How should she pack the fragile, precious glass for the long journey? The question nagged at her, though she knew it was foolish. She had seventeen children to protect, Italy had just joined Germany in war, and here she was anxious about wrapping a few ancient Christmas ornaments for their trip to safety. If everything weren’t so wretched, she might actually laugh at herself.
Anna could hardly remember the sound of her own laughter. Nor could she even imagine the laughter of her newest wards, the solemn, silent children she was collecting one by one. The prospect of battle did not awaken in her three new children the same misbegotten excitement it brought to the other orphans in her care, local children too naive to understand what war meant. These fourteen Italian youngsters who’d been with her for some time in the orphanage she ran here in Varese could still laugh and play; the recent arrivals followed her every move and word as if their lives depended upon it. Because, as she’d just begun to understand, they did.
Few Italians had been surprised when, more than a month ago, on June 10, 1940, Mussolini declared that Italy would wage war on the side of Germany against Britain and France. France, now occupied, had all but fallen by then, and Mussolini wanted to be on the side of the victor. Soon after, the shadow children began arriving. Anna could not ignore them even though there were barely enough beds and food for the Italian orphans she officially sheltered.
Her parents had left her the rambling old house on Lake Varese where she and the children lived; there’d been hardly enough money to add rooms for a school. Fortunately, she and her husband Giorgio had cultivated enough wealthy patrons to keep the place going on donations. When Giorgio died five years ago, just after their dream of opening a haven and school for the province’s poorest children had been realized, the donors had not deserted her. Would these good people continue to help if they knew she was secretly harboring Jewish children?
Anna wasn’t willing to test them by revealing her decision. Although Italy did not share Germany’s animosity toward the Jews, fear could swiftly turn people to hatred. And Anna knew this would be true of even the kindest Italians if their own lives or their children’s were threatened.
So she would not tell her contributors, most of whom lived in Milan, just south of Varese. There was no way to keep it from Isabella, the cook and housekeeper, and Carla, who helped teach and care for the fourteen children legally enrolled. Both women had accepted Anna’s decision wordlessly, and she could only pray they would remain loyal—and silent. She was not afraid for herself; since Giorgio had died suddenly and so young, she’d feared nothing, certainly not the death that would bring them together again. Some days, God help her, she yearned for it. But she did fear for her orphans: What would happen to them if she were imprisoned—or worse—for sheltering Jews?
Yet how could she turn them away?
Many Italians nervously dismissed as mere rumors the stories leaking out of Germany that Hitler had a mad plan to murder every Jew in the world. This sounded so ridiculous that the Italians, like the rest of the world, could dismiss the possibility.
But Anna believed. Her husband had never trusted the Nazis, and Anna, who discussed everything with Giorgio in the twelve years they had together, expected the worst. What she heard from the people who’d furtively brought the Jewish children to her door confirmed her fears. The first two, brothers who’d arrived two weeks ago, had been brought over the Austrian border by a former patient of their father, a prominent Innsbruck physician.
“A man I do business with in Milan knew of you, Signora,” he’d said, mentioning one of Anna’s most prominent benefactors. She must have looked alarmed because he immediately added, “I did not tell him I wanted to place Jewish children with you. No, no! I made up a story about a friend in Milan with an orphaned nephew he could not care for. I would never dare speak the truth . . . for your sake and for mine. But you must hide these brothers, Signora. For the sake of God! Because of Mussolini’s pact with Hitler, Italy is safer than Austria, and the boys will be protected here. Their mother has given me this to leave with you for their care.”
He reached into a bag he’d set down by his side and thrust an elegant leather case upon her, pushing it into her hands and then backing away, holding up his own hands as if to relinquish responsibility and demonstrate that she’d committed herself. He can’t wait to be rid of these children, Anna thought, and at that moment she sensed a change in the two brothers, who’d appeared to be ignoring the exchange between the adults. They’d both raised their eyes and stood so straight they seemed to be quivering, like hunting dogs on the scent, all their attention on the case in Anna’s hands. It was, she realized, the case in which their mother kept her jewels, and the faint scent of her perfume wafted from the rich leather.
What had she told them, Anna wondered. How had she said farewell? With tears? With false smiles and hollow laughter? Did they know what was likely to become of her, of their father? Did they know what would become of themselves?
As she looked at them, Anna realized the Austrian man was right: She had committed herself. He knew it too. By the time she returned her eyes to him, he’d picked up his own bag and was hurrying away.
Later, when she’d opened the jewelry case, she was stunned. These jewels must have been handed down through several generations: diamond brooches and necklaces; emerald pins; two sapphire-and-diamond bracelets with matching earrings; pearl hairpins and combs; antique rings, including a large solitaire diamond in a platinum setting; gold and silver chains.
Anna was dazzled, not only by the beauty but by the bounty. The contents of this case would keep the orphanage running for some time. It would be easy to find buyers for such extraordinary pieces, she reflected, smiling sadly as she imagined her mother’s voice: “Those with money and a good eye won’t care where these came from. Tell them the jewels were donated by a wealthy benefactor, and they’ll ask no questions.”
It was the sparkling jewelry that had started her thinking about the Christmas Glass, her own small family’s treasure. The dozen intricately shaped glass ornaments, which in their brilliance did indeed resemble the desperate woman’s jewels, were shot through with translucent colors that shone like multi-hued stars descended to enliven the dull earth. Her mother, Caterina, had always made much of the ornaments. “Your father may have this old house from his family,” she would say dismissively, “but we have the Christmas Glass.”
Early each December 13th, St. Lucia’s Day, after her father had left for work, Anna’s mother would ceremoniously lead her to the cupboard where her parents’ wedding china and the good silver were kept. Anna didn’t like the silver because it required frequent polishing, a ritual so tedious she shared it with her mother only grudgingly. But on the very top shelf, so high that her diminutive mother had to bring a chair to stand upon, was the box of Christmas Glass.
The box itself, crafted of beautiful fruitwood and waxed to a high sheen, lay under the shroud of dust that always accumulated during the eleven months it waited in its high niche. Before she’d even consider revealing the box’s contents, Caterina would address the dust that was to Anna’s young eyes a kind of protection in itself. Her mother would take a new cloth—not the same age-softened rag she used every day to dust furniture, but a fresh, slightly dampened flannel—and wipe the dust away. She used unusually gentle strokes as if she, too, thought that the dust deserved a measure of respect.
Caterina would carefully carry the box down the long, darkened hall and into the parlor, where a large window spanned the entire upper half of the wall. Normally the heavy drapes were kept drawn to keep the bright morning sun from shining directly into the room.
“It will fade the carpet and furniture,” Caterina would respond implacably when Anna’s father protested about keeping out the light. But on this day, Christmas Glass Day, Caterina would stride boldly into the gloomy room and set the unopened box on a square table between two chairs by the window. Then she would fling the drapes back, allowing the sun to flood the room with blinding light.
The early sun made everything look different. Caterina was a ruthless housekeeper, and there was not a particle of dust or dirt to dim the newly revealed colors of the carpet and the deep rose fabric covering the chairs. Even the dark wood of the furniture gleamed in the relentless light.
A side table held the family’s collection of photographs, and Anna was always drawn to the gilt-framed photo of her parents at their wedding. Caterina appeared to be a different person then, smiling shyly beside Anna’s father. There was a sweetness to the girl in the portrait that Anna did not recognize in her formidable mother. Anna could not imagine her parents young and in love.
Christmas Glass Day always found Caterina at her best. On that day she was the mother Anna wished for every day. After Anna had gazed to her heart’s content upon all the familiar objects and furnishings that the sun made new, she’d return to where her mother stood by the wooden box. By that time Caterina would have turned the heavy chairs so that they faced the window, and mother and daughter would sit with only the table and the box of ornaments between them. Even today, Anna could remember holding her breath in excitement, waiting for what came next.
