By Karin Heskia
Translated from Hebrew by Binyamin Shalom
Ever since my grandfather, Opa, came to live with us his room has been out of bounds. I am afraid of him and avoid being alone with him. He has the habit of carrying the black rubber flyswatter with him from room to room or from the porch out to the garden, and he strikes his own arms and knees fiercely, at the slightest notion that a fly might have landed there. Sometimes he hits the mark, sometimes he misses. But he receives the blows that he suffers at his own hands as some sort of heavenly punishment, a sort of ridiculous version of the biblical “let my soul perish among the Philistines”. At this moment the flyswatter, the Fliegenklappe, lies orphaned and alone on the nightstand, as though sleeping itself by the side of the alarm clock and the heavy platinum pocket watch that is connected by day via a fancy chain to his woolen pants.
On top of the engraved dresser in the corner of the room lie several albums. Some wicked demon urges me at this precise moment to randomly choose one of the photo albums. Its binding is made of wood and there are two copper ducks fastened to it. One of them has lost its beak during the course of its travels. I take the album and steal out of the room, taking care to close the door behind me ever so silently. I am not able to fall asleep from all the excitement. Taking something without asking permission – I never would have thought that I was capable of doing such a thing. By the sheaf of light that spills milky white from the nightlight I make the acquaintance of pictures I have never seen before. It seems like they are photos of my father. Here he is, a naked, smiling infant lying on his belly. I am not able to make out the curved handwriting but I do manage to decipher the years that pass quickly as I page through the album: 1910, 1920, 1925, 1930. Here is my father in a sports outfit being carried along on the shoulders of a group of exultant young men. Here he is in the company of a blond young woman. She isn't exactly a knockout, but she has such a pleasant, captivating face. My heart goes out to her. My hair is the same color as hers. Both my mother and father have dark hair. So does my sister. I have high cheekbones just like her and my legs are long just like hers. Do I have some sort of connection to this young woman? Who is she? There are more and more pictures of her in the album. Here she is in a modest, white bathing suit, or sitting on the grass with her legs crossed, waving to the camera. Here she is with a fair-haired young man, whose features are just as delicate as hers. And there's my father once more, with both of them now, the young woman in the middle, and the shining boy in their middle rises like a poplar tree with its fair foliage and trunk. Here she is once again, accompanied by Oma, who is holding her arm and shielding her eyes with her left hand, as though protecting herself from the sun.
I'm taking quite a risk, and that same night I return the album to its proper place.
Without my really noticing, from that point on a little ritual took shape. When Grandpa would be sitting in the garden lost in his reading I would steal into his room and borrow the album from its place. It was always the same one. I already gave the mystery girl a name – Gertie – so that I would have an easier time dreaming about her and weaving stories all around her.
In an indirect fashion, stories of the horrors that took place in Europe have reached my ears. Was Gertie one of the sacrifices offered up during that time? And if so, how come Grandma Salla hadn't told me about her? My mother's mother, Grandma Salla, has quite a few albums in her possession, and she is proud of the fact that she managed to gather photos of eight straight generations there. There are stuffed aunts memorialized when they were little girls, with long dresses full of ribbons, wearing lacework wide-brimmed bonnets keeping down a mountain of curls beneath, and there are uncles who look like young women, wearing leather hats with a showy feather stuck in the band. But there is no sign of Gertie anywhere in these albums. Over the course of time I dare to filch a photo from Opa's album, leaving four orphaned, empty corners on the black page, forming a dark square among them, in contrast to the page itself which has faded somewhat over the years. I chose my favorite picture: in it, Gertie is lying about in the grass, leaning on both her elbows, throwing her head back while she smiles at the anonymous photographer. She is so young, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old (my sister is already almost her age). One morning, as though absent-mindedly, I forget this photo of Gertie, which I had placed in the drawer of my desk for safekeeping, out on the little nightstand by my bed. When I return home from school I find my mother standing by my bed, with a dust cloth in her left hand and the photo in her right hand. My mother shines her bright smile in my direction as usual and is not at all angry. “I'm going to warm up the food for us,” she says, and puts the picture back in its place. She goes to leave the room and our eyes meet. The question is on the tip of my tongue but my lips pull back and refuse to let my tongue slip out. I hope that Mom will make it a little easier on me and bring the topic up herself, but she lives by the rule she set herself not to interfere in other people's private doings, so all the work of formulating the necessary questions falls to me. We sit facing each other and eat our food. Grandpa has eaten already and has lain down to rest. Dad hasn't returned home yet from work. The silence is deafening, even when she asks me the usual questions: What happened at school? How much homework do you have?
