(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Miryam Sivan
Jaim Benjamin was in great spirits, even better than the day before, an uncommon reaction to a project’s close. Many people whose life stories Isabel wrote experienced a down toward the end of working on their books. The buoyancy of the telling usually gave way to a re-experience of loss, often accompanied by sudden self-consciousness: how would the book be received? What they never voiced, but Isabel imagined, was the question of whether she had done a good enough job. These fits of insecurity passed with the actual publication of the book, for inevitably, from family and friends, the reception was one of unqualified appreciation.
Jaim’s reaction was different. He was not at all concerned about peoples’ responses. To be able to talk to Isabel about the war years had already done him a world of good. Having it appear fixed on paper was just an added plus. He felt unburdened and looked forward to life in the new millennium.
“There it is,” he said to Isabel pointing to the stack of manuscript pages. “It no longer has to be in me. I am free, free.”
“What section would you like to go over?”
“None, it’s perfect. Gracias eskritora.”
“My pleasure,” Isabel said, relieved that she could go home, do her final gleaning of the sentences, and then send the book to Schine, the publisher specializing in Holocaust memoirs. She would have a respite from his hammering refrain: Pages, pages, Isabel, I need, pages, since she wasn’t sure she would write any more books for Schine.
More and more she found herself lost in the hills of Greece, among the tombstones of Prague, in the haunted alleyways in her mind. “I fear persecution all the time,” she told her boyfriend Emanuel the week before. “Round-ups, aktions, a random bullet in the head. I went to get my truck inspected, and when the clerk asked me to hand over the papers I began to sweat.” Emanuel told her it was enough. And there were days when she agreed with him. How many more times could she endure having to remind herself that she was living in the first years of the 21st century and not in Poland 1943? Jaim’s book, her fifteenth in twenty years, just about unraveled her.
Though there had been other difficult books to write, of course; in fact, they had all had been difficult. Hana Stern who asked Isabel not to include the parts about how she had been taken in, then sexually abused, by a group of Russian Partisans. Zusya Feinstein who hid for three years with his older brother in four haylofts, watching the farm animals gorge themselves on hay and slops, while he and Ben sucked on straw and on pulp from the pages of a book they found in the woods.
Then there was Harry Roth’s book. Certainly the hardest to date. Forty years after the war ended, Harry was still enraged at his brother, Saul, who had been a Sonderkommando. Miraculously they both survived Chelmo, but never spoke again. Harry told her the story of Saul and then sonorously commanded her not to mention him in the book, as if he never existed.
Over the years Isabel had constructed a default empathy inside herself, a nurtured neutrality, a space of attuned tolerance. From there she embarked on book after book. Roth’s hatred heaved a stone into this place and blocked entry. It had been a grave journey to go into his mind and Isabel almost cancelled the contract.
But didn’t. All the while she built paragraphs and chapters of Roth’s life before the German army rolled into his small Polish town, she knew what was coming: the basso profundo of judgment. And even though he lost everyone but Saul, Harry insisted on treating Saul like Amalek, as if he didn’t exist.
“Yemach shemo,” he ordered Isabel after recalling Saul’s terrible deeds. Wipe out his name.
Isabel wanted to remind Harry that God the narrator was a great ironist, a seductive user of paradox. Here was affection, even comedy, the genesis of tolerance hidden in the fissures of irony and inconsistency: God instructed Israel to destroy Amalek by wiping out their name, but sealed this arch enemy’s longevity by telling his chosen people in the Bible to do so. Amalek’s dirty deeds would survive millennia through the relentless Bible-based recall of their victims. A thread in the labyrinth of forgetting.
Isabel worked this relationship over and over in her mind as she wrote Roth’s book, but she couldn’t render the same paradoxical rescue for Saul. Harry Roth’s fury and appraisal were unassuageable. He wouldn’t mimic God’s paradox or clever quirkiness. Saul was to be totally written out of Harry’s story. Not a word. Not a name. No chance of a backhanded inclusion. As if he never existed. Yemach shemo.
