I Was There
By Edna Noy
Translated from Hebrew by Ronnie Hope
She arrived with a group of women who stormed to touch the mezuzot on the doorposts with heart-rending wails; some even prostrated themselves between the puddles of mud and snow in the entrance hall, and then crawled toward the threshold or the caregivers’ shoes, whichever they
reached first, just so that they could put their lips to something and kiss it. The administration officials rained orders on the maintenance workers, and the medical staff – two nurses and a doctor – were rushed in to admit the newcomers. In pairs or groups, some arriving in vehicles and others on foot, the refugees streamed in, their cheeks slightly flushed, their bodies relatively clean, with shoes rather than cloth leggings, and supporting each other – for there’s no stronger support than having to support someone else. Volunteers from Zionist youth movements met them at the train stations and at the main city crossroads, gave them hot soup to drink and led them to the Jewish community building for registration, admission and rehabilitation. That’s where she arrived on that cloud-darkened morning.
This happened during April, or early in May, or perhaps even earlier, toward the end of March, there’s no way of knowing. The only hint that she let drop – the bowl of soup that kept her alive for nine days on the road – could not be followed up because she only mentioned it to a neighbor by chance, and although I listened to the story intently, I could not fix it in place or time. Years later, there was no one left to ask, no one to fill in the missing details, such as how much time went by between the liberation and the time they arrived, or how they made their way, precisely how they survived if they had nothing to drink or eat, and how they protected themselves from the cold. What did they think about? How did they feel? What it was like ‘there’ – who dared ask such questions?
She stood at the edge of her group and leaned against a wall, casting frightened glances at her surroundings. She shed no tears, her eyes showed only hesitation in those moments. I followed them as they fastened upon the frayed laces of a worker’s rucksack, moved to the sole of a slipper stuck under a door, soared up to a bulb oozing murky yellow light at the end of an electric wire, and fixed on a blue headscarf curled up in a corner. Her youthful appearance never gave away her age. You could just as easily have thought she was seventeen as thirty. It would take a long time for me to work out what wasn’t even a secret: that she was twenty-three then. It was not the lack of clothing worthy of the name – no one there was well-dressed – nor was it her heart-clenching emaciation or the cold-burns or the lice that drew the eye to her, but rather the way in which she surrendered to her suffering. In the stations of her heart, or so I was to learn in years to come, she allowed each wave of sadness to crush her.
For it was by chance that we two found ourselves under the same roof. We were like two creatures joined together by some coincidence: strangers to each other, speaking different languages. In a way, we were invisible to each other and if she did look at me by some unparalleled miracle, I would look outwards through her. At the times when I had more than my fill of her I recoiled from her, distanced myself from her even when I was full of a simple joy of life. It was hard to blossom in the presence of someone who had withered.
The women were asked what they had last eaten and when, and in the reception hall arose the buzz of the Yiddish word zup and after it the hiss of shney – soup and snow. One after another, the women were classified: those who could move around and those who were too exhausted to do so. The former were sent to a washroom and to the heap of clothes piled in a corner, to choose their liberation garments. She obeyed the instructions in her hushed, reflective manner. When she returned after bathing, her face looking as if it had been recast, as though her eyes had sunk even deeper into their sockets and her dried-out skin had become scaly. The strange clothes – so much too large for her body – drowned her limbs in their folds.
The women whose strength was exhausted were taken to inside rooms, and the others were told to stand in lines. When her turn came, she was asked to sit down facing an official and to tell him in detail what had happened to her. First she coughed, releasing a solitary, parched sound from her lips. She cleared her throat and tapped the base of her neck as if to urge on her vocal chords, but apart from some gurgling not a sound came out. Voiceless, she took the official’s pencil and turned his notebook around to face herself. Then she bent over the table and pressed the point of the pencil into the paper. She did this for many long minutes, and she didn’t sit up until she had laid the pencil down on the notebook and pushed it to the other side of the table. The official reached for it with his right hand and with his left hand he moved the bridge of his spectacles up his nose a little. “What is this?” he fumed, and wisps of smoke billowed between his eyes. His assistant bent over his shoulder and traced the writing with his finger like a blind person fumbling with his guide stick. His eyebrows knitted with the effort of making anything recognizable of all the letters impressed on the paper, over the lines and between them, black and silent like a swarm of exterminated flies.
Half a century later, on pages torn from a writing pad and sent to America in a white oblong envelope, a distant cousin would try but fail to decipher the writing for me. “It’s hard to guess how many names there were there,” he would write to me from abroad. “If we start with her mother,” he began, as her father was the only one to die a natural death, “and if we carry on with her eight brothers and sisters,” he went on and named them for me, “and the spouses of those who were already married, and the five or six or seven children who were married – let’s not forget that we are speaking of Orthodox Jews anxious to obey the commandment to be fruitful and multiply – we have already reached thirty-seven souls, and that’s without counting the extended family, that is all of the aunts and uncles and their spouses and the cousins and their husbands and wives and their grandchildren – for those lucky enough to live to see their grandchildren …. ”
Her first night went by in unbroken sleep. The morning found her absentminded, and while the other women prattled and altered their new clothing to fit their bodies better, she gazed into the reception hall and never moved, curled up in her corner. Once again her eyes skipped from the soup vats that made their way in and out three times a day – it was impossible to calculate how many refugees would turn up at any given moment – to the burners beneath them, whose flames, no matter how low, charred the bottom of the pots; and the smell of barley and beans kept on bothering everyone in the building. A village woman with thick ankles toiled to wipe away dirty footprints with a rag that she kept dipping into a pail. Her eyes wrung the woman’s cloth and shuffled along the floor together with her, and there they froze, her stare polishing the mirrored
surface of the shining, smooth expanse. She sipped her soup without any pleasure and it was as though the imperative to recover had been imposed upon her from above and did not rise from within herself. It was there that perhaps for the first time the facial spasm appeared that used to pull her lips into a slight twist at most of the festive meals – at bar mitzvahs, for example, or weddings or circumcisions, when it was only with difficulty that she got over her revulsion at people who could not make the food tasty. “Ugh,” her resentment would flare up. “What a chutzpah these people have, to feed others.” Until her dying day, she would devour her bread hungrily, and she never stopped consuming bread with everything: bread with onion and cheese, bread with watermelon and with cake, but mostly bread with bread.
