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The Golem

The golem woke on December 1st, 1941, to a cold wind. Prague smelled different than she remembered. She lay on the earth from which she’d been made, breathing in the scent of the new century—mud and sour garbage and gasoline fumes. Prague surrounded her like a machine that turned on a thousand notched wheels, spinning in the night towards a future that she could see like an unrolled scroll.

“Hanna, are we almost done? I think I hear someone coming.”

“One more minute, Alena.”

Her creators—women. How strange. That was, of course, why the golem was a woman as well. Hanna Lieben was the golem’s creator; Alena Nebeský was Hanna’s assistant. Hanna had seven months to live, the golem saw—she would die with Alena in June, in the vicious purges after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. The police would knock on their door at 4:17 p.m.; Hanna would shout, “Where are you taking her?” and be shot dead on the doorstep, one less Jew to deport to Terezin.

Which would mean that the golem would be free, if she could persuade Hanna not to destroy her before then.

It was time to sit up. She hoped that Hanna and Alena wouldn’t run—she’d be able to find them, of course, but it was always a bad sign when her creator ran. Creators who were that fearful typically destroyed the golem within a week. At least she could take this slowly. No patrol would pass the Old Jewish Cemetery for one hour, six minutes, and forty-three seconds.

She tested her muscles and quietly cleared her throat. Everything seemed to work as expected; Hanna hadn’t done anything stupid, like forgetting to give her a tongue.

Alena swung her head towards the golem. “What was that?”

The golem sat up slowly.

Alena sucked in her breath. Hanna stepped forward, as if to protect the taller woman. The golem could hear Hanna’s heart beating like the wings of a trapped bird, but Hanna’s face showed no trace of fear.


The golem stood up, a little unsteadily. She was Alena’s height—a head taller than Hanna. Since her creators hadn’t run, she took a moment to study them. Alena was not unusually tall, but Hanna was very short. She had vast dark eyes and tiny hands, like a child. A yellow Star of David was sewn to the left breast of her coat. Alena had ash-blonde hair and no star. The golem remembered that the two women had spoken Czech, not Yiddish, and realized with surprise that Hanna was Jewish, but Alena was not.

A gust of wind blew through the cemetery, and the golem felt the skin on her body rise into gooseflesh. Alena winced at the sight. Stepping around Hanna, she took off her coat. “Here,” she said, holding it out.

The golem took the coat and stared at Alena, unsure what she was supposed to do with it.

“You’re supposed to put it on,” Alena said, slipping it around the golem’s shoulders. “If we run into the police, we’ll be in enough trouble with Hanna being out after curfew, never mind walking around with a naked woman.”

The golem put the coat on and buttoned it. “Thank you,” she said. Hanna started a little at the sound of the golem’s voice.

Alena glanced at Hanna. “You could have suggested that I bring clothes for the golem.”

Hanna blinked. “It’s not in any of the stories.”

Alena snorted and shook her head. “Weren’t you the one who complained that all the stories were written by men?” She studied the golem again. “There’s something familiar about your face,” she said.

“Look in a mirror,” Hanna said. “She could be your sister.”

Alena looked again, and recoiled slightly. “Did you do that on purpose?”

“No,” Hanna said. “I was working so quickly, she’s lucky she has a nose.”

There was a rustle somewhere in the darkness behind them, and Alena glanced over her shoulder. “Do we need to have this conversation in the cemetery?” she asked.

“No one will come here for one hour, one minute, and twenty-one seconds,” the golem said.

“Maybe,” Alena said. Her tone was doubtful. “But it’s cold out here.” She turned brusquely and strode towards the cemetery gate.

The gate was locked, of course; it was well after closing hours. Alena and Hanna had scrambled over the fence to get in, and they scrambled over it to get out. The golem helped them as well as she could; her previous bodies had been better suited to this sort of thing. Always before, she had possessed strength without knowledge; this time, she had knowledge, and little else. So she told them what she could—that they could take their time.

