by Michael A. Kahn
The Bread of Affliction was originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (Sept/Oct 1999).
I know a former trial lawyer who gave it up to write courtroom thrillers. He claims he prefers the fictional kind because he gets to control the judge, the lawyers, the witnesses and, best of all, the outcome. I think of him with envy whenever I have to deal with In Re the Estate of Mendel Sofer. It’s definitely real, and I’ve long since lost control. Back in the beginning, back when all I knew was that an 82-year-old widower named Mendel Sofer had died of a heart attack, it had seemed a simple case. Indeed, those were the very words Phil Rosenberg used when he called. “It’s a simple case, Rachel,” he assured me. “Even better, you’ll be doing a mitzvah.”
Phil and I had been classmates at Harvard and teammates on the Equitable Estoppels, a law school co-ed softball team. Phil had grown up in New York City and moved back there after graduation to join a midtown firm. I moved to Chicago, started as an associate at Abbott & Windsor, and eventually left that LaSalle Street sweatshop to go solo. Two years ago, shortly after my father died, I returned home to St. Louis and opened the Law Offices of Rachel Gold on the first floor of a renovated Victorian in the Central West End. “A mitzvah?” I repeated. “Who was this guy, Phil?”
“A Holocaust survivor. Real tragedy. Lost his family in the concentration camps — mother, father, two brothers, a wife, two kids. All killed. Came to this country in 1948. Married again in ’56. She died of cancer eleven years ago. No children. He lived alone in an apartment downtown.”
“Where do I fit in?”
“You’ll represent Shalom Aliyah. It’s an international organization that helps Jews immigrate to Israel. They’ve resettled thousands of black Jews from Ethiopia. They’ve helped Jews get out of Iran and Iraq and Red China and Bosnia. They also give financial assistance to hundreds of impoverished Jews in America who want to move to Israel. It’s a great outfit. We’re their general counsel.”
“What’s the connection with Mr. Sofer?”
“He left his entire estate to Shalom Aliyah — all but a hundred grand.”
“How much are we talking about?”
“Seven figures. The guy was a cobbler. Literally. Shoe repair. Never made much, but whatever he had he put into stocks. One share here, one share there–it adds up. Guy died a millionaire.”
Phil explained that after Mendel Sofer’s death the public administrator conducted a search of his apartment and found a copy of the will in his desk. He contacted Shalom Aliyah, Shalom Aliyah contacted Phil’s firm, and Phil contacted me. Tinker to Evers to Chance. I was Chance, and my role was to get the will admitted to probate and expedite the distribution of the assets. “I don’t do much probate work, Phil.”
“No problem, Rachel. This one’s a no-brainer.”
And so it had seemed back when I sketched the outline of the petition. A simple but compelling story. The document itself was extraordinary. Mr. Sofer’s last will and testament dispensed with the usual legal gobbledygook for an impassioned style exemplified by the first sentence:
I, Mendel Sofer, born into this world of grief and horror on the 15th day of Nisan, have tasted the Bread of Affliction.
In the Jewish calendar, the 15th day of Nisan is the first day of Passover, the festival of freedom celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from their oppression under Pharaoh. The Bread of Affliction is the unleavened bread known as matzah that the Jews eat throughout the holiday to remind us that our ancestors, in their hasty exodus from Egypt, hadn’t had time to let their bread dough rise. The Passover allusions in Mr. Sofer’s will added another layer of poignancy to the story of a man who had suffered the atrocities of a modern pharaoh named Adolf Hitler, who’d lost his loved ones in the ovens of Auschwitz as his ancestors had lost theirs in the misery of bondage. The link between the ancient and the modern seemed to transform his gift to Shalom Aliyah into a sacred bequest. “Who’s the other beneficiary, Phil?”
“A cleaning lady named Pearl Jefferson. Apparently, she cleaned his apartment for years.”
That bequest seemed a wonderful final touch, and even more so after I met her. Pearl Jefferson was a heavyset black woman in her early forties who cleaned homes six days a week and lived in a tiny, dilapidated house in north St. Louis with her three adolescent sons and her husband Earl. Earl was on complete disability from a forklift accident; he spent his days in a wheelchair reading the bible and doing needlepoint. Pearl almost feinted when I explained Mendel Sofer’s bequest. $100,000 was more than five times her annual income. Afterwards, I strolled down her front walk feeling like a fairy godmother. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten what happens to gifts from fairy godmothers when the clock strikes midnight.
The chimes begin sounding the following week when Mendel Sofer’s bank opened his safe deposit box. Among his various personal papers were two sheets of bond paper. They were the original pages one and two of his will. Although stapled together, there was an additional pair of staple holes in the upper left corner of each page. Those additional holes confirmed what was already obvious: we had a significant problem. Mendel Sofer’s will was six pages long. The last four pages of the original were missing. They weren’t in his safe deposit box and they weren’t in his apartment, which the landlord had kept secured since the morning that Pearl Jefferson had found Mr. Sofer’s corpse facedown on the bedroom floor. Three days after she discovered his body, the public administrator performed an official search of the apartment and prepared a meticulous inventory of its contents, right down to the trash in the trash cans. I did my own search the day after I learned of the missing pages. I found plenty of documents in the apartment– all duly noted on the public administrator’s inventory– but no sign of pages three through six of his will.
Those missing pages were a potential disaster. Although I had a copy of the entire will in mint condition, there are certain rules of law that predate the era of high-speed photocopiers, one of which states that if the testator had custody of his will before his death and it cannot be found among his belongings after his death, he is presumed to have destroyed the will with the intent to revoke it. If that rule governed here, Mr. Sofer would be deemed to have died without a will, which would void his bequests to my client and to Pearl Jefferson. Instead, his estate would be distributed according to the ancient laws of descent–assuming that any blood heirs could be found. That was a big “if,” since all of the family on Mr. Sofer’s side had perished in the concentration camps. As for his second wife, she had been the only child of two only children–now all deceased. Unfortunately, though, the lack of heirs would not resurrect the bequests in his will; instead, the money would escheat to the State of Missouri.