Updated lists of survivors were posted on the bulletin boards and published in the newspapers every morning; those who had somewhere to go left after completing the registration process, leaving behind all the other unfortunate inmates vexed and dejected. On days when the crowding was intolerable, mattresses were placed in the corridors too. Then she would turn her chair and fix her gaze on the window, looking through it at the outside world and accompanying the changes of light with silence.
Four days after she arrived, on a misty morning during which scattered shafts of light tussled to escape between tattered clouds, the door to the entrance hall opened suddenly and a couple was standing on the threshold. The woman – no more than a girl – called out her name and when she was brought to the visitor, a scream hurtled through the hall. The woman immediately pushed the man forward and he stretched out a friendly hand to be shaken. The administration clerks set aside a corner of the hall for the three of them and also brought three chairs. But she, weeping and nodding her head, remained silent even after sitting down opposite her visitors. More than four decades were to go by before I discovered the identity of the woman – her niece, the only daughter of her oldest brother. Going from from one recovery center to the next, the niece had been seeking for a remnant of her family, and she had finally reached the Jewish community building in order to obtain her aunt’s blessing for her union.
“Well?” I asked, as we sat near the pool at her home in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood, after she had already been widowed. “Did you get the blessing?”
“What sort of a question is that? After all, she wasn’t any more than a young girl herself.” And my hostess began describing the wonders of those families in which there’s no more than a seven-year age gap between an aunt and a niece.
“And what did she do?” I persevered; wasn’t this why I had traveled so far?
“She sat there, staring.”
“Did she tell you anything about herself?”
“Not a word.”
“Not what she had been through? Not where she had been?”
“She was choked up with emotion. Wasn’t capable of uttering a word.”
“And what happened then?”
“Nothing. We just sat there, and eventually we got up to leave. We hugged and kissed. She wished us Mazel Tov on our marriage, and that’s it.”
“And why was it so important for you to get her blessing?”
“Are you kidding me?” My hostess got up out of her easy chair with some difficulty, and with a pudgy hand she smoothed the light-blue silken kaftan in which she had welcomed me, over her ample thighs. Her eyes surveyed me as if only I was unable to grasp something that was perfectly
clear. “Look,” she said, “just to point at someone and to say, ‘He’s from my family’ was the height of happiness then. Do you know what it meant then to belong to someone?”
Eventually her turn also came to be picked up by someone. On her seventh day at the recovery center, one of her relatives – a cousin who had fled to a neighboring land and escaped the horrors of the war – found her name on one of the lists of survivors, and sent his younger brother to the big city to fetch her. She was put up in his house, with his young, pregnant wife, and their giggly six-year-old daughter, who found a playmate in the new lodger. They sought and found a match for her – a widower who had lost his wife and two children – and after a brief courtship, a wedding canopy was raised in the courtyard. Some of the warmth that would burst forth from her in years to come, and a great deal of the love, but mainly her deep compassion had, I knew, been there already when she parted from the few people whom she had got to know at the recovery center. She went from resident to resident, from the caregivers to the janitor and the mailman, and with the help of that smile that did not light up her face but only bent half of it, she embraced each one and thanked them.
In the years that have gone by, I have filled in most of her stories, and I have tried to make peace with her past, or at least to reach an armistice agreement, even if that implied deadlock. I have held the soup bowl close inside myself and dreamed about it incessantly. I have found myself waiting for her on roads, taking her arm in mine and leading her forward, marching her to a safe place; skimming in my mind’s eye over snowy plains and forests, over the long column stretching out before her, over the city that suddenly appeared, and the vats of soup that came and went. I would plump up cushions for her and quilts, and spread her blankets out and lie down there next to her, darkening the day if she wanted to doze or filling it with light to tell the world she had woken up. I would stroke her brow and quiet her breathing, whispering gentle words into her ear. I sometimes grieve that I couldn’t refill her soup bowl during the nine days that she was on the road; I grieve not only about that but also everything else – about the years that went before, about her days in the recovery center and all the days and years that followed, for would any laws of nature have been undermined if I had shared her suffering with her before it congealed in her heart? And what disaster would have befallen the cosmos if I had been allowed to be near her then, during those years, and urged her to turn her gaze toward me, over the roofs of the houses and the spires of the churches and the skies of March or April or May, and recognize the daughter who was going to be born to her in another, free, country? And to ask only this, already then: Bring her back to life.
Copyright © 2011 by Edna Noy. English translation copyright © 2011 by Edna Noy.
Published by arrangement with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
First published in Hebrew in the anthology House of Ink (Nine Writers under One Roof), edited by Yuval Shimoni, Am Oved Publishing House & Kesset, 2011.
Edna Noy was born in Jaffa in 1950, the only child of Holocaust survivors. She has a BA in English literature from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and also studied at Bar Ilan University. During her years in South Africa, Noy taught Hebrew studies; on her return to Israel, she became a TV newscaster and program host, and later taught English at high school. All She Loved is her first novel.