By Chava Rosenfarb
Hersh was lost within himself like a traveler in a foreign city. He did not know whether he was moving forward or back, whether he was dreaming or wide awake.
It was Passover, the night before the ghetto commemoration. In his sleep Hersh saw Rivkele, his blonde, light-footed first wife, who had never actually looked as beautiful as she did in his dream. And he saw their two children, Mirele and Yossele, who along with Rivkele had been taken away from him during the selection on the ramp at the Auschwitz train station, a selection conducted by the infamous Dr. Mengele. Hersh tossed and turned on his bed, entangled in a mass of half-seen images and disjointed thoughts. He thought of the happiness he had lost and of the happiness he had found after the war.
Hersh had been incarcerated in Auschwitz for two years, during which time he had worked at the Union munitions plant as a slave labourer. There he had joined the secret resistance organization that had stolen dynamite from the plant for the October 1944 bombing of the crematorium at Birkenau, the extermination camp that adjoined Auschwitz. By some miracle his participation had escaped notice and he was not punished when all the others were rounded up and executed. In the camp, Hersh had been a dare-devil, a desperado; he had felt no fear.
After the liberation in 1945, Hersh’s personality underwent a transformation, at least on the surface. He became a devil of a different kind, a devil-may-care, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky young man. He made a tremendous effort to enjoy his painfully acquired bachelorhood. Since his memories were tortured, he tried to remember the past as little as possible, compensating himself for his former suffering by indulging in all the pleasures that the postwar world had to offer. But in this he succeeded only superficially. He did not really have the personality of a bon-vivant. Nights posed a special problem. He slept badly or not at all.
And so his life continued in a kind of dreamlike intoxication, a painless vacuum, until he met Bronia, who was bright and enticing and also a survivor. Bronia had the look of an oriental beauty. When Hersh first met her, her dark hair was still in the process of growing back after having been shaved off in the concentration camp. She had dark burning eyes, which occasionally glimmered with a tormented rage. She had lost her first husband, her parents and siblings at Auschwitz.
Hersh and Bronia got married and had two children, a boy and a girl. In order to make a fresh start they decided not to name their children after Hersh’s first two perished children, even though in his head Hersh continually confused the names.
In his youth, when he had been married to the dreamy, silken-haired Rivkele, Hersh had had ambitions for a career in music, which he indulged by writing songs, mostly love songs. But once liberated, he suppressed these impractical aspirations. Soon after immigrating to Canada, he decided to train as an accountant. Before long, he had a job and was making enough money to live a comfortable life with his family.
Once he had ensured the stability of his new family, Hersh’s personality underwent another change. He became a fearful man, ceaselessly preoccupied with health, especially the health of his children and his wife. Their health worried him more than his own. He trembled especially over the well-being of his children, who personified his new-found happiness. He did not simply love his children, he worshipped them.
Hersh took delight in the normality of his uneventful marital existence. He hated change and made a continual effort to shelter himself and his good fortune behind a fortress of immutability, to protect everything he held dear by a set of rules and disciplined behaviour. He doggedly pursued the stability of the every-day, rejoicing in the regular rhythm of his working hours, in the unexceptional transition from work to relaxation to vacation and back to work again. Any deviation from established routine filled him with dread, with a sense of impending doom. The shell he had erected around his small world had to remain forever firm and inflexible. Once he had his new family, he wanted nothing more.
Bronia understood him well and went along with his idiosyncrasies, which were not much different from her own. She was even more stubborn and persistent than he in her effort to maintain a routine sameness in their lives. Bronia knew of Hersh’s longing for his first wife, even though he rarely spoke of her. Bronia was sure that Hersh had loved Rivkele with all the passionate intensity of youth. She made no effort to drive Rivkele from Hersh’s mind, and she did not try to emulate her. She was determined instead to emphasize her own uniqueness.
It was Bronia who had talked Hersh into taking courses in accountancy. In this way, she reasoned, Hersh would be able to solidify the financial foundation of their lives and at the same time find an escape from the forlorn sense of displacement he felt in the chaotic post-war world. Bronia had always known how to comfort Hersh and sooth his pain. He had grown to love her deeply, and through her, he had continued to love Rivkele.
