Post Mortem


Post Mortem
By Yoram Kaniuk
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu

            My first meeting with the German children was in nineteen thirty eight. The German Templars of Sharona began to march like ducks in noisy processions and to wave Nazi flags and the Arabs of the adjacent village of Sumayl cheered them. We were living in Kiryat Meir nearby. Kiryat Meir was outside town and we reached it via the planks laid on a muddy path leading through the orange groves growing between Shlomo Hamelech Street and the Kirya. At night the jackals howled and together with the other men Moshe would go out to chase them away. The Germans and the Arabs from Sumayl would lie in wait to ambush us, and we would go on spying expeditions among the orange groves and find lovers who excited us more than the Germans with their shouts. On the third entrance from the right lived a friend whose brother slept with his eyes open and we would come to marvel, waving our hands in front of his unseeing eyes, sure that this was one of the true wonders of the world. But the sight of our neighbours in their pajamas on their balconies on Saturday mornings was enough to make Moshe get us out of there fast. When our teacher in second grade spoke to us with fervent pedagogical emotion about the poor Jewish children in Germany, it took me some time to translate Sharona into the suffering sentimentalized by our teacher, and to grasp the other side of the Zieg Heil yelled outside our windows. Together with all the other children in the class I wrote to the children whose names were provided by the Jewish Agency: “Dear Jewish child, Hitler is going to kill you. Come to Eretz Israel, if you don’t come you’ll surely die, yours...” and everyone signed his name. They collected the letters in sacks and sent them to the Germany which I already loved and whose wicked citizens had stolen it from me and from Moshe’s gramophone. I was sorry that those poor children would have to leave it. I was the only sabra around who envied them and who liked spinach better than compote, and the other kids laughed at me for eating green shit.
            The sabras who were later proclaimed as heroes went into contortions at the sight of the spinach, twitching and shrieking hysterically, their faces turning yellow with the symptoms of a disease for which as far as I know no medical explanation has yet been found. The German refugee children started to arrive. They brought with them wonderful games and beautiful clothes with leather suspenders and Tyrolese hats and meccano sets you could build towers with and they had names like Robert, Peter and Herbert, and I decided to be born in Germany. I learned the streets of my town through Emile and the detectives. My father’s friends arrived as refugees with their shame, and they talked to me, through them I got to drink coffee at Kempinski’s. Berlin was part of an hallucination more real and alive than the hamsins. I felt sympathy for the refugees because I too had been expelled from Germany.
            In order to be born in Germany I taught myself to scream “Ooh” when I was beaten instead of “Aii” like the local kids. For a whole week Moshe and I practiced saying “Ooh” instead of Aii”. It was a painful game. I forced him to hit me. After a while he seemed to be enjoying himself. I said, give me a punch, and he frowned slightly, a dull and wicked gleam appeared in his usually warm eyes, and he hit me. The game was serious and Sarah stood and cried and said, Moshe leave the child alone, and he left me alone, but he discovered me again, it came over him once every few years, he liked seeing me turning into a German child. When I groaned with the pain of the blows and I muttered “ooh”, he recited Hoelderlin or Heine to me and played on his guitar. He stood me on the balcony, walked away, turned his back to me and cried: Who are you child? And I shouted: Robert! Peter! And he looked thrilled. I hated him for the ease with which he gave me up to another country, and the kids in my class hit me to see what I would yell. I yelled “Ooh”. I internalized a shallow Germaness, I injected it into my veins in order to be part of Moshe’s thirst to be what he wasn’t. So that both of us turned into people who aren’t what they really are.
            One day I went with some friends to what was then called an American bar in London Square, where they sold magnificent ice cream. It was 1947, and there was a sound of shots on the other side of the street, and then screams. We took no notice, we ate specials, we were already used to it. Suddenly we saw a group of people running after a man who even from where we were standing could be seen to be bleeding. He fell down under a lamp post on the corner of Allenby- Hayarkon and a pool of blood collected around him. His sudden collapse seemed to have spoiled the chase and his pursuers looked disappointed, they stood there wondering what to do, they looked at each other to justify themselves, because they apparently wanted their vengeance to be just, and they began hitting him again, but the blows were already dull and they were looking for their anger.
