Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Cheshvan 5766 - November 30, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Basket

by A. Harel

Part II

Odette is a French child who is recovering from a fall from a tree in which she broke both legs and a disc in her spine. Forced to spend months in bed, she has become friendly with a Jewish girl about her age, Dora Bloom, with whom she exchanges letters using a basket that is tied to a rope that spans the courtyard between their rooms.

As Odette slowly recovers, the world around them sinks. The Jews are threatened more and more by the rising tide of German antisemitism which engulfs the conquered French, who do not resist. Dora and her family go into hiding in the attic of their home. But one day, Odette's father comes home after his daily trip to the grocery store, and is very disturbed. He tells Odette that the Germans plan a sweep to round up all the Jews and he wants to warn the Bloom family. Desperate for an idea to communicate with them, he remembers the basket. It is still there.


The note was short.


"In the Name of G-d! Run!

"Police at end of street!


Her father pulled and the basket ran wildly over the stretched rope, as dry fibers dropped off it. When it reached the shutter opposite, Papa shook the rope hard and fast, until the basket was beating against the shutter. Beating! Striking! Begging! Open!

The closed shutters gave the impression of an apartment put up for rent, abandoned. Layers of dust came up and dropped off when the basket struck the old tree, struck it, and bumped against it, bumped against it, and then stopped.

"Either they are not there, or they are too frightened to open," Odette's father murmured.

"I am sure they are there Pappa. I'm sure!" Her eyes had already managed to invent their own ideas. Not the most original. Tears.

"If they would have run away, I know that Dora would have sent me a little parting note. She wouldn't have left me like that." Odette cried aloud. And her father—thoughtful, his brows arched, his brows rough — did not comfort her the way he always did.

He only opened the window.

"Come, Odette. Let's wake Mamma."


In the evening, Odette remembered to pull back the basket for its journey over, in front of—and inside—the chestnut tree. With a heavy heart it made its way. Slowly. As if it were filled with stones. Again it knocked on the open window sill. Odette peeked inside, at its contents.

"Pa—pp—a! Pa—pp—a!" she yelled into the house. The basket was empty!!


Like well-trained hunters, accompanied by well-trained hunting dogs—the German police burst in suddenly, accompanied by their French accomplices. Building by building. Following an exact list. At 25 Freidia Street—the second floor—the Cohens. 27 Freidia—fourth floor, rented apartment: the Rapoports.

They swooped on the doors with their human barks, spreading hunter's nets in the guise of ink and office paper signed by the new French government, which had taken up headquarters in the small town of Vichy.

On 29 Freidia Street, the Blooms were supposed to have been living. Father. Mother. Girl. Parents—foreign citizens. The girl — a French citizen. They knocked. Hard. Then harder still. Again and many times more. Then they kicked the door and burst in.

And Odette, from her flat opposite—heard it all. She peeked out of the window. Golden rays from the sun have fallen onto the chestnut tree, but they were not skilled enough to hide the sheen from the German police's cap there, in the window opposite. In the window of Dora Bloom. Dora. Her friend, her good friend.


That day, in the afternoon hours, another head was peering out of the window of Dora Bloom's room. Very curious. Avid. Odette didn't see this. She sat in her room in the floral armchair, devoid of all energy. And suddenly! The basket! Beating, biting, biting . . . beating on the glass.

It moves back and forth. The basket! Could Dora be sending a reply? Oh! She had known that they were there! She had been sure of it!

If Lillian the physiotherapist had seen Odette's clumsy leap- - oh! Would she have been angry! Odette felt the muscle stretch too much, objecting. But she didn't listen to it. She tripped on the carpet, leaned on the window sill, pulled the basket inside. Her heart burned under her ribs. Her hand dug in it quickly, pulled out a folded note!

Oh! It was her stationery. Oh! Odette kissed it. Brought it up to her nostrils. Smelled it. Creased it. Laughed! Her fingers fumbled a little when she opened it.

Oh, it's upside down. She turns it over, takes in air, begins to devour the written words—but her eyes are caught. What is this? It is impossible to vomit words, but an awful, bitter taste spreads in her throat.

"To Odette who lives opposite!