In time the two women merged in Hersh’s imagination, despite the fact that they did not resemble each other physically and despite the fact that their voices were not similar and their laughter was not alike. But he continued deluding himself that in all essentials they were the same, never remembering the differences between them. In his mind Bronia and Rivkele merged into the same person, despite the fact that Rivkele had used to cry a great deal, while Bronia never cried. He had come to consider Rivkele as a kind of fairy-tale princess who had been reborn in Bronia, the vital, palpable, down-to-earth oriental beauty, a queen, always serene and self-possessed. Sometimes he had the feeling that, like an ogress, Bronia had swallowed Rivkele, who continued living inside her, invisible to the outside world, invisible even to Bronia herself – but not to Hersh.
Hersh loved Bronia just as powerfully as he had loved Rivkele, and he loved his new set of children just as much as he loved the two he had lost. He usually remembered that their names were not the same, but he confused their nicknames and sometimes called the living boy and girl by the pet names of their perished predecessors. Since Bronia never corrected him, Hersh had the feeling that whatever had once been still was, that whatever belonged to his past was also part of his present.
The day just passed had been April 19th, the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration. It had been a beautiful, early spring day. Hersh and Bronia lived on Esplanade Avenue near Mount Royal, a district of Montreal that was home to many newly arrived Jewish immigrants. Since it was Passover, the people on the street were festively dressed. All day long groups of Jews strolled along the foot of Mount Royal—which they called de montn—while children cavorted on Fletcher’s Field, the large expanse of land that separated Esplanade Avenue from Park Avenue and from the mountain beyond. The lilacs and jasmine were just coming into bloom.
On just such Passover days, the Nazis would descend on the ghettos of Europe, intending to kill the Jews where they found them or deport them to the extermination camps. In Poland in the spring of 1943, the Nazis had descended on the Warsaw ghetto with the intention of liquidating it. The Jews of the ghetto decided to die fighting and so the Warsaw ghetto uprising had erupted on the 19th of April, Passover. It was an event commemorated every year by the Jewish community, both secular and religious, and it had come to represent for the survivors all the horrors of the not-so-distant past. It memorialized not just those who had fallen in the uprising itself, but all of the innocents who had been killed in extermination camps, in labour camps, in ghettos, in forests, in fields, in pits, on highways, on streets…
Hersh and Bronia never missed the commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. That evening they had gone to the Jewish Community Centre for the ceremony. The hall of the Community Centre was packed with mourners. Every seat was taken and those who could not find a place to sit, stood at the back and along the sides by the auditorium walls. The ceremony began and everyone present seemed to be bracing for the emotionally draining experience of reliving the past; of forgetting for a few hours the length of time that had passed since the nightmarish days of their youth.
This was the hour when spirits descended upon the hall of the Community Centre, when the ghosts of the past walked among the living. The choir began to sing and one of the songs echoed in Hersh’s ears. The words were by Shmerke Katcherginski, the poet of the Vilna ghetto, who was mourning the loss of his deported bride. The song was called “Friling,” – spring. Like a distant murmer, Hersh heard the voices of the choir intoning the refrain: “Springtime, on your blue wings, bring back my beloved, my dearest to me…”
Hersh saw himself rise to his feet along with the rest of the assembly, all eyes riveted on the large menorah with six huge unlit candles waiting on the distant stage. The unforgotten past encroached now on the hall with such intensity that it became difficult to breathe. A male voice called out the names of the six candle-lighters, as each in turn climbed the steps to the menorah and lit a candle, one candle for each million of the six million. The six who had been been given the honour of lighting this year’s candles had each survived a different ghetto or concentration camp. The crowd stood in silence.
As usual during a ghetto commemoration, Hersh felt that the pounding of his heart was heard not only by Bronia but by all the people around him. He squeezed Bronia’s hand tightly and she squeezed his. He had the impression that he heard her heart pounding in rhythm with his own, that he could feel the pounding of both their hearts in the clasped palms of their hands.
