1933 Berlin, Germany.
The son of a rebbe, Eli Kaetzel, and his beautiful but timid wife, Rebecca, find themselves in danger as Hitler rises to power. Eli knows that their only chance for survival may lie in the hands of Gretchen, a spirited Aryan girl. However, the forbidden and dangerous friendship between Eli and Gretchen has been a secret until now. Because, for Eli, if it is discovered that he has been keeping company with a woman other than his wife, it will bring shame to him and his family. For Gretchen, her friendship with a Jew is forbidden by law and could cost her, her life.
Eli Kaetzel paced on the stone steps outside the yeshiva and took a deep breath. He loved the freshness in the spring air as it filled his lungs. Everything about spring made him feel as if the world around him was born anew. The tiny blades of new grass, the flower buds, the crystal-blue cloudless sky. He sighed and looked around. He felt a sense of well-being wash over him. And to make things even better, it was Tuesday, his favorite day of the week. On Tuesday afternoons, when the weather permitted, he and his best friend, Yousef Schwartz, went to the park to study. Instead of being cramped up inside the yeshiva until late afternoon, they sat on a park bench where they ate potato knishes that Eli’s mother packed for them and had stimulating discussions about Talmud stories. But that was not the real reason that Eli was so elated and anxious to get to the park today. The real reason was her, the girl in the park. Since the first time he saw her, three weeks ago, he’d thought of little else. She was playing ball with a group of her friends, and when he saw her for the first time, he thought that she might be the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. All that week he’d hoped to see her on the following Tuesday, and then he thought his heart would burst with joy when he and Yousef went to the park the following week, and she was there: then, again, the week after. He was mesmerized by her. And even though he knew for certain, by her clothing, that she was not Hasidic, he hoped that at least she was Jewish. Not that his family would have been pleased with him for being attracted to a girl who was not Hasidic. But in his mind, he began creating all kinds of possible scenarios. Perhaps, she is Jewish, assimilated, but Jewish. He thought. And, if by some wonderful miracle I met her and she decided she liked me, she might be willing to join the Hasidic community.
Today, Yousef was late, but that was nothing new. Yousef could easily get caught up in a heated conversation with his teacher about a story in the Talmud and a half-hour might pass before he realized he’d left Eli waiting. Eli smiled and shook his head thinking about how absentminded his good friend could be.
“Eli!” Yousef called out as he was coming out of the building. “Were you waiting long? I’m sorry. I got tied up discussing today’s lesson with the teacher. And you know how intense he can be. Oy! He gets on a subject, and there is just no stopping him. I am so sorry I kept you waiting.”
“Don’t worry. I wasn’t waiting long. And besides, it’s so beautiful outside today that I didn’t mind at all,” Eli said, but he wasn’t telling the truth. Inside he was a trembling nervous wreck. He tried to appear calm in order to hide his deepest secret, his attraction to the girl in the park, from Yousef.
Eli had known Yousef since they were young boys, and he knew his friend’s shortcomings. If he had to place a bet, he would have wagered it was probably Yousef who had been the one who kept the conversation going with the teacher, which made him late. Yousef loved having discussions about Torah.
“Come on, let’s go” Eli said.
“Oy, I forgot one of my books. ” Yousef looked down at the pile of books in his hands.
“Leave it, you’ll get it tomorrow. Let’s get going, We want to have time to study don’t we? At this rate, we won’t get there until it’s dark.”
“I’m sorry Eli. But, I want to read you an important story from this book. I was hoping we could take some time to discuss it. So, I can’t leave without my book. I’ll be right back. I promise not to get involved in any long conversations with anyone. If anyone tries to stop me to talk I will tell him that Eli Kaetzel the son of the rebbe is waiting and I can’t keep him waiting any longer” Yousef winked.
“Stop joking and go and get the book already,” Eli said
“Come on, let’s go,” Eli said when he saw Yousef strolling casually out of the building.
“All right, I’m coming.” Yousef said, straightening his kippah, the little head covering he wore out of respect for God, and although he pinned it, was always sliding around on his fine hair. He put on his customary black hat and twisted his long payot around his finger, forming curls.
The two boys walked together toward the park, each carrying a pile of books, their identical, long black coats flapping in the warm breeze. The park was on the outskirts of their neighborhood. Dressed as they were, anyone could easily see they were very religious and came from the Jewish side of town. As they entered the park, a scrappy, young man with blond hair and a strong jawline, wearing a brown leather jacket, was leaning against a tree. He sneered at Eli and Yousef. Then he said loudly, “Dirty Jews.”
Yousef and Eli shot each other a quick glance but kept walking. They were not permitted to start a fight even if someone insulted them. The Hasidic way was one of nonviolence. Since he was a child, Eli was taught that even if he were attacked, he was not to fight back. Eli’s father would have been furious if Eli came home with evidence that he’d been fighting.
“Eli, perhaps we should leave. It’s been getting more and more dangerous at this park for us. They used to whisper the insults about Jews under their breath. They are not hiding their hatred of our people anymore. Maybe we should just go home and stop coming here.”
Eli’s heart sank. Leave, now? He couldn’t leave. He had to see her. He’d waited all week to see her. A wave of guilt came over him. He knew Yousef was right. They should probably go but he couldn’t.
“Yousef, don’t worry so much. It will be all right. Come,” Eli said smiling. “Sit down; it will be fine. You’ll see. Now, let’s eat.”
