The Gypsy and the Rabbi’s Wife
The day was cold and blustery. The wind blew the rain in gusts against the windows, coming down in waves on the street, drumming hard on the roof. Ernesto shuddered and pulled his old camel-colored cardigan tighter around his sizable belly.
Ernesto Gonzales wasn’t always a chubby man, but after more than a decade of tending his little bar (and occasionally accepting a liquid gift from a grateful patron), living a fairly sedentary but contented life with his lovely, plump wife and three happy children, he had became rather chubby. Ernesto ran “Recuerdos Posada” — Memories Inn, which he described as being “located on a very small street off of a larger street off of a much larger street in Mexico City.” Even with its tucked away location, he normally had regulars through the week and visitors from a few nearby hotels. It was after ten at night, there was no one in the place, and it was raining hard. He was thinking of closing and getting home to his family, seeing that he lived two blocks away. As he was putting up the chairs for mopping, the door blew opened, and the little odd American blew in with the rain and the wind.
The old man had visited the bar twice before, on the two previous days. He was small, barely coming up to Ernesto’s chest, and Ernesto was not a tall man. The man was wrinkly, tanned and leathery, and bald, with large brown eyes that shone with spark and vitality under thick white eyebrows. Ernesto greeted him right away, and they spoke in Spanish — his Spanish was so perfect, even in accent, that if he hadn’t told Ernesto that he was visiting from New York, the barkeep would have taken him for a local. He even pronounced his name the Latin way, Da-veed, with the accent on the second vowel. When Ernesto found out the night before that David was a professor of languages at New York University, he wasn’t at all surprised.
The second night, he had asked, “David, my friend, what other languages do you know?”
“Fluently: English, Russian, French, Hungarian, Yiddish, Romanian, Serbian and Croatian, German, Italian and Latin,” the professor answered. “I also know Japanese passably, but not fluently. This I studied it more as a challenge because my daughter dared me. She knows I never could resist a dare.”
Ernesto whistled. “That’s impressive, Professor.”
David shrugged, “Not really, it was part of a gift. I will explain.” When Ernesto raised his eyebrows expecting a longer explanation, David changed topics and the conversation moved on. He found the professor had a great sense of humor, and could tell some wonderful stories.
Even tonight, though Ernesto was longing to close the bar and just go home, he was glad to see the old gentleman. The man struggled to close the door against the wet wind, and when finished, took off and shook out his poncho, hanging it carefully on the nearby chair to drip and dry out.
“Oof,” David said when he finally sat down. “Ernesto, I am sorry I am preventing you from going home, my friend. I promise, I won’t keep you too long. Tonight, I will tell you just one story, and go on my way.” He wore jeans, boots, a soft blue oxford under a thick dark blue new-looking sweatshirt that read “Mexico City” in white letters. Ernesto figured that David probably got it this morning at his hotel.
“Beer?” Ernesto asked, reaching for the mug, since that was the drink of choice before, but stopped short when David shook his head sharply.
“Vodka tonight, the good stuff, please, and keep the bottle out. If you want to join me, I wouldn’t mind the company, for my story is strange, horrific, difficult and sad, and even though I tell it every year it doesn’t get much easier.”
Ernesto took out the best bottle of vodka he carried, two shot glasses, pulled over a stool, and poured for both of them. The professor took out his wallet and pulled out two hundred US dollar bills. When Ernesto started to protest, David said, “It is my honor that you are doing this with me. I want to show you my gratitude. Please accept this as a gift. My story, it is like a rock, like a stone that I carry with me. By sharing it, it makes this rock easier for me to carry. But afterwards, you, too, may be burdened a little. This money, it’s actually going to be earned by sharing what I carry.”
Ernesto lifted his shot glass, and went to touch glasses, but David touched him lightly on the arm to stop him.
“This story, it’s about the dead. In my tradition, we don’t clink for the dead, only the living get that honor. For the dead, we just drink,” and he downed the first shot. Ernesto followed suit. Both paused for a moment to savor the warmth.
“You’ve heard of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Sobibor…?” asked the old language professor.
“Of course. They were concentration camps, yes?”
“Some. Some were extermination camps. I’m saying empty words here, semantics. In reality, all were extermination camps. Have you ever heard of Wagnerinern Work Camp, in eastern Germany, near the Polish border?”
Ernesto thought back to his history classes, but the name didn’t ring any bells and he shook his head.
“No, I wouldn’t think so. Very few had.”
David unbuttoned his left sleeve and rolled up the cuff. There, near the elbow, were five faded but still very legible numbers 25773.
“All right, pour us another drink, then I will tell you the story of this camp that was located near a weird old tree and a barren patch of ground.”
End of Part 2