Come Back For Me
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Sharon Hart-Green
Be’er Yaakov, Israel
I finally received permission to leave the kibbutz and travel to Be’er Yaakov. It took a while to find it on the sprawling map pinned on the wall of the kibbutz cultural centre. Yet there it was: a tiny red dot south of Tel Aviv near the town of Ramla. Although Ruti was supposed to come with me, she had to bow out at the last minute because she had promised to help her sister sew a dress for her upcoming wedding. As Ruti put it, it was useless trying to argue with a hysterical bride-to-be. Luckily, though, Dudu stepped in to take her place, happy for an excuse to get away from the kibbutz for a little while. He recently began reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou and was complaining that the kibbutzniks lacked “a spiritual consciousness.” This, he imagined, could be found elsewhere—especially in the big city cafés and tearooms where artists and intellectuals gathered. The fact that we would be passing through Tel Aviv on the way to Be’er Yaakov was enough to fire up Dudu’s enthusiasm for the trip.
Early on a humid morning, while the dew was still heavy in the fields, Dudu and I set out. Once we were settled on the bus, I felt positively giddy to be embarking on this journey. One might think that after wandering through Europe, I would have completely lost my wanderlust. But this was different. Then, I was being hunted.
Now I was free to roam as I pleased. Our first stop was Hadera, where we had to get off the first bus and wait for another to take us as far as Tel Aviv. With an hour to spare, we decided to explore the town sights, even though the grimy storefronts were hardly appealing. Several blocks away from the centre of town, however, we came upon a sight that made me catch my breath—there, out of nowhere, were row upon row of shimmering eucalyptus trees. What stunned me was not so much the sight of the glistening trees—though their beauty was breathtaking — but the incongruity of finding them so close to this desolate town. Dudu and I grew quiet as we approached them, stopping to stare at the vast assembly of trees wrapped in their silver-green robes.
Dudu sighed, and in a voice quite unlike his own, he murmured, “Baruch…she-kacha lo be-olamo,” the prayer that religious Jews recite when they encounter a wondrous sight. I was startled—not only by hearing Dudu say a prayer, but by the reverent tone of his voice. There was no trace of the familiar irony that Dudu wore like an identity tag. But his pious mood didn’t last long—before I had a chance to say anything, he turned to me and quipped, “Let’s get out of this place. If I see one more tree, I’ll be tempted to swing from it like a monkey.”
We made our way back to the small bus station in Hadera where we joined a teeming crowd of people waiting for the Tel Aviv bus. When the bus finally arrived, the entire crowd lunged forward in one seismic thrust, people using their bodies like assault weapons to get through the door. Since missing this bus meant a long wait for the next one, we too pressed and squeezed along with the others and somehow managed to get inside. Once on board, we wedged ourselves into a corner behind the driver where there was barely enough room to place both feet on the ground at the same time. The driver hollered at the people to move to the back so that others could get on, though it did little good. What further complicated matters was an elderly gentleman carrying a large birdcage who planted himself in the centre of the bus and refused to move an inch. The people on the bus began shouting at him to move back, but he insisted that he needed space for his bird who, he asserted, had a delicate constitution. This started a series of jokes that seemed to erupt spontaneously from one end of the bus to the other. “Maybe your bird needs a hotel room!” someone shouted, making the crowd heave with laughter. Someone else began doing birdcalls, prompting another round of jokes and hoots of laughter. The taunting and jeering continued unabated until an angry voice cut through the din, bellowing, “Stop it—enough—leave the poor man alone! Can’t you see he has a number on his arm?” The entire busload of people immediately fell silent. A cloud of shame settled on the bus with no one daring to look his neighbour in the eye. But that didn’t last long. A man with a heavy lisp broke the silence, “So what if he does have a number on his arm? We’ve all suffered. What gives him the right to clog up the bus?” Some people turned on the man with the lisp saying, “What kind of Jew are you?” while others chanted, “Rachmanut! Rachmanut! Show some compassion!” until the man with the lisp stormed out of his seat and angrily pushed his way to the door of the bus and dismounted.
“Good riddance to him,” someone pronounced. And with that, the door snapped shut, the driver started his engine, and the bus sped off toward Tel Aviv, seemingly unperturbed by its troublesome cargo.
The first thing that struck me when we arrived in Tel Aviv was the smell. As soon as I stepped onto the street, my nostrils were filled with the acrid odour of exhaust fumes from the horde of buses converging on the city. But only a block or two further, the stench dissipated, overtaken by the peppery-sweet aroma of cumin and fried chickpeas coming from the ramshackle food stalls that were clustered around the station.
