‘Anna, you’ve excelled yourself this time.’ That’s Joseph, my uncle. Portly, comfortable, solid. The sort of banker you’d trust with your family inheritance.
‘Oh, it’s nothing. Just a little strudel.’ Anna, my sister, and my paradigm. She’s trying to be modest, but bobs and smiles and preens herself just a little. As well she might; she makes the finest strudel in Berlin. All the family says so.
‘Well, let’s have a taste then!’ That’s my grandfather, tucking a napkin under his chin. He relishes his status as patriarch, and has a beard to suit it.
‘Well I think the birthday girl should have first slice, don’t you?’ My mother’s best jewellery jiggles on her bosom as she speaks. Widowed when Anna was ten and I was two, she raised us single-handedly with love and grit–under the benevolent supervision of the rest of the family.
‘Very well then.’ Anna hands me the knife. ‘Cut away, Esther. Don’t keep Grandfather waiting.’
I cut into the fine, buttery layers of pastry, my mouth watering. It is my eleventh birthday.
‘So, who’s for soup?’ Anna beams from the head of the table at the assembled family. ‘I had to promise Herr Kauffman the first crop from our strawberries in exchange for the chicken. So make the most of it!’ She laughs brightly and ladles out steaming amber bowlfuls.
‘Oh, you should have tried the soup in my day! It really tasted of chicken. The very smell of it used to guide us home on foggy nights.’ Grandfather takes a long slurp from his spoon nonetheless.
‘Anna, your matzoh balls are an inspiration. Goodness knows where you learned to cook like this. Not from me. Your father used to say I cooked with my elbows.’ My mother, peace making once again.
‘I have a bottle put aside for a special occasion. Mosel, ‘26. A fine year.’ Uncle Joseph loves to show off his knowledge of wine. ‘Shall we drink a toast to our beautiful fifteen year-old?’
And I smile and smile, and forget all about my patched dress.
‘Uncle Joseph said to start without him. He’ll be home from the factory when he can.’ Mother’s thin face is creased with worry.
‘Yes, we’d better get on. Esther has to start her shift soon. Can’t have her missing her own party, can we?’ Anna smiles at me, switching on an internal light, her face the paper lantern to her soul.
‘Then let the party commence!’ Mother claps her hands, kindling memories of the old days.
‘And on tonight’s menu, we have… bread!’ Anna unveils the chipped plate with a flourish, revealing a round loaf of black bread, our usual fare. But in the middle she has placed a single candle, burning defiantly against all darkness. ‘Many happy returns, little sister.’
I do not say so, but it doesn’t seem much like a party, with Grandfather’s chair empty, and Uncle Joseph sweeping floors at the munitions factory.
‘Esther…’ Anna’s whisper breaks off into a cough. ‘Do you know what today is?’
Today. It is like yesterday, and like tomorrow, until worse comes. I shake my head.
‘Silly!’ She props herself up on her arm and offers a weak smile. ‘It’s your birthday. Twenty today, how about that? Mother would have been so proud.’
Again she succumbs to a prolonged bout of coughing. Finally, she wipes a streak of blood from her mouth and fumbles in the straw of her mattress. ‘See what I have for you! I saved it from my ration yesterday!’
A crust of bread. I turn my head away to hide my tears, but Anna is not fooled. ‘Don’t cry, Esther. It won’t be long now.’
‘They say the British are coming into the war. Who knows what might happen?’ I’m not ready to surrender hope yet.
But Anna shakes her head, her eyes closed. ‘Too late for us. You know where we’re going. You’ve heard the rumours.’
I lie beside her in the cold dawn and wrap my arms around her thin frame. ‘What will it be like, Anna? Tell me.’
‘Afterwards? Oh, Esther, it will be wonderful. No more mourning or crying or pain. You can have your piano, and play as loudly as you like.’
‘And you? What will you do?’
‘Oh, I think I will do what I’ve always done. Cook for my family, my friends, my Saviour. Do you think He’ll drop in sometimes?’
‘For your strudel, Anna, He’ll be a regular’
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