Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Cheshvan 5766 - November 23, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Basket

by A. Harel

Part I

A ticking on the window pane.

Can she be hearing right?


Again—a light fluttering, almost a ticking.

It is hard for her to turn her head. Odette turns her chin, pulling it with all her might. She can't quite manage it. Her forehead is sweating, but now she is able to roll her eyes to the right side, towards the window. Yes! It is the basket! There it is! You could see one rounded side. Part of its wicker handle.

Odette smiles!

The basket swings in the air, tapping with its edge on the glass and waits.

Ho . . . now begins the operation: She pushes her chin a little more. Pulls her face towards the window. The sweat pours from her brow, down to her temples. It tickles, but she grits her teeth. She stretches out a frozen hand to the window sill nearest to her bed. The scarecrow hand grasps the basket. Tries to pull it. She cannot summon the strength. She pants. The collar of her nightdress is wet now. Completely.

Lifting her back over this mattress is like pulling, with your thumb, the anchor of a freight ship. She struggles. Her ribs refuse to participate. They contract like a burst balloon. Her muscles tremble from weakness and the effort, but she makes it! Her hand is already touching the window, which Pappa made sure to grease well. All because of the basket.

She pulls it up. The basket tips inside. She sticks her hand inside, searching with blind fingers. There is the letter. She sighs with relief. Her back now demands to immediately lie down! But it is ignored. The smile comes to her lips. She did it! Oof!

Lilian, the physiotherapist, should only see her now!

* * *

Situated behind the chestnut tree which sprouted in the middle of the yard was the window of Dora Bloom's bedroom. The thin rope, upon which the oval basket hung, divided the length of the yard, and was Odette happy about that! How lucky she was that her own bedroom window faced the inside of the yard! It was the only one. All the other windows of their apartment faced the front of Freidia Street in the 19th quarter of Paris. What a miracle! What would she have done without Dora who lived opposite her, and without the basket and all the letters! What?

As they had agreed upon, she laid her letter inside the oval basket, clapped it, and pulled on the rope. Little air waves pushed it forward and shook it, as if it were stuffed with flapping fish. She could just picture the joy on Dora's face now, in the window opposite. Odette, her hand lying on the tight rope, could feel the pull from the other end. The basket had taken off on its reckless air journey.

Odette leaned back on her pillow. Her back had almost gone on a protest strike, but now neither her painful back nor her broken leg would bother her. She concentrated on reading the letter. The writing paper was adorned with white birds' wings. It was folded. She read:

"Odette Bette—Bette!"

Mazel tov! We have been writing for two months already! Do you realize that? How are you feeling? What is Lilian doing now for your legs, now that the cast has been taken off? Does she still make you straighten up and stretch, and bend and straighten? She reminds me of my gym lessons in school. Be glad that at least you don't have to prepare for tests and be stuck with boring French lessons. It's a shame. If a disc would move in my back too, or if I would break both my legs, like you did, I would also be able to stay at home. Oof! I hate school so much! Hate it!

Do you know that, lately, in every history lesson, the teacher makes me stand in the corner. With my face to the wall. "Jews have no part in French history!" she declares, "So please get up!"

And me, I just want to get swallowed up into the corner. But it does not swallow me. It is just full of awful spiders' webs, and the whole class is completely silent with fear when I get up and walk over to it, and it feels as if my flat shoes sound as loud as wooden clogs with heels.

Maybe the Jews have no part in French history, and I promise you that I would not care one bit if the teacher threw me out for every lesson. But why does she have to make me stand like that, with my face to the wall? Isn't she wicked, Odette?

Tell me, how did you manage to break your legs like that? I tried to jump off the tree and off the wall in front of the building, the hardest I could, and I didn't break a thing! All that happened was that Mamma got angry with me, and said that a few more jumps like that and I wouldn't have any shoes left! And I should forget about new ones! In hard times like these!

"Hard times," "hard times"! All day long, "hard times!" If I don't finish my baguette—then: "Don't you understand that in hard times like these there's no acting spoiled?" And if I beg to go downstairs in the afternoon, then, "You can't in these hard times!"

Even my father, who is a big smiler, who always allows everything [almost] — won't allow it! And till I get him to smile? It's hard work! He has forgotten how to smile. It is all because of these hard times.

What do you say, Odette? When will I be able to play again like I used to? Not just: school—home! School—home and that's it? I am fed up! It's good that I still have you, living in the apartment opposite, and that I can, with the basket, send letters and get them back. Without you I would die of boredom. What a pity that you can't get out of bed and stand at the window. I would wave to you. Then I would be able to see what you look like — just about, because the chestnut tree is in the way. And—Odette, do you know that we have to sew a yellow patch on our clothes? A kind of star. I mean all the Jews. I didn't understand why. It's not important. I have a whole collection of napkins. Do you want to trade with me? Send a letter back quickly. I am b-o-r-e- d!

Yours truly, Dora Bloom."



Thanks for the letter. Do you want to hear something funny? Just imagine that one day you find in the basket, aside from the letter, a kitten or chick, or star that had fallen from Heaven! Oof, dreams! Every day I dream. It's just out of boredom, that's all. I think that without these dreams and imaginings I would turn into a stuffed animal. Do you remember the teacher's stuffed animals in the lab classes? The bird, the snake [uch] and the squirrel with the lovely orange tail and the beads they stuck into it instead of eyes?

The teacher does not work in the school any more. They threw her out. She is Jewish. It is the new law.

As you know, my father also teaches at the school. He heard and saw everything. The principal said that the law is the law, and laws have to be kept! Jewish teachers are prohibited from teaching in a French school. That is what he said.

You should have seen the look on my father's face when he was telling the story. It is impossible to describe in a letter. But it is better that you did not see it! His face looked so terrible! Sort of pitiful, and frightening. Even his voice was different. He told Mamma and he was shouting. And Mamma— well, she didn't answer him at all. She just listened. I saw on her face that she was distressed that I was hearing it.

Yes, Dora, I heard everything. How the science teacher, Mr. Levy, and the math teacher, Mr. Schechter, were handed their letter of expulsion, and how they had to walk all the way down the huge yard of the school, as if they were two wretched thieves who had been caught red-handed. All the teachers stood there, at the main door, and all the pupils looked out of the classroom windows, and everyone was silent.

You could hear the pacing of their shoes. Such a silence! my father said. At this point of the story Pappa's face turned red and his black eyes looked extremely black and terrible, and he yelled: "Did you hear that? Not one person said a word! Or moved! Can you believe that? Colleagues in the profession for so many years! Not even a good-bye did they say!"

Mamma sighed. She almost burst out crying. Pappa continued: "I had to do it. The guard had already opened the gate. All of a sudden I couldn't! I yelled—`Can we let them go just like that?' But no one said a word. The headmaster lowered his eyes. Then I ran after them.

"I walked beside them up to the gate. I went out a little further. I saw how both of them, the most loyal and veteran teachers of the school, both citizens of Paris—walked out into the familiar street, with the gate closed behind them, looking around in all directions, like people who had never been there, who didn't know the area, did not have a clue as to where to go from here."

Mamma sighed. Her face was very sad. Pappa carried on telling her how he had gone back into the classroom later on. The pupils sat there like children too well-behaved. Very silent. Pappa sat on his chair and was unable to teach.

"I could not. `Today, children,' I forced out the words, `I give you permission to do crosswords and decorate your notebooks.'

"Though usually such an announcement would be greeted with shouts of joy, today some invisible spring had snapped in them. They were quiet. Then someone raised his hand. `Yes, Joel?'

"`Teacher, we would rather work on the math exercises, that our teacher, Mr. Blum, gave us to do for homework.' Do you hear that? They preferred to do mathematical exercises! That was their way of expressing their love for the Jewish math teacher who had been kicked out."

Did you hear that, Dora! Can you believe it? To voluntarily do division exercises in decimal fractions? Strange, is it not? Oh yes, and the weak students who were not good at division decorated the cover of their notebook. When Pappa got to that part—he cried. My father.

