By Janice Weizman
Among historians, it is generally agreed that one cannot possibly assess one’s own times in an objective manner. For the era that we inhabit saturates our awareness with its vision, its agenda, its own particular rhetoric whose logic seems to fit the exact dimensions of our consciousness. Only with the passage of time, sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, can we perceive that that vision, that agenda, that rhetoric, were not the imperative of truth, but rather, the embodiments of a passing fashion. It follows, therefore, that we can never achieve an accurate understanding of the forces that shape our lives. We are doomed to live as blind men, ignorant of impending dangers, vulnerable to obstacles, with nothing but base instinct and meager intuition to inform us.
Yakov Steiner drew out a cotton handkerchief from his pocket, wiped a delicate film of sweat from his forehead, and reread the paragraph. He had been phrasing it in his head for some time, but now when appeared written out before him, he was unsettled by the notion that what had begun as a personal rumination was now at liberty to make its way in the world. He raised his pen to continue, and then lowered it. The conditions felt wrong; the air in the room was too hot, the table too dusty, the sun too bright. From somewhere outside, the cry of a baby floated by, leaving an empty quiet in its wake. Most of the kibbutz members were away on the long awaited trip to Jericho. Yakov and his wife, Ada, would have gone too, had they not been in mourning for his oldest son, Yuval, who had fallen on the second day of the Six Day war the previous summer.
Yakov got up to close the heavy brown curtains, but when he returned to the dining room table, he saw that he had forgotten the salutation, so he tore the page out of his writing pad, and began again in a firm German hand: Dear Herr Heinrich Boll. Once he had rewritten the paragraph the rest composed itself easily, as if Heinrich Boll were right here, listening attentively from the arm chair opposite the table.
It is this truth which brings me to take the liberty of writing to you. You see, I have just finished your novel, Billiards at Half Past Nine. You may be surprised to receive a letter from a reader in Israel, but as former German citizen, I approached your book with genuine interest. You see, Herr Boll, I happen to be one of those few who regard both literature and the study of history with great respect. Indeed, I once trained in the study of history, and I have little patience for sensational headlines in the newspaper and the cheap declarations of politicians; even the slogans of the so called “rebels” make little impression on me. What do strike me as important however, are the works of literature that a period brings forth. If a skilled historian takes the time to examine such works, I believe he can discern the essential streams of the zeitgeist flowing just beneath the surface of the text. So I hoped it would be with your book.
Allow me to disclose a few details about my past. I had the great misfortune to be born in Berlin in 1916, for as a Jew, this date carried the certainty of doom. Indeed, though I have lived the greater part of my life in a place where new beginnings are the order of the day, I often feel myself to be a receptacle of vanished images, which in the course of the years, have taken on the dimensions of myth. I can still see, for example, the ice-covered pond in the park near our home, and my frozen fingers struggling to lace up ice skates. Or, I recall the fine needlepoint upholstery on the seat of a polished wood chair, where I sit at my sister’s violin recital, eyes shut so that I might better follow the thread of a tune. Sometimes I recall something entirely prosaic: my mother’s dark blue hat, hanging on the stand in our front hall; the worn leather satchel that I carried to school each day for twelve years, or the books of poetry, Goethe, Hölderlin, Heine, that were my father’s, arranged on the shelf in perfect alphabetical order in his study. I must tell you that as I read the saga of Robert Faemel and his family, your words evoked memories I thought submerged forever. And as I read I could not help but ponder: What poisons lay lurking in the German soul that sought to destroy that pleasant life? What forces of evil sat amongst pious families at their supper tables? What notions of betrayal and murder found fertile ground in those salons, those schoolyards, and yes, in those cathedrals, not unlike the one your Faehmel senior built?
If literature can mirror the soul of an author, I sensed that in you, Herr Boll, I had found a soul mate. Here is a worthy German, I thought to myself: a man who remembers how to feel. Perhaps, I thought to myself, Herr Boll, sitting at his desk in Cologne, is struggling to decipher those same visions of innocence. Perhaps he proposes to suggest answers to the great and terrible questions that tremble just under the surface of civilized existence.
But you have suggested nothing. All you have come up with is a madwoman who cries whywhywhy, and a son with a conscience so clear that he knows exactly why he demolished the cathedral his father built. Yet there is something more, something which is, to my mind, the most glaring omission at all. For as I read Billiards at Half Past Nine, I could not help but wonder: Where are the Jews? How can it be that such a sensitive and intelligent soul cannot see an elephant when it stands before him in his own salon?
