Fabiansk turned its back on the distraught Jewish couple. There were no Jews in Fabiansk to whom they could turn, and the surly Polish burghers were not interested in their problem. They did not have enough money to hire a search party. Their desperate pleas for sympathy and humanity fell on deaf ears. Their hope, their very vitality, began to drain away as they realized the futility of their efforts. All they had left were their tears. Sorrow and despair engulfed them.
There was nothing to be gained from staying in Fabiansk any longer. The Rebbetzin wanted to return home, but Reb Mendel insisted that they continue their journey to Krakow. Perhaps Reb Zalman could help them find Shloimele. It was a glimmer of hope, a straw, and they grasped it.
The next morning, they hired a new driver and ordered him to head for Krakow at top speed. The new driver loaded their luggage into the coach, and they set out. Along the way, Reb Mendel’s eye settled on the priest’s packet. He had completely forgotten about it until now. He stared at the packet for a long time, his brows furrowed in deep concentration.
“You know,” he said to the Rebbetzin. “I think I’m beginning to understand what happened. Mzlateslavski is responsible for all of this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think he had no intention of influencing Shloimele by frequent visits. All along he intended to snatch Shloimele away from us completely. He refused to let such a phenomenal child remain among the Jews. He wanted Shloimele from the first time he heard of him.”
“But how does that explain the packet?”
“It’s really quite simple. He hired a band of ruffians to abduct Shloimele when we passed through this bandit infested area. But how was he going to identify us to these ruffians who had never seen us? How could he be sure he would get the right child?”
The Rebbetzin nodded. “I’m beginning to understand that blackguard’s devious scheme.”
“You see, don’t you?” continued Reb Mendel. “He sent along this very unusual packet, and he insisted that we carry it in and out with us whenever we stopped. Then he sent a description of the packet to the ruffians he hired. That way they could check to make sure they had the right victim. He filled the packet with blank papers to give it some weight. He was sure I wouldn’t untie it to look inside, but he never suspected that Shloimele would open it and we would find out his scheme. If not for that, how would we have seen the connection between him and what happened here?”
“I’m sure you’re right, Mendel. He probably got an evil pleasure out of making you an unwitting accomplice to the abduction of your own son. What a horrible person!”
“If only I had realized the meaning of the blank sheets, perhaps Shloimele would still be with us,” said Reb Mendel, the words choking in his throat.
“Please, Mendel, don’t blame yourself. Certainly, we were worried about what Mzlateslavski was up to, but something as monstrous and inhuman like this? How can we be blamed for not suspecting? Come, Mendel, let us not dwell on what could have been but on what we should do now. We know who is responsible and how he did his evil deed. What can we do about it now?”
“There must be something we can do, only I can’t think of anything right now. The wound in my heart is much too painful for me to think clearly. Let’s wait until we talk this over with Reb Zalman. Maybe Hashem will take pity on us and send us the answer through Reb Zalman.”
On Friday morning, they reached the outskirts of Krakow. As they entered Kasimierz they found it in an uproar. The roadside was packed with men, women and children. People were weeping openly in the streets. Reb Mendel stopped the coach and got out.
“What’s going on here?” he asked an old man.
The old man turned a tearstained face to Reb Mendel.
“Haven’t you heard?” he asked. “The holy sage Reb Zalman Mintzer passed away last night. The funeral procession will pass this way very soon.”
Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin were devastated. Their last glimmer of hope had been extinguished. Heartbroken and emotionally exhausted, they decided to stay on in Krakow for a little while.
They took rooms in the inn at which they had stayed four years before. The Rebbetzin stayed in the room and continued knitting the little sweater she had been making for Shloimele. Although in her heart she knew that it was very unlikely that she would ever see him again, it was her way of making herself hope that she would still find her beloved child. Reb Mendel went off to learn in the big synagogue.
Reb Mendel took a volume of the Talmud and sat down at a small table in back of the synagogue. There was hardly anyone else there. It was Friday afternoon, and most people were busy preparing for the Shabbath. Reb Mendel blinked away the tears that gathered in his eyes and concentrated on the pages in front of him. After a while, he became completely engrossed in the fascinating intricacies of the Gemara. He forgot about his pain and his sorrow. His thoughts were empty of everything but the holy words of the Talmud. For that moment, nothing existed in the entire universe except for Hashem, His Torah and Reb Mendel.
Someone was shaking Reb Mendel by the shoulder. Reb Mendel was pulled out of the world to which he had transported himself, the world in which he had finally found peace of mind. He looked up to see who it was. It was a middle aged heavy set man with kindness in his eyes.
“Reb Yid! Reb Yid!” he was saying. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” said Reb Mendel. “Why do you ask?”
“You look so pale and drawn. Have you eaten today?”
“No,” said Reb Mendel. He had entirely forgotten about food. He would eat something when he returned to the inn.
“Then why don’t you come by my house and let me give you something to eat?” said the man kindly.
“Oh! You are mistaken,” said Reb Mendel. “I am not a pauper. I have money for food. I simply forgot to eat today.”
