Authors: Frank Tallis
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
FTER THE MORNING WARD
round, Liebermann returned to his room. On the floor he found an envelope. He sat at his desk, broke the seal, and read the note inside. It was from the hospital’s chancellor, Professor Robert Gandler. Liebermann was to report—no later than one o’clock—to the chancellor’s office, in order to discuss a matter of utmost importance. Liebermann looked at his wristwatch and, discovering that it was almost noon, set off, walking briskly through seemingly endless interconnected corridors. He had to ask a porter for directions. Finally he managed to find the chancellor’s office on the third floor, in the administrative department. The sound of a typist, tapping at her keyboard, created an illusion of heavy rainfall.
Liebermann knocked and waited for an invitation to enter. None came, so he knocked again, this time louder.
“Ah…” He heard a voice, sounding as if it belonged to someone being roused from sleep. “Ah… do come in.”
Liebermann opened the door. It was a large room, lined with shelves, each of which was crammed with files and official-looking directories. He was facing a desk, piled so high with papers that the person behind them was entirely hidden.
“Dr. Liebermann, sir. You wished to speak with me?”
A head appeared from behind the barricade of paperwork.
Professor Gandler was in his late sixties, but his abundant black hair was only just beginning to turn silver. It was brushed back from a high, pale forehead, and adamantly refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of gravity. Renegade tufts sprouted at various angles, giving the impression that he had only recently been battered by a strong wind. His dress was traditional and sombre, and a pair of eager eyes peered through oval-shaped spectacles.
“Liebermann,” said the professor. “Ah yes, Liebermann. Thank you for coming.” He pointed to a wooden chair with a quilted seat. “Please…”
The young doctor bowed and came forward, but when he sat down, he found that he was staring once again into the blank wall of piled papers. A tower of documents in the center began to retreat and move off to the side, its displacement creating a defile through which Professor Gandler’s head reappeared.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of documents I have to read, sign, countersign, approve, reject, and so on. It’s quite intolerable.” The professor made a steeple with his fingers and hummed loudly. “Liebermann…”
“A matter of utmost importance?” Liebermann prompted.
“Indeed,” said the professor. “Indeed… However, with your cooperation I am sure that the
can be managed. And once all parties are satisfied, the affair can be laid to rest.”
“Yes. The von Kortig business.”
“I’m not sure I understand…”
“I suppose I should hear your side of the story first, although whatever you say, I doubt whether it will alter things very much. The priest would not have misrepresented events, and there were witnesses, of course.”
Liebermann still looked confused.
you, wasn’t it,” the professor continued, “who stopped Father Benedikt from giving von Kortig the last rites? We have only one Dr. Liebermann working in the hospital at the moment. So it
have been you. I remember that there used be a cardiologist, Emanuel Liebermann, who worked here many, many years ago…. Are you related?”
“No.” Liebermann crossed his legs and leaned toward the professor. “I’m sorry, sir, but am I to understand that there has been a complaint concerning my professional conduct?”
“The priest wrote to the old baron explaining what happened, and he in turn wrote to me. I was obliged to raise his grievances at the hospital committee meeting, which was scheduled for the following day. Unfortunately the committee members were very troubled by what they heard.”
“With respect, Professor, may I see the old baron’s letter?”
“Certainly not. It is confidential.”
“Then would you be so kind as to tell me what he wrote?”
“That you stopped the priest from giving his son the consolation of his faith.”
“Sir, the young baron had been given morphine and was unaware of his fatal condition. He was making plans for the future and was in good spirits. If the priest had been permitted to administer the last rites, the young baron would have realized that he was about to die. He was not, in my estimation, a courageous or thoughtful man. He was completely unprepared for such a dreadful revelation. It would have caused him considerable distress. Fortunately I was able to stop the priest, and the young baron died peacefully.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said the professor, repeatedly batting the air with his hand. “You were acting in the patient’s interests. That goes without saying. But that isn’t the point.”
“Then perhaps you could explain?”
“Bishop Waldheim is on the committee and wants you to apologize. First by writing to the old baron; second by writing to the priest; and third in person to the committee.”
There was a lengthy pause, during which the reiterative hammering of the typewriter—perhaps in the next room—became exceptionally loud.
Liebermann said, “I am happy to write to the old baron and to Father Benedikt, and I will attend the next meeting of the committee—”
“Excellent!” cried the professor, clapping his hands together. “I knew you wouldn’t be difficult! Good man!”
“With respect, Professor,” said Liebermann, “I did not finish. I am happy to explain my actions and to answer any questions concerning the legitimacy of my medical judgment.”
