By Rachel Zweig
Zev Wolf grabbed onto stacked boxes to steady himself from falling in the grocery store. The old man pointed at a tall woman with three young children in the dairy aisle. “Lady!” he rasped.
The woman turned to see if he had spoken to her or the other customers who quickly walked past them, pretending not to notice. She pointed at herself, “Me? Sorry?” she asked and clutched her large purse while putting an arm around the baby.
One of the children, Leah, pointed at the man walking toward them. “Mom, what does he want?”
Zev wore a heavy green wool sweater that looked handmade with uneven sleeves. His stained black pants were loose around his hips, held up with hidden suspenders. The mother pulled the back of Leah’s jacket until she was close enough to put her free hand over the girl’s chest.
Zev shuffled two steps closer. “Lady, please! You can help me write a letter.” His accent hinted at German.
“You want me to write a letter, right here, in the middle of the grocery store?” the mother asked lightheartedly and smiled at this odd stranger, pushed up her glasses.
“Halinka!” Zev exclaimed and pointed at her. “You are the Polish rabbi’s daughter. I remember you and your sister.” Memories drew a warm smile meant for a different woman.
“No, I’m not Halinka. My name is Rose. Do I know you? Perhaps we’ve seen each other somewhere in the neighborhood. We go to the synagogue close by in Bayside. Or maybe at the hospital? I’m a cardiac care nurse. New York is a big city, you know, it’s easy to recognize the wrong person.” Rose replied with a nervous laugh, and searched Zev’s face for a trace of familiarity.
Zev sniffled and hummed a folk tune, “Di, diddy da da…”. He pulled at his unshaven chin as he thought for a moment. “No, your sister was Malka. You are Halinka,” he insisted, “Halinka, please help me write a letter. Write to the German government and tell them I haven’t received my money for three months.” Zev reached into his pants pocket to pull out two folded pieces of paper with an envelope that was already stamped and addressed in shaky handwriting, but he dropped everything on the floor. A pen was pushed into Rose’s slender hand. “Here! A pen for you. Take it and this paper. Start with the date at the top. It is the nineteenth of September, 1985, yes? The newspaper said so this morning,” Zev spoke slowly as he unfolded the blank piece of paper on top of a cardboard box. “Write for me, Halinka.”
Rose wrote the date as instructed. “Now what?”
Leah and her brother, Aaron, stood on their tiptoes to look at what their mother was writing. Zev put a weathered hand atop Aaron’s blonde head.
“Here,” Zev said. He unfolded the other paper to show Rose the original letter from the German government that confirmed he should receive war reparation payments, taking her by surprise.
Rose looked up at him with a softer heart. “Oh, you’re a survivor?” she asked in a hush and reached out to hold his hand.
Zev balked. “Survivor? You can say that! It is a small word for what happened, yes? Eh,” he tutted with irritation.
Aaron pointed at Zev’s arm. “You survived the war? Do you have—?”
“Aaron Michael! Don’t you dare!” Rose scolded her son and turned to Zev. “I’m so sorry for my son’s behavior. He needs to mind his manners!”
Zev harrumphed. “It’s not the worst thing to happen to me, lady. Come boy, and you girl,” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal only one faint black number on his arm to the children and pulled it down quickly. “Aaron? This is like my brother’s name, Aharon. It is a good name. My name is Zev Wolf, but this is a funny name. Zev is a ‘wolf’ in Hebrew, and my last name is Wolf, so it means ‘Wolf Wolf’.” When Zev laughed at himself, his open mouth revealed missing teeth. He pinched the boy’s cheek.
Aaron laughed with him. “I get it! Zev the Wolf!”
“Zev the Wolf. Don’t be afraid of me! I am old now, but I was strong a long time ago. Everybody knows what happened in the war, eh? That was enough for one lifetime. Not so strong now,” he sighed.
Aaron asked, “How did you get a cool name like that?”
Zev was quiet for a moment and sighed again, letting out a puff of coffee breath. “It was my father’s humor. What a funny man! Lady, did you start the letter?”
Rose see-sawed the pen between her fingers. “Yes, I did. What do I say next? Should I say your address is correct? Tell me what to write, because I’m not sure what to do.”
Zev tapped his gnarled index finger on the paper. “Tell the German government I did not get their check for three months. Write this, Halinka, because they did not send the money and I do not have enough to buy food, or to pay for bus fare. I visit my daughter on Sundays in Rego Park, and I need two bus fares to get there!”
“Can’t your daughter help you write this letter? I’m happy to help, of course, but I’m confused why we need to do this in a grocery store. Mr. Wolf, what’s your daughter’s name so we can call her? We can get the telephone book and look up her number,” Rose offered.
