alone, whoever passed on Chava’s message would have told you.”

Compared to all the walking they’d done to get here, the walk to Chava’s restaurant was nothing. It was still more than Tzeitel would have preferred, but it was worth it. The sun was shining, there was no wind, and the promise of spring was in the air; the bitter cold that had dogged their heels on the road was gone.

And it was much more interesting than the walk from Annatevka had been; it wasn’t just size and streetcars that made Krakow different from Annatevka. There were so many things! For example, even in the Jewish Quarter itself, the Kazimierz, she would not have been able to identify most people around her as Jewish simply by looking at them. Oh, there were some where she could see the tassels of prayer shawls poking out or something like that, but she was used to being able to identify someone’s religion and class at a glance, and she couldn’t do that here. They weren’t dressed like Russian peasants, either. Just … different. Motel would have to learn new patterns.

Once out of the Kazimierz, the garb of the people around her changed little. It was far less nerve-wracking than walking among goyim usually was, and she thought it might be because they weren’t dressed as the goyim around Annatevka had been. Nothing about them looked like the men who had occasionally harassed her, when they caught her by herself; nothing about them looked like the men who had attacked her wedding.

Once she found the restaurant, she went around to the back door and asked for Chava. “I’m her sister, Tzeitel,” she told the large, red-faced woman who answered.

The woman grunted. “She’s over there,” she said, pointing through the busy kitchen to a side room.

“Thank you,” Tzeitel said, and hurried through the kitchen.

Chava was indeed in the side room, bent over a large sink, sleeves rolled up.

“Chava!” Tzeitel exclaimed.

Chava turned. “Tzeitel! Oh, Tzeitel, you're here!”

The two sisters embraced, Yankele trapped between them, and Tzeitel had to blink back tears. It was silly; she’d seen Chava only a month and a half ago, the day they’d all left Annatevka. But they hadn’t had time to talk, hadn’t really spent time together since before Chava’s marriage. In truth, not since before Tzeitel’s marriage; she’d been so absorbed in her new life with Motel, and she’d assumed that she could always see Hodel and Chava whenever she wanted, and then … that had not turned out to be the case.

They separated at last, and Chava laughed a little as she turned a knob and the water stopped flowing into the sink. Tzeitel watched, fascinated; water available without having to pump it by hand was perhaps the most wonderful think Krakow had to offer. “We’re between meals, give me a few minutes to finish these and then I can take a break and we can talk.”

“I can help,” Tzeitel offered, but then Yankele started crying and she had to feed him. She sat and fed the baby and watched Chava work.

“What do you think Mama would say if she knew I was working in a restaurant, even washing dishes?” Chava asked.

Tzeitel laughed. “I think I can imagine. Motel and I were sure surprised!”

“Still, it’s a good job,” Chava said. “I can take home any leftovers they have at the end of the day, which means I don’t have to cook. I might be able to find a job that paid more—”

“—but then you’d have to cook,” Tzeitel said.

“Exactly,” Chava said. “Speaking of which, are you hungry? We’re done with the lunch rush, there’s probably leftovers available.”

“Chava,” Tzeitel said, and stopped. She wasn’t the one who’d married a Gentile in a Christian church. “I can’t …"

“Oh!” Chava said, realizing the problem. “It’s all right. It’s a Jewish restaurant, everything is kosher.”

“But it’s outside the Kazimierz,” Tzeitel said.

Chava shrugged. “The only people who live in the Kazimierz are the ones too poor to live elsewhere. Jews live all throughout the city, which means there are Jewish businesses all throughout the city.”

“Then I would be grateful for any food they can spare,” Tzeitel said. “We only arrived in the city yesterday.”

“Yesterday?” Chava turned away from the sink. “And you came to see me today? After walking all that way? You should be resting!”

“I wanted to see you,” Tzeitel said. “I missed you.”

Chava looked down. “I missed you, too.” She turned back to her sink, scrubbing industriously.

When the last bits were washed and dried, and Yankele was done eating, Chava led them back out into the main kitchen and stacked all the dishes and cookware in their places, then took two plates and filled them up out of the pots the red-faced woman indicated. Chava and Tzeitel took their plates out into the alley behind the restaurant and sat down on some crates.

“This is very good,” Tzeitel said. It was richer fare than they’d ever had at home except on high holy days, and different than the dishes she was familiar with. “What does your husband think of eating kosher food?”

“That it’s better than eating my cooking,” Chava said. “If he wants pork, he can eat at a restaurant himself.”

