And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories Of A Family
The German-Chinese Refugee, NYC 1953
In the Canal Street section of the Jewish New York tour, Hans
notices an attractive young woman staring at him. They listen to
the guide, a young man spitting facts energetically: a million and
a half Jewish immigrants from Ellis Island in the years 1900 to 1914,
fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, making their
way to the Lower East Side of New York, then working their way
uptown. Hans feels no connection whatever to these statistics, the
unwashed ragpickers and tailors.
"My father was in that number," says a female voice beside him.
The very woman he’d been watching has made her way from the
other side of the guide around to his left. "He and his family left
Odessa and came through Ellis in 1901. They had nothing."
"Hello. My name is Hans Solomon." He says it slowly, enunciating
each syllable. He knows his accent is “impossibly thick” because his
professors at Brooklyn Law had told him so, again and again, and now,
in his first position as an American lawyer, so have his colleagues.
It's a professional handicap; his secretary can barely understand him,
she says. So he tries, sometimes successfully, to slow his words down.
Always, he is irritated that he cannot be immediately understood.
"Doris Ruben." Smiling, she holds out a small hand with painted red
nails. She is perhaps a dozen years younger than his 40. A wide,
intelligent face, lush lips covered in bright red, wearing a trim black
suit, dark shoulder-length hair stylishly crimped. Her thick eyebrows
remind him of Arianna.
"Your father must have changed his name," he says, smiling in return.
"Yes. No. I mean, his father did. My father was only a little boy
when they came over. Probably something like Rubenskovski: I don't
know. My father just died last month. But I never thought to ask
him." She frowns only on her left side, which Hans finds charming.
"I'm sorry." He pauses, then plunges ahead. Doris seems to have no
trouble understanding him. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
"But the tour just started!"
"So? This is America. We don't have to stay, do we?"
Laughing, she walks away with him, and they find a coffee shop on the
corner of Canal and Orchard. Seated, she says: "you're German."
"Yes. Is this a problem?" Warily, he keeps his smile on. Other
American Jewish women have turned away from him, he thinks, because of
his Germanness, and his not being a camp survivor. If he had walked
out of the camps, he believes, they would sympathize with him, not that
he wants sympathy. But so few German Jews have made their way from
China to New York that half of the women he's met -- and since he
started his job at Moore, Green & Whittemore he has been on a campaign
to get a wife -- don't even believe that he lived for 10 years in
China. "Incredible!" they say. "China? I don’t believe you!" As if
it were Antarctica.
"I'm German-Chinese," he says, trying out his personal joke, and
orders coffee and cinnamon babka for both of them. She doesn't
protest. Within 90 seconds, the waitress slaps down their order. He
loves how fast Americans are.
"You don't look Chinese," she says flirtatiously.
"How bu how," he says in his best Mandarin. "That means how are you."
"You still don't look Chinese."
He tells her the story and learns hers, briefly. It is a gloriously
untraumatized life, he thinks. She grew up in Brooklyn with a
chiropodist father, English-Polish mother, and a brother, who went to
war. Twenty-five years old, Doris is a secretary, healthy and strong,
and he concludes she will make a good mother.
"I have nothing against German Jews," she says.
"And what about German Chinese?" He can flirt back when he wants to.
"I've never met one before."
"So you will learn," he says.
"You've never married?" she asks, smoking a cigarette after their
second cup of coffee.
"Not yet. I'm looking for exactly the right woman."
"I see." She bits her lower lip as if to suppress a grin.
Her fingers are pretty, delicate like his mother's, with a sparkling
diamond ring on her pinkie. He touches it. "What is this? Are you
engaged and haven't told me?"
Laughing -- he likes her laugh, bold and unafraid -- she says, "Mr.
Solomon, in America women wear their diamonds on their ring finger.
No. I'm not engaged." She stops smiling. "This was my father's
tie-pin, made into a ring by my mother for me."
"Was your father a young man?"
"Yes. A lovely man. He and my mother were very much in love." She
touches her pinkie to the corner of her right eye.
"What did he die of, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Heart attack. In the middle of work. His nurse was there, but she
couldn't do anything. At least he died quickly, the nurse told us. He
didn't suffer." Tears glaze her eyes.
Hans pats her hand. "I'm so sorry." He waits. "I know what it is to
lose a parent so young." He wonders if his English is expressing what
he wants it to: he was young, and so was his mother. His father, too,
was relatively young. "My mother, she was only forty."
"And how old were you?"
"Oh, how sad."
He can see in her moist eyes that her emotions have turned from sorrow
over her father's death to compassion for him as a boy, mourning his
mother. "You must have been devastated."
He shrugs. "It's long ago."
She closes her eyes. "I loved my father so.” Tears fall freely. “I
feel like I'll never get over it."
Hans takes her hand, tenderly, and strokes it. "I'll help you," he
says. "Will you go to lunch with me tomorrow?"
Still crying, she nods.
Although Doris is accustomed to taking the subway alone back to the
apartment she shares with her mother in Brooklyn, Hans insists on
accompanying her all the way to her corner. "I won't come to the door
today," he says, and squeezes her hand goodbye. "Next time."
