Jubilant after passing her copy of the Von Braun file to Jovanovich at lunch, Justine wanted to celebrate. As she stood at the curb at the day’s end, she pondered her options. Not much for a young woman alone in this city. Not even an extra food bag from her boss. As she trudged to the trolley stop, a car screeched to a halt in front of her. Surprised, she stepped back, then smiled as Ari leaned over from the driver’s seat. What a beautiful day this might be, she told herself as Ari opened the passenger door and beckoned her inside.
Her heart raced as she slid in beside him. “No chalk mark?”
“I am in the mood to be spontaneous. Instead of cold cheese and sausage, I thought you might enjoy a cooked, traditional meal. Plus, there are people you need to meet.”
“Here? In the city?” She ran her hands over the car’s upholstery. “The King’s Eighth Army rates such fine transportation?”
“Actually, because we have many friends who believe in a homeland for our people, that now, a humble Captain such as me, can enjoy a few simple pleasures. Like in the children’s tale, I must return it, leaving this poor mouse again on foot.”
She laughed, squeezed his hand. “A horse drove Cinderella’s coach.”
“Well, it has been a while since I read the story. My memory is not what it once was.” He shook his head as he put the car in gear and moved away. “I must read it again to my children. Make sure you are correct.
“You have children?” Justine’s heart sunk. “I didn’t know.”
“Ah, yes! My wife sent me new pictures just yesterday. I will show them to you at dinner.”
She bit her lip. Fought back tears. Ari never talked of his life in Palestine. What a fool she had been. Not that he encouraged her affection. Nor had he ever done anything resembling seduction. Merely listened.
As if sensing her mood change, Ari turned. “Is everything all right? Problems today at work?”
Unable to face him, she stared out the window. “No, actually, I accomplished a lot. I only wish I had been more helpful to you.”
“Well, we have a long list from you of high-ranking SS, but they are all locked up. So, we cannot deal with them.”
“Do you think they will keep them jailed until their trial?”
“These trials are spectacular now, but eventually, this will fade away. After punishing a few big shots, they will tire of it and then let the rest go.”
“That might already be happening.” She then described what she discovered for the Commissar.
When she finished, he grinned. “Good! Then we will deal with them as we see fit. Others in the Brigade have hunted these bastards all over. They find a few ranking ones, but nothing like the big fish they have locked up here and at other places.”
“Your people will continue even if they end the trials?”
“We do this already. Our men put on Military Police uniforms. They go to the person’s house and inform them they need to come into headquarters for questioning. After they get them in the car, they drive them to a remote location where they confront them. They give them at least a chance to confess and get forgiveness for what they have done. Most do before we execute them.”
“The other allies let you do this?”
“I am not sure about the Americans. They might not realize it is going on. Still, many in the British Army know and ignore it unless we do something that embarrasses them.”
“So, who are these people you want me to meet? Are these other members of the Brigade?”
“No, mostly Germans, but some Lithuanians will be there tonight. That is the reason for the big meal. The rest were partisans like yourself or members of the Resistance.”
“The Commissar told me that the people who took their property during the deportations murder the Jews if they return.”
“True. For many, the war continues, like Kovner.”
“Kovner? I have heard that name before.
“He is speaking tonight. That is part of the reason for the meeting tonight. He claims to have a plan to get revenge on the Germans that will repay them for the death of the six million innocents. Despite that, you might make more friends so you won’t be lonesome while I am gone.”
“Yes, I am getting leave. It has been three years since I have seen my home and my family. I want to go back for a while to get recharged before I return.”
As they traveled, they entered an area untouched by the bombing. Stately mansions and no rubble piles. Outside one, the car rolled to a stop. Light poured from every window. Despite the chill in the air, the door stood wide open, while the crowd spilled out onto the broad porch. Pleasant chatter filled the air as music played inside.
As they stared up at the house, Ari turned to her. “It sounds like there might even be dancing. I am not very good. How about you?”
“I did a little before, but it has been a long time.” She mussed at her hair. “Do I look all right?”
“Justine, as always you are ravishing.” Took her arm as he guided her up the stairs. “You will break many hearts tonight. There will be many inside eager to refresh your dancing skills.”
Inside, people jammed an enormous open area, drinking, and conversing. Seated on the two stairways sweeping up both sides to the second-floor balcony, men and women chatted in groups. While others jammed an archway that appeared to be the entryway to a ballroom. As they approached, the music grew louder along with shouts and foot-stomping. Curious, Justine peered around the corner.
Inside, men and women circled the room with their hands on each other’s shoulders. They hopped and skipped in time to the music as the circle moved together. As the music stopped, the dancers clapped. Some embraced. Most walked to a table filled with bottles.
Together, she and Ari crossed the room to a table where a tall man held court. The tall man’s ears seemed low on his head, his lean face marked with a prominent chin and nose broke into a smile as he turned in their direction. “Ari Shapiro!” When his eyes shifted to Justine, his smile broadened. “Are you here to steal more of my young men for your Brigade?”
“We will need them if the Mullahs make good on their efforts to start a jihad.” Ari turned to Justine. “This is Justine Rothstein.” His hand beckoned to the giant. “Abba Kovner, mighty Jewish warrior of Eastern Europe.”
“Beware of this man’s tongue, young lady.” Kovner raised his glass to Ari. “If he got the chance, this man could persuade the serpent to leave Eve alone.”
“Abba was a great writer and poet before he took up the gun.” Ari patted Justine’s hand. “In a battle of words, he would massacre me.”
Kovner turned to Justine. “I understand you have been of service to the Brigade. Perhaps you can help us out while he is out-of-town loafing with that wife of his.”
“I brought Justine along so she could listen to you great talkers decide how we need to go forward. If she listened to you on her own, she might think that is the only way.”