"Listen," he told Mamma. "Listen hard. I don't know if anyone told them, or how they knew at all, but all four pupils drew the same picture on the cover of their notebooks. The French flag with the colors red, white and blue, and in the center of the white rectangle—a yellow star. The Jewish star, you know."

Oh, Dora, I'm sorry! I forget that you yourself are Jewish, and maybe I'm giving you pain or insulting you with all this talk. Do you forgive me? You won't want to stop writing to me through the basket, will you Dora? If you don't write to me I am positive — positive! — that I will stay paralyzed!

Oh, Dora, I'm sorry!

Yours forever—Odette."


She folded the letter, shoved it in the wicker basket, which lay hanging to one side on the window sill.

Today she managed to turn her hips a little. The physiotherapist smiled when she saw it.

Her first smile for two and a half months!

First, the surprise crept over her face, like a kitten behind a dove, front teeth emerging through her lips, and then—the wide smile!

"Oh-la-la!" And she hurried to the doorway, stuck her head into the hallway, and cried with her soprano voice: "Monsieur! Madame!"

Odette's parents burst into the room, startled.

"She moved! She turned her hip," the fine voice enthused. "She has every chance of walking again!"

Her mother insisted that she show her! Right now! That is, if she had the strength, of course. Her father tarried at the door. Like a teacher waiting for the class to quiet down. Waiting for his heart to quiet down. Only then—did he blink rapidly, examine the movement from close up, his eyes moist.

"Thank G-d! All that exhausting physiotherapy paid off . . . "

"Oh, no, monsieur. It was the basket . . . See, the window on the side, and the basket there, she was determined to get to it, so the hip had no choice! It had to reach up," chirped the physiotherapist. All eyes turned towards the window. A straw wicker basket. Crooked. Like a balloon in the wind. Is that so? Is that the basket, I mean, that had the letters inside? . . . Thank G-d!


Dear Odette!

Oh, don't be foolish! I am not offended. Nonsense! Ages ago I forgot what it was to be insulted. We have gotten so used to demeaning words and insults. My father was very offended when they called us to the police station to be registered like all the Jews. He called it "marking the sheep for the slaughter." My mother yelled that he was exaggerating and that he should stop scaring everyone! [That means—me, since there are only the three of us].

You understand, Odette, my father and mother came to France many years ago from Germany, and it's written up in their identity cards. They are not really considered French citizens. `Second-class citizens,' Pappa says. Every night they would speak German that I did not understand. But I could, nevertheless, feel that they were pained and anxious. My father stayed awake all night, I heard him cough and smelled the smell of his cigarettes.

That's all—it's part of these "hard times." I wish they would be over already!

Never mind, Odette, let's talk about happier matters. For instance: the doll you sent me in the basket, last week, as a birthday present. What a gorgeous doll! With that little basket on her arm, filled with eggs, and that flowered silk dress. She is perched on the shelf beside my bed, preening herself!

When I feel very lonely and there's no letter from you yet in the basket, I play with the doll and dream about that vacation we will have in the village, when the hard times are over. Do you want to come with us? My parents will agree, for sure! We will pick flowers and mushrooms in the basket. We'll lie down and chat inside the golden spikes. Perhaps we will find a small brook. You will be well by that time. I am sure of it! And you will be able to run and stay a long time! It will be lovely! Will your parents agree?

Everything will be, once the hard times have gone away. Vanished—phoo—phoo—phoo, like cigarette smoke that gives you a headache but vanishes quickly if you just open a little window and the tiniest breeze comes in.

See you soon, and get well soon!

Dora Bloom.


It is funny to think that such good friends as we are have never ever met. It's such a pity that the chestnut tree grows right in the middle of the yard and hides both our windows. I would go down below, stand underneath your window and call you, except that you can't peek out at me in any case. You still can't get out of your bed.

But don't worry, Odette! I'm sure that you'll be back to your normal self and everything that the doctors think: paralysis or partial paralysis [did I say it right?], is nonsense! The doctors are only emissaries—my father always tells me—but health is in the hands of the Almighty. He will heal you, Odette! Be sure of that and pray. I will also pray for you.