Nevertheless, the absence of heirs gave me some hope, since it also meant an absence of adversaries. Our judicial system operates on the adversary process. Just as inadmissible hearsay will be allowed if no one objects, my petition for admission of the will to probate might be allowed if no one opposed it. Accordingly, I was guardedly optimistic as the hearing date approached. And that’s when more midnight chimes sounded. Specifically, the Grubbs appeared. All twelve of them — residents of Montana and distant blood relatives of Mendel Sofer’s second wife on her father’s side. Her father had not been Jewish, and neither were the Grubbs. Even worse, two of them were members of the Aryan Jesus Regiment, a white supremacist militia outfit headquartered in Montana.
None of the Grubbs had ever heard of Mendel Sofer, or his second wife, or her parents. They learned of his estate the old fashioned way: through an heir tracer. Heir tracers make their living by spotting lucrative estates with no known heirs. They go out and locate potential heirs and offer to help them pursue an undisclosed inheritance somewhere in America in exchange for a piece of the action. Here, if the judge upheld the presumption that Mr. Sofer revoked his will the Grubbs would net approximately $1 million after paying the tracer. Needless to say, they jumped at the deal, and the tracer quickly retained an attorney to challenge the will.
That attorney was Myron Dathan, and as far as I was concerned his appearance in the case was the final stroke of midnight. Dathan was one of the creepiest lawyers in St. Louis, cuddly as a tarantula, affable as a moray eel.
Unfortunately, he was also one of the best lawyers in town, a brilliant litigator with an uncanny ability to detect his opponent’s pressure points. Among Dathan’s many unpleasant qualities was the way he exploited his religion for strategic advantage. He used his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish law to cancel hearings, halt depositions, terminate meetings and otherwise refuse to cooperate. When challenged, he would curtly cite an obscure Jewish holiday or custom that purportedly created the scheduling conflict. It was a technique that incapacitated gentiles. Although he generally wore a yarmulke, many fellow Jews questioned the depth of his convictions. He could, for example, be spotted at the trendier restaurants in town, usually in the company of one of his series of blond, leggy shiksas and generally dining on meals that were no more kosher than a Big Mac and milkshake. So, too, he often observed the Jewish Sabbath aboard one of the riverboat casinos.
“Rachel,” Dathan said, shaking his head in amusement, “the man tore up his will. You’re in denial here. Face it: your claim is dreck.”
We were meeting in his sleek office of chrome-and-glass furniture, contemporary leather chairs and huge abstract paintings on the walls. Dathan gazed at me with an expression that hovered somewhere between pity and disdain–it was hard to tell which, because his eyes were veiled behind the tinted lenses of his aviator glasses. The tint also made it hard to tell which part of my anatomy he was inspecting at the moment, although with Dathan you could safely narrow it to a few specific locations. The way he lounged in his chair and languidly stroked his goatee made me feel as if I were in a carnivore’s lair.
“Wrong, Myron,” I told him. “Mr. Sofer simply made an innocent mistake. Don’t forget that he grew up in an era of carbon copies. Carbon copies look like copies. Photocopies look like originals.”
“Ah, but they feel like copies.”
“Doesn’t matter. He signed the photocopy in original ink. I’ll argue that he thought he was signing the original of the will.”
He chuckled. “You don’t need me to tell you that one’s a loser, Rachel. You already know it yourself.”
He was right, but I’d never let on. “You’re overconfident, Myron.”
“No, I’m simply confident, and with excellent reason. But I’m also practical.” He leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands beneath his goateed chin. “The hearing is in two weeks. If we can settle this now, we can both save ourselves and our clients the time and expense of trial preparations. Let’s talk some reality here, okay?”
“Under the will, your client will get about 1.5 million dollars. The rest goes to the schvartza.”
I stiffened. “Her name is Pearl Jefferson.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Whatever. The point is: when the will gets revoked you both get bupkes.” He glanced at his watch. “Whoops, I’ll make this short. We’ll have to leave soon.”
I checked my watch. 3:20 p.m. I gave him a puzzled look. “Why?”
“Come, come, Rachel. It’s the thirteenth day of Nisan.”
He gave me a patronizing look. “Tonight is bedikat chametz, remember?”
It took a moment to connect the words with the fuzzy memory from childhood. “Oh, right.”
Tomorrow was Passover eve. In traditional Jewish homes (as I confirmed later that night by checking the Guide for the Jewish Homemaker that my Aunt Becky gave me when I graduated law school), an important preparation for the holiday is to eliminate all chametz (leaven) from the home. The ceremony is known as the bedikat chametz (search for leaven) and takes place immediately after sunset on the night before Passover eve. The head of the house searches for chametz while carrying a wooden spoon, a feather and a lighted candle. I remember as a child following my father around the kitchen and breakfast room. He let me carry the feather. When he found some chametz, bread crumbs, for example, we used the feather to sweep them into the spoon while reciting a special blessing. The crumbs, along with the feather and spoon, were burned the following morning. Frankly, I had trouble envisioning Myron Dathan playing Hide the Chametz with his current main squeeze, a giggly St. Louis Rams cheerleader with big hair and bigger boobs.
He stroked his goatee. “Here’s our proposal: seventy-five grand to your client, seventy-five grand to the schvart– to the cleaning lady. I’ve already taken the liberty of conveying the offer to her. After all, she isn’t represented by counsel.” He paused and gave me a wink. “I was gratified by her reaction. She agrees that seventy-five thousand dollars is a lavish offer. She’s quite eager to accept it. Unfortunately, I had to explain that the offer is contingent upon your client’s acceptance. We either settle with both of you or we settle with neither of you.” He glanced at his watch and stood up. “I have to leave. Perhaps you do, too.”
