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Two More Cookies

I finished making two more kinds of cookies today, Uly, or Vosí hnízda (Czech beehive cookies) and a type of sandwich cookie called an Amadeus cookie. For both, I began by making Lillian Langseth-Christiansen’s Suvaroffs, from the Gourmet Magazine Old Vienna Cookbook. They would form the base of the Uly, and the “bread” for the sandwich cookies.
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Then I made a paste of marzipan, pistachios, and kirsch to fill the sandwich cookies.
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The cookies were dipped in a chocolate glaze, then left to cool.
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All the Uly recipes on the internet seem to used crushed biscuits for the “hives,” except this one, which used walnuts, so it became my inspiration. I made a half recipe of the walnut dough, and it seemed a little sticky, so I added a couple of tablespoons of cocoa, and some breadcrumbs. I’d add the former again, but I don’t think I needed the latter. Then I shaped them in my Uly mold, given to me by my very kind cousin (who can bake me into the ground, so to speak), Erika Pick.
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I filled them with a buttercream made from a stick of butter, an equal weight of icing sugar, and a tablespoon of rum. Then I filled the hives, and affixed them to the suvaroffs. Yum!
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Vanilkové Rohlícky

Or Vanillekipferl, or vanilla crescents. They go by many names. The traditional Czech Christmas cookie plate is a thing of awe and beauty — a dozen or more different kinds of cookies, stuffed with apricot, layered with raspberry, filled with cream, or coated with chocolate or sugar, arranged in rich profusion. The wife of my grandfather’s nephew is the champion, and she would always send my grandfather a box each Christmas. But even my grandmother, who was not one of the world’s great lovers of cooking, always put together a cookie plate each year, repeating the tradition she learned as a child. Rum balls (hers were made of chopped chocolate and nuts, not cookies), shortbread (not as good as my Mum’s. sorry, Granny), and small florentines were on it, but the very best were the vanilkové rohlí?ky. We tried to make them; they fell apart, took hours, and tasted good, but ho hum. “Oh?”my Granny would say, puzzled, when we complained about how hard they were to make, “I just roll them out in long ropes and cut them.” Hmm. Clearly we weren’t using the same recipe.
Enter the handwritten cookbook of my great-grandmother, Marianne, which I talked about in a recent post. Sure enough, in its pages, handwritten in German, her first language, is a recipe for Vanillekipferln. Would they work? I had to try them out:
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    280 g Butter
    300-460 g Flour (I used a mix of all purpose and cake flour. I think all purpose would work fine)
    100 g ground hazelnuts (I toasted whole nuts in a low oven until the skins began to come off)
    100s sugar
    1 egg yolk

I ground the toasted nuts in a nut grinder. You could also process them until fine in a food processor, but the grinder is best. I then put all the other ingredients except the egg yolk into the processor, and processed them until the mixture began to come together in a ball. Then, I added the yolk and processed that too, until thoroughly mixed. The dough was too soft to work with at that point, so I put it in a cold place overnight. In the fridge for an hour would also work. In the morning, I preheated the oven to 300o F (yes, a low oven) and, miracle dicta, rolled pieces of the dough into ropes (about 1 cm diameter), cut them, and shaped them into crescents. I suggest using small pieces of the dough, no more than four cookies worth. Rolling on a cold surface helps. I used the smaller amount of flour — more flour would make a sturdier (though less buttery) dough. I baked them on greased sheets for 20-25 minutes. Begin with the shorter time, and check. There should be just a hint of brown at the tips of the cookies.
But wait, you ask, these are called vanilla crescents. Where does the vanilla come in? Once the cookies are baked, and before they cool down to much, I rolled each cookie carefully in vanilla sugar (superfine sugar to which I had added a vanilla bean a long time ago). About half a cup should do it. You could also use icing sugar, but I don’t like the taste of that.
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The Back of the Polyptych

A lot of my readers know that image on the cover of my novel, Pilgrimage, is a detail from a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a polyptych (that is to say, a panel painting that folds up) that had once been an altarpiece. The altarpiece as a whole is quite incredible, and shows scenes from the life (and death) of Saint Godeleva; in my novel, the mother of my heroine, Gebirga. The panel even includes images of the blind daughter who inspired Gebirga, so I was delighted to be able to use a part of it for the cover. Here it is in all its glory:
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Well, not quite all its glory, as I discovered this evening. As an altarpiece, this polyptych would have hung behind and above the altar of a church. Polyptychs were designed to fold closed during Lent and other times of penance, concealing their beauty from the congregation. The closed doors of the polyptych would often have different painted scenes on their backs. You can see how this works in this link to the Ghent Altarpiece, which shows how it looks both open and closed.