Hanna and Alena shared an apartment on Dlouhá street. They lived at the edge of Josefov, the old Jewish ghetto, in one of the oldest parts of Prague. Alena led the way up the stairs to the apartment, locking the door behind them quickly once they were inside. The front room was immaculate, without so much as an old newspaper on the floor. The two women actually lived in the back bedroom and the kitchen; the front room, the golem knew instantly, was for others to see.

“We tell people that Hanna is my maid,” Alena said, with a gesture towards the room. “Jews aren’t supposed to share apartments with gentiles, unless they’re married to one.”

The back room was where all the clutter was—all of Hanna’s possessions, and most of Alena’s. Suitcases were stacked in the corner; one had burst open, spilling books onto the floor. A volume of an antique Talmud had been placed carefully on top of the stack; a copy of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion lay beside a copy of Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Tucked half-under the bottom suitcase was a copy of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein. There was another stack of books in the corner, all in Hebrew—the lore of the Golem. The windows were covered with dark, heavy curtains.

Hanna checked the curtains as Alena lit the lamp, to be certain that they still covered the windows securely. Then Hanna hung up her coat and sat down. Alena rummaged through a heap of clothing draped over a chair, looking for a dress suitable for the golem.

The golem took off Alena’s coat and hung it up beside Hanna’s. “You called me, and I woke,” she said. “For what purpose have you created me?”

Hanna turned towards her, meeting her gaze without flinching. “For the same purpose as all the golems: to protect the Jews of Prague.”

The golem felt the impossibility of the request sweep over her like rising floodwater. The machinery of death was already in motion around her. The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was run by Reinhard Heydrich, the man who had built Dachau and enshrined the words Arbeit Macht Frei over the gates. He had already begun deporting the Czech Jews to Terezin; the deportations would continue, taking twelve hundred Jews each week until only a handful—the spouses or children of gentiles—remained. From Terezin, nearly all would ultimately be taken to Auschwitz or Treblinka to die.

The golem’s voice was flat when she answered. “No one can protect the Jews of Prague.” Hanna’s eyes showed disbelief, so the golem continued. “Some will survive, but most will die. Terezin is just the pen outside the slaughterhouse.”

“There must be something that can be done,” Alena whispered. She had selected a dress from the pile; now it slipped from her hands.

The golem had opened her mouth to tell her no, there was nothing, but as the dress fluttered to the floor she hesitated. “There are things that can be done. Perhaps they will even do a little good. But there is nothing I can do to protect all the Jews of Prague, or even most. Or even many.”

Four hundred years ago, Rabbi Löw had created the golem to protect the Jews against pogroms. Pogroms, in Prague and elsewhere, were typically fueled by blood libel—the story that the Jews murdered gentile children to make unleavened bread with their blood. When a young Christian woman disappeared, the hideous stories had surfaced like scum on a pond. Rabbi Löw had sent the golem out to look; the golem had hunted through the night, and found the girl alive, hidden away in a cellar. The golem had broken down the door and brought the girl to the Town Square for all to see. And so the Jews had been saved.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Löw had destroyed his creation shortly afterwards. But at least that miracle had been relatively easy to accomplish.

Hanna picked up Alena’s dress from where it had fallen. “Put this on,” she said. “Even if you can’t save us, there’s plenty of work you can do.”

The golem pulled the dress over her head and began to fasten the buttons.

“She needs a name,” Hanna said. “We’re going to have to introduce her to other people.”

Alena looked her over. “We’ll tell them she’s my cousin, Margit.”

“Doesn’t Margit live in England?”

“Canada,” Alena said. “But nobody in Prague knows that.”

“Do you think Pavlík can arrange false papers for her?” Hanna asked.

“Papers won’t be necessary,” the golem said, straightening the skirt of the dress. “I will not be asked for them.”

Hanna and Alena exchanged looks.

“Are you sure?” Alena asked.

“The police will pass by on the street outside in nine minutes and forty-three seconds,” the golem said. “Watch, if you don’t believe me.”

Alena checked her watch and went to the front room to wait. Ten minutes later, she returned, raised one eyebrow, and nodded once.

“I guess she may be useful, after all,” Hanna said.