"Okay." Doris looks him in the eyes for a long time. He likes how
direct Americans are. "You're very kind, Hans. I'm sorry I cried so
much this afternoon."
"Please don't worry. I enjoyed meeting you very, very much."
"Yes. Me too." They are the same height -- short by American
standards, about 5'3", and she pauses before leaving him, as if
deciding whether or not to kiss him. She doesn't, but her bright smile
-- freshly lipsticked -- is just as good, Hans thinks. "You're a
gentleman, Mr. Hans Solomon," she says, then walks toward her building.
He waits until she is inside, then retraces his steps to the subway to
return to Manhattan. He whistles a tune he has recently learned,
“Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
On Monday afternoon he sends flowers to her office, the New York
division of Paramount Pictures, where she began as a receptionist and
is now a secretary to one of the bigwigs. Red roses -- a dozen
long-stemmed. Red as her lips, Hans thinks. They are expensive. He
pays the florist in the lobby of his office building, including a tip
in advance to the deliveryman; he is determined to impress her. If she
tries to tip the man herself, Hans instructs, the man is to say he was
expressly prohibited by the sender from accepting any money. He wishes
he could see her getting the flowers, first thinking they were meant
for someone else, perhaps, a movie star in care of the office, and then
her surprise, then the envious remarks from the other secretaries.
Within thirty minutes, the phone rings.
"Mr. Solomon? There's a Miss Ruben on the line. She says it's
"Put her through."
"Mister Solomon. They're just beautiful. I don't know what to say.
Thank you. You shouldn't have."
"Why not? You're a beautiful woman; you should have beautiful
flowers. Call me Hans."
She says nothing. "Really, I'm so surprised. No one's ever sent me
such perfect roses. Thank you."
"Will you have dinner with me tonight?"
"Not tonight," she says cautiously -- he can hear her calculating.
This is good, he thinks. She shouldn't be too eager. "I promised my
mother I'd help her in the house tonight."
She laughs. He thinks she has a wonderful laugh -- so fresh, so
American. A European girl would never laugh like that, so freely, with
a man she's just met. Nor would a Chinese, he adds.
"You're very persistent."
"Can I call you back tomorrow?"
"Of course you can, but first tell me yes."
She sighs –- but not unhappily, he thinks. "Actually I have a date
She laughs again. "I will."
The next night, in a mid-town Italian restaurant, she meets him at
six, sharp. He likes her punctuality. He takes her hand and covers it
with his own. "You look lovely, Doris."
She colors. "These are just my regular work clothes. But thank you."
The waiter seats them, and again Hans orders for them both.
"Do you know the food here?" she asks.
"My apartment is just two blocks south, and my office three blocks
north. I know what's good."
"So you like to stick with what you know."
"Only when I know it's good. Like you."
Again, she colors. "You're very straightforward, Mr. Solomon. Hans.
I can't decide if I like it or not."
"You already have."
"My mother didn't want me to come."
She pauses. "She thinks you're too old for me."
"Nonsense! My father's second wife was thirty years younger," he
says, reflecting. "And they were very happy together."
"So you take after your father?"
"In some ways, perhaps. He was a much softer man than I. But I do
resemble him, though."
"He must have been a handsome man."
Hans laughs. "Now who's being straightforward!"
"My mother also thinks I should stay away from emigrants. She says
they've suffered too much."
"Your mother is a wise woman."
The waiter brings their shrimp scampi and osso bucco.
"Oh, you ordered shrimp!"
"You're not kosher, are you," he says mischievously.
"Not exactly. My mother keeps kosher at home, but," she laughs, "her
biggest pleasure is a BLT for lunch at the Woolworth counter."
His forehead wrinkles. "Bee Ell Tee?"
She laughs, tasting the shrimp. "Delicious. I always like what I’m not
supposed to.” Doris colors slightly. “Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato."
He laughs too. "You have to admit my English is pretty good for a
non-native speaker. Some of the staff at my office can hardly speak
proper sentences, and their families have been in this country for one
"My mother does like that you're a lawyer, though." She plays with her
diamond pinkie ring.
"I said she was a wise woman. I'd like to meet her."
"Yes, she wants to meet you too." Doris waves her fork at him. "But
she's a very shrewd judge of character, I'm warning you."
"You don't think I can stand up to her scrutiny?"
"I didn't say that." Doris sips her water and sits back in the booth,
face flushed, radiating what he believes is pleasure.
"I'm going to marry you," he says softly.
She shakes her head. "You're very confident, aren't you. A little
too much so, I think."
He shakes his head. "Not too much. Never too much. How do you think
I made it this far? Sixteen job applications I put in before I got to
Moore, Green & Whittemore. And this is the best job of them all. You
have to be persistent to get anywhere in this life."
"But finding love is not like finding a job."