First, Caterina would recite the story of the Christmas Glass and how it had come to her family. Though her mother had been dead for almost ten years, Anna could still hear her voice.
“There is a small village called Lauscha, set in the mountains of Germany. There, for many years, have lived families who have just one job: to make beautiful glass. The grownups do the hard part, forming the hot glass and pouring hot silver into the shapes. The children dip the ornaments in lacquer and paint them. The women pack the ornaments into baskets that they strap onto their backs and walk long distances to sell the ornaments at markets.
“Many years ago, a glass-blower in Lauscha and his family made our Christmas Glass. We do not know their names, but they fashioned the glass with a love for the Baby born on Christmas day, and that love sparkles in every piece. When my mother—your Nana—got married in 1875, her mother wanted to give her a very special gift, an heirloom she could give to her own daughter someday. She wanted something different, something wonderful, something that would make everyone who saw it sigh with pleasure and envy. But she didn’t know what such a gift would be. Until one day she saw the Christmas Glass.
“She was passing by a shop in Milan—not a particularly nice shop; in fact, it was a shop where people sold their valuables because they needed money. The window facing the street was streaked and filthy, and your great grandmother Elena probably planned to walk right by without a second glance
“But just as she was about to pass the window, a glint of color caught her eye. She peered through the dirty glass and was frozen there by what she saw. On a table in the window lay the most beautiful collection of glass she’d ever seen. Each piece shimmered as if it held a small flame burning within. She could not help herself: She had to go in.
“The collection proved even more extraordinary up close. There were twelve pieces lying in an open box—this open box, Anna, this very box we have before us! It was covered with a layer of grime, and the gleam of the wood was nowhere to be seen.
“The ornaments seemed to be alive with light, and Elena fancied that if she touched them, she would feel their warmth. Each was a different shape, and their colors were so vibrant they appeared to glow. There was the Holy Family with streaks of indigo coloring Mary’s dress, while green marked Joseph’s robe and the Babe shone with gold. Three were long and thin, each in the shape of a wise man, and their robes were marked with scarlet and purple and deep green, all flecked with gold. There was a crystal star with just the slightest sweep of fiery yellow lighting it from within, and an angel in joyous flight, his wings lined with silver. A starfish, awash with blue and green, winked from the box, and a long icicle, such as we sometimes see here in Varese but often appear in the German mountains where the glassmakers live, flared with a thin spiral of silver and gold. There were two fish, symbols of our Lord: one spun with blue, green, and silver and the other with red, orange, and gold. And finally, Elena saw two perfect globes, crystal clear each, one with the merest sprinkle of red and gold, the other with green and silver.
“Your great grandmother reached out and cautiously lifted the red and gold globe to test its weight, to feel the delicate glass in her hand. A man came into the front room through the curtain dividing the shop and smiled at her. He gestured at the box and said, ‘I see you’ve found my treasure.’
“Intrigued, she asked, ‘Your treasure?’ When he nodded emphatically and described the ornaments as ‘the very jewels of my heart,’ her own heart sank: Surely he would not be willing to part with something he held so dear. Unable to hide her dismay, she murmured, ‘Ah, then they are not for sale.’
“‘You mistake me, Signora!’ he said quickly. ‘I meant only to say that they came to me with a story that made my heart weep. They were brought in not a month ago by a girl, no more than a few years past twenty. The ornaments— the Christmas Glass, she called them— had been a gift to her when she and her husband married five years ago. But now she and that husband have two children, both girls, and the man has no work. She wanted to sell them to feed her family and to keep her husband from having to beg. I told her I could never pay her what these are truly worth, but she was fraught and anxious and wanted to take what I would give her. She could not bear to look at them as she left, and so they have become like jewels to me: both lustrous to the eye and cutting to the heart.’
