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To survive the Holocaust, a young Jewish woman must pose as a Christian farmer’s wife in this unforgettable novel from USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Robson—a story of terror, hope, love, and sacrifice, inspired by true events, that vividly evokes the most perilous days of World War II.
28 October 1942
It was long past time to be heading home. With the help of Sandro, the nicest of the porters, Antonina had managed to get her mother into a chair, the one by the window, the comfortable one they’d brought from home, and she’d passed the time by brushing Mamma’s hair and describing what she could see in the piazza below. She knew her mother could hear and understand, for didn’t she turn to the sound of Antonina’s voice when she arrived for a visit? Didn’t she hold tight with her good hand, and squeeze her fingers when her daughter whispered that she loved her? Papà was the best doctor in Venice, besides, and he was sure that Mamma could understand them. All the more important, then, to spend as many hours as she could at her bedside.
But the campanile at San Geremia had just chimed five, and Papà would be waiting at home, and it wasn’t safe to be out alone after dark, not any more.
“I have to go home and help Marta with supper, and if I’m not there to remind him to eat, you know that Papà will keep on reading until he falls asleep at his desk. Shall I help you back to bed? Or would you like to stay here until they bring your supper?”
Mamma nodded, the movement so fleeting anyone else would have missed it, and when Antonina bent to kiss her cheek she closed her eyes and lifted her face—still unlined, still so pretty—to the last of the sun.
“I’ll be back in the morning. Try to eat up your supper when they bring it, will you?”
Her journey home took her across the still-busy piazza, through the gloom of the Sottoportego de Gheto Nova, and up and down the steps of the bridge. Then a quick turn into a narrow and darkening calle, then another, and finally, perched at the edge of the murky waters of the Rio del Gheto, the slender afterthought of their house, its facade a patchwork of crumbling ochre stucco and rosy brick. The number had faded away long ago, but they’d never felt the need to repaint it. Everyone knew to knock on the green door for Doctor Mazin and he would come, no matter the hour.
Up the stairs she ran, her shoes squeaking on the freshly mopped landing, and along the hall to her father’s study, but the sound of voices within stopped her short. He might be speaking with a patient, or writing down something important, and since she was old enough to walk she’d known never to barge in.
She knocked twice and waited for the voices to still. “Papà?”
“Come in,” came the reply, and she opened the door to discover her father was not at his desk but at the table by the window, and next to him was one of his oldest friends.
“Father Bernardi! Papà didn’t tell me you were visiting—it has been months and months.”
He stood, a little creakily, and shook her hand. “I know, my dear, and I am sorry for it. Your father was telling me that you were visiting your mother. How is she?”
“The same as ever, I suppose, but happy. At least I hope she is. And you?”
“I am well enough. Weary of travel, and longing for my own bed, but that’s the worst of it.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Hasn’t Marta brought you anything?” she asked dutifully, though she doubted they had anything worth sharing with guests.
“I only arrived a few minutes ago, and you know how your father and I are when we get talking. But wait a moment—I have something for you.”
He reached for the overcoat he’d slung over the back of his chair, pulling it across his lap until he could rummage in its pockets, and after a few moments held up a small packet wrapped in newspaper. An impossibly delicious scent filled the air. “From friends who live abroad,” he explained.
“Coffee. Oh, Father Bernardi. You are so kind. Let me dig out our caffettiera. I won’t be long.”
She was standing on a chair, searching through the top shelves of the pantry cupboard, when Marta reappeared.
“What are you doing up there?”
“Looking for the coffee maker. Father Bernardi is visiting. We haven’t had coffee since his last visit, and that was months ago.”
Marta sighed. Typical of her sighs, it was drawn-out, mournful, and vibrating with resentment. “It will get people talking. A Catholic priest, of all people, coming to visit. How your father even knows the man…”
“He’s been a patient of Papà’s for years and years, and his friend, too. And Papà always has people coming and going. I doubt anyone will care.”
