Chapter 5          The Scarlet Packet
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Chapter Five

The Scarlet Packet

No further avenues were left to explore. It had become clear that they were unlikely to find Shloimele ever again. He would grow up with some rich family in a foreign land, not knowing that he was a Jew. At least no harm had come to him, Reb Mendel consoled himself. Heartbroken and bereft of all hope, Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin decided to return to Pulichev.

“Reb Mendel,” said Chaim Tomashov when they were alone. “Do you still have the scarlet packet in your possession?”

“Yes, I do,” he replied in a puzzled voice.

“Before you return to Pulichev, I want you to leave it with me. In fact, I will have my driver take it right now to the address Mzlateslavski gave you.”

“What good will that do?” asked Reb Mendel.

“I am not sure, Reb Mendel. I just think that if there is even the slightest glimmer of hope of our ever finding Shloimele it is of the utmost importance to beware of the priest. He must not know that you are on to him. When he hears that you delivered the packet he will be sure you suspect nothing.”

“I still don’t see how that will help. How will I ever get him to admit he knows where Shloimele is? How will I ever get him to return my child to me?”

“I don’t know, Reb Mendel. I just have a feeling that it is very important.”

“Very well, I will go by your instincts. Besides, it certainly can’t do any harm to deliver it.”

“Good. I will also see if I can find out anything further from Boris Gopurok, although I think it highly improbable that I will be successful. He knows a lot of valuable information. There must be some way it can be of use to us.” Chaim Tomashov paused, drumming his fingers on the tabletop before he continued. “You know, of course, that he lied to us.”

“Well, it was quite obvious. But it was also obvious that if you accuse him of lying he will kill you. I beg you, Reb Chaim, don’t put your life in danger.”

“Don’t worry, Reb Mendel. I don’t intend to accuse him directly. I am sure that he knows what happened to Shloimele, who Mzlateslavski is and that Mzlateslavski is behind the whole thing. I do believe him, though, that he himself did not participate in the abduction.”

“Why did he let us come to him in the cave if he intended to lie to us?”

“You have to understand that he will not stick his neck out for us by turning on a priest. For all his bluster, Boris Gopurok is still an ordinary superstitious Polish peasant. The very sight of a priest frightens him, and he is absolutely terrified of their curses. But still, he owed me a debt of gratitude. By reassuring us that the child is unharmed and well taken care of he has settled his account. At least in his opinion.”

“I see. Reb Chaim, I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to you for all the trouble you’ve taken on our behalf. Especially the fact that you’ve used up the debt Boris Gopurok owed you. I’m sure you could have gained very much from the collection of that debt. May Hashem repay you for your kindness.”

“Ay, Reb Mendel,” Chaim Tomashov said in embarrassment. “It is my great honor to do what I can to help any Jew, especially someone such as you. As for my account with Gopurok, what better way to use such a credit than to fulfill the commandment of ransoming captives. My only regret is that we were not successful in finding your son.”

Reb Mendel nodded gravely.

“If only all Jews had your attitude towards life, Reb Chaim, we would all be better off.”

On the morning of their departure, Chaim Tomashov called Reb Mendel to a side.

“Reb Mendel,” he said, “I have the greatest respect for you as a great Torah scholar, while I myself am just a simple Jew. Who am I to give you advice? Still I would feel neglectful if I didn’t speak. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” said Reb Mendel. “By all means, tell me what is on your mind. I know you have only my interest at heart. I value your opinion.”

“Reb Mendel, we have to face reality. It does not seem likely you will find Shloimele anytime soon, if ever again. It would be a terrible, terrible tragedy for anyone, but for you it is more. It is a trial. A test from Heaven. How will you react to it? What is that going to do to you and the Rebbetzin? Will it make you depressed and withdrawn?

“Remind yourself of the words Reb Zalman said to you, as you told them to me. He asked you what you would say if the way to serve Hashem was by not having children. And he told you to be thankful for whatever the Master of the Universe chooses to give you.

“Think of who you are, Reb Mendel. Think of your position. People look up to you. You must set an example for them. Maybe the Master of the Universe sent you this heavenly child and then took him away so that you will be able to bring honor to His Name. You must show people that although the light of your life was taken away your devotion to the Master of the Universe and His Torah is not diminished. You must not let this tragedy destroy all the wonderful things you and the Rebbetzin have accomplished with your lives. Do not give in to despair. There is a great deal left for you to accomplish.

“That is what I have to say, Reb Mendel. Forgive me for speaking this way.”

Reb Mendel was overcome with emotion. He embraced Chaim Tomashov.

“Farewell, my good friend,” he said. “May we meet again on joyous occasions.”

The long journey back to Pulichev was a particularly difficult one for Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin. Autumn had long since passed, and winter held Poland in its icy grip. Drifts of snow made the roads almost impassable. Horses tired easily and had to be rested often. Travelers shivered under layer upon layer of blankets. And there was no joy or hope or excitement in their hearts to ease the hardships of the road. Only sadness and memories. After three long and grueling weeks they returned home.

News of the tragedy had reached Pulichev long before the return of Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin. People had fasted and prayed. Their hearts had gone out to the little boy who had been wrenched from the loving embrace of his parents and, yes, from the loving embrace of all the Jewish people of Pulichev. But even more, their hearts had gone out to their beloved Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin whose lives, illuminated by the joy of Shloimele’s presence, had now been plunged into darkness. All of Pulichev now lived in the shadows of that darkness.

