In 1920, Eli and Morris left their little brother Julius in Budapest with some cousins. There is nothing in any Zip’s Candies record or family story with details about what provisions, if any, they made for him. Did they feel guilty about Julius, abandoned at the last moment with the Fischer family, barely-known second cousins on their mother’s side? Or did they put him out of their minds completely as they sailed away, leaving him behind along with everything else that was familiar? He was fourteen years old, their parents had died just a few months earlier in an influenza epidemic (first one, then the other), and the brothers had promised their mother they would stay together. Now his two older brothers had foisted him on strangers who lived over a shop in a strange, bustling city, nothing like the small village, two day’s walking distance from Budapest, where the Czaplinskys had been rooted for generations selling live poultry in the market square.
Did Eli and Morris miss him, as they began their new lives in America? Did they think of him and wonder how he was managing, as they ate their meals, as they tried to get used to the bland American flavors he might have enjoyed, or despised? Did they wonder if that sour-looking Aunt Borbála ever give their little Julesy any sweet treats, a kiss goodnight, did she ever crack that ferbissenah punim to give him so much as a smile? Was he in school or had the Fischers put him straight to work in their dry goods business? Surely Eli and Morris had made promises to send for him when they could. Did they try to write to Julius, to Aunt Borbála? Did they think of sending money?
If Morris hadn’t died in the 1921 diphtheria epidemic that swept New York, perhaps the brothers would have saved up enough money for his passage. What then? The joyful arrival of young Julius after those terrible but mercifully few years of separation, and after that, perhaps the three reunited brothers would have gone into business together. And who can say, Czaplinsky Brothers Candy might have been very successful, even without “Little Black Sambo” for inspiration, and their sweets could have been delightfully appealing to young and old, and their business might have flourished, not only rivaling the likes of the now-vanished D. Auerbach & Sons, Peaks Mason Mints, or W. P. Chase in those halcyon years of candy manufacturing in New York City, but perhaps even outlasting them, swallowing them up, growing bigger and bigger. Who can say if the synergistic energy of the three brothers might have made Czaplinsky a household name, maybe the third big name in American candy, after Hershey and Mars.
But of course, that never happened.
* * *
Here’s what I imagine did happen. (Yes, these are my perceptions. These are necessarily my interpretations of these events. But I have a far deeper engagement with these people and their story, and a far greater accumulation of knowledge and ability to interpret and understand available information, than does any other living Ziplinsky. Does anyone have a more authentic or plausible version of this story? If so, let’s hear it!)
Julius was grudgingly taken into the Fischer family, and as time passed he became more and more content with his life in Budapest, the so-called “Paris of the East,” as his Aunt Borbála liked to say as she unfurled an array of the latest yard goods from France across the worn wooden counter of Fischer’s on Dohány Street while persuading a prosperous customer that her social status required the more expensive Jacquard-loomed damask drapery materials favored in the most fashionable salons on La Rive Droite.
Julius finished school and went on to university, where he was a methodical but uninspired student, though he enjoyed the café life that surrounded the university. He wrote several letters to his brothers in America, but he could only address them to Morris and Eli Czaplinsky, care of General Delivery, New York City. He didn’t know that Morris was dead or that Eli had moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he had dropped the C and become a Ziplinsky. The name change made for simpler spelling and less confusion. Zip’s Candies was such a good American brand name. And surely the change was also inspired by Eli’s desire to make himself unfindable either by New York City detectives who could have wanted to discuss his presence at the Essex Market Courthouse the day Kid Dropper Kaplan was murdered, or by anyone nosing around on behalf of Little Augie, who surely wanted his money back, with interest.
Ziplinsky was anyway a little bit more of an American kind of name than Czaplinsky, Eli thought, and it was a nice, zippy, peppy, zingy name at that. Changing it more would have signified shame about his heritage (he considered Zipple but even with his beginner’s English he recognized that it was an undignified name, too much like “nipple”), and he looked down on all those Eastern European Jews who chopped their names, those Whites and Whitemans who used to be Wiedermans, the Breitkopfs who became Brodheads. (Perhaps he was unaware of a certain Saxe-Coburg und Gotha family who simply became Windsors not long before then, in 1917.) By the time Eli became an American citizen in 1928, he was proudly signing his name with a big, flourishing Z, with the bottom serif of the Z underlining the rest of the name, a habit he maintained to the end of his life.