“Nobody is doubting your medical judgment,” said the professor sharply.
“Then why should I apologize?”
“You have caused offense.”
“But I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Isn’t causing offense wrong?”
“Not so wrong as letting a patient die in distress.”
The professor got up from his seat and walked over to the window. He pulled the curtain aside and looked out, a crooked smile twisting his lips.
“Herr Doctor, you are placing me in a very awkward position.” He turned abruptly. “I am not sure whether you appreciate the importance of the committee. It not only provides the hospital with a moral compass, it also provides us with resources. The members of the committee assist in the raising of funds, and they wield influence on our behalf so that we can maintain the high standards that have made us preeminent in the whole of Europe. We
benefit from their patronage and charity—not only the patients but we doctors too. If the committee wants you to apologize, then I would strongly urge you to comply. For heaven’s sake, man, it’s a simple matter of dashing off a few lines.” The professor returned from the window and, resting both hands on his desktop, leaned forward, peering through the gap in his paperwork. “Look, I’ll tell you what… I’ll see if I can charm the bishop into accepting a letter to the committee instead of an appearance in person. There! That should make it easier, eh? How about that as a compromise?”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Herr Doctor, if you see no purpose for yourself in complying with the bishop’s request, then perhaps you might consider the interests of the hospital.”
“With respect, Professor Gandler, I very much doubt that the fate of the hospital will be greatly affected by whether or not I apologize.”
The professor sat down in his chair and sighed.
“I am an old man, Herr Doctor. But I was young once, and thus have the advantage.
were never old. Permit me to give you some advice. Most of the battles fought in youth seem insignificant with the passing of time. When I reflect on my behavior as a young man—the arguments, the duels—I find it incomprehensible, and sometimes just foolish. I very much hope that when you reach my age, you will have fewer regrets than I do.”
The noise of the nearby typewriter filled the ensuing silence.
“Well?” said the professor.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Liebermann again, shaking his head.
“Very well,” said the chancellor curtly. “You may leave. I will convey the substance of our interview to the committee and will commend you as a man of principle. I fear, however, that this will not be enough to appease them. Good afternoon, Herr Doctor.”
T IS SAID THAT
Enoch, who became the angel Metatron, was once a humble cobbler.” Rebbe Barash looked around the room at the studious faces of the young men. “But with every stitch he not only joined the upper leather of the shoe with the sole, he also joined all higher things with all lower things. His awl conjoined heaven and earth and united the rocks and stars.” He stroked his long black beard, and his eyes became inquisitorial. “What does this mean? How are we to understand it?”
“My rebbe.” One of the young men raised his hand. “Does it mean that he undertook his daily work meditating on the divine?”
Barash’s large head rocked backward and forward. His coiled sideburns bounced, extending and contracting with the movement. He did not smile, but his heavy features communicated solemn approval.
“Indeed. Thus, even his profane actions acquired the qualities of a sacred ritual. He transformed the mundane task of repairing shoes into a spiritual exercise. And in the fullness of time, he too was transformed. We have much to learn from Enoch, the humble cobbler. Through patient and persistent application much can be achieved. And if we are to transform the world, we too must cultivate the virtues of patience and persistence.”
The zaddik paused and noted the rapt expressions on the faces of his followers.
“In the beginning,” Barash continued, “when the vessels were broken, much of the divine essence ascended back to its source. But some remained enclosed in the shards of the vessels, the substances of the material world. It is this entrapped essence that sustains all. Nothing can exist—even for a fleeting moment—without its power. If all the essence is liberated, returning to its proper place in the realm of high things, evil will have nothing on which to feed and will cease to exist. The release of divine essence separates good from evil, a process that, if continued, will lead to the end of all wickedness. Eventually everything will be in its rightful place and our work will be done. Obey the commandments, pray, observe the Sabbath, and perform acts of charity and justice. All of these will release divine essence. God alone cannot ensure the triumph of good over evil. He cannot mend what has been undone. Therefore you must be like Enoch and approach every labor as if it were an act of devotion.”
Barash clasped his big hands together and held them against his chest.
“If our enemies succeed, they not only destroy us, they destroy everything. There can be no release of divine essence, no mending, no healing. The powers of evil will grow, and the natural order of things will never be restored. The darkness that comes will be impenetrable—and final. There will be no redemption. Yet we should not despair. Our enemies are ignorant. They know nothing of our ancient wisdom, the hidden power of words and numbers. The
have used this power many times before to protect our people, and it can be used again. So let our enemies provoke us, taunt us, and spit as we pass. Let them! For the time of reckoning has come, and such a force will be unleashed against them that they will quake at the merest mention of its name.”