“Halinka, please write a simple letter for me and I go.”
Rose hesitated. “Mr. Wolf, there are many Jewish support groups to help you here in the city. If you like, I can call the rabbi. He would know what to suggest. But I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable, Mr. Wolf, because I don’t mean to pry. Let me finish writing this letter, and we’ll talk after.” She took the large purse off her shoulder and gave it to Leah to hold. “Alright, let’s see. To whom it may concern. Mr. Zev Wolf has not received his reparation checks for three months. Please send payments as soon as possible…” she said out loud as she wrote in perfect, swirled penmanship and read it back to Zev as he shifted in place, mumbling to himself.
“Here is an envelope for the letter, Halinka,” he said and pushed it at her hands.
Rose took the envelope and tried to memorize the return address, when the store manager appeared next to her. “Everything alright here? Can I help with anything?”
Rose looked up. “Oh no, thank you.”
“Alright, then. How you doin’ today, Mr. Wolf? You good?” he asked Zev in a louder voice.
“Eh, good today. Thank you,” he replied. The store manager gave Zev’s shoulder a gentle squeeze and walked away.
Rose asked, “Mr. Wolf, do you need anything? Maybe some bread or milk? It’s on me.”
“The bread here is no good. But I like orange juice,” he said with a smile.
“You got it! Let’s get some orange juice, and I’ll drive you home,” she said while she folded the letter to put into the envelope. “And let’s find a mailbox.”
Rose and the children walked slowly next to Zev as he shuffled his way from the store through the parking lot to their old beige car. She packed the groceries into the trunk, and the children into the back seat. The baby squealed and kicked at her.
Zev tried to open the car door, but Rose came up behind him to help. “Women do not open doors for men. What is this,” he grumbled loud enough for her to hear.
Rose sat down in the driver’s seat and sighed loudly. “OK, where to now?” she turned to look at him.
“Drive, and I show you when we get there.”
Rose chuckled. “Alright, but which way do I go out of the parking lot—left or right?”
“Just drive and I say left or right.”
Rose started the car and slowly drove out toward the busy avenue.
“Mr. Wolf, where are you from? It sounds like you have a German accent,” Rose asked.
Zev pretended not to hear her and turned his head to look out the window.
“Before you said something about a Polish rabbi,” she persisted.
“What does it matter, now? It was all a misery.”
Rose gripped the steering wheel and continued, “It may not be my place to ask, but it’s important to hear your story and teach children what happened. Sometimes people read history books, but it doesn’t make sense unless they hear a real-life experience. Would you think about it? There are other survivors at our synagogue, too. Perhaps you could meet them for support for everything you’ve been through.”
Zev nodded and scratched his cheek, “Eh.”
Rose looked over and Zev appeared asleep. She shook his arm to wake him. “Mr. Wolf!”
“Mom, I think you’re scaring him,” Leah said.
Rose looked in the mirror at her daughter and turned to Zev. “Fine! I’ll stop talking, but it’s important to help him.”
Zev suddenly opened his eyes. “Right there. Stop!” He pointed at a complex of tall, red brick apartment buildings.
Rose double parked the car to the dismay of the other drivers who swerved and honked, to whom she held up her hands in apology. Zev took the brown paper bag with the quart of orange juice and opened the door to leave.
“Thank you, lady. Now, I go home.”
Rose rushed to catch up to him on the sidewalk. “No, wait! Please give me your phone number. Which apartment building is yours? I can help you to your door. Oh look, there’s a mailbox. I’ll mail the letter for you. Don’t move, I’ll be right back!”
“No, I go home alone now. Maybe on Sunday I will visit my daughter.” He shooed her away.
Aaron made a fish-face against the car window and giggled. Zev responded with the sound of a monster, “Bleh!” and waved his hands in the air to make Leah and Aaron smile, before he turned to walk away.
Rose bit her lip to think. “What’s your daughter’s name? I’ll call Information myself.”
Zev kept walking.
“I’m only trying to help, because I care! Mr. Wolf, wait! What if I drive you to see your daughter on Sunday? It’ll save you two fares!”
Zev turned around to look at Rose, then at the car, in defeat. “Zeyer gut. See you here on Sunday at nine o’clock sharp, but no more questions, Rose.”
Rose clasped her hands together over her heart, touched he used her name. “Oh, Mr. Wolf—”
Zev held up his hand to silence her and muttered, “Feh!”
Rachel Zweig is from New York City. Her poetry has been published in Ariel Chart and Soft Cartel.