“Boring! Boring! Boring!” David said to himself when his grandmother offered him an overseas holiday with her for the summer. Of course he didn’t say it aloud because he loved her and knew that she was too frail to travel on her own. He would have preferred to go to summer camp in the Catskills – he’d had a great time last year – but he tried to summon up some enthusiasm.
“Well, where is this place, Jersey?” he asked.
“It’s a very beautiful island, I’ve heard, off the coast of England. It’s in the bay of St. Michel, sheltered by the Brittany coast, and it’s the largest of the Channel Islands.”
“Sounds great,” David lied. “What can you do there?”
His grandmother looked thoughtful. “There are lovely beaches, I believe. And a famous zoo. There are lots of farms and a wonderful climate, so my friends tell me. We’ll be staying in the main town called St. Helier – it’s very French, really.”
“You mean people speak French there? Like ‘la plume de ma tante est sur la table [‘my aunt’s pen is on the table,’ often used as an example of silly phrases authors use to fill up foreign-language textbooks]?’ he asked, summoning up what he remembered of his ghastly French lessons.
“Some do,” she smiled, “but they speak English too.”
Trying to maintain an expression of interest while his heart sank, he asked: “Grandma, just why do you want to go to this Jersey?”
“I have friends there that I knew when I was a girl in Poland. Abe and Genia Glickman are like me – Holocaust survivors. We haven’t seen each other for 60 years. They settled on Jersey in 1944 after World War II, and they wrote inviting me to stay for a month.”
“Lovely,” David enthused. What he was really thinking was: “A month on an island with three geriatrics – what a cool way to spend the summer!” Then he felt ashamed of himself. They had been in concentration camps and had undergone shocking experiences and the loss of their families. If he could give his grandmother a little happiness, now that Grandpa was gone, by reuniting her with her friends, of course he must do it and not regard it as a sacrifice. He’d have plenty more summers in his young life.
Welcome to Jersey
THEY TRAVELED by plane and train, and David had to admit that Jersey was beautiful. In the harbor, the water was a sparkling blue, and the marina was full of luxurious yachts that were moored there. “Must be a lot of rich people in the Channel Islands,” he decided.
The Glickmans, however, were not rich. They were a gentle old couple, and it was touching to see their reunion with Sarah Cohen, David’s grandmother. They lived with their dog, Rusty, in a charming little cottage with a garden full of colorful, sweet-smelling flowers. They had, thoughtfully, borrowed a bicycle for David so he could get around the island. With Rusty as his companion, he began to enjoy the sunny days.
One day when he was cycling home from the beach, with Rusty cavorting along at his side, he took a different road. It passed by a farm with a herd of the famous Jersey cows and a sign that said they sold Royal potatoes, strawberries and cream. It made his mouth water, and he tried to remember its location so he could come back one day when he had money and bring strawberries and cream for his Grandma Sarah and the Glickmans. “Aquila Street” he memorized, “off Rouge Bouillon.” The French names were difficult to get his tongue around, but at least his French lessons hadn’t been a total loss.
As he was passing a small lane, he saw an overturned bicycle and an old man lying on the road. Hopping off his own bike, he hastened to help him. “Are you okay?” he asked, taking the man by the elbow and helping him up. “What happened?”
“Stupid, stupid,” the old man muttered in a guttural accent. “I twisted mine ankle and fell off mine bicycle.”
“Where do you live?” David asked.
He pointed to a small cottage just down the road. “You sit on the seat and I’ll wheel you,” David offered.
The old man nodded and let David take him home. “My name is David,” he volunteered.
“Carl Heinrich” was the gruff reply, with no thanks, just a scowl.
When David had settled him in a chair, he bathed the man’s ankle in cold water and offered to make him a cup of tea, but Mr. Heinrich just waved his hand dismissively, so David left.
“I guess what I did was a mitzvah, even though he didn’t seem very grateful,” David thought.
When he got home, his grandmother and the Glickmans were reading the local paper. “I’m glad you’re back” Mrs. Glickman said, “I was worried about Rusty.”
“He’s fine” David said, puzzled. The dog was lapping up a big bowl of water, very thirstily. “He enjoys coming to the beach with me.”
“It’s just all these ads in the paper” Grandma Sarah explained. “Every week there are ads from dog owners who have lost their pets. They keep disappearing.”
“Nothing will happen to Rusty while he’s with me,” David reassured them.
OVER SUPPER, he told them about his little adventure with the old man, Carl Heinrich. The Glickmans exchanged glances.
“He’s not a very nice man,” Mrs. Glickman said. “Don’t get friendly with him.”
“Well, he’s not exactly someone I would choose for a friend, but he’d hurt himself.”
Mr. Glickman nodded. “You did a good thing, but he’s a German.”
“So what? There must be good Germans, too.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Mr. Glickman hastened to explain. “During World War II, the Germans overtook this island – it was the closest they got to England. Lots of German soldiers were sent here, and they ruled over the local people. They were very harsh, and it was a terrible nightmare for the people of Jersey.
“For five years, until 1944, when the tide turned for Britain, Germans were the masters here. But when the defeated soldiers left in June ’44, this old man – who wasn’t old then – I suppose about 30 – hid on the island and stayed here. They couldn’t find him to send him back. After a few years they stopped looking, and now he lives here openly.