“You have money to eat in restaurants?” Tzeitel was surprised.

“Not regularly, but sometimes. There are some that aren’t too expensive.”

They talked about the city, how different it was from Annatevka, and Chava gave her advice on where to look for a room to rent and how to tell if someone was offering fair wages. (Tzeitel suspected her of enjoying the opportunity to give advice to her older sister.) Tzeitel told her all about the long walk from Annatevka to Krakow, and Chava was appropriately sympathetic at the hardships they had suffered along the way. Chava and Fyedka had been on the cheapest fare, of course, so their time on the train hadn't been luxurious, but it was nothing to Tzeitel and Motel's journey.

When they were done eating, Chava went back inside to work, and Tzeitel followed her.

It was strange to sit doing nothing while her sister washed dishes, but Tzeitel didn’t want to leave. Didn’t want to face the walk back to the Kazimierz; didn’t want to leave her sister whom she’d once thought she might never see again. So she sat in the warm kitchen, and watched her sister scrub pots and dishes.

“You didn’t mention your husband,” Tzeitel said at last. The omission had been the one sour note in their conversation. She didn’t want to have to worry about her little sister. She’d spent too long suppressing a sick worry, these last few months. “Was that because things are going badly, or because you don’t want me to cause a scene?”

Chava dropped the pot with a clang and whirled around. “Fyedka’s wonderful, we’re wonderful. We’ve never been the problem, the two of us together; it’s everyone else who’s the problem. Can you blame me for not wanting to have to worry about how you’d react to hearing about him?”

“No, I don’t blame you,” Tzeitel said. “I just wanted to know how you are. All of how you are.”

Chava’s eyes flashed. “Oh, now you worry. Not back in Annatevka, when none of my family or friends would talk to me and his family didn’t like me any more than you all liked him.”

“I was worried then, too,” Tzeitel said. “I’m sorry.” She’d been hurt, and angry—how could Chava marry one of the people who had destroyed her wedding celebration? Who could so easily choose to kill them or force them from their homes?—and worried about how people would react if she’d kept contact with Chava. On the farm, if people didn’t buy their milk, well, it would hurt, but they’d still have food to eat. But Motel was a tailor. If people didn’t buy his clothes, they’d starve. But now … now the worst had happened, and Chava was still her sister.

“Apology accepted,” Chava said stiffly, turning back to the sink.

“Was it very bad?” Tzeitel asked.

“Yes,” Chava said. “Everyone except Fyedka was so hateful, on both sides. Why are people like that?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s much better here. Most people don’t care much, and we’re not the only marriage between a Jew and a Christian.”

“I’m glad things are better,” Tzeitel said sincerely. “And I’m glad Fyedka is good to you.”

“You don’t get to call him Fyedka,” Chava said.

Tzeitel supposed she was right that the nickname was too familiar; Tzeitel had never even spoken to him. “Fyodor, then.”

They were silent for a bit.

“How are things between you and Motel?” Chava asked. “Although I don’t suppose I need to ask. The two of you were always thick as thieves, even as children. I don’t suppose that would have changed once you got married.”

Some things had changed, though, obviously, and Tzeitel blushed to think about them. However well she’d thought she’d known him, being married to him gave her a whole deeper level of knowledge, and the Biblical metaphor for sex made a great deal more sense to her now. “Living together is different, but he’s always been my best friend. He’s a very good father, and we work well together. I’m so glad to be doing this with him, instead of … anyone else.” True, Lazar Wolf could have paid their way to America without having to stop and work … but then she would be in a foreign country without any friends or loved ones at all.

Chava hummed, and scratched her nose before going on to the next pot.

“What?” Tzeitel demanded, knowing her sister well. Chava was skeptical, and hiding it badly.

Chava shrugged. “I’m glad you’re happy, it’s just … he’s always been like a brother to us, and I couldn’t imagine marrying someone who was like a brother. Friendship, yes, that’s all well and good, but … how do you sleep with him?”

“I assure you,” Tzeitel said with as much dignity as she could manage, wishing for a brief moment that they were young girls again so she could dunk her sister in the basin, “that I have never thought of Motel as a brother. And of course I didn’t tell my unmarried baby sister about the pleasures of the marriage bed.”

Chava sniggered. “All right, all right!” she said. “I believe you! Just don’t share stories, I don't think I could bear imagining Motel in the throes of passion.”

