Chapter 19: The Gift
For Lilly her first morning in Istanbul seemed right out of the fairy tales that her mother used to read to her.
Ida and Bertha were still tired from the trip and opted to stay at home for the rest of the day. Lilly pestered Isabella to take her to see the sights of the city. The horse-drawn carriage took them to the vicinity of the Grand Bazaar. As they walked among the stalls, Lilly could not contain her excitement and tears of joy ran down her cheeks.
“Auntie, this is just like in the story books,” Lilly commented with great enthusiasm.
When they passed the stall selling spices, Lilly stopped and examined the spices, smelled them and savored the different smells. When they walked past the food stalls, she helped herself to some Turkish candy coated with crushed almonds. Isabella had to pull her arm and urge her to move on without stopping at each stall and wasting time.
After drinking some sweet black tea with baklava dripping with honey, Isabella approached a stand selling silk scarves. She took one off the rack and after short haggling with the seller over the price, wrapped it around Lilly’s neck. Lilly was very excited and hugged Isabella, kissed her on both cheeks and said, ’“Auntie, you’re great. Thank you. I’m so glad that I came.”
Isabella lifted the scarf a bit and covered a part of Lilly’s hair.“What a beautiful Muslim girl you are. The bluish green eyes match the color of the ocean.” She smiled and then added, “You are going to need it in order to enter the mosque.”
As they continued walking, they passed the livestock market, where sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, pigeons and rabbits were sold. The vendors, who were mainly cattle traders from the surrounding villages, who came to Istanbul to sell their cattle, loudly recommending their goods.
“I’ll give you ten camels and three sheep for that young girl,” one of the farmers proposed to Isabella. She smiled and continued on. “Twenty camels,” he shouted after her as she walked away.
“Auntie, what did he want?“Lilly asked.
Isabella pulled her by the hand and began walking a little faster.
“He wanted to buy you in exchange for twenty camels,” Isabella answered.
“Is that all I am worth to him? Twenty camels? He must be kidding. Right, Auntie?” Lilly said.
“He was very serious. Don’t worry. I would not sell you for even one thousand camels,” Isabella replied.
A shocked Lilly continued walking, holding Isabella’s hand tightly, while occasionally glancing behind her.
When they returned home, they saw that Ida and Berta had prepared lunch. The table was set and laden with Polish delicacies that Izsabella recognized from her youth, but had forgotten what they tasted like. As she ate, she became more and more excited as waves of memories flooded her mind.
“Wow, do you realize how long it has been since I ate kneidlach, matza balls, in chicken soup? Where on earth did you get the ingredients from?” Isabella excitedly asked.
Ida giggled and said, “Did you not notice the loaded suitcase I came with. This morning I went to the butcher to buy a chicken to make soup. Since I did not know how to speak Turkish, I waved my hand and squawked like a chicken so that he would understand what I wanted. He broke out in laughter, and handed me a chicken.”
“It’s a good thing he did not think that you were crazy,” Isabella replied amused..
“Tell me a bit about the going ons in the family and how everybody is getting along. From your letters it is difficult to glean the overall situation in Poland. Do they harass the Jews? How is the family in Warsaw? What about my brother Ilia and his daughters?“Isabella inquired.
Ida got up from the table and pulled the heavy drapes aside.
“It is very dark and stuffy in here,” she said.“Why do you not let some fresh air in? You should allow sun light in too. It is also good for one’s mood.”
She then settled back on the couch in the living room and started to answer Isabella’s queries.
“Although Ilia is already past seventy, he nonetheless works full time and is considered a good doctor, although his methods are a bit outdated. In two years David will finish his studies in dentistry at the University of Warsaw and wants to do his apprenticeship at Dr. Buhaniek’s dental clinic in Miedzyrzec Podlaski. He is a highly regarded specialist in the field of advanced dentistry. Your brother Lazer has been living for the past few years in Houston, Texas, and occasionally writes us a letter. In every letter he begs us to come to live in the United States and suggests that David go there to study. As things stand now, that is impossible, because the American government has put a stop to all immigration to the United States from Europe. In Poland the situation is still tolerable. The problem is only with a small percentage of Jews who are not willing to accept Poland as their homeland. Many want to emigrate to Palestine or set up an autonomous state within the territory of Poland. I am referring mainly to the orthodox Jews who refuse to send their children to Polish schools and hardly speak the language. Thereby creating complete segregation and hatred. The Poles consider them responsible for all the woes of Poland and it is from there that all the decrees and segregation against the Jews stem.”