“Hearing this, your great grandmother was torn. The ornaments had been proudly crafted for joy, to celebrate a wedding, yet they were touched with such sadness. Should she give them to her own daughter to mark her own wedding? Or would they bring more sorrow? She knew that marriage was much more than just the wedding festival. These ornaments had seen both happiness and pain, and had served both. Hadn’t she wanted something unique, something unforgettable? She gazed at the glass, captivated by the life and light that blazed from within each figure. Finally, she looked up at the expectant shopkeeper.
“‘I want the box cleaned.’”
Every year on Christmas Glass Day, Caterina recounted this history. Then, with great dignity, she would go to the long side table that held decanters of the mysterious cordials Anna only ever tasted at Christmastime. Caterina would reach up to the cabinet above the decanters and remove two impossibly fragile glasses with tiny tulip-shaped cups atop slender stems. Slowly, she’d pour a few drops of amber-colored liquid into each glass before handing one to Anna. Mother and daughter would face each other over the still-closed box of ornaments and raise their glasses as Caterina proclaimed, “To the Christmas Glass: May it reflect more joy than sorrow, and cheer us through both.”
After the trickle of hot licorice had made its way past Anna’s heart and into her stomach, Caterina would slowly open the box, and the daylight filling the room suddenly found a new home. It was as if the sun itself could not resist the Christmas Glass, concentrating its rays on the translucent figures until the floor and walls and ceiling danced with shimmering lines of indigo, gold, silver, green, red, purple, and yellow.
Once Anna and her mother had gazed on this spectacle for some time, Caterina would unfold the length of scarlet velvet that had covered the glass in the box and lay it on the table under the window. When it was precisely placed according to some pattern Caterina alone knew, she and Anna would reverently place each ornament on the velvet, arranging each to best catch the light. When they were arranged to Caterina’s satisfaction, she’d return to the sideboard and retrieve five silver candlesticks of varying heights, along with five perfect ivory beeswax candles, so that at night the Christmas Glass would have a source of light much softer than the sun but no less flattering to its beauty. Anna could not remember ever entering that room on a late-December night to find the candles unlit. Her mother kept the Christmas Glass illuminated as though each form was a beacon welcoming the Babe.
Nor would the heavy drapes be drawn again until January 7th, the day after Epiphany, when the Christmas Glass would be returned to the fruitwood box and stored tenderly away for another year.
Now, on a hot, overcast summer day nearly a decade after Caterina’s death, Anna opened the box of ornaments, knowing she would probably never open it again on a bright, cool December morning. She would not cry, she told herself, she’d made a decision and could not falter now. She was sending the Christmas Glass to her cousin Filomena.
Anna was convinced this war would not end quickly, and she was determined that the most important thing that remained of her mother—of her family—would survive. Even if she ended up sacrificing her reputation or even her life—possibilities that had become decidedly more likely since she’d taken in the Jewish children—she would not risk the one priceless thing her mother had given her. Anna somehow felt that if the Christmas Glass survived this coming nightmare, the memory of her mother and of her own wedding to Giorgio would also remain untouched by the filth of war.
The glass would be safer with Filomena, who lived in Bacoli, a small seaside village just outside of Naples. She hadn’t seen her cousin for more than three years, since Filomena’s marriage to Paolo, but she knew the young couple, now with two-year-old twins, hoped to emigrate to America as soon as they could arrange passage. Even if the young family had to wait out the war, the Christmas Glass would be safer in tiny Bacoli, so far south of the Austrian border and Germany.
Anna couldn’t help the sob that rose in her throat, knowing she might never see the ornaments again. Still unsure of how best to pack them for the journey to Bacoli, she went to her wardrobe, hoping to find something suitable, perhaps some fabric she’d never had time to make into a dress. Her eye fell on her wedding gown, covered in paper in the back of the wardrobe. Her mother had used an extravagant amount of material to make the dress; the ivory silk was heavy and voluminous. Anna took a deep breath and held it. Could she really do it? Cut up her wedding dress to wrap the ornaments?