It wasn’t until tonight that I discovered what was on the back of the doors of the Godeleva altarpiece. When closed, the four panels each show a different saint, with kneeling donor portraits in front of the saints on the far left and far right. Here is how it looks:
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It was the two saints on the left who immediately caught my eye. I recognized them right away. The bishop in mitre and cope, holding his crook and a book was obviously Saint Nicholas, rescuing the three boys who had been chopped up and put in a barrel. Saint Nicholas, or at least his relics, play an important role in my novel. In their silver reliquary, they are Gebirga’s prized possession, carried with her on her journey until she relinquishes them so they can travel back to the Low Countries from Spain by boat. And as all Dutch children know, every year Saint Nicholas sails again from Spain around this time to reward them with treats. And the saint on the far left? The saint with staff, and pilgrim’s purse and hat, his neck ringed with scallop shells?

That is none other than Saint James, Sint Jaakob, Santiago himself.

Marianne Bauer

L to R Marianne (Grunfeld) Bauer, Fritz Waldsheim, Liska Bauer, Oskar Bauer

L to R Marianne (Grunfeld) Bauer, Fritz Waldsheim, Liska Bauer, Oskar Bauer


My father died in July 1987; my uncle told us about our Jewish background that same summer; in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and in June 1993, my sister and I went to Czechoslovakia (as it still was then, though not for long) with my grandmother, Liska. Travelling through Prague and the Czech countryside with Granny was like listening to Marcel Proust. We would turn a corner, she’d see a building, and the stories would pour forth. A visit to the the Kinsky palace, in Chlumec where my great-grandparents had lived, reminded her of how when they’d pass it on their weekly drive between Prague and Hronov, my Gumper would tease, “Don’t look up. The Count will invite us for lunch, and we just don’t have time.” In the Prague Castle, we saw the Spanish Hall where she went to a Red Cross Ball then, “That’s the Schwartzenburg Palace,” she exclaimed before one sgraffitoed building, and told us how it used to be the Swiss embassy, and how she had gone there to beg (successfully) to have her Swiss visa extended, though she did not yet have her exit permit from the Gestapo. To get the permit, her father bribed a high Nazi official who came to their house and was “decent to them” and gave her the right permit. All my photos of this trip show my sister with her arm around my small Granny, holding her and protecting her.

We went to the farm where she grew up in Herelec, and the second floor apartment on Anny Lekenske street in Prague, where she moved with her parents and brother. And a lot of the stories she told were about her parents, especially Marianne, her mother. Marianne was born in 1894 in Jihlava, or Iglau as it was called then. Her father, Julius Grünfeld died the year after she was born and her mother, Anna Feldmann, remarried a man named Fuchs who had been ennobled with the name Fuchs-Anshort. It seems that Marianne lost contact with her father’s family, but just in the past year my sister and my niece have been able to reconnect with a branch descended from Julius’s oldest brother. They…look like our cousins! Which they are.