When word reached Pulichev that Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin were only hours away from the city crowds began to gather in the street near their house. They waited patiently in the bitter cold, the cloudy vapor of their mingled breath swept away by the wind.

It was late afternoon when the coach carrying Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin arrived in Pulichev. The clatter of its wheels was muffled by the snow as it passed the synagogue and turned into the street where they lived. Hundreds of people stood in front of the house, completely blocking the street. They surged forward and pressed against the coach. Words of sympathy and bereavement were murmured solemnly. Hands reached out to touch, to reassure, to convey the deep concern and compassion that could not find expression in words alone. Many people were weeping openly.

Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin were very touched by this outpouring of genuine emotion. The knowledge that the people of Pulichev shared their pain and sorrow made it easier to bear.

The next few days, Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin were fully occupied with picking up the threads of their interrupted lives. They had been away a very long time, and their absence had been felt.

Poor people had reminisced wistfully about the previous winter when they had enjoyed the food and shelter of the Rebbetzin’s hospitality. Major decisions about community affairs had been put off until the Rabbi would return and express his views. Personal disputes awaited his mediation. Questions of Halachah awaited his rulings.

One morning, several days after their return, Reb Mendel was sitting in his study engrossed in composing a complicated legal ruling when he was told that he had a visitor. It was Zbigniew Mzlateslavski.

Reb Mendel did not want to meet with the priest, especially not in the study among the sefarim. However, he recalled the advice of Chaim Tomashov. The priest must not suspect that Reb Mendel knew of his involvement in Shloimele’s disappearance. Wearily, he rose from his chair and went out to meet with the priest.

“Good morning,” the priest greeted Reb Mendel.

The priest extended his hand, and Reb Mendel took it reluctantly.

“Good morning,” he replied.

“I was shocked to hear of your terrible misfortune,” continued the priest. “I have come to express my deepest sympathy and to offer my condolences to you and your wife. I know how you must feel. If there is anything I can do please don’t hesitate to call upon me.”

The priest’s face was creased into an expression of anguish. His voice trembled with pity and compassion. But his eyes gave him away. His eyes were flat and expressionless, except for a hint of mocking arrogance. Reb Mendel wanted to grab him and shake him. He wanted to cry our to him, Where is my son? What have you done with him? To whom have you sold him? But he knew that to do so would be worse than useless. The priest would never admit what he had done. He would only be alerted to be on his guard.

“You are very kind,” said Reb Mendel, restraining himself with an effort. “I appreciate your offer, but I am afraid there is nothing anyone can do.”

“It’s such a tragedy,” continued the priest. “Such a terrible tragedy. I shudder when I think of it. They say it happened near Fabiansk. Is that so?”


“That is a rough region. Everyone knows that it is risky to travel on those roads. Infested with bandits.”

“Are you familiar with Fabiansk?”

“Not really. I’ve passed through there on my way to Krakow, but I’ve never stopped there. Fabiansk is notorious. Everyone knows that.”

Reb Mendel was silent. The conversation was draining him emotionally. The priest went on.

“Such a golden child! It is little wonder that the bandits would want to abduct him. Such a child would surely fetch a kingly sum from some wealthy noble family. I think it is a fair assumption that this is what they were after. If this is indeed the case, at least you can rest assured that the child will be brought up with every advantage in the world. He will never be lacking for anything.”

“Only his parents and his people.”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” said the priest hastily. “It is certainly a terrible loss for the child to be torn away from his own kind. I only meant that at least there is reasonable hope he will not suffer physically. It is unfortunate that you misunderstood my words and took offense.”

“By the way,” said Reb Mendel, changing the subject. “I had my driver deliver your packet to the address in Krakow you gave me. He told them it was very important that it be brought to the Cardinal as soon as possible. They assured him that the Cardinal would get it right away.”

For a moment, the priest looked confused, but he quickly recovered his composure.

“I am very grateful to you. When I heard what had happened I thought you would surely forget about such a minor matter as the delivery of the packet. You are truly a remarkable and conscientious man, rabbi. Truly remarkable. Your people must be very proud of you.”

“There is really nothing remarkable about what I did. First of all, I did not think it was such a minor matter. If you recall, you had impressed upon me how very, very important it was. Besides, I actually did forget about delivering it until much later, when things had calmed down a bit.”

“When I called it minor I only meant in comparison to your own concerns. It was of considerable importance to me, and I am most grateful to you.”

The priest rose to leave.

“Please convey my sympathies to your gracious wife,” he said. He made no effort to conceal his obvious eagerness to leave.

“I shall,” said Reb Mendel.

The priest bowed slightly and left. When he returned to the monastery he sat down at his desk and was soon lost in deep thought.

He had not expected the packet to be delivered to the Cardinal. The Cardinal would surely think it odd that Zbigniew Mzlateslavski, an obscure priest he barely knew, would send him a packet filled with blank sheets. It would not sit well with him; he might think he was being mocked. Something had to be done immediately.

The priest looked about him. His eye fell on a beautifully bound volume lying on a table. It was an atlas of medieval Europe, a very precious book, one of his most prized possessions. The priest looked at it lovingly. He sighed. What else could he do? There was no other choice.

He dipped his pen in the inkwell and started to write a letter to the Cardinal.

He was an admirer of the Cardinal, he wrote, and had wanted to send him a gift. A sheaf of blank paper had inadvertently been substituted for the gift. Would His Eminence please accept the gift and his apologies?

He slipped the letter inside the cover of the atlas and wrapped it up. He took one last look at the package before he called for a courier and sent it off immediately.

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