It is New Year’s Eve on Peaks Island. A slushy mixture of ice and seawater churn and grind against the beach. A pale yellow half-moon throws a faint shadow over the schoolyard. Sandi and I lean into the wind as we inch our way uphill, barely at eye-level with plowed snow.
A dug path leads to a modest shed-roofed cottage. Opening the door, Arnold Berndt, bent-backed and mostly deaf extends a hand and welcomes us inside. “It’s not much,” he says loud enough for him to hear himself, “but it keeps the rain out!” Arnold’s son, Peter—who undoubtedly shoveled the pathway–takes our coats and offers us a glass of wine. Across from where we sit, a chestnut-stained bookshelf takes up an entire wall. High up on the bookcase, an ancient copper lamp serves as a bookend. Arnold settles into a recliner and folds his hands, silently tapping his index fingers together.
As he shifts his head, he suddenly yelps and reaches back to rub his neck. The sound is involuntary and sharp, like a wounded animal, and I realize his pain must be from the neuralgia I’m treating him for. Though Arnold has been my patient for several years, I know little about him beyond that he was born and raised in Germany and that he recently lost his wife of more than 50 years, Erna. He spends much of his day and night in the back room, resting in bed. The gabapentin I’ve prescribed for the nerve pain has been ineffective, even as I’ve titrated the dose higher and higher. Luckily, his son Peter is visiting from Europe and can shop and cook. As Mr. Berndt has declined, several island neighbors stop by regularly with hot meals and keep him informed of island news.
“You know,” Arnold said, in a thick German accent, “I heard Hitler speak.” A blast of wind funneled up from the beach through a grove of staghorn sumac and alders, rattling and groaning against the cottage, the cottage that Arnold and Erna built by hand a few years after they first visited Peaks Island in the 1960s. I leaned forward. Arnold’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I went to a rally in… 1933. Yes, in 1933. Hitler’s voice was like both honey and hissing acid. He was not yet in power, but you could see it coming. I remember looking round at my friends and neighbors. They were nodding their heads. Afterwards, Erna a Jew, felt the stares, the suspicion, and we both knew that there would be a time when we must leave.”
“Hitler’s power grew slowly. He was a mad man, yes, but he was patient and understood the common man’s prejudices. One day we gathered our belongings as best we could, and slipped out of Germany. When Germany annexed Poland, we were already on the move. We lived in France, in Spain, in North Africa. Everywhere we tried to settle, it was the same; now it was my time to feel the eyes of suspicion, the whispers, the taunting. I was not Jewish like Erna but an unwelcome German refugee. We moved on.”
Arnold’s eyes widened, unblinking. He took a sip of wine and swallowed. Even the simple act of swallowing seemed to aggravate his pain. He reached up and massaged his neck. I thought back to my first glimpse of Arnold six years prior as he skimmed across the bay windsurfing. When he pulled up on the beach, I walked over to chat and was taken aback that I was meeting a wisp of a man with just enough muscle tone to lug the sailboard above the high-tide mark. I told him that I worried that if he slipped off the board, he lacked the strength to save himself. But Arnold was deceptive. His strength, he told me, was in his balance and feel for the wind. He never fell. It seemed beyond belief that he taught windsurfing at Trefethen, our local boating club.
“As Hitler consolidated his power, Europe looked the other way,” Arnold continued. “So while Hitler slaughtered hundreds of thousands, Erna and I kept on the move. We were young and had each other, but money? We had enough to board a freighter for Palestine. It was said that in Palestine, we could sit out the war; Erna and I might make a new home. On the fourth night at sea, I was on deck watching for the coast. Ahead I could see lights. It was Palestine. Then I heard voices up on the bow. The crew was ordered to turn the ship around. The port was closed to us.”
“I found Erna. ‘Come. Leave our belongings. Take what you can carry. We need to go.’ The freighter began a slow turn, and we stood on the rail and jumped. We swam towards shore. Somehow, we made the beach and were found the next morning.”
“Did they allow you to stay?” I asked.
“Yes. They needed workers. I had building skills. Erna found work at the British Consulates office. She was hired as a housekeeper.”
“That’s an amazing story,” I said. “Thank you.”
We sat quietly, alone in our thoughts. Outside, the snow continued to blow. Peter poured his father and me another glass of wine. Sandi pointed to a wood-framed photo on the bookcase and asked Mr. Berndt, “Is that Erna and you in Palestine?”
Without looking up, Mr. Berndt said, “Yes. Yes. That was taken the day Erna was promoted. She became the Chief Consulate’s secretary and housekeeper. It came with a small raise. They recognized that she was an educated woman, a competent woman. We were happy.”
