Lily Kovner could not have dreamed that research for a magazine assignment would resurrect a searing memory from her childhood. A fleeting glimpse of a family treasure looted by the Nazis launches "Afikomen" - her quest for justice and restitution spanning three continents. Along the way threats, murder and the revelation of a diabolical secret deal thrust Lily onto an emotional rollercoaster further complicated by the thrill of new romance.
Part I Chapter 1 Vienna, 1938
THE LITTLE GIRL clung to her mother as three men in black leather coats stormed from room to room opening cabinets, pulling out drawers, kicking furniture with their boots, shouting. Suddenly, the young, black-haired one the others called “Obersturmführer Bucholz” announced, “We’re done here.”
As they swept past, the little girl struggled to break free, flailing her arms, pushing against her mother’s grasp locked tightly around her middle. She screamed, ignoring her mother’s whispered pleas to shush.
“The Seder plate. You can’t take that. Papa, Papa, where are you going? No. No. Mama! Let me go. Look what they’re doing.”
New York City, March 1990
“No, No. That’s our Seder plate. You can’t do this.”
There was no one to shush me, and I was barely aware that I’d leapt to my feet screaming until I heard the uproar around me. My sixty-year-old self had morphed back to the impulsive eight-year-old I was that night in 1938. To the last time I’d seen the antique Italian Seder plate that had just appeared on a pedestal on stage. The last time I saw my father—ever.
There was buzzing in the audience of about one hundred collectors, curators, and wannabes at an auction of Jewish ritual items. The gilded faux Versailles hotel ballroom looked like a tennis match as heads swung back and forth from me to the stage and back again.
The auctioneer, Shira Reznik, the head of the New York office of the Mosaica auction firm based in Israel, ignored me at first. A compact woman with frizzy red hair wearing a black pants suit, she maintained a tight smile and waited for the audience to quiet down. Finally, she had no choice. She held up her hands to calm the crowd as she visibly inhaled and addressed me.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Reznik. “Is there a problem? Please take your seat so we can begin the bidding.”
“A problem? Yes, there’s a problem. That Seder plate belonged to my family. It was stolen by the Nazis. I saw them take it out of our apartment. You’re selling stolen property!” I sat down, suddenly winded, my heart pounding. I’m not sure which shocked me more—seeing the Seder plate or making such a spectacle of myself.
On stage Reznik turned her mouth away from the microphone and conferred with the man next to her, Professor Shaul Rotan. Rotan, a tall, stooped Judaica expert from Israel’s Hebrew University, had made scholarly pronouncements all afternoon in his role as “permanent consultant to Mosaica.” His accented English, to my poly-lingual ears, sounded like German roots mixed with Israeli Hebrew, a likely mix for a man that looked seventy-something.
When they finished their conversation, Rotan shot me a withering gaze, hoisted the Seder plate off its pedestal, and darted backstage behind the navy velvet curtain.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Reznik said as the curtain fluttered behind her, “this piece has been withdrawn, and the auction is now concluded.” Gavel in hand, she immediately disappeared via the same route as the professor.
I shoved past the rows of seats toward the side entrance closest to the stage. Others in the audience glanced at me but avoided eye contact. There was only one exit out of the ballroom toward the elevator.
“What’s with this rude lady?” I heard someone muttering.
Silently, two groups parted to open a Red Sea passage toward the foyer. It was empty except for a few people who’d left during my outburst. In vain I rushed toward the elevator bank and the door to a stairway exit. No Reznik or Rotan.
I stood alone for a moment, catching my breath. I was barely conscious of the snippets of conversation around me:
“Who is that woman? Damn, I wanted to bid on that Seder plate.”
“Do you think she knows what she’s talking about?”
“Did you see that Seder plate? My God. The picture in the catalogue was gorgeous, but up close....”
The catalogue. I had picked one up on the way into the auction; it must have slipped off my lap when the Seder plate appeared. I slinked away from my rest stop and threaded my way against the flow of people treating me like an untouchable. I went back into the ballroom occupied only by hotel staff stacking chairs and lugging a vacuum cleaner.
The catalogue lay on the floor in front of my uncollected chair. I sat down again, no doubt to the annoyance of the crew, and flipped to the last page, the Seder plate’s picture and description. Though it couldn’t compare to the real thing, even a photograph showed how splendid this piece was.
Describing it as just a Seder plate failed to account for its grandeur. Certainly, it fulfilled its function as the bearer of Passover symbols to the Seder table. But its design and decoration made it unique—three tiers increasing in diameter from the top to the bottom, all crafted from the signature royal blue glass of the Venetian island of Murano. A sterling silver spine connected the tiers, which were edged in silver filigree encrusted with sapphires and pearls.
