Guest Post: The Foundation, a Short Story by S. J. Schwaidelson

Thank you to everyone who submitted work for the October Short Story Feature Contest. The 1st place featured entry is:

The Foundation by S. J. Schwaidelson

New York born, but living in Minnesota, S. J. Schwaidelson is a playwright, political blogger, and novelist.

Her blog, The Wifely Person Speaks, has been around since since 2010. It has has a global following and has opened a number of odd doors, including a Google hang-out for the NY Times, and contributor status on Minnesota Public Radio and The Times of Israel.

She has two books available on Amazon with a third in the final stages before publication.

At this time, she is actively seeking a new agent. Visit her website:

https://wifelyperson.blogspot.com/

Her story was based on this writing prompt:

The writing prompt

Please Enjoy

The Foundation

“You must go to Krakow!” everyone told Minnie. “It’s beautiful, it’s friendly. They won’t make fun of your Polish there. They love visitors.”

Minnie wasn’t so sure. She had no memory of Krakow; nothing came to mind at the mention of the word except maybe the day they left, and even that was almost too vague to call a memory. Any time she smelled train, she remembered (or so she thought) the train that carried her family out of that hellhole her mother called home. Nothing but the smell. But everyone said she should go into the city itself, so she went. Standing in the main square, with its artsy market stalls and bright yellow RMF umbrellas, she felt nothing but disdain for the people milling about. As far as she was concerned, they were all ignoramuses, unaware of the history of their own city, more than willing to forget how they treated intelligentsia and artists.

She was not thinking about the Holocaust.

The 1490s were not a good period for Jews just about anywhere. Krakow was no exception. When a large swath of Krakow burned in 1494, Minnie’s family, along with the rest of the Jewish population, were shunted across the Vistula, no longer permitted to live in their beloved Krakow. Kazimierz became their center, their own city within a city. That’s where they thrived. That’s where learning and living happened. For over four centuries, and they had the tombstones to prove it.

She was thinking about Natan Szpiro.  Dead almost 310 years when the Nazis disposed of the rest of the Krakow Jews.

Operation Reinhard moved them all back into Krakow, into the ghetto. “Resettlement, my ass,“ thought Minnie, still standing in the central square. A gust of November wind chilled her to the bone, and she hunkered down into her puffy parka. Was it the thought of Aktion Krakau that brought the wind, or was it the transcendent shudder of Natan Szpiro because she thought of him instead?

Minnie had been thinking about Natan Szpiro since she could walk. The charcoal portrait of him had survived it all. She would look at him, at his eyes, and she knew he could see her. When her family moved to Krakow so her father could teach in their university, the portrait came with them. And when they left, it left Krakow wrapped in brown paper, sitting safely on her lap all the way back to America. By then, she knew the DNA from Natan Szpiro lived comfortably within her.

Someone was calling her name. She turned to see Freida hurrying toward her. “I have the car,” she yelled. “It’s freezing and the radio said snow. Let’s go now.” Freida was out of breath.  “Okay?” Minnie nodded. Fried slipped her arm into Minnie’s. “It’s not far. If it was warmer, we could walk. I know how to find it.”

Frieda navigated the streets easily. She remembered. She had been here for a long time before they all left.

There was little heat coming out of the vents. Minnie was getting colder. She wished she’d brought her Uggs; her feet were cold. Staring out the window, she tried to remember something about this place, anything, but it was all a blank space. City traffic was slow. They crawled through the streets; buildings here looked like buildings everywhere else in Europe. She could be anywhere. Bruges. Florence, Prague. Wherever. It was all the same.

When Frieda turned the car onto Szedrka Street, Minnie stopped breathing.  She’d been here. She knew this place, but it was different. She felt colder, if that was possible. This is the place. This is where the memories are.

Frieda slid the car into an empty space right across from the Rumah Synagogue. “Do you want to go into the shul first?” she asked. Minnie shook her head. “Why not? They restored it.”

Minnie said nothing as she got out of the car. This is not my shul.. This is a different shul. My shul is the Alte Shul down the street.  Without thinking, she knew where to go.

Frieda followed behind, leaving enough space so her sister felt she was alone. She suspected Minnie knew where she was going. This was not new in their family. They all knew there was something different about Minnie, and it had to do with the charcoal portrait of Szpiro. Ever since she was little, when they found the drawing in the box their grandmother had given the neighbor to hide, Minnie was attached to the portrait. She had to have it in her room. She took it on trips, to college, to Israel for the year she was there. Wherever she was, Natan Szpiro was with her. Frieda knew Szpiro was tucked in the inside pocket of Minnie’s parka.