This absence has put me in mind of a little story, which, as a means of illustration, I wish to share with you. It took place in the spring of 1935. Do you remember 1935? I was a student in those days, and my task at hand was to complete my degree, so that when Hitler and the Nazis were overthrown and all was set right again, I might continue the course I had set out for myself. My choice of study? German History. And in particular, the German Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Perhaps if I had been a little less absorbed in books, I would have noticed the ironical nature of my choice. But I was soon to become enlightened myself. That spring, all of us were preparing our final papers. My subject of choice was a discussion of the life and times of Rahel Varnhagen, whose place in the cultural history of Germany had intrigued me since my high school days.
May 13, 1935. I had been invited by my instructor, Dr. Peter Schaefer, to visit his office. I can still see him standing with his back to me, gazing out the high windows behind his desk and remarking in a dry, sardonic tone, "Each time I look out, it seems that they’ve strung up more of their pagan dishrags." He seemed to me, at the time, an elderly man; for though he was probably no more than forty five, his beard was grey, and his eyes looked tired. "Here we are, burying our heads in history books while the world is unraveling before our very eyes."
"Indeed, sir." I hesitated for a moment before adding, "One can only wonder where it all is leading."
The professor took a seat at his desk, bowed his head, and rested it on his fingertips. "You must lie low, Steiner. Lie low and wait for it to pass. It is the nature of great movements to peak, and then fade away. This one can be no different." Do you recall that sentiment, Herr Boll? Do you recall that naive faith, that hapless misreading of what was unfolding?
"Well Steiner, have you brought your proposal?”
Prof. Schaefer read the title once, glanced at me anxiously, and then read it again. "No,” he said shaking his head. "This is not acceptable.” He then opened his desk drawer abruptly, took out a red pencil, and struck a large red X over the entire title page.
"We both know that Rahel Varnhagen was a Jewess," he said disapprovingly as he handed my work back to me. "You’ll have to select another subject. I suggest that you focus on one the many native German figures of the Enlightenment." The red X was heavily drawn, bright and vigorous, and as I stared down at it, it seemed to take on surreal dimensions.
"Would you banish her from history?" I laughed bitterly. "Would you banish all Jews?"
"Oh for God’s sake! Be realistic, Steiner. I am merely one man, one pathetic little scholar. You have no right to expect heroic deeds from me."
That moment was one of grace, a startling instant of clarity that revealed a naked truth which I, like so many others, had tried not to see. “You don’t have to be pathetic,” I replied quietly. And then I rose, and without taking proper leave, left his room with the finality of an exile. The next morning I went to the British embassy in Berlin and applied for a visa to Palestine.
At that time in my life, I entertained socialist sympathies, and, being young and idealistic, I imagined that a boy from Berlin, if he were hardy and determined enough, would have no trouble adjusting to life on a socialist kibbutz. My father had died two years earlier, and as the only man in the family, I tried to insist that my mother and younger sister, Lotte, join me. My mother, who could not conceive of herself as anything but a German, refused to leave, but I didn’t give up easily on my sister. “You’ll be part of a collective of the finest people,” I told her. “Intellectuals, men of culture, believers in true equality and justice who are building a new society.” But she laughed and said that she was not about to share a hut with some Russian Bolshevik and spend her days milking cows and folding laundry for the masses.
When I arrived in Palestine, I told them to send me where I was needed. They put me on a truck and brought me to what looked like a wasteland in the middle of nowhere. But in time I’ve learned to call this place, kibbutz, Givat Dekel, my home. I married another German immigrant, and two sons were born to us. In the face of the younger I often see the image of my mother, but it was the face of my older son, Yuval, who from earliest childhood, haunted me with the casual wit and ironic grin of my sister Lotte.
For several years we corresponded, until one day the letters stopped. My family was wiped, as it were, from the pages of history. I have never taken pains to find out exactly how they met their deaths. Do you understand? I can’t bear knowing. But when each morning, shaving at the mirror, I catch sight of the unmarked flesh of my arm, I am reminded that I have, for some inscrutable reason, escaped destiny.
Last June, yet another tragedy befell me. My son Yuval was killed in the line of duty on the second day of the Six-Day War. Since his death, I cannot help but wonder if it is indeed the fate of the Jews to be perpetually hunted to the ends of the earth; more than ever Schaefer's red X looms large before me. And as I read your work, I’m struck by the unpleasant conclusion that in spite of your heightened sense of morality, your impassioned soul searching, and your willingness to condemn, you are his heir.
