It was May of 1944, when the orders came to the men at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. In days, they would leave to make ready a prisoner-of-war camp, in a town called Clarinda.
Another soldier working in the officers’ mess with Josef Freiburg nodded. “I know the place. Iowa. About 80 miles southeast of Omaha.”
But that information hardly helped Josef.
After the bus and the train and the other bus how empty this Camp Clarinda seemed. How much quiet. How much land. Josef stood close to his duffel. In the distance he could see the barracks, and watchtowers. The barbed wire, of course, he could nearly touch. But there were trees, too, and grass that seemed to reach so very far.
He didn’t want to begin here without a moment for prayer. In the duffel he found the little brown book with the cloth cover, the Readings from the Holy Scriptures for Jewish Soldiers and Sailors.
“Better watch out, Reverend,” the others sometimes told the chaplain, with a wink. “Joe, here, wants your job.” Always the chaplain smiled in response, and shook his head. At Passover he’d consulted Josef about matzoh.
“You’re the baker, Freiburg,” he’d said. “You know what to do.” The chaplain, too, had made the trip from Fort Sheridan.
Josef squinted, under the sun, to read again the letter on the brown book’s first page, from Mr. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
To the Members of the Army:
As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul.
For Josef this was all such beautiful, high language. Yet it was the freedom in the words that mattered. Back in Germany such a book would have been burned away.
He turned the page. “Presented to Private First Class Josef Freiburg.”
On the next line: “Home address: 200 Pinehurst Avenue, New York, New York.”
And then: “Nearest of kin: Nelly Freiburg (wife).”
The moments with the book ended when a voice sounded through a megaphone. Josef glanced up to see a tall, red-haired man shouting. “I am Lieutenant Donaldson. And before even welcoming you to Camp Clarinda, I have the privilege of reporting the victory that has taken place in Normandy. President Roosevelt will address the nation this evening.” Cheers and applause followed.
Josef remembered Normandy, and the outline of Cherbourg as the ship sailed away. He’d had one day in Paris, too, where the train from Stuttgart had left him. That city had frightened him, almost, so busy and so beautiful. It all seemed so long ago, the story of his departure. An uncle he’d hardly known, an uncle named Leo, a professor in Heidelberg, had summoned him to that city, told him what he knew and how he knew it, told him that Josef had to get out, told him that he, Leo, owed his dead sister, the mother Josef had never known, that much. That he owed it to Josef, too.
But now Josef must receive his assignment.
At Fort Sheridan, it was food service, preparing breads and pastries for the officers. Sometimes guilt filled him, for should he not be sacrificing more for his new country? How difficult was it, for him, to rise before dawn? This he had done even in advance of the time Father died, a year before they discovered the insulin.
The lieutenant checked his clipboard. “I see congratulations are in order, Soldier.”
Josef opened his mouth, then closed it. Did the lieutenant know about the baby to come to him and Nelly in the fall?
“Your naturalization,” the lieutenant said. “All official, now.”
All official. But what was it Nelly had said about that? “A long road to travel.”
How his Nelly talks. When the call came for the draft, she said: “They’re not sending you anywhere without citizenship.” Then she looked at his big black shoes that always cost so much. “Although with your feet, they won’t send you very far. You would hold the whole company back.” She laughed.
But the citizenship was not so funny. There were many forms, and money orders, and lists of the places where he lived after 1937, and worked. The Hanscom Bakery. The New York Pie Company. Nelly wrote the names and dates, in her pretty writing.
Other people wrote, too. Friends who were already citizens supported him. “I was naturalized in the Southern District of New York on the 21st of March 1937, and I assure you Josef Freiburg is of good character, and will make a good loyal United States citizen as I know he is happy to be in this great country.” Another: “I have known Josef Freiburg since a year and a half. I find Mr. J. Freiburg to be honest and trustworthy. I was myself born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on December 2, 1911 and immigrated to the United States in October 1935….”
And he answered questions himself. He told how he supported the effort for war. How last year he bought four defense bonds, each for twenty-five dollars. He told how he was not “in possession” of ammunition, short-wave receiving sets, transmitting sets, signal devices. He was not even sure what meant all such things; he just kept shaking his head.