Julius had no way to know that Eli had written to him five times from New York, the last time to tell him the sad news about their Morris having succumbed to diphtheria. The letters were intercepted by Aunt Borbála each time, who opened them when they arrived from America. Finding no money or specific promises about any, she hid the letters away in a desk drawer, feeling justified in keeping Julius from getting his hopes up. Maybe she would give him the letters some day, but not now. In the future, when he would thank her for keeping him grateful for what he had, for all that the Fischers had given him, instead of getting his hopes up dreaming about America. Julius was better off if he didn’t think his brothers were going to send for him. These useless letters would keep him from forgetting his brothers. He needed to stop moping around so much, like he was always waiting for something.
If they did send money for Julius, she told herself, the first priority would be to pay her back for the expense and bother of having Julius added to her household. It was too bad about Morris, because now it was even less likely that any money would ever come. Eli was just a boy himself and he would probably forget about Julius. Soon there were no more letters, which proved her right. Her father always said those Czaplinskys were good for nothing.
When Julius never heard from his brothers he began to think they might both be dead, and even though Aunt Borbála never said anything, he tried on his own to make himself stop hoping for a letter. He didn’t even know with any certainty that they had ever reached America. He continued to work behind the counter at Fischer’s for several years until he left to go into business with his cousin Péter, the least gloomy and conceited of the Fischers, whose apprenticeship to an elderly baker in the old Jewish Quarter had given him skills and ambitions to open his own shop.
Fischer & Czaplinsky, a bakery with an adjoining coffee house on Kazinczy Street in the heart of the bustling Jewish Quarter (on the flat, Pest side of the Danube), thrived immediately, and within a couple of years there were five employees working alongside Julius and Péter to keep the customers satisfied with their good strong coffee and all their buttery little cookies and kiffles, rigo jancsi, flakey strudels and especially their signature kurtoskalacsus, a yeasty sweet dough wound around cylinders that slowly turned over hot coals until the pastry was browned.
Julius, now a handsome and prosperous citizen of the neighborhood, had become something of a ladies’ man, with a series of girlfriends, each one believing that she would be the one to claim this attractive and slightly melancholy loner, that she would be the one with whom he would want to settle down and raise a family. But sooner or later, each one would discover evidence of a growing indifference combined with hints of a new woman in his life. Each one would withdraw, defeated, with a slightly broken heart, to be replaced by the next one, and the next.
Then Szilvia Weisz came to work in the bakery at Fischer & Czaplinsky. She was a quiet little worker with a refulgent smile and the nimblest fingers when it came to wrapping the dough for the kurtoskalacsus, not too loose or it would fall onto the coals, but not too tight or it would crack apart as it sizzled and browned. Something shifted inside of Julius, some corner of his brittle heart began to soften whenever he saw her, but each time he asked her to go out with him, she refused, and told him she would not go out with a playboy, no matter how handsome or charming.
For six months she refused his advances until finally, when he told her that he loved her and had not been with another woman all that time (which was very nearly the truth), she agreed to go to a chamber music concert with him, and then a few nights later they went to dinner, and soon after that were keeping company every evening, and then they were engaged to be married, and then they were married, and the Weisz family, all of them hardworking diamond buyers and cutters, welcomed Julius, and made him feel truly part of a family for the first time since he was a child. Soon there was a baby girl, Matild, born in 1937, and after that a boy, Geza, born in early 1939.
The First Jewish Law, restricting to twenty percent the number of Jews who could have certain administrative positions or hold certain kinds of jobs, had been passed in 1938. Ten years before that, the entire extended Fischer family had converted en masse, and twenty-seven of them all became church-going Lutherans at once, and so they did not think these laws applied to them. Two days after Geza was born, the Second Jewish Law reduced the “economic participation” of the Jews of Hungary to five percent, and soon after that the business dropped the Czaplinsky name.
Cash payments to certain officials who were friendly with other officials allowed the Fischer family to continue to avoid being named as Jews. While Julius kept working on the bakery side, he was no longer welcome in any Fischer homes and he was asked to refrain from claiming any blood connection to them. Restoring his name to the business was nothing to discuss at this time, perhaps in the future, if peace should ever break out.
More and more Jews were moving from all over the countryside to Pest, and Fischer’s had never been more filled with customers. Julius and Péter added as many more tables and chairs as they could cram in. Hungary’s right-wing government was allied with Germany, and the quarter million Jews of Budapest, though more and more constricted by the new rules in their daily lives, continued to go to work, conduct their business, marry, have babies, and raise their families, believing that they were reasonably safe from further losses or restrictions. What more could happen?
