Fathers are always Right, or, No Point Dealing with the Dying
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Unpublished fictional MS Travelodge -1992
Damn it, if there was an easy way of saying this. Trying to work out the interminable English winter and what it does to sweet Mediterranean souls, can keep you awake half the night. That's what happened to Ron. 1993. England. Winter. Three o'clock in the morning. The interminable English winter. Ron couldn't fall asleep. So familiar. Many stories begin like that. So what did he do? If there was a woman, if he felt sexual... Well, there was a woman lying next to him and ... All he could think of was his father. A few years before that elastic moment, his father had told him that the further he traveled away from home, the more he'd miss it. His father had also told him that one day he would appreciate the wisdom of those words. Ron's response at the time had been to mutter to himself something like fuck parental wisdom. He wasn't so sure anymore.
The woman lying next to him turned toward him and placed her arms around him. He waited. She was still asleep. It was an instinctual movement for her, that turning towards the sound and embracing it. A sign of health, of trust in natural phenomenon; to turn towards a sign of life and simply embrace it. No doubt the idea of home would be as instinctual for her. She would turn towards it without thinking about it twice. He hated her for that. No crazy thoughts in the middle of the night. All she needed for a sound sleep was a good session under the covers, a short but intense orgasm, followed by that deep embrace she had in her, wrapping her arms and legs around him, letting him bury his face in her long hair and then drifting off to sleep.
He was awake after her embrace wore off, while her limbs gently loosened and began a slow turning over onto her back and then onto her other side, away from him. She was orienting herself towards Home, her home, connecting with whatever it was that kept her ticking. He was even awake when she began purring with the arrival of her first dream. He was as awake as she was asleep.
He was still awake when the digital watch showed four o'clock in the morning. Or was it four o'clock at night? When did the night turn into morning? How could you tell? He was living in British time, which meant that the day ended at midnight. Jewish time was different. For the Jews the day ended with the appearance of the first three stars. What was that time that he was awake in? How long could he keep that endless argument with himself going? British time or Jewish time, it was all borrowed time, time taken off, time away. Away from home, away from everything else.
How long had it been now? Months, years, seconds. The two sequences of time kept on ticking, moving along, over one another, creating such a noise in his head that sleep had become as remote as home for him. The night which would never end. The night which could only end with a resolution, a choice, saying yes to this and no to that.
1967. Ron was five years old, out on a walk with his aunt in Tel-Aviv. As they passed the shops, she asked him what flavor ice-cream he wanted. She didn't ask him whether he wanted ice cream but simply what flavor. Instead of choosing chocolate or vanilla or any other damn flavor like any other normal kid would do, he said that he didn't want any ice cream but preferred a book instead!
He wished he had that ice-cream then. Maybe he wouldn't have been so far away now. Maybe he would have been in a different bed. Maybe he wouldn't have to be so fully awake now, lying under tones of covers in that cold isolation of an island, England.
1993. Was that a good year to return? Wednesday, no, it was already Thursday, remember, 4.30 in the morning on Thursday morning, the third day of February in the year 1993. The winter, the long, bleak, grey British winter, experienced at its worst in that East Midlands town he had forgotten himself in 6 years earlier. In a few hours, the sun would make a feeble attempt to shine through the heavy coating of nondescript mucus the atmosphere has deposited over the sky. Then the dribble would begin, the slow, monotonous dribble of grey rain drops, falling on grey pavements, wetting grey people who would rise again and have grey thoughts during their grey days.
1993 would be a good year year to return home, to travel eastward, to arrive back in Israel. To make a decision, to emerge from that seductive dying, that emptiness of longing.
He thought of his father. He too had to return. But it wasn't home he had returned to. Home was elsewhere, in old Europe, no longer located on any map but that of his memory, a trace of which always lingered in his speech, a certain way with which he pronounced his L's and B's. And yet, there was a place, there was a town, there was a house. It was more then a figment of anyone's imagination.
He thought of his mother, Nina, having to flee her home before she learnt to walk. Having to be carried in her mother's arms to a place of safety, where Jews were meant to be proud and strong, proud to be Jews and strong in their conviction of justice. His mother who often went back, in her mind, to that place she had fled before she learnt to speak. That fleeing, that running away, having become so strongly a part of her that she could never stop running, even after the arms which had carried her were long dry and six foot underground.
Ron tossed in his bed. Five o'clock. It was hurting him. It was uncomfortable to think of his family as people who have a damaged sense of home. People with a past they do not understand but which they are haunted by, which they haunt him with their pleas to return home, to return to the home they so painstakingly constructed for him, to compensate for the home they never had, to confirm in them that it was possible to have a home, that they could at long last rest.
The shame of it all.
No, there was no escaping it any longer. That was what he had to face. Five o'clock in the morning, his mind reeling, his mouth stinking and suddenly with an erection that came from nowhere and was directed at nobody. He knew that if he waited long enough, it will subside, like the tide, it will diminish, become reasonable again, stop demanding. All he had to do was wait, be patient, think about something else.
His return to Israel was more then merely getting up in the morning, one morning, and instead of feeding the cat and going to work, buying an airplane ticket and traversing the skies.
The return. It seemed that he had been preoccupied with little else ever since the initial amazement of having succeeded in leaving Israel had worn off. The green of the landscape, the vastness of the space, the anonymity he enjoyed for the first time in his life; for the first few years all those were enough to convince him that it was possible to live away from Israel. More than that, that it was desirable and even necessary for his sanity. For the first time in his life, he was able to separate himself from the mass that his family had encapsulated him in, the mass that Israeli society has cocooned around its bewildered citizens.
He had loved the sensation of doing simple things like turning on the radio and hearing news about issues he knew nothing about and which seemed to bear absolutely no relevance to his life. Then there were the British people. They left him in peace. Nobody expected anything of him. He signed on and began receiving welfare from the state, and nobody seemed to worry about the fact that he was spending his days strolling around, watching TV, smoking cigarettes and just enjoying himself. He even stopped having that recurrent dream that he had since his army days, of the giant shadow appearing in the doorway and beckoning threateningly for him to follow towards Judgment Day. He was free and he loved it. His family were writing to him regularly and reminding him of their never ending love and devotion, but with enough sensitivity for him to feel at ease with the fact that he had left.
Then the doubts began. He began waking up in the morning with a feeling that something was missing. He longed for some sunshine. He longed for someone to be rude to him, for someone to egg him on, to make unreasonable demands upon him, to drive him crazy with anger. One morning he went down to the corner shop which he had used for over a year, to buy cigarettes and was aware that the man in the shop looked at him in a funny way. When he arrived back in the flat he looked in the mirror and realized what a wreck he looked. Unshaven, his hair needed a cut, his shirt was dirty. He looked a mess, which was okay, but what was not okay was the way in which the British man in the shop has said nothing, just looked at him and did not show any concern. For all he knew, the young man whom he had just served, could have been smoking his last cigarette before plunging his head into the gas stove. In Israel, if he dared to appear thus in a shop he has been frequenting for so long, the man would have rung his mother, an ambulance, or at least make some remark about his appearance. At that point, Ron had wished for nothing better. The loneliness he felt on that morning was the beginning of his disillusionment. He knew that he would go back. He knew that he wanted to. He knew that he had no other choice.
He could punctuate the memory of the years that followed that morning with his half-hearted attempts to actualize his intention to return. First there was a woman, he couldn't leave on account of her, then a job, then another woman, there was always something. He stayed, for another six months, until the end of the term, until the current woman would stop filling his days, until...
The light was beginning to sneak in from under the thick curtains. He could see the books lining the four walls, the pile of clothes on the bare wooden floor, the pictures on the wall, the photo of his grandmother. Tears came to his eyes. His grandmother. Dead. Buried. Without having said goodbye to him. He couldn't even remember when he last saw her. He sank back into the bed, under the covers, seeking forgetfulness in the dark warmth that her body exudes. How delightful that woman smelt, even in her sleep! Totally sweat-free. Even her cunt smelt good. He didn't even need to get any nearer to it to know this. It simply sent out its firm but delicate aroma to encapsulate him.
He thought of his grandmother, Rita, who had dreamt of a return she never actualized. A return to her Greek home which she left, was dragged out of, a few months before the Fascists took over. Israel was home, for her, for him and for all Jews, she had said, but her eyes told a different story.
His return would be her return too. His return was going to be a rewriting of the script, a return from Europe which was not accompanied with cries of pain and the specter of fear and hatred. A return which was made out of a positive choice, out of an embracing of a past, a return which was an acceptance of a home which was more than a haven for refugees, a return which would be a final settling of a long history of wandering and displacement.
But a return to where? The Israel he had left 6 years earlier did not exist anymore. Even his memories of it were selective, memories of memories. The return was from nowhere back to nowhere, a journey between remembered images and regretted experiences.
He thought of his maternal grandfather's eyes. He thought about the sadness he saw there. It was that sadness which would have to serve him as a beacon on the journey through the cemetery. Many headstones, many epitaphs. Homage had to be paid to them to merit an arrival.
He thought about his other grandmother, Edith , the last survivor of that generation, whose adult life was spent in a subordination which didn't seep into her soul and when the physical chains of that semi-voluntary enslavement were removed, a most colorful and baffling flower has emerged. He thought of her husband, the patriarch of the family, Dr Leon, whose pride separated him from life, the loneliness of the ruler, he whom they all tried to please, he whom he missed the most, to tell him how angry he was that he now had to travel through the desert of their shared pain before he could arrive anywhere.
Sad individuals. Secretive individuals. Full of yearnings and unfulfilled dreams. Shit, what a heritage of despair! He could imagine the wonder in his lover's voice, had she been a witness to these deliberations - "why does it have to be so complicated with you? Why can't you just fly home and that's it? Why do you have to make such a drama out of it?"
The secret sadness, the unexpressed sadness, which was not just his own, the sadness of his family, his people, their history, the world which he had inherited. It was a sadness of a people, private and public. Individuals who could not allow themselves to be sad in public, a people who tried to hide their weakness in public and their sadness in private.
Ron could not understand his grandfather's personal pain without having some insight into the closed nature of the Jewish community in which he lived, and which forced upon him a divorce. His private shame of marrying a woman who was deemed impure because she no longer possessed a hymen. The public shame of a ritual that was there to symbolize the happiness of the wedding night, but which turned into the sadness of his life. The fear of impurity, of losing one's essence, of losing the community's identity which was behind that draconian ritual. The fear of losing the community's identity through intermarriage and impurities, that fear itself was a result of the never ceasing threat of Anti-Semitism as well as the belief that the faith, the Word, must survive at all cost, even at the cost of sacrificing one's personal happiness.
Fucking sacrifice. The place he would have to return to was the place where people died to make it the place he could go back to. Or so they made him believe. It was good to die for your country, they told him at school. As if anything was good to die for, as if death could somehow be sweetened, made worthwhile, made significant, respectable. Perhaps because he believed them, that that place was good to die for, that he had to leave, wanting more than anything else to live, however meaninglessly, just to be alive, and not to have to dilute that with a sacrifice for a cause that was never so clear to him as it was to them. Them. His teachers, the politicians, the heroes in the textbooks, his uncles who fought in the never-ending wars, his father who for years woke up screaming in the middle of the night to the sound of falling shells. Too much fighting, too many deaths, too much sacrifice. And when he left, the cause for which he had been told it was worth dying, was killing too many of the others, the other people whose land it also was. The enemy. Maybe because he never saw them as the enemy that he had to leave, make space for himself away from where such a making of a space meant taking somebody else's space. Let the causes fight one another, let the holy war remain holy. He had just wanted to live, unholy.