The Alte Shul was still there. Fix, repaired, but still there. Minnie walked through the gate and paused before she went onto the grounds. She walked purposefully around the side. She stood for a long time before the old door. Her heart was beating fast enough so that she heard it in her ears. This is my shul. This is where I sang and I danced. This is home.

When Minnie’s heartbeat finally slowed, she turned around. Walking past Frieda, she retraced her steps until she came to Lewkowa Street where she turned to enter the cemetery. As soon as her foot touched the sacred ground, she stopped. The day had arrived. The time had come. She expected to feel cold when she got to this place, but she didn’t. Their grandmother used to say, whenever she felt chilled, that it felt as if someone was walking over her grave. Minnie used to shudder with her; the expression was scary, and she hated when Bubbe would say it.

A comforting warmth rippled through her instead. That was unexpected but welcome. Minnie knew she had come to the right place.

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No one had to tell her where to go. She knew. Minnie walked amongst the old graves, stopping here and there to place a stone on the headstone. The parka pocket filled with stones she brought from Israel was emptying quickly. She was greeting old friends, long gone, faces her brain did not recall but her heart did. Minnie knew what to whisper to each one. The Polish that she never used slid smoothly over her tongue.

Frieda stood at the gate watching her younger sister walk between the headstones as if it was the most natural thing on the planet. She remembered the last time she was here. She was 10 when they left, an age when you remember everything and nothing. Minnie was only six, she remembered nothing. Five years to a 10-year old is forever. The streets came back to her because she walked them to school. The sound of Polish, never comforting, was still familiar enough that she only the tiniest American accent when she spoke. It wasn’t that she hated Poland; she didn’t. But she didn’t trust it either.  There were places they had been: the camps, the ghettos, the streets where families once lived. Freida’s hazel eyes were always opened wide, and her breath came short bursts when they were in those places, but Minnie’s eyes never waved. They were like ice-chips: pale blue, almost grey, piercing and cold. When Mommy sobbed, Daddy would put his hand on her back as if that would fix everything. Frieda understood; if Minnie did, she neither knew nor cared. This was like then. Minnie’s eyes were ice chips and Frieda was not going to walk between those graves.

Minnie stopped. This was the one. Reaching out, she touched its surface, expecting it to be as cold as the wind. It was not; it was warm, and Minnie was comforted. She closed her eyes. I have come, she whispered. You’ve been waiting all these years for me to come back. I am here now.  She waited.

There was no sound other than dead leaves rustling around her feet. There was no celestial whisper, no song of benediction, no words of comfort. She pulled the small portrait from her inside pocket and showed it to the headstone. This is you. I have your eyes. Again she waited for a response. What am I supposed to see?

A chill wind blew through the cemetery, around the headstones, and around Minnie. She shivered in her coat. She closed her eyes against the sting. She counted her breaths. In, out. In, out. In, out.

Nothing.

Minnie opened her eyes ever so slightly; they were merely slits to let in the light. Then she saw them. All of them. Shimmering in the wind. Hands at their sides. She recognized Natan Szpiro first. Then the others: Shlomo first, then Yitzchak, then David. The men dissipated in the wind. The women remained, the mothers, the daughters, the sisters.  Minnie was transfixed. Part of her was part of them. She could feel their nachas in her heart. She could feel their tzuris in her bones. They whispered in the rustling of the leaves and the dried grass.

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Jesteśmy. Przyszedłeś nas znaleźć, nie on. Przyszedłeś, żeby ktoś nas pamiętał. To my żyjemy w tobie.”

We are. You came to find us, not him. You came so someone would remember us. We are the ones who live in you.

Jestem tutaj. Jestem tu dla ciebie. Będę was wszystkich pamiętał, kobiety, które stały z tyłu,” whispered Minnie. I’m here. I am here for you. I will remember all of you women who stood behind them.

She saw them nod and smile in the shimmer as they, too, dissipated. Minnie held up her hand as if to wave, but they were already gone.

Turning back to Natan Szpiro’s headstone, Minnie held his picture to face the grave, as though the headstone would see it. “The women,” she said aloud. “No one ever remembers the mothers who raised you to be sages, the sisters who doted on you so you could study in peace, the wives who fed and clothed you, who held bore and raised your children. You dismissed them all so easily, but I will not forget. I will be their memory.” Minnie dropped the drawing on the ground. “Without them, without us, you did not exist.”

Minnie strode purposefully toward her sister. Frieda was staring; something had happened at that grave, but she did not know what. Minnie reached up and put two fingers on her sister’s lips. “Brak słów,” she smiled. “You don’t have to say anything. I will say it for us.”

Brak słów. There were no words, but Minnie knew she would find them and write them. She would tell the stories, the stories of the women. The ones who raised. The ones who fed. The ones whose lives were lost in their husbands’, sons’, and brothers’ greatness. The ones who, after all, were the foundation. 

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