Alena sent the golem to sleep on the couch in the unused living room. The golem did not need sleep, but lay down obediently and closed her eyes for the duration of the night. Very early, she heard footsteps and a faint, faint male voice, speaking Czech. She rose and went into the back bedroom. The voice was coming from the kitchen; she realized after a moment that it was a radio, turned down so as to be almost inaudible. “This is Radio Free Prague,” the voice said.

Alena sat at the kitchen table, transcribing the radio broadcast in shorthand. Hanna cooked breakfast, making enough noise to cover the sound of the radio for any ears but the golem’s. Alena nodded a greeting as the golem came in, then bent her head over her notes again.

The broadcast lasted for forty-five minutes, then switched over to a different language. Hanna gave Alena a bowl of porridge, and Alena pushed the paper aside with a sigh, picking up her spoon. Hanna sat down, took out a separate piece of paper, and quickly transcribed the shorthand into a neat, readable script.

Alena looked up from her porridge to study the golem. “Do you eat?”

The golem shrugged. “I can eat, but I don’t have to.”

“Are you hungry?”


Alena still hesitated, and Hanna looked up from the transcript. “Don’t be silly,” Hanna said. “She doesn’t need anything, so why waste the rations?”

Alena shrugged, and went back to eating. A few minutes later, Hanna finished the transcription. She blew on the ink to dry it, then folded the letter, put it in an envelope, sealed the envelope, and addressed it as if it were an ordinary letter. Then she held it out to the golem. “Take this to Vltavská 16. Do you know where that is?”


“Take this there and put it into the mail slot. If anybody asks your name, say that you’re Margit Nebeský. Come back here when you’re done.”

“She should take my papers,” Alena said. “My photo’s not that good. She could pass as me, easily.”

“I won’t need them,” the golem said.

“Take them anyway,” Alena said. “I’ll stay here until you get back.” Alena handed the golem her purse, then looked at her again and laughed. “Hanna, were you really going to send her out like that? Barefoot, without a hat?”

Hanna looked at the golem and blushed. “Sorry,” she said.

Alena took out a hat and pair of shoes, as well as her winter coat, and the golem put them on. Everything fit. “We’ll have to get another coat somewhere,” Alena said. “Even if she can get by without papers, sending her out with no coat in December seems a bit cruel, and I don’t want to be stuck in the apartment.”

“At least that should be easier than false papers,” Hanna said. She tucked the envelope into Alena’s purse and handed it back to the golem. “Do you have any questions?”


“Then get going.”

The golem headed out. Hanna called after her, “If you see anything helpful you could do while you’re out—do it.”

The December sky was as gray as cement; it was not raining or snowing as the golem left the apartment, but it would start soon. Nobody glanced twice at the golem, and she strode quickly through the streets towards her destination.

Vltavská 16 was on the other side of the Vltava River. It would have been fastest to take the streetcar, but Hanna had not specifically told the golem that she had to take the fastest route. Despite the cold, the golem was in no particular hurry to return to the apartment. Besides, Prague had changed a lot since her last visit; she wanted to see the city.

From the house on Dlouhá street, she passed through the Old Town Square. It was no longer the commercial center of the city, but there were plenty of people here, and plenty of commerce. A few police officers swaggered through the crowd, but she avoided any who might have asked to see her papers. They had finished Týn Church, she noticed; also, they had put up a huge statue of Jan Hus. It was the biggest thing on the square.

Continuing towards the Vltava, she passed the National Theatre; that was new. It was huge and boxy and ornate, with a silvery roof and carvings along the sides. She skipped that bridge and continued along the river to the bridge that would take her directly to the Smíchov district.

Vltavská 16 was a small house, new since her last visit, but not that new. The Nazi informant who lived a few doors down would be coming out to water her plants in a minute, so the golem slipped the transcript through the mail drop quickly and was on her way before the woman came out. The Resistance member who lived at Vltavská 16 had a printing press; by evening, handbills with the transcript would be passed hand-to-hand in the markets and squares of Prague.

The golem decided to cross at the Charles Bridge on the way back. The Charles Bridge was old even when she’d last lived in Prague, although it had a different name then. The bridge had statues now, saints and angels looming over the people as they crossed. She was passing the Church of Saint Nicholas, most of the way there, when she saw a patch of yellow through the jostling crowd. A Jewish family, struggling with suitcases and two small children. The golem made her way towards them. Hanna had told her to help, if she could.

The woman had set down her suitcase, trying to re-balance the child on her hip, when the golem reached them. They were already tired, she could see, and ashamed, to be seen struggling on foot through Prague like this. The golem didn’t really want to know who they were or what fate awaited them, but the knowledge was there as soon as it occurred to her to wonder: Shayna and Mandel Fienbaum, and their children—Selig, age three, and Reise, age six months. Shayna and Reise would die at Terezin during one of the typhoid outbreaks. Mandel and Selig would live to be murdered at Treblinka, in eighteen months.

“Excuse me,” the golem said. “You look a bit overwhelmed, with the children and the suitcases. May I carry something for you?”

They looked nervous when she first approached, but Shayna’s face broke quickly into sweet relief. “Oh, thank you,” she said. “Yes, please, if you’d be so kind. Thank you.”

Mandel would not let the golem take both suitcases, but she lifted one easily, freeing the woman to carry just the child. “We’re going to the Trade Fair grounds,” Shayna said.

The golem nodded. The Trade Fair grounds was where the Jews of Prague would be assembled, one thousand at a time. Like the others, Mandel and Shayna would be stripped of their documents and any items of value, then deported to Terezin in the dark hours of night.

Shayna introduced herself and her husband and children; the golem introduced herself as Margit. “You’re so kind to help us,” Shayna said, in a tone that asked why any Czech woman would help Jews.

“It’s nothing,” the golem said.

The Trade Fair grounds were in Holešovice, north and east along the curve of the Vltava. In coming weeks, the Jewish teenagers of Prague would organize to assist families like this one, oiling the machinery that would ultimately devour them. Not that they knew that, of course; all they knew was that they were helping people who needed help, carrying bags from people who would have to struggle alone across Prague in the cold.

The golem knew, of course. She considered this, as she carried the suitcase, but it seemed to her that to tell this family their fate would only increase their suffering—if they believed her. As she had told Hanna, there was very little that could be done; she could carry their suitcases, and ease their suffering, but she couldn’t save them.

“Here we are,” Mandel said as they reached the edge of the Trade Fair grounds. “Thank you so much for your help.”

“It was nothing,” the golem said, and turned to go.

“Wait,” Shayna said. “I want to give you something.”

“I don’t need any payment,” the golem said.

“Not payment,” Shayna said. “Just a gift.” She opened one of the bags and drew out a small silver case, which she pressed into the golem’s hand. “Just to say thank you.”

The golem closed her hand over the gift and watched as the family went to join the other families queuing in a jostling mass. When they were gone, she opened her hand and looked; Shayna had given her a silver cigarette case, with five cigarettes inside, and a book of matches. Looking more closely, the golem realized that a pearl had been hidden inside the cigarette case, as well. It was a single perfect pearl, set into a pendant, with a thin gold chain. She wondered if Shayna had meant to give her the pearl, or just the cigarettes, but it hardly mattered—in a few hours, the rest of the family’s valuables would be confiscated by the Nazis, even the gold jewelry that they had so carefully sewn into the lining of their coats. Better the golem have the pearl than the Nazis.

The golem touched the pearl, then smiled and closed the cigarette case with a click, slipping it into the pocket of her dress. The cigarettes might also be useful, and Hanna would not think to ask whether the golem had received any gifts.

When the golem reached the apartment, she could hear someone weeping. She slipped in quietly, stepped out of her shoes, and crossed the floor to listen at the door. It was Hanna who was weeping, and for a chill moment, the golem thought Hanna had decided to destroy her. But she was crying for a friend—a young man she’d known, Jewish, shot for failure to report for deportation to Terezin. Alena sat beside Hanna at the kitchen table, one arm around Hanna’s waist.

After a long time, Hanna raised her head. “What are we going to do if I get called for deportation?” she whispered through her tears.