It was impossible to resolve. The nowhere he now wanted to leave, the Europe that he had returned to in the hope of finding the home his ancestors had left, the metaphoric home, the Diaspora, was full of deaths which were now driving him away towards that other nowhere which was also a place of death, which was also a metaphoric home. From nowhere to nowhere with death to keep him company. To leave the adopted home, the Diaspora in order to live in the newly found home, Israel, and to accept that neither were home, but that home was somewhere in the middle, in the wandering, in the searching, in the telling of the search, the words that made up the journey to the home. Not exactly Odysseus returning to Ithaca, but returning nevertheless.
Six o'clock in the morning. Ron was stuck. The total darkness which had noosed around him when he turned the light off was evaporating, revealing the contents of the room, the remains of the room, where his things were strewn across the floor. If he couldn't sleep now, he never will, he thought to himself drowsily, slowly slipping. His tongue felt heavier. His thoughts were tapering off, a thin line of smoke, a signal sent up into the air, calling, calling. And finally... He was asleep. No longer aroused, nor satisfied. The night was undressing its cloak of stillness and slowly dissipating into light. The Return began, as a dream, as a wish to enter the territory of the past, the memories of memories of his ancestors, the desert of experience which he had to unfold and recall and then shed off and one day arrive somewhere new, to the place that had once been his home and now would have to be something else.
Rita and Sam
1989. Ron, Yorkshire, winter, countryside, an English lover. It was raining, of course, they stayed in, ate, listened to music, made love. Slept. During one of those long nights he dreamt of two beautiful women, sitting in a kitchen and talking to one another about their lives, about the way that led them to where they were, cooking, husbands, a lot of laughter and tears, and as they spoke so softly, the notes of their voices began growing into a beautiful vine bush, sprouting new leaves, sending out new shoots, crawling and climbing, becoming the women themselves. It was the most beautiful vine in the world, but it bore no fruit.
1930. In a house in Salonika, the birth of Ron's mother, Nina, a first child, her father thought that it would have been better if it was a boy, but still a joy, there would be more to come, four to be exact until the sixth was the long expected boy, and all the years spent in hard toil, Ron's grandfather's figure more bent every year, more mouths to feed, every birth tears out another piece of mother's flesh, and still, no money but a lot of joy, or so at seems.
1930. Ron's father was already two years old. He was walking and almost talking. That year was almost his last: on a visit to a monastery near Sofia, he was laid on a little hammock and left under the care of his nanny, who lost herself in vigorous rocking of the cradle and was horrified to watch his little self being flung out of it and nearly out of the window on the third floor of the building...He survived the blow, a single son, the pride of the family, the pride of the town, suckled by a wet nurse, piano lessons at five.
In Germany, a small man with a moustache was rapidly bringing humanity down to its knees. He was not alone. Centuries of hatred were behind him. With a proud gaze, he was bringing hope back into the lives of millions of Germans. At the expense of many other millions. His great hour, and our darkest, was yet to come.
1932. Nina was two when her dad, Sam, fulfilled his Zionist ambitions and took his family to Palestine. As one of the more active Zionists in Salonica, he was expected to do nothing less. He would have gone earlier, had not the shame of the failure of his first marriage spoilt his plans so.
1928. Entered Mr. Honor, a most distinguished player in the family game. It was in the name of Honor, the family's honor, that Sam presented the blood-stained sheets after the wedding night. If there was blood, all rejoice, and the holy bond is on. But if the sheet remained white during that fateful night...
What words of solace, or reproach, did Sam whisper into the ears of his first wife, the one he was then forced to divorce, after discovering that the night he so longed for had turned into a nightmare, when honor became more important than happiness or love? No words were uttered. The long silence that ruled his life began.
Once the failed bride was collected into the arms of a grieving mother, Sam stood in the deserted bedroom, waiting. There was nothing else he could do but wait, wait for the call of his mother. Neither the grief nor the anger he was feeling at the time were showing on his face. Had he looked in a sideways mirror, he would probably have been able to date the beginning of his stoop to that precise moment. That was when he had begun to bend, a process that only ended with his death, when he was almost doubled up.
1990. The doctors said that Sam died of natural causes. Which was true but was not all the truth. It was true that he was very old when he died, that his body had reached a level of exhaustion beyond which it was impossible to proceed. That was true, but not enough. Ron knew that he died of something else.
And what was constipation if not the inability to let go of what one held within, the content of the bowels, the process of all that one had taken in from the world, the inability to let go of all the poisonous substances one had to digest through life.
At that moment in Salonica, Sam had made a body decision to not let go. He died because he couldn't let go of his own shit! Had he had the courage to oppose his mother and the tradition that barred him from his wife, had he been able to leave that bedroom that morning, had he been able to leave those who for the sake of his own happiness had made him unhappy, then his anger and grief would not have been stifled, his back would have remained erect, and he would have been able to love himself more.
But he didn't. He stayed in that room and waited for the call of his mother, waiting to be told what to do now that he had disappointed the family. He waited and did not care what came. But the call did come and told him what he had to do, which he obeyed to the letter.
1929. In another district in Salonica there was another woman. She too carried marks which singled her out from the rest. She too had offended Honor by loving the wrong person and must be punished. The two are drawn towards each other like bad luck.
What went through Rita's mind when her brother, turned up in their parental home one evening with that unassuming man and introduce him to her with a knowing look? She gave SP one quick glance, then turned around and despite her mother's reproaching eyes strode out of the room.
How could they expect her to even look at Sam when all there was on her mind was Alias?
Alias, who brought her little presents every time they met, Alias, smiling at her across the meeting room in that secretive way, Alias, promising her that one day, soon, when the revolution came and they would be free, when it would matter not that she was Jewish and he was not, when they could just love one another openly, Alias, brief meetings on the way home, a kiss or two, did it all have to end now?
They told her she must forget Alias and marry Sam. They told her that there were other considerations than love, that love would come later, that she must think of the family, her mum wasn't getting younger and nor was she for that matter, and people were talking and she knew how difficult it had been for her since their father ...well, since he died.
The union of Rita and Sam was not one blessed by love. They came to one another with lowered eyes, because neither felt they could resist the dictates of their families. They were prepared to sacrifice their own private happiness for the public preservation of honor, to do what was right, what was necessary.
1993. RLA has a photograph of Rita which he took on her eightieth birthday. She didn't know he was taking it. She allowed something that was rarely out to appear on her face. In the photograph she looks sadly into the distance. She looked sad in a way which contradicted everything he, and everybody else in the family, wanted to believe she was. They knew she was a survivor, that she was strong, that she was carrying the whole family upon herself, that her weakness was merely physical! Merely physical! She was being eaten alive from inside by something which was not cancer, which was not anything in particular, nothing any of the doctors that have looked after her for forty years could put their finger on, but it was eating her, slowly, daily.
1942. The longing Rita had been feeling ever since she had left Greece with Sam and their young Nina, turned to terror as the news from Europe were coming in. First the occupation of France, the deportation of the Jews of Paris, where she was certain several of her brothers were still studying. Then the occupation of Greece and the long trains to Auschwitz. The letters stopped arriving. One by one all traces of her family were being wiped out. The Nazis were killing her family, she knew it, could do nothing but hope, hope that somehow everything was alright and that when the war would be over, all her brothers and sisters would be back with her, and with them bring back the music. Then the war was over, silence remained and hope withered.
When Nina returned to her parents’ home unexpectedly one day, two years after she married the man who could have been Ron's father, announcing that she was leaving him, Sam let out a little yelp and wept. For a few hours, Nina's resolve floundered and dissipated.
Don't do it, he said, don't do it. You don't know how unhappy it would make you.
The house engulfed him. He disappeared into the bedroom, where he sat on the edge on the bed, crying quietly, letting the tears slide down his face, heaving his big body with sighs that were meant to be heard throughout the house. Don't bring shame upon me, don't bring shame upon this house, he said. Haven't we suffered enough already?
But I'm unhappy, Nina said, already afraid of her father's pain, do you want me to be unhappy? And in her heart, she added, like you?
Is he hurting you? Isn't he bringing you food home?
What about love? What about love?
Nina was bewildered. She had never seen him cry. For her, he was the father who told her what to do, told her what not to do, the father whom she was to respect. She had never seen a man cry before. She wasn't even sure that she had thought it possible.
For her mother, Nina's announcement was no big surprise. She knew of her daughter's unhappiness. She knew of the long nights she sent crying into the pillow, lying next to a man she didn't love. She knew of the emptiness she had in her heart in the evenings when he returned home. She knew how it was, from words and from sighs and from words which were never spoken but were heard nevertheless. She knew that my mother was aching with the mistake she felt she had made, she knew that my mother was aching from the physical sacrifices she had to make, the two children that never got a chance, oh hard it is even to think about that, the pain of the grandparents she could have had, she knew of the pain of all that.
It was summer, the eternal summer of the desert. It didn't matter where in the country you were, the hills, the valleys, by the coast, it was always in the desert, and always in the summer. The colors were yellow, faded yellow, and brown, tainted with the suggestion of spilt blood. Yellow and brown, diffusing with one another, dancing and spreading over the contours, over the shapes, over the smells, over everything which had a physical presence. Like a slow spreading lava, it covered everything. The odd green plant was dusty with fatigue, drained of any moisture, sucked clean of all but the merest sign of life. The liveliest were the stones.
Nina followed her mother out into the wilderness of their front yard. The place were they stood, thirty four years ago, does no longer exist. Or rather, if you tried and stand in the place where they once stood, you'd be run over by cars on the fast lane of the urban motorway which dissects Tel-Aviv into two parts, its main traffic artery, its exit and its entrance, a black river of asphalt which was once a brown-yellow wadi of stone, thorns and shanty town.
But that happened many years later. Thirty-four years later, cars pass over that spot on the ground where Nina and Rita stood, where Rita brought out two stools for them to sit on, where they shut out the sighs of the grieving man. Thirty-four years later, Ron drove over that spot and stopped. It was midnight then, but it was still summer. It was the same summer, unrelenting. And if Ron was a North American Native, he would no doubt would be able to identify the same stone which belongs to the same wilderness that was once the home of his mother, and her mother. But he was no North American Native, he was the lost son on a home visit, stood by the side of the road, on the place he imagined to be the same place where they stood, looking into the night. He would like to have said that he was looking into the night in peace, with contemplation, perhaps even with nostalgia, certainly with understanding. But all he could see in front of his eyes, covering half of the starry skies, was a huge prick, a huge projected prick, being sucked, being stroked, being two breasts, then someone's cunt, and then a prick again, all projected on the huge screen, towering over the road, looming high above the city, entertaining, or not, the passengers in the cars that visit the drive-in cinema. Who knows, maybe it was right that that would be the monument for the place where his mother spent her youth. Maybe there was some logic in that, some fine ironic logic.