He wants to say, who said anything about love? But he does not. "Of
course not. But persistence is a quality which has served me well in
most areas of my life, so why not love too? Only two Jews got their
doctors of law in Berlin in 1936. And a Prussian Nazi was director of
admissions! But I went over his head to the president of the school,
whom I knew hated Prussians. I think he let me in just to spite that
Nazi." Satisfied, he tears his Italian bread in two.
Smiling and shaking her head simultaneously, she says, "I don't think
I've ever met anyone like you."
"I'm not like other people."
"I can see that. No man has ever been quite so forthright with me,
though I have had marriage proposals before, you should know. More than
"But you said no."
"They weren't right."
"And they certainly weren't persistent!" He raises his glass of wine
to her. "To the future Mrs. Solomon!"
She puts her glass down. "I can't drink to that! We barely know each
other." Still, she covers a smile with her palm.
"Like your mother, I'm a very good judge of character."
"Is that why you haven't married?"
He thinks for a moment of Arianna. "You could say that. Remember,
too, I've emigrated twice in my life, and at the age of thirty-six had
to go to law school again, with all classmates at least a dozen years
younger than me. I thought, when I got to this country, that I had to
wait until I was settled in a good job, making a good living, before I
could even think of marriage."
She looks down at her food. "That was an intelligent decision."
"I'm very intelligent."
"And very modest." They laugh together.
"And one day I'll have my own firm, and all our children will be
partners. It will be called: Solomon, Solomon, Solomon & Solomon."
She looks him in the eye. "I also want three children."
"It must be hard to know what you want and still be living at home
with your mother. Your brother, you said, is already married."
"Yes. With one child and another on the way."
"Do you feel bound to your mother? Maybe she doesn’t want to let you
She shrugs. "My mother's very brave. My father left us very little,
not because he wasn't a good provider, but he'd just remodeled his
office, made it bigger, because he had more patients than he had room
for. But the expansion cost a lot of money."
"Does your mother have a pension?"
"Why are you so curious about my mother?"
"I can see she is very important to you, so naturally she is important
Doris pushes herself back from the table.
He persists. “Your father just died, your brother is gone from the
house, so naturally you're very close to your mother. We can live
"Hans, I'm beginning to feel uncomfortable. I'd like to go home."
Hans checks himself. "I'm sorry. I don't want to make you
uncomfortable. Perhaps I am too blunt. Only I thought Americans liked
"We're not all the same."
"Of course not. Nor are all German Jews. Compare me and my cousins,
for instance. My father's older brother has four children, and all of
them, every single one, stayed in Europe! I told them to get out! I
wrote them and warned it would be bad. Not one of them listened."
"Were they … killed?"
He shakes his head. "Not them. And not because they were smart,
either. Just luck. All of it was luck, good and bad. My father's
younger brother and his family -- they all went to Auschwitz, except
one little girl. Some of us were lucky to leave when we did. You know
I was on the sea when war broke out. If I delayed even one more day, I
wouldn't have escaped." To his surprise, she is crying. "What's
She shakes her head. "I can never think about the six million without
crying. I just can't get over it."
He shrugs. "We have to move on."
"The Americans should have done more."
"You were only a child. There's nothing you could have done."
"Still. At least my brother was part of it. You know, he parachuted
into enemy territory, and they thought he'd been killed. An Air Force
chaplain came to our door to tell us, but my mother and father just
wouldn't believe it. And they were right! He was located the next
day, wounded. He's okay now. I think."
"You think? Is he disabled?"
"Oh no. He's perfectly fine physically, but he saw a lot of action
over there; he saw terrible things. He's never told me, but he looked
ghastly when he came back. For more than a year, he looked like a
ghost. The Germans had taken him prisoner, you see. He's never talked
about what happened to him."
Hans has never known a veteran up close. Naturally, a number of his
colleagues are veterans, but he has made no friends at work, and the
few ties he established at Brooklyn Law quickly unraveled
"Will I meet your brother?"
"Can we go now, please? I'm suddenly very tired."
"Have I offended you?"
"Not exactly. Frankly, I just feel a little overwhelmed by you."
"If I promise not to do it again, can we have dinner tomorrow?"
She shakes her head, smiling ruefully. The maitre d' brings their
coats, and Hans take hers from the man and helps her into it. "Am I
"You'll have to tell me. I don't mean to be."
"I know. I think it's your nature." She seems defeated, somehow,
which Hans can't quite understand.
"You will let me call you?"
"You can call. But don't take me home. I'll go myself. Thank you
for dinner." She kisses his cheek and leaves quickly, before he's had
time to pay the bill.
Hans calculates quickly: if they marry soon, their first child might
even be born before the end of 1953. Tomorrow he will send another
dozen roses. Hans leaves the waiter a good tip and catches sight of
himself in the mirror as the maitre d’ helps him with his coat: a
confident man, smart in his new suit, a soon-to-be married man, nods
Annie Dawid lives in the Sangre de Cristo range of South-Central Colorado.
She founded BloomsburyWest, a retreat for writers and artists, in 2006. This
story is part of And Darkness Was Under His Feet, which will be published in
2008 as the winner of the Litchfield Review Award for Short Fiction.