Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Reluctant bridegroom

The Reluctant Bridegroom
Hagai Cohen
My mother was in her final stages of terminal illness but her crisp memory and crystal-clear mind made her last days with us a memorable experience. She wanted to share with us stories of her early days, so we sat in shifts to write down what she told us.

"Mom," I said to her one day, "it may not be the right time but I remember an incident which troubles me for years, I'm not sure if my memory is playing me tricks or it really happened."
"Of course, it's the right time." My mother was anxious to talk and added drolly: "How long do you think I continue to be with you?"
"I see myself playing in the yard with our dog." I started "Her angry bark drew my attention to a strange man at the gate; the man was all in a black."
"How do you remember that?" interrupted my Mom. "You were two and a half years old."
"I see you," I continued without responding, "coming out of the house, hushing the dog, giving the strange man a hug and inviting him in."
"That was your uncle Isaac," said my Mom with a reminiscent look in her eyes, "and I said to you: 'Come, Yakov, say hello to your uncle,' but you were scared so you ran and hid under the bed." She laughed at the thought.
"I remember exactly when it was," said my Mom.
"It was in the summer of 1939, a few months after the British government issued the 'McDonald's white paper' (9. Nov 1838) banning the immigration of Jews to Palestine. The paper was tantamount to death sentence for countless European Jews. The organized Jewish Agency launched a campaign to smuggle in young Jews in any possible way. One of the methods was to send eligible bachelors to Europe, mainly to Poland, to marry young Jewish women and bring them back to Palestine as their wives. It was a clever trick, wasn't it? The young men got a tailor-made black suit from OBG, then the official tailoring establishment for the Jewish agency delegates, new black shoes, an umbrella, a hat and a matching black leather suitcase. As this wardrobe was expensive, each man had to sign a contract agreeing to marry three times."
My mother paused as her eyes looked back into the past. "Funnily enough, the contract stated the man may keep the wardrobe, but only after he fulfils his three marriages. That meant if he fell in love with his first or second wife and did not want to divorce, he'd have to pay for the suit and all that went with it.
Your uncle Isaac was a hired hand on a farm in Kfar Yehoshua and he lived in a shack. He volunteered and was accepted for the mission. He was ready to board the boat to Trieste when he got malaria and was hospitalized for a week. After the hospital, he came to recuperate before the next boat. He had lost several pounds and when you saw him at the gate he looked like a scarecrow in his oversized suit. He also smelled of hospital disinfectants which raised the hackles on our bitch. The dog calmed down only after Uncle Isaac took a shower and changed into a fresh set of khakis. The week he stayed with us passed peacefully. You became very friendly with him. You were fascinated by his flute and always begged him to play."
"I don't remember the part about the flute," I said, "but a flute solo does things to me and fills me with a unique pleasure."
"When Uncle Isaac was ready for his boat trip," continued my mother, "he got into his ill-fitting outfit, still smelling of the hospital, and was walking towards the gate when the dog charged. She bit him in the buttocks and tore his pants. A real crisis, he could miss the bus to Haifa and the boat to Trieste.
I mended his pants and treated his buttocks so he would not miss the boat again.
He was the only bridegroom who got married in patched pants with an infected rear end. Poor fellow, he could hardly walk."
My mom stopped again and closed her eyes.
"I wish you could have seen the wedding picture, (a mandatory 'document' requested by the British authorities.)
It was grotesque, He was ten years younger than her, eight inches shorter and half her weight. In the picture she was sitting and he was standing next to her. That's how they looked the same height. On their way back to Palestine, she found him so much to her taste that she chased him relentlessly around the ship and that probably frightened him. They could not communicate at all, they had no a common language. He went into hiding, probably afraid she would sit on his lap." My mother chuckled at her little joke and then coughed wretchedly. It took her a while to get her breath.
"He found shelter under the tarpaulin of one of the covered life boats, where a friend secretly fed him.
The Polish bride was so upset by his behaviour and decided to take revenge. After they arrived in Haifa and were interrogated and cleared by the immigration officials, she vanished into thin air.
She found shelter at the home of Polish compatriots in an unknown Kibbutz.
Uncle Isaac was desperate, he became depressed. He would sit long hours under the mulberry tree and play his flute. If that were not enough, he was sued for the black suit.
This saga continued for two years until one day, the sun came out for him. The Polish bride found a man her size, and decided it was time to divorce Isaac.

As they say in Yiddish; 'While people plan, God laughs'."
My mother turned to me.
"You know, Yakov, despite the hard time your Uncle Isaac had with that Polish bride, he was ever grateful to her. For years he kept sending her greeting cards on her birthdays and for the holydays."
"Why, Mom?" I asked. "He should have hated her for what she did."
"You see," said my mother, "his second wedding had been scheduled in Warsaw for the second week in September. Fortunately, he could not attend, as the woman would not divorce him. On the 1st of September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and carpet-bombed Vilna destroying the city and killing 1200 people. Two weeks later when Isaac second honeymoon was planed the Germans got to Warsaw. That second 'honeymoon', Isaac was mighty glad to miss."

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