Little boy lost: A short story on the Tel Aviv seafront

You know what they say about the seafront in Tel Aviv. Walk along it often enough, and you’re bound to meet everyone you’ve ever known.

The Tel Aviv beach – before the pandemic. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Tel Aviv beach – before the pandemic.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
You know what they say about the seafront in Tel Aviv. Walk along it often enough, and you’re bound to meet everyone you’ve ever known.
On a July afternoon in the mid-1960s, the beaches running south from Kikar Atarim were packed. Children were scampering up and down to the sea over the blistering sand and mothers were screaming at them.  The scene was vivid in the brilliant sunshine – colored umbrellas, red and yellow sun shelters, striped deck chairs. In the midst of it all, a woman – not young, not old – in a long-sleeved blue dress with polka dots, was gazing to the left and right.  
“My God, what am I going to do?”
She spoke to herself, but her words were overheard by a fair-haired young man in his twenties, who had just stepped onto the sand.
“In some sort of trouble?” he said, for he had a kind heart. “Perhaps I can help. What happened?”
The woman clutched at his arm.
“My little boy, Danny, he seems to have wandered off.”
“Wandered off? You mean, he’s lost?”
She looked distractedly from side to side.  
“What am I to do? Tell me what I can do.”
The young man kept his cool.  
“He can’t have gone far. When did you last see him?”
The woman was vague.   
“I don’t quite know.  I was just sitting here.  Then I looked up, and he wasn’t there.”
Seized by a sudden spasm of energy, she called down the beach towards the sea, her voice mingling with the cries of the children and the portable radios: “Danny! Danny! Where are you?”
“Come on,” said the young man, abandoning thoughts of stripping to the bathing trunks he wore beneath his slacks and snoozing in the sun.  “I’ll help you look for him. What does he look like, Mrs...?”
He glanced at her enquiringly.
“Weiss,” she said. “My name is Weiss. Oh, he’s a most beautiful child.  Soft, fair hair. Blue eyes – blue like the sea. Just like yours.”
“And how old?”
“Four,” said Mrs. Weiss. “He’s four years old.”
“That’s very young.  We must find him quickly.”
Her hand flew to her mouth as a new thought struck her.  
“The sea! Could he have wandered into the sea? Oh, my God!”
The young man kept his head. “Was he wearing a bathing costume?”
“No! No, he wasn’t. See – I have it here.”
She scrabbled in the beach bag lying at her feet, and stood up holding a small pair of trunks.
“Then he can’t have gone into the sea,” said the young man. “Someone’s sure to have seen a little boy fully clothed going into the water.”
The thought calmed her.  
“No, you’re right. Thank heaven. But where can he be?  My little baby, all on his own, wandering about, lost. I can’t bear to think of it.”
Her eyes roamed the crowded scene. She turned back to him.  
“But perhaps he isn’t on his own?  Perhaps someone has taken him.  Some woman baby snatcher. You read of things like that. Or worse,   some man. Dear heaven, what shall I do?”
“Keep calm, Mrs. Weiss,” said the young man. “We’ll walk together along the sands, and if we don’t find him we’ll ask the lifeguard to make an announcement. But we’ll find him, Mrs. Weiss, never fear.”
The woman seemed comforted.  
“You’re so kind, Mr.... There, I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m Uri Segal,” said the young man. “Call me Uri. Now let’s get started. I’ll look to the left, you look to the right.”
Side by side, the two ploughed their way through the sand, the woman calling “Danny! Danny!” from time to time; the young man concentrating on isolating a tiny figure from among the hundreds all around.  
By three o’clock they had scoured the beach, the lifeguard had made a fruitless announcement, and the two were back close to their point of departure.
“I’m not sure there’s much more I can do, Mrs. Weiss,” said Uri.  “Shouldn’t we contact your husband?”
The woman looked at him vaguely.  
“My husband?”
“Danny’s father,” said Uri. “Where is he?”
“Oh, I’m quite alone,” said Mrs. Weiss.  “There’s only me and Danny.  What shall I do?”
“There’s only one thing left,” said Uri. “We’ll have to contact the police. Someone could have found Danny and taken him to a police station.”
They made their way to a street telephone. Mrs. Weiss, a forlorn figure, stood clutching her beach bag as Uri contacted the central police station at the far end of Dizengoff.
“I’ve got a distraught mother at my side. Her little boy has disappeared somewhere on the beach. We’ve searched as best we can; the lifeguard has broadcast an appeal. Nothing. Have you any news of a little boy being found?”
The desk sergeant was calm and methodical.
“What is the child’s name? And the mother’s? And yours?”
Uri supplied the necessary information. The desk sergeant thought it advisable for them to come down to the station.  
“In the meantime I’ll be making a few inquiries – hospitals and so on.  Get over here as soon as you can.”
Uri hailed a taxi. As the car pulled away from the kerb, the woman seemed to feel an urgent need to explain herself to the young man who had befriended her.
