Esther Grünspan arrived in Köln with a hardened heart as her sole luggage.
An uncommonly sweltering September day was her welcome, as well as a language that sounded like her native Yiddish yet foreign in structure and comprehension. A formidable determination guided her actions.
“Stantsye, ikh darf a stantsye. Lodging, I need lodging,” Esther demanded of the first person in uniform that crossed her path. “Vu ken ikh opzukhn stantsye? Where can I find lodging?” Her articulation was clear and direct, emphatic. Quizzical, the man’s eyes skimmed this plain-faced young woman from her faded, long-sleeved cotton frock with white rounded collar to her scuffed, lace-up shoes. Small in stature with thick blonde hair pulled away from her face in a tight bun, she was unadorned and clearly out of place.
“Was? Ich verstehe Sie nicht! I don’t understand you,” he said, waving her away and pointing toward the train terminal.
Without a note of thanks, Esther headed in the direction he indicated. Once inside the terminal, she strode through the cavernous building to consider every booth, kiosk, and stand until she found a corner counter with a large sign overhead announcing Informationen. This was close enough to the Yiddish “informatsye” for Esther to push her way to the front of the line, disregarding the glares and loud protests of those in her way. She paid them no heed. Patience was no longer a part of her framework. It had been displaced by entitlement and self-preservation. The recent, devastating turn of events — Tadeusz’s action, his rejection — and such a public spurn — of her, of them, of all their plans — had shaped an impossibly conceived scenario. Esther’s one priority now was Esther.
She repeated her request to the man behind the counter three times. Each time she enunciated every syllable more precisely, then more slowly but colored by rising frustration.
The official, while clearly annoyed, noticed her youth and asked, “Wie alt sind Sie?”
Alt? Esther thought quickly, alt—old. Just like in my language. Although the other words made no sense, she correctly assumed he was asking her age.
“Zibitsn,” she said.
The man shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes, and turned to help the person next in line. Esther leaned over and grabbed the pen on his desk. In clear, thick lettering she wrote the numbers one and seven on her palm. Standing on the tips of her shoes, she stretched her left arm high and held it up close to his face.
With a snort, he reached into a pile under his desk and thrust a piece of paper in Esther’s expectant hands. She looked intently at the page’s Gothic script and line drawing of a building.
This must be a place for young people to stay, she deduced, for next to a name and address 16 – 22 was printed. A map of the area with a large X seemed to mark its location. Expressing no appreciation, Esther turned quickly, jostled the three people beside her, and ventured out into her first metropolis — a location as far away from all she had ever known as her meager resources enabled. A place with an assurance of anonymity and seclusion.
If she could still muster gratitude for anything, it would be for this.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
And in the only way anguish can be subdued, if not entirely vanquished, Esther never stopped moving during those first self-exiled months. She couldn’t. She could not allow herself to sit idle, not even for a few minutes, for if she did, memories of him, of them, of what was, would deluge her mind. Emotions that she now strained to destroy or deny ever existed would take over, and she would be rendered helpless, powerless, as she had been and as she promised herself she would never be again.
She devoted her time to establishing a formula for sustenance. Sewing was her foundation. While she strove to grasp the rudiments of German speech, her willpower propelled her to walk up and down the streets of Köln seeking work. She entered every dress boutique and tailor shop she could find with samples of her handiwork as calling cards.
“Schauen Sie—Look!” she ordered those she met, holding up one of her tasteful blouses for inspection. The caliber of her skill and artistry supplanted language barriers.
She was rewarded with small assignments from four tailors after just two weeks. Basic tasks — shortening a dress and repairing a pants cuff — were soon replaced by more complex responsibilities, for her mastery was revealed in the simplest exercise. Her stitches were precise, her hems and seams were even, and the presentation of each project was flawless.
Stitching, basting, pleating, hemming, altering, darning, tucking, grading, embellishing, blocking, mending — these activities were second in nature only to breathing for Esther. Daily she sewed from the first hint of light to its last shadow to ensure her new clients received the quality work of which she alone was capable. No matter if her eyes burned, her neck strained, or her fingers ached without respite.
Here, in the windowless room cramped by a single bed, rickety table, rough wooden chair, and hot plate at the noisy, dilapidated youth hostel, Esther’s stoic nature took root — growing deeper and thicker by each day’s passing. She barely spoke, except as needed to secure a sewing assignment, purchase necessary supplies, or tell one of the other residents to quiet down. It was a raucous building, filled with too many young people, constant comings and goings, stair stompings, door slammings, and shouting. For much of the day, with her focused concentration on work, she was able to ignore any distractions. Such sounds were common to someone who had grown up in a home with twelve siblings. But when she couldn’t, Esther found her nerves rattled, her posture tested. At these instances, she forbade the pent-up tears behind each eye to fall and quashed all but the most basic thoughts if one dared enter her head.
After darkness fell, she spent the better part of the night trudging along the riverfront. In 1923, Köln was a chiaroscuro palette of grays and blacks with a few patches of deep brown or the darkest blue breaking through the visual monotony. Most structures housed three stories; a few had four or even five. Although some were stout like marshmallows, and a handful of others were lean as poles, each was indistinguishable in design, color, and pattern from its neighbor. Esther faded easily into this cityscape, apart from the occasional streetlamp illuminating her face’s stony glaze.
On these walks Esther contemplated how long it would take the cold, fast-moving Rhein to swallow the torment that she, as yet, could not fully ignore. The memory refused to dissipate: every feather, overcast, and edging stitch in her simple white dress; the posies in her hands; family and friends gathered in the town center, their excited chatter overlaid by klezmer music as the musicians frolicked; and she, standing unaccompanied under their tenderly crafted chuppah. Waiting. Until too much time passed. Until she could no longer remain there — alone. Surely the weight of Tadeusz’s abandonment would supersede her ability to swim.
Judith Teitelman has straddled the worlds of arts, literature, and business since she was a teenager and worked her first job as a salesperson at a B.Dalton/Pickwick Bookstore. Life’s journeys took her from bookstores to commercial fine art galleries, to the nonprofit arts and cultural sector, in which she has worked as staff consultant and educator for more than three decades. Throughout this time, Teitelman continued her pursuit of all things literary. Guesthouse for Ganesha is her debut novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three beloved cats.