And by the way: Did you hear? They are arresting Jews in the streets. In the metro. In the middle of the day! Especially men and women who, like my parents, were not born in France. Mamma doesn't leave the house any more. Pappa has to. He goes to work in a bag store. Until he gets home, my mother looks like a wax doll. And when the curfew comes in, at eight o'clock at night, that is the worst!

My father says that the Germans are more dangerous than they look. He was born and raised in Germany. He knows them . . .

That's it for now. See you.



Listen! I can move my legs now! Can you believe it? The physiotherapist said that if I continue like this for another few days, they will try to bring me to the armchair and I can sit down! After those long months of lying down! Oh, I can't wait! It was so stupid of me to climb that chestnut tree. I didn't listen to Mamma who warned me—you might fall, you might fall. But you know, after I had fallen and it turned out that I had smashed my legs and the disk in my back, not once did Mamma say: "I told you so! See? You didn't listen to me!"

My mother is a really lovely person. I am sure she will let me go out on a picnic to the village. When she found out about the basket and about our writing to each other, she said: "Who? Bloom's daughter? Ah. Fine. I know Mrs. Bloom. She's an impressive lady!"


How is it to sit beside the window in the floral armchair? It's like sitting inside a dream that has come true!

Her toes managed to squeeze themselves into her slippers, and then—lifting her body with a strength she did not possess Odette managed to lean onto the window sill. And look outside.

Oh, what a beautiful yard! How is it that she had never noticed the beauty of the old yard? Of the building that was set it in a U-shape around it, with the flats on every side. Then smack in the center rose the chestnut tree, with its rich green tint. The sparrows that tarried on the steep balconies had the look of a new morning. Oh—what a gorgeous yard it was!

And there was Mrs. Roue, the doorkeeper with her white apron, swishing her straw broom, scraping the tiles a bit, chasing after leaves and sand, with wide movements, like using a paintbrush, sweeping the pile of rubbish up to the gate, which she opens a little, and all of it flies out! Then, she shakes out the straw twigs on the low stone wall and disappears into the building. Odette laughs. Mrs. Roue, that lovely doorkeeper! She was always pulling sweets out of her apron pocket for the children in the building.

Though the muscles of Odette's legs were trembling from the effort, she eagerly absorbed all the sights, aching to be near the sounds and smells, and—it was true. True that they were saying that they were at war now, that France had been conquered and humiliated, and everyone was walking around with a frozen look. But what did she care! Finally, finally she was standing on her feet! Too little, and still shaking, but she was standing!

After months of doubts and uncertainty, by the grace of Heaven the threat of paralysis had been removed! "It will take time and you have no patience, sweetheart," the physiotherapist had chided her affectionately. "But you will be running again! And we'll dance together at your wedding. If you invite me, that is."

That Lilian, who had inflicted so much pain and hassle on her, with her "straighten up, stretch, relax, contract," was really such a lovely person. Really nice! She loved everyone now! Even the orthopedist, Dr. Katz!

Only one thing bothered her, she missed. Or rather, one girl. Dora! Her "basket" friend. And precisely now, when she was finally able to stand for a minute next to the window and look out in the direction of Dora's window, hoping to maybe catch sight of her somewhere between the branches of the chestnut tree, Dora no longer lived there. How long had it been since her last letter that came in the basket? Odette found it hard to think back. The times were all mixed up in her head.

But she well remembered the last knocking of the basket on the glass pane. She would never forget that! Just at that time Dr. Katz, the orthopedist, had been standing in her room. A routine visit. He wrote something in his notepad, as there was that tip-tapping sound on the glass pane. Odette tensed.

"Come in!" the doctor replied in the direction of the door.

No one came in.

Once again the basket swung on the tight rope. Banged gently on the window.

"Come in!" His voice was dry. Rasping.

No one entered.

The doctor went over to the door of the room. Opened it. Closed it. Muttered something.