The smallest circle, on top, bore a groove to nestle a wine cup for the prophet, Elijah, mythically believed to visit every Seder. The second level held the three matzahs traditional to the ceremony. The six indentations in the large bottom tier displayed the foods that embody the Passover story—bitter herbs symbolizing the difficult life of slavery; salt water for slaves’ tears; the lamb shank bone for the paschal lamb sacrificed; the pasty charoses mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine depicting the mortar the Jewish slaves used to build pyramids; a green vegetable representing spring harvest; and an egg signifying life. Minus the silver Hebrew letters labeling each indentation, the Seder plate could have been an epergne for finger sandwiches and scones at high tea in a grand English country home. In fact, the catalogue write-up mentioned that its creator, Abramo di Salamone, crafted more pieces for secular use than for ritual.
Di Salamone was described as a master artisan of the sixteenth century. Although he lived in the walled quarter of Venice thought by some scholars to be the original “ghetto,” his reputation filtered out of the Jewish community to the upper levels of Venetian society. Di Salamone creations found themselves in the palazzos of the ruling doges. This was interesting background information for the magazine assignment that had led me to the auction that day. But it wouldn’t help me get the Seder plate back.
I closed the booklet and stuffed it into the black leather tote bag at my feet. I just sat there, feeling powerless either to figure out what to do next or even to get up and leave. I dropped my head, wrapped my arms around myself, and doubled over as if in pain. But it wasn’t physical.
Suddenly, a slight smoker’s cough announced the arrival of a pair of gray flannel legs rising from Italian tasseled loafers. I looked up to a face that was familiar, but I couldn’t put a name to it. The face was craggy, not handsome, with a square protruding jaw line and dark complexion. Thinning black hair was slicked backward from the forehead to a length just above his collar, a style that aimed to make the most of what was left. Not more than five feet eight, build more solid than stocky, wearing the navy-blazer–blue-shirt-striped-rep-tie uniform, well-tailored and fine quality, but not dashing on this physique. He smiled down at me. And clapped his hands together in a slow rhythm.
“Bravo,” said a deep voice that could probably boom, but was deliberately softened. “What a performance. I wanted to meet the mystery lady who stopped the show.”
“This isn’t Broadway,” I said.
He stopped clapping and bent down, placing his right hand lightly on my shoulder.
“No, of course not. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be flip. Really. What you said was serious.”
“And I made quite a spectacle of myself in the process.”
I looked around, saw the hotel staff glaring at us, and stood up.
“I suppose we should get out of here.”
“Don’t forget your pocketbook.” He bent down to pick up my bag still on the floor next to the chair.
“Thanks. I’m so thrown—I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“It must have been quite a shock. And the Mosaica people took it seriously. Did you see the look of terror on Shira’s Reznik’s face? Even that snooty old professor looked scared. You got to them. Stopping the auction right away—that’s unheard of.”
“And not staying around to talk to me? That only makes me more suspicious.”
“Have you ever done business with them?”
“No. I only came because I’m writing an article on the Judaica market.”
“You’re a writer? Have I heard of you?”
“I don’t know. Professionally, I use the name Lily Weinberg, my maiden name. Otherwise, I’m Lily Kovner. And you?”
Of course. The scion of Rieger & Co., a decades-old purveyor of jewelry rivaling Tiffany or Harry Winston. A business known among the cognoscenti for its chic lounge in the back of a Madison Avenue shop—a relaxed setting where regular clients could shop privately at custom prices. I’d read about a messy divorce—and endowed university chairs and other top-dollar philanthropy. His photograph appeared regularly in the Evenings feature of the Times Sunday Styles section, usually arm in arm with some stunning woman. Actually, different stunning women, all younger than he. What was he doing talking to me?
“Kovner. Kovner. Arthur Kovner?”
“Arthur was my husband.”
“A fine man. Brilliant. His economic consulting firm did a research project on my industry a few years ago. I heard about his death. How long ago?”
“Just a year.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. And, from what you said today, you must be a Holocaust victim,” he said, glancing at my left wrist.
There’s no number burned into my skin. It’s funny, but I don’t think of myself as a victim, or even as a Survivor. I was deported to Britain on the Kindertransport, a luxurious adventure on commercial railroad and ferry with other children and kind chaperones to a safe destination—in my case the loving open arms of an aunt and uncle. It couldn’t compare to the horrors of the boxcars. But the Seder plate’s fleeting reappearance had resurrected memories of life “before,” and the loss of it all.