Fortunately Jaim had no vendetta or ire even. His was a straightforward account of flight, passing, and making it to the end of the war. But it weighed in as difficult, as very difficult in fact, and not because Isabel had to imagine existence in the grey zone of moral choices, or reconstruct scenes of rape in a Ukrainian forest and then blank the screen. No, this story was hard to inhabit because when she imagined herself Jaim, she kept seeing her father, Dave. Like her name, Isabel Toledo, Jaim’s life story was a macabre marriage of Sepharad and the Shoah, of Spain and the Holocaust, and it hurt to touch this union’s molten core.
Soon the book would be entirely behind Isabel and she would be free to focus all her attention on finishing the construction of the Winkler house in the village near her small town in the Galilee. How she relied on construction, on concrete, on her job as a building project manager; it anchored her in the here and now.
She had left the construction site for a few days to fly to New York and go over the final draft of the book with Jaim Benjamin now, even though it was an absolutely terrible time to be off the site. The gross labor was completed and the finer trades had come in, electrical, plumbing, duct and metal work, carpentry, painting, landscape earthworks. Their mistakes were not easily or cheaply covered up. Alertness, constant coordination, and supervision were critical factors in leading the project toward its conclusion. But she needed to make sure Jaim was satisfied. Change orders always cost more — in books and in buildings.
Jaim sat across the table from her. “Did you know, Isabel, niña, according to rabbinical order, since the Inquisition and until 1992, Jews were forbidden to step foot on Spanish soil?”
Isabel looked at him. What next?
“In 1968, the Spanish Justice Minister, Antonio Oriol, presented the proclamation of the annulment of Ferdinand and Isabella's Expulsion Decree to Samuel Toledano, President of the Federation of Spanish Jewish Communities. I wonder if you two are related?” he smiled at his personally appointed minister of historical musings, his attaché of the rightings of wrongs.
1968, Isabel thought. In 1968 John Frankenheimer’s The Fixer, based on Malamud’s novel, came out in movie theaters across America. The blood-libel writ large.
“And in response, after what I like to think of as a twenty-four year sigh, in 1992, the five hundred year anniversary of the Expulsion, the Chief Rabbis of Israel revoked the rabbinical ban.”
“Oh, so now I can go?” Isabel said to Jaim, and they both laughed. “Imagine,” her words slowed down, “a comparable ban on Germany, Austria, Poland, France, Croatia, Greece, the Ukraine, Belgium, Belarus, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Holland, Norway, Italy, Hungary, and the rest. Only now would we be starting our five hundred year boycott of the continent. Europe dead to the Jews.”
“Imagine,” Jaim said softly and got up from the table. "You know, Isabel, in Spain, like in Germany, a Christian with Jewish genes was often persecuted. In Toledo they had laws on blood purity. One-twentieth in the blood lines was enough for the Inquisitors to turn their gaze on you. The Nazis stopped sorting at one-fourth.” Jaim paused. “And Spain, under orders from Pope Paul IV, prevented Jews from using titles such as Signor or Don. Germany's Nuremberg laws did the same with Herr, with Frau.”
The facile reduction from an honorific to a name. From a name to a number. Isabel felt heat rise in her. Maybe menopause had arrived, at this very moment, in New York, during this terribly uncomfortable conversation with a pleasant elderly man? Didn’t life work this way: suddenly, without prior notification, one found oneself inside a novel set of circumstances, the shifting shape of the present tense?
Isabel watched Jaim remove an object wrapped in cloth from the top drawer of a small bureau.
“Here." Jaim walked over to her and opened the cloth. He handed Isabel a large metal key with an ornate head.
She took it, held it in her palm, curled her fingers around it, and knew, without being told, that it was the key to Jaim’s ancestral home in Seville.
“We have passed it father to son for over five hundred years,” he said. "I want you to have it now. I want you to go there and see that it still opens the door."
"I can't," Isabel said, closing her eyes, trying not to see a narrow cobbled street, a small wooden door come upon suddenly in a high stone wall.