Yousef gave Eli a look of concern, but he nodded and followed his friend. The two boys sat on the bench under the tree and took off their coats. Underneath, they wore white shirts and black pants. They lay their piles of books on the bench beside them. Eli took out the grease-stained paper bag that held the knishes and handed it to Yousef. Yousef took one then gave the bag back to Eli. Eli bit into the knish and closed his eyes. It was delicious—the crispy dough, the soft potato insides. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and glanced across the park and saw a group of girls playing kickball. Eli quickly lost interest in the food as his eyes searched frantically for the girl. Yousef was speaking to him, but he couldn’t hear what Yousef was saying. Where is she? Is she here? And then he saw her. She was tall and slender with hair the color of rose gold that was blowing in the wind like the mane of a wild lion. As she was running after the ball, he felt dizzy with desire as he caught a glimpse of her thigh. It was as white as his mother’s porcelain china, and in that instant, his heart skipped a beat. She laughed, and he heard her laughter twinkle in the spring air. He thought if the stars in the sky could talk that is how they would sound.
Eli’s heart was beating loudly in his throat. He felt had never seen such a free-spirited creature, and her natural beauty left him breathless. Her body was slender and agile, not womanly. She had very small breasts, and her hips were straight rather than curvy. As he watched her playing kickball, he realized that she could run faster and kick harder than any of her teammates.
“What are you looking at?” Yousef asked. “You haven’t heard a word I've said since we sat down.”
“Good, and make sure you are not looking over there.” Yousef indicated toward the girls playing ball. “You know better than to be looking at them. That is forbidden.”
Eli nodded as Yousef handed him his book on Talmud. “Come on, open your book, and let’s do some studying,” Yousef insisted.
Eli opened his book halfheartedly, then when he was sure Yousef was busy turning pages, he glanced back up at the girl.
“She’s pretty, don’t you think?” Eli asked. He hadn’t meant to say it. Somehow he just blurted it out.
“It’s getting late. We should be going home,” Yousef said.
Eli nodded in agreement. But he didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay and watch the girl for as long as possible. But he got up and gathered his books together, thinking about the girl as he did so. He heard her laugh and turned to look. When he did, one of his books fell behind the bench. Yousef was already halfway across the park heading toward the exit. Eli was in a hurry to catch up with him, so he never noticed the book that had fallen.
Gretchen, the girl in the park with the strawberry-blonde hair, was walking with her friends toward the exit of the park. They weren’t good friends, just girls she knew from school who had asked her to play kickball with them when they were short a team member. She hardly had time for friendships; she was too busy studying and taking care of things around the house. Her mother had passed away, and her father was working, so she had a lot of responsibilities at home. As the girls headed toward the exit they passed the bench where Eli and Yousef had been studying. Gretchen glanced over and saw the book. She didn’t want to mention it to the others. So as they left the park she turned to them and said, “I am going to go back and run to the washroom. You girls go on.”
“Are you sure? I can go with you?” One of the others said.
“Of course, I’m sure. I’ll be fine. You head on home.”
“All right, then”
Gretchen went into the bathroom and waited until she was sure the others were long gone. Then she walked toward the bench where she had spotted the book. She’d been watching the two boys for the last three Tuesdays as they sat on the bench. She knew one of them had been staring at her the entire time she was playing kickball, and she was intrigued because this was the third time she’d seen them. They were Hasidic Jews, she thought, with their long, black coats and tall, black hats. From their clothing, she knew they were a part of the religious Jewish community, which, for Gretchen and her friends, had always been shrouded in mystery.
She picked up the book, knowing that one of the two Jewish boys had left it there. All of her friends had left the park. She was alone and knew she should get home, but she took a moment to sit down and look inside the book. The book was not written in German. In fact, the letters didn’t look like any she’d ever seen before. She scanned through the pages until she got to the back where written in large black letters it said in German, "If found, please return this book to Eli Kaetzel at 1627 Augsburger Strabe. You will receive a reward for your kindness."
A reward? Well, Papa and I could use any extra money we can get our hands on. If we had a little extra, I might be able to buy something nice for Papa. Some cake perhaps. Gretchen tucked the book under her arm and headed for the address written inside.
Gretchen mustered her courage and knocked on the door. It opened. There he stood, the boy from the park. He wore no hat; only a small, round skullcap covered his thick, black, wavy hair. He was beardless, but his sideburns were a single, long curl that looked strange to her. Still, even with the sideburns, there was no denying that he was handsome. More handsome than any man she knew, with his deep- coal-black eyes in which she was sure she saw both wisdom and tenderness.
I am an USA Today Best Selling Author of Historical Jewish Fiction mainly set during World War 2. My father was Romany and my mother was Jewish, When I was very young I learned about the Holocaust. I couldn't understand how something like this could happen. So, I began to research and learn more. I met with survivors. I even met with children and grandchildren of SS officers. But I still had no answers. I cannot say that I have all of the answers to all of my questions even now. But what I do know is that soon all of the survivors will be gone. Their message must be remembered, the sacrifices that they made must not be forgotten. And so I humbly and with the utmost humility, I try to tell their stories. It is painful, but I must convey the darkness and horror of the time. However, I also want the world to know and celebrate the unsung heroes. Because there were many ordinary people who acted in heroic ways. I realize that writing these books is a great responsibility. I pray every day that I am able to do this correctly. I am trying to reach out and touch many people, not with the message of the horrors but with the promise of hope. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for considering my work. It is an honor that I never take lightly.
Connect with Roberta