“Then you must have a lot on your mind and you must certainly come by my house. We can talk while you eat. You’ll feel better if you unburden your heart. Sometimes, it’s easier to talk yourself out to a stranger than to a close friend.”
“Thank you for your kind offer,” said Reb Mendel. “Are Jews ever strangers to each other?”
The man smiled. “Indeed they are not. Let me introduce myself. My name is Chaim Tomashov. I am a cattle merchant here in Krakow. And you?”
“I am Mendel . . . From far away.”
“You needn’t tell me who you are. Mendel is more than enough. Will you accept my hospitality?”
“I would like to, but my wife is waiting for me at the inn. I see that the sun is already low in the sky. I must go help her prepare for Shabbath.”
“Were you intending to spend the Shabbath at the inn?”
“It’s really quite a nice place,” said Reb Mendel.
““I won’t hear of it,” said Chaim Tomashov. “You and your wife will be my guests for Shabbath and as long as you stay in this great city. Don’t even bother to protest. It won’t do you any good.”
“You do me great honor,” said Reb Mendel. “I am very grateful.”
“You prepare the things you’ll need for the Shabbath. I will send someone around shortly to direct you to my home.”
When Reb Mendel returned to the inn he found that the Rebbetzin had fallen into an exhausted, fitful sleep. He woke her gently and told her of Chaim Tomashov’s invitation.
At first, she protested that she would rather be alone; she simply wasn’t up to meeting new people and making conversation. But Reb Mendel insisted. Would it be better to sit by themselves in the inn all Shabbath, brooding and crying? Was that a way to spend Shabbath? Although only half convinced, she agreed to go for his sake. They packed their belongings, and just as they were finishing, a messenger from Chaim Tomashov’s household came to bring them along. On his way out, Reb Mendel noticed the scarlet packet the priest had given him. He took it along.
Chaim Tomashov lived in a big, rambling house with his wife and seven children. His wife was a pleasant, warmhearted woman. She bustled about making her guests comfortable. The warmth and vitality of the Tomashov household seemed to have a tonic effect on Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin.
The Shabbath came. The sound of the songs and the aroma of the foods filled the air. The conversation grew solemn as they discussed the great sage Reb Zalman Mintzer. Stories were told of his exceptional compassion for all Jewish people and of how he was sometimes able to intervene before the Heavenly Court on behalf of a troubled Jew. Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin did not mention that they had once met Reb Zalman. They tried to put their troubles out of their minds and focus on the holiness of the Shabbath. They rested and recuperated in the warm atmosphere of the Tomashov home.
After the Shabbath, Chaim Tomashov called Reb Mendel into his private study.
“Mendel,” he said. “You look much better. Do you feel as good as you look?”
“My body may be healing,” he replied, “but my heart remains broken.”
“Mendel, I am sure that the Shabbath has eased your pain a little bit. I think I would like to know who my guest is. At least tell me from where you have come.”
“Forgive me, Reb Chaim,” Reb Mendel replied. “I was not trying to be deliberately mysterious. It’s only that we wanted to be alone with our sorrow. Shabbath with you and your family has revived our spirits, and we are eternally grateful. My name is Mendel Pulichever. I am from Pulichev, a town far to the west, not far from Lvov.”
A look of delight spread over Chaim Tomashov’s face.
“Can it be that you are the famous young Rabbi of Pulichev?” he asked.
Reb Mendel shrugged modestly.
“What an honor I had this Shabbath and I didn’t even know it!” Chaim Tomashov exclaimed. “And you’re the father of the wonderful Shloimele whom Reb Zalman . . .”
The look of anguish that crossed Reb Mendel’s face stopped Chaim Tomashov midsentence.
“Shloimele is gone,” sobbed Reb Mendel. “He was taken by bandits on the road to Krakow.”
“I am so sorry,” he said softly. “Would you like to tell me about it, Reb Mendel? I have a lot of influence and many connections in this whole region. There might me some way I could help you.”
Reb Mendel sighed. “You are a kind and compassionate man. If you want to listen to my story I will tell it to you. It all began a little over four years ago . . .”
Chaim Tomashov sat perfectly still as he listened to Reb Mendel’s story with rapt attention. His eyes never left Reb Mendel’s face.
When Reb Mendel finished, Chaim Tomashov asked him some questions about various details of the story. He was particularly interested in Zbigniew Mzlateslavski. He asked to see the scarlet packet and examined it very closely.
Finally, he said, “Reb Mendel, there is no doubt in my mind that your evaluation of the facts is correct. I am sure that this priest is behind the abduction. It seems to me that you have a slight advantage in that you know of his involvement, but he doesn’t know that you know. You must deliver the packet to the address he gave you so that he will not suspect that you know his game. Do this as soon as possible.”
“How will this help me get my son back?”
“I don’t know, Reb Mendel. But I do know that if he discovers that you are on to him he will be on his guard. Let me give the matter some thought and discuss it with some people I know. We’ll talk some more tomorrow. It’s very late already. We had better get some sleep.”
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