"Please," Jaim said. "Whenever you can, even if it takes years. And afterwards, when you've turned the lock, give it to my son, and he can give it to his, and so on."
"Why not let Marc do it himself?" Isabel asked, and opened her eyes. Jaim's face was sad, sadder now than when he spoke of his years hiding from the Germans in the mountain villages of northern Greece.
"Because Marc is a doctor, not a writer. I want you to feel it. I want you to be there, so you’ll remember that you too were there, you, Isabel Toledo there, just look at you. Then write about what was done to us. We say we won't forget, but Spain’s been forgotten.”
“I don’t know if I can,” she said softly, her words and shoulders bending with a heavy weight.
He came and stood next to her. "My name is Jaim, with a ‘J’,” he said, putting his hand gently on her forearm. It burned. “The Spanish version of Chaim, a thoroughly Jewish name, though we haven't lived in Spain for hundreds of years. I speak Ladino and pray in the way we prayed in Spain, because that’s what we spoke in Florina. When my family was sent to Auschwitz they spoke to Jews from Rhodes, Salonicki, and the Peloponnesia in Ladino. In Auschwitz, Isabel, songs of Spain."
Isabel left Jaim’s apartment and walked south into Tribeca. Full of industrial lofts when Isabel moved out of New York in the late seventies, it had since become fashionably and expensively residential. Walking the city was Isabel’s way of saying hello to this other home of hers. It was also time travel. A palimpsest of disrupted events, sometimes six months apart, sometimes years, broke the smooth narrative thread of her life today. But at the lowest level, buried beneath it all—the past, the present moment, and even the future—seeping upward as teeth push forward in the mouth, the plot line of a New York childhood.
She continued south and suddenly, after years of not, remembered Leon Herrera, her father’s boyhood friend. Their parents had grown up together. And their parents before that, part of the old New York Sephardic community. When Isabel was little, on Saturday mornings, she and her father Dave would drive down to Tribeca, to Leon’s printing business. The streets would be empty, the sidewalks quiet, the Westside Highway clear except for them in Dave’s navy blue Cadillac. In spring the Hudson River seemed to rise to the surface of the asphalt.
At Leon’s, as the men talked, Isabel would play with a stack of stock and a manual print block. She set her own text. Usually it ran no more than two or three lines: I love Fayge. I love Dave. Leon’s our friend. Even then Isabel called her parents by their first names.
And there suddenly, as if by chance, was Leon’s building and the sign of the Herrera print shop hanging above the metal shutter of the parking dock, as it had decades earlier. Fayge hadn’t mentioned Leon in years and Isabel assumed, well, she hadn’t assumed anything. But there she was, and here he was, and Isabel rang the bell.
She spoke into the intercom and the door buzzed open immediately. Leon waited with open arms and a huge smile. He wanted all the news, about her, about Fayge. He knew a little from another member of the childhood group about Isabel’s life in Israel, her children, her divorce, and her writing Holocaust memoirs. Leon told Isabel about his three children, five grandchildren. His wife was well. In a few days they were going to Florida. Isabel asked:
“I’m wondering about Dave, Leon. I’m wondering why he left us, why he left New York.”
“It’s not straightforward, Isabel. I’m not sure how much light I can shed. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” He started to rise from his chair in the spare but comfortable office.
“No, thanks. Don’t protect me, please. Tell me what you know or better yet tell me what you think.”
“It’s difficult for me, Issie. I grew up with Dave. We were like brothers. His parents, my parents, so close. I miss him terribly.”
“I know how hard it is. But I’m asking a favor. As you put one letter at a time in the press, put one thought after the other, please, tell me the story.”
Leon laughed out loud. “We’ve stopped using presses years ago. Everything’s digital today.”
“I know. I was being metaphoric.”
“Oh, metaphoric.” He smiled paternally. “The long and the short of it is this: the war. Dave felt driven out. By Fayge. By her silence. By her pain. She was always so cheerful, so lovely, you know how she is, but she wasn’t dealing with the pain and it came between them.” Leon sat back behind his desk.