"Hello, my name is Josephine. Today we came into the flat here. My father, the policeman—got the keys. I found a children's room here with a shelf. On the shelf is a lovely doll with a frilly dress, like I always dreamed I would have. Like the one my mother wouldn't buy me (my mother is stingy). I also found a desk with a drawer stuffed with letters. I found out your name from them. I know it's not nice to read other people's letters without permission, but what do I care?

"I also understood from the letters that the girl who lived here before, Dora, was Jewish. But then Jews are not people at all. My father said so. You're allowed to take from them! Everything they have belongs to France. My mother said that's because they stole from France. [Well, she is stingy, after all.] So I don't care about being nosy. I read in the letters that you are sick, that you broke half your body and maybe you'll stay a cripple.

"So if you are a Jew too, Odette — I spit at you and wish you to stay a cripple! And just cut the rope! But if you are a French girl, then I agree to be your pen pal. How on earth could you write to a Jew?? Did your father owe her father lots of money so you had no choice? Or was it really because of boredom?

"Fine, I'll forget about it. I'll just throw all the letters into the garbage, empty the drawer and we'll start again from scratch. Is that okay with you? Write back quick.



"I am 13 and a half. How old are you?"


Odette collapsed into the armchair. This was nauseating! Her legs were burning. Her throat felt strangled.

Without thinking she rose, groaned from the pain, went up to her desk, tore out a page from the open pad and wrote with a hand trembling with anger and weakness, in large, scattered letters:

"Don't you dare touch the doll! You thief! And don't you dare read the letters! They are not yours! Give me them right back immediately! Every single one of them! In the basket! How rude can you get! You are a disgrace to France! A complete shame and disgrace!"

She thrust the note into the basket, ran it along the rope with furious movements. The basket was pushed back on the window sill opposite and stopped. The rope stood still. Odette placed her hand on the rope and waited for movements, like a fisherman who has cast his rod into the water and his finger awaits the tickling of the string, when the fish has swallowed its bait.

It didn't take long. Maybe seven minutes, maybe seventeen. The rope started swaying. Pulling. The basket appeared behind the chestnut tree, moving forward in non-consecutive, uneven, jumps, stuttering. It looked heavy. Papers seeped out from it. It came forward, stopped and the rope jerked. Then it went on. Halted in the middle of the way, between the two windows.

Odette pulled a little. Keep going! Again she pulled! Suddenly she heard, clearly, a voice shrieking from there: "Here are your letters! And the doll! Take them!"

And a rowdy hand, wild, waved the rope like a cruel whip. It curved inwards, arched. The basket turned, got entangled, and then thin, folded, one by one—pursuing each other, like white fallen leaves, they scattered to the four winds.


It happened on the 17th July, 1942. The day of the great siege of the Jews of Paris.


Now she has no more excuses. Her legs have gone back to their former fitness, more or less. Even the war has already finished. Everything has changed! Everything!

Except for two things, that is. The stuffed animals in the school lab and the math teacher. "War or not, young lady, sicknesses, accidents, please get to work!" The teacher wouldn't let up on anything! She demanded orderly notebooks and all the material she had missed and the tests! Awful!

Instead of the floral armchair, Odette's father brought her up to her desk next to the window. Occasionally, of their own volition, her eyes would stray from the page in front of her, full of mathematical formulas or historical dates. They would climb slowly, as if old age had descended on them, above the heap of school books and notebooks lying on the desk, until her gaze rested on the shelf above. To the doll there. The doll gift from Dora Bloom.

Standing there, the doll, in the frilly dress, with the basket hanging on her arm—empty. The plastic eggs had dropped out of it when she had fallen then, with the letters, into the yard, cracked all along her side. Odette had plodded slowly to the yard and had picked up the battered doll. She cleaned it and put it up on the shelf in the room.

As for the letters that had scattered all over, it wasn't worth picking them up. They were circling around, chased by the wind, hoisted upwards and landing in all corners of the long street, like last farewells from the Jews who were no longer there.

Odette's eyes strayed again to the notebook in front of her, on the table. She reaped no comfort from the doll. Only longing and pain.

She had coaxed her father to try to check out what had happened to Dora and her parents that day when the Jews of Paris were besieged. The day when Paris opened up a branch in Auschwitz.

