A Short Story
by Abraham Makofsky
I had been speaking Yiddish with him because I welcomed the chance to see
much of it I remembered. But now it was getting serious and I switched to
English. So did he. "It looks like you entertained me royally these past
few days just to persuade me to carry that package for you into the
States," I said
Hershel, fiftyish, his hair already white, answered nervously. "No, No. I
only learned a half year ago that you were my cousin, and was given your
address. I invited you here because I wanted to meet you."
"What's in the package?" I asked
"Just some things my daughter in New York needs: some papers,
little gift for my grandchild, things like that."
"Why don't you mail it to her?"
"The mail in Mexico isn't reliable. The package could just
A little nothing, I thought, just a few grams or pounds of what,
"I bet you're not my relative, " I said, " Someone gave you
name and address. You've got drugs in there and you think you can get me
to smuggle them into the US. No thanks."
He sighed. " Aaron, we are relatives. I'll show you a picture." He went
to a desk, took a picture out of the drawer, and gave it to me. "That's a
picture of three brothers in the old country. One is my father, and one is
your father. Look at it."
It was an old picture, frayed at the edges. There were three
men, and they did look alike- dark hair, dressed in holiday finery--and
the man in the middle was unmistakably my father.
"Why did you get into this dirty business?" I asked. "You own a store.
you make a decent living out of that?"
He gave me a hard look. "Don't preach to me," he said. "You and I are
the same age. Think what life's been like for you and for me. I fought in
the Warsaw Ghetto. My wife and 5 year old son were killed there. I escaped
and met up with partisans and spent the rest of the war fighting, killing, always on the run.. And you? Just enjoying the good life in your golden
country. I want to get my share of that good life"
There was a soft knock on the door. His wife, Anna, came in She was much
younger than Hershel; her bronzed skin and high cheekbones showed Indian
heritage. She told him there was a man downstairs who wanted to see him.
He left, but she stayed.
After a few pleasantries, I pointed to the package. "Are you in the
She stared at me. "I told him that any relative of his would be too smart
believe that story." She spoke slowly. "I hate the business"
"Why don't you make him quit?"
The door opened and Hershel came in, He said that he had closed the
store--siesta time. She told him that I wanted her to make him quit drug
Hershel's laugh was harsh. "Aaron, you'll never understand me. My father
pious, upright, incorruptible. He probably ended up in a gas chamber. My
wife and son--Oh, god, why explain. I have given up believing there is any
good in this world. You're wasting your time talking about quitting the
I wasn't sure that I should pursue the matter-- but I did. "Do you ever
about the people who use the drugs that will support your happy years? If
they keep it up long enough, their lives become nightmares- maybe like
being in the gas chamber waiting for the end."
"Why should I think about them? You knew you had family in Poland; did
think about us in those terrible times? We were not real, living people to
you- and the drug users are too unreal for me to worry about. My life has
been full of things a human being shouldn't have to stand," He was silent
for a minute. "I did have some good things going --and then they were
wrenched right out of my life." He held her hand. "And now I wonder when
they will take you away from me."
"Can't you see that the big threat to staying together is that the law
be coming after you-or us- at anytime?" She asked
"We don't have any
choice." His voice trembled a bit. "Your father lets us manage the
store--and it's only a front for the business. We can't live on what the
store makes." There was a knock on the door and a man came in, dressed in
police uniform, and wearing side arms. My heart missed a beat, but it was
clear that his presence did not bother my cousin or his wife; the package
remained on the table in clear view of the newcomer.
The officer looked at me intently. "Who are you?" He asked, in Spanish.
"He's my cousin, a gringo from up north," Herschel said. "I suppose
here to do business with me. We'll go downstairs." He and the visitor left
I looked at Anna quizzically. "Payoff time, "she said. "How can he stand
Drugs and payoffs. This is what he says will bring us the good life." She
covered her face with her hands.
I hesitated to offer advice-- but, after all, they had dragged me into
lives. I spoke up. "Why not tell him you can't stand the way things are
and you're going to leave? You want him to come with you, but if he
decides to stay, you'll go without him."