“Dave never said anything? No explanations? No hints?”
“You’re an only child, Isabel. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”
Isabel walked over to the large paned windows and looked out at the broad Hudson River, bullet grey and choppy with wind now that the early morning sunshine had been overcome by clouds. So was it really this? The big secret revealed? What her best friend Molly had suggested to her only a few days ago? Fayge unable to warm to Dave sexually, maybe even emotionally? Or maybe it wasn’t this at all. Maybe Fayge’s reserve was simply the accumulation of too much trauma: fleeing the Nazis, being orphaned, becoming mother to three younger siblings at the age of ten, starvation, deprivation of bare necessities, a complete lack of protective love.
“Why didn’t Dave share his family’s history with me? He knew a lot, didn’t he?”
“Isabel’s been a name in the Toledo family for four hundred years. She made the crossing from Holland to Curacao,” Leon answered solicitously.
“I always thought I was named after Bella, Fayge’s mother. But really my name was a way of connecting Poland and Spain, Fayge and Dave.”
“And Fayge? Does she know this?”
“How come? Why wouldn’t Dave tell her about his ancestor?”
“Isabel, Dave met Fayge two years after she made it here from Siberia. She wasn’t in great shape, still a child really. A girl tough as they come, who still had two sisters to care for. She also couldn’t forgive herself for Shiya’s death, you know, her brother. Dave just wanted to love her, make it all right for her. When you were born, years later, it seemed she was reborn. It didn’t matter, I guess, if she knew about Isabel from Toledo.”
“And at some point he gave up trying to make it all right for her?”
“I think so. I love Fayge, but she’s always been closed. We’re not a generation of shrinks like yours. We just accept the cut and the scab.”
We just accept the cut and the scab, Isabel repeated to herself like a hymn as she walked south, one block after another, divining out of these eight simple words the secret to her family’s dissolution. This was what each of her parents had urged her to do and what destroyed them in the end. It is precisely what she had chosen not to do by moving to Israel, the new skin, so to speak, which grew around the scab. And ghostwriting was a deliberate reopening of the cut, draining the pus, a bloodletting. The Spanish tortured and killed people in their autos de fé, but for Isabel resurrecting the wrecked lives of World War II was her act of faith.
She walked towards Soho, Noho, and stared at the naked skyline at the island’s end, acutely aware of what was no longer there. Like Klezmer music on a Krakow street, the outline of loss, drew her attention. Soon enough Isabel found herself at the large construction pit called Ground Zero.
This site of terror looked the antithesis of the memorial field outside the crematoria of Birkenau. That large tract of land had been basically abandoned. Debris left to decay in the natural elements. Haphazard piles of reddish blackened brick from destroyed ovens. Dumped ash and bone unburied in the fields. A tour guide told Isabel that if she toed the dirt beneath her feet she would see white ash and splinter of bone. Isabel had been too terrified to move.
Ground Zero’s real estate was too valuable to endure a similar neglect. An army of tractors and other pieces of heavy equipment moved into place as soon as the smoldering stopped, to clear nearly two million tons of rubble and remains. New foundations were dug and retaining walls reinforced. With little time to spare, the renamed Freedom Towers began their timely ascent.
Isabel had been in New York five or six times since Yamasaki’s Twin Towers were laid low and had never come down to the site. She had enough at home. On an average day at home in Haifa she passed one or two memorials to victims of terrorist bombings. And hadn’t a bomb exploded on a bus close to where she lived? Not to mention Scud missiles from Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War and weeks of rockets raining over the Galilee in the Second Lebanon War. Isabel did not seek out sites of war since she unfortunately lived in them.
But here she was, and here it was, and suddenly she felt compelled to go to the Family Viewing Platform. She had read about it in the papers and thought it strange: as if the site of destruction and terror were theater, as if it were a zoo, or a circus, a place where families came to be entertained. The reality show of death and resurrection.