Isabella sighed and sadness could be seen in her eyes.
“This will not have a happy ending. I wish you would all come here to live. Present-day Turkey under Kemal Ataturk is not the same as the Turkey of the Ottoman pashas. Today’s Turkey is moving towards the West. There are new laws, new customs and all religions are equal under the law. There is complete tolerance of customs and freedom of religions. I feel free and totally accepted,” she declared.
Berta interrupted the conversation and said, “Do you think that at our age, we are going to take our children, sell our property and all our belongings and start wandering to new places? To where? Tomorrow this Kemal may be assassinated and a dictator will take over, change the laws and slaughter all the Jews in the country.”
“Indeed everything is possible,” Isabella replied. “We are a nation without a homeland and nothing is inevitable. Perhaps the answer is Zionism; Herzl may be correct in his approach and I know that Lord Balfour announced that the British government has approved a Jewish state for the Jewish people. Perhaps we should consider Palestine as the solution to our problems.”
She then added, “What does Wolf say about this? After all David Wolfson, uncle of his mother Paulina, was Herzl’s deputy.”
“I have absolutely no affinity to Zionism, although to my great amazement, Wolf took part in the mass rally in Wloszczowa, when the Balfour Declaration was publicized in his letter to Lord Rothschild,” replied Ida.
“I am not going to Palestine,” Lilly interrupted. “You have all lost your minds.”
In the evening they all went out to the city center. The streets were crowded with people. On the main street brightly painted horse-drawn carriages, the horses decorated with peacock feathers on their heads, were riding up and down. The women wore robes and their heads were covered with semi-transparent silk handkerchiefs. Every so often women dressed in western clothes could be seen.
They passed a restaurant with tables were arranged on the terrace. They went in and sat down at a table in the center of the terrace. In the four corners, men in traditional dress and wearing red fezzes on their heads were standing. They were holding sticks with feathers at the ends, waving them over the heads of the diners, chasing away the pesky flies that were very bothersome.
Isabella had hoped to surprise her guests with traditional Turkish cuisine, but when they tasted the koftadoner, or the pilaf, they wrinkled their noses and made distorted faces. Ida even spat it out into the napkin in her hand. Lilly was the only one who tasted and liked the unique cuisine; food that she did not recognize but which agreed with her palate.
Isabella laughed at the sight of two Poles holding napkins in their hands, ready at any moment to regurgitate the contents of their stomachs.
“Mother is very sensitive to any food that is not Polish,” Lilly interjected. This time both Isabella and Lilly broke out in wild laughter.
When the waiter passed their table, Isabella called to him and said, “Two cups of tea for the ladies, please.“When the waiter acknowledged the request by shaking his head, Isabella added, “The cup should be of thin glass with a handle,” and once again she and Lilly broke out in infectious laughter.
Berta began feeling queasy in her stomach. She asked to be excused from the table and went to the bathroom. When she returned, her face was pale as a ghost.
“What happened to you?” Ida asked.
“The bathroom is a big hole in the ground with a terrible smell emanating from it. I feel sick and must return home immediately,” Berta said.
The next morning the two sisters stayed in bed, sick. Isabella served them tea and dried bagels.
“I am going to take Lilly out on the town. It would be a shame if she did not see anything of Istanbul,” Lilly suggested.
“Where are we going, Auntie?” Lilly asked.
“To the Blue Mosque,” Isabella replied.
“We will come home later on in the afternoon,” she told the sisters.
As they left the house, a carriage was coming down the street. Isabella raised her hand and the carriage stopped to pick them up.
“The Blue Mosque,” she told the driver.
In the carriage they relaxed on the comfortable seats, one opposite the other. Although Isabella was nearly seventy years old, she showed much vigor and vitality. As a writer and researcher she had come into contact with different cultures and interesting people and thus had many stories to tell.
On a personal level she had been married but never had children. She had adjusted herself quite well to a single’s life, for lack of any other choice.
Looking at Lilly with a sad face, she said, “Lilka, don’t make the same mistake I made. Find a young man and get married and set up a family. At the same time do not lose you independence and achieve your aspirations.”
“Auntie, I would love to be like you; independent, with my own opinions and not dependent on anybody,” Lilly answered.
“You are mistaken. There is nothing good about my life. I am lonely and live prudently from the private lessons that I give, translations that I do, articles that I write for foreign newspapers and from money that I have saved up. It is not much but it gives me gives me a bit of financial security.”