“But he’s what you call a recluse. He must be close to 90, but he doesn’t talk to anyone. He just goes to the shops and keeps to himself. People try to be civil to him, but he never smiles or returns their greetings. You should keep out of his way.”
David nodded. “He’s pretty unfriendly, I agree. Still, it must be awful not to have any family or friends.”
The conversation turned to other matters. For a few days, David went off with Rusty to explore other parts of the island, which wasn’t very big – only nine miles long by five miles wide. Always on the way home, without telling his grandmother or the Glickmans, he would go past Mr. Heinrich’s cottage and knock on the door, offering to go to the shops or chop wood or do whatever he could to help. Mr. Heinrich never thanked him. He talked to himself in German. When David saw that he could manage on his own and his ankle was better, he stopped going there.
A missing dog
ONE MORNING, David decided to go to a part of Jersey called Fort Regent, a Napoleonic fortress, where there was a recreation center. He made himself a picnic and whistled for Rusty. But instead of an excited yap, there was silence. He searched high and low, but there was no sign of the dog. His grandmother and the Glickmans searched too, and Mrs. Glickman was close to tears. “I knew we would lose him,” she cried. “Everyone loses their dogs on this island.”
“I’ll find him,” David reassured her, but he had no idea where to start looking. He didn’t have the heart to go to Fort Regent without Rusty, so – for want of anything better to do – he decided to visit the German Underground Hospital. It was a grim place. The entrance tunnel was constructed of bare, brutal rock face. A plaque read: “Under these conditions, men of many nations labored to construct this hospital. Those who survived will never forget. Those who did not will never be forgotten.”
David shivered. The place was very scary. It had been built by forced labor, and these men had constructed nearly a mile of corridors and chambers out of the rock so that German soldiers in the underground hospital would be safe from bombs falling from Allied planes. The workers had removed 43,000 tons of rock and had laid 6,000 cubic meters of concrete. The hospital could take 500 patients. It was gas-proof, as well as heated and air-conditioned. There were operating rooms, staff quarters for the doctors and nurses, and offices and stores.
There was a group of tourists being shown the hospital, but David lingered behind when they’d left. It was very quiet, but David was sure he could hear very faintly the barking of dogs. At first, he thought he was imagining it because he was missing Rusty, but after a while he was convinced it was real. He rushed to the main office, where a volunteer – an elderly man – was pottering around. “Do you have a plan of this hospital?” David asked excitedly.
“I certainly do, lad. I was one of the engineers who was forced to build it for the Germans.” He went to a cabinet and took out a large plan all rolled up and yellowed with age. “Do you want to have a look at it?”
David traced some of the long passages with his finger. He was amazed to see that one of them began in a lane off Aquila Street, where Mr. Heinrich lived. With a quick “thank you,” he mounted his bike and pedaled furiously until he reached the house.
He hid in the bushes until he saw Mr. Heinrich go out. The kitchen door was unlocked, so he let himself in. He pushed aside an old rug and discovered a trapdoor. When he raised it, there was a flight of steps going down to a cellar. He searched until he found a flashlight and went down.
The cellar was filled with dogs. They barked weakly and looked very sick. Among them was Rusty. David hugged him, gave buckets of water to all of them, and carried Rusty in his arms to the top of the stairs. The dog licked his face in love and gratitude.
David wanted to take Rusty home and then go with Mr. Glickman to the police station. But before he could leave, Mr. Heinrich returned. The old man was furious.
“What you doing in mine house?”
“What are you doing with all these stolen dogs?”
The old man sat down heavily. He was talking more to himself than to David, and the boy realized he was crazy.
“The dogs – they are evil. I looked after them in the camps. Savage dogs… Rottweilers, German Shepherds. Prisoner tries to escape – the dogs they tear him to bits. Everyone think the Nazis bad, but no – not the Germans, it was the dogs. I kill all the dogs.”
“The dogs – they are evil. I looked after them in the camps. Savage dogs… Rottweilers, German Shepherds. Prisoner tries to escape – the dogs they tear him to bits. Everyone think the Nazis bad, but no – not the Germans, it was the dogs. I kill all the dogs.”Carl Heinrich
The old man closed his eyes. David rushed out with Rusty. He put him on the handle bars and tore home to the Glickmans. They were crying with gratitude to have Rusty back safely, and treated David like a hero. They called the police, who listened to David’s incredible story, then they went with him to Carl Heinrich’s home. But he had stolen his last dog. He was still sitting on the kitchen chair, but he had died.
“Better this way,” one of the policemen said. “How can you take a man of over 90 to prison?”
All the dogs were reunited with their owners. They made a big party on St. Helier for David, who was the hero of the day.
When he got home to New York with his grandmother, everyone asked him about his summer. Eyes shining, David said: “It was the most exciting summer of my life. I want to go again next year, to see Rusty – and his owners, of course.”
He kissed his grandmother. “Any time you want to visit old friends, you can count on me!” ■
The writer is the author of 14 books. Her favorite novel, Esther – a Jerusalem Love Story, out of print for many years, has now been republished and is available on Amazon or from publisher Chaim Mazo. [email protected]