* * *
When I returned to my office there were two urgent phone messages from Pearl Jefferson, the frantic and unwitting pawn in Myron Dathan’s sadistic strategy. She was, as Dathan knew, his best settlement leverage over me.
“Oh, Miss Gold, you just got to help my family,” she begged when I returned her call. I listened with my eyes shut as she told me what that money would mean to her family: physical therapy for her husband, a home in a gang-free part of town with better schools for her sons, a cataract operation for her mother. She was sobbing at the end of the call, and my stomach was in knots. I told her I would talk it over with my client but that I couldn’t promise anything.
“Oh, please, Miss Gold, you just got to help my family.”
I talked it over with Phil, who talked it over with the client. They reached the same painful conclusion that I’d already reached: we couldn’t give in. To accede to a settlement that would make the Grubbs–a clan with neo-Nazi ties– the principal beneficiaries of the estate of a Holocaust survivor was an irony too appalling to contemplate. If we were going down, we were going down fighting. We owed that much to the memory of Mendel Sofer.
Later that night I went on a long jog with Ozzie, my golden retriever. He trotted along at my side as I obsessed over the case, sifting through the facts for the hundredth time, struggling to come up with a more compelling legal theory than the one I tried on Myron Dathan. I came up empty. Every possible scenario crashed into the same obstacle, namely, the mystery of the missing pages. If there’d been no original pages, I could at least argue that Mr. Sofer mistook the photocopy for the original. I’d prevailed before on weaker grounds than that, but with two pages of the original will in his safe deposit box, the “mistake” argument was futile.
I could come up with no rational explanation for why Mr. Sofer would have torn off the last four pages of his will but saved the first two. Although the pages he kept included his bequests to Shalom Aliyah and Pearl Jefferson, surely he knew that they were meaningless without the rest of the will, especially page six, which contained his notarized signature and the signatures of the two witnesses. Why discard that crucial page but save the first two? As I passed the two mile mark and turned back toward the house, I said, “Lahma Anya.”
Ozzie looked at me, his head tilted curiously.
I glanced down at him with a smile and shook my head. “Never mind, Oz.” Lahma Anya. That’s what Mr. Sofer had scrawled on the back of page two of the will. I thought at first it might be someone’s name or perhaps an important person in his life. I searched for such a connection in his other papers, especially the ones from the safe deposit box but found none. Same with the phone book. I wondered whether Lahma Anya was a Polish or Hebrew phrase; after all, he grew up in Poland and attended a yeshiva. But upon checking with a professor of Slavic languages at Washington University and an Israeli friend I learned that the phrase was neither Polish not Hebrew.
* * *
We gathered the following night at my sister Ann’s house for the seder, which is the traditional meal eaten on the first night of Passover. Seder means order, and the evening proceeds with a fixed order of events, the central purpose of which is to retell the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and their forty years in the desert. As God commands, “Tell your children on that day that this is what God did for me when I went out from Egypt.”
The text for the seder is the Haggadah, a book of readings and prayers that dates back thousands of years. Once upon a time, back when I was a child at the seders conducted by my father, there’d been a magical quality to the evening, especially when my father reached the ten plagues. I used to imagine the original Passover, more than three-thousand years ago–that terrifying night when the angel of death stalked the Egyptian firstborn while the Hebrew slave families gathered in silence to eat the lamb that each had killed for the blood to smear on their door posts as a sign to the angel to “pass over” their home.
But over the years the magic had faded. My expectations were especially low this year, mainly because I assumed that my brother-in-law, Richie the orthodontist, would conduct the seder. Richie was a thoroughly assimilated Jew. He observed Yom Kippur with a round of golf at his country club, knew absolutely no Hebrew, and seemed to believe that the traditional dance at a Jewish wedding was the Electric Slide. Richie bragged that he conducted a Jiffy Lube seder–”In and out in ten minutes or your money back.”
But this year Richie’s plans were foiled by the surprise arrival of his Uncle Al from New Jersey. While hardly a chasid, Uncle Al was still a firm believer in what he called the “cover-to-cover bilingual seder,” which meant that the evening would include both the original Hebrew and the English translations in the Haggadah. And thus it was Uncle Al, bald head gleaming as if he’d buffed it in honor of Passover, who solved the first mystery. We had finished the opening blessing over the wine, the traditional washing of the hands, and the blessing over the greens, all according to the seder sequence.
As Richie glumly looked on, Uncle Al pulled the middle matzah out of the covered pile of three. Breaking the matzah in two, he studied the two pieces for a moment and then held up the smaller one. Pausing to gaze around the table, he said, “Now we say the Ha Lahma Anya.” He looked down at the Haggadah and recited, “Ha lahma anya di a-khalu a-vahatana b’ar’a d’Mitzrayim.”
In the background Uncle Al’s voice droned on, but I was no longer listening. I was staring down at the Hebrew letters that spelled out the words Lahma anya. I glanced at the English translation. Bread of affliction? I remembered enough Hebrew from my Bat Mitzvah to know that lechem meant bread. “Wait,” I said, looking up with a frown. “What language is this?”
Uncle Al stopped. “Pardon, Rachel?”
“Lahma anya,” I said. “Is that Hebrew?”
He reread the text and looked up with a smile. “Very good, dear. It’s actually Aramaic.”
“It means bread of affliction?” I asked.
“It certainly does.” And then he turned to the children with an impish grin, put down the smaller half of the broken matzah and held up the other piece. “And who knows what this is?”
I sat back in wonder as two of the children shouted, “The Afikoman!”