            The Arab, who had perhaps fired a shot from Jaffa or who they thought had fired a shot, lay like a thing without moving. Because they felt cheated by his quick death they tried to give a rhythm to their blows, as if the musical side of the lynch could connect this blood to some noble idea. The Arab cheated them, the blood looked like any other blood, someone stood and shouted as if he were conducting an orchestra, “Now you!” , “Now you!”
            Not far from there stood a Jewish policeman, studiously reading the notices on the wall next to my uncle Henyu’s photography shop. I went over and begged him to do something. He pretended that he didn’t know what I was talking about. His back shook a little with the pounding of the blows, but he didn’t try to stop them. In the end, when my nagging got on his nerves he said: Look here mama’s boy, look here arse-licking Arab-lover, what’s over there on the sidewalk is already good and dead, a few more punches aren’t going to change a thing.       
            I went away and approached the man. He was curled up like a foetus, his body was battered and his teeth were rolling around the sidewalk. There was a fat woman standing next to me and shouting angrily, and when she lost patience with the sweating men, who were breathing heavily and punching unenthusiastically, she stamped her foot and ran towards the Arab. Her other foot tripped on the curb and she stumbled. She managed to regain her balance, there was an expression of pain on her face, she stood up and tried to yell but all that came out of her mouth was a gasping croak. With angry despair she looked for her voice and she tripped again. And then, limping, almost falling, she approached the group around the Arab, seized a short man bending down next to him by his hair, dragged him away, kicked a few teeth into the street, went down on all fours, crouched over the Arab, her huge backside covering his body, forced his dying mouth open, spat into it, stood up and began hobbling across the street, screaming, piss on him, why don’t you piss on him?!
            I came closer to try to do something but they laughed at me, the man’s already dead, and my friends, who’d seen me going up to the policeman without getting anywhere, didn’t want to interfere. I began walking away, I wanted to be alone. I heard a police siren and I turned in the direction of the beach. The moon was full and in the elusive light the frothing waves looked suave and menacing at once. I leaned on the rusty railing of the promenade, I could hear music, I tried to cry to the sea but the tears pricked under my eyelids and refused to come out.
            I walked home along the beach. Sarah saw at once from my face that something was wrong and she asked what had happened. I didn’t answer, I went into the lavatory and vomited and returned to the room. She fixed me with her suspicious look, and asked me why I was so pale and what had happened to me. I told her that I had seen Jews lynching an Arab. Sarah stood up in a panic and asked if I had been hurt, I won’t sleep a wink tonight, she said in her punishing tone, full of misery and tragedy, I was tired and hurt by her tone, the tears I had been keeping in since the sea advanced to the forefront of my eyes. I yelled at her, but she kept on, she couldn’t understand what was happening to me, she didn’t want to understand, her son’s health which might have been harmed enraged her, she said, you shouldn’t have gone there! I said, how dare you, what kind of person are you, a man was lying there dead, they were kicking his teeth in, a woman spat in his mouth! And Sarah said, I’ve seen rows of dead men twice in my life, don’t you preach to me, bad things happen, why didn’t you think of others too? You could have been hurt!
            Suddenly Moshe, that quiet man locked into the sequence of his habits, stood up and touched me. It was a gesture of intimacy that I had not known before. He said, human beings don’t do things like that! And he stared at the sea framed in the window where a sea was sailing towards the harbour. It’s a shame and disgrace, Sarah! Bastards! He looked pale, as if he was standing on the brink of an abyss, and he looked right into me until he reached the dead Arab, and then he turned to Sarah and said, he’s a big boy and he witnessed a tragedy.
            In the war, after my friends had died next to me, my CO decided to send me home on a day’s leave. An armoured vehicle was going down to Tel Aviv to fetch someone, there was a siege and there were no cars or buses on the roads. We drove along the route that was later to become the Burma Road, I sat huddled up and I didn’t move. Moshe and Sarah were astonished to see me. I sat on a chair for twenty-four hours. I didn’t eat, my clothes were blood-stained, I sat staring and silent. Sarah said, Moshe, he has to talk, tell him to talk! And my father raised his voice and said loudly, he’ll talk when he’s got something to say! He came up to me, stood over me and said, with a sudden generosity aroused in him by Sarah’s words, more against her than for me, but I didn’t care, keep quiet as long as you like! And poor Sarah asked me if I was angry with her and if I still loved her and if I didn’t know what terrible nights she endured. I looked at her, I remember that I didn’t know exactly who she was and why she was bothering me. I didn’t move. I was dazed and isolated and she sat opposite me and tried to fish for words and I clenched my lips and kept quiet. She didn’t know in her pain what shellshock meant. She was made of iron and hard bread, I was made of wax. After twenty-four hours I went to the central bus station, the armoured car was waiting for me and we drove off.