But it wasn’t. The Family Viewing Platform was thoughtfully designed, tasteful, and moving. A wall of names had been mounted memorializing the victims of the attack. Included were names of those who died in the downing of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175. A boy about her son’s age, she guessed no more than seven years old, complained to his parents that they promised he could go down to the actual floor of the once World Trade Center. He didn’t want to stay on the Platform. Boring. Someone in a German accent told the parents that there was in fact a tour which allowed access to the floor, strengthening the boy’s case. His demands became louder and his parents told him they’d think about it. Later.
Languages from all over the world swirled around Isabel. Maybe here was the reckoning, the healing. Maybe hope could be found in the mutual viewing of the fallout from fundamentalist insanity and its appetite for violence. She sat and remembered the Towers as one would a personality. Their construction coincided with a large block of her childhood, 1966-1977. Dave had taken her and Fayge for lunch at Windows on the World when it opened and she felt so sick she couldn’t eat. The steel, designed not to resist the air currents at those heights, swayed up to eight inches in high winds. The steel, designed to withstand the impact of a small airplane, sheered from the heat and shock of two commercial jet planes’ fuselage.
Isabel heard French and German and Japanese, she thought, and British English, and other languages she couldn’t easily identify. She heard Italian and Caribbean Spanish and continental Spanish. Like everyone else, the Spanish group talked rapidly about the attack. She understood a little and realized that people recalled where they were that morning, nine a.m. New York time, when the first, and then a few minutes later the second, jet crashed into the Towers.
It was four p.m. local time in Israel when she walked into her son’s pre-school on kibbutz. Another woman walked in behind her with a cell phone jammed against her ear. “I don’t believe what my husband’s telling me,” she said and turned to Isabel. “A plane has crashed into the Twin Towers in New York.” They rushed to the television and saw the second plane slam inside. It took Isabel two days to get through the phone lines to make sure Fayge and everyone they knew were alive.
She turned her attention from the people and their ghosts to the construction pit and its promise. She laughed to herself, thinking of how the size and scale of the Freedom Towers’ project spectacularly dwarfed the small private homes she built in the low hills of the Galilee. Dozens of two-hundred-foot tall steel cranes filled the site. A cluster of tractors, some with shovels, some with cups, some with teeth, moved back and forth like dancing bugs. Candy striped concrete mixers rolled in by the dozen. Crews of thousands worked simultaneously. Heavy equipment was contracted by the year. Documentation—construction and contractual—filled bookcases, filled rooms. Concrete was poured by the millions of cubic feet.
And while tourists from around the world continued to visit the site of the most famous terrorist strike of the new millennium, the construction would proceed, more or less on time. Landlords would be satisfied. Insurance companies would resume their collection of premiums. Future tenants would sign leases, proud of being part of the reclamation of the air space of lower Manhattan.
Only the smaller reconstructions would experience delays; the fallout from emotional and psychological landscapes not so easily cleaned up and set aside. Parents who never returned home. Parents frozen in bereavement for incinerated children. Spouses and mates clutching threads of last words. Friends left hanging. Bosses, colleagues, employers, employees vanished without graves, reduced to bone and ash.
Isabel felt for Jaim’s key in her handbag. She wrapped her fingers around it and closed her eyes. She tried to feel the souls lost in the big bangs of history and sat quietly detecting the ghost outline of the Towers and the concourse. Thousands of people in New York possessed keys to apartments and offices, to mailboxes and personal safes, to closets and desks, to elevator shafts and electrical boxes, to plumbing stations and sprinkler systems, to fire boxes and boiler rooms, to cars and vans and motorcycles and trucks and fork lifts, that no longer existed.
Copyright © Miryam Sivan 2012
Miryam Sivan, originally from New York City, lives in the Galilee and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa and Emek Yizrael College. She has published scholarly articles on American and Israeli writers and a book length study on Cynthia Ozick, Belonging Too Well: Portraits of Identity in Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction (SUNY Press, 2009). Numerous short stories have been published in the U.S. and U.K. and two of her stories were adapted for the stage. "The Keys" is an excerpt from her recently completed novel, Make it Concrete.