There was no thread of information that led anywhere. No thread, no rope, no anything. The rope itself was forgotten, tied shakily, dangling between the two windows. In the middle, the chestnut tree sprouted as always. It seemed as if it were branching and becoming thicker, until the window opposite was completely hidden from Odette. It was better that way.

The basket had faded away completely. Turned pale. The sun roasted it mercilessly. The rain and snow had caused it to rot almost. However, it had still survived. Hung there, crooked. Pathetic. A nest for birds that chanced to be there.


The policeman's family that had invaded the Bloom's flat on the day of the siege, disappeared on the liberation day. It had been swallowed up inside Paris, which frequently changed its display windows according to the dictates of the latest fashion. And today, with the liberation of France, it wasn't "fashionable" to be a former military figure of Vichy even if it was only a mere policeman who had exhibited antisemitism towards the citizens with the yellow star.

Like vomit in her throat, Odette recalled the memory of Josephine. She had actually never gotten to know that obnoxious girl.

The neighbors in the building had constantly changed in those hard times. And actually, if Odette had only given it a little thought: it was only her family and Mrs. Roye's, the doorkeeper of the building, who lived there permanently.

The doorkeeper, the nice lady who kept the building free of rats and dry leaves with her broom and eternal white apron. She really was nice! And she was ageless! Like a kind of girlish old lady. She had a husband, a skinny man who wore a grey beret and who made an appearance only twice a day — and even then only for those who persistently waited at the window. Once, at 5:40 in the morning when he went out to work, and then again at 4:30 in the afternoon when he returned.

"How are you, Odette?" the doorkeeper would greet her cheerfully at the stairway, when they met. "How are your feet? Your back?"

"Oh, perfectly fine, thank you, Madame," she would answer.

"But they don't look perfectly fine," Mrs. Roye would say, continuing to smile. "To say fine that's one thing but— perfectly? That's too much! And it doesn't match that long face you have, Odette! Don't you feel well?"

"Oh, I'm fine," Odette murmured.

"So what's going on besides? In our building, 29 Freidia Street, we don't have any secrets!" The doorkeeper smiled heartily and waited for an answer, in all seriousness.

"Our doorkeeper," Odette's mother said once, "is like someone from the old generation." With that enormous, rusty key chain, with a key for every flat and entrance and every gate, back or front, to the massive building. With her bright apron and her amazing talent for collecting and putting together bits of information, so that in consequence, all kinds of "nameless people" took on an identity.

She knew exactly when you went out, where you were going, and when you would come back, even if you didn't tell her.

She also knew who was left in the house and what you had eaten that day for lunch. Her pocket was full and packed with all kinds of things that had dropped into the yard. Twice a week, on days and hours marvelously arranged, she would go through the different floors in the building. For a whole hour it echoed with her energetic knocks on every possible door. "Is this yours?" she would pull out clothes pins or a towel that had dropped into the yard, or a young bird that had fallen out of its nest. "Is this yours?" she would ask the person who opened. Wonderful!


Slowly, hesitatingly, the survivors of the Jewish families return to their old and not-so-fine addresses in Paris. Lone children come back. They examine their abandoned nest and fly on to an unknown destination. Slowly, hesitatingly, the reality of the day after sinks in. The joy of liberation exhibits itself. It is hard to believe. Every Jewish child who comes back, who wanders in the street, is a living indictment. A stroke.

When Odette's mother comes into her room occasionally, she finds her standing by the doll on the shelf. She moves her finger over the ugly crack along her little plastic leg.

"How are your feet, Odette? And your back? Okay? Show me for a minute how you bend? Straighten up? Turn your ankle? Wonderful!" And she exits the room.

"We should have done more!" she told her husband later. "That Jewish girl, Dora, we should have done more. Helped them go into hiding, flee . . . she didn't only send letters in that basket. She also folded inside them the health of our Odette's legs. Her back, which has become bent all over again. Do you hear? Our girl got completely better, was saved from partial paralysis because of the hope and warm friendship that they had shared through writing letters in that basket. We should have."

Odette's father listened, and was silent.


In the morning, when she woke up, her legs felt heavy.

They lay on the sheets like two fractured doll's legs whose joints had been severed.

