Until the Dawn's Light
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green
Blanca had converted to Christianity and married hastily, to avoid watching her mother’s prolonged death from up close. Somehow she believed that with this act her fear of death would be lifted from her heart and her mother would be saved. And indeed, that was what seemed to happen: her mother recovered and rose from her sickbed. Her father rented a carriage, and together they all rode to Saint Paul’s Church. Blanca’s conversion ceremony was long, full of music and prayer. Her parents sat at her side and smiled throughout the service. Although her parents seemed to be content, repressed dread, which hadn’t perturbed Blanca for years, returned to her with great force. She trembled as she stood in the church, and she couldn’t stop, even after the ceremony was finished and her mother hugged and kissed her. In addition to her parents, some of her school friends had come, too. It seemed to Blanca that she had found the examination difficult, and that there were two questions she hadn’t answered correctly. She grasped her mother’s hand, as she had done as child when sudden darkness fell upon the house.
A week after her conversion, Blanca married Adolf. Her mother wore makeup and a flowered dress, and she served cakes to the guests. Her father looked young in his white suit, and he chatted happily with everyone, as though he’d been saved from a bad business deal. The wedding lasted for many hours. Adolf’s brothers and sisters drank, sang, and danced. At first Blanca danced, too, but after a few rounds she felt dizzy and sat down next to her mother. This was the kind of wedding she hadn’t seen before: vulgar and merry. She watched the dancers as though it weren’t her wedding but one she’d been invited to. Her father, who had had a few drinks, felt dizzy, too, and sat down next to his wife. His long face turned gloomy. But Blanca’s mother didn’t stop smiling, as though she were constantly seeing new marvels.
“Very beautiful,” she said, as tears flowed from her eyes.
Right after the wedding, her mother’s health deteriorated again. She stumbled several times, and headaches constantly plagued her. Blanca came to visit her every day. At first Adolf would join her, but after a while he stopped.
“A patient needs rest,” he would say, “and you shouldn’t disturb her too much.” His words sounded clear and convincing. It seemed to Blanca, too, that she should visit less often.
Despite the depressions that sometimes afflicted her, Blanca was happy. She and Adolf lived outside the city, in a small house surrounded by open fields and the sky.
Blanca’s house wasn’t far from where Grandma Carole lived. Blanca would give her grandmother’s house a wide berth, but, as though in spite, her grandmother ran into her. The blind woman used to trudge through the streets, appearing in places where one wouldn’t expect to fi nd her, her head stretched forward, her sealed eyelids twitching and tense. When she sensed that Blanca was near, she would immediately stop and proclaim, “Woe to the converts to Christianity who have forgotten their ancestry and their good fathers, who have exchanged a great faith for belief in wood and stones.”
Blanca’s mother’s illness became more severe, and Blanca avoided visiting her in the afternoon so she wouldn’t meet Grandma Carole. Her grandmother didn’t hold her tongue, even at her sick daughter’s bedside.
“Everybody’s converting.” Blanca’s mother tried to defend her daughter.
“It’s a foul deed.” The answer came quickly.
“Even respectable Jews are converting today.”
“We don’t live by their word.”
Around that time, the town’s rabbi died, and because there were no longer any worshippers, they closed the synagogue. At the rabbi’s funeral several wealthy merchants vowed to preserve the house of prayer, but after a while they changed their minds and agreed that it would be best to send the Torah scrolls and the curtain that hung in front of the Holy Ark to Vienna and to close the place. As it happened, the synagogue refused to be ignored. It stood at the edge of the market square, and Grandma Carole would go there every day, stand in front of the closed doors, and proclaim, “Woe to the Jews who have abandoned their Temple. God in heaven will not forgive them, and when the time comes, He will pass judgment on them.” The town’s Jews dreaded her, and they all awaited her death. But Grandma Carole showed no signs of weakness. On the contrary, ever since she’d gone blind, her voice had become clear and cutting, and she phrased her words simply and clearly. Even her curses had a thundering rhythm.
In the end, the police arrested her.