It was as if Mendel Sofer himself had whispered the answer to me from his grave. The smaller piece of the broken matzah is the Lahma Anya, the Bread of Affliction, but as every Jewish child knows, the larger piece, known as the Afikoman, is the important half. It’s the half that’s worth money. The leader has to hide the Afikoman during the first half of the seder. When dinner is over, the children are allowed to search for it. The one who finds it can hold it hostage until the leader pays a ransom.
Some commentators believe that the Afikoman is symbolic of the Paschal lamb that was sacrificed at the time of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others believe that it evokes the forty years wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land. And still others believe that its principal function is to keep the children alert during the long first half of the seder. Whatever its traditional purpose, its very existence that night filled me with hope, an emotion I hadn’t felt since the arrival of those awful Grubbs. Maybe Mendel Sofer hadn’t destroyed those missing pages. Maybe they were his Afikoman.
* * *
I hate those brainteaser games, the ones that start with a weird scenario: A man lives on the 12th floor and rides the elevator to the lobby each morning but when he comes home from work he rides only to the 8th floor unless someone else is on the elevator with him. You’re supposed to solve the mystery by asking astute yes-or-no questions. Well, I’m terrible at it. I can never think of the right thing to ask and quickly lose patience. “Just tell me the answer,” I finally grumble. That’s exactly how I felt: A Holocaust survivor born on the first day of Passover prepares a new will a month after his second wife dies; he later labels the front part the Bread of Affliction, tears off the back pages and–maybe, hopefully– hides it before he dies. Why, and where? “Just tell me the answer,” I grumbled.
Unfortunately, Mendel Sofer wasn’t telling, and neither were his personal papers. I’d searched through them again the morning after the seder, looking for a clue. Nothing. I’d visited Pearl Jefferson to find out whether she knew anything about the missing pages. Mainly what I learned from Pearl, sandwiched between her pleas to settle with Dathan, was that the Afikoman routine was out of character for Mendel Sofer. He was not a light-hearted man and he was certainly not the type who enjoyed practical jokes or puzzles. Pearl Jefferson claimed she never saw him smile during the years she cleaned his apartment. He was a bitter, suspicious man who even refused to apply for his social security pension because, as he told Pearl, the government would use it as a way to spy on him and steal his money if he went to the hospital.
He used to tell her that she was in his will, but she dismissed it as one of his ploys to keep her in line because the only time he brought it up was when was angry with her. “That man would rush over to his desk and root around in them drawers and pull out some papers and wave ’em at me, all the while yelling if I didn’t do what he told me he gonna tear it up and leave me out in the cold.” She sighed at the memory. “I never dreamed the man was telling the truth.”
“Did you ever look at the document yourself?”
“No, ma’am. Didn’t see any reason to ’cause I didn’t believe him in the first place.” She paused and shook her head. “He was a troublesome man to work for, especially after poor Mrs. Sofer passed, bless her soul.”
“Why did you stay on?”
She studied me for a moment. “Because of that tattoo.”
“Those numbers. On his arm.” She placed her hand upon her ample bosom. “Every time I saw those numbers I recalled how much Mr. Sofer had already suffered, how much the Lord had already taken away from him, and I said to myself if he wants me to stay on–well.” She paused and shrugged. “How could I say no to that man?”
* * *
“Let her out, Myron.”
I could hear him snicker on the other end of the line. “You’re asking the wrong person, Rachel. Look in the mirror. You’re the only one with the power to put real cash in her hands. Convince your client to accept the settlement and the cleaning lady gets her money. If not, not. By the way, the offer is about to change. After all, the trial is less than a week away. Beginning tomorrow, it drops ten grand per person per day. Sixty-five/sixty-five tomorrow. Fifty-five/fifty-five the day after.”
“You’re a jerk, Myron.”
He chuckled. “Actually, I’m a fool. I shouldn’t offer you a penny. It must be my weakness for pretty attorneys with sexy legs. Your claim isn’t worth seventy-five grand, Rachel. Nowhere close. You have absolutely no leverage here. Your people may want to roll the dice, but make sure they understand they’re gambling with the schvartza’s money, too.”
* * *
Harriet Weinberger shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, dear. I wish I could help. My Irving never told me anything about that.” We were in the lounge of Covenant House, an apartment complex for elderly adults located across the parking lot from the Jewish Community Center. Harriet Weinberger had moved there after her husband died a year ago at the age of eighty-seven. Harriet and Irving had been high school sweethearts, she told me. That was a long time ago. She looked every bit her eighty-eight years, even though she’d dyed her thinning hair jet black. There was a slight palsy in her hands and head. It made her voice quiver.
Irving Weinberger had drafted Mendel Sofer’s will eleven years ago. He’d also signed it as one of the witnesses. Unfortunately, Harriet knew nothing about Mendel Sofer, about his will, or about any missing pages. Indeed, she knew very little about her husband’s career.
“Did he sell his law practice when he retired?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. He just closed the door one day and came home and never returned.”
“What about his clients?”
Harriet gazed at me with sad blue eyes, her head shaking slightly. “I don’t think there were many clients toward the end. You see, my Irving had Alzheimer’s disease.” She paused and sighed. “He started forgetting things. It caused problems for some clients.” Her eyes suddenly welled up with tears. “Poor thing.” I leaned forward and squeezed her hand. A wave of despair washed over me at the thought that Mr. Sofer might have hidden the back half of his will with his ailing attorney. If so, the prospect of finding the missing pages became even more remote.
“What about client files?” I asked, by now clutching at the proverbial straws. Maybe Weinberger had placed the missing pages in his Mendel Sofer file. I certainly had plenty of odds and ends in my client files.
Harriet shook her head helplessly. “I wouldn’t know, dear.”
She mulled it over. “Perhaps Elsa.”
She sat back with surprise. “Why, yes.”