HEINHARDT HALTED IN ORDER
to admire the architectural peculiarities of the Turkish synagogue. Its doors were housed beneath onion-shaped arches, and its minimal decoration consisted of repeated abstract patterns. Towering above the synagogue’s terraces was a minaret with a domed roof and cusped windows. It could have easily been mistaken for a mosque had it not been for the Hebrew characters embossed over the entrance.
A noisy caravan of carts and barrows, heavily laden with crates, rattled up Zirkusgasse.
This won’t do
, thought Rheinhardt.
I have fish to catch
He remembered the conversation that he had had with Liebermann about
and, smiling, hummed a few bars of Schubert’s jaunty melody. He cut across the center of Leopoldstadt, turned right into Taborstrasse, and eventually arrived at Tandelmarktgasse.
The buildings were tall and unadorned, with raked roofs and stained plaster. They resembled oversize alpine huts. All the ground-floor apartments had been converted into shops. Rheinhardt passed two men standing in a doorway. Some of their goods had been put out on the pavement: a dented samovar, a rusty accordion, a basket containing a tea service, and a few silver candlesticks. One of the men raised his hat and called out a price for the samovar. Rheinhardt declined and hurried on.
Before reaching the market square—and only just behind the police station—Rheinhardt came to a stall selling savories. A brazier was burning, and the air smelled of cooking oil and herbs. On seeing Rheinhardt, the stallholder, a man with a thin mustache and pointed rodent features, extended his hand.
“Ah, my dear friend, good to see you.” His voice was accented and slightly nasal. “How’s life?”
As Rheinhardt shook Moni Teitel’s hand, he let go of the coins he had been holding in his palm. Teitel dropped the inducement into his apron pocket and removed a golden-brown potato latke from the brazier.
“Try this… and help yourself to the pickled cucumber. They’re very sweet.”
“Thank you,” said Rheinhardt.
“Then why such a long face? You should be a happy man. Health is a blessing, make no mistake.”
Rheinhardt bit into the latke and looked off toward the market. “So… any news?”
“There’s always news, my friend.”
“Of interest to me?”
“Possibly.” Teitel prodded the coals in the brazier with a poker. “Since that business on the Prater a few months back—you know, the boy who was killed at the rally—there’ve been rumors. There’s this zaddik—”
“This what?” Rheinhardt cut in.
“Zaddik, a preacher among the Hasidim. He’s called Barash, and they say he knew what was going to happen. They say he knew the priest was going to die.”
“Perhaps God told him. They’re fanatics, these people.”
A woman wearing a spotted scarf and carrying a small child stopped to buy some oatcakes and some pastry pillows filled with curd cheese. While she was haggling, Rheinhardt found a shop window and pretended to be interested in the display. When the woman had gone, he returned to the stall.
“Where does he live, this Barash?”
“Just round the corner.” Teitel jerked his thumb toward the market. “In the old ghetto buildings.”
“Where did you hear this?”
“My brother-in-law. He was in Zucker’s—do you know Zucker’s? One of Barash’s people was in there. They were talking about the priest, and this boy pipes up that Barash had known—weeks before it happened.”
Teitel shook his head. Rheinhardt dropped another two kronen into Teitel’s hand and said, “For the latke.”
“You’re very generous,” said Teitel. Then, raising his voice, he added, “Have you heard the one about the priest and the rabbi?”
Rheinhardt shook his head.
“A priest and a rabbi are on a train. The priest turns to the rabbi and says, ‘Is it still a requirement of your faith to not eat pork?’ And the rabbi replies, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ So the priest then says, ‘Have you ever eaten pork?’ And the rabbi says, ‘On one occasion I did succumb to temptation, and, yes, I did eat pork.’ The priest goes back to reading his book. A while later the rabbi speaks again. ‘Father,’ he says, ‘is it still a requirement of your faith to remain celibate?’ And the priest replies, ‘Yes, very much so.’ The rabbi then asks him, ‘Father, have you ever succumbed to temptation?’ And the priest replies, ‘Yes, Rabbi, on one occasion I was weak, and I succumbed.’ The rabbi nods, pauses for a moment, and then says, ‘It’s a lot better than pork, isn’t it?’”
Rheinhardt dug another krone out of his vest pocket and flicked it over the pickle jars. Its flashing trajectory was interrupted by Teitel’s fingers as he snatched it out of the air.
“You’re a gentleman, sir,” said Teitel.
“And you are a scoundrel,” said Rheinhardt, laughing to himself as he turned away.