* * *
Szilvia’s younger sister Ágnes worked as a legal secretary for a prosperous law firm until she was forced to leave when the Second Jewish Law was passed. Her boss was very sorry to lose such a pleasant and efficient worker. She was really a very beautiful girl, nice to look at every day, and she had such a good knowledge of German and French. He really regretted that she had to go, especially for such a shameful reason (he himself had a Jewish grandmother but thankfully nobody was aware of this blot on his record). When he encountered a government bureaucrat he had known since childhood, when they both went out to smoke cigars during an intermission at the opera, he put in a good word for Ágnes and all of her desirable attributes.
Ágnes, who was fortunately possessed of very fair, wispy hair and dark blue eyes, was soon offered employment in the Budapest central government offices as a correspondence typist-translator, where her German skills were desperately needed. The job was hers provided that she promise to keep her mouth shut about her background.
It was an open secret that the employment laws were enforced haphazardly, though the increasing power of the right-wing Arrow Cross Party was making both the Jews and their sympathizers more paranoiac with every passing day. Szilvia was home with the children and no longer worked at the bakery, but Julius would often come in the door at night with upsetting reports about groups of Arrow Cross Party members swaggering into the coffee house and forcing Jewish customers to vacate the tables they wanted. One afternoon Péter quietly took Julius aside to warn him that he might not be able to keep working at Fischer’s much longer, and it might be safer for them all if he were to try and find something else, for now.
On a hot August night, Ágnes came for dinner with Szilvia and Julius, and after the babies were asleep, she took off her shoe and unfolded some sheets of onionskin paper, illicit extra carbon copies of documents she had translated into Hungarian and typed that afternoon. There was a memo from the Reich Central Security Office in Berlin titled Reichssicherheitshauptamt: Madagaskar Projekt. The author of the memo was Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann.
The Madagaskar Projekt called for the resettlement of all the Jews of Europe on Madagascar, a million a year, over a period of four years. This was so much more desirable and efficient than the piecemeal efforts at deportation of Jews into centralized holding centers as they were flushed out from every city and every town and every village of Europe. No Jews, none at all, would remain in Europe.
The accompanying memo by Franz Rademacher, the recently appointed head of the Judenreferat III der Abteilung Deutschland (the Jewish Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), which Agnes had also translated into Hungarian for distribution among the various government departments included references to the stopping of construction of the Warsaw Ghetto and deportations of Jews into Poland, which had both been suspended on July 10th. The Madagaskar Projekt would render unnecessary all that effort to transport Jews into Poland for temporary containment.
The Madagaskar Projekt memo went on to detail issues of cost estimates for coordinating and commissioning sufficient fleets of seaworthy sailing vessels for the massive transportation effort that would be necessary, which depended largely on strategies for using ships from the British fleet, the imminent availability of which was confidently anticipated. The SS would carry on the Jewish expulsion in Europe, before ultimately governing the Jewish settlement.
Madagascar would only be a Mandate; the Jews living there would not be entitled to German citizenship. Meanwhile, the Jews deported to Madagascar would lose their various European citizenships from the date of deportation. With all the Jews of Europe residents of the Mandate of Madagascar, this would prevent the possible establishment by Jews in Palestine a state of their own. This would also help prevent any opportunity for them to exploit the symbolic importance of Jerusalem. The Madagascar Plan would create a central European bank funded with seized Jewish assets; this money would pay for the evacuation and resettlement of all the Jews, and it would also play a permanent role as the only permitted banking institution for any transaction between the Jews on Madagascar and the outside world. Herman Göring would oversee the administration of the Plan’s economics.
Most significantly, the Jews remaining in German control on Madagascar would function as a useful bargaining chip for the future good behavior of the members of their race in America. The generosity shown by Germany in permitting cultural, economic, administrative and legal self-administration to the Jews on Madagascar would also be very useful for propaganda purposes. The administration and execution of the Madagascar Plan was assigned to various offices within the Third Reich: Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s office would negotiate the French peace treaty necessary to the handing over of Madagascar to Germany, and it would also help design any other treaties required to deal with Europe’s Jews. The Information Department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, along with Josef Goebbels in the Propaganda Ministry, would filter all worldwide information about the Plan. Victor Brack of the Führer Chancellory would oversee transportation. There was no mention of any consideration for the native population of Madagascar.