They continued standing with their hands locked tightly together, one knotted inside the other. They did not say a word, nor did they look at one another. They stood glued to the floor for the duration of the lighting of the first four candles, both communing with separate memories.
Then Hersh heard a name called out. It was his family name. He heard the name Auschwitz called out. He opened his eyes as wide as they would go. His palm grew so wet that Bronia’s hand slipped from his grasp. Looking up at the menorah , he saw a tall willowy blonde woman ascend the steps leading to the altar. The stairs seemed to be rising higher and higher into the air, and the woman rose along with them. He did not recognize the woman, yet something about her was familiar. Perhaps it was the dress. It was just the right dress for the occasion—a many pleated grey dress of very light fabric. Hersh thought he could see the outlines of the woman’s body through the folds of the fabric. He could see the texture of her skin. He was sure that he had once known that body in minute detail. He inhaled its scent, felt its delicate touch, its enticing softness. There was something intimate, something deeply his own in the air about that woman. He seemed to foresee the manner in which she would take the auxiliary candle from the person before her, and, raising her arm high, light the fifth candle.
Rivkele. It was his first wife Rivkele. She lit the candle, then handed the auxiliary candle to the person behind her and descended the stairs. There were suddenly so many stairs! She disappeared into the crowd of standing mourners. The sixth candle was lit. the choir sang Katcherginski’s “Friling” over again. Again he heard the words: “Bring back my beloved, my dearest, to me.”
Tears gathered in Hersh’s eyes. Had he just seen Rivkele in the flesh? How was this possible? Where had she been all this time? And what about the children? He had searched for all of them after the liberation, searched for a long time, but never found them. It was while searching for Rivkele that he had met Bronia, who had been looking for her husband.
Bronia reached out for Hersh’s hand and clasped it tightly in her own. Hersh looked at her and noticed that tears were running down her face. Strange, he thought. He had never seen her cry before. “I have a strange premonition,” she whispered. “something is going to happen.”
“I need a breath of fresh air,” Hersh whispered back and extracted his hand from hers. The candle lighting ceremony over, the crowd had sat down again, so that Hersh had to squeeze past a an endless row of hard protruding knees to make his way out to the aisle. The choir was still singing “Breng mayn gelibte, mayn libste tsurik/ Bring back my beloved, my dearest to me.” Once in the aisle, Hersh scanned the faces of one crowded row of mourners after another looking for the woman who had lighted the candle. Under his breath he called her name, “Rivkele! Rivkele!”
From a seat at the far side of the auditorium, a woman turned her head in his direction. The next moment he saw her soaring towards him. She seemed to be flying, the folds of her pleated dress stretched out like wings. He never rememebered Rivkele to have been so beautiful. In the past her looks had hardly mattered to him. Perhaps she was even plain-looking. He could not remember. Their love, Rivkele’s and his, although ecstatically erotic, had reached beyond physical appearances. Theirs had been the truest love imaginable. It was as true as his present grief.
Rivkele fell into his arms. But his arms remained empty. And suddenly he found himself outside the hall, near the doors to the Community Centre. He was alone and trying to understand what had happened when suddenly he saw the willowy blonde woman walking towards him. “It’s stifling in there,” she remarked as she passed him. “I need a breath of fresh air. I can’t listen to speeches any more. Too many sad memories; nothing can change the past.”
He followed her outside. They looked at each other and it seemed to Hersh that they had both become transparent. Suddenly she said: “You know about the children, don’t you?”
He nodded gravely. “I do. They’re at home asleep.”
They strolled along the street, breathing in the sweet aroma of the blossoming jasmine. The spring air seemed to absorb Hersh’s breath. They came to a park. The flowering branches of the jasmine bushes looked like the arms of white angels bestowing a welcome oblivion on the world with their intoxicating white petals. Hersh sank onto a wooden bench and the woman sat down next to him.
Nearby, children were playing in the sandbox. Hersh felt a powerful desire to see Rivkele’s face again. He had not seen it for so long. He fixed his eyes on her. Yes, it was the face of his first wife—and yet it was not the face he had expected to see. The face before him was not middle-aged; it was not disfigured by pain and tears. It was not the face of a concentration camp survivor who had seen the worst that human beings are capable of, who had lost her most precious treasures, her children. No, the face before him was that of a beautiful young woman, newly arrived at adulthood.