The lieutenant spoke again. “Well, soldier. You have a very important job here.”
Josef stood as straight as possible.
“We have four kitchens at this camp. You will take charge of one.”
A mistake, surely. “I beg pardon?”
“Yes, it’s a big job.” The lieutenant tucked the clipboard under his arm. “We’re going to have 3,000 prisoners here, eventually. But you’ll have help.”
Silence. “Some prisoners.” More silence. “From Europe.”
The lieutenant, he could not possibly mean—.
(“Smart man. He was careful not to use the word ‘Nazi,’”said Nelly, later.)
Then the lieutenant stepped closer and tapped Josef’s arm. Josef almost jumped.
“Don’t worry, Freiburg,” he said.
Josef worried. And not only about those Nazis about to descend like a plague on Egypt. Crossing the ocean, first, as he had not too many years past. Then crossing the country, part of the way at least. Maybe they, too, would find it remarkable, the almost endless land of this America. A day could go by, and then another, and still one would not be at its other border, at the ocean on its other side.
But he worried not only about them. Because Nelly arrived. All the time he thought of her, and of the baby. Camp Clarinda’s medical facilities could not meet the needs of a woman in Nelly’s condition, but the town had a new municipal hospital, where babies were born.
In all his memories he could not find such joy as in the news of this baby. It would, of course, be a son. Handsome. With dark, curly hair and maybe Josef’s own brown eyes. He would go to school. He would be a doctor, one day. Or a lawyer. Or a rabbi. Or maybe even President of the United States of America.
But not a baker. Never. Josef will cut off his boy’s hands first. It is good and honest work. But his son—his son will go to school. He will do more. Better.
Nelly was not so enthusiastic, and not only for the physical reasons he imagined all females feared.
“How are we going to feed a baby?” she demanded, when first she had told him the news. In moments such as these her blue-gray eyes always looked cloudy and made him think about the winter ice on the stream behind his house in Altheim. “We can’t always feed ourselves.”
True, back at home in New York. But in Clarinda, in the country’s basket of bread—Josef liked that phrase and repeated it often—the corn crops alone promised food enough. Mrs. Johnson, their landlady, grew a vegetable garden and brought them fat red tomatoes fresh from the vines. Still Nelly worried, especially since in her family there had been many twins, and once she’d located a doctor in Clarinda she insisted that he arrange for an x-ray to make sure that she was carrying only one child, not two.
“If only you ate pork,” she’d sigh in pretend-sadness when she prepared a favorite pea soup, which she’d told him as a child she’d always eaten prepared with bacon. “Then we could really feast, every night.” Nelly came from a big city, after all. To her parents, the religion was never so important. But even without pork, it was good to watch Nelly’s middle expand. Sometimes he could not believe he was husband to this fine lady who spoke such good English. Only here, in America, where they had both arrived as refugees, both lived in Yorkville, both found work (she as a governess in the home of a rich Jewish family), both happened to spend part of the same day off visiting the same friend, also a refugee, who was recovering from the pneumonia. Josef had admired her from that first meeting, and when they both took leave of the friend he had asked when he might see her again.
Sometimes Lieutenant Donaldson stopped by the kitchen. Josef usually had a slice of apple cake or a sweet roll set aside for him, or for the chaplain, who also visited from time to time. He was not certain why they seemed to have become his friends. Perhaps for Lieutenant Donaldson, it had something to do with what the man had said to Josef one day. He’d been raised to believe that the Jews were God’s Chosen People, he said, but until he’d met Josef, he’d never even known a Jew, personally. Whatever the reasons, Josef was grateful. Especially when one of them might offer him a ride into town and he might be home a little earlier, to spend more time with Nelly. So far the work was not so heavy, since the prisoners had not yet arrived and Josef had only to worry about feeding the Americans.
On one of those trips from the camp into Clarinda, Lieutenant Donaldson cleared his throat. “The men will be here on Friday, Freiburg. Friday morning. We’re trying to keep it quiet. Don’t know how the good people of Clarinda are going to react, really. A lot of them have their own boys over there.” He paused. “Of course it will take time for these fellows to be processed. But you’ll have your staff before the end of the day.”