My mother takes my favorite dessert out of the freezer – rice balls frozen in milk – and she drizzles raspberry juice over it, as much for the color as for the flavor. I can't hold back anymore. “Mom,” I ask, “who is that?”
“You mean the girl in the picture? That's Clarechen, Dad's girlfriend from before the war, before he came to Israel.”
I am disappointed. There are no blood ties between us. I was really hoping that there were. I was so sure that they existed.
“And what is she up to now?” I ask, trying not to betray my disappointment.
“I don’t know,” my mother responds. “The truth is that I suggested to your father many times that he write to her, to tell her that he got married in the meantime, to invite her to maybe come over for a visit. But you know your father. When he is hurt, he is no longer able to get over the insult. He harbors resentments and can't forgive Germany and the Germans, he doesn't want any connection with any of the residents of his former homeland. And he includes Clarechen, along with her brother Rudolf, who was his close friend, in his general ire.”
“But what if she is still waiting for him? Germans, after all, take everything pretty seriously. Maybe he promised her he would return and she sees herself as being obligated to honor their vows?”
My mother smiles at me. “You are still so innocent. Such a little girl. Almost thirty years have passed since then. After the war, when she saw that your father didn't return to Germany, it's almost certain that she went ahead and got married. Don't take it so hard. People are just people and time heals all wounds.”
This explanation does not put my mind at ease. I can really sense Gertie, whom my mother refers to as Clarechen. She is close to my heart. I don't have a lot of friends my age, just as you would expect in the case of a shy, dreamy girl. Gertie is a soul mate, almost like Anna Karenina, Irina Prozorova, or Aida.
That is the only way that I can imagine this fateful farewell. Albeit there are other scenes that I can also imagine, but this time I am interested in focusing on the farewell scene, when the two leading characters in a tragic opera filled with pathos bid farewell to each other, as they head down the path of no return.
Gertie desperately clings to him, refusing to let him go. “Let me come with you,” she says to him, knowing that he will refuse. Karl doesn't even make any attempt to respond. Lost in rapid-fire thoughts, he presses her golden head to his chest and caresses her hair with a hard, veined hand. Her tears fall to his firm chest and it is as though they are absorbed by his heart, swollen with the force of the pain and fear. I compare the muscle of his heart to a balloon that has been filled beyond capacity and threatens to burst, break or explode, depending on the material. I mean, there are also some hearts that are made of stone or that function just like a bellows.
Only grand phrases, heroic words to suit the situation. That's why Karl offers her a well-known line that he has already come across in some book somewhere: “I have to go, my love. Darkness is my friend. The light of day is my enemy.” Gertie realizes the truth in his words, but the pain in her heart won't allow her emotions and her understanding to co-exist.
“Everything is ready for the journey. If I don't leave tonight my chances of getting away are nil. I promise you that if I escape safely I'll come back for you. I'll come back from the very ends of the earth. I won't let you go. You're mine. I've chosen you. My love is yours forever and ever.”
I know the speaker. He is an earthy, materialistic man. But the situation is so moving that it necessitates the use of lofty phrases. Deep down inside I am captivated by the farewell between Peer Gynt and Solveig, or even Ulysses and Penelope.
The farewell scene is interrupted by a soft knock at the windowpane. “That's Rudolf,” Karl says. “I must go. Don't make it harder for me, Gertie. As it is I'm all mixed up inside.”
He pushes Gertie away, slips her arms back and plants his lips on her tender neck. He gets dressed quickly by candlelight, outfitting his firm, flexible, feline form in a tracksuit. From an inner pocket of his jacket he pulls out a velvet-lined jewelry box containing a golden necklace. It is the final piece of finery he has bought his Gertie. He can hear her sobbing in a corner of the room as he hardens his heart, steeling himself for a new chapter in his life. He lifts his backpack onto his shoulder, holding a woolen ski cap in his left hand and wrapping around his neck the scarf that Gertie knitted, and it seems to him that her scent and her warmth will cling to it forever.