He sat absorbed by the smooth pale glow of Rivkele’s alabaster complexion, marveling at the light in those dreamy swimming eyes. He saw there his youth, their shared love, their home, the faces of their children as they played in the sandbox. And he felt deeply embarrassed, deeply ashamed of himself. He felt like a traitor.
“Thank God you survived,” Rivkele whispered and fell silent, as if awaiting his reply. But he was so full of shame that he failed to answer. To fill the silence, she asked, “Do you remember the last words that you said to me, Hershele, before the Germans separated us during the selection on the ramp at Auschwitz? Do you remember? ‘For ever,’ you said to me, ‘for ever and ever…’” She spoke with difficulty.
Hersh began to sob. He buried his head on the part of her shoulder where her soft hair become one with her dress. Someone was calling: “Hershie! Hershie! Where are you?”
“Someone is calling you,” Rivkele whispered.
Hersh mastered himself, wiped his face with both hands and said in a dry voice: “It’s Bronia, my wife.”
“I am your wife,” Rivkele said in an equally dry voice.
“You are…But, forgive me, so is she. We have two children.”
“We had two.”
“We have two. Come, you must meet her.”
“Gladly,” Rivkele said, although Hersh felt that she was not sincere. “I have regards from her former husband.”
He began pulling Rivkele towards Bronia who was waiting in a flutter at the entrance to the Community Centre. At first, Hersh did not recognize Bronia, so much did her tear-stained face resemble Rivkele’s.
He heard Rivkele say: “How painful it is, Hershele, to have found you and to lose you again so soon. Thank God I am not alive.”
“Don’t thank God for that!” Hersh pleaded. “Never thank God for that!” He turned to Bronia. “Bronia, dearest, just think who this is.” He pointed at Rivkele.
“Oh you scared me so terribly!” Bronia sighed with relief. “I didn’t know where you had gone.”
“I love you,” Hersh replied. It was unclear to whom.
“So why do you want to desert me for her?” Which wife said this?
“Are you jealous?” He asked, with great tenderness in his voice.
“Why, of course. Jealousy is like love. It reaches beyond the grave.”
“Rivkele has no grave. Her ashes are everywhere.”
“And that makes her even more threatening,” Bronia said.
An unexpected wave of resentment swept over Hersh. He remembered that he and Bronia frequently argued, that they often felt estranged from each other. Although she had never said so, he sensed that Bronia reproached him with being unlike her first husband. Hersh did not have her first husband’s business sense. And she did not appreciate his sense of humour. Granted, it was a particularly morbid sense of humour that he had acquired after the liberation, yet it seemed to fit the circumstances. More than once he had read in Bronia’s eyes that his wisecracks displeased her, that she thought them stupid, even though she never said a word. And then he remembered other ways in which they did not get along.
“Let’s not change things, Hershie,” Bronia insisted. “Let Rivkele go back where she came from.”
Hersh patted Bronia’s shoulder appeasingly. “She came from Auschwitz. Please understand. Let her stay. At least until tomorrow.”
“How can I understand? This is beyond understanding.”
“Let’s leave it for tomorrow.”
“How can we leave it for tomorrow, when you cling so stubbornly to yesterday?” Bronia turned and walked off until she was lost in the misty depths of the street.
“Bronia! Bronia, darling, don’t leave me!” Hersh began running after her.
“Hershele!” Rivkele called after him. “Don’t leave me! Wait for me!”
Hersh turned to her: “Bronia refuses to meet you. You saw that for yourself. She refuses to let you stay until tomorrow.”
“Why? What harm have I done her?”
“She is afraid of you.”
“Why should she be afraid of me? I am just dust and ashes.”
“She is terrified of you. You are a sacred memory. She knows that. She knows that I worship you, that I love you and will always love you. So she is jealous.”