“Woe to the Jews who deny their Father in heaven,” she proclaimed in court. “Those who close a synagogue are closing the gates of prayer.” She named the wealthy merchants who refused to pay the janitor’s wages. “And for that,” she said, “they shall not be absolved. The earth will open its mouth and swallow them like Korach and his followers.” When the judge admonished her, telling her that she had to stay in the house and not wander in the street and insult people, she replied, “There is a height above all height, and only that must we heed.”
The court released her, ordering the family to keep her from roaming the streets. And the next day, she stood in the synagogue doorway again, calling out the names of the town’s Jewish converts to Christianity and wishing that they all would go to hell.
Meanwhile, Blanca’s mother’s illness grew more severe, and the doctors ordered her to return to the mountains. Blanca wanted to travel with her, but Adolf forbade it.
“You’ll end up catching it, too,” he said in a tone of disgust. Blanca was frightened, but she didn’t disobey him. A day before her departure, Blanca’s mother broke down and wept, asking her family for forgiveness for the trouble she was causing. Blanca’s father scolded her in a strange manner, and she stopped crying.
Two weeks later a postcard came.
“The Lauter Rest Home received the veteran patient cordially,” her father wrote. “The patient has recovered from the trip, and now she is resting in her room. The weather is pleasant, and the apple trees are in full bloom.” Blanca reread the postcard several times. The sentence “The Lauter Rest Home received the veteran patient cordially” moved her, and she felt a stabbing in her heart.
Forced by Adolf to neglect her mother, Blanca felt numb inside—heavy, unclean, and weak- kneed. But she still worked day and night to clean the house and put everything in order. She was angry because she had given in to Adolf, and she was overcome with remorse. In the evening, when Adolf returned from work, she didn’t tell him about the postcard. Adolf was hungry, and Blanca served him dish after dish.
The second communication from Blanca’s father, a long and disjointed letter, arrived a month later. He tried to conceal his distress, but every word in his letter screamed It’s hard for me to bear this alone. Blanca decided on the spot: I’m going tomorrow, no matter what. In the evening, after supper, she told Adolf that her mother’s condition had worsened and that she had to go to be with her.
“What can I do?”
Only now did Blanca notice how much Adolf had changed over the last few months. His face had gotten fat, and his walk was heavy, like that of a career soldier. He spoke slowly and emphatically, as though to keep the words from slipping. Every utterance pierced her like a nail. At first he didn’t blame Blanca but criticized her grandmother Carole.
“She’s insane,” he would say. Or, “She’s a crazy Jewess.” Later on he would add, “She passed her madness on to her descendants. Some of them are sick, and some are crazy.” Before long he stopped hedging.
“Don’t be like her,” he would say. “It drives me crazy.” Blanca didn’t contradict him. On the contrary, it seemed to her that this healthy, strong man had the right attitude toward life and that one day she, too, would be like him. Before leaving for work he said, “If you want to go to your mother, I won’t stop you. But you ought to know that with us, the husband comes before everything else.”
The threat was clear, but Blanca interpreted it as passing anger and tried to mollify him. On the train she drank two mugs of beer, felt dizzy, and blamed herself for responding so easily to the desires of her heart and not fulfilling her duty toward Adolf. Later she fell asleep and awoke feeling that she was choking.
When she reached the rest home, Blanca saw with her own eyes how ill her mother was. Her father stood next to the bed, bent over and exhausted, as if he were about to sink to the floor. Blanca, who wanted to know everything about her mother’s condition, was choked with sorrow. Later that day her father told her he had already spent the money he had received from his partner for his half of the store, and now he had no choice but to sell the house. What are you thinking about, Papa? she was about to say, but she immediately saw the foolishness of it.
The owner of the rest home, a Jewish woman with a warm and gentle expression, received Blanca like a mother. For supper she served them cheese dumplings and borscht with sour cream.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lauter,” Blanca said, inclining her head.
“If only I could be more helpful.” The woman spoke in the old Jewish way.
In the evening Blanca sat by her father’s side and tried to give him encouragement. He was racked with guilt, saying that he hadn’t done enough to get his wife to a Dr. Birger, in Vienna. Dr. Birger was known as a miracle worker, but for his miracles he demanded exorbitant sums.