Her fingers closed around the worn aluminum of the caffettiera, dusty from disuse, and pulled it from its hiding place. “Where’s the grinder?”
“In the next cupboard over.”
“Do we have any sugar for the coffee?”
“A little. You know, if your father had bothered to tell me he was expecting someone I’d have made my bissetti. He really only has himself to blame,” Marta grumbled.
Delicious as the bissetti were, Marta couldn’t possible have made the cookies. There was hardly any flour in the pantry, no lemon, barely enough sugar to sweeten the coffee, and they hadn’t seen a fresh egg in months. But pointing it out would only lead to more sighs.
Instead, Antonina washed out the pot and set about grinding the barest handful of beans, so precious and rare they might as well have been gilded. There was just enough in the little drawer of the grinder, once she’d chased out every clinging speck, to make two small cups of coffee, hardly more than a mouthful each. She’d reuse the grounds for herself and Marta, for even watered-down coffee tasted better than the caffè d’orzo made of roasted barley that some told themselves was as good as the real thing.
It was enough, for now, to smell the coffee as it brewed, as she divided it between the prettily decorated porcelain cups her parents had bought in Florence on their honeymoon, as she set them and the sugar bowl on a tray and hurried back to her father’s study. The smell was the best thing about coffee, after all. And it was only so tantalizing because she was hungry. Once she’d had her supper she wouldn’t notice it as much.
The men were so intent on their conversation they didn’t look up when she entered, and it would never do to interrupt. So she went about sugaring the coffee, setting the cups at their elbows, and taking her seat at a twin of her mother’s chair at the casa.
Her father spared her a smile, and he drank down his coffee appreciatively, but his attention remained fixed on his friend.
“This city, these few islands, are the nearest thing we Jews have to a promised land in Europe. We have lived here unmolested for centuries, yet you suggest that we abandon it. And
for what?” her father asked, his voice rising. “The dubious welcome the Spanish might offer us? A panicked trek through the mountains before the Swiss turn us back?”
“If you had listened to me when they first barred you from your work, from your profession—”
“I belong nowhere else. I am as Italian as you. I was born here. I speak no other language. What would become of me—of my family? Of my patients? And the Fascists have made no move against us beyond the racial laws.”
“You speak of those laws as if they are something one might expect within the bounds of normal civil society, but they stripped you and every Jew I know of his profession. No—don’t frown at me like that. Look at what they did to dear Dr. Jono. The man is well into his seventies, had retired years ago, yet still they removed his name from the register of physicians. His professorship at the university—gone, too. All he has left is his presidency of your Jewish community here, and that’s hardly more than a formality.”
“The laws are noxious. On that, my dear Giulio, we agree. But I have found a way to exist, just as we have always done.” Her father leaned forward, his hands clasped so tightly his fingertips had gone white, and his voice faded to a whisper. “You know the tide is turning. It has been since the defeat at El Alamein.”
“If it is indeed turning, it is far too slow for my liking. And in the meantime, Il Duce grows weaker, the Germans grow ever bolder, and we wait for the ax to fall. And it will fall, for it’s only a matter of time before they seize power here. Just as they did with Austria. With the rest of Europe, for that matter. And what then?” Father Bernardi asked, his affable voice sharpening into solemnity. “Only think: what if they were in power here? What would prevent them from rounding you up, just as they’re doing with the Jews of Germany, of Poland, of
“And if I were to leave with Antonina, make the journey to Switzerland, what would become of my Devora? She cannot travel. You know that. And you know I will not leave her. Not as long as there is breath in my body. Bad enough that she must live in the rest home.”
Her father wrenched off his spectacles and set about polishing them with a crumpled handkerchief, and from the way he pressed his lips together and pinched at the bridge of his nose Antonina could tell he was fighting off tears. Just as he always did when he spoke of her mother, the stroke that had left her so weakened, and the agonizing decision to move her to the rest home earlier that year.
It was a good thing, she decided, that she hadn’t allowed herself any of the coffee, for even the idea of abandoning her mother was enough to tighten her throat and turn her empty stomach upside down.