Drawn by the tantalizing smells, Dudu and I stopped at one of the stands and bought falafel from a coarsely-shaven seller, his thick fingers stained black with grease. As tahini slid down our chins from the overfilled pita, the vendor pulled us aside and whispered that he had other items for sale as well. He opened his jacket a few inches to reveal an array of gaudy trinkets pinned to the inner lining of his faded jacket—watch chains, key rings, sunglasses, and some miniature decks of cards. When we showed little interest, he stepped up his sales pitch, promising that we would never find prices like his anywhere else. The more we hesitated, the lower his prices fell until he swore that he was offering them to us below cost. “At these prices, it’s like I’m giving them away!” he cried. Leaning forward and lowering his voice, he wagged a blackened finger, saying, “I’m only offering you these prices because I can see that you are special people. For no one else do I give these prices.
No one else!”
In the end, we declined his offer, not because we didn’t want his wares—I actually coveted a small bone-covered pocket knife pinned to the inside of his lapel—but because it was time to catch our connecting bus to Be’er Yaakov. The vendor, however, did not give up so easily. He continued to shout after us, vowing that we would regret passing up his offer. As we hurried toward the bus station, I looked back momentarily and could still dimly see him standing with his arms outstretched, pleading for us to return.
Be’er Yaakov looked much like any other small village in Palestine—a bleak crossroads with a few dusty shops bearing handwritten signs advertising cigarettes and gasoline. Yet one thing was different—the inhabitants. Clad in embroidered cloaks and round turban-like hats, they looked as though they had come from another world, or even from another century. They reminded me of the Hungarian peasants of my childhood who donned their traditional garb for the harvest festival, the men in square-edged hats and flowing robes, and the women in apron-covered dirndl skirts.
We weren’t sure where to go to find Emil Lenchner, so Dudu and I went into one of the shops and asked the proprietor if he knew a young man by that name. The shopkeeper, a portly fellow with a thin black moustache and a nose like a quill, immediately revealed himself to be a man who would talk your ear off given half a chance. Before answering our query, he proceeded to give us a detailed account of the origin of every group that had settled in the village since its founding. It turned out that the people in the strange garb were, to my astonishment, Jews. Known as “mountain Jews,” they had, according to the shopkeeper, come from Dagastan in deepest Russia and were the first Jews to settle Be’er Yaakov at the turn of the century. Nonetheless, he made a point of adding, if it had not been for Turkish Jews like himself, who arrived in the 1920s, the place would still be a swamp. “The Dagastanis know nothing about farming,” he sneered. “All they know are goats and knives, knives and goats.”
I had no idea what he meant by this, but fearing another long discourse, I tried to return the conversation to Emil Lenchner. When I repeated my question about whether Lenchner was a resident of the town, the proprietor stretched his moustache into a perfect horizontal line and slowly calculated his response. Instead of answering directly, he grinned slyly and challenged us with a riddle: “What,” he asked, “rhymes with Emil but has his face buried in a book?”
I was confused by his riddle, but Dudu, who had a talent for word games, chimed in from the other side of the shop, “Maskil.” It was the Hebrew word for a modern scholar or intellectual. Pleased with Dudu’s answer, the merchant opened the door of his shop and pointed to a small frame structure across the road. “Do you see that building with the flag on the roof?” he said. “That’s where our children go to school. You’ll find your maskil there.” We instantly realized that Emil Lenchner was not only a resident of Be’er Yaakov, but he was also the village schoolteacher.
We thanked the shopkeeper and hurried out. As soon as we crossed the road in the direction of the small schoolhouse, we heard children’s voices singing a familiar tune. I recognized it as the melody of an old German carol that we had sung in school at Christmastime when I was a child, except now the words in Hebrew were about tilling the soil in the land of Israel. Dudu and I waited outside until the singing stopped and minutes later, the door burst open and children of all sizes came running out to play in the scraggly yard. Some of the children were wearing the peasant attire of the mountain Jews, while the rest looked like most other children in Palestine, only poorer. Some did not even have shoes on their feet. Following closely behind the children was a pale curly-haired young man with protruding ears and a silver whistle dangling from a string around his neck. Could this be Emil Lenchner?
When the children had dispersed like a band of wild pigeons, we introduced ourselves to the young man. With Germanic formality, he shook our hands and identified himself by saying, “Emil Lenchner, Head Schoolmaster, Be’er Yaakov Primary School.” Before I could stop myself, I launched into my story. I was searching for my sister, I blurted out, and had reason to believe that she was last seen by someone who had the same name as him. The words poured out of me like water from a broken cistern. Yet Emil Lenchner stood there in silence, not moving a muscle. I was trying to read his eyes but they were flat and lifeless, like the button eyes sewn on the faces of marionettes. Finally, he raised his hand and stopped me from speaking further. “Let us go inside,” he said, “and discuss this matter further. I’ll prepare some tea.” The abrupt way he cut me off made me wonder if he thought that I needed a salve to calm my nerves.