If it weren’t for the local doctors, who claimed that Dr. Birger was a charlatan and his medicines were snake oil, he would have sold the house long ago. Now remorse gnawed at his heart.
When they went back to visit her mother, she opened her eyes and asked, “How is Adolf?”
“He’s fine,” said Blanca. She was angry that, of all people, her mother had remembered Adolf, but she quickly overcame her anger and told her mother about their house, about the new furniture they had bought, and about the carpet, which covered most of the living- room floor, that Adolf had bought in a nearby village. She knew those purchases would make her mother happy.
“Adolf’s a good fellow,” her mother said.
“That’s true,” Blanca replied, so as not to leave her mother’s sentence with no response.
The doctor who came to examine the patient the following day didn’t raise their hopes.
“What can I do?” Blanca’s father rose to his feet. “You can’t let a person wallow in agony. Why can’t we try Dr. Birger’s methods?”
The doctor lowered his head, as if to say, One mustn’t delude people, but her father, who was seized with dread, spoke in a trembling voice about the duty to do everything in our ability to foil death’s plots against innocent people.
“If you want to go there, I can’t stop you,” said the doctor softly. “But it’s my duty to tell you that Dr. Birger’s methods have no scientific basis, and there’s no difference between him and charlatans.”
“So we shouldn’t go to him?” Blanca’s father asked, his eyes closed.
“I didn’t say that.”
“What should we do, Doctor?”
“In a moment I’ll give Ida an injection to ease her pain.”
“An injection will ease her pain?”
“It will ease it,” said the doctor, and set right to work.
Blanca had thought she would be returning home the next day, but seeing her father bent over and shriveled in his fear, she didn’t dare tell him so.
“Papa, why don’t you shave, put on a suit, and we’ll go out to a café,” she said a bit later. Her father did as Blanca asked. In the café, he spoke about her mother’s illness, about the store, and about his cousin Dachs, who had cheated and completely impoverished him. And he spoke about not having emigrated to America. If he’d emigrated, his situation would be entirely different. Blanca knew those were merely wishes and fantasies, but she didn’t stop him. She let him indulge himself.
That night she saw how her father had aged. That tall man, who was only forty- eight, looked like someone whose flesh had been trampled, whose spirit had been stifled, and who had been seated on the threshold of a world devoid of mercy. True, he was not a practical man; he had squandered his inheritance and he had run the store negligently. But he’d done no harm to anyone. When he expressed wonder or asked a question, he was like a child who makes everyone happy with his inventions. And his wife adored him.
At the railroad station Blanca’s father burst into tears, and Blanca, who was astonished by his weeping, hugged him softly.
“It’s all right, Papa,” she said. “We’ll do everything we can to see Dr. Birger.”
“Thank you from the depths of my heart,” he said, as if she weren’t his daughter.
“We will spare neither money nor effort, Papa.” The words left her mouth and, amazingly, they calmed him.
“Pardon me, dear, for being so weak,” he said.
Two months after her return from the mountains, in mid-July, Blanca’s mother passed away.
“Ida, what has happened to you?” her stunned father cried out.
“Ida will suffer no longer,” said the doctor, in the solemn tones of a priest.
“And what can I do?” her father asked in a subdued voice.
“There’s nothing more to be done,” answered the doctor, sounding pleased that he had an occasion to say that. Blanca’s father ran to Blanca’s house.
Adolf noticed him coming.
“Your father’s running like a madman.”
“Who’s running?” Blanca didn’t catch what he said.
“I already told you.”
“Blanca!” her father called out, and stumbled.
Toward evening a quorum of ten Jewish men came from Himmelburg with a woman to wash the body in ritual preparation for burial and to say prayers. Grandma Carole, who deafened the city with her shouts, now stood as silent as a mountain. The burial society organized the funeral. Its head, a tall, dignified man, sat next to Blanca’s father as though he were his elder brother and spoke to him in a somber manner. Blanca’s father did not weep. But his unshaven face and swollen eyes displayed rigid shock.
“When will the funeral begin?” he roused himself to ask.
“Soon,” said the man.
“And who will say kaddish?”
“You will, sir.”
“Not I!” Blanca’s father said in anguish. “I don’t know it. I’ve forgotten it.”