The three of them sat at the table studying the documents until after midnight, talking very little. Finally, Julius crumpled together all the pages into a ball on a dinner plate and set it alight with his cigarette.
* * *
Julius left for Madagascar three weeks later, the linings of his coat and best three-piece suit filled with as many diamonds sewn in place as he could safely carry without attracting attention. Péter had bought him out of the bakery and coffee house with cash, less than Julius thought was fair, but more than Péter had any obligation to provide, under the circumstances. Leaving only enough money for Szilvia to buy what she and the babies would need for a few months, all the rest of their savings had been converted to diamonds thanks to Szilvia’s brother, who had gotten the highest possible prices for Szilvia’s jewelry and her great-aunt Lena’s upright piano, though the babies liked to hear Szilvia play it after dinner and Matild had cried when the men came to carry it down the stairs.
Julius promised Szilvia he would get word to her as soon as he could. He vowed that he would be sending for them just as fast as possible, faster than she could imagine, they would all be together again, and safe once and for all. Although he could hardly bear to leave his family, he set out, determined to find a way to make a new and better life for Szilvia, Matild, and little Geza. Ágnes, too, and the rest of the Weisz family. And Péter, if he had the sense to raise his hand as a Jew and leave with his family, early instead of late, rather than live in fear of discovery all the rest of his days in Jew-cleansed Budapest.
Did those stuck-up Fischers think they wouldn’t be found out? With those noses? How much praying on those sturdy Fischer knees in a fashionable Lutheran church would it take to change Aunt Borbála into a gentile from Buda instead of the imperious Jewess from Pest she had always been? Did they really believe they would be able to keep their place in the world that was changing around them?
Julius’s arduous journey to Madagascar took almost six months. It had been surprisingly easy to get a visa for Zanzibar, with the assistance of Ágnes’s supervisor, who gladly swapped a furtive and efficient groping from Ágnes for rubber-stamped traveling papers for Julius that would allow him to cross borders as he worked his way south to the Greek coast. Julius took some trains, but mostly, he walked. From the Greek coast Julius sailed across to Egypt on a barge laden with barrels of olive oil. It was by then January of 1941. Working his way down the east coast of Africa, Julius arrived in Madagascar on a freighter from Zanzibar.
* * *
Okay, actually I have no idea how Julius got from Budapest to Madagascar, or how long it took. I am at the limit of my imaginative ability for reconstruction of the most likely scenarios. It doesn’t matter. So let’s just say that when we next see Julius, he has arrived in Madagascar from Zanzibar. It is the middle of March, the height of the hot rainy season. Picture him in your mind’s eye. We pick up the narrative thread here:
The Malagasy dock workers think Julius Czaplinsky is a very funny sight indeed as he totters down the gangplank in his woolen three-piece suit, with his greatcoat folded over his arm, staggering slightly under the weight of his leather suitcase. As Julius traipses around the muddy rutted lanes of the port town of Mahajanga, having spent most of the past month sweltering insanely in the heat so constantly that he thought he might die of heat suffocation, he finally feels that it would be safe enough to take off the jacket and vest of his suit and carry them over his arm with his overcoat. At last, he can wear his damp and grimy shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows.
Julius has that Czaplinsky motivation and determination which has become so diluted in Howard. He has arrived in Madagascar to figure out the best claim to stake, and then he plans to stake it hard and deep, ahead of the four million Jews who will soon begin to pour out of ships at every port, each of them hoping (as displaced Jews always do) to find a toehold to start a new life in this alien place.
Julius is here to get established ahead of all the competition. Should he buy buildings in towns, begin constructing simple housing on empty lots that he will be able to rent or sell at premium prices? Should he stake a strong position in shipping and import-export in one or more of the port towns? Should he buy arable land for agriculture? Where would it be most desirable for his family to live, in the central mountainous region or along one of the coasts? He has to find his way and think it all through, make the most of his advantage.
The Madagaskar Projekt had described the possibility of an all-Jewish administrative government that would be overseen by the SS. Perhaps he would qualify for consideration for some official position of authority, should that prove desirable, given his foresight about getting established early, without simply waiting to be one of four million souls rounded up and shipped to this strange island only 644 kilometers off the east coast of Africa, a world away from anything European Jews have ever known.