Marianne’s step-father was an army officer, and moved the family to Przemysl. Now part of Poland, it was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where it was a crucial crossroads for trade, and a strategic barrier against the Russians. Some of the most important battles in World War I were fought there. It was also home to an ancient and substantial Jewish community, which formed a third of the population of the town. There, this ennobled sophisticated family, whose livelihood depended on assimilation to the norms and values of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its military, encountered, perhaps for the first time in large numbers, the Ostjuden, whom they would have seen as threatening and strange. It is perhaps this experience that best explains Marianne’s indifference, or perhaps better, hostility, to her Jewish background. The nineteenth-century emancipation of the Jews was not just an emancipation from the punitive restrictions of the state; it was also, for those who chose — and the families of both my father’s parents did so choose — an emancipation from the rabbis. Her son, Willy, was not circumcised at birth (and, poor boy, medical problems caused him to have to undergo circumcision as a youth). My grandmother’s name was entered in the record of Jewish births in Iglau, but the same document also records her abandonment of the “israelische religion” at the age of three to become a Catholic. Granny showed us the church where Marianne encouraged her children to participate in the Ascension day procession, and she told us how a crew of thirty Slovaks would come to bring in the harvest in the autumn. They wore their national dress on Sunday and to her mother’s delight, made grain crowns for the family, which they would keep safe until the following year. These folk customs delighted Marianne, but she showed no interest in her own tradition. Moreover, she identified herself with the traditions of Austria, not this new country of Czechs. Granny showed us the old Deutsches Haus in Prague where Marianne would go to meet friends. “Of course,” my grandmother then said under breath, “They all became Nazi collaborators.”

My grandmother loved her mother; you could hear it in her voice. The photos show them smiling together like sisters, my grandmother a little shorter, plumper, and more ordinary-looking than her elegant mother, but raised to be strong, and to value herself. I have a few things that belonged to Marianne: the family portraits that were passed down through the daughters of the family, her handwritten recipe book, a pair of earrings — chased gold lozenges, each inset with a pearl. My grandmother loved clothing, and she loved to go shopping, a trait she passed down to her granddaughters, though she wasn’t interested in labels, and she despised the boutique-ification of women’s fashion (one of my favorite stories about my Granny was her tale of walking into a Valentino boutique and picking up some of the garments, whereupon the salesman rushed up to her, distressed that she was touching the clothing. “Madame,” he said, “You mustn’t touch. If you want something I will help you. This is haute couture, you know.” Granny turned to him and said, “THIS is not haute couture; THIS is prêt-à-porter,” and stormed out of the shop.) When she died, we divided up her clothing, and one of the pieces I chose was Marianne’s alligator purse.

On December 14, 1941, Marianne and her husband Oskar were sent to Theresienstadt, and on January 20, 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz, where they perished. They had visas for Cuba, but Oskar said, “What do I want to do? Live in a hotel for the rest of my life?” and they did not go. My grandmother spoke to a survivor of Theresienstadt after the war who told her the last time he had seen her mother, she was smiling and taking care of the chickens. “And that is how I always like to think of her,” my grandmother said, voice shaking,’Smiling and taking care of the chickens.”

Kim Silveira Wolterbeck, A Place of Light

KSWcoverAPlaceofLightRobert of Arbrissel is one of the most fascinating characters from the Middle Ages. A truly counter-cultural figure, he was a monk and a hermit who preached poverty and renunciation of the world, and surrounded himself with the rejected and outcast of medieval society: lepers, the poor, and women, including prostitutes.

A Place of Light builds off one of the most compelling stories told about him by his contemporary, Baldric of Dol. According to Baldric, one day Robert walked into a brothel in Rouen, and preached about sin to the women inside. They, swayed by his words and moved by his vision for their future, followed him into the wilderness on his path to found a new community where they could live in peace and safety. In her novel about Robert and how he founded the medieval abbey of Fontevrauld (known best of all now as the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vivid tomb) with these women, Wolterbeck asks who they might have been, what their stories were, and why they followed Robert. It is a richly imagined and gripping portrait that treats religious ideals and idealism alongside vanity, pride, envy, greed, and lust with authenticity and nuance. If you are tired of historical novels that promise “meticulous research,” then deliver cardboard characters out of step with their age (medievalist friends, I have you especially in mind), you will love this book as I did. Wolterbeck never takes the easy or obvious route with any of her main characters (who include, in addition to Robert the monk, Madeleine, the wary prostitute; Philippa, the mis-married duchess of Aquitaine; and Girard, the failed Benedictine). The unsympathetic characters have virtue and potential; the characters we love the most have flaws and hidden damage. Indeed, if there is a theme to this book, it is the relationship between damage and redemption. Its message is one the medieval audiences of Robert’s sermons would have understood: we all are sinners; we all can be saved.