“How we yearned for that child.  He was a long time in coming, you see, and we got frightened that there was something wrong – with one or other of us. You understand?”
She peered round into his face. Uri nodded.
“You can only comprehend the agony of yearning for a child if you have lived through it. Month after month, the prayers, the hopes, the disappointment. Month after month.  But when the months turn into years, hope turns into despair. Imagine what that does to a human being.  And then – picture it, Uri. The same glimmer of hope as last month, as the month before – but this time the glimmer is not extinguished. This time the glimmer remains, grows stronger.  You dare not let yourself believe it. You present yourself to your doctor in fear, in trembling. You take the tests. You wait for the verdict.  Uri, can you possibly begin to understand what such a woman feels when she learns that the everyday miracle, so commonplace for so many, has at last occurred for her?  And can you understand with what love, what adoration, that child is received?”
Suddenly, as if the release of words marked also the release of pent up emotion, she burst again into a fit of crying.  
“Oh my darling, darling baby. Where are you?”
The main Tel Aviv police station was comparatively calm for a July afternoon. The desk sergeant looked up as they approached,
“Ah yes, the missing child. You’ll be Mrs. Weiss.”
“Have you any news?” she said.
“We’ve had a phone call,” said the sergeant. “A man rang just after I finished speaking to you.”
“A man?”  Uri was puzzled. “Did he say who he was?”
The policeman shook his head.
“Well, what did he say? Is it a kidnap? Will there be a demand for ransom?”
“All he said,” said the desk sergeant, “was: ‘Have you had a report of a missing child?’ When I said, ‘Yes, the mother’s just on her way to the station,’ he rang off.”  
“That’s very strange,” said Uri.
A man approached them from behind. Uri glanced at him. Grey suit, neat beard. Mrs. Weiss caught sight of him.  Her face lit up.
“Dr. Tannenbaum!  What on earth are you doing here?”
“Hello, Mrs Weiss,” said the newcomer. “I was worried about you.  You know I worry about you a lot.”
Mrs. Weiss’s face was suffused with a great smile.  
“Dear Dr. Tannenbaum. You’re so good to me.”
The desk sergeant laid down his pen.  
“I take it you know this lady, sir.”
“Mrs. Weiss and I are very well acquainted, sergeant.”
Dr. Tannenbaum drew out a paper and presented it across the desk.  
“You’ll see this document certifies that Mrs. Esther Weiss is a long-stay patient in the Eshkol Psychiatric Hospital, to which I have the honor to be consultant psychiatrist.”
The policeman studied the paper carefully, before folding and returning it. “Yes, this seems in order.”
“Poor Mrs. Weiss does have a tendency to wander from time to time,” said Dr. Tannenbaum.
“Well, doctor,” said the desk sergeant, “and what am I to enter on this report?  I take it there is no little boy?”
“Oh, there was,” said the doctor, “twenty years ago. Mrs. Weiss was in one of the concentration camps with her son. She’d managed to keep the boy with her ever since they were picked up. Then, with only a few weeks to liberation, they were separated. She was force-marched to somewhere inside Germany; the child remained in the camp.  She never saw him again. After the war she eventually found her way to Israel, but the shock of it all had unhinged her mind. For 20 years she has been searching for the son she so yearned for, and who was snatched away from her. Sometimes she prowls the grounds of the hospital at night calling for him; sometimes she goes to the nearest town and walks the streets. On occasion she gets further afield – like today.”
“Poor woman,” murmured Uri, for he had a very kind heart.
The doctor took her gently by the arm.
“Such beautiful blue eyes,” said Mrs. Weiss.  
As he led her away, she looked Uri full in the face.  
“Just like yours.”
Uri was taken up with the woman’s sad story.  
“Still looking for her lost child,” he said to the policeman. “After all that time.”
“You still here?” said the sergeant.  “What are you waiting for?”
“A happy ending?” said Uri. “Please – take a look at those particulars you took down so carefully. See what you have about me.”
“Uri Segal,” read out the sergeant. “Aged 24.  That’s right, isn’t it?”
“As far as it goes,” said Uri. “Yes, I’m 24, more or less. And yes, I’m known as Uri Segal.  But there’s more to it. You see, I came to Israel as a very young boy in a group of orphan children, and I grew up in a children’s village. I came without papers or belongings of any sort, and I didn’t say a word for nearly six months. So they made up a name for me – it’s as good as any other – and they guessed my age. So yes, for all practical purposes I’m Uri Segal, aged 24.  But – and this is the incredible, the fantastic possibility – couldn’t I just as well be Danny Weiss, little Danny lost at the age of four in 1945, sought for ever since and, by a chance in a million, found 20 years later by his own mother on the beach in Tel Aviv?”
You know what they say about the seafront in Tel Aviv. Walk along it often enough, and you’re bound to meet everyone you’ve ever known.■