* * *
The Madagascar that Julius discovered was sparsely inhabited by a few Frenchmen here and there, but otherwise he was intrigued by the curious specimens of humanity he encountered everywhere he went. They didn’t look like any people he had ever seen before in his life. The Malagasy people had probably never seen anyone who looked like him, either. Julius had those piercing blue Czaplinsky eyes, that familial beak of a nose, and a gaunt but somehow forceful bearing, though he couldn’t have stood more than five foot eight. His wild hair was jet black, and it radiated out from his receding hairline emphasizing his great domed forehead. Though clean-shaven in Budapest, Julius had a long dark beard by the time he arrived in Mahajanga on the Zanzibar ferry (or whatever). His skin was of such a pale, pink, nearly alabaster hue that he burned terribly after even a few minutes in direct sun. In Madagascar, his face and neck burned repeatedly as the weeks passed, and darkened to a leathery brown, but Julius’s body was otherwise still milky white, and any inadvertent exposure of his usually covered flesh was a fascination for the Malagasy who happened to catch such a glimpse. They called him Vazaha, white man, and they often gathered to watch him eat, wherever he went, laughing with glee each time he pulled his spoon out of his pocket to eat his Koba, the pasty mash of rice, banana and peanuts that he had decided he could live on safely (after a few disastrous encounters with wretched gristly bits of meat prepared with a stewy rice mixture studded with muddy bits of vegetation). As he fed himself this mash each day with his daintily deployed spoon, instead of scooping it from the bowl with his fingers the way everyone else did, sometimes to make his meal more palatable he would remind himself that he was the same man who once sat in his high chair at the table with his family, being a good little boy, spooning his mother’s Sunday goulash from his bowl.
* * *
Julius was confident that he could figure out the best of his options, and he felt the urgency of his situation, but time seemed to tick by very, very slowly on Madagascar, and soon Julius fell into the rhythms of the island. He found a little hut where he could stay, in a crooked lane at the edge of Antanarivo where goats were tethered, and he paid some men to guard him while he slept, and to guard his things whenever he went out. The first nights, he was awakened continually by the sounds of geckos scrabbling across the earthen floor, and by the strange chirring sounds of the ring-tailed lemurs who swung from the trees and scampered about the underbrush with strangely graceful leaps, like a little troupe of two-toned, monkey-faced Cossacks.
Orb weaver spiders the size of grapefruits erected elaborate webs across his doorways while he slept, and he was unsettled each time he brushed into one of those webs inadvertently and made impact with the fuzzy scuttling body of its weaver. The hissing cockroaches startled him every time he disturbed one in the night when his bladder forced him to stir from his restless slumber. Julius was reluctant to leave his secret diamond hoard for more than short periods of time, and he knew he had to convert his stones to local currency, but the energies of living each day seemed to soak up all the hours of daylight and each crimson sunset found him hunkering down for the night once more with nothing accomplished.
He found a woman who would wash his clothes and prepare his food for him in a way that he could eat it. (It helped that she was very beautiful.) Mostly he lived on sweet potatoes, steamed manioc, and mofo gasy, a hearth-baked pancake made from sweetened rice flour. Night after night Julius dreamed of the sweet pastries he had served a thousand times in the coffee house, each one on a plate with the signature red and black striped rim incorporating the beautiful streamlined logo for Fischer & Czaplinsky, plates they continued to use even after the Czaplinsky name was scraped from the red, black and gold lettering on the windows and doors. He dreamed of the unsold, stale pastries he had thrown away or given to beggars at the back door of the bakery at closing time night after night. Kurtoskalacsus unfurled in his dreams, flakey puffs of pastry unwinding from the baking cylinders, dropping in big, buttery curls that he couldn’t quite catch before they blackened to ash on the glowing coals.
Months passed before Julius was able to make an approach to a French banker he had been observing in a cafe, a lonely alcoholic whose misbehavior involving certain accounting irregularities at his previous bank in Paris had led to his exile in this remote French colony. The banker was charmed by Julius, who had the prescience at their first meeting to make a gift of the small bottle of good Slivovitz he had tucked into his baggage and carried all this way and hoarded all this time.
Malagasy wine, which Julius had sampled, tasted like horse piss mixed with vinegar. Perhaps he should start a distillery. Did sufficient sugar cane grow on this or any other near enough soil? Would grapes on vines rot and mold in the humidity or would a vineyard be possible to contemplate establishing, perhaps on the windward side of the island? For modest kickbacks of which Julius was unaware, the banker made introductions for Julius to the right people who would give him the best prices converting his diamonds to Malagasy francs.
