* * *
It was a market day in 1938 in Yonava, Lithuania when I first laid eyes on Magda as she stood next to her father in his stall. He was selling apples. He was also the one you went to if you had a sick animal. We tolerated these Roma. They were a dirty, incomprehensible people, but occasionally useful. I have been called a dirty Jew more than once in my life, but Magda truly looked dirty. I noticed her filthy nails as she nervously tapped her fingers against a deck of cards and hung back from her father. She was adorned with beads and bangles that gave her an exotic look. Most would say these Roma were too strange to belong anywhere, which may have been why they felt so compelled to roam.
I was reluctant to be caught standing in front of their stand, but those shiny, red apples were my downfall. My eyes kept straying toward Magda. She had the most beautiful, expressive eyes and full lips.
“Tell your fortune, Mister. Help you find what you have lost.” She held up her deck of cards. “Two litas.”
“No, thank you.” I looked around, hoping no one would notice my conversation with this strange girl. After all, I was a respectable Jew and merchant, a man of standing in my community.
“Magda can tell you what you need to know about your destiny,” she replied. “We Roma are gifted with the sight.”
You Roma, I thought to myself, are gifted thieves and malingerers. A rootless people with no discernible culture. The last of the last.
I saw the spark of anger in her eyes. “Your loss.”
“What are those cards you hold in your hand?”
“Tarot,” she said. “They speak to me.”
I turned to her father. “I’ll buy some apples.” I began to pick them out, examining each one carefully.
“I will show you how it’s done,” she said, pointing to a small table and two chairs at the back of the stall. “There is a curtain for privacy and you may leave from the back so your friends do not see you.”
I glanced over my shoulder.
She set the cards on the table. “Two litas.”
I paid her father for the apples and realized that I had two litas left. He stepped aside so that I could pass through the clutter of their stand to reach the table. Magda quickly dropped the curtain and motioned to me to take a chair.
She held out her hand. “Let me hold the coins.” She closed her eyes and I took this moment to study her more closely—her bizarre costume and beads, the sensual mouth.
She laid the coins on the table, pushed the deck toward me, and told me to shuffle it. I did as she commanded and replaced it on the table.
Magda spread the cards face-down and picked three. She turned them over. Death – the Devil – the Tower.
“This doesn’t look good,” I said.
She ran her dirty fingers over the cards. “Death comes for both of us.”
“And what does your death have to do with mine? I thought this was my reading.”
“You must leave this place and cross the great ocean to safety.”
“Leave my family, my business and this community because of three cards? You can’t be serious.”
“You are a Jew. Death will make you dig your own grave.”
“How dare you? We Jews have lived and survived here for centuries.”
She stared into my face and placed her finger on the Devil. “This time few will survive.”
“And who comes to destroy us?”
“I don’t know how to read,” she replied. “But the rumors whisper of Germany and war.”
“We will live through it.”
She shook her head. “Go before it is too late. Much evil and suffering is coming.”
“And what about you?” I asked, sure that she did not possess the means to voyage across the ocean. “How will you cross the ocean?”
She stared at the cards on the table. “We Roma go wherever the road takes us. Sometimes death is our destiny, sometimes not.”
I leaned back in my chair. I was bristling with anger, but strangely touched by her words.
“I see you are a good man, but you do not believe me. I would save your life if I could, but you must save yourself."
“Is this all I get for two litas—a death sentence?”
“No one believes the evil that is coming will touch them. Your family and your fiancée will oppose you if you decide to leave. I see the town square filled with Jews and then you march into the woods and never return. Any more you do not want to know.”
“Ah, how do you know I have a fiancée?”
She folded her hands in front of her on the table. “You will never marry.”
I glared at her for her impudence.
“Take your two litas and go,” she said. “I won’t take money from a dead man.”
I snatched up the two coins and then grabbed her right hand and slapped them into her palm. I was shaking with anger, but I could not let go of her hand. She placed her left hand on top of mine and we held hands, our heads bowed.
“I must go,” I finally said and I clumsily pulled myself up and out of the chair. I reached for my bag of apples, aware that my knees might buckle under me.
“God bless,” she whispered.
I wanted to reach out and touch her cheek, but I dared not. As I left, my mind was reeling with what she told me and what she withheld. Tempted by a bright red apple on a late summer morning, this Eve had ripped the blinders from my eyes. I lived to tell this story.