Josef’s heartbeat quickened. Would he be done with them in time for the Sabbath? For his private prayers before Nelly returned from reading the Chicago papers at the public library?
“You should get them working right away,” the lieutenant continued. “Saturday morning breakfast isn’t too soon. Because of course they all have to eat, too.”
The lieutenant glanced away from the road for a moment. “They’re mainly farm boys themselves. Not the political ones. They’ve been checked.”
As Josef left the jeep the lieutenant cleared his throat again. “Don’t worry, Freiburg.”
After supper that night Josef stood. “Stay,” he told Nelly. “I clear the table.”
His hands shook and the plates crashed in the sink. He heard Nelly pull herself from the chair.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He should never have told her.
Nelly’s hands moved to her apron. “I see.” A silent moment followed. Then: “They can’t do anything to you, you know.”
He knew. He wore the uniform of a soldier in the United States Army, and here in the big clean rooms on the second floor of Mrs. Johnson’s house on Maple Street Nelly kept the naturalization certificates in a desk drawer, in a brown envelope along with the book from the bank and the defense bonds and their marriage license. But those men had chased him away before, because the Fatherland wasn’t large enough for all of them to live. How would they fit together in the Camp Clarinda kitchen?
“Maybe I speak broken German?” He blinked very fast. “Maybe they think I am American trying to be nice?”
Nelly shook her head. “They’ll know. But do as you like.”
Friday afternoon he found in his kitchen three rows of ten prisoners apiece, with white faces and eyes that had red streaks. Even if he’d wanted to watch them arrive in town he wouldn’t have been able to. He’d had the kitchen to tend.
He worried that he might be sick. “Guten Tag,” he began. He held a clipboard to keep the hands steady. Did any eyes widen, at the German? He could not be sure. When he next spoke he chose English words.
“We begin at 4:30 each morning.” He breathed once, then again. “These will be your jobs.”
They were young, these boys. Some had to be at least ten years younger than Josef himself. They stood straight, yes, at attention. But those eyes were tired. And even, Josef thought with some disbelief, worried.
“Of course they’re worried,” Nelly said, later that evening. “A German doesn’t expect such good treatment in prison.”
Maybe she was right. The next morning the men seemed to walk around the kitchen for the first hour simply staring at all the food. The milk. The bread. The eggs. They murmured among themselves, but not so low that Josef couldn’t understand them. Apparently they hadn’t seen so much food in a long time, and not only because they’d been called to military service. Josef’s chest tightened.
But then, just as the group seemed more at ease, each man at work at a particular task with Josef supervising a cluster at the hot oatmeal pots, he swore he heard it. The word.
He spun around. The men all faced the stoves, or stared at sinks, holding pitchers beneath the faucets. Except for the one next to an open refrigerator. His face was red. His name was Weber.
What to do? Maybe the imagination was playing tricks. Even if Weber had said this word, what did it matter now, here? Was not Josef safe and free? Was not Weber the one imprisoned?
Josef stepped closer to Weber. “When you finish,” he nodded at the carton of eggs in the other man’s grasp. “Another job for you.”
Weber said nothing.
An hour later Lieutenant Donaldson arrived. Josef saluted.
“Everything in order, Freiburg?” the lieutenant asked.
Josef’s eyes met the lieutenant’s. “Do not worry, sir.”
And so it went, over the next weeks. No real problems. Some of them even hummed while they worked. Smiled at him. The older ones (older—his age!) talked about their own wives and children, after Lieutenant Donaldson mentioned Nelly and the baby during one of his visits.
“I bet they’ll want to stay, afterward,” Nelly said one night. “They have it pretty good, here.”
She spoke some truth. Here, of course, food could be had and the clouds moved quietly in the sky. Everyone had clothing to wear and a place to sleep at night. Such was not the case back in Germany. And as for the work—it was hard, but a man should work hard.
“But why would they not go home?” he asked her. “Does not everyone want that, truly? To go home?”
She did not answer.