We entered the schoolhouse, which was comprised of one long room lined with tidy rows of wooden desks and chairs. Dudu and I each took a seat at one of the undersized desks while Emil went to the back of the room and boiled water on a small kerosene stove. Then, instead of taking his place at the front of the room at the teacher’s desk, Emil sat down backward on one of the children’s chairs so he could speak to us at eye-level. I noticed that he had deep creases on either side of his mouth, which, along with his large protruding ears, gave him an almost dog-like appearance. Turning to me he said, “I am not the man you are looking for. I’m sorry if that is a disappointment to you. I have never met your sister, but please—perhaps I can help you anyway.”
My jaw tightened and I swallowed hard. I knew it was a mistake to come here. How could this stranger possibly help me? Emil Lenchner took a long sip of tea and chose his next words carefully, as if he were rehearsing each sentence in his mind before saying it out loud. “I was born and raised in Prague. As were my parents. And their parents before them. We were a large family—like a world unto ourselves. That is not to say that we didn’t mix in gentile society. My father had a government post and we lived a privileged life. We spoke German like the upper classes, attended good schools, hosted dignitaries in our home. We knew, of course, that we were Jews, but it meant little to us. I did attend a local cheder for a few years, but only as a concession to my maternal grandparents. Our one source of Jewish pride was that on my mother’s side, we could trace our lineage back to the great rabbi of Prague, the MaHaral.
“When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, however, my family and I were sent to the camps like all the other Jews. My whole family perished there—my parents, my three sisters, my older brother with his wife and baby daughter, all my aunts and uncles and cousins. I was the only one to survive. How that happened is another story—perhaps for another time.” Leaning forward, his words emerged more quickly.
“The point I am leading to is this: my father had a brother who went to live in Hungary and he also had a son named Emil. We were named after the same great-grandfather. I had not seen this cousin Emil since we were small children and assumed that my uncle and his eleven children had all been killed. Not long ago, however, I received a letter postmarked Cyprus. It was from my cousin Emil, who had somehow also managed to survive the war. What a strange coincidence that of all our extended family, the two Emils were the only ones to come out of the inferno alive.
“My cousin Emil’s letter was written in rudimentary Hebrew, but I was able to make it out. He had been in several labour camps in Hungary and Poland before he escaped and joined a group of Jewish partisans in the forest. At the end of the war, he boarded an illegal ship to Palestine—but his was one of the vessels diverted to Cyprus by the British. His letter was full of bitterness toward them for not allowing the refugees to reach their homeland after all the suffering they had endured.
“The way that he found me was highly coincidental. You see, I write occasional articles of an educational nature for some of the local newspapers. Apparently, one of my pieces about teaching Hebrew to immigrant children was reproduced in a leaflet that was distributed to the internees on Cyprus. He had seen my name and school affiliation on the bottom of the article, so he sent his letter to this address.
“I am sorry to bore you with these details,” he concluded. “Of what interest could they be to you? But, you see, I am wondering whether it is not my cousin Emil whom you are seeking. After all, he and I share the same name, although I think that in Hungary, it is pronounced Lenzner, rather than Lenchner.”
On hearing this, I must have yelped or shouted in glee, for I could hear my voice bouncing down the length of the cavernous schoolroom. How strange—only moments earlier I had been in despair. Now, what had been upside-down unexpectedly became right side up. This Emil may not have been the right man, but his cousin surely was. I was convinced of it! It was all so clear now—the Emil Lenzner I was seeking could not be found in Palestine because he had never actually arrived. He was in Cyprus along with thousands of other hapless Jewish refugees who were trying to get into Palestine. The question of how I would contact him did not concern me then. It was just a matter of time before I could finally confront him and learn the truth about Manya.
I jumped out of my chair and grabbed Emil’s hand, shaking it up and down. “Thank you for sharing your story. I am truly indebted to you. I am certain that this information will bear fruit.” Without warning, however, Emil’s face suddenly turned dark, as if a shade had been pulled down over it. Lowering his eyes, he buried his chin in his chest. “Never be certain of anything,” he said, his tone hollow. “Even if I am able to contact my cousin, I cannot vouch for his soundness of mind. In my experience, not everyone is capable of retrieving the past. For some, it is an utter impossibility. Even if he is the person you are looking for, he may not help you. He may not be capable of it.”
I noticed that his hands were clenched and thick blue veins bulged from his neck. Just as I was about to apologize for burdening him with my story, he cut me off before I could begin. “Look,” he said, his mouth hardening. “I am just trying to tell you what I’ve experienced. Do not count on finding anyone alive. Assume all is lost. Finished. Kaput. If you find anyone alive, it’s a fluke. A mistake in your favour.”