Nevertheless, he was out there in the eternal and relentless summer, in the dark, walking towards that screen, looking for some sign from earlier times, when people and not merely pornographic images used to populate this place, looking for some sign of humanity, generally speaking, nothing particularly connected to his history or the history of his people, anything that would somehow connect those two women standing out there, thirty four years earlier, speaking about marriage, love, the necessity of it all, looking for something which would link those innocent and ignorant days to the present days of open carnal knowledge where nothing seemed hidden anymore, where all was sex sex sex, big, open, demanding, hungry and frustrating, lonely.
There was nothing worth mentioning which made any real link between the two events.
The shame of it all.
Thirty-four years earlier, leaving his grandfather to weep in the bedroom, Nina followed her mother out into the courtyard, now the arena of pornographic movies, and tried to tell her why was her father crying.
Cast your mind back. Replaces the brown-yellow hues of the Sova wadi in Tel-Aviv with the green and white hues of a rain-washed street in Salonica. The house would be of stone, finely cut and placed, iron-wrought fence, gently locating the garden in a guarded relation with the street, sounds of living, smells of cooking. Gone are the huts, made of cast-off metal sheets which let the rain in during the winter and let any comforting coolness out during the summer, gone are the dust clouds rising every time anyone moved, gone is the stench of the shit holes in the back yard.
That was a sacred moment. Two women standing outside the house, trying to find a way to talk to each other, trying to make a connection, trying to find a way to let the man speak, the man who was still in the house. Like two electric conductors, they stood there, trying to make up for his absence, for his reluctance, for his unexpressed pain to come forth and explain itself, so that the past can begin being the past and be over with, rather then an ongoing entity which haunts them in its potentiality, its ominous threat.
Slowly, with difficulty, Rita began to talk. It was not like her. She did not usually find it hard to talk, not to Nina. She had been talking to Nina all along, even before she was born. But then it was not easy. She was not sure what the story was, what words she could use to explain why Sam was against his daughter's divorce. She could only guess. She had to make it up as she went along, using fragments she picked up along the way, slivers of words she had heard in the day when they were still in Salonica. She was speaking slowly, like a woman trying to recall a dream, a difficult dream, which struggled to keep its content secret and at the same time yearned to be told so as to be released. There was no revelation, just the slow trickle of a brook that has been dry for so long.
Salonica, 1919. Little Sam returned home and finds his mother crying in the kitchen. She hadn't noticed him at first, as he approached the kitchen table, where she was resting her head on her hands. Quietly he moved, already developing that worried look which he wore on his face when he died, 80 years later. When she noticed him, she rushed over to him. She struggled hard to hold back her own tears and pick him up, hold him so tightly, wipe his face with a corner of her skirt, let him taste a little of the soup, give him a sweet, a little money to run out and get something from the corner shop, to go and meet his father on his way back from work, take a deep breath herself and tell herself that she mustn't do this to her little son. The approaching footsteps of his father stifled her crying. She straightened up, wiped her eyes, blew her nose and told him, see, mummy is happy again, go and say hello to you father, be nice to him, tell him what you did in school today.
His dad came in from a long day in the sun. He sold peanuts, almonds, dates, sunflower seeds and other sweet and salty things on a little trolley in the city center. He smelt of the sun and the sea. His eyes had the brightness of someone who had been standing on the street all day long, his step was tired, his feet ached. He sat in the only armchair in the house, drawing silence around him. He was tired. Little Sam went up to him, stood by his chair and waited for the palm to stroke his head. He watched him closely, the brown skin on his face already wrinkled, sprinkled with stubs of hair, the long wiry moustache, now drooping at the corners. The thin lips that didn't stretch to a smile too often. The hand stroked him, pinched him, as if the fingers were only too well accustomed to deal with little hard objects, peanuts. The tips of the fingers were hard, the palm was calloused, the smell was salty, sweaty and sweet. Sam got lost in that strange aromatic confusion and forgot his tears.
Around them, the Salonica evening was falling fast. The fiery ball in the sky turned to orange and descended fast. The wide window which let Sam's dad's gaze out to let the cool evening breeze in. It was an evening in the summer. Soon food would be ready. His dad yawned, still stroking his son absent-mindedly, thinking of the evening ahead. His evening clothes were waiting in the bedroom. The silk shirt, the white light gabardine jacket, the walking stick. But when his wife appeared in the doorway, he froze. Sam could feel his father's hand stiffen. She walked over to the window, still not having exchanged even a glance with her husband. The two watched her back as she leaned on the windowsill and waved to the neighbor across the yard.
Sam found himself alone by the chair. His father was gone. When his mother turned around, she found a little boy with tears in his eyes and a look of hatred and fear. A minute later they heard the front door shut. They were alone in the house. In the background, like a shadow projected on the wall, a shadow without a body, was the presence of the other woman. The woman nobody ever saw but everybody knew about, the woman Sam's dad would go to, night after night, during that summer of 1912, till the summer was no more, till the cool winds began to blow into the city and Sam's mother took to bed where she stayed till her husband knelt beside the bed and promised never to wear that silk shirt again, never to leave the house at twilight time, never to wear that particular smell upon him, that enticing aroma which belonged to the other one. And then he cried, and then she cried and Sam was called in, not that there was a need to shout very loud as they were both just behind the door, on their tiptoes, waiting. They rushed in and for a while it was all bed and feather cushions and mum's body warm but weak under the covers and dad exhausted but happy, like a man relieved of a heavy burden, holding Sam so tight, as if he was holding someone whom he had thought he lost.
Sam's dad lived long after his brief affair was over. He had many years during which to regret that short betrayal of his. Towards the end of his days, he was left with hardly no breath, but only just enough to utter one curse, so full of hatred. His regret was not for the affair he had. Nor was it for the pain which his wife felt in its wake. It was certainly not for his children; he couldn't see what any of it had to do with them. His only regret was that he ever ended that affair and returned to his wife, for the end of that affair marked the beginning of a new phase in his marriage, one which so shocked him that it took him the rest of his life to adapt to, and when he did, all that he had strength for in protest was a little curse.
Secret love affairs were difficult to manage, in Salonica, nearly impossible. Sam's dad managed to keep his affair clandestine for no more than a week. nobody knew how it was first discovered, let alone Sam's dad himself. All he knew that one evening when he returned home, his wife greeted him with her tears. For a week that was all he saw from her. There was no point in denying her accusations. She confronted him with details which he believed were only known to him and his lover. His wife knew everything. She knew that her husband's lover was young widow who has just arrived to Salonica from Athens a few months earlier, who had some relatives in the city with whom she came to stay. That young woman caused quite a stir in the community. After living with her relatives for a few weeks, she packed up her few belongings and found herself a small ground floor apartment in a different district in the city. Nobody knew why. But the neighbors began noticing the male visitor who appeared in the street every evening, wearing a light silk suit, always carrying a bunch of flowers in his hand. And a few hours later, he would emerge from her front door, with a smile on his face, till the following evening. It didn't take people long to work out who he was and where he lived.
After her week of crying was over, Nina emerged with a new resolve. One night when he returned home from his nocturnal adventure, Sam's dad found the front door of his house locked and the house dark and quiet. He stood there for a long while, tapping on the door, calling out into the emptiness that his home has turned into, hoping that it was a mistake, that they were all asleep and that soon enough someone, but not the neighbors, would wake up and let him in.
When an inquisitive neighbor did poke his head around the corner, Sam's dad pushed himself into a dark corner and held his breath. It wouldn't do for a man like himself to be caught out like that, locked out of his own house, his family home. The neighbor was nosy enough to notice him but discreet enough not to let on to that. But he knew, and Sam's dad knew, that he had been spotted.
There was no sleep for him that night. Slowly he made his way back to his lover and found her door locked to. Again, he stood by the door, quietly trying to awaken his lover without causing any disturbance, without turning his private shame into a public affair. He stood there for a long while before realizing that he no longer believed that he would be let in. He was cast out. The rest of the night he spent by the door of his own house, contemplating his lot, and with the first light, when the thin figure of his wife appeared in the gate, he was remorseful and ready to do anything required of him. He was beaten.
She didn't say much to him that morning. She opened the door, let him in, told him that their children were with her parents, where she'd spent the night, and that if he wanted his family back he would have to fight for them. When he left the house later to set up his stall for the day, he was only a shadow of his former self.
Brown brittle pine needles lay over the stone which covered Sam's grave. The plot where the grave was in a remote corner of the cemetery, far away from the big headstone where the great of the nation lay. When Sam bought the plot himself twenty years before he died, he considered that fact. He felt he made a compromise. He couldn't get exactly what he wanted in life and he couldn't get exactly what he wanted in death. He had to comfort himself that at least he and his wife would be near the great of the land, in the same city of the dead.
The best time to visit that city of the dead was at dusk, when the heat of the day had subsided, and the exhausted air filled with a promise of coolness. The road to the cemetery passed through an industrial estate. You couldn't imagine a less holy prologue. On either side of the dusty road lay garages and second-hand car showrooms. Long before you began to inhale the sweet pine which decorated the city of the dead, you had to put up with smells of grease and exhaust fumes. The sacred mingles with the trivial with an electrifying freshness. No time for sentimentality there. Death lay firmly embraced in the soiled arms of life in its most mundane hues.
Some members of Ron's family preferred to leave the pine needles in their place as they gently fall over the stone and cover the grave with their silent grief. Let the decay take place both above and below, they would say. Others wished to wipe the grainy stone, not forgetting though to replace the little stones which other visitors have placed upon the grave as a signature for their visit. When you removed those little markers of condolence, you notice the darker stain they had left there. The grave has responded to the token of remembrance and marked its place with some moisture, drawn from within.
At the time when he bought the plot, Sam did not have a lot of money. You fool, Rita bellowed at him, why don't you buy land for the living? Why waste it on the dead? What does it matter where we lie after we are gone?
She wanted to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be divided into five portions, each to be placed in a little vase, each to be given to each of her children. Like that she would not have to miss out on anything. She would still be with them.
Sitting in her green armchair, hands clasping at the arm rests with such force that her knuckles turned white, she would curse the rabbis of this country for not letting her die the way she wanted. It is my body, she said, I don't want those long beards to touch me, even after I'm dead.
And Sam would lower his head upon hearing her blaspheme and entreat her to be quiet. Later, he would sneak out to the synagogue and say a few prayers, just in case. When did Sam begin to believe? When did he begin to go to synagogue? When did he turn your eyes away from the living and turned to the almightily for supplication?
June 1967. His sons were called up to the army, a war is going to start. They asked him not to worry, that it would be over soon, a few days and no more, but he got locked into this terrible fear, already hearing the shriek of the shells, the smoke of the burning tanks, and then not sleeping for 72 hours, not till they rang him from a field phone, with fatigue and the joy of the living in their voices.
The 6th of June, 1967, Sam had just heard the declaration of the war on the radio, the long string of code words, incompressible and terrifying in their message, Cherry Pie, White Snow, Ball Pen, Long Night, Cream Cheese, like so many words from another planet in another language that he heard but couldn't make sense of, as if somebody disconnected a part in his brain and he was forever doomed to that idiotic reception of a language which ones gave him comfort and now made him rush to the loo every five minute in a desperate and futile attempt of relief.
