Liesl Bannon has never felt like she was truly at home anywhere, not since her mother placed her and her brother Erich on the last Kindertransport out of Berlin in 1939. She’d been so much more fortunate than most Jews, saved from the horrors of the Nazi regime. Being adopted by Elizabeth and Daniel Lieber meant she and Erich spent the war in Northern Ireland, safe and loved, but Liesl always knew something was missing.
When an opportunity to return to Berlin to represent her university presents itself, she is so torn. Should she go back to the city that rejected her and her family, would it be too harrowing, or would it feel like home?
In Berlin, a chance encounter with an old family friend sparked emotions for Liesl that she’d suppressed since she was a child. She finds herself desperately wanting to go back to those carefree days before Hitler, when life made sense, but why was her family so set against her return? Was it because they were worried about her as they claimed, or was there a darker, more sinister reason?
The Hard Way Home is the heart wrenching conclusion to the best-selling Star and the Shamrock series.
Release date: June 29, 2020
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 244
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The Hard Way Home
Dublin, Ireland, 1950
Liesl sat behind the podium, focusing her attention entirely on the speaker from the other team, mentally noting his points, formulating her rebuttal. The crowd were respectfully listening to her opponent, so despite the ornate hall being packed to capacity, his voice was the only sound. Ancient books rested behind grilles the length of both walls, and the entire place smelled of a rich cultural and academic heritage dating back centuries. Liesl loved it. Trinity College Dublin were proposing the motion today. Not her chosen position at the best of times – she preferred arguing against – but it was the luck of the draw.
It required all of her analytical and oratory skills to argue in support of this motion – ‘that this house supports Irish neutrality in the period 1939–1945’ – something she personally vehemently disagreed with, but the Irish Varsity debating finals held no place for sentiment.
She allowed herself a quick glance down at the audience in Goldsmith Hall, where Elizabeth, Daniel, Ariella, Willi and Erich were sitting, proud as punch. She’d warned them in advance that she would be arguing against something she fundamentally disagreed with, but they said they understood and insisted on coming to support her. She made them promise not to look at her, as it was going to be difficult enough without seeing them there: her mutti, who hid in a Berlin attic for years; her mother’s husband Willi, who’d lost a leg in Russia but didn’t let it stop him; her adopted mother, Elizabeth, who lost everything when the Germans bombed her house in Liverpool; tall, dark, handsome Daniel Lieber, her adopted father, who as a Jew had escaped Vienna only by the intervention of a friend in England; then her brother, Erich, tall as Daniel almost and filled out too, who looked so much like she remembered her father it took her breath away sometimes. Arguing that anyone should have been neutral in the face of the evil that killed their father and forced her and her little brother on a train and into the arms of strangers was going to be hardest of all.
She risked a glance at her brother. She was ten and Erich seven when they left Berlin, and they were very close. His sleek dark hair was a little longer on top now as was the fashion, and his dark-brown eyes gave him a soulful look. How she loved them all. She was delighted they’d finally made the trip down to Dublin together, though it was time enough for them since she was in her final year of her degree programme, majoring in international relations with a minor in French and German. Elizabeth and her mother visited sometimes, taking a day trip on the train, and Erich visited often because he loved socialising with her college girlfriends, but the men were always busy with something. Normally, she caught the train to Belfast every few months and Daniel picked her up from the station and brought her home to Ballycreggan for a visit.
She missed them all, and though returning to the bosom of both of her mothers, her brother and her father was wonderful, she loved her life in Dublin.
She looked around the room. She liked Trinity. It felt nice to be part of something, but like always, she wondered when, if ever, she would feel like she truly belonged. Her teammates were Irish, born and raised, as were most of her fellow students. Those who weren’t had left home, wherever that was, to study at the famous Dublin university. As a German Jew, raised first by her parents in Berlin, a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, and then cared for by a lapsed Catholic, Elizabeth, and moved initially to Liverpool and then on to Northern Ireland, she struggled to feel that sense of belonging. Ireland was divided; the North where her family lived was part of the United Kingdom, and here she was in the Irish Republic. It seemed like nowhere ever felt like home.