“She was your husband’s secretary?”
“My goodness, you know Elsa?”
“Just her name.” I showed her my copy of the last page of the will. “She signed as the other witness. I assumed that she was your husband’s secretary.”
* * *
I assumed correctly. Better yet, Elsa Kemper had been Irving Weinberger’s secretary for almost forty years, and best of all, she was alive and–as that odd expression goes–still in full possession of her faculties. Her only concession to the aging process–she, too, was in her eighties– was a cane. We met in the sitting room of the immaculate bungalow in south St. Louis that she shared with her sister, Mary.
Elsa nodded her head, remembering. “Oh, yes. Mr. Sofer. He was one of Mr. Weinberger’s greenhorns.” She paused and smiled at me. “That’s what he called the newcomers. Greenhorns.” She explained that her boss had volunteered his legal services with the St. Louis Jewish Family and Children’s Service after World War II. He was actively involved in the resettlement of Holocaust survivors, helping them navigate through landlord-tenant laws, employment policies, union rules, insurance regulations, and the like. Some of his greenhorns adapted quite well to their new country, eventually numbering among Weinberger’s wealthiest clients. But for most, his services remained pro bono. Mendel Sofer fell somewhere in the middle: he insisted upon paying for the occasional legal service he required.
“Oh, but such a gloomy man,” Elsa said, shaking her head. “And so distrustful. He was always nervous around me.”
“My family came from Germany. It didn’t matter that my parents moved here in 1924. He was convinced that anyone from Germany was a secret Nazi.” She sighed. “Poor man.”
“Do you recall that he changed his will after his second wife died?” I showed her my copy, pointing out where she had signed as a witness.
“Oh, yes, I typed it.” She turned back to the first page and read the opening paragraph. “`Bread of Affliction.’ I remember this one.”
I explained the problem of the missing pages.
She shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Is it possible that he gave those pages to Mr. Weinberger to hide for him?”
She mulled it over. “I suppose anything’s possible.”
“Did your boss have a safe in his office?”
She nodded. “He did. A big black one. He kept it in the corner of his office. My heavens, it must have weighed five hundred pounds.”
I felt a glimmer of hope. “What happened to it after he retired?”
“It was sold, along with all the office furniture.” She smiled sadly and shook her head. “I took all the papers out and made sure they were sent back to the clients.”
My shoulders sagged. “And there was nothing of Mr. Sofer’s in there?”
“What about a file?”
She gave me a puzzled look. “A file?”
“You said that Mr. Weinberger did some legal work for Mr. Sofer over the years. Did he keep a client file for him?”
She nodded. “Oh, yes. I maintained one on every client.”
“Do you have any idea where they would be today?”
She leaned forward on her cane as she frowned in thought. I waited.
“The bar association,” she finally said. “When we closed the practice, I arranged for delivery of all closed files to the bar association. They promised to put them in storage in case a former client needed his file. You might check with them.”
I did. It took the bar association three teeth-gnashing days to locate the storage warehouse where they’d sent Irving Weinberger’s files, and then it took another full day for me to obtain permission to look through them. By then it was forty-eight hours before the trial and roughly forty-five minutes after Myron Dathan had called with his final offer: five thousand for my client, five thousand for Pearl Jefferson. With great effort I resisted the urge to tell Dathan just exactly where he could insert every one of those dollars, bill by bill. Instead, I declined his offer and gently hung up the phone. I wasn’t about to let him get any perverse jollies from thinking that he’d finally gotten to me. Nor would I give him any new material for his creepy repertoire of women-lawyer-with-PMS anecdotes.
I’d brought a change of clothes to work that morning, having already confirmed what the warehouse address seemed to suggest: Irving Weinberger’s client files were stored under conditions somewhat less hygienic than a hospital operating room. I call my mother before changing into jeans and sneakers. “They finally gave me permission.”
“It’s about time,” she said, thoroughly annoyed with them. “You leaving now?”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“You’re sure you want to do this, Mom?”
And sure enough, there she was, standing on the sidewalk in front of the seedy warehouse. I waved at her as I pulled into a parking space. I had to smile. Sarah Gold to the rescue. My mother is the most determined, resourceful and exasperating woman I know. Life trained her well. She came to America from Lithuania at the age of three, having escaped with her mother and baby sister after the Nazis killed her father and the rest of his family. Fate remained cruel. My mother, a woman who reveres books and learning, was forced to drop out of high school and go to work when her mother (after whom I’m named) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My grandmother Rachel died six months later, leaving her two daughters, Sarah and Becky, orphans at the ages of seventeen and fifteen. Two years later, at the age of nineteen, my mother married a gentle, shy bookkeeper ten years her senior named Seymour Gold. My sweet father was totally smitten by his beautiful, spirited wife and remained so until his death from a heart attack two years ago on the morning after Thanksgiving. Given her own link to the Holocaust, my mother had followed In re Sofer with great interest.
Her outfit today was a Sarah Gold classic: thick hiking boots, a faded pair of black Guess jeans, a blue chambray work shirt and, of all things, an aluminum hard hat.
“Where in the world did you get that hat?”
“Your father had it in the basement. What for I don’t know.” She gestured toward the warehouse. “I should have brought one for you, too.”
I was smiling. “You look like one of the Village People.”
“Never mind.” I gave her a kiss. “You look great, Mom.”
And she did. My mother worked out regularly these days, including a weightlifting class that met twice a week at the JCC. With her high cheekbones, trim figure, and curly red hair (colored these days to cover the gray), Sarah Gold was still a striking woman at the age of fifty-six. I called her my Red Hot Mama.
Once inside the building, we followed a warehouse employee up the stairs to the second floor. It was a cavernous area lined with row after row of floor-to-ceiling metal shelves on which were stacked hundreds, maybe thousands, of cardboard boxes. Motes of dust revolved slowly in the beams of light coming through cracks in the translucent windows.