I bristled when I heard those words that were swift and final like a judge’s gavel. At that moment, I had only one desire—to leave. But Dudu, who was silent up until now, cut in. “You’re right,” he said evenly. “We cannot expect miracles. But every once and a while they do happen. I could not have survived the war if I hadn’t believed that.” Emil countered by firing a second volley, this time aimed at Dudu point-blank. “So how do you account for all the miracles that didn’t happen? Can you tell me why the millions of murdered Jewish children did not merit a miracle? What gives you a right to expect one? Your virtue? Your faith?”
I was dumbfounded by how calmly Dudu received this attack—until I noticed the fingers of his right hand drumming furiously on the underside of his chair. I tried to intercede before tempers grew hotter. “I beg you—if I have caused either of you grief by asking you to help me in my search, then please—treat it as if it never occurred. Forgive me—I am entirely to blame.”
A nervous silence hung in the air. All of a sudden, Emil Lenchner sprang out of his seat, his lips suppressing an embarrassed grin. Striding over to Dudu, he extended his hand. “You are a good man—much better than I. I lost my faith completely during the war and I doubt I’ll ever find it again. But I’m not totally lost—not yet. The children here give me some comfort. Not because they’re pure and innocent and all that nonsense. They’re little scoundrels most of the time. You see—how can I put it? They are a different sort of Jew. Just imagine, growing up and never caring about what the goyim think. Never having to worry about being called a pushy Jew, a cheap Jew, a rich Jew, or a Jew who controls the world. What freedom! These children are their own masters.”
Stunned by his rapid turnaround, I glanced briefly at Dudu and saw by his pensive nodding that he understood Emil perfectly. There was another brief silence before Dudu and I gestured to each other that it was getting late. Soon we got up to go, and as we walked toward the door, Emil followed closely behind. “Wait,” he said. “Permit me to show you something before you leave.” Once outside, he led us to the edge of the playing field and pointed to the sparse landscape around us.
“You see those saplings beside the road? Jews planted them one by one. Clearing the stones was only half the battle. This place was so barren before we came here that the soil was like dust. That’s why we teach the children agriculture, just like we teach them reading and writing. Can you believe it? Jewish farm labourers! I remember studying the agricultural laws in cheder as a child and thinking—what does this have to do with me? In Prague, I was as estranged from farm life as, excuse the comparison, a priest is from a brothel.”
Kicking the stones beneath his feet he continued, “I used to wonder why we Jews refer to God as our ‘Rock.’ Now it is clear, although I cannot say that I believe it in any metaphysical sense. I see these stones and I know that without us, they are nothing but dead objects in need of transformation. They are a permanent reminder that the land is in constant need of work. Every morning I say to myself: Who has time to give in to despair when there is so much work to be done?”
On that note, Emil Lenchner ended his speech and turned to bid us farewell. Carefully inscribing my address on a scrap of paper, he assured me that he would write to his cousin in Cypress and would let me know when he heard back from him. Instead of warning me not to hope for miracles, this time he shook my hand vigorously and wished me the best of luck with my search. I did not know what to make of Emil Lenchner. Despite his moodiness, he was a peculiarly inspirational character. Though he’d certainly deny it if he heard it said, he possessed a kind of religious zeal—certainly not for God—but for rebuilding the land and its people from the bottom up. He was the first person I’d met who seemed to live solely for that ideal. I had the feeling that his words would stay with me for a long time, that his dedication would be a kind of yardstick by which to measure my own shortcomings. Though I doubted that I would ever see him again, I was certain that if I wanted to, I could always find him—still toiling in Be’er Yaakov, instructing another generation of immigrant children how to be, as he put it, “their own masters.”
I left Be’er Yaakov on that day with the growing sense that having made this breakthrough in my search for Manya, I too would have to become my own master. I had been given an “opening” and it was up to me to act on it. I didn’t have to wait for Emil Lenchner to write to his cousin on my behalf—I could write to him myself. After all, I was the one who should be posing the crucial questions that only he, Emil Lenzner, could answer: How had he known Manya’s full name to report it in his testimony? How late in the war had he met her? Who else might have seen her last? Has he been in contact with any other survivors of that deportation? All of these questions turned round and round in my brain as Dudu and I headed back to the kibbutz, both of us keyed up but weary from the day’s emotional events. Our going was much like our coming, except for one thing. This time when we stopped in Tel Aviv to change buses, we found our way to the same vendor’s stall and, much to Dudu’s astonishment, I bought the bone-covered pocket knife that I’d coveted earlier in the day. The vendor showed no surprise that we had come back. “I knew you would return,” he said. “I could see it written on your face. You will need a knife now that you are a grown man, yes?”
I nodded in agreement. Before I’d gone to Be’er Yaakov, I might not have seen it that way. But now I knew that even if I could not quite call myself a man, I would have to become one in very short order.