But personal issues aside, I was very much intrigued with your portrayal of our peer, Robert Faehmel. I have given him much thought. Like myself, he was born at the wrong time and has suffered terrible losses. His mother is in a mental institution. His Nazi brother died in battle, and his wife was felled by flying shrapnel. He is a tormented man, overwhelmed by the sins of his countrymen. As if in atonement, he has chosen to live a limited and regimented life.
I understand him. Since Yuval’s death, I too have given up the struggle and welcomed the placid. For unlike my Professor Schafer, have I not earned the right to be pathetic? I embrace the lull of the mundane, the solace of routine that makes possible that jolly fiction that one is far from the abyss. But it is a fiction. Like Faemel, I know that the abyss is close, and that I am walking along its edge. I fear the -
"First one home gets the biggest piece of cake." The voices bounced down the path outside Yakov's window, jolting him out of his dark thoughts. It must have been just after four o'clock, the family hour. The small kibbutz houses were coming to life as if the shouts of children had woken them out of a deep sleep. When the boys were young, this was Yakov’s favorite time of day. They would burst through the door laughing and breathless, rushing to tell of the fortress constructed, the soccer game won, the secret handshakes and codes invented, revised, and perfected. He often marveled at how Yuval, and then Yaniv, could belong so completely to this newly born place. Yakov could not remember belonging so fully to anything.
He rose from his chair and went to the window to look for Ada riding home from work at the clinic. She would have been home already if not for the nurse’s meeting. The kibbutz paths, normally pulsing with people at this hour, were quiet today, so that Yakov could hear the soft hiss of the sprinklers watering the lawns. He spotted Yehudit Grubber, still in her work apron, speaking to a young girl with a baby stroller. A visitor. Or perhaps someone’s babysitter. He went back to his desk, and began to reread his letter, but before he even finished the first paragraph, there was a knock at the door.
Yakov turned his letter face down and rose to answer it. There stood Yehudit, her apron spotted with damp stains; clearly she was in the midst of kitchen duty. And behind her, holding a very young baby in one hand and maneuvering the stroller in the other, was the girl he had seen from the window. "Shalom, Yehudit,” he greeted her.
Yehudit peered past Yakov into the small sitting room. “I figured that you two didn't go to Jericho today. I was just telling this young lady that she may be lucky enough to find you at home. Ada not back from work yet?"
“I expect that she’ll be home any moment now.” He saw that the girl was a Yemenite, dark skinned and wide eyed, perhaps nineteen or twenty. Her clothes were the tasteless fashion of the city girls. Her hair, an undisciplined mass of curls, softened the harsh, edgy gaze of her dark eyes. He folded his arms awkwardly. "And who is the young lady? A friend of yours?"
Yeudit laughed. "Oh no, I've only just found her. I noticed her outside the dining hall, pushing the stroller around and looking a little lost. She says that she’s looking for you and Ada."
“For us?” He watched as the girl parked the stroller by the bicycles on his front porch. He saw nothing about her that suggested how their lives might have reason to intersect. Nonetheless he stepped aside and gestured to the small sitting room. "Well, if she's here to see us, then please come in.”
The girl walked to the sofa, folded her skirt under her with a nervous gesture and plopped herself down. Yehudit was about to say something, but the girl spoke first. "If you don't mind, I need to speak to Mr. Steiner in private."
Yehudit glanced at Yakov. "Do you want me to go find Ada?"
“No no. There’s no need to trouble her." The baby was probably no more than a few weeks old, and the girl had already taken the liberty of laying it on the sofa. Something about the sight made Yakov want to laugh out loud.
"Well if I'm no longer needed, I’d better be going," Yehudit said breezily.
For a moment, the only sound was that of Yehudit’s fading footsteps. And then, as if someone had given her an all-clear signal, she began. "Oh Mr. Steiner, I’m so glad that I found you. I can't believe that it’s you. But it’s completely obvious; you are Yuval's father. My name is Tehila. Tehila Ka’atabi."
Yakov took a seat in the arm chair across from her and nodded politely. "Did you know my son?" Then he realized. How had he not understood immediately? She was one of Yuval's friends, coming to pay a late condolence call. Or perhaps she had been one of the many who had flooded the house during the shiva, and this was a return visit. There had been so many young people, some of which they had never even met, who had come to comfort them. It had been both touching and tragic, in a way made one grateful that he had lived, and also devastated that he had died. Now, of course, the condolence visits were fewer. How kind of this young lady to take the trouble, and with the baby....
