Somewhere There Is Still a Sun
March 11, 1939
MY RECORD IS FIFTEEN.
“Why are you rushing, Misha?” Father has been asking ever since we left our apartment. “Slow down,” he kept telling me, nearly laughing, while we were walking along the river. The Vltava. The best river in the world.
He didn’t know that I was warming up, getting ready. Because today is the day; I can feel it.
Father likes to take his time. “A person isn’t supposed to rush on Shabbat,” he’s reminded me about five times already. But I can’t blame him. He works so hard all week. I mean, he’s barely even around most of the time. Some nights he doesn’t come home at all. And he’s going to London tomorrow, because of his work. I hate it when he’s gone, but I guess when you’re one of the lawyers for the richest family in Prague you do what they say.
But I have a job too. To break my record. Today.
We’re almost at the bridge. The Cechuv. Seagulls are chasing each other along the river, playing their secret games. The castle pokes up at the sky like usual, high above everything. Maybe we can go up there once he gets back from his trip. See the changing of the guards and look at the city down below. I’ll ask Father when he’s not so annoyed with me.
We turn off the quay and onto the bridge, busy with people and cars. Excellent. Here comes Pavel Goren, our doctor. Who just so happens to have the biggest belly of any doctor anywhere. But why is he walking away from the Old-New Synagogue? Who cares, this is perfect. He’ll distract father.
“Shabbat shalom, Pavel,” my father says.
“Hello, Karl,” Pavel says, and ruffles my hair, his stomach brushing against my ear. “Tell me something, Misha, have you been growing again?”
But I don’t answer. Because the bridge is perfect right now. Old men and their canes. Girls chattering with their friends. A couple led by their dog.
“It’s Madga; she’s ill,” Pavel tells my father. “Every year in March, it’s the same thing.”
I guess I’m supposed to care, but I have more important things to worry about. Plus, I’m sure of it, in a moment they’ll be talking about Germany and Hitler
and the Nazis, which is all any adult seems to talk about these days. So boring.
Three boys pass us. Bigger than me, but so what?
One of the boys says, “The next World Cup is ours. You’ll see.”
“No way,” the tallest says. “Brazil will beat us. Again.”
“Are you crazy?” the third boy says. “Oldrich is only getting better.”
“You’re both idiots,” says the tall one. They stop to argue, pointing their fingers at each other.
Fine with me. I pass them.
One, two, three.
Next is an old man, shuffling along slowly. No problem.
And two women, one of them pushing a stroller. Unfortunately, babies don’t count, but still.
Someday this will be an Olympic event. At least it should be. Prague will host the Olympics, and I’ll be a national hero. Gruenbaum’s about to set a new mark! He’s passing the German. Thirty-seven! Thirty-seven people passed on a single bridge! A new Olympic record!
But okay, I’ve got to focus. And no running allowed. If you run and they catch you, you’re disqualified.
Here’s a family. Like ours. A boy and his sister. She looks about four years older than him, too, just like with us. I wonder if she tells him to stop acting like a baby all the time too. Doesn’t matter, they’re tossing bits of bread out to the seagulls.
Seven, eight, nine, ten.
Can’t get distracted in the middle. Not by that boat sliding underneath. And not by the urge to turn back to see the old castle, even though it looks best from this spot. Because it’s got to be the biggest castle anywhere. I swear, sometimes its four steeples—especially the tallest one at the top of the cathedral—they disappear right into the clouds.
“Michael Gruenbaum!” my father screams at me. “What are you doing?” I pretend I didn’t hear him. He won’t be that mad; my father almost never gets that mad. Another reason he’s the best dad anywhere.
Here’s a couple, holding hands. Piece of cake.
Four more and it’s a record.
A woman walking her dog.
Two men arguing in German. Walking fast, as if they know, as if they were sent here to discourage our nation’s best bet. But it won’t be so easy, gentlemen. My legs might be short, but my feet are quick.
I’ve tied my record.
Only there’s just one problem. Oh no. There’s no one left. And the end of the bridge, fast approaching, is barely fifty feet away.
Oh well, a tie is still impressive.
But what’s this? Someone passing me!
A tall man, in shorts. Mother would say it’s much too cold for shorts. And I have to agree, not that I’d say so. Gym shoes on his feet. Speeds past me. The bulge of a soccer ball in a bag on his back. I hear him huffing and see the sweat on his neck shining in the sunlight.
He must be a pro, or will be someday. Probably knows Antonin Puc personally. A striker if I had to guess.
But so what? Because I, Misha Gruenbaum (my parents only call me “Michael” when I’m in trouble), will one day represent Czechoslovakia in the Pass People on the Bridge event at the Olympics. It’ll be a sport by 1948 or 1952, and by then I’ll be in my prime.
So I begin to sprint, because here’s a little known rule only the most dedicated competitors know: If someone else is running, you can run to pass them. That’s allowed. Father won’t be happy, me running like this in my clothes for synagogue. But so what? Someday, when the medal is
hanging in our living room, when I’m a national hero, he’ll understand it was all worth it.
Twenty feet to go. The man in the shorts turns his head, puzzled. Grins. Picks up his pace. But he’s no match for a sprinter like Gruenbaum.
I break the finish line a moment before him!
The crowd goes wild!
The national anthem plays!
A new record! I did it!!! Sixteen!!!
I turn and hurry back to Father. Wipe the sweat off on the inside of my sleeves so he won’t see. Try to get my breath back to normal.
“Look at the castle,” I tell him. Because maybe that will distract him.
“Misha,” he says, concerned. “You’re only eight years old. You can’t just run off like that. I couldn’t even—”
“Can we go?” I ask, pointing past his shoulder.
“Go? What are you—”
“To the castle.” Father opens his mouth, like he’s about to say something. “The first Sunday after you get back, from London. Please.”
He puts his tallit bag under his left arm and turns toward the castle. It worked; I can see it in his eyes. He
forgets about everything. Maybe even those stupid Nazis he and the rest of the adults won’t shut up about.
“Sure,” he says quietly, still staring across the river. “I don’t see why not.” He puts his arm around me, and we continue along the bridge toward the synagogue. “So long as it doesn’t rain.”
My dad’s like that. Always worrying a bit. As if something is always about to go wrong. But if he knew about my new record, he’d realize that things are only going to get better. Because sometimes I can just tell.