She focused on her opponent. If she caught the eye of anyone in the family, she’d lose focus. Her team had come so far; it would be a shame to lose now. The final speaker from University College Dublin was mesmerising. He spoke with such passion against neutrality, his argument being that it was not the time for politicking and that it was a moral question. The defeat of Hitler and the Nazis was imperative, and Ireland should have left her own issues with Britain aside and done the right thing.
The tall young man with a lilting accent that suggested he was from the south of the country held everyone enthralled as he painted graphic pictures of concentration camps, death marches and the relentlessly cruel and ruthless suffocation of human rights perpetrated by the Nazis across Europe. His eyes blazed with venom for an Irish administration that refused to allow Jewish refugees into Ireland, and he railed against those who put religious dogma and bigotry ahead of humanitarianism. Liesl found herself falling under his spell. He pushed his reddish-brown curls out of his eyes. She didn’t dare make eye contact, choosing instead, as she’d been taught, to look nonchalantly into the middle distance while taking in every word.
He finally sat down, and she could feel the backing for him, even from the Trinity supporters, those from the Protestant college as it was seen in Ireland. The reality of the war, and in particular what was done to the Jews and other marginalised groups, was becoming more and more apparent every year as survivors gave testimony, wrote books and allowed the world to hide no more behind a curtain of ignorance.
But Liesl didn’t need books or diaries of Jews who’d been victims of National Socialism to know what it was like. She knew on a deeper, more personal level. But that would not be apparent from her speech. She was determined to remain true to her argument, even if she didn’t believe a word of it.
This was it, her chance to win the coveted trophy. Her teammates had done a solid job – they had been clear and committed to defending the motion – but she knew she was the one who would make or break it.
Though she’d warned her mother before the debate about the topic, to say what she was about to with her mother in the room felt so wrong. She mentally shook herself. This was not about her or her family, or what they’d experienced. This was just a college debate, and while it wasn’t life or death, she would like to win. She could do this.
‘Mr Chairman, distinguished guests, fellow students, the motion for debate this evening is the question of Irish neutrality during the last war.’ Liesl looked around the room, making eye contact here and there, establishing a connection with her audience. ‘And the proposition have done a thorough job outlining where the Irish government went wrong. They have brought us close to tears at the fate of the Jews of Europe, and indeed, one would need to have a heart of granite not to be moved. But I put it to you that hindsight is perfect vision.’
She wondered if the audience could hear the trace of a German accent in her voice, a slight lingering even after ten years in Ireland. She looked Jewish, she knew that. Her first name was German but her surname was Irish, so while her friends and family knew who and what she was, this audience and the judges did not.
‘This country was at war with Britain since the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1169. Think about that, ladies and gentlemen. Eight hundred years of armed resistance to subjugation, mistreatment, abuse and even genocide that was perpetrated on the Irish people by our next-door neighbour. The Irish were forbidden to speak our language, to educate our children, to own land, to enjoy our culture. Every single human right, every aspect of human dignity, was denied the Irish people by their oppressors.’ She paused and looked around, her voice low and determined. ‘They didn’t force the Irish into concentration camps, it’s true, and they didn’t exterminate them with poisonous gas, but they killed, they beat and tortured, they exiled, and they spread fear and hatred throughout the entire country. And when we finally achieved freedom, through centuries of Irish blood being spilled for the cause, the demand was made from London, the birthplace of every decree of misery for this nation, that we forget our old silly grievances, put aside our petty harking back to the past and join up with them to fight a people with whom we had no quarrel.’
She could sense the room shifting. The next few moments were crucial.
‘Why should a young man from Carlow or Kerry don a British uniform, the uniform that had struck fear and loathing into every seed, breed and generation of his family for centuries, and go to Europe to shoot Germans, who had never harmed a hair on their heads?’
She could see a few slight nods at the rhetorical questions – she was winning. The opposition had brought up that de Valera, the Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, visited the German ambassador in Dublin in May of 1945 and expressed his condolences on Hitler’s death, but to that she had no answer. Nor could she bring herself to try to vindicate such an action, so she chose to ignore it.
‘When Winston Churchill accused us of “frolicking with the Germans and the Japanese”, it was with the knowledge that the Irish people had, in so many ways, assisted the Allied effort. This country fed Britain during those years, we gave radar and weather information, we returned Allied airmen and tried to repair and return their crashed aircraft – all facts, ladies and gentlemen, of which Mr Churchill was well aware.’