“I’ll say it in your place,” said the man.
Hearing his answer, her father hung his head, as though relieved.
Not many people came to the cemetery. Three of Ida’s friends came, high school classmates, two neighbors who had converted, and a few people who had known Blanca’s father in his youth. Blanca’s father grasped the arm of the head of the burial society.
“I forgot the kaddish,” he murmured. “I don’t remember anything of it.”
“Not to worry, I’ll say it,” the stranger promised him again.
“I thank you from the depths of my heart,” Blanca’s father mumbled.
Blanca did not approach Grandma Carole. She was afraid her grandmother would slap her. But to everyone’s surprise, her grandmother didn’t grumble, question anything, or interfere. When they lowered the casket into the grave, Blanca hugged her father and sank her face into his chest.
After the service, Grandma Carole rushed away, heading for the open field. Everyone stood still for a moment and watched her go. A few yards away lay the Christian cemetery. Its tall marble monuments gleamed in the sunlight, making the unmistakable point that sometimes death has a finer dwelling than a Jewish graveyard.
Blanca’s father, who had been holding on to the arm of the head of the burial society, finally let it go.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out clearly, “we mustn’t scatter and leave Ida alone here.” He meant to add something but, seeing that everyone had stopped walking and was standing in amazement, he fell silent.
“I will stay here,” he added a moment later. “I’m not afraid.”
“Papa,” Blanca called out, “I won’t let you stay here alone.”
The head of the burial society approached him, hugged him in front of everyone, and said, “We Jews stand by one another.”
The word “Jews,” as it left the tall man’s mouth, startled those in attendance with its simple clarity. Most of them were converts. “Ida couldn’t bear it any longer,” Blanca’s father said, removing his hat.
The tall man, whose heart was touched by Blanca’s father’s distress, said, “You mustn’t fear. Death redeemed her from her sufferings, and we must accept the judgment.”
“True,” said her father, although he was put off by the man’s confident tone.
“Life after death is a life with no suffering. All our sources speak of that explicitly and simply.”
“I didn’t know,” said her father in the voice of a man who has been beaten.
“There is no reason to worry,” the man said in a different tone of voice. “The condition of the Jews in this region isn’t splendid, but we stand by one another. We shall support you. We won’t let you fall.”
During the seven-day mourning period, Blanca’s father sat in the living room with a skullcap on his head, distractedly receiving the few visitors. That quiet man, who had said little over the years, now spoke at length, mainly about his late wife, whose many talents were never properly expressed. He spoke about her musical ear, about her talent for writing, and he showed the visitors the landscapes in the living room, which she had painted when she was in high school. Blanca sat with him all morning, prepared his meals, and at noon she returned to her home. The hours in the company of her grieving father brought her surprising consolation. More than once she was on the verge of telling him about the harsh insults that were her lot at home, but seeing that he was completely immersed in his grief, she didn’t dare. Mourning cut off his ordinary life, a life of sorrow and worry about the coming day, and brought him to a world that was all mercy. Blanca, having no alternative, was forced to take care of all the practical matters: preparing to sell the house, paying his debts. Blanca’s father didn’t realize what distress his daughter was in, and he would say, “You’re still young, and your life lies before you.”
Adolf would return late at night and whip her with his belt. Now he didn’t hit her in anger, but with the intention of hurting her. “We have to uproot all your weaknesses from you and all the bad qualities you inherited from your parents. A woman has to be a woman and not a weakling.” In bed he behaved like an animal, turning her over like a mattress, and afterward he would get out of bed, drink some brandy, and say, “What kind of woman are you? You don’t know how to be a woman.”
“What should I do?” she asked, trembling. All her efforts to please Adolf were in vain. He hit her and cursed her.
“What do you want from me?”
“To be a woman and not a Jewess.”
“I’m not a Jewess anymore.”
“One baptism’s not enough, apparently.”
She would cry, and her weeping drove him crazy. He would throw a tantrum and curse her and her ancestors, who didn’t know how to live right, bound up with money and fl awed in character.