The worker led us down one of the aisles and stopped midway. He checked his sheet, squinted up at the boxes, and nodded. “That’s them.”
Irving Weinberger’s client files were stored in thirty-two moldy boxes stacked in two columns. The worker pointed to a rolling ladder at the end of the aisle before he departed. My mother and I stood there in silence staring up at the boxes. “Well,” she finally said, “let’s get busy.”
It took us two hours and twenty-two boxes to find the manila file folder labeled Mendel Sofer. I carried it down the ladder and took it over to the rickety wooden table at the end of the aisle. Inside the folder were about seventy-five pages of documents. There were letters to Mr. Sofer’s landlords, to his employers and to a local department store (over a disputed charge account bill). There was correspondence with the German government regarding reparations.
There were a few contracts, drafts of his prior wills (there had been two of them), and a copy of his final will–but no Afikoman.
Tired and disappointed, I sat down on the floor and rested my back against a stack of boxes. My mother was leaning over the table, her back to me, scrutinizing the file. My mind felt numb as I watched her page through the documents. I tried to imagine where else he could have hidden the missing pages. I tilted my head back and stared at the cobwebs wafting from the light fixtures overhead. Nothing.
“Interesting,” my mother said.
I lowered my gaze as she turned to me, holding a one-page document in her hand. “What?” I asked dully.
“It’s a memo he dictated after his first meeting with Mendel Sofer. Back on March 8th, 1948.”
My mother pursed her lips as she reread a portion of the memo. “I thought he was at Auschwitz.”
I frowned. “He wasn’t?”
She shook her head. “Mauthausen.”
“What was that?”
She explained that Mauthausen was a concentration camp where the prisoners worked in rock quarries. Mr. Sofer was the only member of his family sent there. The Nazis shipped the rest of his family off to Auschwitz. After two years in Mauthausen, he somehow escaped. He hid in the forests of eastern Europe until he was discovered, starving and nearly delirious from fever, by a courageous Catholic priest named Herman Groszek. Father Groszek hid Sofer in the church attic until the war ended and then arranged for him to come to America. Groszek had a sister in St. Louis named Maria.
She and her husband Edgar agreed to be Mendel Sofer’s sponsors.
“What are sponsors?”
My mother explained that the U.S. government required that each Jewish immigrant have a sponsor in the city where he was to reside. The sponsor guaranteed that the new American wouldn’t be a financial burden on the government. The Jewish philanthropic organizations found wealthy families to serve as nominal sponsors for the many Holocaust survivors who knew no one in America. Most of those immigrants rarely met their sponsors; instead, the local Jewish agency arranged for their housing and employment. In fact, as my mother explained, she and my grandmother had never met their sponsor. But Mendel Sofer had real sponsors: Maria and Edgar Juskievicz. Although the Jewish Family and Children’s Service helped secure him an apartment and a job, Mr. Sofer not only met the Juskieviczes, but became close with them.
When my mother finished reading Weinberger’s memo aloud, we gazed at each other. Finally, my mother shrugged, “You have any better idea?”
I shook my head.
* * *
Nothing was easy about this case. There was no telephone listing for Edgar or Maria Juskievicz. It took several tedious hours searching through old newspapers on microfilm to discover why. Edgar had died in 1964, Maria in 1972.
According to her obituary, she was survived by a daughter, Hannah, and a son, Edgar, Jr. There was no St. Louis listing for a Juskievicz named Hannah or Edgar, Jr. The library had telephone directories for about thirty other cities around the country. None had a listing for either Hannah or Edgar, Jr.
By the time the library closed that evening at nine, I was completely out of leads. Even worse, it was now T-minus thirty-six hours to trial. I sat alone in my car in the library parking lot staring into the darkness, struggling with my frustration as I tried to concoct a rational litigation plan of attack. But no matter which strategy I considered, I kept returning to Hannah and Edgar, Jr. Finally, I got out of the car with my address book, walked over to the pay phone in front of the library, dropped in a quarter and dialed the number. He answered on the third ring.
“I need you to find someone, Charlie.”
“Jesus, Rachel, it’s ten o’clock. Can’t this wait ’til tomorrow?”
A pause. A weary sigh. “Jesus, Rachel.”
I smiled. Charlie Ross was an ex-FBI agent special agent and one of the best private investigators I’d ever worked with. Last year I’d represented his son in a messy paternity lawsuit. Charlie owed me one. It was time to collect.
“Okay,” he said. “Tell me what you know so far.”
* * *
At 5:45 p.m. the following afternoon I crossed my fingers, said a silent prayer, and rang the doorbell to #83 Chaucer Lane. It was, according to Charlie, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Randall O’Connor–a modest, ranch-style house in Canterbury Trails, a cookie-cutter subdivision in the far south suburbs. I could hear a dog barking out back and the laugh-track of a TV sit-com inside. The door was opened by a twenty-something woman in white shorts and an untucked pink blouse. She was barefoot and had a diapered toddler perched on her hip. Her straight blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Several strands had come loose, and she brushed them away from her face with her free hand.
She registered my lawyer’s garb and briefcase in a quick glance. “Yes?”
“I’m Rachel Gold.”
“Oh, right. Come on in, Miss Gold.”
“Call me Rachel,” I said as I followed her into the house. “Please.”
She turned. “Okay.” She smiled. “Call me Miriam.”
* * *
The following morning we gathered in the courtroom of the Honorable Jeremiah Donohue, Probate Division, and Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis. I was alone at plaintiff’s table. Over at the other table sat Myron Dathan and what I presumed to be two members of the Grubbs clan, a man and woman who could have passed for a stout version of the grim farm couple from American Gothic, except that he was wearing a leisure suit and a bolo tie. Behind me in the first row of the gallery sat Pearl Jefferson and two of her teenage sons, all dressed in their Sunday best. Judge Donohue, looking even more florid than usual, entered the courtroom at ten minutes after nine and gaveled things to order.