Tzeitel opened her mouth, but the first three retorts she thought of were too cutting. "Good! He is mine. And even if my feelings for Motel were as brotherly as yours are, by the time we’re sixty the passions of youth will be long gone … and he’ll still be my best friend, and the person I want to spend my life with.”

“I understand that,” Chava said. “Better than you—or anyone in Annatevka—think.” Her voice turned bitter. “I know what people were saying behind my back, but if it were just about bedding one another we wouldn’t have bothered to get married.”

“What did you know of him, when you ran away together?” Tzeitel said, honestly curious. It wasn’t as if Chava and her Russian boy had had many opportunities to slip away to meet.

“I knew he was kind, and gentle,” Chava said, “and not just in the way some people think of as kind, when all they mean is that someone is not cruel. He actively chooses to be compassionate, to help when he can even if it costs him or makes people dislike him. I knew he was brave enough to stand up to his friends and family, when he disagreed with them. I knew he was intelligent and well read—he wants to be a teacher, if he can get his certificate.”

“A learned man,” Tzeitel said softly.

“Not in any way Papa would recognize, but yes,” Chava said. “I knew that Fyedka and I agreed on many things, but when we disagreed, he listened without being condescending. I may not have known what his favorite food was or where he liked to play as a child, but I knew all the important things.” She snorted. “You know, if he wasn’t Russian, I think Papa and Mama would like him better than they do Perchik.”

“That’s a very big if, Chava.”

“I know.”

Tzeitel was casting around for something else to talk about, something lighter, when she realized Yankele needed to be changed. By the time she had found a place to do that and cleaned up, she realized how late it was.

“I have to go,” she told Chava. She gave her the address of the boarding house where she and Motel were staying.

Chava dried her hands and took off her wet apron to hug Tzeitel. “Thank you for coming," she said.

“It was my pleasure,” Tzeitel said. “I have missed you.”

Chava stiffened at that, but before she could respond—probably with a comment about whose fault it was—Tzeitel stepped back. “I’ll tell Mama and Papa how you are doing when I write to them,” she promised. “And Hodel, too.”

“Hodel and I write to each other,” Chava said.

“She never mentioned it,” Tzeitel said.

“Why should she?” Chava said. “All it would get is trouble between you and her, or Mama and Papa and her. But she doesn’t have to care what Mama and Papa think, and nobody in Siberia cares.”

“Perchik probably cares more about whether or not Fyodor is a Communist than about whether or not he is Russian,” Tzeitel said, thinking about it.

“Oh, definitely,” Chava said. “Although, now I’ve been in Krakow for a month I’ve realized that there are many people more radical than Perchik.”

Tzeitel blinked. “You’re joking.”

“I’m not,” Chava said. “Perchik isn’t terribly radical, for the city; he’s just worse at staying out of trouble than most people are. Too loud.”

The cook’s assistant came to the doorway with a tray of dishes for Chava.

“Goodbye, Chava,” Tzeitel said. “See you again soon.”

The sun was still out as she walked back to the boarding house. Soon, the first shoots of vegetation would spring up. Would she see any of that, in the city? Perhaps the new growth of her and Chava's relationship would be the growth she saw this spring. She was glad they'd been able to meet, and to talk about some of the things that stood between them. Next time they met, it would be easier.

Motel was still out looking for work by the time Tzeitel and the baby returned, but he came back soon after. They sat together on a bench tucked in a corner. “Any luck?” Tzeitel asked.

“Yes, actually—one of the tailors just had someone quit to go to America, and was glad of someone fully trained to replace him." Motel had a gleam in his eye, and a laugh in his voice.

"Did you tell him that we're planning to go to America as soon as we can scrape together the money?" Tzeitel asked.

"I confess that I didn't. It's not as if I'm expecting him to spend any time or effort to train me. And I even have my own machine, and he doesn't have enough for everyone in his shop! It's a good deal for him, even if we won't be staying as long as he might like. How was Chava?”

“Good,” Tzeitel said. “Washing dishes. She got a job there so she wouldn’t have to cook.” They both laughed at that.

“I’m not surprised!” Motel said.

“No, but this may: it’s a Jewish restaurant. They keep kosher, I was able to eat lunch there.”

“Really?” Motel fiddled with his glasses. “Did she ask for a job there so she could keep kosher, in some small way, or simply through chance?”

“I don’t know,” Tzeitel said. “She and her Fyodor are happy together, she says. She was very touchy, but I think more because of how they were treated in Annatevka than because of any problems here. I think his family were just as upset as Papa was.”