She took a sip of water.
‘We did what we could, and what we should have done in support of the cause of what was right. But allying ourselves to an enemy as tenacious and duplicitous as Great Britain proved herself to be was unconscionable. Historians are doomed, ladies and gentlemen, for they are trying to analyse the actions of those in the past, with the benefit of knowing what comes next. We know now what Hitler and his followers did. Of course we do. But we didn’t know then. Mr de Valera was dignified in his response to Churchill, who described so eloquently how Britain stood alone against an occupied European continent, when our Taoiseach asked, and I quote, “Could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression; that endured spoliations, famines, massacres in endless succession; that was clubbed many times into insensibility, but that each time on returning consciousness took up the fight anew; a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul?”’
The words that had so rallied the Irish people in the face of Churchill’s criticism sank in around the room. Liesl stayed silent, allowing their impact to resonate fully before going in for the kill.
‘Should we have taken more refugees? Yes. But should we have thrown away the sacrifice of so many dead generations who fought to free our island from British oppression? Never. We were neutral. And we were right to remain so. Thank you.’
As she sat back down, she caught her brother’s eye. Erich was a strapping eighteen-year-old now, but to her he would always be her little brother, entrusted into her ten-year-old care by her mother on the platform of Tempelhof station in Berlin in 1939.
Unlike her, Erich wasn’t studious and couldn’t wait till he left school. They’d been educated together in Ballycreggan Primary School, with Elizabeth as the teacher. It was an incredible stroke of luck that Elizabeth’s home town was the location of the only Jewish refugee camp in Northern Ireland, so they’d grown up with Jewish friends, boys and girls from all over Europe who’d been brought to the farm on the Ards Peninsula in County Down to escape the Nazis.
Erich and Daniel had a business going. Daniel was an engineer, and Erich was serving his time as a carpenter. They were father and son, in every way but blood.
He made a face at her, trying to make her laugh. She gave a hint of a smile but looked away. The judges had yet to decide, and she didn’t want to throw it all away.
The judges withdrew to deliberate, and the volume in the hall rose with the hum of conversation.
Beside her, Val and Jerome, her teammates, were equally inscrutable. They’d done their best, but it was a hard motion to support. However, as Professor Kingston was constantly reminding them, the judges were not making a moral judgement; they were judging the standard of oratory and rhetoric and the debaters’ ability to adapt and reply.
Liesl glanced across at the UCD team and flushed when she was caught staring at the lad with the brownish-red curls. He looked back at her, his green eyes dancing with merriment, the earnestness of his performance moments earlier seeming dissipated. He was tall and muscular, and now that the debate was over, he loosened his tie and collar rakishly. He joked with his teammates, and they seemed to hang on his every word. She risked another glance, and again he caught her, this time giving her an almost imperceptible wink while simultaneously listening intently to the studious-looking teammate beside him.
The chairman of the judges led his fellow presiders back into the room, and both teams stood. He made all the usual remarks, praising both the Trinity and UCD teams for an excellent debate. He singled out Val and the last speaker from the UCD team, the young man with the curly hair, for particular praise. It was impossible to tell how he was going to vote. She was sure he was finished and was about to make his judgement when he paused and looked at her.
‘I must make exceptional mention of the captain of the Trinity team. Not only is it wonderful to see our female students represented, but to see a debate so ably argued and with such passion is something unprecedented, even in these hallowed halls. Therefore, I and my panel of judges find for the proposition and Trinity College Dublin.’
The crowd burst into thunderous applause, and Liesl caught Professor Kingston’s eye. He was over the moon, accepting handshakes and congratulations coming from every direction.
The chairman invited the dean of students onto the podium to present the trophy, and Liesl went forward to accept it. Val and Jerome were beaming, and Liesl looked down to see her family standing and applauding vigorously.
Eventually, the photographs were finished, and as she walked backstage, she felt someone grab her hand. In the darkness and the crush of people trying to get out of the small exit, it was impossible to see who had done it, but a note was pressed into her palm.
She felt a surge of excitement – was it from the UCD captain? He was only a few feet away, but when she risked a glance, he was deeply engaged in conversation with someone. She wouldn’t read the note until later, not wanting to be caught looking too eager if it was from him.