Rita was beside herself with fear. As always in times of stress, she asked Sam to bring her the photo album which contained the photos of her dead brothers and sisters, those which Hitler took with him, and cried and cried. And with the remaining strength Sam had, he sat beside her and mumbled that it would be alright, the boys would be alright, they knew what they were doing. And in your heart, an echo ricocheted with the empty words, Green Elephant, Cheese with Holes, First Rain, Longest Day.
Those were the messages of death. Death was calling the people of Israel to come and challenge its strength. The enigmatic words poured out into the emptying street, leaving in their wake silence, rivers of words that cleared the air of any other sound, of any other presence. If you stood in the middle of the street, you could hear the words gushing out from every window, in perfect synchronization, echoing one another, replicating the same message, the same words, eliminating any chance of mistake, swirling the dust of the hot June afternoon, creating short lived absences in the street. Before long, the enigmatic words would cease, the children could be put down for a little bit, cold drinks would be handed out all around, a little silence, a clearing of the throat, quick glances that said all, yes, that was for me, I have to go, do you remember where you put the kit-bag, the shoes were a bit too small but they would have to do, what would you tell the little one after I would disappear into the dust, don't forget that you promised to go and see my parents in the evening, they would understand, they have seen go away like that before. Sweaty and hungry hugs, the heart was pounding so, this is too difficult, just go and... not to cry now, it is not the right time, the little one is confused, daddy is going away now.
The streets were slowly coming back to life. The radio had said its piece. It was time for actions, words had done theirs. They were to be put back, for later, for when they would be used again, upon the return of those men, if they returned. No waving of the white handkerchief there, no crowds of proud civilians sending the boys to win them victory and pride, no mesmerizing speeches to spur the troops on. The voices were quiet. They sat at home, clutching whatever was there, waiting.
And amongst the hurrying of the semi-uniformed figures, the trucks and clouds of dust, a little man was walking slowly by. His back was bent. He stopped and looked up at the passing men, and as he tried to say an encouraging word, a smile spread itself over his face. Any of these men could be the one who would be handing his son a drink of water in a day or so. Or save his life. Or abandon him. Each one of these men had a father who watched over him, or the memory of one. Each one of those fathers stood at one time at a street corner and wished he wouldn't be saying goodbye, wished that his son would not have to put on the green uniform again and go into the desert again. And at the same time, each father felt the pang of pride that SP felt, that his son is one of the many, that he too takes part, defending what can only be described as sacred, life.
But what about the goodbye, Sam? The goodbye which you said to your sons, one after the other, as they climbed onto the truck that dusty June morning, excited, loud and seemingly ready to go. What else where you feeling apart from this pride, this pride with which we were all inoculated from early age, saying that it was good to die for our country, saying that it was worth defending, that our people has suffered a lot to reach that point, that place, that tiny piece of land that was again under attack, where again people had to sacrifice their reason and go out and kill in order to live?
He said goodbye and knew he could be saying hello to death. He sent his sons away to defend him, to defend life, and he knew he may be welcoming death into his midst. He knew that that was what he was seeing then, as he stood there, the dust raised by the trucks slowly descending back and covering his face and hands with a grey film, little grains settling on his stubble. That slow descent of the grey dust could be the premonition of the ashes he may have to be wearing later, when they returned, smaller, diminished.
Every generation had been telling the same story. Every generation sent out its sons to die, believing in the good cause for which they would never see the sun again. Each generation had its fathers, who stood in a street corner, by the village's well, somewhere and nowhere, sending them away, obeying a command they no longer remembered to question. Every generation had it Abraham who obeyed the voice of morality and tries to appease his god by sending his Isaac to die, not knowing why, but doing it all the same, for the future of the people, for all future fathers to see and fear.
Abraham believed he had no choice when he heard the voice of God commanding him to take his son, his knife and trek out in the mountains, searching the right place to do the deed. Disobeying god's words, doubting his authority would be tantamount to suicide. The god who wished him to sacrifice his own son in order to prove his loyalty, would not tolerate disobedience. If you don't obey me, you will die. If you don't do what you're told, I will stop loving you. If you don't please me, if you are not the kind of son I want you to be, I will abandon you. You will die. If you want me to remain with you, if you want to live, you have to kill, you have to kill your own son.
Was that what you came here for, Sam? Was that what you expected when you sat in your little office is Salonica, composing letters and leaflets, extolling the virtues of the new Zionist endeavor in the Holy Land?
I am happy to tell you that the petition you have all be instrumental in assembling has been received and well-appreciated by Mr. Poliakov in Athens. He sends us his regards and encouragement and is very pleased with our efforts here in the North. He also sympathizes with our difficulties with some of the more reactionary elements of the community but says not to give up, they have the same trouble in Athens!! Carry on the good work and, as usual, NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM!
SP, The Salonica Zionist Youth Movement, Secretary."
33 years later, there were no more letters, no more leaflets, nothing was left of those days in Salonica, apart from the stories. 33 years later, already an old man, Sam stood on a street corner in Tel-Aviv, the city he never left throughout his life, and watched his sons leave to live their own fear, to fight their own enemies. Was it worth it, he couldn't help asking, was it worth it, to cross the sea, to drag his family with him, to lose the other half of it in the concentration camps, to start anew in that desert called Palestine, and then to be standing on a street corner, watching his sons, not being led like lamb to the slaughter, but proudly and powerfully marching towards a rendezvous with fear, with death?
Does it matter how does one die?
Was it really more noble to die for one's country in the battlefield, protecting one's ideals and family, rather then to be gassed and burnt in the ovens of Auschwitz?
To keep his sanity, and that of the thousands of fathers and mothers behind him, stretching all the way back to Abraham, Sam had to come to the conclusion that there must be a meaning, must be a reason, one which was not for him to comprehend, one which was given, one which he must simply accept and question no more. Just obey. And carry on sending his sons away.
To survive, he had to become a little stupid. Otherwise he, and the thousands of men and women behind him, would have to rebel, go mad.
Sam turned to God.
Imagine Abraham's shock upon hearing God's command. Take your son, the one you love, take him to the mountain and kill him. I can see him shaking his head: "What?! This can't be true! What is he asking of me? Why?" But the voice is relentless. Take you son, the one you love, do it for me, show me that you really love me.
Where are we going, dad? It is still so early and I'm hungry. Why is mummy crying, dad? Where are we going? Talk to me, please.
Imagine the morning. A cool hillside near Jerusalem. Low tents stretching around a well. A few goats, donkeys, chickens. The landscape is breathtaking. Low hills, gentle in their flow into one another, sloping ravines in their midst, olive trees showing the first fruits of the year, small hard green fruits, dusty long leaves sprouting from branches that are as old as the rocks which are everywhere. There is a little boy crouching by one of the tents. He is crying. A tall man is moving about near-by, collecting bits of rope, shuffling.
What does a man think of before he sets off on his way to sacrifice his son?
Is the knife sharp enough? Will he cry as I cut his throat?
Don't believe Abraham, Sam, don't fall for all that state propaganda. Remember the pain in your heart as you were watching your sons climb on that truck. Remember the pain in your heart as you sat by the radio, day in and day out, waiting to hear some news. Don't believe that a father needs to bring a knife to his son's throat just to prove to god that he loves him.
Fight back. Say no.
You never did. It just bent your back down by another degree. Your back which had to carry so much. During your last years, you were nearly lying down even when you were standing up on your two feet. And still you thanked God for the life he gave you.
1993. Ron was on a plane. Destination: Sofia, Bulgaria. Purpose: to accompany his father on his first visit to the country which expelled him and his family 47 years earlier. Purpose: To find the clues to the family secret. Purpose: to find his love for his father. Purpose: unknown.
Bulgaria. The Bulgarians. The land that witnessed a total of a 1,000 years of occupation out of its history of 1,300 years as a nation. No great triumphant royalties emerged there, the land had no riches to boast of, it was humble and poor, cowering above Greece and Turkey.
The passive Bulgarians. It was that passivity and submission to an occupied force which saved most of the Jews of Bulgaria from the fate of other European communities. When the Nazi occupation began, the Bulgarians resisted little, as their means of defense were pathetically inadequate, but also collaborated little with the foreign invader. Passively they tried to sit out the Nazi occupation, trying to cause as little damage to themselves or to others.
1930. Lom, the Danube river. Leon was a proud man. Strolling along Lom's boulevard, everybody would watch him. A very erect back, arm in arm with his wife, Edith, but making sure she was a quarter of a step behind him, slightly in his shadow, he walked on the dusty pebbled surface of the street, nodding to passersby, pausing to exchange a few words with an acquaintance, not failing to draw his young son, to him with a slight admonishing but nevertheless affectionate tone and to pinch his cheek in front of the admiring acquaintance.
1992. That walk would have inevitably ended by the Danube, the Blue Danube, on the pier jutting out on the river, the Danube which did not look blue. It was green, it was grey, it was brown, it was shiny with spilled oil, clogged with broken branches, smelly of refuse, fast moving with dangerous undercurrents, overflowing with last years' floods. Where Ron and his father stood in silence.
A few yards off the riverbank, a disused railway track was still visible through the weeds and crawling bushes that were creeping up from the riverbank. Standing at the crossing, the track could be seen for many miles either way. You could imagine that any approaching train would be visible long before it would actually arrive there. Especially if it was a slow train, like some freight trains were. Especially if its cargo was particularly heavy, like some trains' were. Like the one in 1944, which travelled from the east, unannounced but vaguely expected, travelling slowly, very slowly, so slowly that it was visible for more than an hour before actually stopping in Lom, announcing its arrival with a shrill rusty screech and a muted sigh that seemed to escape from within the barred carriages.
August 1992. Ron stood by the railway tracks, and watched the people cross it on their way to an evening stroll along the Danube, young people making their way to a clearing by the river where an old military building had been converted into a pathetic replica of a Western discotheque, the way the horizon welcomed the disappearance of the tracks, many miles ahead, and remembered the details, repeated to him several times by his grandparents.
Of the 50,000 Jews who lived in Bulgaria during that time, only a few hundreds were killed by the Nazis. Only a few hundreds. Only. How easy it is to reduce the fate of a few hundred human beings by a single word. Only. The rest survived. Only a few died. Only. And those few hundreds were taken to their death through the city of Lom.
Word got around and by the time the trains finally stopped in Lom, the Jews of the town, a few hundred by number, were prepared. Leon was there, amongst those who tried to smuggle food, drink and medical supplies into the carriages. He was turned away, put under curfew, threatened, sent home, where he sat down, buried his head in his hands, looked up at his son and his wife, who stood bewildered in front of the man they have come to dread as a god, and said that they had to leave, that time was running out, that it would get worse. The following day, with two suitcases, carefully packed, one of which was stolen en route, the other full with bread and figs, they left their home, they left Lom, they left Bulgaria, and began a journey through Turkey, to arrive in Haifa several months later, tired, saved.
The train didn't stop for long in Lom. After the futile attempts to persuade the Germans to allow supplies into the carriages, whose shreds of human voices could be heard all over the town, silence took over. All were sitting in their houses, waiting. It was as if a new presence was in town, one whose behavior was still of a nature unknown, unpredictable, anything was possible and therefore all was feared.
And then, a few moments after the curfew was declared, a mere half an hour after the train screeched into Lom, the church bells began tolling. One note, followed by a hesitant another, as if unsure of its reception, then gradually building up into long and loud peals of ringing cascading through the town, demolishing the silence, drowning out the muted crushes of human voices which were emanating from within the carriages. It was a beautiful horrible sound. It brought solace to hearts that did not want it. It was the wrong sound at the wrong place, and it would not stop.
It was a puzzling thing. Leon's brow would always furrow deeply at that point in the story. He never knew who was responsible for the sound, nor what it meant. He only knew how disturbing it was. When the sound finally died, and its last embers were hastened to their conclusion by exacting German words, the last leg of the journey of the train people began.
1992. Maybe it was a beautiful evening, even then. Looking over the Danube, into the grey green horizon, Ron couldn't help feeling that it was. The sky had a quality of endurance, of being ancient and wise, the trees across the river on the Rumanian side bordered the sky scape with elusive firmness. Even the polluted river was curling its way thickly and gracefully. If you took a color photograph of the scene, it would not look like much on the print. The colors would look murky and muddled. It was not an American technicolor, airbrushed beauty. It was the beauty of age, of long periods of growth, of soil slowly maturing, of browns and dark greens and blues. It was beauty.
1993. As Ron and his dad were standing by the disused railway track, an old woman stopped by and began talking to his dad. Initially she mistook him for a local. That had happened to them all along the journey, and usually as soon as the interlocutor realized the singularity of HA's position, the conversation would become animated, ending with a promising exchange of addresses and telephone numbers.
That woman was different.
Her initial familiarity changed to a guarded surprise when she found out they where from Israel. When H. told her that he had lived in Lom 47 years ago, that guarded surprise changed into something else. It wasn't exactly hostility; it wasn't as clear as that. It was more like the feeling you might reserve for somebody to whom you have been indebted for a long time. She immediately embarked upon the story of her best Jewish friend with whom she had gone to school with and who later left for Israel in 1949. Her voice pleaded with H. She was begging for his attention, as if she was trying to remember something she had spent a great deal of effort in trying to forget in the past but now, as she was getting older, trying to forget was becoming more difficult then remembering.
Ron was watching her gesticulating excitedly with her hands and trying to grab his apparently bored father's attention, and in her energetic movements he saw the helplessness that his grandfather had felt that evening when he returned home defeated after hours of trying to do what was right, to fulfil what his whole professional life was about, to heal and give succor to the ill and needy.
He remembered watching him during his afternoon siesta on the big armchair in the living room, a blanket draped around his legs in the chair that was defiantly his, and after a few moments he would drop off to sleep in the tormenting heat of the Israeli summer noon, while Ron would lie on the sofa, listening to the sounds his grandmother made in the kitchen and then sneak to the bedroom which would be all hers during this holy hour of the siesta. RLA would watch his bottom jaw slowly drop, inch by inch, till his mouth was a big black, gaping, smelly hole, and in that position he would lose all his authority, all his strength, all his command over their lives and be just the aging man that he was, tired and weak.
1944. When night came, the people from the train were put on board of four ships. Final destination: Treblinka. Later during that night, the ships moved down the river towards Vienna, where more trains would have been boarded, carrying the passengers to their final terminal. Something unusual happened that night. The original plan was never completed. There were rumors, that the boats were sunk before they reached their destination. It is perhaps foolish, and inappropriate at this instance, to try and find a rational explanation as to why the Nazis chose to equip the ships with some provisions, and even make sure that two of the boats had a doctor on board, and then simply sink them. Was it another expression of exercising what Primo Levi termed as "useless violence"?
What happened to the strong patriarch, Dr Leon, when he returned home that night, after failing to do anything for the people in the train? Forty seven years later, his grandson Ron stood at the same spot, trying to work out whether it was there that his grandfather died his first death, whether it was there that he began to be absent from his own body, and thereafter from their lives, so as to become a shell of a man, an absent man, an absent father.
Ron stood there, bearing his name, bearing his burden, burden of shame, burden of guilt. Guilt of having survived, of being amongst those who got away. When Leon left, in 1944, there was no way for him to know that the Bulgarian Jewish community, would escape almost intact. He left at the beginning of a dangerous time. He left because it was a very dangerous time. He had done the only thing that his humanity would allow him to do: try and intervene, but when he saw that his efforts were futile, he picked up his life and his family's and got the hell out of there. A choice that carried shame and guilt. He left. He left the community behind.
1944. Perhaps that morning, before the arrival of the train changed their lives, when his dad left home for his daily round of patients, only Jews as he was no longer allowed to treat Bulgarians, 14 years old H still looked up at him as to the strong patriarch. When his father returned home a few hours later, he no longer had the same man for a father. All over Europe, boys and girls were losing their fathers, Jewish boys and girls were being abandoned twice: God the father was doing fuck all to save his chosen people, and human fathers were driven to their wits end to save their families' skins, and failing. As if trying would have made the slightest difference.
In 1944, H saw his father weep for the first time. It wasn't the cry of man bereaved or saddened; no, that would have been useful for HA to have seen. It would have taught him that the expression of emotion was not akin to admitting a defeat. No, that night, that cry, that sight of his father weeping, was the sight of a man demolished, a man stripped of his power, a man left to rot within the uniform of pride and tradition. It was the cry of man emasculated, a man who from that moment onwards could only maintain his authority by depriving others of it. You only do to others what had been done to you.
Ron liked to trace back the roots for his restlessness to those days in Lom. That was the kind of man he was: believing all could be explained by clarity, by remembering. He believed that those miserable days in Lom, when his grandfather had to face the depths of his weakness and helplessness in the face of a strong enemy, signified the nadir of a long process during which the men of his family lost their inner power and authority in the world, and became shells, only capable thereafter of exercising power over others, only manifesting their strength at the expense of others' weakness. You only do to others what had been done to you.
1926. Edith had just celebrated her 19th birthday when her mother told her that she was not going back to Paris to continue her studies but stay in Sofia and marry one Leon.
1993. "I didn't know what it meant, to marry a man. I thought it would be as simple as changing a shirt!" She told Ron.
Why was it necessary for Edith to stop her studies and to marry a man? After all, she was a brilliant student, her teachers in Paris urged her to return and continue her studies, there was much of a future for her. But instead, she was given away to a man who was looking not so much for a companion, an equal, someone with whom he would venture into life and discover new grounds, but rather a housewife. True, as his wife she would not need to do most of what other women had to do. She would not need to be in the kitchen much, apart from in a supervisory role; there would be a cook. Nor would she have to roughen up her delicate hands with bleach and blue washing; that too would be taken care of. After all, it wasn't just any old man she was being attached to. It was Dr Leon, from a reputable pedigree, with a past which was as respectable as the future was promising. She would lack nothing. Nothing . Nothing. And that was also what her life would become.
Edith had to marry a man because her father was dead. A girl without a father, a girl who had been living without a father ever since she was eleven years old. And when she had reached the age of nineteen, when it was time for her to emerge from the home, to take her place in the world outside the family cocoon, she had to have the permission of a man, the legitimacy of a man, the control of a man, the protection of a man, in order to become a woman. She would not be allowed to do it on her own. No, there had to be a man around, someone had to protect her. Protect her from the world, from reality, from other men, from herself.
Edith was dispossessed from her own possible future, by the death of her father. Fifty years later, the death of her husband liberated her through a second dispossession which returned her to the state she had always sought: solitude. She could begin to be herself again, at the age of 76. By concentrating her attention on herself, Edith was beginning to commit one of the worst crimes against Jewish morality. She was not prepared to sacrifice herself anymore for the sake of anyone, her son, her grandchildren, no-one! She was turning into a non-Jewish Mother.
It wasn't that she wasn't loving or giving, she was, but not enough. She was perceived as being reserved and self-centered in an eccentric and unacceptable way for a Jewish mother. She doesn't love enough, not in the right way. How could she?
1917. Edith came back from school, a summer day in Sofia, she walked up the stairs to the third floor where she lived with her older brother, Victor, her sister Mara and her father and mother. That was the concrete reality of her life. She knew that Victor would be out, Mara was only a few steps behind her, sulking a little as she did at the end of the day but Edith paid her no attention, she was just her baby sister and should learn to behave.
The door responded as usual, opening to the corridor, the pungent smell of the Naphthalene moth balls, she turned the corner and peeked into the living room as she usually did to check whether there were any interesting adults there, any present bearing , stooping uncles or mustachioed aunts, no, there were none but the room was full of people, strange people she had never seen before, were those men in black uniform policemen?
And in the corner, her mother, pale, white handkerchief in her hands, red nose, the black dress she wore for funerals, crying and suddenly looking up because of the hush that fell in the room like a bomb, seeing Edith and then also Mara who for once hurried up and got there just behind Edith, too close, looking over her shoulders and then gasping, not knowing yet what was wrong but knowing that something was wrong, very wrong.
In a flash, the summer was over, all the color was drained from everything, she could no longer hear laughter in her head. Her mother looked away and then buried her head in her hands and someone was gently pushing both her and Mara towards her sitting figure, and for a minute she was comforted by the closeness and the warmth, but that didn't last long and already she heard herself ask where was Daddy and the silence frightened her, and she tore away and despite the shouts and the pleas broke through, opened that other door, looked inside and ran to the bedside, white face, eyes almost shut, mouth a little bit open as if he was snoring silently in his sleep but there was no movement and no sound and the sheet folded so carefully up to his chin, his hands lying on top of each other, and then darkness.
Edith was unconscious for only a few seconds in the room of her dead father. When she came to, she stared at the faces around her, already somewhat detached, and asked to go to bed. Sleep came immediately, without dreams.
When she woke up from that night's sleep to face life without a father, Edith had in her the grain of disdain that would grow within her throughout her life. It was a disdain nurtured by the strongest of character. A weaker person would have given in and allowed that energy to deteriorate to despair and finally to guilt. But with Edith, the traditional pride and stubbornness supported the deep disappointment which her father's death evoked and turned it into her strength, her sticking power, her stamina.
Cloaked in her disdain, choking up all the tears in her, she seemed a serene little girl, one who "coped" well with the tragedy. A year later, she was sent to the Catholic boarding school where she was surrounded by more serenity for the following eight years, within an atmosphere of virtuosity and devotion. It was the perfect location for her disdain to be refined and to evolve into an impenetrable armor which would protect her from the world. Her acquired serenity was applauded by the nuns. They could almost forgive her for being Jewish on account of her sweet and adult-like way of carrying herself, somewhat aloof, somewhat not of that world, almost a living saint herself. If she could pretend that the world did not affect her, maybe it wouldn't. She turned her gaze inwardly, concentrating her efforts on turning her disdain into a virtue, into her main criteria through which all of the world's phenomena filtered, only allowing the least upsetting events to enter, creating within her a soft, naive and totally unworldly center, encased in the most rigid and stubborn uniform, shielding her from all which she never wanted to experience again, feelings. Her heart was slowly turning into stone.