As if rebuked, the wicker basket waited. Touched the window pane. Odette was afraid to turn her head. The doctor must not see it! Dora had asked that she keep it a secret.

"Do you know, my friend Odette," she had written in her last letter, "that they are arresting Jews and sending them to prison camps? Pappa has almost stopped going out altogether. We want them to forget us, forget that the Bloom family ever lived here. Pappa, Mamma and Dora Bloom. Until the hard times are over.

"I am frightened. Odette, please do not tell anyone about the basket and the letters. Promise me! Mamma has asked me to stop. But each time I promise myself that this will be the last letter and I don't keep to it."

At long last, Dr. Katz left! Odette opened the window with an effort. She right away drew the basket towards her, pulled out the folded letter from inside. She jerked the rope, as the agreed upon signal, and slammed the window shut. The basket swung on the rope, remained hanging in the air, next to the closed window pane. Odette opened the folded page excitedly.

Hey! The crowded lines were bare! In the middle of the page, there fluttered a few lone words. Like a handful of demonstrators putting a barricade over a deserted plot.

"My dear Odette,

"This is the last letter! We have to go into hiding!

"We will go up to the maid's attic, in our apartment. We will live there from now on. There are informers.

"If they see the basket, my Pappa, my Pappa, Odette! Promise me! Destroy the letter! We will carry on writing after the war!

"Love, Dora Bloom."

The letter dropped to her lap. Odette's eyes strayed to the little window opposite, which marked the attic in the Bloom's flat. It reminded her of an abandoned dovecote. There, was that where her Dora was? Her waning strength shook her muscles with a last motion that was just enough to keep her going till she collapsed into the floral armchair.

Oof, it was hard. She would need a lot of patience before she'd be able to run again. The first place she would run to would be—the apartment opposite. She wouldn't knock. She would sneak in. For no one would open it for her. Then, when she got to the attic stairs she would whisper: "Dora, Dora, it's me, are you here?" And then—they would get to know each other. Maybe.

Odette fell asleep in the armchair.


Spring gave a different quality to the light. The summer textures ripened more and more. Odette could already take a few steps in her room. She could even go to the kitchen, supported by the hallway wall.

When they told her to be patient, they didn't tell her how much patience she would need to have. And what was it people were saying now? "The hard times!" It was hard to get foodstuffs these days. Even the most essential ones. But there was no choice. But there was nothing or no one to alleviate the boredom. There was no basket and no letters and Dora? She was actually there, right opposite but she might as well not have been there.

Odette was in despair.

At dinner in the evening, her father told her that there were rumors of a police raid on the Parisian Jews.

It would be soon, people said. "Where did you hear that from?" her mother said, shocked, halting with the soup plate on her way to the table.

"The father-in-law of the principal of the school," stammered her father. "He is an officer in the Paris militia."

Her mother laid down the soup plate. Was silent. The dinner died out. That evening everyone went to bed early.

Her Pappa was such a diligent man! He got up every morning with the birds! While Mamma and Odette were still drowsing in their beds he had already come back from the store at the end of the street, with fresh baguettes, milk, and the Paris Soir rolled up, with the delicious scent of a fresh tray.

Today even Odette got up early. Perhaps it was the rumors that prevented her from sleeping. Perhaps it was nothing. The hot day. You could feel, at 6:30 in the morning, that it would be a hotter day than usual.

She lets the blanket slip from her legs. With the irritating slowness of legs that were convalescing, she slides her toes into her slippers. Walks, with a determined back, into the kitchen.

Pappa has already laid the baguettes in the bread box. Put a kettle of water on the fire. Odette hears the tapping of Pappa's cup on the sink. She moves with great slowness. Her back still hurts. Her feet are so weak it is quite worrying. Soon the scent of coffee will assail her senses, conflicting with the delicate-powerful bakery smell of the baguette. She goes into the kitchen.

"Good morning, Pappa."

"Odette, good morning, my girl." His face is serious. The water is humming with a quiet whisper, and boiling. And boiling.