Kovner scowled. “Ari, you know we must exact a vengeance. The death of six million cannot go unanswered. In the Book, it says an ’Eye for an Eye, A Tooth for a Tooth.”
“Yes, and it goes on until the world is toothless and blind!” a gray-haired, bearded man standing next to Kovner interjected.
Kovner’s head snapped around at the interruption. “That is why our people have been martyrs for centuries. We must stand up. Show them it can never happen again.”
The bearded man extended his hand to Justine with a twinkle in his eye. “Abraham Lowe.” He gave her an appraising glance that made her blush. Still holding her hand, Lowe arched an eyebrow as he turned to Kovner. “See? The young girls prefer a man of peace over you warring old dinosaurs. Come, young lady, let me get you a drink.”
Justine glanced at Ari, who shrugged and smiled as Lowe led her away. “I am really harmless. It is just gratifying to know that I can still make the pretty ones blush.”
After accepting a filled wine glass, she sipped while scanning the room.
“I know that look. It is everywhere these days. The desperate search for family and friends.” Lowe turned, following her glance. “I am afraid we are all that is left.”
“You mean no one else from here survived?”
“Who knows? More and more straggle in from the East. Weak from their mistreatment, who knows how many will make it back.”
“You do not approve of the vengeance?”
“We will never find justice by killing alone. We must eventually forgive. If we continue killing, we are no better than those who persecuted our people. Being God’s chosen people is both a blessing and a burden. We must set an example.”
“Is this your house?” She gestured around the room with her glass. “It is beautiful but so empty.”
“No, it belonged to one of the wealthier Jewish families, but the Nazis confiscated it and all the furnishings before they murdered the family in the camps. Ari requisitioned it when he arrived for his headquarters, then turned it over to us as a shelter and gathering place.”
“He lives here?”
“Only when he is in town. He has an office with a cot upstairs. But he is seldom here. Usually, he is out rounding up as many survivors as he can. He recruits them to go to Palestine.” Lowe shook his head. “But many want to return to their homes.”
“I understand his Brigade also hunts Nazis and executes them.”
“Some do. Ari did as the war ended, but he found he did not have a taste for that, so now he just recruits. I understand they most want former partisans and soldiers. There will be a great battle when the British leave his country.”
“I didn’t bring her here for you old fools to fight over.” Glancing back, she found Ari behind her, holding a plate of food. “Come get something to eat. After that, you can listen to the great philosophers battle for our souls.”
She followed him to a long table loaded with food. A vast steaming kettle setting over a large candle contained Matzo soup flanked by a potato kugel on one side and a sweet noodle kugel on the other. Around these were loaves of bread, sausages, and wheels of cheese. Her mouth watered as the fragrance of the broths and the melted cheese in the kugel wafted around her.
“We liberated much of this from towns around the camps to feed our people as they travel. But tonight, the locals wanted to have a special banquet for Kovner before he leaves.” Ari handed her an empty plate. “It will disappoint me if you don’t eat until you feel like bursting.”
“Kovner is leaving?” She heaped mounds of the cheesy potatoes on her plate.
“Yes, to Palestine. He believes he can convince the government to approve his plan for avenging the camps.” Ari leaned close to whisper. “He has not told me the details, but rumors claim he intends to kill millions by poisoning the water.”
“That’s monstrous.” As she forked slabs of roast lamb on her plate and glanced back at Kovner, now shaking his finger in another man’s face. “That might kill a few Nazis who worked in the camps, but women and children.”
“He says that is just how they did it to us. He has a large following they call themselves Nakam and are already in at least four German cities, including Nuremberg.”
“Do you agree with him?” She gazed into his eyes, waiting for his answer.
“I am just a soldier trying to help my country survive.” He looked away, then returned her gaze. “All this vengeance and killing here is a waste of time. We need to direct our efforts to prepare our own Army, or it will happen again soon. Not here, but in Palestine.”
After filling their plates, they talked little as they sat on the porch eating. Justine listened to the conversations around them as she pondered what she learned tonight. Occasionally someone approached Ari to greet him. Others thanked him for helping them leave the camps. It seemed as if Ari held court, and his subjects gathered to pay homage. As Ari talked to one young couple who seemed enthralled in his presence, she set her plate on the porch and stretched.
Ari turned away from his worshipers. “Have I accomplished my mission?”
“Stuffing you with fine food.”
He glanced at his watch. “It is late. I must get you back now, as I promised.” He turned to the young couple. “Here, please take these plates and glasses inside for me. I am so glad you made it here safely, and I do hope to see you both soon when you get to Palestine.”
He took her arm as they strolled to the car. With a half bow, he opened the passenger door before getting behind the wheel.
“I asked Abraham to visit you when I am away to make sure you are okay,” Ari said as he drove, “Also, they will keep watch at your apartment. If you feel you are in danger, place this flower pot in your window. Someone from the Brigade will come.”
“I am in danger?”
“I do not trust the Russians. They are up to something. More than just tracking Nazis to make sure their Allies treat them honestly, but I do not know what. Tell me the names they want you to find, and I will check on them myself. That might tell us why they are interested in these men.”
“Should I write them down for you?”
“No, just tell me the names. You can be the teacher while I drive. I will memorize by the time we get back to your flat.”
As they pulled up outside her building, Ari once more recited the list of names.
“This way, no one can steal it from me without my knowing it. I should be back in six weeks,” As he said this, he handed her a small flowerpot with a wilted plant in it. “Please be careful and remember this flower pot if you need help.”
Taking the pot in her hand, she chuckled as she examined it. “Couldn’t you have at least got one that is alive?”
“I assure you, if you water it, it will spring back to life. Just like our people.”