The sound of many voices singing the “Partisan Hymn” followed the three figures as they ran through the dark street—three escapees from a nightmare. Hersh wanted to catch up with Bronia as she disappeared down the street, but he forced himself to stop. Planting his feet firmly on the ground, he allowed Rivkele to catch up with him. There she stood in front of him. He saw his youthful past reflected in her delicate, dreamy face and he saw there too the faces of his perished children. The white jasmine bushes in full bloom dazzled his eyes, their perfume suffocated him. He took Rivkele’s beautiful hands in his. Her hands had not changed; they were still delicate and soft, as if they had never known concentration camp labour. Hands cannot conceal the truth, he said to himself—and then he remembered: Rivkele had never reached the interior of the concentration camp; she had never entered it, she had never abandoned the children. She had gone with them to the ovens.
In the dimness of the street lights her hands shone with an otherworldly transparency. He kissed them and pressed them to his cheek. He remembered the touch of her soft fingers, the fingers of his first lover, the fingers of his children’s mother. Once again the words of Katcherginski’s song echoed in Hersh’s ears: “Springtime, bring back my beloved…”
“Where do you live, Rivkele?” Hersh asked.
“I live with Bronia’s husband – and with all the others. We live on the outskirts of your consciousness.”
Hersh felt his ordered existence slipping away. He knew that he must reclaim it. There was nothing more important for him to do than cling to the protective shell that he had built around his life. “You belong to my past,” he told her.
“Yes, but your love for me did not die at Auschwitz.”
“I love Bronia.”
“So you do. But you love me too. Not even the Germans could undo our love.”
“Go back to where you came from!”
“Would that be far enough? Do you think you will ever be able to evict me from the outskirts of your heart?” Rivkele threw her arms around Hersh and held him close.
“I have two living children,” he pleaded. “They come before you or me, or Bronia. That is how it must be. It is the only way we can celebrate our victory. In all other respects we are defeated and destroyed.”
“That’s not true!” Rivkele shook her head so violently that he could see the silken hair fall from her head in piles of ashes. “Not true at all! Only I am defeated and destroyed. But even so…Since you love me forever and ever, something is left that will keep us alive.”
The Holocaust commemoration was over. The crowd of mourners poured out of the Community Centre. The ghosts and spirits left the building in one long endless procession, passing overhead in a dense white cloud. Without a word of goodbye, Rivkele disengaged herself from Hersh’s embrace and drifted up to join the white cloud, blending into the pale vapor as it gradually disappeared behind the blazing beams of the huge projectors that sliced across Fletcher’s Field at the foot of Mount Royal.
Those huge projectors illuminated a football match. The onlookers stood around the edges of the field clapping, whistling and yelling loud encouragement to their teams. The jasmine bushes around Fletcher’s Field perfumed the night with their sweet smell. Bronia emerged from the Community Centre and smiled a sad affectionate smile at Hersh as she wiped the tears from her face.
The next day, Hersh opened his eyes to find a brilliant morning. The children, still wearing their pajamas, were playing at the foot of the bed. Bronia, her head on the pillow beside him, dark hair spread out in chaotic disarray, tenderly stroked his arm.
“Do you love me?” she asked coquettishly as she snuggled up next to him.
“For ever and ever,” he replied, rubbing his eyes.
“If so, then be a good boy, Hershie dear, and on this gorgeous holiday morning, you be the first to get out of bed and make us some delicious Passover pancakes for breakfast. We are starved to death.”
Copyright © Chava Rosenfarb 2010
Chava Rosenfarb is an award-winning Yiddish novelist. Born in Lodz, Poland, she is a survivor of the Holocaust, who settled in Canada in 1950. Her major novel The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of the Life in the Lodz Ghetto won Israel's highest literary award for Yiddish Literature, the Manger Prize, in 1979. She has also won the John Glassco Literary Translation Award for her own translation into English of her novels Bociany and Of Lodz and Love. A collection of short stories called Survivors: Seven Short Stories won the Modern Language Association's Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Award in 2006 and the Helen and Stan Vine National Jewish Book Award for 2005. While Rosenfarb writes predominantly in Yiddish, the present story was originally written in English.