It must be clearly understood. Edith, soon a mother to a single child, Ron's father, was not a heartless woman. Her heart still belonged to her daddy. Her daddy was dead. How was it possible to find love within for a husband or a son when the first man she loved was dead long before she were ever ready to express her love to him?
1993. Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
A couple of days after leaving Plovdiv and after saying goodbye to Freddie, whom he hadn't seen since they were children together in Lom 47 years earlier, H let out a shy sigh of relief. Seeing Freddie was the nearest HA could ever get to envisioning what his life might have looked like had he stayed and survived in Bulgaria. What he saw of Freddie, he didn't envy.
Freddie was over-weight, had had two heart attacks behind him, a liver complaint, only one testicle, his eyes had a chronic allergic reaction, his breath smelt and he was unhappy. Why was he unhappy? Because there was no future for him in Bulgaria and his past was a grey mass which he was constantly trying to crawl out of.
Freddie was the kind of anti-hero Ron fell for. He loved losers, people whose lives did not make sense, did not add up, but were worth hearing out. It was the kind of person his family seemed to be full of, but refused to acknowledge. Freddie Capon walked into Ron's life with the same ease, apparent indifference and stooped-shouldered cynicism with which he exited. He wore a moustache and underneath it a constant grin, his amused fascination with life, his world weariness and resignation which was much older then his years. It was Freddie, who threw the light on the mystery of Edith's death.
1993. Plovdiv. Freddie and Ron were cruising the city in Freddie's Leda. Freddie had a lot to say to a Western visitor. He told Ron with unconcealed glee how for years his puppet theater company was the only one in Bulgaria which produced political plays without any censorship from the authorities. As those plays had children as their audience, and as their themes were usually derived from popular folklore, it was relatively easy to interpret them in more than one way. Slowly, more and more adults were picking the message and quite often the audience had more adults in it than children. The authorities did catch on eventually and months before the Quiet Revolution of November 1989 banned one of his plays.
In a country where the most formidable form of censorship was to ignore what was being said or done and allow the Bulgarian apathy take its natural course, it was not easy for intellectuals to sustain their resistance to the oppression. The most powerful way of protest was by subversion. In order to subvert, one had to be in some way a part of the system, to be inside it, to have access to resources and to public display.
In the mid 70's, an artist named Liubomir Dalchev was commissioned by the Bulgarian government to create a series of about twenty sculptures to represent and honor the fallen for the Liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Balkan, First and Second World Wars. The figures were to be placed inside a half-submerged vault placed at the top of a long boulevard, especially created for the occasion. The sculptures were to be the head crown of this unique park meant to celebrate the victories achieved by the Bulgarian people over the years with its climax in the triumph of the Communist revolution which saved the country from the decadence of Capitalism. Those were the commissioner' words, those were his intention.
What Dalchev did was quite different. With bronze and white stone, he formed twenty figures, men, women and children, each group of figures representing a significant historic moment, something the onlooker was supposed to view with patriotic pride. Dalchev didn't deviate from the official truth one bit. Where there was a victory, he showed victory, where there was a struggle, he showed that.
The commissioner couldn't have complained about historic inaccuracy. What the commissioner did complain about, and Freddie celebrated in Ron's ears with growing enthusiasm for Dalchev's work, was the way those figures were portrayed. Okay, there was the Partisan hero who fought in the woods against the Fascists in the 40's, but why were his eyes so sad and why was he clutching his heart like that? Or the scene where an old man and a young child welcomed the Russian soldier who liberated them from the yoke of the Turks.
The soldier's figure was about three times bigger than the Bulgarian elderly who was watching him with hostile suspicion instead of the welcoming look he was supposed to bestow upon his "liberator". Another figure showed a mother mourning over the body of her child while behind her in the background a huge masculine arm stretched upwards with its fist clenched in a gesture of victory. To each of the celebrated "victories" or "liberations", Dalchev added a touch which illustrated its complexity, its injustices, the pain which it brought, the incomprehension with which individual were seized, faced with the atrocities committed in the name of "freedom" and "peace".
Ron stood a long time looking at a figure of a man holding a hand grenade looking into the distance. It was a lonely and desperate position. His face was young, almost too young to be standing in such a place. He looked like a boy who had ran away from home and found himself in a middle of a war. Ron felt sad and angry at what happened to young people who learn to kill instead of learning to deal with their fears.
Freddie was still beside him, still talking, still gesticulating, still delivering tantalizing pieces of information. The stone figure was an anti-fascist fighter, he told Ron, dating from the brief period in the 20's when Bulgaria had been ruled by Alexander Stambiiosky, a leader it deserved, a leader of the peasants, a man who tried to shake it out of its slumbers, and who died a violent death at the hands of the fascists one gory afternoon, when he, and dozens of his supporters, some of which were bankers, Jewish bankers, were rounded up and slaughtered, throwing Bulgaria into political mayhem, one splinter group fighting another.
As he looked at the bent figure of the anti-fascist fighter, as Freddie insisted on calling the young boy whom he found disturbingly familiar, Ron began to remember something, someone, a fragment of a story he had heard many times from his Edith. A story about Victor, her rebellious brother, the maverick of the family.
1921. One day, sometime after the mysterious death of their father, Victor ran into the house, dragged Edith into his bedroom and there, after checking twice that nobody was listening behind the closed door, astonished her by taking out a couple of hand grenades from his brown leather bag, and with that half-begging half-threatening tone of voice which she knew only so well from their childhood games, told her she must help him, that the police was after him, that he was doing it for their father, for his memory, for his honor, that she must take these hand grenades and hide them somewhere safe, or better still just leave the house with them and disappear for a few hours, he was expecting the police to come looking for him any minute, and just think of mama, think of the shock she would get if they found these on his body. How could she have refused him? With a quivering heart, adrenalin rushing through her veins, she took the hand grenades from his sweaty hands, bade him lie down on the bed and rest, he looked so agitated, so young and vulnerable in his excitement, and, turning her back to him, unbuttoned the top of her dress, lucky she was wearing the blue dress that day, and nestled the two cold prickly metal objects against her small breasts. Without a further word to Victor or her mum, she picked up her purse and left the house.
Victor died a lonely man. He left almost nothing after him. His personal possessions were almost immediately discarded by his family. He simply disappeared.
"He died the death of a dog. Died and lived like a dog, with nothing", whispered a sweaty man, to his overweight and over-dressed wife, as they shuffled behind the squeaky trolley that was taking Victor's body to its grave. Died like a dog, died hungry. The hunger of a man who had never found what he had been looking for, a man who had forgotten what he had been looking for, and died not knowing.
1921. When Edith came back later that evening with the hand grenades filling up her small breasts, she walked into a storm her mother had created. She was both fearful and indignant. Soon after Victor had sent Edith out on her rendezvous with the little bombs, their mother returned home and it didn't take her long to find out what was going on. Her rage was only equaled and surpassed by her shame. That her son would be involved in such activities! His feeble attempts to justify his actions by the memory of his dad only made it worse. His father had been involved in what he had been involved because he had been engaged in the process of earning a living for the family, trying to make their lives respectable, trying to provide them with a future in a country besieged by enemies from without and phenomenal corruption within. While he, Victor, was nothing but a bum , who roamed the streets and did nothing with himself, skipped school, had no plans or ambitions for himself, socialized with suspicious characters. As far as she was concerned, he was just using his father's memory to cover up for his laziness and weakness of character. Oh, if his father was alive, what would he have said!
Victor couldn't understand how she failed to appreciate the heroic gesture he was trying to strike in memory of his father. He would never forget the days which followed the death of their father. With Stamboliisky dead and his movement dispirited, there was nothing and nobody who could stop the fascists in their coup. Not even respecting the seven days of the Shiva, the Brown Shirts made raids upon the house, upsetting furniture, throwing things around, upsetting his mother, upsetting his young sisters, upsetting him, as he stood in the corner, fists clenched tight and held deep in his trousers pockets, the insult of his father's death made worse by the insult of those insensitive brutes who showed no respect towards his family. The tears choked him, debilitated him, frightened him. All he could do was stand there in the corner and sink deeper into his day dreaming. What he would do one day to those fascists, to those murderers who stopped at nothing in order to totally humiliate him and his family.
With his mother shouting at him like that, he felt the same volcanic rage swirling within him, the same urge he had stifled on the day his father died. He felt betrayed by his father on that day, betrayed by the fact that he had never told him about his clandestine dealings with Stamboliisky, that he had to learn what kind of man his father was after he was already gone.
He wanted revenge. He could avenge his father's double betrayal and still maintain intact his respect for him. He wanted to find a way of venting his anger and grief at having been abandoned by him and lied to by him, and still think of him as an exemplary man. But then it was his mother's turn to betray him. When he had joined the local communist cell, he knew he was doing so against his mother's expressed wishes. She didn't want her son to be involved in anything that might put him at risk. One dead man in the family was enough, she used to say. Enough heroes! But deep down, wasn't she proud to see him sneak in and out of the house to his clandestine meetings? Just like his father, the same spirit! The same idealism, the childlike enthusiasm, the rough dedication. She was afraid. If Victor died too, if he too decided to follow his principles, where would that leave her?
Why did he have to choose to celebrate his father's memory in such a way? Why not stay at home and help her run the household, support his sisters, instead of running around with his adolescent, pimpled friends and act as if they all were tough revolutionaries?
And look what you did, she told him, the instant you were under danger. Did you stand firm and fought it out? No, you let your baby sister take the risk, sent her out to the street with two hand grenades! How could you be so selfish? Didn't you know she would have been shot, or even worse, taken to prison if the Fascists discovered those hand grenades in her bra? And what did you think they would have done with her, the Fascists, if, God forbid, they caught her? Eh? Have you thought about that?
Victor didn't know where to bury himself. His mother's alternating rage and concern were whirling around him. Tears were choking him up; he was being wronged, so terribly wronged. She didn't understand what it was like to be a man, to be the son of his father. He stomped out of the room, picked his jacket off the floor where he let it drop only a few minutes ago, and slammed the house door behind him, ignoring his mother's now plaintive voice.
It didn't take him long to figure out what he was going to do. He had to go away. He couldn't stay living at home and continue his work with the Communist cell. Living with three women had been bad enough, meriting more than his share of jokes from his mates, and now that his mother knew his secret, it would be intolerable. She would not leave him in peace for one second. The alternative would be to leave home, get a job so that he could support himself and carry on with his work in the service of the revolution. Then she would see who was right, then she would thank him and come to him with pleas for help for all her petty bourgeoisie friends who would find themselves at the mercy of "thugs" like himself. His heartbeat fast with the joy of that prospective day. And why not? He deserved his little victory, his little revenge.
In his mother's bedroom stood a big white chest which contained her wedding dress, his father's medals and decorations, a black enameled Chinese music box which contained the most valuable of their possessions, their past and future, their escape route. The family's jewelry. Some gold rings, a pearl necklace, a tiara, some precious stones. It was the only asset the family had. The family's jewelry was more then just a symbol of status. Its glitter was a promise of stability in times of need. And it was precisely that sense of stability which Victor, on the morning of June 12th 1922, robbed as he tucked the little enameled Chinese box under his arm and stole away from the house.
