As told by Rebecca
This picture of Rebecca and Danilo as teens was given to me by childhood friends and it is possible that a mistake was made regarding the identity. I have no way of checking it out and if anyone recognizes either of them, and thinks that this is the wrong person, please let me know and I will immediately remove the picture.
Separating from Danilo was the worst part. We grew up together in our little village, our houses stood side by side and our parents were best friends. We thought of ourselves as brother and sister. Each day we played in our adjoining yards, creating our own little world of magic. I remember the scent of snow in winter, the clean earth and growing herbs in spring and summer. Our childhood was so good, so secure. At the time it was enough, more than enough. Who would have thought we could fall in love, too? But that is exactly what happened. When Danilo and I reached our teens, he was sent to the Gymnasium in Odessa, and I stayed at the local school. We only saw each other on vacations and soon enough realized how we really felt about each other.
As World War I started our peaceful little world came to a sudden end. Danilo’s father, a doctor, was drafted into the army. His mother, unable to support Danilo and the two younger children, moved in with relatives in another town, I now forget which, it was so long ago. I cried and cried for a whole week when they left, but they promised to keep in touch and for a while we did exchange letters. My parents tried to comfort me, but I only cheered up when I received a letter. Even that did not last long, and all communications stopped. “It is war,” my parents explained. “You cannot rely on the post office.”
We experienced hardship through the war, but I don’t want to talk about it. My parents did their best, and my sister and I helped as much as we could. The one good thing was that my father, also a doctor like Danilo’s father, was never drafted. By 1919, after the war was over, my parents managed to get the proper papers, and decided the time was right to immigrate to Israel, where we had some cousins living in Jerusalem. I would have loved the idea of the journey, except for knowing that I would never find Danilo. I sat by my window for an hour or so after my father made the announcement and gazed at the sunset. The cold green sky deepened my sense of loneliness. I knew that I could not find Danilo in Russia, either, we had tried again and again, but to leave Russia was to accept the fact that I will never see him.
Our trip was harrowing; we encountered filthy, flea-infested trains, constant threat of disease, hunger, and real danger at every border. I won’t go into details; the journey is another story which should be saved for another time. After traveling a year or so we finally arrived, got an apartment in Jerusalem, and lived in reasonable comfort. My sister became a midwife, like my mother, and I became a teacher. My father quickly found work at the hospital and so did my mother.
I was now in my mid-twenties. In those days girls were expected to be married at that age. Not only was I pressured to do so, I must admit that I wanted a family of my own, a home, and children, very much indeed. My sister married quickly – she met a very nice young man whom we all loved – and she and I had a talk about it. She said, “I understand that you still love Danilo, Rebecca.”
“I do,” I admitted.
“However, most likely he is dead. Even if he were alive, he probably assumed long ago that you were dead and very likely got married. You can’t mourn your entire life for what might have been, you know. Marry, have a family, and forget.” I had to admit that she gave me good advice, and I started dating.
As time went by I found myself attracted to a young man named Saul who was well established in his father’s business, an accounting firm. He was handsome and intelligent, and when he asked me to marry him I accepted. I knew I would never forget Danilo, but I was determined to be a good wife to Saul and hopefully, some day, a good mother.
We were married for fifteen years and had three wonderful children when one day I was walking home from work. I was a little tired and somehow I bumped into a man who was walking toward me. Looking up to apologize, I saw Danilo! We stood gaping at each other in disbelief. Both of us alive, both of us in Jerusalem! How could that be? We cried, but with happiness. Knowing that we both survived was enough to make us happy.
Eventually we went to a café to talk and compare stories. He told me that he was married too, and had two children.
“It’s very sad, Rebecca,” he told me. “My wife, Dorothea, is not well. She is living in a mental institution. I try my best to help her and to give her everything she needs, but she will never recover.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ll tell you my sad truth, too. My husband is an alcoholic. He is not a bad man, but when he drinks he is occasionally violent. Bringing up three children under the roof of an alcoholic was not easy. He is better now, under special care, but his liver is not well.”
“So you all live in Jerusalem, Rebecca?”
“Yes, we do. How about you?”
“I live here with the children. Dorothea’s hospital is in Tel-Aviv. I go there twice a week.”
We sat and reflected of how sad life could be. But meeting each other was a joy, and we could be good friends again. We stopped by Danilo’s home, got his children, and I brought them all home with me. I introduced Danilo to Saul as my “long lost brother” and we had a pleasant dinner. I made up my mind to help Danilo as best I could with his teen-age children, since he was alone, and never to seek anything other than friendship. I will be his sister, just the way I was when we were little children. I didn’t know what Danilo thought about the matter, but we both behaved, from then on, as brother and sister.
The years passed. I had visited Dorothea from time to time and did as much as I could for her, and she liked me. She would smile when I came into her room, the poor thing. I always brought her a little gift and she loved that. Eventually she died, very peacefully. Danilo’s children did very well and were now on their own, as were mine. At the same time, Saul became sicker and sicker. He could not control his drinking, no matter what we had attempted, and his liver finally gave up. One summer morning he asked me to forgive the sorrow he brought me and passed away. I was fifty-nine years old.
Of course, my friendship with Danilo never stopped. We saw each other all the time, we were family. Our children were like cousins. And yet I knew that I had never really stopped loving him. I was a good and faithful wife to Saul, but I had never loved anyone but Danilo. I did not know how he felt about me, and naturally I was not about to ask. We never talked about our feelings, and everything seemed so complicated, so difficult. Then one day, about a year after Saul’s death, we sat together in a café, drinking tea and talking about nothing special. Suddenly Danilo put his cup down and shocked me by saying, without any warning, “Rebecca, why shouldn’t we get married? We never talked about it, but you know we have never stopped loving each other all these years. We have fulfilled all our obligations. What is to stop us?” Suddenly everything seemed so simple, so beautiful. Indeed, what was there to stop us? What were the complications I was envisioning? The children were grown, Dorothea and Saul died peacefully, well looked after. We were free. I started crying, but with joy.
So we made our plans, quietly, without telling anyone what we had in mind. One day in spring we threw a huge party and invited everyone, children, friends, relatives. It was a lovely party with wonderful food and everybody was having a good time. In the middle of the party Danilo climbed on a chair and cried “Ladies and gentlemen – I have an announcement!” Everyone raised their heads in anticipation. They knew we were “dating” and indeed expected us to announce our engagement. Instead, Danilo said, “You should all know that yesterday Rebecca and I eloped and were secretly married! Let’s all have a glass of champagne!”
The entire room became completely silent with surprise. Suddenly a huge applause broke out and the guests were laughing and clapping, congratulating us on both our marriage and our sneakiness. And we are still very happy together – life is good!