Lily looked at her with sad eyes and said, “I still want to be like you. You are the most progressive woman that I have ever met. By the way, I wanted to ask you earlier, but I was bashful, why did you change your name from Berta Friedberg to Isabella Grinevskaya?”
“Do you really think that anybody would look at my work if I sent them plays under the name Friedberg?“Isabella replied.
“Your father was Abraham Shalom Friedberg; he did not change his name and yet became very famous,” Lilly promptly responded.
“You do not know, but we suffered from constant hunger. Father barely earned a living and had to work at several jobs at the same time . It was only later on in his life, after he suffered from heart disease and we moved to Warsaw where he got the job as the editor of the newspaper Hazefira, did our situation improve a bit. When he died we had no money to bury him,” Isabella told Lilly.
Lilly was shocked to hear what Isabella told her.
“Did not thousands of people attend his funeral? Is there not a monument two meters high made of expensive marble on his grave?” she asked.
“You are one hundred percent correct. What you do not know is that everything came from donations,” Isabella answered.
They continued riding a bit longer when Isabella exclaimed, “Oh, here we are.”
She paid the driver and they got out of the carriage and walked towards the mosque.
Lily was thrilled. The Blue Mosque, or as it was more commonly known the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, was built in 1609 in the center of the city of Constantinople, right opposite the famous Hagia Sophia church. The famed church later became a mosque.
Before entering the mosque they covered their heads with silk scarves and removed their shoes. They walked under the many arches and admired the hand-painted tiles that adorned the walls as well as the mosaic windows, painted in many colors, through which the sun’s rays shone.“Why is it called The Blue Mosque?“Lilly asked.
“The reason is the blue tiles that cover the interior walls, although they have faded with time. Nevertheless, the beautiful hand paintings on them are still noticeable. Legend has it that the architect who designed the grand mosque got his instruction from the sultan, not to spare any money and build the most beautiful mosque in the world,” Isabella explained.
“It is enormous. Look at the height of the arches on which the dome rests. Wow! It is huge,” Lilly exclaimed with enthusiasm.
Lilly continued walking, looking upwards and absorbing all that surrounded her. She marveled at the beautiful multicolored stained glass that illuminated the interior of the mosque, the hanging oil lamps, the verses of the Koran written in special calligraphy that adorned the walls. After a while, Isabella whispered to her to come out.
“What do we do now Auntie?” Lilly asked in a childish voice, while holding Isabella’s hand.
“Whatever you want,” Isabella replied. “Just tell me. We really have no reason to go home, other than to hear the moaning of Ida and Berta. We can go to a nearby park and then continue to the center of town where there are a lot of shops and cafés.”
As they were walking through the park, the sky began to turn gray and it seemed as if any moment it would begin to rain. They picked up speed and ran to try to find shelter in one of the cafés.
“Lilly, you should know that the Turkish people of the past, especially the women, did not look like they do today,” Isabella began to explain. “Under the rule of the sultan, men were permitted to marry more than one wife and they always walked two steps behind their husbands. The men had to wear red turbans while the women had to have their faces covered with a veil. Laws were all different than today. Since Kemal was elected, everything has changed. Turkey has moved closer to the West, with more openness and tolerance. Many people, especially Jews fleeing from European countries because of rising anti-Semitism, have come to Turkey.”
Lily listened attentively to all that Isabella told her. While they were talking a fine rain began to fall.
“Come, let’s go in to this restaurant, it looks really cozy,” Isabella suggested, pulling Lilly by her sleeve.
After they settled down and ordered sweet black tea, Lilly began to speak.
“Auntie,” she began, “do you know that my father Wolf wast in jail? Do you know that my brother David was just barely accepted at the university and must sit on the benches in the rear of the classroom reserved for the “outcast” Jews? Do you know that Cesia’s adopted son had to go to study at the university in Italy because there are numerous clauses for Jews in Poland? Do you know that I went to a school that had separate classes for Jews and Catholics? I will not continue to tell you about the murders, pogroms and the burning of Jewish businesses. On the other hand, it is my country, it is where I was born, where my parents were born, my grandfather and great-grandfather were born. For better or worse, it is my language, my culture, and I believe that times will change and things will improve. Just look at what is happening in Turkey today. Is that not a good example?”
“Do you not think that the time has come for the Jews to have their own state in line with Herzl’s Zionistic idea and the statements of the British?“Isabella asked.
“Look at what happened to the Armenians,” she added.