“No, not a victim—I never use that term. Although I am the only survivor of my immediate family. I wasn’t in the camps, if that’s what you mean. My parents and grandparents were murdered, but I got out several months after Vienna fell.”
“You must have been quite young at the time. How can you remember the Nazis taking that Seder plate?”
“If you’d lived through a night like that, you’d understand. I was eight years old. We all loved that Seder plate. When the Nazis stormed in...carried it off...you just don’t forget. They took my father, too. It was....” I felt myself tearing up. “Believe me, you’d remember.” Simon Rieger drew back and took a breath. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I apologize; that was stupid.”
“You don’t have to apologize. How would you know? Count yourself lucky not to know.” He nodded.
“Listen, it’s been nice meeting you, but I’ve got to get out of here and try to catch up with the Mosaica people. Get to their office.”
“It’s four-thirty on Sunday afternoon. They won’t be there. But we can call to check.”
We were standing near a pay phone. He fished in his trousers pocket, pulled out a quarter, and handed it to me. The number was on the back of the catalogue.
He stood by while I dialed and listened to a recording that spelled out Mosaica’s normal business hours and announced the auction that had just concluded.
“You’re right. They’re closed until tomorrow morning.”
“Why don’t we go downstairs and have a drink?”
I shook my head. “I really appreciate the invitation, but I need to get home and figure out what I’m going to do about this. I wouldn’t be good company.”
Handing me his card, he said, “I might be able to help you. Perhaps we can get together another time.”
Sure, I thought, Simon Rieger is going to ask me out for a drink again. Most single women my age, knowing his preference for dates who appeared young enough to be our daughters—and his—would sacrifice their firstborn for this invitation. I told myself that it was a polite one-time gesture inspired by pity over my dilemma.
“That would be nice,” I murmured as I fished for my own card, which he actually read.
“You’ve written for New York and the New Yorker, haven’t you? And the Times?”
“All of the above, occasionally. I was a staff reporter at the old Herald Tribune and later at the Village Voice. Just freelancing now. Gives me the luxury of working when I want to on assignments that interest me or something I want to pitch to an editor.”
“Which is this?”
“An assignment. The Smithsonian Magazine. On Judaica collectors and sales, rising prices, old European pieces showing up on the market. If you’re here, it must mean you’re a collector. Should I interview you?”
“I am a collector, and, yes, you should interview me. If you had a drink with me, you could start now.”
I was tempted, but the heft of the Mosaica catalogue in my bag reminded me of the weight on my mind.
“Please give me a rain check. This just isn’t a good time.”
We shook hands goodbye. From the Waldorf lobby he headed toward the Lexington Avenue exit. I walked out onto Park Avenue and turned north, hoping that the brisk air of the March dusk would clarify the conflict raging in my head.
On the one hand, this was the story of a lifetime. On the other, emotional entanglement and upheaval could compromise my professionalism. I was no Hunter Thompson or Nellie Bly—I’d never inject myself into a story.
My professionalism? What was the matter with me? This was my life and my family’s property stolen by the Nazis. Story or no story, I had to act.
But did I need this in my life? Although widowhood was no picnic, watching Arthur suffer had made the inevitable end a blessing for him. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t give anyone a lot of time to reflect. You try to fight it as best you can, but the outcome is unequivocal from the beginning. Deprived of the “golden years” we’d anticipated, I carried on, resuming a routine revolving around family, friends, volunteer work, culture, and travel that we’d hoped to enjoy together and had planned to share for a long time.
After my hiatus as caregiver, I’d started to work again and had just published a piece in USA Today (of all places!) about managing a terminally ill loved one at home. The Smithsonian assignment was a clean break from the official year of mourning and saying Kaddish. I missed Arthur terribly and still sometimes anguished over how unfair and painful his illness was. But that level of grief had dwindled to waves lasting just hours or even moments. Self-reliance had resumed its place as my best friend.
Yet, I had doubts about whether to pursue the Seder plate. Was my sense of balance steady enough? Would this catapult me back into the bleakness I experienced right after Arthur died?
Did I have a choice?
The Seder plate symbolized my heritage, not as a valuable objet d’art but as a tangible remembrance of my childhood and of the parents who were squashed like mosquitoes by the Nazis. Cavalier as I was about the victim label, I couldn’t help but be staggered by the hatbox of memory, long shoved onto a high shelf, that suddenly toppled down on my head.
I had to get the Seder plate back.
The air felt good, and it would be a pleasant walk to my apartment on Central Park South. But I needed to go somewhere else—fast.
“Taxi,” I yelled, plucking the catalogue from my bag to give the driver Mosaica’s address.