She put it in her pocket and went downstairs, where she was immediately enveloped in hugs from her friends. Daniel and Elizabeth stood to one side, looking so proud, and Erich was trying to make room for Willi and Ariella to get in to greet her.
Once all the hugs and congratulations were complete, Daniel announced, ‘Everyone, to the Shelbourne! The drinks are on me.’
Liesl’s friend Abigail linked her arm through hers as they sat in the corner of the Shelbourne bar. They were both Jewish, so had gravitated to each other on the first day of university and had been inseparable since.
‘Did you see the UCD dreamboat making eyes at you?’ Abigail whispered. She giggled, sipped her lemonade and nudged Liesl to look towards the bar, where the UCD team had also congregated. She was right; he was looking over.
‘I…I don’t know who you mean,’ Liesl objected.
Something about his gaze was disconcerting. Was the note from him? She was dying to find out but needed to be alone to read it.
Erich sidled up beside them. Every time he met Abigail, he flirted most amateurishly, but she was always nice to him.
‘Erich Bannon, so good to see you again,’ Abigail said. ‘Join us!’ She patted the seat beside them.
‘Hello, Abigail, you look lovely tonight,’ Erich said, trying to sound suave and sophisticated.
Liesl fought the urge to laugh.
‘Thank you, Erich, so do you. I like your tie.’
Erich blushed to the roots of his dark hair. He had grown up to be handsome, Liesl supposed. It was hard to tell when it was your little brother, but according to Elizabeth, all the girls in Ballycreggan had an eye for him. But he was after someone a little more exotic than the girls of a small rural village.
‘I was just asking your sister if she noticed her admirer from the UCD team. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her.’ Abigail nudged Liesl again.
The two girls were as opposite as chalk and cheese. Abigail was short with a rounded figure and had what she called mousy hair, though in reality it was light brown. She constantly bemoaned the fact that Liesl was so pretty compared to her, but Liesl thought her friend was lovely and told her so frequently. However, Abigail had yet to have a boy ask her to a dance or the pictures, and they were in their final year.
‘The lad with the curly hair? Aye, he seemed keen, right enough.’ Erich grinned.
Erich was pure Ballycreggan these days and, unlike her, showed no trace whatsoever of his German identity. He looked, spoke and dressed like an Irishman, and that’s how he saw himself. He was proud of her, Liesl knew that, and they were very close. But he couldn’t understand her studying German of all things, the language of the people who killed his father and tried to kill his mother and who snatched him and his sister from the happy life they had in Berlin before the war.
Things had worked out well for them. Elizabeth was their father’s first cousin and had agreed to take them from the Kindertransport, but for so many others, the future had been much less certain at the time.
‘He wanted to get inside my head. That’s what debating is all about, rattling your opponent. He was so fiery in his delivery, he would have wanted to put me off. That, my dear Abigail who sees the romance in every single thing,’ Liesl teased, ‘is what you witnessed.’
Later though, when she went to the ladies, she took the note out of her pocket. Her heart pounded. Something told her it was from him.
The writing was rushed and scrawled, and Elizabeth would have had a fit if she’d seen it. As a schoolteacher, she insisted on neat handwriting.
Liesl, you are the most incredible woman I’ve ever seen or heard. I have to get to know you. You intrigue me. Will you meet me in Bewley’s tomorrow at eleven for coffee or tea or any beverage of your choosing? I’ll throw in a cream cake to sweeten the deal. I’ll be there, waiting impatiently.
She smiled. He was as confident in his note as he was in his speech.
She put the note back in her pocket and left the cubicle. As she washed her hands, she took a moment to think. Winning the debating final had been all she’d thought about for the last few weeks, and she’d spent her time researching and writing her speech and collaborating with her teammates every evening. But now that it was over and they’d won, she had some free time. Her final exams were not until May and it was only October now, so she could probably allow herself a little diversion. And there was something fascinating about him.
‘Jamie Gallagher,’ she whispered, then caught herself in the mirror. ‘Ah, would you catch yourself on,’ she muttered as she gazed at her reflection.