So complete was Regina's trust in the integrity of her son that it wasn't until the eve of the following day, after she discovered the brief note Victor left, telling her in his characteristic insolent tone that he had enough of the family home, of Bulgaria, of the whole thing and that he was on his way to Brazil, it was only when she began to think of the costs of such a trip that Regina began wondering how Victor, lazy Victor, managed to collect enough money to provide for such a journey, and with a throbbing foreboding in her heart slowly climbed the stairs to her bedroom where Edith found her a few minutes later lying on the carpeted floor, sobbing.
The ship made several stops on its long journey, and on each such stop, he contemplated getting off the ship and trying to make his way back home, but the shame which was burning a hole in his heart, imagining the grief and humiliation his mother and sisters would be experiencing, debilitated him. It took Victor three weeks to reach Rio de Janeiro. And by the time he got there, he was on his own, alone and full of regret. He had made a mistake. He missed home. He was broke. He carried on. He continued to drift with the ship, spending his days in a haze, wandering around the big ship, making insignificant contacts with the other passengers, whiling his time away in his little cubicle, staring at the ceiling.
During those three weeks, Victor mapped out the rest of his life. During those three weeks on sea, he began his career as the public failure which would only end with his death. He became a loser. A beautiful loser, perhaps, but a loser all the same.
1944. Haifa. Victor. Sitting and waiting for a ship to arrive. Looking out onto the sea and remembering those miserable days; those days on the ship were hard to forget, even twenty years later. As he rose from the table in the small seaside cafe, he picked the newspaper from the table, tucked it into his jacket pocket, where his fingers felt another piece of paper.
The telegram. It was brief and commanding. "Arriving in Haifa 1.45pm, yours Edith ." Nearly twenty years earlier he had ran away from his family, leaving only a note behind him. Twenty years later, they were catching up with him, preceded by that short text. As he gazed at the 6 words and the 3 digits that comprised that message, he marveled sadly at the tricks he believed life played on him. Twenty years later, he imagined he was experiencing the same shock that his mother had experienced upon reading that much longer text he had left behind him when leaving Sofia, on account of one hurt pride. Twenty years later, he knew that pride, his or anyone's, was not worth its weight in spit, but it was all too late. The damage was done. Twenty years later, twenty years too late, he would have to face his family, the family he had abandoned, knowing that he had lost them, that their arrival, would only put a final stamp on the distance between them.
1921. Rio. Getting off the boat, not knowing a soul, he made his way to the first place which looked inviting. It was a bar. He sat there, frozen inside his overcoat. A while later, after what felt like an eternity, he took his coat off. Another eternity passed. He felt empty, drained, blank. He daren't lift his eyes from the brown bar table he had been glued to. He didn't know what he might se. He didn't want to have to try and imagine. The beer was flat.
Then a man came and sat on the next bar stall. Wearing a yellow shirt. Like his friend, his so-called friend, the fucking bastard who so kindly ushered him onto the ship in Piraeus, saying he would join him in a minute himself, that he had a thing or two to do still at the costumes office and that Victor should go ahead and find a good cabin for both of them. He never saw him again. Or rather he did, but what he saw he didn't like. He didn't like seeing his friend wave to him and then turn that movement into something Victor wished he had never seen, the kind of arm movement that could only be mean one thing. And then, turning slowly, as a man who had all the time in the world and nothing to worry about, he climbed on a carriage, and disappeared forever. And in his pocket, his mother's heirloom, the jewelry that both Edith and Mara were counting on for their dowries, the jewelry that he had stolen, that was stolen from him, that they were gone.
The man in the yellow shirt began speaking to him. In Portuguese. Victor replied in French. They stared at one another then everything went dark. Victor's last sensation before he hit the floor was of deep despair.
It was also the first sensation he had when he opened his eyes to discover, slowly, that he was inside a cell, what looked like a police cell, what smelt like a police cell. A soft murmur got him up on his feet and he dragged himself across the door, looked through the port hole and saw the man in the yellow shirt outside. Hours later, still not knowing why he had been put in the cell, he was let out unceremoniously and escorted gently but firmly, and without the slightest explanation, back on board of a ship, where he was led into a small cabin and ordered to stay put. By that time, Victor had stopped trying to make sense of what was happening to him. He just sat and waited for the next blow.
1944. The ship was already late, he noted grimly to himself. He began regretting not having Sylvia with him. She accused him of being ashamed of her and not wanting his family to know of her existence. She had suspected all along that he had never told them about her or at least not the full story. How else could she explain the lack of any reference to her in the few letters that they deigned to send his way? And if they knew, how dare they not make any reference to her? What kind of people were your relatives, she demanded of him day in and day out? Occasionally she suspected worse. That he has no relatives or that he had done something so terrible that they had excommunicated him. Victor tried to remain as impassive as he possibly could when she made such remarks.
Nevertheless, he was sorry he had sneaked out of the house the way he did that morning, without her noticing, and rushed to the station. If she was here with him he would not have to face them on his own, his sister, his proud little sister who was just a little girl when he left twenty years ago, if Sylvia was there with him when Edith would look at him with those big sad eyes he remembered so well, perhaps he would not feel the shame so much. It was getting intolerable, that shame of his, and the shame of the shame, he felt like a double hunched camel, carrying his shame on his back whenever he went to, forever burdened. Why was the ship so late?
1921. Where was that ship going to land him? Left to his own devices for a few hours in the cabin, Victor allowed himself a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the ship was going back to Bulgaria. He rejoiced at the possibility that his family had forgiven him enough to have sent the ominous man in the yellow shirt after him, to track him down, that it had been all arranged, that he was being taken home. A knock on the door roused him from his daydreaming.
The man in the doorway was ominous enough, but he wasn't the man with the yellow shirt. His shirt was perhaps blue, if you can give a name to a color which has been faded into anonymity by an endless cycle of wear, wash and bleach. After ascertaining that Victor was who he claimed to be, Dr Behar bestowed upon Victor the first of a long series of his benevolent smiles, the sight of which was going to haunt Victor for the rest of the journey. A smile is just a smile, but Dr Behar's smile was of the kind which hid something behind it. In fact, after a few days in Dr Behar's company, who had explained that the news of Victor's arrest reached him almost immediately as he too was hanging around the port and being the man that he was he couldn't but fish a fellow countryman and a Jewish brethren from the devious Brazilian net woven around him and board him onto safer grounds, seeing that smile appear and reappear in the most incongruous circumstances, Victor's suspicions were rekindled.
For once, Victor intuition proved accurate. He didn't really expect Dr Behar to be a family envoy, although he could not hide his disappointment nor conceal the shock upon learning that Dr Behar's real motivation behind his philanthropic rescue had nothing to do with Victor's Bulgarianess but had everything to do with his Jewishness. Dr Behar was a Zionist envoy, in Rio De Janeiro on a fund, and awareness, raising mission from Israel, or Palestine, or the Holy and Promised Land. Whichever term they used between them, depending on the particular aspect of the phenomena they were arguing about and the ferocity of their argument, one thing was becoming painfully clear to Victor. With every sea mile the steady ship was covering, he was getting further and further away from the possibility of a safe return to Bulgaria.
Victor arrived at the port of Haifa after three weeks on the boat in August 1921. It was very hot in August in Haifa, the kind of heat which no other experience could prepare you for nor anything short of death could alleviate, at least not in the pre air-conditioning days. The smattering of English that Victor possessed was enough for him to understand that there too he was not a welcomed guest. The British officer, whose cool attitude and manner stood in a painful contrast to the streams of sweat staining his pressed khaki uniforms, made it quite clear that as Victor possessed no immigration certificate, he was not to be granted entrance into the country, but would have to return where from he came.
Victor wanted to tell the officer that he didn't intend to become an illegal immigrant, that he didn't chose to come to Palestine, that he was tired of the whole thing, that he wanted to go home. he wanted to scream at the officer and show him just how tired he was of the whole thing, that he felt punished for a crime he did in fact commit, that all he wanted was some sense in his life, a simple and cushioned life, as his days in Bulgaria then seemed to him with all of his petulant adolescence crazes. The officer stood there in front of Victor, politely waiting for him to produce some explanation, a document, anything that would relieve him from the horribly unpleasant chore of having to do something about this pale and ill-looking young man who kept his eyes firmly on the ground and whose right hand was nervously clutching at a white handkerchief, and the silence between them grew, each awaiting the other one to release them from an awkward situation, each feeling a victim, oppressed by the heat and by the necessity of their roles.
1944. There was a yellowing photograph in Edith's album showing a group of people standing in front of a ship, two man, approximately of the same age, a young woman holding a suitcase in one hand and the arm of a boy in another. They looked directly into the camera, none of them were smiling, they looked tired and strained. One of the men was holding a newspaper in his hand. It was Victor. The train had arrived, Dr Leon, Edith and young H were on it, as expected, welcomed by Victor and almost immediately also by a local photographer who made his living out of documenting such happy moments on train stations, family reunions etc. He was very firm with them, perhaps he sensed the twenty years old feud and the embarrassment the brother and sister both now acutely experienced as they realized just how much they have missed one another over the years, and how idiotic it had been of them to have allowed that silence to build up between them, and how futile it was twenty years later, to do anything about it, the only thing to do was to be embarrassed and to hope that the other one would not notice and soon the excitement would pass and to do practical things, like composing oneself in front of the camera, for posterity.
It was during their journey to his flat that Victor told them the story of his arrival to Haifa, twenty years earlier, careful of course to eliminate any reference to the shameful details of why he had arrived to Palestine when he did. In great detail he talked about the British officer with the spotted and sweaty face, the detention camp where he spent his first few months in the Holy Land, the slow realization of the bond which he was discovering in himself to that arid and dirty country, his determination to make a new start, the long awaited release, six months after he had first set eyes on the land, the first day of freedom, a Jew amongst Jews in a land that he began to call his, the kind people who took him in, gave him a job, his first job, taught him to yield a shovel, to mix cement, lay a brick.
1921. Time lay immobile in their household after Victor's disgraceful disappearance. Without a father, without a brother, three women alone, time was an enemy. It didn't take long for the news to spread. Within hours the house was besieged by relatives and friends, all with a reproaching word for Victor, shaking their heads and saying that such was the fate of a fatherless boy. Some of them were even bold enough to whisper in a corner that if it wasn't for his father's political perversion then none of that would have happened. Well-meaning, coiffured aunts looked at the two young girls and shook their heads with pity. They knew what was in store for them. And Regina, poor Regina, and she was so young too! To lose a husband is bad enough, but also to have your only son ran away! They shook their heads even more.
Sixty years later, Edith remembered those days as the time when she turned to reading as a way of coping, submerging herself in the classics, seeking hope and light in words written by others, creating for herself a world she could not inhabit but which at least made no demands upon her.
While Victor was sailing all the way to South America and then to Palestine, Edith already had her head in a book. She read avidly everything she could lay her hands on. Most books she read she didn't understand half of. Not that that deterred her from plunging into the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, reading the complete works of both before she was 19. And even after her imprisonment as a girl was over and her term as a married woman began, reading remained the place where she could express her freedom, a place she could be with herself a place where she could live. A life of substitute, but a life all the same.