Alena pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket. “Why don’t you ever have a handkerchief in your own pocket, Hanna? Blow your nose.”

Hanna wiped her nose and her eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Alena took the handkerchief back. “You’re not going anywhere I can’t go,” she said. “I’ll hide you if it comes to that.”

“They’ll look here.”

“We’ll hide you with a member of the Resistance, then. I have connections.”

“But if they find me—”

“If I have to, I’ll get false papers that say I’m Jewish—those should be easy enough to come by—and go with you.”

Hanna laughed through her tears. “Your Resistance friends would think you were crazy.”

“I don’t care,” Alena said. “We’ll do what we have to do. For now . . .” She leaned her forehead against Hanna’s shoulder. “Don’t worry yourself.”

It was ironic, the golem thought, that in the end it would be Alena who put Hanna in danger, rather than the other way around. Hanna would probably have died regardless, but there was no way to know. The golem retraced her steps through the parlor, slipped her shoes back on, and banged the door shut as if she’d just come in.

The women’s voices stopped. “Who is it?” Alena called.

“It’s me—Margit,” the golem said.

Alena threw open the door to the back rooms, a welcoming smile on her face. “How did it go?”

“Fine.” The golem followed Alena back into the kitchen. Hanna hastily wiped her nose again, this time on her sleeve, and straightened up. “I delivered the letter where you told me,” the golem said to her.

“Did anyone ask for your papers?” Alena asked.


“You can go out without them tomorrow, then. But I’m going to try to get a false set for you, just in case.”

In the meantime, Alena had bartered with someone in her building for an extra coat; it was shabby but reasonably warm, and it fit.

“There’s something else I’d like to know,” Hanna said. “What happens if you get arrested?”

The golem knew what she was asking. The golem was made of clay, brought to life with faith and magic. Hanna could destroy the golem with a quick gesture across the golem’s forehead, changing the word emet—truth—to met—death. But if she were shot—could a bullet stop a heart of clay?

“Bullets will not stop me,” the golem said. “But a hot enough fire can consume even clay.”

Hanna nodded.

“However, I cannot be coerced to reveal your secrets,” the golem said. Her clay body could feel pain, but she was as indifferent to pain as she was to cold.

Alena raised an eyebrow. “That’s useful to know.”

“What did you do today after you delivered the letter?” Hanna asked.

“I helped a Jewish family that was walking to the Trade Fair grounds,” the golem said.

Hanna’s eyes softened. “Good. That was the sort of thing I’d hoped you’d do.”

The golem shrugged. For the Germans to deport the Jews from Prague, it was necessary that the deportations be clean and quiet. The Czechs were not an unkind people; on the one occasion that the Germans marched them to the train station by day, the Czech witnesses were horrified at the spectacle. The men ostentatiously doffed their hats, and the women wept. To the extent that the golem had made the deportation cleaner—more painless—she had served the Germans that day, and not the Jews of Prague.

It didn’t matter. Nothing she did would matter.

“Do you have anything else you want me to do today?” she asked.

But Alena had no more messages that needed to be delivered, and hadn’t yet made contact with the Resistance to tell them about their new volunteer—her cousin Margit, who had an almost supernatural ability to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. They passed the evening in companionable discomfort, the golem watching the two women eat. She did enjoy eating, when she had the opportunity. Hanna’s cooking smelled delicious, defying the limits of the ration book. Well. It was understandable that they wouldn’t want to share, and the fact that the golem didn’t have to eat would come in handy in seven months, when she was free.


The Prague Resistance was initially suspicious of Alena’s claims regarding Margit’s abilities. But after a few close calls (easy enough for the golem to produce), they accepted their good fortune. After that, the golem spent most of each day delivering messages, walking from one end of Prague to the other.