I was especially excited/nervous/anxious to read this book, because it is the first published offering from Cuidono Press, the press that will be publishing my own novel, Pilgrimage and in the interest of full disclosure, the novel was a gift to me from its editor. But if you have been reading my reviews over the years, you know that I do no reviews by request, and that I only review books that I love. This is especially important to me for books about the Middle Ages. I am proud my book will be standing beside this one.

Passover

We celebrated Passover tonight; me, my son, and my husband. It is something I’ve done more years than not since my son was at pre-school at Akiba-Schechter, sometimes with friends, but most often just me and him, and now, this year, my husband too. It seemed a natural thing to do when my son was bringing home paper seder plates with the sections marked, a children’s haggadah with frogs pasted in haphazardly, and a tie-dyed matzah cover.

Every year it means something a little bit different. This year, I think of my cousin and uncle, celebrating in Israel on their first visit there, with the Berman family, with whom ours has been bound for so many decades. My son and I shared part of this season with them three years ago. I think of my grandfather, the first of our family to find himself in Jerusalem, who left from there for England on April 2, 1939 missing the start of Passover by only a couple of days. My grandmother probably rarely celebrated, if at all, but I am sure that until he was forced to flee his homeland at least, my grandfather celebrated every year. Did he celebrate with his fellow Czech refugees in their messy flat in Putney in 1939? Or was that the first year he let it slip?   And this year the words of the Haggadah expressing the joy of the Jews at their liberation, and their gratitude to the God who protected and saved them ring especially loud. “He brought us out from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to festivity, from darkness to great light.” I imagine my ancestors repeating this over the centuries during times when they were far from free or festive. But each year they repeated these words of joy and humility and gratitude no matter their current pain.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I drove out of town one Saturday to visit an old friend who is dying. Strangely enough, we both knew her through completely different channels long before we met each other. We were not surprised that she was only capable of speaking to us for a very few minutes. She was in her beautiful bedroom, in a hospital bed facing a large window looking onto the sky and the trees, agonizingly slow to come into bud this year.

“You have a beautiful view,” I said.

“I know,” she replied, before she drifted back to sleep. “I’m lucky.”

PILGRIMAGE — Some news and a description

As I wrote last October, my first novel, Pilgrimage, is going to be published by Cuidono Press, a new small press based in Brooklyn (I think those of you who enjoy the Middle Ages might be interested in its first released book, A Place of Light, on the origins of the Abbey of Fontevraud.) I am delighted to let you all know that my novel will be released this June.

And I think it is finally time for me to let you know what it is about. People who write talk about “conference pitches,” “elevator pitches,” etc. This is my current “dust-jacket pitch”:

For the rest of twelfth-century Europe, Spain was a far-off and exotic place, rich in silks, ivory, and gold, full of Muslims and Jews, and raging with battles between rival kings and kingdoms. It was also home to the mystical Christian holy site of Compostela at the western edge of the known world, shrine of Saint James. The saint’s tomb drew a perpetual wave of pilgrims, coming for adventure, seeking a miracle from the saint, or performing penance to expiate an old sin.

PILGRIMAGE is the story of one of those pilgrims. Gebirga of Flanders, the blind, dispossessed daughter of martyred Saint Godleva. She flees her callous family with a pack of pilgrims that includes a count’s daughter, bound for marriage, and a mysterious messenger with an unknown agenda, all bound for Compostela. The journey takes Gebirga from her home on the edge of the North Sea across the kingdoms of France and into the Iberian Peninsula, where she is caught up the swirling winds of political change, from restless, power-hungry kings and queens, to the Roman Pope. Beneath all the birthing of nations, churches, and ideas, PILGRIMAGE is a story of a young woman struggling with her station in life and trying to find her place in the world.

And speaking of dust-jackets, we are still working on the cover, but in the meantime, I want to point you in two directions. The first is to look up at the image in the header of this blog, shot by me in Spain at a place where one of the major scenes in the novel takes place. I discussed this place in my very first blog post, The Image in my Header. Next, look down. This is a painting I bought at the Hyde Park Art Fair several years ago because it reminded me of Gebirga’s journey from Flanders to Spain. I like to think those are the Pyrenees in the distance.
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Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn

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I am that strange person who did not like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but loves the rest of Tracy Chevalier’s work. This goes true for her The Lady and the Unicorn, which I just finished tonight. To be honest, I started it tonight too. A story of the creation of the famous Unicorn tapestries, now housed at the Musee de Cluny, in Paris, it is that good.

