Thorn here! As you know, writers always seem to find each other. I met Lucien Zell at a birthday party in Prague, and later attended one of his poetry readings. Though from California, his first excursion to Europe half his life ago seduced him (as it did me) and he has lived here ever since. He asked me to look at his manuscript–you have its beginnings here. We have worked together extensively on The Rabbi of Auschwitz; the premise is astounding. This will be our final entry. I know many if not most of the contestants for our award, and a good number of you are present or past clients. I want to assure everyone that I have absolutely no part in the judging. Several people whose opinions I trust are selecting six finalists based on their subjective tastes; the only criteria is this: which entry makes you most likely to want to read what happens next? I may repost the top six, and hope you leave comments. From the runners up I will randomly select one to have their manuscript evaluated in a thorough overview, for which I am normally paid $2 per page. I’ll be sending the consensus to Professor Emeritus Dr. Ron McFarland, who has taught creative writing for half a century to select the winner. The winner will be announced on Thanksgiving day, and $1,000 sent to them immediately by PayPal, followed up by a plaque to memorialize their accomplishment. Thank you again–all of you–for participating, and being a part of the A Word with You Press community! Please enjoy,
The Rabbi of Auschwitz
by Lucien Zell
Morning, October 2014
A black geyser of feathers shot up as Jordan Alexander stepped off the train in Budapest. Pigeons. The crumbs that had lured the flock—pressed through a sieve of footsteps, first his own, then those of his fellow disembarking passengers—got crushed to a fine powder. Pausing to adjust the strap of his shoulder bag, Jordan watched the critters regroup. First one intrepid scavenger. Then another. Till the whole dark fidgeting mass surged back, pecking and cooing.
Jordan had taken the night train from Prague to meet an old man. According to his friend Mikkel, the old man—Briskoff was his name—was prepared to make a lucrative offer. The old dude was loaded. His Budapest office, again, according to Mikkel, was just auxiliary; Briskoff’s main office was in Vienna.
Following directions he’d scrawled in the back of Kafka’s Trial, Jordan found the place: a crumbling Art Deco palace near Oktogon, a major hub of the city. Glaring at a huge wall-mounted clock—which seemed to glare back—Jordan trotted up a few steps into the lobby. Mikkel had been emphatic: don’t be late. Huffing up a winding staircase and then through a maze of dim hallways, when he reached the office, Jordan was out of breath.
Finding the main door open, he lumbered into an empty reception room. Well, nearly empty. On the far wall stretched a floor-to-ceiling tapestry; a flurry of green waves clenched to form a murky garden. At its center perched the work’s sole creature: once, perhaps, a resplendent butterfly—which a thick patina of dust had rusted to a moth.
Catching his breath, Jordan called out. No response. He double-checked the room number. Called again—this time louder. A well-trodden oriental carpet led to a massive mahogany door, slightly ajar. He padded forward and eased the door fully open, pausing at the threshold.
Mikkel had described Briskoff, not by age or build, but by his ‘somber aura of gravitas.’ Wedged in the corner of a high-ceilinged parlor stood that aura, embodied. Stuffy in his black suit and gray tie, Briskoff could have passed for an undertaker. But the suit was Armani. He’d been perched at his liquor cabinet, eyeing the door, and registered his guest’s arrival with a faint wince as Jordan strode into the room. Cognac securely in hand, Briskoff took a long sip, swallowed, and then, with a flutter of his fingers, motioned his visitor to a plush but weathered velvet sofa. Plunking himself down, Jordan grimaced. The office smelled like an old wet dog.
“Care for something?” Briskoff said. “I’m a cognac man myself, I’ve acquired quite a lot of—“
“Got any coffee?”
“Certainly. Brewed some just before you arrived.” Briskoff reached behind his liquor cabinet, and raising a large black coffee pot, poured a generous amount into a matching black mug. “Sugar?”