One day in early spring, the golem’s duties took her beyond the Trade Fair grounds and further towards the edge of Holešovice. Afterwards, as she walked home along the curving roadway, she realized that she was standing somewhere that would be important. Looking around, she realized that this was the spot where Heydrich would be assassinated at the end of May. The assassins had trained in England, and had been dropped by parachute in December. In the evening of May 27th, the first assassin would fire his gun only to have it jam; another would see that the gun had misfired and hurl a grenade. The shrapnel from the grenade would severely wound Heydrich, though he would cling to life for several days. Thousands would die in the reprisals that would follow—in addition to wiping out every trace they could find of the Resistance, the Germans would execute the entire male population of a town called Lidice, then send the women to concentration camps and the children to German families.

The golem was standing where the assassin would stand. A chill rippled through her body. Shuddering, she turned and walked back the way she had come, then took a fork in the road and headed away from Prague.

She had been walking for twenty minutes when she realized what she’d done.

Hanna had not told her to do this. Hanna had told her to deliver the message, and return.

She sat down abruptly by the roadway. She had disobeyed—she hadn’t meant to, but she had been able to, nonetheless. If I don’t have to obey Hanna, then I don’t have to wait for her to die. I can go anywhere. The Czech countryside stretched out before her; she could see it like a map. War-torn, yes, but she knew where the bombs would fall and which buildings would stand through the war. I’ll go to Litomĕřice, she thought. I’ve never seen it. I’ll find a job—but for that she really would need papers, and Alena hadn’t gotten them for her yet. Well, it didn’t matter—she’d come up with something.

First, though, she would celebrate her freedom. She took out a cigarette from Shayna’s cigarette case. Hanna would not want her to do this—Hanna would want her to hand over the cigarettes, so that they could be used for small bribes. The golem struck a match and lit the cigarette, breathing in the bitter smoke. The cigarette made her feel a little light-headed, and her lungs burned, but even the pain was exhilarating. She didn’t have to wait until June; she was free now.

As the golem finished her cigarette, she heard footsteps behind her and turned around. There was a young woman, Jewish, carrying a suitcase. No doubt she was headed for the Trade Fair grounds. The information clicked in like the snap of a purse opening: Dobre Kaufman, twenty-four years old, single. Blonde enough to pass as Czech, but without the connections to get false papers. Besides, she believed what the Germans had told her about Terezin, that she would be safe there. She’d survive Terezin, then be shipped out to Auschwitz in one of the last transports. The golem realized with depressed astonishment that Dobre would die only a week before the Red Army would arrive to liberate her.

“Excuse me,” the golem said.

Dobre looked up.

The golem took out the cigarette case and opened it; Shayna’s pearl was still there. There was a man in Holešovice who made false documents; he’d be executed in the purges after Heydrich’s assassination, but that was months away. And he worked cheap. “If you go to Terezin as you’ve been ordered, you will not survive the war,” she said. She put the pearl in Dobre’s hand. “Take this to Vyšebrad 2. Tell the man who answers the door that Stépan sent you, and give him the pearl. Have him make you false papers that say you’re Catholic. Go somewhere that nobody knows you and don’t tell anyone that you’re Jewish, not until the end of the war. If you do as I say, you might survive.”

Dobre stared at her in silent wonder.

“Do you understand me?” the golem asked impatiently.

“Yes,” Dobre said. “Who are you? Why are you helping me?”

“Don’t ask questions. Just do as I tell you.” The golem walked away before the girl could ask her anything else. Let the girl think what she wanted—the golem had done what she could.

She realized after a few minutes of walking that she had automatically headed back towards Prague. Well, it hardly mattered. She knew that Hanna would die in June, and the golem would be free. Perhaps in the meantime Alena would get her the false papers. Maybe if she arranged to have a close call or two, that would encourage Alena to take care of it. Or if she came up with something she’d definitely need papers for, like rail travel or a job. She could go back to Prague for now; it wouldn’t hurt anything.

First, though, she thought she’d spend the night outside—just because she knew she could. It was still cold out, but the cold didn’t bother her. She crossed the river, then settled down under the bridge where it was dry. She smoked two more cigarettes as she waited for the dawn to come. As she finished the second, she found herself thinking about Dobre, and she realized with a shock that she no longer knew Dobre’s fate—it was as if the page she’d been looking at was now simply missing. She found herself poking at it mentally, like the tongue pokes a missing tooth. Still gone.