If you read other reviews of this book, you will find that their authors can’t resist the chance to use “tapestry” metaphors when describing Chevalier’s skill. “A deftly woven tapestry,” “not a stitch is missing,” they write. However, this attention to the book as the fully-realized production of a single person, an “author,” seems to miss the exact point Chevalier is trying to make about artistic creation. Nicholas des Innocents, the painter who designed the tapestries, is at the heart of her book, and it is he whom a modern audience would credit with being their “author.” But the story is designed to show us how these wonderful examples of the fifteenth-century art of weaving are in fact the product of many, many hands and brains and sources of inspiration. Chevalier reveals to us, not only the contribution of the designer and the members of Brussels atelier that weaves the tapestries, but the the role of the patrons who debate over the design; the merchant who acts as go-between, hiring the designer and arranging for his work to be made a reality; the women who serve as muses; the servants who care for the house so the work can be done; the English wool workers who ship their cloth to Ostend; and even the unappealing Jacques Le Boeuf, smelly because of the urine used to fix the woad that gives the beautiful blues to the tapestries.

It is easy to suppose that Chevalier sees her own creation as an author in the same light. The fantasy is of an author who toils alone and creates a book as a pure, solitary act, the work of her brain transmitted through her hands onto the page. The reality is that Chevalier’s book had as many hands in it as the tapestries themselves: an agent and an editor and maybe other readers who suggested revisions and made comments at an early stage (Chevalier thanks a long list of people in her acknowledgements), and closer to publication, there was a copyeditor and proofreader. Someone designed the cover (actually, his name is Richard Hasselberger — it is on the back flap of the dust jacket — and it is a very nice cover indeed) and took the author photo (Jerry Brauer) and created the layout and chose the type face and given that this novel followed the huge success of Girl with the Pearl Earring there was probably a substantial group in charge of publicity and promotion. And we can add to this list the booksellers who hand-sold it, the librarians who recommended it, and all the people who reviewed it. All of these were needed to make The Lady and the Unicorn what it is. And none of this takes away from Chevalier’s work.

Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Curse in the Colophon

UnknownSo many friends greeted my acquisition of this book with so much excitement that I thought a review was in order now I have finished reading it. For those that you don’t know, Edgar Goodspeed was a Theologian and New Testament scholar at my very own Divinity School at the University of Chicago, getting his degree from there in 1898 and teaching there between 1900 and 1937.   Goodspeed was responsible for building up the manuscript collection that now bears his name at the university, a collection of New Testament manuscripts and papyri. How could I resist a book by another novel-writing colleague?

Especially a book devoted to the hunt for medieval manuscripts, a hunt that bears striking similarities to his own real-life acquisitions. For while he was a New Testament scholars, the materia for the study of the Greek New Testament is manuscripts copied in the Middle Ages. In his story, the first-person hero and narrator of the tale is assisted by the as-intelligent-as-she-is-beautiful Letitia (“Tish”) in a hunt for a cache of manuscripts hidden, after the fall of Constantinople, revealed by a curse found in the colophon of a manuscript being studied at the University of Chicago. It is a a sea-borne quest in which the scholars are assisted by wealthy American patrons to reach the monastery of Selime where they find the treasure they seek behind a trapdoor in a tomb: Byzantine regalia, and relics, and, best of all, illustrated manuscripts.

Shades of Indiana Jones. Only, not really. For while Goodspeed knows he has to add a few dastardly ruffians and menacing Greeks to his tale, he isn’t as comfortable with tales of high adventure as he is writing about the mundane frustrations and excitements of ordinary manuscript study. And that is the best thing about this book, from the perspective of this medievalist. We learn the virtues of using ultra-violet light over reagents to uncover text written in palimpsest, that is to say, text that has been over-written by another text. It is under the original cursed colophon that they find their clue to the location of the manuscripts they seek. They are thwarted by the demons that plague all of us: libraries with inconvenient opening times and backward equipment, jealous librarians who refuse to understand the crucial importance of our own personal quests, languages that need to be learned, transportation that must be acquired, and the religious agendas of those who are the custodians of the treasures the scholars seek to reveal. The final crisis comes, not at the hands of the enemies who have been dogging their every step (book dealers who *gasp* cut up manuscripts in order to sell their miniatures one by one), but at the hands of the customs officials who threaten not to let them remove their prizes from the country.