"Yes. I knew him," she cut off his thoughts abruptly. Her voice was low and almost raspy, and her accent reminded Yakov of the Yemenite workers who sometimes helped out with construction work around the kibbutz. "He was...well, I'd better say it straight out. I knew him from the army; we were stationed at the same base. I knew who he was, because…because everyone knew who he was. But we never spoke or anything. He was an officer, and I was… well I was serving as a secretary, for Officer Alper.”
The baby had raised its head and was clawing the upholstery, and a small, wet circle of drool had collected on the sofa just under her mouth. Tehila paused her monologue to yank a cloth diaper from her bag and spread it strategically under the infant’s head. “It was right before the war broke out; the officers were working twenty four hours a day and so were we. I had been sent to Shivta to help with all the supplies coming in. Officer Alper found me a ride with Officer Steiner… that is, Yuval. You see, he was also going to Shivta." She glanced away and turned her attention to the diaper, trying to smooth out its wrinkles and folds. "And then what happened was that right there in the middle of the desert our jeep got a flat tire. We had to wait for hours for help. But in the meantime we were there, alone, in the middle of nowhere, and it was getting so cold, and so dark, and..."
Yakov nodded sympathetically. "It must have been quite unpleasant. I suppose you had plenty of time to talk," he suggested, hoping that she would have some new, unfamiliar story to tell about Yuval. "Yes. We did." She pulled at the diaper again. Yakov felt sorry for her. "This is not easy for me to say..."
"That's all right. Take your time."
"She’s Yuval's daughter,” Yakov thought he heard her murmur. “I’ve called her Dafna. I think it’s a pretty name. A name that will sound good to everyone."
"I'm sorry... what did you say?"
"This baby is Yuval's daughter. His daughter and mine.”
He smiled at the girl as if she had just told him a puzzling joke. "What? What do you mean?" She sat silently as he labored to put it all together. Finally he said, “Oh no. No. That can't be. Yuval had a girlfriend, here on the kibbutz. She was just beside herself..."
"Mr. Steiner, please listen to me. It is difficult, but you must listen. I am this child's mother, and Yuval was his father...and you are her grandfather."
"Oh no. I’m sorry but you are completely mistaken."
The girl shook her head. "This is no mistake. That night in the desert happened just a few weeks before the war. I found out that he died before I even knew that I was pregnant. And then I had to leave the army. I admit I thought about finding someone to take care of my problem, but I couldn't do it. Some can. But I couldn't. I thought to myself, I will have this baby. After that, only God knows. It wasn't easy, not at all. At first I went home to my mother, and then...”
"Now just you wait a minute,” he broke in. “This cannot be Yuval's child. He had a girlfriend, Liora. She and he were very close, they probably would have gotten married...”
It was at that moment that Yakov heard Ada riding up and parking her bike on the porch. "Hello Yakov," she called out as she strode past and headed into the kitchen. Yakov could hear her filling the kettle with water for tea. "What a day! You would think that with half of the kibbutz gone −" she poked her head back into the salon, and stopped in mid sentence. “Oh! Hello. I was just going to ask whose stroller that was outside.”
"Ada...could you please come and sit down with us?”
“Of course. Just let me change into something comfortable and make myself a cup of tea and…”
“This girl says….she is claiming that Yuval is the father of her baby."
Ada stepped out of the kitchen. Her eyes darted back and forth, from the infant on the sofa, to Tehila, and back to the infant, and back to Tehila. "Yuval is what?" She asked slowly. She pulled her sweater tightly across her chest and crossed her arms. "Impossible. Completely impossible! How dare you come here and say such a thing!"
"Mrs. Steiner, you must listen to me. I am telling you the truth. Yuval and I were together. It was only one night, but it could only have been him. There were no others."
Ada closed her eyes and shook her head. "What nonsense! What lies!"
“I swear to you that I am not lying,” Tehila cried as she put her hand over her heart. “I was just explaining it to your husband. Yuval was giving me a ride to Shivta, but then our jeep ran over a sharp rock and a tire went flat, and we had no spare. Then we had to wait for help... and we were all alone, we were in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere. And it started to get cold, and on the jeep radio they told us that they wouldn't be able to come for us until morning...."
"Nonsense!" Ada cried again.