At this juncture in the conversation, Isabella lowered her voice almost to a whisper, that Lilly was forced to move closer to her in order to hear what she was saying.
“The Armenians were a people without a country and the Ottoman Turks massacred them. Some say that between 1915 and 1918 one million people were slaughtered, but the real number is estimated to be about a million and a half. The Turks claimed that during the war the Armenians corroborated with the Russians, thus committing acts of treason. The Young Turks, who ruled at that time, would regularly sail the Black Sea with boats loaded with women, children and the elderly and throw them into the raging waters without mercy, to drown. Young Armenian women were sent to Damascus and sold as sex slaves. A decree was issued to rape their women, hence bringing shame to the Armenians. As a result young Turks went to Armenian villages and centers and hunted down their women. Convoys of families were taken to the desert and left to die of hunger and thirst. There were those that were rounded up and sent to fenced internment camps where they were burned alive.”
Isabella warned Lilly not to talk to anybody about it as long as she was in Turkey.
“In Poland such things would be unthinkable,” Lilly said as she stared at her plate deep in thought.
“I have never heard about the horrors you just told me.”
“That being the case let us turn our conversation to happier topics. What would you like to eat? Should we order grape leaves stuffed with rice and lamb?“Isabella asked?
After hearing the horror stories about the Armenians, Lilly was no longer the same person. She had completely lost her appetite and did not want to eat anything. She asked Isabella to take her home.
“My dear Lilly, you are too sensitive. That is life; people kill other people just because of different beliefs or opinions. That is what happened throughout history. Let’s have something to eat and I will tell you all about my work with the charming and terrific Baha’is,” Isabella suggested.
Lilly agreed, but her face did not wear that perpetual smile. She suddenly had a very serious look as if she had aged ten years.
While they waited for their orders, Isabella began to tell Lilly about herself.
“The year was 1890 when I arrived in Odessa from Grodno. I was 26 years old and I had already written several plays and stories mostly in Russian, which I knew from home. I sent my plays and stories that I wrote to the Jewish literary circles and they were very well received and excellent reviews were written about them. Many were published several times. Things really started to look up for me when I wrote a serious book, “The Orphan. My next book “From Happiness to the Grave” was published in Warsaw in 1894. In that book, I tried to depict the life of the Jewish middle class and the situation of enlightened Jewish young girls. I then moved to St. Petersburg where I lived for six years. While there, I began corresponding with the Baha’i community who lived in Constantinople. In 1910 I came there to meet the sect’s leader, Abdul Baha, and travelled with him to Egypt. After getting to know him and the Baha’i community, I wrote a play about his life and beliefs. I subsequently travelled to France, Azerbaijan and Baku where there was a large concentration of Baha’is, to study them further. I corresponded with Martha Ruth, an American researcher who was associated with and influenced by the Baha’is and also met Abdul Baha when he visited the United States. Here in Constantinople, which is now called Istanbul, I found peace and quiet from all the tension and intensity in my life.”
Lilly looked at Isabella with great admiration. She stretched her hand out and clutched the skinny, bony hand of her aunt Berta Friedberg, the small Jewish woman from Grodno, who went on to become Isabella Grinevskaya, whose works had been read by Lev Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
When they returned home it was quite late in the evening and the two sisters were already sleeping. Lilly pushed herself under her mother’s blanket, cuddled up to her and immediately fell asleep. It had been a long day, but a day that would leave an indelible mark her young, sensitive and vulnerable soul.
That evening Lilly decided that her future lay in acting and that she would expend all her efforts and energy to reach that goal. She did not share her decision with anybody, even her aunt Isabella, whom she knew would undoubtedly support her decision.
The parting from Isabella was not easy for Lilly. She felt a strong emotional closeness to her aunt whom she had not met until this trip. Lilly promised Isabella to correspond regularly with her and stay in close touch. Isabella did not promise but did not exclude the possibility of coming for a visit to Poland.
“If my health remains strong, then…..” she said.
She then took out of her bag a wrapped package, handed it to Lilly, and said, “I’m sure you’ll love this.”
When it was time to leave they embraced for a long time and Ida and Berta even cried. Lilly did not cry as she decided to be as strong as her aunt.
As she climbed into the carriage of the Orient Express she looked back one last time to see the skinny form of her aunt Isabella who had enriched her life so much and influenced her decision about her future.
When the train moved, and Lilly sat comfortably in her seat, she began to remove the wrapping from the gift that she received, ’Oh my, I think I am going to faint,” she exclaimed as she removed a Leica camera from the package.