            Moshe wasn’t born in Berlin. Real German Jews are born in Eastern Europe, not in Berlin. Moshe was born in Tarnopol, a medium sized town in Galicia in the Ukraine, to a family whose men had served as counselors to the Cossacks for generations, even before 1780, when they were conquered by Catherine the Great. One of Moshe’s ancestors was the counselor to the Hetman Mazeppa, and since he didn’t know how to ride a horse he was given the name which in Ukranian means rockinghorse. After the defeat in the battle of Poltava in l781, they settled in Tarnopol, then a town wide open to the plains and forests, where they built the only fortified synagogues in Europe. Moshe who was taken to see these divine fortresses was not impressed, but to the day he died he was a great expert on the synagogues of Galicia and especially of Tarnopol which he hated. His elder brother Dov was contemptuous of Jewish weakness and spoke of revolution and the blessed withering away of the Jews in the world of the future. He was an idealist, a Yeshiva student who had left the fold and been influenced by the Russian revolutionary movements. And Moshe loved him but didn’t trust him, and took part in the activities of the Zionist youth movement because they spoke German there. He liked watching the bored Austrian soldiers decked out in their finery, who hunted ducks next to the Austrian forts dotted along the border and saw to it that German was spoken in the schools. He was enviously fascinated by the bored, indifferent, aristocratic strength of the Hapsburg officers of the Imperial army, which attracted him more than Dov’s ardent and sweaty revolutionaries with their slogans and speeches about how they were going to overturn the corrupt regime. Moshe didn’t dream of crushing the regime. When he was still a pupil in the cheder he had secretly built a model of the Empress Theresa’s carriage, and yearned to be embraced by the Emperor. He was a brilliant student and his teachers predicted a great future for him, but he would run away from the Yeshiva and sit on the river banks and watch the Austrian soldiers, who looked at him with arrogant contempt, and he admired their contempt, he measured it, he needed it, what he wanted was to be an Austrian soldier who could scorn someone like him.
            Mordechai, Moshe’s father, was a baker and quite a wealthy man. From his youth and till his dying day Moshe hated dogmas, he didn’t believe in absolute truth or justice. He left the Yeshiva and went to study at a German gymnasia, and he took music lessons. I couldn’t understand the connection between the Jewish advisors and the Cossacks and when I asked him about it he smiled and said, one thing’s sure, they didn’t need advice in interpreting the Talmud!
            Moshe, who liked hearing stories about his distant uncles who searched for God, and one of them even had himself buried standing up so as to be the first to see the coming of the Messiah, was suspicious of the family madness, despised it, but at the same time was attracted by it. He was a chess-player, not a gambler. His mind worked like a clock, not like a maker of clocks. My grandfather was a descendent of the Frankists who followed the false Messiah and the story of the naked Rabbi’s wife who rode naked through the town was told to Moshe with not a little pride. But Moshe’s mother was descended from the philosopher-rabbi Nachman Krochmal. His grandfathers on his mother’s side sat stern-faced and denounced the lost buffoons dancing round the Torah scrolls and desecrating their harsh, strict, anguished faith. When the Rabbi of Ladi stole shofar blasts from the Maggid of Koznitz in order to decide the fate of the Jews during Napoleon’s siege of Moscow, Moshe, in this divided story, was torn between the two families, the shofar-blasts of the two rabbis. He held them both in contempt. But he also dreamt about them with a secret, hidden emotion.