On Sundays his brothers and friends would fill the house; they would guzzle and gobble and finally sing and dance in the yard until late at night. The next day she would get up early to make Adolf his morning coffee. After he left the house, dizziness would assail her, and she would sink to the floor, ravaged.
When she could no longer keep it all in, she told something of it to her father.
“Everything isn’t going so well at home.”
“Why not?” her father asked, with a kind of obtuse surprise.
“Adolf isn’t the way he was.”
“Everything will work out. You mustn’t worry,” her father replied superficially.
Blanca’s father’s debts proved to be many. The head of the Himmelburg burial society did keep his promise, and every week he brought some food and a bit of money, but where would her father live after the house was sold? That was now Blanca’s concern. True, there was an old age home in nearby Himmelburg, but it was small and fully occupied, and old people were on a waiting list to be accepted there.
Her father didn’t seem concerned. Day after day he was inundated with fantasies, and they bore him from place to place. Once, he said, “I have to get to Vienna and try to get a scholarship. All the grades in my matriculation certificate were excellent.”
“And what will you study?”
“What do you mean? Mathematics!”
Hearing those words, Blanca would freeze. Now she was no longer in doubt: her father had departed along with her mother, and what remained of him was just embers. More and more he talked about his high school days, when he had studied with Ida. He had been regarded as a genius, and everyone expected great things of him. More and more he blamed his parents for not helping him study in Vienna. He even mentioned Grandma Carole several times, always with harsh anger. Ida was the only one of whom he spoke gently, as though she were still with him.
But there were also moments of clarity. The clouds of fantasy in which he had entrenched himself would disperse, and he saw what he didn’t want to see: his misery. Then he would suddenly say, “Blanca, I’m hopeless. I have to get out of here as soon as possible. I don’t want to be a burden.”
“Why are you hurting me, Papa?”
These, of course, were merely flashes. The clouds would surround him once more, and his face would darken or suddenly change and become awkwardly merry. Adolf’s opinion was uncompromising. “We have to bring him to the old age home in Himmelburg and give the institution no alternative. Don’t worry, they won’t dare contradict me.”
She tried to stop him. “Not yet,” she said.
“You’re too preoccupied with him,” he declared.
The next day they went. Her father didn’t object. A simple, awkward smile sat on his face, as though he knew that he would not escape from Adolf’s grasp. The train trip took about an hour, and they reached the old age home before lunch. The manager, not a young woman, explained to them that the place was full beyond capacity and that even the corridors were taken. Adolf was determined to leave her father there, no matter what.
The elderly manager listened and repeated her arguments. She showed him the corridor, crammed with beds. “There’s no room, good people,” she said, spreading her arms.
“If there are twenty beds, one can be added,” Adolf argued with force.
In the end, when she proved to him how wrong he was, Adolf didn’t restrain himself. He pounded on the table and said, “The Jews have to take him in. If they don’t take him in, this building will go up in flames. You can’t talk to Jews in any other language.”
The manager turned pale, asked for consideration, and finally raised her hands and said, “What can I do?”
Thus was Blanca’s father abandoned. He stood there, stunned. Then he hugged Blanca and said, “Go home, child. Everything is all right.” Blanca promised to bring him more clothing and his shaving kit.
“Don’t forget to bring the chess set.”
Adolf rushed Blanca out. Her father suddenly raised his right hand and called out loud, “Be well, children, and take care of yourselves.”
Excerpted from Until the Dawn’s Light by Aharon Appelfeld. To be published for the first time in English in October 2011 by Schocken Books. Copyright © 1995 by Aharon Appelfeld and Keter Publishing House Ltd. Translation Copyright © 2011 by Schocken Books. Printed with permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Until the Dawn’s Light is available now for pre-orders at Amazon.
Aharon Appelfeld is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Badenheim 1939, Tzili, The Iron Tracks (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), and The Story of a Life (winner of the Prix Médicis Étranger). Other honors he has received include the Giovanni Boccaccio Literary Prize, the Nelly Sachs Prize, the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, and the MLA Commonwealth Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received honorary degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Yeshiva University. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now part of Ukraine) in 1932, he lives in Israel.
Jeffrey M. Green (the translator) has been translating from Hebrew to English since 1979.