"Pappa, are you drinking your coffee? The water is boiling over!"

"What? Oh, yes, yes," he shakes himself. Takes out the jar of sugar from the cupboard. Turns off the flame. Stirs the boiling water that he poured into the cup. Stirs. Stirs. Stirs. His eyes are glazed.


"What, Odette?"

"You haven't put coffee into the cup."

"Oh, I haven't? Oh, oh, right, I haven't, that's true, here. I'll put it now."

He busies himself with the coffee jug. Struggles with the lid. The coffee sprinkles, scatters over the sink. Her father smiles, perplexed. "Hey, look what happened here."

But her legs hurt. She sits beside the table.

"My feet, Pappa, they hurt . . . "

He stands in front of her, coffee in hand, pensive.

"Pappa, do you think it is best to tell Dr. Katz? The pains . . . "

"Odette . . . "

"What, Pappa?"

"Listen carefully, Odette. Listen." He lays his cup on the table.

He is not about to talk about Dr. Katz or about her feet. He had not heard a word she said!

"Odette, the girl who sent you letters in the basket, Bloom, the Jews who live opposite?!"

"Yes, Pappa?" Her heart is swaying like that basket in the air.

"You stopped writing, did you not?"

"Yes." Oh, it is swaying, swaying, on a thin rope, transparent.

"Why? Did they leave?" His eyes demand an answer.

"Mmm . . . I don't know." She bites her lips.

"Odette, listen to me! Did they move house, or what?"

"Mmmm," the basket swings. "I don't know." His eyes are too hard. They read her face like an open book. But . . . did she not promise not to tell! She must not!

"Odette!" the serious voice is frightening. Her legs tremble. "I just now came back from the store. You know the shopkeeper?"

Odette nods.

"Do you remember where the grocery store is? You haven't been there in a long time. It is at the end of the street on the turn, right?"

Her father is frightened. She hears the urgency in his voice.

"Do you hear, Odette? She told me, secretly, this morning, that a concentration of German and French officers, with their cars, is waiting behind her store. Right there at the end of our street . . . "

He is silent for a moment. "I saw them, Odette. Do you understand what that means?"

Pappa draws closer to her, eyes wide.

"Not exactly, Pappa." Oh! Her heart in the basket is quivering so in the air, like a detached leaf.

"They are coming to arrest Jews! To send to . . . to . . . I don't know where. They mean to even . . . kill them."

Odette had no time to burst into tears.

"Odette, we must warn the Blooms! If they are still living in the vicinity. You know that, don't you? Right you know it? Tell me!"

"Yes," she whispered. "But I promised not to tell."

"Odette!" Pappa took both her hands. Pressed them gently and stroked them. "Do you understand that you have no choice! You must! You must! Where, Odette? Tell me!"

She breathes deeply. "In their apartment in the attic."

"Ach! That's not good!" Pappa bit his lip. "The attics are made of wood and the floor squeaks. The neighbors will sense it. No one is allowed to hear, we have to warn them, so they can flee . . . in a very short time they will check every building in the street. Apartment by apartment." Her father bowed his head, searching for an idea.

Meanwhile, her feet trembled with the convulsive weakness that she had experienced in the last few months. She wanted to cry. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to sleep, sleep, sleep.

"Odette!" he shook her. "The basket!"

"The basket?"

"Yes! Is it still attached to the rope? Is the rope tied between the two windows?"

"I don't remember, maybe. The last letter was sent from the attic. Perhaps she forgot to disband the rope?"

"We'll try! Let's try, my good girl! Wait here! Don't move!"

As if she could move.

At this minute no physiotherapist could do anything with her.

Her father rushed to the stairway. To the yard. His eyes scanned the high space between the windows. Examined each and every window. The apartment opposite was dark. Its shutters were closed. It had an abandoned look. His eyes fastened on the window of the attic. Oh! Yes! No doubt about it! The rope! Its end was swallowed up between the clasps of the shutters. Thank G-d! He rushed back to the stairway— took them two at a time and three at a time. To the kitchen. To Odette.

End of Part I


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