There had been times, right after Giorgio died, when she would bury her face in the dress, twisting it around her in an agony of grief and yearning. Yet now it was the perfect answer: Not only was the heavy silk ideal for the purpose; it was somehow fitting that the dress she wore on the day her mother gave her the Christmas Glass would be used to preserve her family’s treasure. Slowly releasing her breath, she reached for the gown.
Knowing that if she hesitated for even a moment she would talk herself out of it, Anna found her mother’s sewing shears and got to work. First, she cut a square from the bodice, the part that had been closest to her heart, and, folding it carefully, enclosed it in the velvet from the Christmas Glass and put them both in a cedar-scented drawer of her dresser. That way she would always have a bit of both the Christmas Glass tradition and her wedding day. She thought briefly—selfishly, she told herself—of keeping one of the ornaments too, but she remembered her mother saying it would be a terrible thing to ever separate them. Anna had been eleven at the time, and old enough, she felt, to keep one of the ornaments in her room. But when she asked Caterina if she could have the angel for her bed table, her mother had been aghast.
“No, no!” Caterina had cried, shaking her head emphatically, “These belong together! They are like a family. If you take the angel, who will guard the Babe, hmmm? No, it is no good to separate them; if you do, they will always yearn to be together again.”
Although Anna was old enough now to smile at her mother’s warning, she was not about to ignore Caterina’s wishes. All the ornaments would go to Filomena in Bacoli and later, hopefully, to America. She began cutting up the wedding dress methodically. She would double-wrap each ornament and use the heavy silk scraps to cushion the spaces between them. She worked in silence. The children were at their lessons with Carla in the opposite wing of the house near where they slept, one large room for the boys and another for the girls. Isabella was in the kitchen below, preparing their lunch. Normally, Anna would try to eat with her wards and Carla, but today she was determined to finish the task at hand.
She glanced up from her work and was so startled by the thin, still figure that she almost dropped the shears. The child was so quiet Anna hadn’t even known she was there. This third Jewish child, a girl named Sarah, was indeed an orphan. Her grandmother had brought her to Anna more than a week ago. Anna could see them now as they’d been that day: The visibly impatient grandmother, dressed in threadbare clothes that had once been elegant, standing apart from the little girl, who held a suitcase bigger than she was as her eyes fixed on something outside the window. The grandmother made no attempt to hide her frustration or soften her words.
“My son and his wife died last year in a fire. My daughter-in-law always insisted on too many candles—you don’t need twenty candles to light the dining room when just two are at table, but did she ever listen? Never! We saw the fire from our house but could do nothing. This child—their only one, and you can be sure her mother spoiled her and let her run wild through that house—was visiting cousins that night, but the way the world is these days, it may have been better if she’d been in the house with them.”
Anna had been unable to stop herself from giving the old woman a reproachful look and gesturing at the child who stood just a few feet away. This had the effect of aggravating the woman even more.
“Do you think this is easy for me? Do you think I planned to have an ungovernable six-year-old girl all but left at my doorstep?” she snapped, her eyes flashing. “She has not spoken since the night her parents died. She wouldn’t eat until her grandfather—and he is not a well man—and I agreed to bring her every day to the ruined cottage behind the ashes of her old house. She sits there for hours. Just staring.
“And now, after we begged my niece in London to sponsor us and have sold most of what we own to escape that murdering Nazi, this child refuses to leave. She flew into a rage when we told her we were going. She imagines we are taking her from her parents! Her parents who have been dead for nearly a year! We must lock her in her room to keep her from running away. The shame! And what do you think it will be like for us—two sick, old Jews—trying to get her quietly out of the country? The only reason she agreed to come here is because we told her this place is just across the lake from her old house.”