Abigail was like a broken record telling her how pretty she was, but she didn’t think it was true. Her dark hair and brown eyes combined with creamy skin that took the sun just made her look unusual in Ireland, but she was nothing special. Anyway, she didn’t go on dates; she wanted to focus on her studies, and that was what she had come to do. She’d had one boyfriend, David, back in Ballycreggan, but he’d been hurt when she said she wanted to come to Trinity and so the relationship kind of fizzled out. She missed him. He was a nice boy, but they wanted different things from life. He’d accused her of being restless, of never allowing herself to be happy, and maybe he was right. She was searching for something – she just didn’t know what it was. Since then, she couldn’t be bothered with boys.
Even her mother had suggested that she socialise a bit more. Because Ariella had survived the war by hiding in Frau Braun’s attic – Frau Braun was Willi’s mother and also now lived in Ballycreggan – she wanted everyone to really appreciate life, to take joy out of being alive. Liesl remembered how her mutti used to walk up to the Ballycreggan National School every morning to hear the children singing the Modeh Ani, a prayer of thanks, in Hebrew. Rabbi Frank taught it to everyone, and all of the children, Jewish and Christian, sang it together each day, first in Hebrew and then in English. It reminded them all of how wonderful life was and how lucky they were to be alive.
She pushed her way back into the crowd and saw Daniel buying more drinks for her friends at the bar. Her stepfather, Willi, was good-naturedly passing them back. Daniel was such a generous man. She loved him, and he was the patriarch of their family. She sat down with Ariella and Elizabeth, who were both sipping whiskey and soda.
‘Oh, darling, I’m so proud of you! You were incredible up there. I could hardly believe this poised young woman was my little Liesl.’ Ariella squeezed her hand, her face suddenly wistful. ‘When I met your papa, he was at university and he too was a debater. He was excellent, and I went to some of them just to see him in action. He would never argue for or against things he didn’t believe, though, which was ridiculous of course. I mean, you had to fight that Ireland was right to remain neutral, when I know you don’t believe that. But he was young and pig-headed and stubborn.’ She laughed at the memory, a lovely sound that always reminded Liesl of a little bell ringing. ‘He got thrown off the team in the end, but oh, how proud he’d be of you, Liesl. Erich looks so much like him– sometimes when he steps into the room, for a moment I have to do a double take – but you are the one who really takes after Peter.’
‘Do you think I shouldn’t have argued –’ Liesl began, feeling like she’d betrayed her father’s memory. He’d always done what was right; he’d died doing so.
‘Oh, of course not, darling! That would have been ridiculous, and it’s why you will succeed.’ Ariella smiled. ‘You’re passionate but also pragmatic. I often wonder if Peter had been less rash, maybe if he’d not been as forceful that day he intervened with that Jewish lady in the street, maybe he could have stopped those Nazis abusing her a bit more diplomatically or something, then perhaps things would have been different. But that’s how he was, all or nothing.’
‘But I’m afraid I sounded like I was forgiving them or something…’ Liesl wasn’t convinced.
‘Liesl, my love, it’s peacetime now. That’s what all those millions of people who fought back died for. Of course we must move on, try to put it behind us. Otherwise it was for nothing if we are going to relive it every single day and hold onto grudges and hurts.’
Liesl nodded but knew her mother wasn’t practising what she preached. She would never return to Germany and could never forgive them, and Liesl didn’t blame her.
‘Your papa would be bursting with pride if he could see you.’ Ariella took her hand and kissed it.
Liesl loved to hear about her birth father, but her mother rarely spoke of their lives before. Liesl knew that any happy memories had been obliterated by the way their country turned on them, what Ariella had endured during the war years and the horrors she saw in those final months.
‘You were so impressive, Liesl, honestly. We knew you’d be good, but the judge was right – you were exceptional. Especially since we knew you didn’t believe a word of it.’ Elizabeth chuckled. ‘You are a worryingly convincing liar, Miss Bannon.’
Liesl grinned. ‘Ah, yes, what else am I lying about?’ she said dramatically, and her mother and stepmother laughed.
‘We were just saying on the way down how we wished you did a little more of the things girls lie to their mothers about,’ Ariella said wryly.
‘Mutti, believe me, you don’t. If you heard some of the shenanigans the girls in my halls get up to, you’d never sleep a wink with worrying about me. I’ve told you before, I want to get a first, and they don’t hand them out like sweeties, so I need to work hard.’