“Nope, I’m sweet enough,” Jordan said, grinning. “A little milk, if you have any.” Briskoff nodded, then squatted down, wrenched open a small fridge, plucked out a carton and splashed some of its contents into the black steaming mug. He sidled over and passed it to Jordan.
“Thanks.” Jordan’s nostrils tingled as the scent of coffee wafted up, blotting out the stench of wet dog.
“Well, let’s not jettison the day,” Briskoff said, settling into a chair at his desk facing Jordan. “Mikkel insists you’re quite a poet.”
“Do my best.”
“He claims you’re a sleuth. He mentioned the way you guys snuck into the pyramids. And Rilke’s castle near Trieste.”
“Just took a bit of luck.” Jordan sipped his coffee, then set the mug down. It definitely smelled better than it tasted. “And audacity.”
“‘Audacity.’” Briskoff spat the word. “Must be a poet’s word for ‘balls,’ huh?”
“Uh-huh, I suppose.”
“Well, I won’t waste time. Yours nor mine,” Briskoff said, lightly gyrating his cognac with one hand while kneading a few fingers through his stark white goatee with the other, “I’ve got a proposition.”
“Mikkel alluded to something of the sort.”
“Didn’t parley any details?”
“No,” Jordan said, fondling the velvet sofa, whose burgundy surface darkened when brushed one direction, brightened when brushed the other. “Just suggested we meet. Hinted it could be mutually beneficial. And, dammit, though Mikkel’s brought me into some life-threatening—and, since you mentioned them, ball-threatening situations through the years—for some reason, I still trust him. Guess that’s why I’m here.”
“Splendid.” Briskoff jacked up an eyebrow and shot Jordan an Egon Schielesque glare. “I trust Mikkel too, and that’s why, generally speaking, I’m willing to expose myself to the astute whimsy of his . . .” Briskoff lowered his eyes and scanned the nails of his left hand, as if to ensure the tips were equally clipped, equally polished, “. . . recommendations. Of course, I went to the extent of swearing Mikkel to secrecy. As I must do with you now.”
“Sure, you have my word.” Jordan stiffened and locked eyes with Briskoff; then leaned forward, for a few seconds fidgeting to raise one eyebrow . . . then gave up, sensing he needed more practice. “I’ll let you in on a secret—I’m good at keeping secrets. After all, there’s plenty of my own to keep under wraps. In fact, one of the notions I hold close to my heart is the Alchemists’ Code.”
Briskoff sniffled. “I don’t believe I’ve heard of it.”
“Hmm, let’s see, there are four essential principles. To Know, To Will, To Dare—and To Keep Silent.”
Briskoff shuffled in his chair. “Keeping Silent can be hardest, right?”
“For many, perhaps. But not for me. Don’t worry, I’ve learned that the currency of a man’s word rises or falls . . .” Jordan coughed to clear his throat, reclining back into the wobbly contours of the sofa, “. . . in strict accordance with the inflation of his promises.”
“Well then, my proposition is simple. Ever heard of Görlitz, Germany?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“I’m not surprised. [ . . . ]”
* * * *
Even after twenty-one years of writing, sometimes there just aren’t words for the big experiences–the good and bad. Somehow, David Foster knows how to capture something like eternity in a few bars of music.
In The Rabbi of Auschwitz, two remarkable stories intertwine, both based on historical events. One thread is Regina Jonas, the first woman in history to become a rabbi, given the imposing task of sustaining hope among the condemned of Auschwitz. The other thread involves a mysterious donor in contemporary Germany who, on the condition his/her identity is never revealed, annually donates substantial money years after the war to the city of Görlitz, straddling the border between Germany and Poland. Deftly weaving these two seemingly unrelated narratives together, this novel shows us that while justice can be blind, mercy never is.
Born in LA, raised in Seattle, Lucien Zell lives in Prague. His writing has appeared in The New Orleans Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, and has been accepted in an upcoming American anthology The Experiment Will Not Be Bound. Zell’s first American book of poetry Tiny Kites was published by Dos Madres in 2019. Carnival of Shades (a classical piece for which he composed the libretto) premiered this November at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.