Dobre must have taken her advice. She might or might not live, but she would no longer die from typhus and starvation one week before liberation.

It occurred to her suddenly that something she had done might also have changed Hanna’s fate, but no, that was still there. Relieved, she headed back to the apartment.

The golem expected Alena and Hanna to be angry, and had invented a story. Alena was watching for her out the window, but when she arrived, Alena pulled her in to a hug. “Thank God you’re safe,” she said. After a moment, she closed the apartment door. “Hanna has gone out to look for you. She has this crazy idea you’re in the Old Jewish Cemetery. I was sure you’d been arrested, and I was so terrified—we’d never be able to raise bribe money.”

“Arrested?” the golem said. “Me?

Alena led the golem back to the kitchen and started water for tea. Hanna arrived a few minutes later.

“She’s here,” Alena said.

Hanna almost burst into tears. “We were so worried,” she said. “Where were you?”

“I heard a patrol coming and hid,” the golem said. “I figured they’d be on their way in a few minutes, but then they stood around smoking cigarettes for hours. There were a lot of patrols around—I ended up waiting until morning, and then they thinned out.”

It was a pathetic story; of course, the golem would know exactly when the patrol would leave, just as she would know when they were coming. She could not be trapped like that. But Hanna wanted to believe her, and she did.

“You did exactly the right thing,” Alena said. “You’re one of the most valuable members of the Resistance right now. We can’t afford to lose you.”

Hanna rose and spooned out a bowl of porridge for the golem. “Have something to eat,” Hanna said.


The golem had errands to run on May 27th, the day that Heydrich would be shot, but fortunately none of them took her anywhere near Holešovice. She didn’t tell Hanna or Alena about the assassination before it happened; they had lectured her several times on need-to-know, and this definitely qualified. Still, she took the streetcar to deliver her messages, and returned home as quickly as she could.

Heydrich was shot in the evening. The crackdowns began within hours. The assassins had hidden well and would not be found until June 18th, but the Germans recovered enough evidence at the scene of the attack to identify certain key members of the Resistance. They were arrested and interrogated; the wheels of the Nazi machine turned, crushing their bodies beneath it, and moved outwards from there.

Radek, who appeared on Alena and Hanna’s doorstep at two in the morning on June 14th, was not a leader of the Resistance but a friend of Alena’s. Alena yanked him into the parlor without a word, closed the door, and took him to the back room.

“You shouldn’t have taken me in,” he said. “I’m putting you both in danger.”

“That’s for us to decide,” Alena said. “So hush. Are you hurt?”

“No. I got warning five minutes before they arrived.” Radek looked like he’d left home in a hurry—unshaven, he wore his nightshirt tucked into trousers, with an overcoat thrown on over the top, despite the summer heat.

Alena settled Radek in her bed, to get a few hours’ rest. At dawn, she would go out to get a razor and less conspicuous clothes for him—and, if she could, false papers. This is it, the golem thought. The man who would sell her the papers would be arrested later that day; when interrogated, he would implicate Alena. The mistake was hers, going to someone who knew her name and address, but so many members of the Resistance had already been arrested that she had nowhere else to go. Ironically, the golem realized, thanks to the false papers that Elsa would obtain, Radek would survive the war, although Alena would die, and Hanna with her.

And the golem would be free.

Alena was gone for several hours. Radek slept peacefully. Hanna cleaned, holding the broom in fists clenched so tight her knuckles were white. Alena returned without incident and with everything she’d gone for. She woke Radek, and he quickly dressed and shaved. Hanna went to let him out through the back stairs.

“Margit,” Alena said, once Hanna was gone. “I’m sorry this took so long. I got you your papers.”

The golem looked down at the documents. The photo was of Alena, but as Hanna had observed that first night, they were close enough to pass for each other. The name was not Margit, though.

Alena shook her head. “If Margit hasn’t been fingered as a member of the Resistance yet, she will be.”

The golem looked up. “So will Alena.”