‘We know you do, sweetheart, and I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colours, but a little fun isn’t going to do you any harm, you know. You’re young, free and single in a big city – you should be enjoying it, not stuck in books from dawn to dusk.’ Elizabeth patted her hand.
It was as if she’d always had two mothers, and in every way that mattered, she had. She and Erich had not seen Ariella for six years when their mother arrived in Ballycreggan, undernourished and overwhelmed. But she’d stayed alive as a Jew in Berlin for the entire war, determined to be reunited with her children. Elizabeth and Daniel had cared for them, had even adopted them because they had all assumed that Ariella was dead, and what could have been an awkward or fractious reunion turned out to be the complete opposite.
Ariella married Willi Braun, Frau Braun’s son, and since there was nothing for any of them back in Germany, staying in Ireland seemed the sensible thing to do.
‘I am enjoying it here,’ Liesl insisted. ‘I love Dublin, and I really appreciate that I’m studying at Trinity. The fees are huge, and I just want to make the most of the opportunity – it’s not one many people get.’
‘Your papa would have wanted it for you,’ Ariella said with a sad smile. Luckily, Peter Bannon had made some investments in America when he saw how things were going in Germany, which Ariella was able to recoup after the war. The money from those investments allowed her to rebuild her life with plenty to spare.
‘So tell me, how is everything at home?’ Liesl asked, changing the subject. ‘How are Frau Braun and the rabbi and everyone? I haven’t heard from Viola for a while – how is she?’
Elizabeth and Ariella shared a glance that Liesl caught.
‘What? What’s happened?’ she asked.
‘Did Viola not write?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘No. I’ve written to her three times but got no reply. I was getting worried.’ Liesl raked their faces for a clue. ‘Do you know something?’
‘Liesl, Viola and David are together.’
‘Oh.’ Liesl struggled to find words. ‘Together?’ She swallowed. ‘As a couple?’
‘I think so,’ Elizabeth said.
So that was why her friend hadn’t written. Viola and her sister, Anika, had been Liesl’s best friends growing up, and David was her old boyfriend. She’d tried to keep the relationship with David going when she came to Trinity – he was from Dublin but was working in Belfast now, having moved up to Ballycreggan to be with her as a boy of seventeen – but it was impossible. Finally, after many fraught letters and a few disastrous weekend visits, Liesl broke off the relationship. David was hurt and angry. He said he loved her and had moved up to Ballycreggan to be with her, and now that she had a much more exciting life, there was no room for him. She hated to admit it, but he was right.
At university, she met all sorts of people, with exciting ideas and plans for the future. David had been her first boyfriend – well, her only one – but he didn’t fit in her new world. She’d told Viola all about it last time she was home, and now that she knew about Viola and David, her friend’s reaction made sense. She’d said that Liesl was too sophisticated for them all now, and the conversation had ended awkwardly, something she’d only once before experienced with Viola.
‘When did this happen, that Viola and David started going out together?’
‘A while ago,’ Elizabeth said gently. ‘Look, I told both of them they should tell you themselves, but…’
‘They didn’t,’ Liesl said dully.
It felt like betrayal, but she knew she had no right to complain. She’d broken it off with David, and she was the one who’d left Ballycreggan and Viola. The one weekend her friend had come down to Dublin was a disaster. A friendship that worked in Ballycreggan just didn’t seem to translate to Dublin. She found her friend prickly and hard to talk to. Perhaps something had been going on with David at that stage; she didn’t know.
‘Will it last, do you think?’ Liesl asked Elizabeth. She had no right to feel hurt, but she did. Viola and David were both free to go out with whomever they chose, but she wished they felt like they could tell her.
‘I don’t know,’ Elizabeth replied. ‘Though they seem quite serious.’
‘I’m happy for them.’
Liesl’s heart was heavy. She inhaled. Ballycreggan as she knew it was changing – she and Viola, Erich and his friends, school, the synagogue on the farm. It had felt almost like where she belonged, but each time she went back, things were different, and it was hard not to feel sad.
‘So how about everyone else? Anything else exciting happening?’ she asked, trying to insert some brightness into her voice. She could see by their faces that Ariella and Elizabeth were worried about her.