“Your Honor,” I said, moving toward the podium, “we’ve encountered an unexpected problem this morning that may require a short continuance.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Myron Dathan rise angrily to his feet.
“One of my witnesses,” I continued, “is Rabbi Robert Abrams. He called me from the hospital an hour ago. Two of his congregants were involved in a serious automobile accident last night and both are in critical condition. Rabbi Abrams has been at the hospital with the victims’ families since five this morning. I have the telephone number of the nurse’s station on the floor where he is. Your Honor’s clerk could call to find out whether he’ll be able to come to court today.”
“Judge,” Dathan snapped with irritation, “I object to any delay. Of what possible relevance is the testimony of a reform rabbi in a will contest?” He turned to me with disdain. “Was Rabbi Abrams the decedent’s rabbi?”
“No, Mr. Dathan.” I turned to the judge. “Rabbi Abrams will testify as an expert witness. As Mr. Dathan knows, the decedent’s will contains references to the Passover holiday. I intend to have Rabbi Abrams explain certain matters of Jewish law and custom relevant to those references.”
Dathan snorted in amusement. “In that case there’s no reason to disturb him. I am quite certain that I can elucidate any Passover references that Ms. Gold deems relevant. Let the rabbi tend to his flock.”
The judge studied Dathan for a moment and turned to me. “Counselor?”
I shrugged nonchalantly, trying to hide my pleasure. I’d initially panicked when Rabbi Abrams called–Another thing gone wrong, I’d groaned, but all things considered I’d rather have the Passover testimony come from Dathan’s lips.
“I’ll accept counsel’s offer,” I said, “so long as I reserve the right to put Rabbi Abrams on the stand to explain any points of Jewish law or custom on which Mr. Dathan proves to be ignorant.”
Judge Donohue nodded. “That seems fair enough. Call your first witness, Ms. Gold.”
“We call Myron Dathan.”
The judge gestured toward the witness box. “Mr. Dathan, watch your step.”
I waited until he was sworn, seated and ready. “Mr. Dathan, the opening sentence of Mr. Sofer’s will refers to the 15th day of Nisan. Can you explain that reference to the Court?”
Dathan quickly warmed to the task. He gave a concise and, frankly, fascinating exegesis of the Jewish calendar, and from there we moved to the first reference to the Bread of Affliction, which Dathan explained with an interesting blend of biblical fact and Talmudic rumination. By the time we reached the Aramaic version of Bread of Affliction, Dathan was into his pompous mode full-throttle. He gave the historical explanation for certain Jewish blessings being in Aramaic and then–in what he no doubt believed was an impressive display of Jewish erudition– recited the entire Ha Lahma Anya from memory. I glanced over at his slack-jawed clients, who were watching their attorney as if he were speaking in tongues.
I nodded as he spoke, delighted to have such an eloquent presentation of this crucial point in my case and even more delighted by Dathan’s demeanor, which seemed to suggest that he hadn’t even considered whether Mr. Sofer’s Aramaic scrawl was anything more than an idle doodle.
“And what about the other half of the matzah?” I asked.
“You refer, of course, to the Afikoman.”
“The what?” Judge Donohue asked, looking up from his notes.
Dathan turned toward the judge and smiled patiently. “The Afikoman, Your Honor. Unlike the Lahma Anya, which has profound roots in the actual moment of the exodus from Egypt, most scholars believe that Afikoman comes from the Greek word epikomoi, which is generally thought to mean `dessert.’ Indeed, it is stipulated that the consumption of the Afikoman is the final act of eating at the seder.”
Keeping my tone casual, I said, “Tell the Court what happens to the Afikoman after it’s separated from the Bread of Affliction.”
“Certainly.” Dathan turned toward the judge, who was taking careful notes. “After the leader recites the Ha Lahma Anya, Your Honor, he places that portion of the matzah back on his plate. Then he waits until he is confident that no one is watching him, at which point–”
His voice trailed off.
The judge looked up, his pen poised over his notes. “Yes? And then?”
Dathan was glaring at me, his eyes narrow slits.
I gave him a sweet smile. “Please continue, Mr. Dathan.”
Dathan was silent.
“Mr. Dathan,” the judge said, “what does the leader do with that other half of the matzah when no one’s watching?”
Dathan scratched his goatee as he considered potential escape routes. There were none. “He hides it.”
“Hides it?” the judge asked
“Hides it,” I repeated, watching Dathan. “And the goal of the others is to try to find the missing piece and bring it back, correct?”
Dathan stared at me.
“Correct?” I repeated.
After a moment, Dathan said, “Yes.”
“No further questions.”
The judge looked up with a frown. “Let me make sure I have this right. You start with a whole piece of matzah, and then the leader breaks it in half. One part is the…” he paused to check his notes…”the Lahma Anya, and that stays right there where everyone can see it. But the other half gets hidden, right?”
I nodded “Correct.”
The judge turned to Dathan. “What happens when you find it, Mr. Dathan?”
Dathan slowly turned to him. In a barely audible tone he said, “You can claim the reward.”
“Reward? Like money?”
Dathan nodded, his jaws clenched.
The judge nodded. “Fascinating. Just fascinating. Thank you, counselor. You may step down.”
Dathan passed by me without acknowledgement or eye contact.
“Call your next witness, Ms. Gold.”
Miriam came forward from the back of the courtroom and took the oath in the witness box. She was holding a manila envelope in her left hand.
I moved her quickly through the preliminaries–name, address, marital status, etc. –and then asked her whether she knew Mendel Sofer.
“I did. I was named after his sister. She was killed in the concentration camps.”
