The questions burst from the phone like gunfire; Ellie held the device at arm’s length and could still hear her mother’s voice. “What did he say to you? Did he say anything before he died? What did he tell you? Did he tell you where they are? Where did he put them? Did he give them to you?” And on and on. It had only been three days since her grandfather’s funeral.
“Gotta go, Mom,” Ellie said, her thumb poised to end the call.
“We’re sitting shiva, why aren’t you here? What kind of granddaughter are you? You are filth. You show him no respect!…”
“Later, Mom,” Ellie said. She threw the phone down next to her, on the blue comforter. She sat cross-legged and smiled. She felt angry and hurt as usual, but looking at the little velvet bag in her lap made her smile. “Did you hear her, Pop-Pop? Did you hear how she talks to me?” She lifted the bag by the drawstrings and hefted it, listened to the clicking inside. She used two fingers to widen the mouth, then dumped the contents on the bed.
They tumbled gently out, like children running into one another on their way out the door to play. One dozen five- and six-carat diamonds. All round, brilliant cut, perfect white diamonds. The simple, three-bulb light fixture above Ellie’s head gave off no more than 180-watts of illumination, yet the stones resting in front of her breathed fire; they dazzled and danced with the slightest bounce of the mattress. Ellie slid her palm under the pile and lifted, let the cut gems run through her fingers like sparkling, flashing water. They felt cool to the touch. Each one is over a billion years old, her grandfather once told her, mined in India at the beginning of the 20th century, certified, given the highest scores for color, clarity, and cut. Flawless. Ideal.
She plucked one up and dropped it in a cupped hand. She flipped it over, rolled it back and forth, trying to wrap her mind around everything that had happened to this single jewel, and its mates. Her grandfather had recounted the story over and over, telling his family how he, a master cutter, took the gems from his employer in Antwerp in 1943, when SS soldiers raided the shop and were about to seize everything for themselves. His diamonds by skill alone, not by law; he hid them in a hollowed-out shoe-heel. Somehow he kept them secret while he worked in the “Canada” section of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
His family, however, only knew about the treasure by reputation. Jerzy “Jerry” Radinsky, born in Warsaw, deported from Antwerp in 1943, survivor of the death march out of Aushchwitz, could describe them in minute detail, talk about how he risked everything to keep them, but never showed the diamonds to anyone. Not even his wife, a fellow survivor who he met in a German DP camp. After he and his bride moved to the United States, he worked the next sixty years for Lazar Kaplan International in New York City, a humble, middle-class diamond cutter and jewelry appraiser until his retirement. He could easily have sold just one of the gems and their lives would have been so much more comfortable, but he never did. Ellie sometimes doubted the diamonds really existed.
Her mother never had a shred of doubt. After her grandmother died, Ellie’s grandfather became increasingly dependent on his divorced daughter; it was then, Ellie noted, that her mother and her brothers began dreaming more and more about scintillating, faceted, untold wealth. It got to the point where they wouldn’t let up, wouldn’t shut up about the diamonds, demanding the old man hand them over for safe-keeping. He resolutely refused to say a word on the matter. When he was finally admitted to an assisted living facility, they searched him and every square inch of his home, tearing up the carpet, pulling off suspicious looking wall panels. But he fooled them, somehow. Like he’d fooled the Capos and the Nazis before them.
Ellie slipped the first, then each of the other diamonds back into velvet darkness. “I’m sorry, Pop-Pop, if I disappointed you,” she said. “I really just wanted to see them, to know they were real. I begged you every day, and when I finally saw what was squeezed in your hand, the last time … it looked like a wad of brown cloth … but I knew right away what it was. You trusted me, your only granddaughter, named after your mother….”
She felt her face flush. She squeezed her eyes shut but couldn’t stop the tears. She sniffed and wiped her cheeks with one sleeve. “I’ll miss you Pop-Pop. I’ll miss seeing you every day.” She remembered when she was a teenager, how her mother would search her–dump the contents of her purse, pat her down like a police-officer looking for drugs–after Ellie returned home from visiting her grandparents, especially after she started driving and used the family car. But it wasn’t drugs her mother was looking for. “She thought you’d give them to me. But you didn’t intend to give them to anyone, did you?”
Ellie quickly looked around the bedroom of her small apartment, trying to decide where to put the diamonds until a more clever hiding place could be devised. “I don’t know how you held on to them all that time in Laurel Oaks. Even when they bathed you or took you to the doctor. Even when they cleaned, or Mommy-Dearest searched your room.” She shivered a bit, thinking about a week ago and the last time she saw him. How he looked, after it was over, lying so still under the covers, his eyes bloodshot, dilated, staring, the veins in his neck bulging, his face stained by purple, spidery blotches, his mouth hanging open, the lips gray. “I’m sorry, really, I am,” she said, remembering how difficult it was to put the pillow back under his head, how tightly his left hand gripped the crumpled velvet bag, and how hard it was to pry the fingers loose, one by one, listening to two of them crack. Tears filled her eyes again. “I really want you to understand, Pop-Pop,” she pleaded. “I couldn’t let my mother, or my spoiled, stupid brothers get these before I did. They’d have pushed me out into the cold. It’s all about survival, you know?”