“I’m not surprised.” His voice was dry as dust. “Given how much the goyim there hated us.”

Tzeitel made a noise of agreement, and laid her head on his shoulder. He tipped his head to the side, resting it against hers. They just fit together, as if God had made them for one another. It was an old thought, but a familiar and comforting one.

The baby started fussing. Tzeitel checked his diaper; it was dry. She tried to feed him, but Yankele wasn’t interested.

“Give him here,” Motel said. He took the baby and started making funny faces and noises at him, rocking him back and forth.

Tzeitel watched with a smile. He was such a good father; Papa had loved them, but she couldn’t imagine him rocking a fussy baby. Sure enough, Yankele quieted down eventually. She should go ask what they wanted her to help with tomorrow; she was still very tired, but if she had the strength to walk through the city for a visit, she had the strength to help take care of the house she was staying in. But she would rather stay here, with Motel, and watch him with the baby.

“You’re thinking about something,” Motel said eventually, once Yankele had quieted down again. “What is it?”

“You never talked about Chava much, after she married her Russian,” Tzeitel said.

“What was there to say?” Motel shrugged. “Your father said enough for everybody, loud enough that the Czar in St. Petersburg could hear.”

“You disagreed with him, then.”

“Not … in what he thought of the marriage. But his rigidity about what to do after the marriage, I don’t see how that helped anything. Or anyone.”

“What do you mean?” Tzeitel said.

Motel cocked his head and pushed up his glasses, for just a moment looking so much like their old rabbi that Tzeitel held her breath. It was a reminder that he’d had years of school, while she’d only had a short time with Perchik before her wedding.

“Obviously, it would have been better if she’d married a Jewish man,” Motel said. “But she didn’t. She married a Russian. Once they'd actually gone to the priest together, there was no separating them. So what was the point of declaring her dead to us? Just to show how heartbroken and angry he was? I don’t think that’s a good enough reason for the amount of pain he caused, not just to Chava but to your mother as well, and to you and your sisters. Or perhaps the point was to give an example to anyone else who might be thinking of converting or marrying a gentile? Chava had to know that was a likely result of her actions, and she did it anyway. Anyone as stubborn as Chava wouldn’t be deterred, and anyone less determined wouldn’t need the example. So was the example worth the pain he caused?”

“I was so angry at her thoughtlessness,” Tzeitel said. “I know her choice isn’t about us, but … after what they did at our wedding?”

“She saw the worst of the culture she was marrying into, and she did it anyway,” Motel said.

“She was always very determined.”

“Stubborn,” Motel agreed. “And determined to see things in the best possible light. But not stupid. She knew what she was doing.”

“You didn’t argue with Papa about it,” Tzeitel said. “Though I suppose that isn’t fair. Nobody but Mama can argue with Papa when he makes up his mind, and even she couldn’t move him.”

“I stood up to him for you,” Motel said with a smile. “I could stand up to him if I really believed him in the wrong.” He paused. “It helps, that they left. That they saw what was wrong, and chose to have no part in it, even if it cost them. I still don’t like it, but … she could have chosen worse. And I think there has been enough pain. Perhaps it is time to start healing.”

"I think it is," Tzeitel said. "I hope that Mama and Papa can begin to heal, in America. I miss them and Mama and the girls. Papa's voice would fill this place, make it a little more familiar. More like home.”

“I miss Mama scolding everyone, which I’d never have imagined.” Mote’s voice was wistful.

“She only scolded people she cared about,” Tzeitel said. “I didn’t realize that when I was young. I don’t know that she knew how to talk to us any other way. I want to be different, for Yankele.”

“You’re a wonderful mother.”

“And you’re a great papa.” They smiled at one another. Tzeitel looked back at Yankele and sighed. “I hope he’s still young by the time we reach America. I want him to know his grandparents.” She bit her lip. “Do you think he’ll ever meet her aunt Hodel? And if we leave … will he remember his aunt Chava?”

“I don’t know,” Motel said. “Hodel wants to join us in America, and maybe Perchik will agree, after trying to change things here got him sent to Siberia. So Yankele may well grow up with her. As for Chava … I expect that how willing they are to travel to a new country on the other side of the planet will depend on whether or not they expect their family to welcome them and accept them there.”

Tzeitel nodded. “Perhaps a new country will change Papa’s mind. After all, leaving Annatevka softened him enough to bless them.”

“Perhaps,” Motel said. “We can only pray.”