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Helena's Refugees

by Phyllis Martens

Part 3

It should be clear by now, from the previous chapter, that the boundary of what constituted the Jungas family was somewhat blurred. What with adoptions and additions, the family was what is now known as a "fuzzy set." A small group was definitely in, and most of the rest of the town was definitely out, but in between the two groups was an indeterminate area which allowed movement both ways, mostly in. What happened during Helena's eight years of running the hotel was an unplanned procession of permanent residents. People would show up at the hotel, and Helena would give them a room somewhere, particularly if they were family, or old or mentally disturbed, and talk comfortably to them and if necessary feed them.

The ten around the long narrow dinner table increased to twelve and a half when Henry, walking with a cane because of a war wound, came over with his wife and baby daughter. Helena gave them a double room on third floor. The young mother, seeking company, would sit in Helena's main room with the baby on her lap, and soon a new smell would overpower all the others--the odor of diapers drying on the radiator.

Then Uncle Alex arrived.

Uncle Alex was an old man. His daughter, who had a big family and lived on a farm, wanted him to live with her, but he refused. He was going to live with Mrs. Jungas in the hotel, he said. So he moved into #9, to the left of the stairs, and took the head seat at the table. He often startled the others by rearing up in his chair and reaching half-way down the table with his fork to spear a potato or a piece of bread. "Eck kaun han," he would assure them--"I can reach." The girls hated cleaning his room because he smoked and also spat on the floor. Uncle Alex lived in the hotel for several years.

Then a Mrs. Penner came. She was a relative of sorts, and so old that she stayed in bed the whole time. One afternoon a certain Preacher Harder came to see her. When he left, Helena went in and found the old woman trembling, terrified and confused. The preacher had told her that to get to heaven she must be born again, Mrs. Penner quavered, but her mother had died already and she didn't know how she could do it. Helena was furious with the man. "You don't have to do that, Taunte Penner," she said firmly. "You are a dear child of God already. I know it for sure." Mrs. Penner died a few months later.

Hannah Voth crept in late one morning carrying her suitcase and saying not a word. Miss Voth was a middle-aged woman, a farmer's daughter, who had recently been engaged, so the story ran, to an Abram Heinrichs; but on the wedding day he married someone else. The distraught bride withdrew to her bedroom and refused to see anyone. Her parents could do nothing with her. After they moved to town they came to talk to Helena. Their daughter, they said, had decided to live with the Jungases, and nothing could dissuade her. They put down rent for a room on third floor.

Hannah spoke to nobody. She ate alone--pounds and pounds of meat which she cooked for herself on Helena's stove. To cut the meat she carried a large knife. Helena spoke pleasantly to her, but the children didn't like her. One day Frieda began teasing her. Hannah got very angry and threatened Frieda with her knife. That decided matters: Helena said that Hannah had to go. Hannah's parents moved her into an old folks home, where she lived behind a closed door, opening it a crack if someone wanted to talk to her and a little wider for food trays. It turned out that Hannah Voth had wanted Abram Heinrichs, but he hadn't wanted her--the engagement and wedding had existed only in her imagination.

Meanwhile a steady stream of strange people passed through the hotel: traveling salesmen, businessmen, railroad people, singers, circus performers. They would tramp in carrying coats and suitcases, stay a night or two, and disappear again. The circus people stayed a week. When Frieda went to mop their rooms, she found a baby sleeping, alone, in one of the beds--the troupe was out performing. The baby was there again the next day, and every day that entire week. Helena kept an eye on the baby and did not notify the authorities.

In general, however, she put up with no nonsense. Once two junk dealers by the names of Bach and Zurich took a room for a few months. Their business was scrap metal--old stoves, junk iron, washtubs, and such. It happened that while they were in town Rempel's General Store had kitchen ranges out on the sidewalk on display. Bach and Zurich cast an interested eye over the stoves, then walked back to the hotel.

The next day Bach returned to Rempel's store with a crowbar in his hand and began smashing up one of the stoves. Rempel heard the racket and came running out. Bach paid no attention to his shouts, but banged away industriously. Just as Rempel was threatening to call the police, Zurich ran up and immediately flew into a temper. "What are you doing?" he yelled at Bach. "What kind of dybbuk got into you? What's the town gonna think, you no-good bum!" He yanked out a gun and threatened to kill Bach, who promptly threw down his crowbar and ran around behind the row of stoves. Zurich ran after him. Around and around they went, Zurich shouting furiously and Bach keeping quiet, concentrating on getting out of Zurich's range. Rempel in a fright begged Zurich to stop, saying he didn't want murder committed on account of a stove. Finally Bach succeeded in making a dash down the street past all the people who had gathered around to watch. Zurich ran after him, though not fast enough to catch up.

Bach dodged past Helena, standing on her porch, and into the hotel. A few minutes later Zurich ran up. Helena stopped him. "I want no fighting in my hotel!" she commanded, eyeing the gun in his hand.

He winked at her as he went by. "Yah, sure, no fighting." Later that day Helena saw the two of them walk out together and laughing. She put two and two together, and was not surprised when she heard that Bach and Zurich had hauled away Rempel's stove for junk.

What was one to think? When Anna's birthday came up later that week, Bach gave her a little doll from the Cities and wished her a life as long as Abraham's.

All this time, of course, down on first floor Johann was quietly selling nickel-plated parlor stoves, boxes of nails, washing machines, dishes, household wares of all kinds. Al and John were learning how to wait on customers. Down the road the blackened ruins of the old store were cleared away to prepare for construction of a new store and second-floor home.

Grandpa Jungas, Al, Uncle Jake
Frank? and John

But for those eight years Helena was the gravitational center of the family's small universe. Around her in concentric circles whirled her husband and children, her collection of refugees, and the hotel guests. Far beyond her horizon, moving along in a slow cycle, were the distant generations whose welfare would depend, in some tiny measure at least, on what Helena did day after day in the hotel.

Helena herself did not have time to think about this. Two things were central in her mind: getting her husband back on his feet, and keeping her children, cleanly clothed, in school. Other things could wait.

The Jungas sisters

Grandma Jungas, Center of the Jungas Family