They called Dr. Katz urgently. The orthopedist.

He diagnosed a severe case of the flu, wrote prescriptions for medicine to bring down the fever, declared that there was nothing to worry about. A week, ten days, a lot of tea, and everything would be fine!

As he said that, the lines on his face exhibited that kind of worry that is typical of elderly doctors who realize that medical books end on the last page before the hard binding, but continue on new pages, unwritten, unseen, where the diagnosis and treatment depend on the patient's will to get better and on the Will of Heaven. And that is the way it is, no matter how thick the medical books might be.

Odette had a fever for three days. She spent them either sleeping or in a foggy state of drowsiness. She dreamt about dolls. About shattered baskets. About white bird wings flying in the sky like pages folded in half.

On the fourth day, her father brought the floral armchair back underneath the window and helped her get out of bed and sit on it. He massaged her match-like toes.

"Can you stretch for a moment? Good, straighten up, turn your ankle—wonderful! Do you see? It's only the flu! Everything's fine!"

He chose a book for her to read from the shelf, but she preferred the doll. "Dolls, Odette?" her father said with surprise. "Aren't you too old to play with dolls?" He smiled at her, and pulled the cracked doll down from the shelf.

"Oh, I'm not going to play. No, I'm not."

"So then why do you . . . "

"I don't know, Pappa," Odette stroked the head of the withered doll, the straw hair, the crack in the leg all the way to the shoe. "Dunno Pappa. No reason . . . dunno."

Pappa hurried on to his work at the school. Mamma too went out to do her shopping. Odette sat in the armchair and stroked the doll until it dropped onto her lap and she dozed off.

And then.

A ticking on the glass! She opens her eyes. What, what was that? Oh, again—a light fluttering. Almost a tap. It is hard for her to turn her head. It hurts. Her eyes are half closed. She has a fever. She must be dreaming. But again! That ticking! Odette opens her eyes instantly. They widen. Is it the basket? Can that be the sound of the basket beating on the glass pane??

She stretches her head towards it.

Yes! It's the basket! An old, plucked, laughably distorted version of it knocks—knocks on her window.

Knocks, knocks, knocks—knocks, knocks—ocks, knocks—ocks.

A current of fire and ice rushes through her body, like lightning, down to her toes. She leaps from the armchair. Opens the window wide. Hesitatingly, the basket moves a little here. There. Swings. Drunkenly. What could it be? Did the wind carry it here? But her hand, of its own volition, pulls it inside. Gropes in the empty space, in the wicker— the torn sides. Oh! She has found something! A paper, folded, but . . . her hand freezes. She must be dreaming. She's sick. She has a high fever. It's just a lot of nonsense!

Her hand comes up.

That stationery! That same paper! The same white feather decorations in the margins!

A scream thickens in her throat. A cry. Muzzled. Her pulse, already fast from weakness and her fever, goes completely wild. She opens it.



"Guess who?

"Look out from your window now towards the left room on the third floor."


Odette is terrified. She leans on the back of the armchair, still standing. For sure it's Josephine, that wicked girl!

She totters over to the window. Her legs are like the legs of a rag doll on strings. The left window . . . third floor— a figure!

She focuses her gaze. Yes. A section of an upper body. A hand waving. Ribbons—yellow ones in braids.

"Dora! Do—ra!!"

The figure disappears. The window closes.

Oh! What has she done?! Her breathing becomes difficult. She is so weak. So weak. She has no strength to stand up. But, very quickly, Odette tears a page out of her notepad and writes absentmindedly:

"Who are you? In the Name of G-d! Who are you? Are you Dora? If so, where have you been? Where did you disappear to? Give me an answer! Now!"

And again, the basket runs wildly over the dry rope whose strings have become disconnected, ripped. It leaves threads hanging all the way along to the window opposite. When it gets there—she pulls strongly. The basket bangs on the closed shutter. She sees a movement of the shutter. A slight one. A hand.

And again the basket, emissary of the heart, rushes over the hanging, dubious bridge, and back again to Odette.


"What do you mean, who am I? Dora Bloom of course! Who did you think? Josephine? We were here, all this time, in the building. Opposite you, exactly. In this window.