Anna realized then that the girl was not staring idly but looking across the lake to where her home had been. From this distance it wasn’t possible for the girl to recognize the precise place, but her stare unnerved Anna nonetheless. She studied the child, searching for signs of the violent and inconsolable grief her grandmother had described. None were visible; the girl appeared utterly detached.
But her stillness and self-possession were not signs of calm or acquiescence; rather it appeared that she was in another world altogether. Small and nearly emaciated, with large dark eyes like coals smoldering in her thin, pale face, she was intensely focused on something that existed only for her, and Anna would not want to be the one who took her from it.
The grandmother watched Anna with a mixture of hope and hostility. “I can’t pay much,” the old woman said, reaching into an embroidered bag and pulling out a small sack weighted with coins.
“Keep your money,” Anna said coldly, her own voice surprising her by how much she sounded like her mother. For the first time, the grandmother looked abashed, and Anna suppressed a small rush of triumph. Certainly the old woman had experienced great loss—and was about to lose her granddaughter as well—but Anna was convinced that this was a woman who would have managed to be unhappy no matter what life brought her. “I’ll try to keep her safe,” Anna said turning away.
“You can send her to us after the war. Perhaps by then she’ll appreciate what we’ve done for her,” the old woman said with a hard glance at the child, “I’ll send our address when we’re settled.”
Anna watched the girl, her eyes still unwavering on the distant point across the lake, as her grandmother took a step toward her. “Well, Sarah. I’m leaving. Come here and kiss me good-bye,” commanded the old woman waspishly.
The child remained still, her eyes unmoving. Her grandmother stared at her for a long moment, and Anna caught a spasm of longing in her age-worn face. As if to herself, the old woman murmured softly, “You are so like your father,” and then she moaned, a strangled sound halfway between fury and despair, and walked away, her heels clicking hard on the tiles in the hallway. She dropped the bag of money on a table as she left.
Now that same child stood in the doorway, watching Anna destroy her wedding gown. Sarah had given her no real problems, but neither had she spoken to Anna or to any of the other children. She hadn’t even glanced after her grandmother when the old woman left, much less shed a tear to see her go. When the Jewish brothers approached her shyly, she ignored them just as she did everyone else. She endured her lessons with Carla and ate Isabella’s food without appearing to care what she was doing.
She spent every free moment staring across the lake where she believed her home had been. Anna worried she would try to run away, to go back there, but Sarah seemed satisfied with fixing her gaze on the place. There was an obsessiveness to Sarah’s solitude that Anna didn’t know how to approach, much less break.
Gesturing at the squares of white silk and the open box of ornaments, Anna asked, “Sarah, do you want to help me?”
The girl’s eyes moved from Anna to the silk and the ornaments on the table. Without answering, she walked slowly toward Anna. When she reached the table, she stared at the Christmas Glass as if mesmerized. Continuing to work, Anna explained about the Christmas Glass, how her great grandmother had found them and how Caterina had given them to Anna on the day she married Giorgio. She spoke of Giorgio, about how much she missed him, how much the Christmas Glass had meant to both of them. She was pouring words into the air, words she’d thought would crush her if she ever gave them voice, but they simply filled the room gently, creating images she loved, and then dissipated, taking with them the heaviest part of her grief and fear.
By the time she was finished talking, she’d cut up the dress and wrapped most of the Christmas Glass. Taking a deep breath, she looked at the silent child who’d been the catalyst for this outpouring. Sarah met her gaze.
“You are like me then. Alone.”
Careful to show no emotion at the girl’s first words in more than a year, Anna thought swiftly about how to respond, about all the things she should say. She should assure Sarah that she was not alone, that she had family waiting in London. She should say that neither of them was alone, that they had the other children, Isabella, Carla. That they had each other. Anna looked into the cavernous eyes of the child for what seemed an eternity and finally answered.
“Yes. I am alone. Like you.”
And then she handed Sarah the glass angel to wrap.