I looked to Sandi; it was time to go, but Mr. Berndt raised a hand. “Please stay.” He cautiously swallowed another sip of wine, exhaled, and relaxed against the headrest. We waited.
“My wife and I lived in Palestine from 1943 to 1948. The Jews were sent to concentration camps in Europe, but in Palestine, they themselves persecuted the Arabs; two wrongs do not make a right. Always, we see our differences more than our similarities. Even here, on Peaks Island, we often see only differences. Because I am German and I don’t speak like others, they assume certain things.
“Let me tell you a story. One day in Palestine, two Christian priests visited the consulate. They were of different denominations. They requested a meeting with the head man, the British Commander. He invited them in; Erna served tea.
“The two men sat across from the Commander in their fine linen of gold and purple and scarlet robes. The shorter of the two held a cardboard box. He explained that their congregations shared an ancient stone church of worship in Jerusalem. Although both congregations claimed ownership of the church, a compromise was working, a schedule rigidly adhered to. At certain times, on certain days, one congregation came to worship. On other days, at certain times, it was the other congregation’s turn. The two congregations rarely saw each other. It was better that way.”
The taller priest took up the story, “On the ceiling and walls of our church are dozens and dozens of lamps, some, it’s said, dating back to the time of Christ. The lamps are revered. Each congregation understands which lamps belong to whom, their ownership traced back through generations of worshippers. And on this,” he turned to the shorter priest who listened attentively, “there is general agreement.”
The British Commandant said to the two men, ‘Well, I must say, I congratulate you. The memories of Arabs, Christians, and Jews are long. We must spread this spirit you have found in your hearts.”
The two holy men’s faces drooped. They fiddled with their ornamentation. Then one of the Priests gently opened the box. Erna placed a tray of pastry on the table between the Priests and the Commandant. She lingered by the door, listening, and watching. A dented, smoke-stained copper lamp was removed from the box. The two Priests held the lamp in tandem, each maintaining a grip, and placed it on the table. The lamp looked like an ordinary lamp, like those sold in the local market. It could be twenty years old or more than a thousand. Who could say?
‘We agree on the ownership for each lamp,’ the taller of the two Priests said, “All of them, except for this lamp. This special lamp, by our records, clearly belongs to us. It has belonged to us for more than 500 years, perhaps longer.”
‘By our records,” the shorter priest interrupted, his voice rising, ‘This lamp belongs to our congregation. It is sacred to our people. We had no idea the other congregation claimed this lamp as their own until very recently. We have come to you for a solution. You must decide. There are those in my congregation who feel that the only solution is to take what is ours.” Then he removed a sheath of yellowed papers from his satchel and declared, “Here is our proof of ownership for the lamp.”
‘And here is proof of our ownership.” The taller priest replied quickly, removing an envelope from beneath his vestments. In fact….” but the Commandant waved him off and motioned for Erna.
The Priests settled back into their chairs, eying each other suspiciously. Erna refilled their teacups. The British Commandant rested his hand on his chin before awkwardly crossing and re-crossing his arms. He silently noted that the two men were not armed. Good. Then he slowly reached out and picked up the lamp and turned it from side to side, studying it from all angles.
“Erna,” he said finally, “Place these documents in my briefcase by the door. Then lock the clasp. I have the key.” Then he turned to the two Priests and said, “I can see how critical it is to determine the true ownership of this sacred lamp. I don’t have the expertise to make this decision, but you must know, we have experts in Great Britain, world-renowned experts, who can properly determine precisely the true ownership of the lamp. Now that you have provided me with the evidence and the lamp, I believe we have everything we need.”
He stood and shook each of the Priests hands. “Will you each abide by my decision?” The two holy men agreed, each believing that the experts would surely conclude in the righteousness of their case. “Good. With your permission,” the Commandant continued, “I will take this lamp and send it on to Great Britain by steamer. There’s no question we can properly get to the bottom of this.”
The Priests seemed relieved to have a third party, a world-renowned expert, settle the question. The solution seemed perfectly reasonable. “Of course, it may take time,” the Commandant added. “There’s a war going, you know.” The Priests said they understood. In another moment, they were gone.
Erna cleared the table. The Commandant picked up the ancient lamp and held the door for her. ‘My Dear Erna, I have one more item for you.’ He gently placed the lamp on the tray and picking up a napkin, wiped his hands. “Take this lamp. Promise me that I will never see it again. Do you understand? Never.”
Mr. Berndt hands settled on his lap, his eyes alert and bright. Peter quietly cleared off the table. Sandi and I zipped up our parkas. “The lamp,” Mr. Berndt eyes rested on me. “You can take a look at the lamp if you wish.” He pointed towards the top corner of the bookcase. There, in a musty corner, acting as a bookend, was the lamp.