Later, much later, when some semblance of a relationship was established between herself and Victor, and they began to spend more time together, usually on afternoons when Leon was out on his home calls and H was out with his new friends, she began looking at him in a different light. He told her about his miserable journey, why he ran away, why he didn't come back, how much he missed her, and she looked at him and saw how angry he must have been, how isolated he was in those days in Sofia. And his anger, whatever was left of it, for by then he was an older man with severe asthma, was like a catalyst for her own, for all the years she had put behind her for other people, all the anger that went into reading, and she remembered with shame all the harsh words she spoke against him so many years ago, and the deliberate silences, not writing to him, or only writing very short, informative letters, all that anger which he took in, into his lungs and which now almost suffocated him, and her own anger, which she was sure she could no longer express, which she never believed she had any right to have, not till much later, not till forty years later, after her husband was dead, once she could become herself again, but even then she would not call it anger, but looking after herself. That was what it had come to: years and years of denying her anger, and then at last she began to feel she had a right, and her anger was her right to be on her own, a woman in her own right.
Victor was dead by then. Who was there to be angry with, she would ask herself. Victor was dead, Leon was dead.
She was sitting in his armchair, yes, it always be his armchair, and reading a letter from her grandson in England, he was reaching her in a way she hadn't been reached for years, not since Victor died, not since they had those afternoons in her kitchen, in her tiny kitchen, smells would come up from the yard with the loud voices, and they would both remember how it was different then, in mama's house, with all the rooms and the food, but still it was good to be together, again, and all was forgiven, but then, when Victor would get up and go, and a few minutes later Leon would come back, and then H, and both wanted this or that, and she would be jolted back into her life, she would feel very resentful of Victor, of his freedom, of his coming and going, it was fine to be with him, but then he was gone, he would always leave her, and she would feel angry and ashamed, and carry it with her, and curse him. It was easy for him, a man, he just got up and went when it was time, like he did in Sofia so many years ago, like he did after those afternoons. He even died before everyone else, far too young, giving up so easily, when it was getting too difficult, when he couldn't breathe, he would just stop trying, while she, her mother, his wife, all the women had to stay behind and carry on, look after somebody. Oh, she could feel so angry with him!
There is no Point Dealing with the Dying
When he returned home, six years later, it was as if he had come from nowhere with nothing in his hands. His mother had the same welcoming smile, his father's bear hug, crushing his ribs, all of them choking with unexpressed emotion.
The airport was all round them, spewing one column of visitors after the other, suitcases, relatives, smells of plastic and of rancid air conditioning, and above their heads, the large sign, so many bright colors and the patriotic words, welcoming him back into the land, into the land of his ancestors, the land he has left.
It had to be retraced carefully, those first few moments are the most important: emerging from the terminal, knowing that they will all be waiting for him there, even if it was just his father, the glass doors gliding silently, letting in the noise and the heat, black curls of that impudent youth wanting to see what was inside, and RLA could not remember if he ever was that youth, whether he had ever gone to the airport to welcome someone returning or whether it was always him who was returning, always in this frozen position, the same cyclical motion of the glass doors sliding open and him stepping out into the humidity where his family would be waiting, even if it was only his father, with his arms stretched wide open, his back slightly arched and so thrusting his pelvis forward, a wide grin and a few words that were immediately lost in the excitement and the annihilating embrace.
The words were lost, forgotten, overridden by the fierce hug, the palms drumming again and again on the skinny back that was aching from the heavy hand luggage, from the hours in the uncomfortable seat, from the anticipation. The words would be lost, forgotten. But the hands, the sweaty palms, they would not be forgotten, could not be forgotten, not without risking all. Their memory was what got him out of the deepest pit time and time again during the long winters that he had spent in Europe, your hands, the smell of your hands, the small hands that you have, now brown with age, a little speckled too and arched, like your back, with knuckles that you thought smelt of steel but for me had a different smell, the warm smell of the skin which has soaked in the aroma of cigarettes and soup and thousands of other fragrances, and. and those hands were there when the was ill with the flue, stroking a fevered brow and granting permission to stay off school, the same hands that were now older but with the same smell. Your hands and their smell. Nobody knew of this but me. Me and a therapist or two. I hope it doesn't matter. I hope that the smell was not that secret, that revealing it out in public would not fade its aroma, not like those frescos in the cave which began losing their features as soon as the astonished archaeologists laid their eyes upon them, the first human eyes for thousands of years, and in a few minutes all the walls were naked of pigment and all that was left of those frescos was the memory, fading too now, and the words describing it, scribbled on a piece of paper held by the hand of one of them, the text that led them to the cave.
At the end, all that were left were the words.
Edith lived on. In her eighties, she stood firm amongst the living: the last keeper of the family secrets. They were not important, she told RLA, they were just silly things an old woman like herself bothered herself with. Why would anyone be interested in the mind of an old woman like?
"Ron was always inquisitive," she said. "He always wanted to know more. Always listening to the same stories with the same eagerness. He was too sensitive. I knew he was going to be hurt. Some things are better not spoken about. Anyway, who is interested?"
"Yes, I heard he wrote about me, but why? Who is interested? And anyhow, I can't read English." The secretive tradition continued.
These chronicles of shame and secrecy, told in a language which is only of lateral significance to the actual story. A language which is distant from the languages in which those chronicles actually took place. A Babylonian vista, a language lab hum. And yet, it has to be. The absence of a voice, the absence of a father, the impossibility of telling the story straight, imposes the foreign father, order, the colonial language, the English which enslaved half of the world to the rhythm of its words.
A language which was nobody's and everybody's, which emphasized the awkwardness of the telling, the grinding of the teeth in frustration. A language which perpetually and forever placed one away from home, the eternal foreigner. On exile.
"An outsider can master a language as a rider masters his mount; he rarely becomes as one with its undefined subterranean motion." (G. Steiner)
And yet, it made some sense too. The journey home must begin from a place which is not home, otherwise it would not be the journey home. Ron began his journey home from a remote place on earth, with a remote language of them all.
English, the language of Ron's alienation; English, or other universal babbles Jews used over the last two thousand years of exile: the means by which they placed ourselves in the context of being away-ness, in exile - Therefore English, the language of his alienation, must be the means through which he returned.
"Only he who is not truly at home inside a language uses it as an instrument." (T. Adorno)
An instrument, that cold, metallic presence, which hurt him, which distanced him from himself; the burden of living away, of being in a Diaspora, and yet becoming a part of it, learning to love it, be it, and at the end, really loving it, and being it.
Franz Kafka, a Czech, wrote in German, spoken by a sizeable German minority in Prague, but still a second language to himself. He confessed often, prior to his death in 1924, his sense of shame about using a language which belonged to a people he viewed, prophetically, as menacing.
Franz Kafka felt shame, felt shame that he was betraying the language of the Czech. As a guest, he felt indebted to his hosts. Had he been alive, not doubt he would feel differently. Or maybe not. In 1933, a group of WW1 Jewish veterans approached Adolf Hitler and assured him of their loyalty and devotion to the German ideal...
To be loyal to the enemy. To swear alliance to those who are trying to kill you. To be using the language of death. What a strange taste it leaves in the mouth. A strange and metallic taste.
And in 1992 the newspapers tell of some elderly German Jews who were coming back to Germany, to do there what they tried to escape from more than fifty years earlier. To die. The old roots never die. Perhaps no longer the Beloved Fatherland, but the Fatherland after all, they say. The elderly Jews of Germany couldn't bring themselves to totally cut themselves off from the nation that treated them like vermin.
1962. First impressions die hard. Ron uttered his first word. He said "birdie", pointed to the sky. In English. Why? Why not? Just so.
The mythological first word, denoting an urge, a wish, which never left him. To fly. To have the power to lift his wings and take off. Ron didn't point to a house or to a tree or to any other symbol of stability and rootedness but to the greatest metaphor of freedom, the wish to fly.
And birds have a different notion of home then people. True, they have a home, but more than one home. They follow the seasons, follow the secret wishes of their heart to faraway places, in search of nourishment, in search of purpose. And at the same time to maintain a genetic picture of a metaphysical home, the home of the heart, which is carried within. The bird can only leave on its journey because it knows that it has somewhere to go, a new home to settle in. Its nomadic urge is only allowed by its ability to settle down again, later in the year. And once settled, it can again build a home and begin concentrating on the future, laying eggs and all that. No tools are needed either, apart from the ones attached to the body. the beak, the claws, the wings, the darting eyes. The bird is the perfect nomad/settler. Arriving from nowhere, it can make almost any tree its home, with the lingering feeling that it has been here before, that this strangeness is more than familiar. And when it is done and the little chicks are grown, off it goes again, the wandering bird. Till it finds it new home, till it becomes a settler again.
Hebrew, on the other hand, is the language of permanence, of being at home. All the rest is of a nomadic nature, surviving on the road, adapting to changing circumstances, pretending to be at home while feeling the gnawing longing. Hebrew was only spoken when conversing with God over the last two thousand of years. Hebrew was the language of connectedness, the language of being a people, of being with God, of being in a history, of being in preparation, of being in yearning, looking Eastwards towards that place where that language was first uttered, first whispered, screamed and laughed with.
But slowly Hebrew was being forgotten. Well, not exactly forgotten, but placed in a different place, on a higher shelf, a family relic, an expensive ornament, a sacred mask, an item to be used sparingly, with a bit of awe but also with a bit of impatience. The language with which to converse with god, but not with one another. Hebrew was part of the covenant, the bond with Jehovah. Hebrew was the sacred language. It was only useful and pleasurable to those who knew how to work with it well, to those who were prepared to study its intricacies, turning into less and less common knowledge.
Modern Hebrew progressed side by side with its political side kick, Zionism. Without the nationalist aspirations of the Jewish immigrants to Palestine, there would have been no need for another language to be used. There were enough languages already. But as the Israeli nation came into being, Hebrew became the language of the Israelis. What made who? Was it Hebrew that made the Israelis? Or was it the Israelis who gave Hebrew life by speaking it? Hebrew is the link to the past, to history, to heritage, to the justification of being. It is the language which reminds people that they have existed as a people long before the atrocities which seized the world have thrown them all together. It brings Jews together. It separates them from the rest. That which makes us unique also separates us.
The tragedy of the modern times. All over the world, every little village declare itself unique and separate from the rest. And fight for it. In our need to be unique, we separate ourselves from others, create walls which protect us but all too often also obscure us. We want to be unique and independent, but fail to do so truly, and in our frustration, resort to asserting our uniqueness and independence by force.
Nevertheless, over 3 million Israelis speak Hebrew daily, incessantly. They speak to God in it, they buy tomatoes in it, they shout at their neighbors in it, they make love in it, they threaten murder in it, they scream, whisper and laugh in it. All the time and with great volume. Sometimes the noise is so that you wish it had been preserved as a sacred language and spared the exposure of modern usage. But that noise, that hum, and finally that music, is the beacon towards which Ron was finally flying in his seasonal nomadic journey.