Her father was quick to notice her distress. “Don’t look so alarmed. We are safe enough here. Aren’t we?” he asked Father Bernardi, and it seemed to Antonina that his eyes, as he looked to his friend, held a warning of some kind. But was it to be truthful? Or to be kind?
The priest nodded, but his gentle smile didn’t convince her. “For the moment, yes,” the priest said. “But do not forget what we—”
“I won’t,” her father interrupted. “I promise I won’t forget.”
“Well, then. I ought to be on my way. I had only meant to stop by for a minute or two.” Father Bernardi stood, took a moment to find his balance, and then shook hands with her father. “Thank you for your hospitality.” Turning to Antonina, he grasped her outstretched hand in both of his. “I shall pray for your mother, my dear.”
“Thank you, Father Bernardi. I wish you safe travels.”
While her father said goodbye to his friend, she busied herself with collecting the coffee cups and tray and returning them to the kitchen. Rather than leave the cups to Marta, who had broken all but three of the set over the years, she painstakingly washed and dried and put them away. Only after the other woman, still grumbling about the annoyance and inconvenience of the priest’s visit, had begun to prepare their supper did Antonina return to the study.
Her father was sitting in the chair he had occupied earlier, and he now beckoned her forward. “Come and sit with me. Were you happy to see Father Bernardi again?”
“I was happy to see him, but…well. Things are difficult, as you know. He risks a great deal in coming here.”
“You were upset earlier. When I came in with the coffee.”
“I was, but not with him. You know we’ve always relished a lively discussion. But I do regret…”
“What is it?” she pressed, and it was impossible to keep the fear from her voice.
He reached out to grasp her hand. As if he needed the reassurance of her presence. “I meant what I said, earlier, about belonging nowhere else. And I can bear it, you know—these slights and these difficulties. So long as I may call myself a Venetian. An Italian. But I do regret that your life has become so confined. I had hoped, once, that you might go to university.”
“You—” she began, but the words caught in her throat, choking her. She swallowed hard, waited a moment, and tried again. “You never said. I never knew that you had wanted such a thing for me.”
She’d been working her way through his textbooks for years, careful never to let him know, and not because she thought he’d disapprove. He’d always been so proud of her, and once
he’d loved nothing more than to discuss her lessons and help with her schoolwork. But the racial laws of 1938 had expelled her and every other Jewish student in Italy from school, and when her father had told her of it he had broken down and wept, and it was the first time Antonina had ever seen him cry. So she had decided that it would be far kinder to simply borrow his books and memorize as much as she could, and then, one day, when she was allowed to go to school again, she would be ready.
“Of course I did. I still do. A bright girl like you belongs in university, not spending your days in the rest home, or queuing up for bread or oil, or—”
“The war won’t last forever. I might still go to school once it ends.”
“You might,” he admitted. “Or perhaps…perhaps I might teach you some of what I know. As if you were one of my students in Padua. I don’t miss those long hours on the train on my teaching days, but I do miss my students. And I think you would make a very good doctor. Do you think…?”
“I would love nothing more,” she promised, blinking hard. It was silly to cry over something that was good.
“We’ll be constrained by our circumstances. It will be far from a comprehensive education, but I can give you an idea, if nothing more, of what medicine is like. If it’s something that suits you.”
“When can we start?”
“I know you’ve been reading through my library for years, so I suspect you’re well on your way.”
“You noticed?” she asked, though she ought not to have been surprised. It wasn’t as if she had hidden what she was doing.
“Of course I did. And perhaps I ought to have said something. Encouraged you in your studies. Still…books can only teach you so much. You’ll learn more by coming with me on some of my visits. I’ll ask permission, of course, but I think most of my patients will be content to have you present. And it will be helpful to have an extra pair of hands.”
“So I will watch you as you work?”
“Yes. You will watch, and in time you will learn how to see. You will listen, and then you will learn how to hear. And that, my darling girl, is how a doctor is made.”