On Sundays Nelly liked for them to go walking. She spoke often of such times in the countryside with her father. But her footsteps grew heavy as her time approached.
They had just crossed the town lines one afternoon when they began, again, the discussion about the child’s name. And then Josef cleared his throat.
Leaves crunched beneath their feet.
“Maybe we should try to find a mohel after all.”
Nelly breathed faster.
“I mean, this will be our first son, and after everything—.” Why could he not explain, not in his native language, not in his adopted one, the feelings? After this time supervising Nazis (“They aren’t all necessarily Nazis, Freiburg,” Lieutenant Donaldson had repeated, several times. “Please try to remember that.”). Giving them knives—to slice bread. After months listening while Nelly reported from the newspapers she read at the library. About what was not yet over, in Europe. Watching Nelly write letter after letter to her mother in South America; the United States had not welcomed Josef’s mother-in-law, not yet anyway, but Nelly’s brother had lived in Brazil since 1931 and had managed to get their mother a visa. For the day and night after she mailed or received each letter, Nelly would become very, very quiet.
And the dream, his own dream, his own sadness: his grandfather, wrapped in the prayer shawl Josef managed to carry on the ship. Wrapped in the shawl and chanting the prayers and blessings that Josef still recited every day, every Sabbath, every festival, even if he hadn’t entered a house of worship since 1937, since he was last in Altheim, since he last stood at Opa’s still-fresh grave. If his grandfather had lived, Josef might not have left, no matter how much his uncle in the city had tried to persuade him.
Josef could not think more of that grave, of the graves of his father, or of the graves of his two mothers and his stillborn siblings, or of the old synagogue that maybe did not survive the Kristallnacht. He knew, only, that he wanted for the baby the ritual circumcision. The bris.
But Nelly seemed unwilling to talk. “What if ‘he’ is a ‘she’?” she challenged. And it was a good question.
So they spoke no more on this question. Until the baby was born.
“I have important message for New York City,” Josef told the man at Western Union that day, and then he took from a pocket on his uniform the address for Nelly’s mother, on the paper Nelly had given him with the message printed, too.
EIGHT POUNDS TWO OUNCES MICHAEL JACOB NELLY FINE STOP.
“Congratulations,” said the man. “Tell you what. I’m not even going to charge you. You’re assigned over at the camp, right?”
Josef nodded. “But I must pay!”
“No,” the man insisted. “You buy something for your wife, instead.”
He brought her flowers. And he waited one whole day after Michael Jacob’s birth to try to reason with her about the bris.
“We’re in a community completely without Jews, Josef.” She sat against her pillows, holding the folded newspaper the librarian had brought her. Other ladies dozed, read magazines, talked softly with their husbands. “Our family and friends are so far away. The most sensible thing is for the hospital to handle it.”
How to answer that? In the silence, Josef heard bootsteps approach. He looked over to see two familiar faces nearing Nelly’s bed.
Both visitors smiled. “Well, well, Mrs. Freiburg. You’re obviously feeling good and strong,” said the chaplain. Lieutenant Donaldson stood beside him.
“Congratulations, Freiburg.” The lieutenant extended his hand. “You’ve got a fine-looking little fella in that nursery.”
A wave of joy swept through Josef. Until the chaplain spoke.
“And what, may I ask, are the plans for the circumcision?”
Josef studied the floor. “The hospital. The hospital will take care.”
“The hospital?” The chaplain frowned. “I’m sorry, but this child deserves a bris, and that’s all there is to it.”
Nelly said, “And how, Reverend, do you propose to get a mohel here, or enough Jews for a minyan, or the money we’d need?”
The lieutenant bowed. “Ma’am, you just leave that to us.”
And everything was in order by the baby’s eighth day. Jewish men from Omaha volunteered to travel the 80 miles to witness the ceremony. One contacted the mohel, not so easy because, he explained, “the man covers North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa.”
Changed from her robe and bed-gown to a dress for the first time since the birth, Nelly stood with Josef outside the operating room to greet the neighbors Mrs. Johnson had alerted, and the librarian, and the Army comrades who had been with Josef since Fort Sheridan.