If you ever have had to sweet-talk someone in a language you don’t know very well to look at a manuscript you are sure will be crucial for your work, this is the novel for you.

When I Knew

The title is misleading. The question I still ask myself is not, “When did I know I was Jewish?” but, “How, in God’s name, did I not figure it out sooner?” I blame Captain von Trapp.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of how my grandmother fled Czechoslovakia, weeks after the Germans invaded, with my two-year-old father in tow, to meet my grandfather in London (the story of how he got to London, however, remained a secret until much more recently). She was a great storyteller, and in her version, she was not a bold heroine, but a foolish and somewhat spoiled girl, slightly oblivious of the danger around her. I heard many times about how she charmed the Gestapo at the border into letting them leave, how they had to stay in Versailles, and how my grandmother abandoned my father every morning to the tender ministrations of “la promeneuse” so she could hot-foot it to Paris, and later, of their life in London and Wales, of ration cards, and air raids, and shoes that unaccountably did not get polished when you left them outside your door at night. What I did not hear anywhere attached to the story was the word, “Jew.” It was a word I never heard used by any member of my family, in any context.

And that is where the Sound of Music comes in. I saw it for the first time a long time ago, long enough ago that I remember standing for the national anthem before it began. My grandparents had come to visit in Toronto, and we all went together. And there, on the screen, was their story, their love for their homeland, the evil Nazis, and their flight to freedom. They even lived high on a hill with a lonely goatherd, in a Swiss Chalet. In Quebec. Here it is:

Granny and Gumper's house in North Hat;ley

When the Captain sang “Edelweiss,” my mother says, tears rolled down my grandfather’s cheeks. Bless my homeland forever.

And once again, not a mention of the word “Jew” in the whole movie (Weirdly, when you think about it. Sure, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. But Max? Max?). No wonder I was confused as the evidence began mounting and the questions started to come. Because I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know. I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and then all the Leon Uris books. I had dreams about being chased by Nazis. I even wrote a short story for school about a young girl, oh roughly my age at the time, escaping. I asked my father where our name came from. He lied (Miners from Lancaster come to work in the Silesian coal fields. I still have not forgiven him for this one!). I asked him why Gumper was smart enough to leave when others didn’t (you can tell I am getting close at this point). I asked my grandfather what happened to his two sisters. He left the room, and my grandmother changed the subject. I knew we weren’t Catholic, like all the other Czechs I knew, though when my grandfather swore, it was by Jesus and Mary (this also threw me off). Did I think they were Hussites? But no, the von Trapps weren’t Jewish. You didn’t have to be Jewish to flee the Nazis. It wasn’t a question about myself that I asked; it was one I had already answered.

Then cousin Frances came for one of the last Christmases before my grandfather and father died, and this time brought with her a family tree. On it were large branches that were missing, unknown relatives marked only “died in the war.” And Frances told us that we had a Jewish background. I didn’t fully absorb it, confused as I still was by the Captain. Maybe Gumper’s mother had been Jewish?

After my father died, my uncle sat me and my sister down with my mother and told us the story of our origins and swore us to secrecy. My mother already knew; my father had told her before they were married in an offhand way, and she regarded it as a matter of complete indifference. We didn’t keep it a secret; we started talking about our background and history with our father’s cousins, and with our grandmother, especially when we travelled with her to the Czech Republic after the wall came down. My sister remembered revealing all to our Kitchener cousins when we visited them for Christmas a couple of years after our father’s death.

For me this knowledge came, not as a revelation but as a confirmation, an “Oh, of course.” It was like I had spent my life doing a puzzle without the picture on the box, trying to piece together the faces I saw from the pieces I had. Someone handed me some missing pieces and suddenly all the sections I had been working on began to fit together. And on the woman’s face, the pieces now formed a smile.