“Were you close with Mr. Sofer?”
She nodded. “My entire family was.”
“My mother’s Uncle Herman was a priest in Poland during World War Two. After Mr. Sofer escaped from the concentration camps, Uncle Herman hid him in the church until the war ended.” She told the story of how Mendel Sofer came to America with the priest’s sister as his sponsor; of how Maria’s daughter Hannah was named after Mendel Sofer’s first wife; of how Hannah had stayed close with Mr. Sofer after she became an adult. Miriam was Hannah’s daughter, and she too grew to love the lonely man that everyone in her family called Uncle Mendel. Miriam’s mother and father died in an automobile crash eight years ago. Mendel Sofer, who detested rabbis and organized religion, nevertheless went to the synagogue every morning for the next eleven months to recite the mourner’s kaddish for Miriam’s parents.
“Did you stay close after that?” I asked softly.
She nodded, daubing her eyes with a handkerchief. “He sent us Christmas gifts each year. We had him over to the house for dinner each year on his birthday. I called him once a week to make sure he was okay.” She shook her head, her lips quivering. “He was such an unhappy man. And so alone. He didn’t trust the government. He didn’t trust his bank. He didn’t trust the police. I guess because they’d all betrayed him in Poland. He didn’t trust anyone but our family. He called us his blessed trust.” She paused to blow her nose. Her eyes were red. I waited until she regained her self-control.
“Did Mr. Sofer entrust you with anything special?”
She nodded. “Three years ago he came to visit me on the first day of Passover.” She smiled sheepishly. “I didn’t know it was Passover until he told me.” She brushed back her hair with her hand. “He gave me two manila envelopes. “This one,” she said, holding it up, “and another.”
“First tell me about the other one.”
“He said it was mine, but that I shouldn’t open it until after he was dead.”
“And when he died?”
She nodded, her eyes welling up again.
“What was inside, Miriam?”
“Stock certificates. From different companies. All with assignment forms transferring them from him to me.”
“How much are the stocks worth?”
“Almost two-hundred thousand dollars.”
I heard a gasp from one of the Grubbs.
“That was his gift to you, Miriam?” I asked.
She nodded, wiping her eyes again with the handkerchief. I waited. After a moment she looked up and took a deep breath.
“Tell us about the other envelope, Miriam,” I asked gently. “The one you brought today.”
“Uncle Mend–, um, Mr. Sofer told me that it held a secret and that I should never open the envelope. He told me that people might come looking for it after he died, but that I could only give it to a certain person.”
“He didn’t know who the person would be. He said that he’d written a special password in Hebrew on the document. He also wrote it in English on the outside of the envelope so that I’d know what it was. He told me that I could only give the envelope to the person who knew the password. He made me promise.”
“What happened after he died?”
“Nothing until yesterday, when you came to see me. You asked me whether Mr. Sofer had hidden any papers with me.”
“And what did you say?”
“I asked if you knew the password.”
“Please hand the envelope to the judge, Miriam.”
She did. I watched as he turned it over and squinted at the word scrawled just below the flap. He looked up at me, raised his eyebrows and nodded. I glanced toward Myron Dathan. He was staring up at the ceiling tiles, his arms crossed over his chest.
I turned back to the witness. “Please tell us the password, Miriam.”
* * *
It took a little over two months for the judgment to become final. Although Dathan filed the usual post-trial motions, he was literally going through the motions, and when the judge denied all of them he didn’t even bother filing an appeal. The judgment became final on a Monday in early June, and two days later I arranged for the wire transfer of $1,534,000.00 to Shalom Aliyah’s headquarters in Tel Aviv. Later that afternoon I had the joy of handing Pearl Jefferson a cashier’s check for $100,000.
That was Wednesday. Sunday was Father’s Day, the second one since my father had died. It was an overcast day, unseasonably cool. I picked up my mother and my sister and drove the three of us to the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City. When we reached my father’s grave, we took turns bringing him up to date on all the family news and gossip, and then we each placed a small rock on his headstone. I placed mine right next to the one I’d put there last month. My mother stepped back to the foot of the grave and stared at the headstone. My sister and I waited at her side.
Several minutes passed, and then my mother sighed and turned to me. “So where is he?”
I unfolded the diagram the cemetery worker had drawn for me and studied it. “That way,” I said, pointing.
Mendel Sofer was also buried at Chesed Shel Emeth, next to his second wife, Ruth. His grave was as yet unmarked–just a narrow, rectangular mound of earth on which tendrils of new grass had sprouted. As Sunday approached, I’d tried to think of some way to honor Mendel Sofer’s memory, to help give closure to my brief but intense sojourn in his life and death. I’d looked at a few Holocaust poems, at a beautiful essay by Elie Weisel, at excerpts from speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but none felt quite right for Mendel Sofer. Then I’d remembered the language of his will, and suddenly it was obvious.
I took out my Haggadah and opened it to the Ha Lahma Anya. I’d practiced this morning to make sure I could read the Hebrew. Clearing my throat, I began:
“Ha lahma anya di a-khalu a-vahatana b’ar’a d’Mitzrayim. This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Kol dikhfin yei’tei v’yeikhul. For all who are hungry, let them come eat with us. Kol ditzrikh yei’tei v’yefsah. For all who are alone, let them come celebrate Passover with us. Ha-shata hakha. Now we are here. Lashanah ha-ba’ah b’ar’a d’Yisrael. Next year we shall be in the land of Israel. Ha-shata av’dei. Now we are enslaved. Lashana ha-ba’ah b’nei horin. Next year we shall be free.”
Slowly, I closed the book. We stood together in silence at the foot of Mendel Sofer’s grave.
“Amen,” my mother finally said.
My sister nodded her head. “Amen.”
I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye.
“Shalom,” I whispered to him.
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