Forever? In a Europe shaken by something like an earthquake and girding itself for the onset of World War II? In a Germany that is literally vomiting him forth, that same country that just a year ago would ecstatically shout his name from the gallery as he flew down the slopes, leaving the Belgian, the Frenchman, the Dutchman, and all the German skiers in his wake – those who did not yet know the difference between an Aryan and a Jew. Now his fame was an obstacle for him. The Gestapo was on his trail because he had violated the racial laws. Had they chosen him to serve as some sort of symbol? Did they think that if they hit the darling of the Saarland all the others would suddenly cower?
Against my will I am forced to sweep Gertie from the stage and turn the spotlight on the two friends, Rudolf and Karl. I focus all the energy of my imagination on them, and see Karl, fit and brave, as the playful spark in his eyes dims somewhat. Could it be that he is discreetly brushing away a tear?
Rudolf holds him by the arm. “Come, Karl. It is getting late.”
“You're in uniform?” Karl suddenly fixes his gaze on his good friend, with his fair hair and pale eyes, about a half a head taller than him, as he silently admits to himself that Rudolf looks remarkably handsome in his SS uniform.
“It's better this way,” Rudolf murmurs shamefacedly, perhaps embarrassed that his friend might have interpreted his outfit as some sort of lack of consideration. But he has a ready explanation: “It's the perfect cover,” he says. In his hands he holds a suitcase that Karl left with him for safekeeping a while back, in an attempt to conceal his escape plans from everyone, even his parents.
Rudolf is at the wheel and Karl is staring out at the passing view. The dawn is breaking as though for him alone, illuminating the nooks and crannies of the forest, the mountain paths, revealing a little stream for a moment, then hiding it away once again between hill and dale. “Stop a second,” Karl requests, and leaps out of the vehicle, which is still swerving before coming to a complete stop. To his right there is a campground with two cottages standing side by side like dark-skinned twin brothers. Amazingly straight stone paths connect the two like the warp and woof of a woven mosaic. This is the national team's training center. The hand that brought him up and raised him to glory is now delivering a ringing slap across his cheek.
“Come on, Karl, there's no time,” Rudolf urges him softly and feelingly. The two friends stare into each other's eyes, fall into each other's arms, bury their heads in one another's breast, and then clap each other on the shoulder. “Come!”
And then silence falls once again in the car as they make their way to the port, quite a few miles from home.
Did Karl know that he was bidding farewell to the scenes of his birthplace for thirty long years?
Thanks to the SS uniform, Rudolf is able to pave the way for Karl everywhere they turn, removing all the bureaucratic barriers, even in detail-oriented Deutschland, concerned as the officials are with all items, great and small. So he easily boards the ship and accompanies his good friend Karl to his cabin, making sure that he has a comfortable bed and pleasant neighbors.
As I consider these people, I ask myself if the individual controls his destiny or if destiny controls the individual. Here is a man who was the very spitting image of his homeland, as they say, who was in the habit of making his way to school on skis, staining his shirts with forest flowers, accumulating many admirers among the girls with his fearless ski jumps, and competing with his friends to see who could swallow more cans of beer until they passed out, and one night he suddenly has to abandon Europe and go looking for a new homeland.
The ground is burning beneath his feet. Perhaps in Africa the long arm of the Gestapo will not be able to reach him. Should he head for the French Congo? Or maybe the Belgian Congo? Or for that matter Palestine?
After the army I learned to accept my femininity and like myself a bit more. My confidence grew. I was still shy, but I learned to deal with my shyness just as I learned to deal with the fierce crimson glow that would spread through my cheeks when I got the merest sense that some young man was giving me the eye. “The little duckling has turned into a swan,” my teacher said to me at a moving class reunion. My hair has grown a bit darker and turned a chestnut color. The color of my eyes has deepened to a dark green. Men grace me with piercing glances and fervently pursue me. I accept my parents' generous offer to travel to France and England for a few months, in order to polish the foreign languages that I already know all too well, though only passively.