People are people, business is business, money is money. Time passed. By the end of 1942, a land broker had secured Julius’s rights to some four thousand hectares in the central rain forest region of the northern part of the island, in the Betsiboka region of the Mahajanga province, where the soil is rich and the humidity high. Half of his hilly lands were covered in a dense pine and eucalyptus forest, while the rest was a crazy quilt of 19th century French plantations fallen into disuse, though they had once yielded rich annual harvests of cacao, coffee, banana, and vanilla.
In Budapest, Julius had struggled to achieve and maintain a modest, bourgeois status. In Madagascar, where the Malagasy people lived a subsistence life on the land, his diamonds had bought such an unimaginable number of Malagasy francs that even after investing in these holdings, he was still an immensely rich man, with more houses than he could count scattered across his four thousand hectares, with dozens of overseers on his various lands, and hundreds of employees grateful for the very small wage he would pay them in exchange for working his plantations or providing whatever services he could possibly want or need. Time slowed and stopped. Time stood still for Julius.
By spring of 1943, Julius had become the monarch of a small kingdom. The rest of the world seemed very far away. His brilliant strategy had proven to be far more successful than he could have possibly imagined. He was the Founding Jew, the First Jew, the Only Jew of Madagascar! Julius was impatient for the first signs that the transports had begun. Each day he scanned the horizon. The unbroken sea was empty of ships, dotted only by a few of the small square-sailed primitive fishing vessels that went out early every morning to check their crayfish pots along the coastline. Surely they would arrive today, or tomorrow?
Julius didn’t consider that in faraway Budapest, time had not stood still. On Kazinczy Street, time had marched along quite briskly.
* * *
Every day Julius envisioned himself in his new role as the wise pioneer whose helpful advice would be eagerly sought by his people. He could see himself greeting and providing comfort and wisdom to as many of the newcomers as he could accommodate as they tumbled off the ships by the thousands, day after day, week after week, sailing into every port on the island, from Toliara to Antsiranana, each of them dazed, frightened, staggering under the weight of the few precious worldly goods they would have managed to bring along on the voyage from the Old World to this very New World.
We will begin again! Julius insisted to himself as he sipped the muddy coffee made from his own Caturra beans prepared for him each morning now by his house maid, and served to him on the verandah of his headquarters, a plantation house that overlooked five hundred acres planted in Trinitario and Criollo and Porcelana cacao. The openwork lace of the early morning mist floated through the tops of the banana canopy that soared over the hodge podge of the cacao trees. He longed for Szilvia, Matild, and Geza. And of course, Ágnes too. He would welcome with open arms any of the Weisz family who wanted to come live on his plantations.
He was deeply moved by his own anticipated generosity as he envisaged himself presiding over his grateful family, perhaps dozens of them, all thankful that he had given them such a wonderful fresh start. He would be the patriarch, providing plenty for all. They would all be safe. They would all be prosperous. They would all be together again.
But the horizon remained empty. The ships filled with the Jews of Europe eager to begin their new lives did not arrive.
Julius had written to Szilvia steadily since his arrival, though the centralized postal service from Antanarivo was erratic at best and a complete disaster at worst, so he hadn’t been overly worried to have not heard back from her in the beginning. But now when his letters continued to go unanswered, he had begun to fret. One morning as he sipped his coffee and gazed out over the treetops of his plantation it suddenly dawned on him with horror that while time stood still in Madagascar, it rushed ahead furiously and tumultuously and disastrously in the wider world.
That day he sent a long letter to the alcoholic banker in Antanarivo by messenger, with specific and urgent instructions for a wire to a correspondent bank in Budapest where the banker had told him long ago he might still have a contact who might be willing to deliver the message to Szilvia, or if that was risky, then to Péter, at the coffee house, who would surely be willing to pass a message to Szilvia. Wouldn’t any banker in Budapest know Fischer’s Bakery and Coffee House, on Kazinczy Street?
The wire Julius sent was three pages of dense advice about obtaining a visa for Zanzibar, traveling on the same route he had followed (whatever that was, let’s agree that it’s unimportant to the story), using the same sympathetic official as before, Ágnes’s supervisor, the man who had approved his traveling documents. Julius’s wire enumerated all the contact information he had for every leg of the journey, concluding with the name of the shipping clerk to see at the harbor in Stone Town once they arrived on Zanzibar.
* * *
The ensuing silence was ominous. Julius had heard nothing for too long. He felt a sudden spasm of terror, and with a sensation of horror he realized that he had been insanely complacent. Anything could have happened in all this time. He had to do something more, take some kind of action. He could no longer just sit and wait. He set out with one of his plantation managers in the most functional of his three rusting, patched-together Ford Model A trucks, but a summer monsoon had drenched the highlands for days, and after a day of fighting the mud that filled the narrow, winding track that led to his highland aerie, the truck was hopelessly mired, and they had only gone ten dozen kilometers. Julius had to make the journey to Antanarivo in the back of a zebu cart. The jolting, slow-motion trip took many days, and he arrived feeling quite sick from the rocking of the cart and from the fear that now clutched his heart. How could he have been so blithely unconcerned all these months, months which had turned to years? Time had stood still only for him. It was now July, 1944.
The dissipated and habitually hung over banker arranged for Julius to use one of the few telephones on Madagascar that could connect him to Budapest, in the central government office across from the bank. Julius had developed a fluent Malagasy-inflected French, and he was able to make his needs understood well enough. It took nearly an hour to make the connection, but finally, miraculously, the series of necessary operators were able to hold all the necessary connections to patch through to Budapest.
He gave the number to the local operator there in Hungarian, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke the familiar numbers in Hungarian to another Hungarian speaker, but a moment later her faint voice in his ear told him through the echoing static that the number was no longer in service.
Ah, of course, Szilvia was economizing. He begged the operators not to disconnect the line and then he gave the next number that came into his head, for Fischer & Czaplinsky, which is to say, Fischer’s Bakery and Coffee House. Surely Péter would be willing to relay his message to Szilvia. The call went through more quickly this time, and he could hear the familiar ringing tones echoing faintly down the line.
An unfamiliar voice, with the clatter of the coffee house in the background. Why answer the phone at Fischer’s in German? A wrong number? A bad joke? Julius’s mind was racing in slow motion, every thought slippery and ungraspable. In carefully enunciated Hungarian he asked if this was Fischer’s and the man said, “Ja, ja,” impatiently, before demanding, “Wen wollen Sie sprechen? Was wollen Sie?”
Julius switched to his rudimentary German and asked for Péter. The German laughed, a short mirthless bark, and said Péter had gone for a little swim in the Danube, and then he hung up.
Julius didn’t know that even while he was still making his way towards Madagascar, the transports of Jews from German territories into occupied Poland had resumed, as had work to complete the fortifications of the Warsaw Ghetto. Eichmann’s beloved Madagaskar Projekt had stalled. Germany had not achieved a quick victory over Britain (the Battle of Britain had not gone as predicted so confidently by the Luftwaffe, despite their colorful maps and pins), and so the British fleet, crucial to the Madagaskar Projekt, would not be available to ship all the Jews to their island colony in the Indian Ocean after all. There was no alternative means of efficiently transporting four million Jews out of Europe.
In late August 1940, Rademacher begged Ribbentrop to hold a meeting at his Ministry so they could revise the Madagaskar Projekt and put it in motion. Ribbentrop did nothing. Eichmann’s Madagascar memo was never approved by Heydrich’s office. From time to time, one or another official of the Third Reich would raise the question of a future plan for the ghetto colony on Madagascar for all the Jews of Europe, but by early December of that year, it had been abandoned entirely. The Madagaskar Projekt was stillborn, and the massive logistical quagmire of Jewish deportations would be solved another, more efficient way. If the Jewish island colony in the Indian Ocean was a First Solution, then the answer to the vexing Jewish Question would be the Final Solution.
I have to admit the timeline is way off here. Why is the sudden and successful British invasion of Madagascar in May of 1942 not in this story? I suppose it’s not really possible that Julius had no awareness of the stealth landing in Courrier Bay by the combined forces of the 13th Assault Flotilla. He had already been on Madagascar for more than a year at that point. So let’s allow for the possibility that he welcomed the British forces. Perhaps he even played a small role, and had a secret involvement in the mysteriously deployed guiding beacons that allowed the invading, unlit British flotilla to glide past the dangers in the shoals of the harbor and land the troops safely in the darkness, while the Vichy slept. That would be good, if Julius did that. It improves the story. Let’s say he did.
Soon after the British had secured Madagascar, Free French forces took over from the Vichy government. But looking at Julius’s land acquisitions, I have to admit that a less nice version of this story has Julius doing business with the Vichy officials one way or another from the moment he arrives on the island in March of 1941. The drunken banker is thick as thieves with them. The Vichy haven’t got much to do, governing this godforsaken jungle in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and Julius is an amusement. They are willing to assist this pushy, ambitious Hungarian Jew with his coat full of diamonds in securing a position of power and authority in advance of the hordes. Why not? He will be useful to them.
Perhaps Julius is unhappy to see the corrupt Vichy officials replaced by the Free French officers who now govern the island, as it dawns on him that the chances of the Madagascar Projekt being executed as proposed are dwindling with every passing day. Surely the Third Reich wouldn’t want to go to the trouble and expense of delivering the Jews of Europe to Madagascar, only to see them pick up and take themselves wherever in the world they pleased after that. Even without knowledge of what has transpired in Europe, it is clear that without the Vichy in control of Madagascar, the plan collapses.
Perhaps Julius recognized then that he and he alone has escaped to Madagascar, while his family, everyone he has left behind, will be swallowed up by the incoming tide of history. Perhaps he never tried to reach them at all. Perhaps he did nothing but cultivate his holdings and wait. He is helpless. What can he do, from here, but hope for the best?
It is established fact that he spent the war years on Madagascar, where he was safe. But he died there, too, of malaria, soon after the end of the war, at the age of 42. Julius left behind his beautiful, young common-law wife, called Lalao (she had been his housekeeper), and their two children, Darwin, who was two, and Huxley, who was an infant when Julius died.
I don’t really have a good way of telling this story seamlessly. While it is true that it difficult to reconcile the timeline completely, or really nail down the facts one way or the other, how important is that in the larger scheme of things? Can we just skip over these discrepancies? Let’s say Julius was isolated on Madagascar, from the moment he arrived, and in a way he was a prisoner of his circumstances. The larger truths of this story are what matters, and it would be pointless to get too distracted by these details. In fact, a failure of imagination may be the most honorable choice here. Think of it this way: if for even a brief moment any of us could possess the full realization of all the horrors of human experience, how would it be possible to live?
* * *
Julius had no way of knowing that Germany had occupied Hungary in 1944, when Hungary was on the verge of negotiating with the Allies after the German losses on the Eastern front. Nor did he know that tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews had already been killed in labor camps and deportations even before the occupation.
He would not have been able to imagine that the shul on Dohány Street had been turned into a small concentration camp. Adolf Eichmann, the author of the Madagaskar Projekt memo, had taken over the rabbi’s office behind the beautiful rose window in the women’s balcony. Eichmann organized a Budapest Jewish council to oversee the Jews who remained in Hungary, all 200,000 of them, now concentrated in Budapest, crammed into 2,000 homes scattered through the city, each designated Jewish dwelling marked with a conspicuous yellow Star of David.
Julius did not know that nineteen people had been assigned to his apartment, and that for several miserable months Szilvia, Matild and Geza had shared a narrow bed in what had been Matild’s room, a room in which four strangers also slept.
Julius didn’t know that The Arrow Cross party members had rampaged through the Jewish Quarter, shooting hundreds of Jews and throwing their bodies into the Danube, Péter among them. Julius did not know that Szilvia, Matild and Geza were among the thousand who lay buried in the mass graves in the courtyard of the synagogue on Dohány Street, just up the street from where Fischer’s dry goods shop once did business, before the Arrow Cross burned it to the ground with seven members of the Fischer family, who had refused to wear their yellow stars, locked inside.
Julius didn’t know that Ágnes had been arrested and placed in the Kistarcsa transit camp for two months before she was marched with hundreds of other prisoners all the way to the Austrian border in freezing November sleet. On the third day of the march, when Ágnes was so weakened by a fever that she was unable to walk, she was shot and left at the side of the road.
By the end of 1944, here is what Julius Czaplinsky did know. He was 38 years old. His wife and children were dead. He was rich beyond imagining. He was safe from the turmoil of war. And he was utterly alone. The other four million Jews of Europe weren’t coming. There would never be one ship unloading its bewildered cargo of Jews. There would never be a single grateful recipient of all the wisdom and generosity Julius was so prepared to bestow upon his landsmen. The Madagaskar Projekt had brought only Julius Czaplinsky, the first, last, and only Jew on Madagascar.