“You are all right?” Josef asked his wife, as he adjusted his grandfather’s prayer shawl around his shoulders. “You want to sit down?” He pointed to a chair a few feet away.
Nelly shook her head. Then she leaned against the wall. “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Maybe I should sit.”
Josef brought the chair over to her.
She lowered herself to the seat, slowly. At first he thought she might smile, relax a little bit.
But she did not. Her eyes looked like ice. “You know that most of these people are here out of curiosity more than anything else,” she warned him. “It’ll be a long time before Clarinda sees its next bris.”
He thought about what she was saying. “But don’t you think, Liebchen, that people might be happy for us? Good-will?”
Before she could answer the lieutenant approached. He greeted them both, then cleared his throat. “Freiburg, there’s something I want to ask you,” he said. “If we might speak for a moment?”
“I’ll be fine,” Nelly said.
Josef and Lieutenant Donaldson stepped around a corner.
“Freiburg—may I carry the baby into the room?” the lieutenant asked.
Josef was unsure what to say. “I—we—wanted you to hold the baby also, during the ceremony? This is something normal for the grandfather to do.”
“During the ceremony?” Lieutenant Donaldson’s weight shifted. “You don’t mean while—?”
Just then, Josef saw six men, led by soldiers, coming from a turn at the other end of the hall. Workers from his kitchen. Including Weber.
Josef looked to the lieutenant.
The lieutenant coughed. “They asked to be here. They like you.”
The truth was that most of the people in the town didn’t mind them, either. The men worked hard, most of them, and stayed out of trouble. But something was not quite right. About these prisoners—Nazis, really, at least some of them—present at the bris. Of Josef’s son.
Someone tapped his shoulder.
Nelly. A nurse held the baby behind her.
Nelly’s mouth opened and German words, murmured very low, came forth.
“I won’t have any Nazis in the room with my son. Especially now. Make them leave,” she said. “Please.”
“Liebchen.” He tightened the prayer shawl. “You said, yourself, they can do nothing to us.”
She glanced at the baby and reached for one of his tiny hands. His fingers curled. She closed her own eyes and when she opened them again the ice was melting. No. Michael Jacob—and the voice trembled on the first name, which was her father’s—would not be exposed to those, those—.
Lieutenant Donaldson cleared his throat. “I take it there is a problem. I’ll just see to it that these—guests—are removed.”
Nelly turned away. Josef grasped some of the shawl’s fringes in his fist. He almost said something else to her. Almost, he said something else.
But the mohel wanted to get on with the event of the day. He explained the covenant. How Abraham circumcised himself, and his son.
“You can circumcise your son, too,” he told Josef, smiling. “But there’s an escape clause, for you.” The men from Omaha laughed.
“Escape?” Josef asked, despite himself, because really he knew that here, now, he had no need to worry about this word.
“You can choose to have me perform this ritual.”
“That is why you are here, no?” Everyone laughed. Josef knew that this response was also not quite right. But his greater concern was that Nelly’s eyes had once more turned cloudy.
The infant screamed at the moment everyone expected, but the mohel put a few extra drops of wine in his little mouth and his cries grew softer. Nelly leaned against the door, then signaled a nurse, and left him, Josef, alone to hear the mohel welcome Moshe Yakov ben Yosef to the Jewish community.
Later, maybe, he would explain to the lieutenant that they named Michael Jacob for both his blessed grandfathers. The one died of diabetes. And the one died of Dachau.
Tomorrow, says the doctor, Nelly and the baby leave the hospital. Josef can come fetch them after the breakfast shift. After that, well, the world is open. Free. In America. In Clarinda. The country’s basket of bread. How much quiet. How much land.
Earlier versions of “Lebensraum” appeared in Southern Indiana Review and in Becoming Fire: Spiritual Writing from New Generations. This version is from Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio, 2011). Copyright by Erika Dreifus, 2011.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, short fiction inspired largely by her paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. Quiet Americans has been named a 2012 Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title (for outstanding Jewish literature). Based in New York, Erika blogs on writing and publishing at Practicing Writing, and on matters of specifically Jewish literary and cultural interest at My Machberet. Learn more at www.erikadreifus.com