"The doorkeeper, Mrs. Roye, gave us the key to this flat that was always empty . . . no one knew about it aside from her. She let us hide there. I couldn't, you understand, even give you a hint. None. It was a matter of life and death.

"Only the doorkeeper would bring us food twice a week at set hours. You thought she was just doing her `returning lost property rounds' from the yard. She would knock on all the doors and ask who the clothes pins or towels belonged to. Does it sound familiar? My mother gave her a basket full of clothespins and all our kitchen towels to occasionally scatter over the yard and then—she could knock on all the doors to camouflage her entry into the empty flat.

"She saved our lives!

"Odette, from the window here I can see your room perfectly! Really see through it. I could see you taking your first steps. I could see how you got well! How happy that made me! You see! I was right! I saw you sitting and doing homework, going to school. The war has ended and everything is over! Everything! But not for us. Not really. Two of my cousins and my grandmother, who didn't get a warning in time like we did— were murdered in Auschwitz. Did you hear that name? `Auschwitz?' Write it down. In time you will hear a great deal about it.

"I waited for the day to come that you would be alone in the house, like now, so I could send you a letter. I couldn't hold back!

"So there it is. Tomorrow we will no longer be here. Tonight we are going to Switzerland and from there to Palestine. France is not our homeland.

"Dear Odette, I saw how you held up my birthday doll. I am sure that you kept it for me. I am giving it to you as a gift. As for me, it doesn't look like I'll be playing with dolls any more — or ever again. Good-bye to you dear Odette! You saved our lives!

"Just imagine, with our funny old basket and the letter that warned us at the last minute. Who would have dreamed? And then—straight from Heaven, Mrs. Roye. She continued our rescue. G-d helped us.

"May He help you too, Odette. Don't try to come to me here. It is still dangerous!

"Today we will give back the key to the doorkeeper. Our suitcase is already packed. Good-bye to you, Odette. Maybe sometime, when the hard times will indeed have passed, we'll write to each other by mail. I will never forget your address. 29 Freidia Street, the 19th Quarter, Paris. Opposite the chestnut tree.

"Love—Dora Bloom."


Odette's eyes had become baskets overflowing with tears. She closed her mouth with her fist. Dora, Dora was alive! She must meet with her! Despite it all! Just this time! Could she let her disappear all over again? And as for the doll . . . yes she would give it back to her. Now, right away!

Again she tore out a note. Scribbled on it.

"Dora, hey, Dora!

"I must meet with you! Please! Don't disappear again for me! And your doll! Here she is! Take her! She's yours! I will never, never play with her!"

She grabbed the cracked doll from the shelf and shoved it into the basket with the note.

With a few strong pulls, she spurred it on over the rope. There it went, galloping on, till it reached the chestnut tree. The rope groaned withered. And suddenly . . .

It snapped! Ripped!

Splinters of straw. The basket fell. Broke apart on the ground of the yard. The doll smashed. The folded note fell, spinning, deep into the body of the tree.

The doorkeeper appeared out of nowhere, lifted her glance momentarily to that window. Then to her window. And then— with the sprig broom—everything was as if it had never been.

Odette's strength deserted her two legs. She collapsed onto the carpet, and laid her head burning from the fever, wet from perspiration, onto the edge of the floral armchair.

Mamma later moved her to her bed, sunk in a helpless slumber.


The next day the doorkeeper knocked, Mrs. Roye. White apron and rosy cheeks. Odette opened for her.

"Is this yours?" she said, stretching out an old wooden clothespin, and winked, her gold tooth gleaming with the smile. And then—she laid a note into Odette's hand that was folded in two . . . no four. No, eight. Odette lifted her hand, but the doorkeeper kept both their palms lovingly pressed together. A tiny hidden embrace, clandestine.

This time it was a different note!

No words. Only a picture.

A basket, dripping with tears, hanging on a tight rope. And the tears, dropping from it, gradually turn to winged creatures, to turbulent white birds, soaring towards a yellow sun which is sketched on the right edge of the page, at the top.

And there, above the sun, one word was written, not really a word. Three letters. Above them, an acronym, three Hebrew letters. Had Odette known Hebrew she would have read:

Besiyata deShmaya.


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