"He needs me," she said, with tears flowing freely.
Just then, Hershel walked in. He saw her crying, walked to her chair,
down on his knees, and put his arms around her. "Please, sweetheart,
please don't cry."
She stopped crying and kissed him. Then she said, " I listened to you and
Aaron argue and I suddenly understood why you don't want to change. You do
not really believe that things will ever different for you. Your life has
been a holocaust, and you expect it will always be that way, that this is
Herschel stood up. "You're wrong," he sounded troubled. "Would I have
dragged you into the business if I felt that way?"
"Then why do you twist and turn in bed at night?" Anna asked.
"You get up in the dark, dress, and walk the muddy streets. You sit in a
chair and I can tell your mind is a million miles away." "I have
been that way ever since I can remember," he said. " Could I sleep
peacefully in Warsaw when I knew the Nazis were coming?" He stared at
her. "It's only when I hold you that I know I am still alive, and maybe,
"No," Anna said. "You really don't believe it will happen. There is a
inside of you saying that the good times will never come. And, like Aaron
said, that voice is telling you it is wrong to make life a holocaust for
other people." She was quiet for a few moments. "I am giving up, Herschel.
I must get away from here."
Herschel put up his hands as though to pacify her. "Okay, sweetheart.
take a vacation. We can go anywhere you want…"
She shook her head. "That's not what I mean. I want to go away for good.
more drugs, no more business."
"A little compromise," he pleaded. "Can't we wait a year? Just a little
to make more money to live on."
"No" she said.
He looked at me. "I bet you talked her into it, Aaron, preaching
meaningless virtues. You didn't need to dirty your hands to have a good
life. I do." Herschel turned to his wife. "Whatever you want, Anna. I need
you. You are my life." That night, around the dinner table, and with her
husband avoiding looking at me, Anna said that she had told her father
that they were leaving town and giving up the store and the business. It
would take them a few days to tie loose ends together, and they would then
leave for Mexico City. She was certain they would both find jobs easily.
Since I was to leave for home early the next morning, we sat around after
dinner and assured one another that we would keep in touch. I expressed
warm feelings about our several days together, and made it a point to tell
Herschel how happy I was to learn we were cousins. There was no warmth in
his responses to my overtures.
About two months after I returned home I was delighted to receive a
from Anna. The long letter first told me that they had found an apartment
in Mexico City. They had many friends there. She and Herschel had first
become acquainted there about five years ago, when he worked as a
translator in an import-export business. The letter then turned to what
had happened since they returned to the big city.
I found a job quickly
in a car business owned by a friend but Herschel has had trouble
getting a job. He went back to the export place but they did not need him.
The boss where I work took him on as a car salesman, but on the first day
he yelled at a customer who then walked out of the store. The boss asked
Herschel why he argued with the customer, and Herschel quit the job. I am
I felt I had to respond quickly to this disturbing letter. I remembered
I had once met a curator at the Mexico City anthropology museum. A few
calls to friends and I recalled his name, Carlos Diaz. I sent a letter to
Anna suggesting that Herschel call Diaz at the museum and use my name to
get an appointment and see if there might be a job. I also wrote to the
curator, using school stationery, telling him that I was referring a
friend in search of a job and emphasizing Herschel's command of many
A few weeks later, a second letter came from Anna.
I wrote to her, expressing the hope that after a brief separation, he
decide to go back to her. That was not the way it happened. Another letter
from her came in a week's time. Anna had returned to the village. She
wanted, above all, to be with him.
I have sad news to report. Herschel has gone back
village and the store. After he quit the car job he would
not look for work. He read you letter and tossed it
aside. He said you were the last person he would
to for help. He said my father wanted him to come back
He packed his bag, kissed me, and left. I am heartbroken.
The author is a retired professor of social work and anthropology who writes stories dealing with social issues. This story is written with the assistance of a small grant from the Puffin Foundation
from the February 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine