For David J. M. Cornwell
MONS, Belgium, 1918: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Celebration of Armistice started with signing Mons’ Golden Book by the Canadian commanders, who were undefeated in the last two years of the War. Only seven hours earlier, after sixty hours of combat, the Canadian units had gained control of the city and ended fifty months of German occupation. Later that same day, representatives from each unit of the Canadian Corps marched in a victory parade.
That evening, while strolling on La Grand-Place de Mons with two fellow Montréalers from The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, Solomon Fielder, a lady’s man in the manner of charmer and rapscallion Rick Pym of John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, stumbled into a one-night stand with a local dark-haired, brown-eyed girl.
On the chesterfield bed in the darkness of the girl’s bedsitting room, the only other furniture was an armchair and bookcase full of college textbooks including Das Kapital, each smoked a cigarette.
'Comment t’appelles-tu?' said the dark-haired, brown-eyed girl.
(The rest of this conversation, although conducted in French, the provincial language of both Hainaut and Québec, is translated below into English.)
'And your family name?' said the girl.
'Is that important?'
'You are married?'
'Why all these questions? Aren’t you having fun?'
'Because I am not in the habit of doing this. I like you, Solomon. I want to get to know you.'
The girl was beginning to feel nauseated by her rash gift of intimacy (a decision she had made in the alcohol-fuelled haze of relief that she had survived the War that killed almost two percent of her neutral country’s population), her second act of self-preservation in a new world order. The first act had been a three-year affair with a young Jewish administrator of the German military government installed in Belgium. That relationship had enabled the girl to elude German atrocities against Belgian civilians, evade deportation to Germany for forced labour, and cling to ideological, and idealistic, hope.
'There’s no future in that. This War’s over. I’ll be leaving soon,' said Solomon. 'I’m going home.'
'And where is home?'
Solomon was vexed: several years a soldier, he was in the habit of doing this. What did this girl want from him? Did she have a father or a brother or a husband or a boyfriend he’d have to deal with? He wanted to get away. But without making any promises or precipitating a scene. 'I’d like to wash up. Where’s your bathroom?'
'It is out the door,' the girl said, pointing, 'to your right, at the end of the hall. You need to knock first. We all share it on this landing.'
Solomon gathered his underwear, socks, and sweater, and trousers to his British Pattern uniform. He ignored his jacket, glengarry, and ammunition boots strewn on the floor. Because he feared the girl would become angry if she inferred he was plotting his escape. He kissed her on the lips, put on his underwear and sweater, walked to the door, opened it quietly in order not to disturb the girl’s neighbours, and turned right.
While Solomon was down the hall in the communal bathroom, contemplating his exit in the wee small hours of the morning, the girl rummaged through pockets of his jacket: she really did 'want to get to know' him. She found his wallet and, in it, a tattered military card with Solomon’s full name; she removed from another pocket an unstamped sealed envelope, addressed apparently to a female relative. The girl found a pencil in her purse and struck another match. During the flame’s short happy life, she scribbled down Solomon’s last name and the envelope’s full address. During all of this, the girl was terrified that Solomon would return, and that he would assume she was trying to steal his money. She replaced the military card in the wallet, and the wallet and envelope in their proper pockets.
The girl had just made a simple mistake. She need not have worried: Solomon was extending his droit du vainqueur by taking his longest bath in years. She fell asleep before he returned to the bedsit. She never got to say goodbye.
Solomon Fielder was born in Lithuania to Jewish parents who sent him as a boy to Canada, by way of Scotland, in order to escape a second wave of pogroms in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Extricated from the shtetl and settled in Montréal, Solomon would eventually become patriarch of a family of three daughters, a son, and their progeny.
Solomon became a master shoemaker and proprietor of a retail shoe business located in the nexus for an influx of tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants to Montréal during the first four decades of the century. A left-wing New World ghetto straddling boulevard Saint Laurent, nicknamed The Main (which divided east and west Montréal linguistically, ethnically, and socially), its inhabitants were forged by the metals of religion, studiousness, and persecution.
Solomon was also a gambler and raconteur. Saturday nights, he played Pinochle until dawn at the Colonial Baths shvitz. He served overseas for Canada in both World Wars; the second time, he enlisted to evade creditors and the police. Between Wars, Solomon’s yarn-spinning tumefied to feature his feeding condensed milk with honey to the mascot for a Winnipeg army regiment (a black bear named ‘Winnie’) who bestowed one-third of the name Winnie-the-Pooh.
Almost nine years after Armistice Day, by then father of three Fielders under his own roof, the youngest a son, Solomon received in the mail an envelope with a return address of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Straße, Berlin. The envelope, whose street number for his Montréal address had been crossed out and corrected, contained this handwritten letter (translated from its original French):
I am sorry to intrude, after these many years, on your life. Be not afraid, I intend no harm to you or to your family. But this is a matter of life and death and I have nowhere else to turn.
We met on La Grand-Place de Mons on Armistice Day. Was that not a time? You were the dashing liberator. I was the grateful girl drinking and tasting freedom for the first time in four years. I hope our too brief time together is for you a beautiful memory.
We did not talk much that night. You were a bird on the wire. But now, I face dire circumstances that demand I tell you about myself.
When we knew each other in Mons, I was in love with a young German Jew, Jens, a brilliant Marxist, who was a powerful administrator in the occupation government. I too am a Jew. My mother and father, both deceased, were German Jews living in Belgium when I was born. So, under a law passed before the War based on jus sanguinis, I am also a German citizen.
Jens and I had planned to marry after the War, but your army’s advance to victory put that plan on hold. A few days before I met you, Jens was forced to quit Mons and head east for his home in Berlin. He promised to send for me from there, if he got there.
And Jens made true on that promise. He did send for me... although not for a couple of years. By then, I had given up on him. By then, I had given birth on August 11, 1919, to a beautiful baby boy whom I named 'Josef Jens' after my dead father and after my fiancé.
At that time, I believed my baby and I were alone in this world. So I gave to him your last name, which I had discovered in one of your uniform pockets and had written down by the light of a match while you left me alone in my bedsit.
When Jens finally sent for me, I wrote to him all about you and me and Josef Jens. He was more understanding and loving than I could have hoped. He still wanted me and he wanted my baby. After some hurdles had been jumped, we joined Jens in Berlin.
Jens is a decent man. A good teacher, a better husband, and a great father. And Josef Jens, who prefers to go by JJ, is a brilliant student. He tells us he wants to be a lawyer when he grows up. So, as The Bard writes, 'all is well that ends well,' right?
No. Berlin is now a dangerous place for two German Jews with an almost eight-year-old son (and JJ is also a German Jew because I am his mother), particularly as Jens and I are academically prominent and politically active. I’m sure this olde, olde story has reached America and you know very well what I am talking about. As Rosa Luxemburg says: 'Socialisme ou Barbarie.'
And Canada is no longer a welcoming country for Jews, especially German Jews. Nor is any other country, for that matter, with the possible exceptions of England and Agrentina [sic]. Since 1923, your government, which sent you, Solomon, to liberate my country, my hometown, and me, has imposed strict rules limiting the immigration of Jews. Only those Jews who have a very close relative in Canada or can convince the authorities to give them an entry permit are admitted there. And I have not heard recently of entry permits issued by Canada to German Jews.
I would like you to be that 'very close relative in Canada.' If not for me or for my husband, the man who has assumed paternal responsibility for your son, then I ask you for JJ’s sake. Your son is, after all, the only innocent in all of this. I would like you to sponsor our immigration to Canada.
There is no monetary burden for you. All you have to do is send me a letter signed by you that authorises me to reflect your name as Josef Jens’s biological father and grants your 'irrevocable approval to serve as the ''very close relative in Canada’' in the attached immigration application.' Your signed letter to me must also include your home address, your Canadian passport number, and your Canadian military identification number.
If you do this, Solomon, I give you my solemn promise I shall never contact you again... other than to let you know the address where you can reach your son if you ever want to.
Please, please, please save us,
Ida Adler Brandeis
That night, while his family slept, Solomon Fielder wrote a letter meticulously as requested by Ida Brandeis and signed it. He addressed his letter to Mrs. Brandeis’s return address. And he tore up, then burned, both Mrs. Brandeis’ letter and its envelope.
The next morning, alone in his shoe shop before opening for business, Solomon leafed through the most recent Lovell’s Miscellaneous Directory to determine appropriate postage for one-ounce letters from Canada to Germany. He removed from the cash register, and licked the backs of, four two-cent 'The Fathers of Confederation' stamps and affixed them to the envelope containing his signed letter.
At lunchtime, Solomon locked his shop, went for a short stroll along The Main, and dropped the envelope into the first Post Office Box he encountered.
Solomon learned nothing more about this affair for several years.
Then, sporadically over two decades beginning in 1933, three more letters found their way to Solomon, each containing a single handwritten page with initialled heading J.J.F. and a different address. In 1933, on Burrows Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1946, in Burgstraße, Leipzig. And in 1953, in Majakowskiring, East Berlin. The handwriting of the last letter was different. Solomon burned each of these three letters and its envelope within a day or two.
A little more than nine years later, almost like clockwork, there was another envelope. This one, however, was quite different from its four predecessors. It was dull blue, marked Private & Personal, contained two pages, one of which with an immaculately handwritten personal note in English, reproduced below, and awaited him, unaddressed and unstamped in a locked drawer for which only Solomon had the key, in a bedroom end table in the apartment he now shared with his wife on Stuart Avenue in Parc Extension:
E Y E S O N L Y
Dear Mr Fielder,
I thought you would wish to know that your son Josef Jens is reportedly deceased. My credible source is a foreign national I know professionally.
This is a personal letter; my only motivation is humanitarian. I am sorry for your loss. It is unlikely you shall receive any official notification and any pursuit by you for additional information shall be, alas, a forlorn quest.
Your son was an exceptional lawyer and senior government official of international renown; my own parent company particularly respected him. At the time of his death, he was one of three men positioned for promotion to the rôle of head of his firm, which competes with mine.
That he flourished in his chosen career and country in the face of widespread anti-Semitism is a testament to his professional skills, inherent inquisitiveness, avoidance of internal politics, quiet courage, and integrity. I am also told that he ‘paddled his own canoe.'
Your son leaves a widow and young daughter named after her father’s mother, who perished years ago in Stalin’s Gulag. I enclose their home address.
P.S. He was executed, on or after October 28, 1962, by his state for ‘political crimes.'
On the second page were the street address and number for an apartment in Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße, East Berlin. Solomon burned this letter’s two pages and envelope... but not for several years. Until then, when not re-reading it (which he did quite often), Solomon kept it locked away in the drawer of the bedroom end table where it had first appeared.
Upon his death nine years later, in 1972, Solomon Fielder had never attempted to contact Josef Jens, his first-born son with Ida Adler as was, or Josef Jens’ daughter Ida, Solomon’s thirteenth grandchild. Nor mentioned these secrets to anyone.
Solomon Fielder’s grandson Ira Fielder was sixty-four in 2017. An investment banker specialising in mergers and acquisitions, he now resided in San Francisco with his wife Nessa and only child Rónán. Rónán was a third year law student who had recently announced to his parents that what he really wanted to do next was pursue a second doctorate concentrating on Marxian dialectics. In recent months, Ira had begun pursuing his own Chapter Two: he wanted to become a short story author.
Ira idolised and imitated seven short story authors: Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Hugh Hood, Norman Levine, John O’Hara, and John Updike. Novels were generally not Ira’s thing. There was, however, a notable exception: the novels of le Carré, particularly any and all that featured spy George Smiley. In those novels, Ira did not believe the publisher’s boilerplate that ‘any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead... is entirely coincidental.' Ira also loved the rôle of George Smiley as played on the screen, big or small, by Rupert Davies, James Mason, Sir Alec Guinness, Denholm Elliott, and Gary Oldman, and on BBC Radio by Simon Russell Beale.
Ira admired George Smiley because Smiley was reverential of words, cerebral, assiduous, and solitary. Smiley was also, to Ira, cloaked in nostalgia. Nostalgia, said Pete Hamill, is not a fake emotion: it’s a mentality. Nostalgia is an ache for something that did exist.
In the fall of 2017, Ira was criss-crossing the country on business. During the blocks of leisure time that he could carve out on planes and in hotel rooms, Ira devoured le Carré’s much-anticipated novel A Legacy of Spies, which re-unites many of George Smiley’s people in a redux of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and includes a cameo appearance by Smiley himself, by then aged over ninety, living as a solitary and reading in Freiburg.
Legacy is the backstory to Spy about the latter novel’s Operation Windfall, executed by Smiley to disrupt the East German Intelligence Service. At its core, the operation manipulates Stasi’s head of counterintelligence Jens Fiedler, a Jew, into prosecuting Stasi’s deputy director of operations Hans-Dieter Mundt, a Nazi, with the benefit of disinformative testimony from British agent Alec Leamas. Such testimony, however, is sabotaged by various Smiley tactics that appear clumsy but turn out to be bespoke in order to exonerate Mundt, who is a British double agent. Leamas, Leamas’s Marxist girlfriend, and Fiedler are all casualties of the plan. The first two are shot dead while climbing the Berlin Wall; the last is executed for treason. Legacy revolves around a lawsuit threatened by the next generation (Leamas’ son and Leamas’ girlfriend’s daughter) that could dredge up the cold-bloodedness of Cold War spies’ justification of any means by the end.
Late one night, checking in with his wife by phone from New York, Ira sensed something was wrong at their 127-year-old Queen Anne single-family mortgaged home on the steep north slope of Pacific Heights. 'Are you okay?' he said. 'You sound funny.'
'You got a call tonight,' said Nessa.
'She said she was your cousin. From Berlin. You never told me you had relatives in Germany.'
'Because I don’t.'
'But the thing is, she said her name was Ida Fied-ler.'
'Wrong number. Don’t worry about it.'
'But she said her grandfather was Solomon Fiedler, from The Main in Montreal. Who was in the Canadian army in both World Wars. Wasn’t your grandfather’s name Solomon Field-er?'
'Yes, of course it was.'
'But how many Canadian soldiers fought in both World Wars?'
'Not many, I guess,' said Ira. 'So, what did she want?'
'Long story short: a treff. I Googled it: it means a meeting. She wants to tell you about her father Jens, a Stasi spy who was executed over fifty years ago. Anyway, I have a very bad feeling about all of this.'
That night, alone in an upscale hotel across from Central Park, Ira Fielder has a nightmare.
In it, he is dressed in a dark grey suit and tie and climbing, surrounded by pitch blackness, the helical anchors that extend beyond the plates securing the towering ivied concrete retaining wall on the southern boundary of the Fielders’ backyard garden in Pacific Heights. He hears wailing sirens, evocative of black-and-white movies about Cold War era spies, and voices shouting at him in English, French, and German. Then, a spotlight bursts upon him. Ira keeps climbing. His back to the searing light. His hands bleeding from cuts from the steel plates. His suit trousers staining from the ivy and tearing at the knees from friction against the concrete.
When Ira gets to the top of the wall, he sees Rupert Davies, in a red pullover sweater and yellow corduroys, on the southern side and hears Davies’s voice:
'Jump, Ira! Jump, man!'
And then Ira hears Davies’s voice again, only now in a whisper:
'Jens, where’s Jens?'
Ira slowly turns his head back towards the spotlight and stares down into the garden of his own backyard. There, sprawled at the foot of the wall and shot at least three times, lies a stranger, apparently in his early forties. The man is about five foot nine, slight, dressed in a grey tweed suit with a too-long jacket, and dark-haired.
Defying Ira’s expectation, however, the man’s Vandyke-bearded face and brown eyes wide open do not evidence consanguinity: they do not resemble those of a forty-year-old image of either Ira’s father or Ira’s grandfather Solomon. The man, he is Ira Fielder’s uncle, lying on the damp groundcover, shot dead for espionage... whom Ira had before that moment never laid eyes on, looks instead like Austrian film actor Oskar Werner.
And now Ira Fielder has another dream, a shorter one.
A dark-haired, brown-eyed girl, six—maybe seven—years old, is sitting in her spartan bedroom in pyjamas, unable to sleep. The girl holds in her left hand an original Blackwing 602 soft pencil manufactured by Eberhard Faber, and is practicing on a sheet of Ecruwhite paper a number from the address of her home where she lives with her widowed mother.
The girl is writing, over and over and over again, ‘660.'
The dream’s point of view withdraws backwards from the girl’s bedroom, through two doors, into the hallway outside the girl’s apartment. Ira sees, in his mind’s eye, the number on the red door of the apartment: it is ‘606’.
Ira’s little cousin, carrying the DCDC2 gene inherited from her namesake grandmother, had just made a simple mistake. But a simple mistake can be a material mistake, and birth those baffling anomalies, here and there, on Ancestry.com®.