"When I found out I that I was pregnant, I wanted to tell him, but when I tried to find out where he was, they told me that he had been killed." Tehila's wide eyes filled with tears, but she wiped them away and continued. “I left the army and went home to B’nei Gilad, and when I got too big, my mother sent me to my aunt's house in Kiriyat Malachi. And then, when I had the baby, I tried to go back home to B’nei Gilad, but ...but it was just impossible. Do you know what I mean? Everyone looked at me as if I were dirt!"
Ada regarded her coldly. "And now you think that by telling us that we are this baby's grandparents you will have a free place to live and raise your child!"
"Is that what you think?" she cried. Yakov grimaced, unnerved by the girl’s hysterics. Ada glared at her furiously. "If that is what you think, then just tell me now, because I’ll take my baby and never speak to you again, and you’ll live to regret it." The baby gave a startled cry. Tehila picked her up and began to jiggle her in her arms. "I thought you would be happy to hear that you have a grandchild from your dead son," she said bitterly. "What kind of people are you?"
Yakov sank back in his chair and looked at the baby. Her skin was olive colored, like her mother's, but her hair was a light blond, just like Yuval's when he was a baby. But that, of course, meant nothing. There were plenty of boys who had a profile similar to Yuval's. Now that he was gone, Yakov could see that. How many times had he spotted a young man of Yuval's height, a wave of fair hair falling over his forehead, only to see the achingly familiar image disappear with the slightest of movements? No. There was no way that Yuval, always so honorable, so responsible, could behave in such an ugly manner. He and Liora had been together for years; he could never have betrayed her with this type of girl. And this baby could not possibly be his daughter.
Ada, unlike Yakov, saw no virtue in anguished word weighing. She believed that people ought to say what they think, plain and simple. "Miss Tehila, whoever you are, we have heard enough," she said sharply. "Your story is really quite sad, but unfortunately, we cannot help you. You are completely mistaken about us. We are not the grandparents of your child, and Yuval was not her father. Normally we would try to help you out and point you to the authorities that assist girls in your situation. But please understand; we are in mourning for our son.” She went to the door and opened it wide. “And now, I must ask that you leave us."
Yakov looked down, avoiding the girl’s astounded eyes; it was quite possible that Ada’s assessment of the situation was correct. Chances were that the girl was nothing more than an unfortunate stranger, and neither he nor Ada had anything to offer her. "I'm sorry miss; we can’t help you,” he said in as kind a voice as he could muster. “However, if you turn left when you leave, and then walk about 100 meters, past the eucalyptus trees, and then go right, and then immediately right again, you will come to the kibbutz administration office. I'm sure that they can point you in the way of those who can be of assistance..."
Tehila rose abruptly, bringing on more crying from the baby. She walked out to the porch, put the baby into the stroller and began to jerk it back and forth. "Is that how it is with you?” she yelled. “Well fine. I'm going. You won't hear from me again. Just tell me how to get out of here." Yakov, relieved to be able to offer something as solid as directions, explained where the bus stop was, and then followed from the window as she maneuvered the stroller over the wet lawns to the main road.
"The nerve of her," Ada declared. "Trying to freeload on us, of all people.”
"I wonder how she knew about us, and Yuval."
"Obviously she heard from others. But who knows?” She shrugged as if to dismiss the whole incident. “Do you want a cup of tea? I really need a hot cup of tea.”
“I’m just wondering how….”
"Who knows? Maybe she really did know Yuval from the army," Ada called out from the kitchen.
Yakov stared out at the tracks the stroller had stamped in the wet grass; he could feel the weight of a red pencil in his hand, and the trembling of his arm, poised in the air.
Copyright © Janice Weizman 2010
Janice (Segal) Weizman was born in Toronto, and moved to Israel at the age of nineteen. She holds a degree in Social Work, and a graduate degree from the Creative Writing program at Bar Ilan, where she founded and continues to act as managing editor of the program’s online literary journal, Ilanot. Her novel, The Wayward Moon, a work of historical fiction set in 9th century Babylonia, is scheduled to come out with Yaldah Publishing in early 2012.
Interruption is taken from Eight Pieces, a novella describing the life of an Israeli woman through the eyes of those whose paths cross hers. Another section of the novella was published in Scribblers on the Roof, and an additional portion will be appearing in an upcoming edition of Lilith. Janice would like to thank Jon Papernick and Allen Hoffman, whose words of encouragement contributed to the realization of this story.