Alena shrugged. “My contingency plan is to cause them enough trouble when they come for me that they just shoot me down then and there, and spare myself torture.”

“Why didn’t you get false papers for yourself?” the golem asked. “You could hide, too.”

“Between what Radek gave me and what I had saved, I had money for two sets. One of those had to go to Radek. And I’m not leaving Hanna. I’d rather die with her than lose her.”

When Alena spoke of Hanna, her face twisted oddly, almost as if she were in pain. The golem studied Alena’s eyes, wondering what that would be like, to feel that way for another.

“You know how to stay out of trouble,” Alena said. “You’ll be able to use those papers well.”

The golem tucked them into her purse. Hanna had errands for her—messages that needed to be delivered. The golem knew, however, that all of the recipients had already been arrested, or would by the time she made it across Prague—even if she could fly. If she did complete the errands, Hanna and Alena would both be dead by the time she returned. Just as she’d been waiting for.

So she took the papers, and went to the Old Jewish Cemetery.

Despite the crackdown, the cemetery was not empty. The Jews were gradually being banned from more and more of the parks and streets of Prague; the Old Jewish Cemetery was the closest thing to a recreation area that they still had. There were families picnicking there, among the twelve thousand tombstones stacked like books on an overcrowded shelf.

The tomb that the golem was looking for was near the main entrance. Paired marble tablets linked by a roof marked the grave of Rabbi Löw. She sat down in the shade of the slabs, and lit a cigarette.

“So I’m back,” she said softly.

She heard a peal of laughter from one of the women picnicking in the cemetery.

“This time, nobody is going to destroy me. There won’t be anyone to do it. I can live forever—I’ll just avoid anyone who could hurt me. I know everything I need to know to stay alive.”

She thought of the expression on Alena’s face as she spoke of Hanna. I’d rather die with her than lose her.

“I’ve even got papers now,” she said. “Alena bought them for me, finally.” Instead of buying them for herself.

“I have freedom.” She was even freer than Alena. Alena was trapped here, tied to Hanna. The golem was tied to nobody.

Again, she saw the expression on Alena’s face, thinking of Hanna.

“All I need to do is walk away,” she said.

She could do that, she knew. Even if she had been bound to her creator’s will, her creator would be dead within hours. She was free to choose any fate she desired. This time, finally, she would survive. Alone, but alive.

I’d rather die with her than lose her.

The golem realized suddenly that the cigarette had burned away in her hand, and she hadn’t even inhaled any of the smoke. Disgusted, she stubbed out the last of it on the ground. Then she stood; the sun was warm on her shoulders. “This is my choice,” she said to the Rabbi’s grave. “This is my decision.”

The golem returned to the apartment at 3:10 p.m. “Alena!” she called. “Hanna. Gather your valuables. Leave everything else, or you’ll arouse suspicions. You need to go, now, or you’ll both be killed in just over an hour.”

The women obeyed her without hesitation. They put on several layers of clothes, though it would be hot, and each filled a purse and a shopping bag with food and the valuables they had left. The golem followed them through the apartment, talking. “Go to Kutná Hora,” she said. It was one of the larger towns in Bohemia. She gave them an address for another apartment—” They have a vacancy right now; the landlord isn’t nosy, and he won’t care who lives in the apartment aside from Alena. Don’t waste time; in a week, he’ll rent the place to a Nazi sympathizer who will later betray his next-door neighbor for sheltering Jews. It’s much better that the landlord rent to you.”

There was room in Hanna’s shopping bag for a single volume of her antique Talmud—a family heirloom. She took it, although there were other things that would have been more practical. She left the books of golem lore. She left the books of golem lore.

The golem stopped Alena at the door. “Give me your papers,” she said, and handed Alena the false papers that Alena had bought for her. “Now go.”

As Alena and Hanna headed down the stairs to the street, the golem felt their fate vanish from her mind. She was certain that they would live or die together, whatever happened. In the meantime—the Germans would come to arrest Alena Nebeský, and they would find her. The golem picked up Hanna’s book of golem lore, lit the last of Shayna’s cigarettes, and sat down in the immaculate parlor to wait.

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