            One day my uncle Dov and my father went to visit a young girl with whom Dov was in love and they saw her house go up in flames. Through the shining flames they saw the girl swaying, trying to get out, while the pogromists drinking from the bottles they held in their hands poured kerosene on the flames and prevented her from escaping. My father tried to fight them and was beaten up. Somewhere or other, I know the place inside myself, he also admired the freedom of these bastards to knock him down. His compassion was no greater than his feeling that he belonged both to the burned and the burners.
            Moshe brought with him from Galicia his great love of Germany and its culture, but with him, in contrast to his German-Jewish Yekke friends, his feelings for German culture were the result of falling in love, not love. He wasn’t born to it. He gave birth to himself into it. He was glad when the war broke out because he could serve in a German-speaking army. And on the other hand, on the side of the family madness and blood, as an Ostjude he regarded with not a little contempt the reform temples and synagogues with their organs, the German Jews of the Mosaic faith praying in German according to Luther, he saw the absurdity of the dictum “Be a Jew at home and German outside,” but he also lived by it.
            Moshe graduated from the German gymnasia with distinction and enlisted in the Austrian army. He was soon promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. After his commanding officer was killed he fought at the head of a company. In spite of the disgrace of his Jewishness, his fearlessness inspired the admiration of his men. During one of the battles he discovered his father on the other side. Tarnopol had been conquered and changed hands many times, and during one of the conquests the older men too had been forcibly conscripted into the Russian army, and my father and his father stood facing each other on opposite sides of the firing line. Some time after I returned from the war, when I was still limping, I said something which angered him, and he told me how he had stood aiming his gun and suddenly his father was standing in front of him with a gun trembling in his hands. He told me that because he didn’t fire he was court martialed but not punished. He looked angry when he told me this story. He thought disobedience was wrong. His free spirit respected laws and constraints. He quoted some philosopher, perhaps it was Hegel, who claimed that the thief steals in order to be caught, he liked quoting Lessing who wrote that not everybody who scorns chains is free of them. To this day I’m convinced that he did fire his gun and only afterwards discovered that his father was standing on the other side. In New York, in her son-in-law’s antique shop, among the old copperware and the chandeliers stolen from ruined churches in Germany after the Second World War, my aunt Bluma said to me angrily: That Moishe, he once shot at his own father, he had a gun and he shot it, his father shouted don’t shoot and he shot anyway, he obeyed orders but afterwards he cried, what a sweet bastard he was!
            At the end of the war Moshe left the town of his birth and travelled to Berlin. In Berlin, Heidelberg and Leipzig he buried his youth. From l918 to 1927 he studied in Heidelberg and Berlin. To support himself he taught Hebrew to assimilated Jews who wanted to amuse themselves with their ancient and romantic past. Sometimes he stood in the Kurfurstendamm and played Viennese waltzes on a cheap violin. He played behind the screen in the silent movie theatres too. In fact, Moshe was a student who didn’t study and a beggar who boasted of his fine German and the medals he had won in the war. One day he heard Huberman playing Bach’s second violin concerto, and he decided that since he was unable to attain such perfection it wasn’t worth trying to play at all. But that’s only part of the story. The part Sarah liked remembering and Moshe liked making jokes about.
            The truth is that in spite of the fact that Moshe had perfect pitch, his playing was astonishing in the baker’s home in Tarnopol, not in Berlin. Poor Moshe was beaten by Berlin even before the fateful encounter with Huberman. His renunciation was also something that he had no choice but to accept. The decision that if you’re not a genius you’re out of the game smacks of arrogance and pretension, and Moshe knew this, and he laughed at himself. He could easily have become a violinist in some philharmonic orchestra, or even in a string quartet, and played the last Beethoven quartets he loved so much. But what was lost in the confrontation with Huberman was the fantasy as opposed to the uncompromising absolute. Because if he couldn’t win and be the best, he would have to begin from the fact of failure. He wanted to fail by himself and because of himself. The man who was almost born in a bakery told his friends in the Zionist cells where he taught Hebrew that he was learning to be a baker to prepare himself for immigration to Palestine, and they believed him.