‘Oh, nothing,’ Ariella said. ‘Rabbi Frank is fine – he sends you his blessing and good wishes. And Levi and Ruth have decided to go to Israel. Some of the children – well, they are all growing up now, but some of the older ones are going with them.’
‘To live, you mean?’ She was surprised.
‘Yes, they want to live in their homeland, and they see Israel as that. It’s both sad and exciting. The rabbi and I have exhausted almost every avenue in trying to find the families of the children of the farm, and in most cases, there is nobody left. But we’ve been lucky a few times. Remember Benjamin?’
Liesl nodded. Benjamin Krantz was only a toddler when he arrived and so had been in the kindergarten group, but she knew him; they all knew each other.
‘Well, incredibly, his grandfather and one aunt survived Bergen-Belsen, so he’s going back to Prague to be with them. Though he cried, the poor child. He’s thirteen now and Ballycreggan is the only life he knows, but we hope it works out. I tried to teach him whatever Czech I knew, but it is going to be hard. They might be family, but they are strangers.’
‘Poor Benjamin. I hope he’ll be all right. He’s just a little older than I was when I left Berlin, but at least I had Erich. I suppose he could always come back if he hated it?’
Ariella nodded. ‘We will give him some money for the fare and keep in touch by letter until we’re sure he’s happy, although I’m not sure legally we have the right to take him back. Rabbi Frank has corresponded with the grandfather and he seems very anxious to reunite with him, so we can just hope.’
Liesl nodded. ‘What about the Schultz boys? Last you told me, Dieter and Abraham were waiting on a letter?’
‘Yes.’ Elizabeth nodded. ‘Their older brother is married in Vienna and has asked them to go to him. They’re thinking about it, but they are sixteen and eighteen now so they can choose for themselves. They and Erich and Simon spend a lot of time together playing football. Dieter is going to the technical college in Strabane to study motor mechanics and Abraham finishes school this year, so they are going to see how they feel.’
‘Maybe they should go for a visit first, see how it works out,’ Liesl suggested. ‘I keep trying to imagine what it would be like to go back to Berlin. Would I feel at home or like a stranger? It’s hard to know until you actually do it, I would think.’
‘The Berlin I left in 1946 was nothing like the one you remember, darling,’ Ariella said sadly. ‘It’s up to you of course, but for me, if I never see that city again, that is fine. It was just rubble and suffering, and so many people just wandering, lost. Willi and Frau Braun feel the same. They speak English all the time now, never a word of German.’
‘I can understand that, but you know, studying German and reading Max Weber, Thomas Mann and Chekov is good – it reminds me that Germany was once a place of culture and learning and art and that it can be again. The Nazis might as well have won the war if we allow them to rewrite our future as well as our past.’
‘I’m glad you see it that way, darling. It’s right that young people should be optimistic and forward looking,’ Ariella said with a sad smile.
‘You always try to see both sides. It’s one of your many talents, Liesl.’ Elizabeth smiled.
‘And so who is going to Israel with Ruth and Levi?’ Liesl asked, and she saw that look pass between Elizabeth and Ariella again.
‘Well, originally it was just Max, Rosa, Gretchen, Paul and Anika…’ Elizabeth paused. ‘But I think Viola and David are considering it now as well. There’s been a huge take-up of people going now, from all over the world, I’d imagine, since the Law of Return was passed. Levi has always been a Zionist at heart, so he is happy to go. Ruth is nervous though. And the children who have nobody left are drawn there too understandably. They want to be with people who understand. So now Michael is going, Malek and Katarina, Josef… Who else, Ariella?’
‘Anika is gone already – she went straight from Poland. She wanted to go back. She knew there was nothing left in Warsaw, but she wanted to see for herself. Viola said she’d rather remember it as it was. So the sisters will be reunited.’
Liesl was lost in thought as her mothers talked. After years of upheaval and chaos, everyone seemed to be finding where they were meant to be. Everyone but her. Erich was going to stay in Ballycreggan, that was for sure. Her parents were all secure and happy there too, and now her oldest friends were leaving for Israel.
Something told her that Israel was not her calling. She might go someday, for a visit, but she had no desire to live there. Was it because she was German? Or because her father was a Gentile? She didn’t think that was it. She just didn’t feel that connection to the homeland so often talked about in her faith. The trouble was, she didn’t feel that connection anywhere else either.
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