            He was a good mathematician, and on the inflationary stock exchange, when a bowl of soup could cost billions of marks, he registered the rates of exchange and received a percentage. Sometimes, when he was too tired to write he would fill in the gaps with the telephone numbers of his many girlfriends. Nobody knew if this story was really true, but they liked telling it anyway. He enjoyed giving his well-heeled friends the impression that he had a vast, mysterious life on the side. They had wealthy parents, he had a remote shtetl in Galicia which he refused to remember. He sold his friends Zionism but the seriousness of his own commitment was in doubt. Of all the young people then Moshe was the most hesitant candidate for emigration to Palestine. His love for Germany was poisonous, painful and ridiculous. He told his friends that his parents were dead and that he was an only child. The rising star in Zionist circles, where Moshe stood out in his knowledge of Hebrew and in the fact that he would never emigrate to Palestine, was Haim Arlozorov. They became friends. My father liked the brilliant, profound Arlozorov, and they would sit and quote the poems of Stefan George to each other and argue. He had wealthy friends who wanted to understand Judaism which for them was something remote and exotic. They came from assimilated homes and were looking for a psychological and spiritual adventure. Out of boredom or curiosity they were drawn to Zionist circles which were then intellectual debating societies.
            And Moshe loved Lily, the wife of his close friend Ernst, and Lily, who was as fragile as a dry thorn, loved him. Everyone knew that he was the love of her life and she was the love of his, but nothing happened between them. He was afraid of himself, perhaps his feelings of inferiority were a kind of terrible pride, and he “lent” Lily, as it were, to her husband, who really loved him and wasn’t in the least jealous. Perhaps he did it so that through the husband, who he thought would always be a transient figure in the love he wanted to believe was eternal, she would always remain his. Moshe lived in bitter contradictions and he had a circle of German acquaintances whom none of his close friends knew. Cheap painted girls to whom he played the guitar in dim bars and cafיs on the fringes of the city, and in the middle of all that sordid squalor he stood like an idiot and with East European fervour, in the German of a shoe shine boy turned king, sang Lieder by Schumann and Schubert.
            Through them he met petit-bourgeois Germans for whom he played at their lewd parties. Once Herman, a friend of his, went to look for Moshe. A Jewish poetess, who Moshe knew and who claimed that she was a reincarnation of Pharaoh and was about to walk across some sea, because she had mixed up the biblical Moses with Jesus, had fallen ill and asked for Moshe to play her the requiem he sometimes played, which might have been an adaptation of Mozart’s Requiem for the guitar. Herman arrived at a large apartment, women were crawling naked on the floor trying to pick up nuts in their mouths between candles stuck in candlesticks, according to the description which Moshe, who at moments like these showed a cunning none of his friends would have recognized, quoted from a document describing how in October 1501 Pope John XIII invited fifty prostitutes to his quarters in the Vatican, and after supper, in the presence of his bastard son and daughter they danced, and the women stripped and nuts were scattered among candles on the floor, and the whores were commanded to crawl between the candles and pick up the nuts in their mouths without touching the candlesticks. Herman was shocked. Moshe smiled. He sat on the sidelines, playing the wily clown in the court of a corrupt Pope, and played his guitar to the enthusiastic audience who applauded and tried to grab the buttocks of the girls. Moshe said to Herman, these are my relations, Pope John XIII was born in Tarnopol! When two hours later he played his adaptation for the guitar of Mozart’s Requiem he was a different person, said Herman, he was gentle and dreamy and wise. The poetess wept. The others wept too. They didn’t know what kind of hell I brought him from, said Herman.
Copyright © Yoram Kaniuk. English translation copyright © 2010 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature


Yoram Kaniuk, one of Israel`s leading writers, was born in Tel Aviv in 1930. After being wounded in Israel`s 1948 War of Independence, he moved to New York for 10 years. A novelist, painter and journalist, Kaniuk has published 18 novels, a memoir, six collections of stories, three books of non-fiction and five books for children and youth. He has been awarded many literary prizes, including the Ze`ev Prize for Children`s literature (1980), the Prix des Droits de l`Homme (France, 1997), the President`s Prize (1998), the Bialik Prize (1999), the prestigious Prix Mediterranee Etranger (2000), the Book Publishers Association`s Gold Book Prize (2005), the Newman Prize (2006) the Kugel Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2008) and the France- Israel Foundation Award (2010). A feature film based on Adam Resurrected, directed by Paul Shrader, was released to critical acclaim in 2008. Kaniuk`s books have been published abroad in 20 languages. 

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