I sail to Marseille. The trip truly stirs my excitement. Every wave and breaker bring me closer to the regions of my mother's and father's childhood, drawing me on into the field of the great love affair between Gertie and Karl. There is an exuberant group of young Jews on board the ship, who just finished a stint doing volunteer work on a kibbutz. They are finally getting the chance to make friends with a native Israeli. It seems that on the Kibbutz they didn't blend in very well and maintained their foreignness. They are glad to adopt me as one of their own, and for five days I become an integral part of their existence, and even learn to drink an aperitif before the meal, in the little bar in third class, just like a grown-up. In Marseille we exchange addresses and I continue my trip with two of the young men on the train to Paris. Robert, a native of Strasbourg, who has pursued me avidly, has a difficult time saying goodbye. He is ruddy with beautiful eyes, tall and well-mannered, although I have always imagined King David rather differently, and never thought of him as a particularly likeable character. Robert refuses to let me go, stubborn redhead that he is, and repeatedly phones the hostel where I have taken a room. A month later he comes for a visit and ends up staying over at my place for two nights, which causes me to lose sleep for quite a few days afterwards. Two or three weeks pass. The longing in my loins throws me off my regular schedule. I take the train to go and see him. In addition to the train ticket I also pick up a map of France, in order to estimate the distance to his house. To my surprise I discover that Strasbourg is just a stone's throw from Saarbrucken, the city where my father was born. The visions of the fateful love affair that I wove in my youth return and flood my mind with extreme force. My adolescent years have hardly dimmed them whatsoever. At that very moment, facing the map spread out across my trembling knees, I decide to try and track Gertie down, or Clarechen, to be more precise. Her family name is engraved in my memory: Boys. In the little café next to the train station, over a little white bowl of coffee, enjoying the flavor of the buttery croissant that dissolves in my mouth, I disclose my plan to Robert. He is excited by it and, the next day, requests three days off from work, using some excuse or other. We get into the white sports car that his mother lent us. It would seem that she has taken a liking to me if she agreed to let us borrow it. It is almost certain that my Jewishness plays a rather significant part in this. The rain has begun to fall as we cross the border and it prevents me from taking in the German scenery, which both threatens me and arouses my curiosity in equal measure. Robert tries to make conversation but I am filled with fear at the immediate future and hestops. He limits himself to placing his hand on my knee, in an attempt to lift my spirits.
We take a room in a little hotel in Saarbrucken. Robert is proud of the fluent German that trips easily off my tongue, without even the slightest foreign accent. He is in love and therefore rather forgiving of my mood swings, the waves of emotion and cowardice. We look through the phone book for the name Boys. We come across Max, Olaf and Joachim. But there is no Clare or Clara. At night I have a difficult time giving myself over to the pleasures that Robert has in store for my body. It is only my outer husk that lies in his hands. What is inside is somewhere far away. The owner of the hotel serves us breakfast in person. I carefully gauge his age and figure he must be about fifty-five or sixty. A little bit older than my father. I can't restrain my longing for Gertie anymore. I take a chance and ask the owner if he is a native of the area. He responds in the affirmative, sure that I am going to ask him for some address or other. He is in for a surprise as I ask him if he knows a Clara Boys and whatever happened to her. He is moved and the coffee pot trembles in his hands as drops stain the starched white tablecloth. He asks if he can join us at our table and asks us what our relationship is to Clara. I announce that I am a relative. But he doesn't let up and asks for details, digging deeper, trying to uncover my identity. I fall into his trap and introduce myself as the daughter of a Jewish refugee who escaped to Palestine. “Were you familiar with Karl Schoengarten?” I ask. “What do you mean?” he replies with emotion. He gets up from the table and points in the direction of some photographs hanging on the wall, as he takes my hand and leads me over there. As I stand before the pictures I have no trouble recognizing my father, dressed in a sports outfit, at the center of a group of jubilant athletes, holding a large trophy in his hands. “That's me,” says the owner, pointing at one of the young men. “And that's Karl.” This German man is so moved that I am afraid he may have a heart attack. We take a table next to the photographs and sit down, just the owner and me. Out of consideration, Robert leaves us alone with one another. The hotel owner holds his head in his hands.
“Ach, so etwas,” he murmurs. “So Karl is alive. And here we were all sure that he had been killed, since there was no other way to explain his silence. So many Jews returned to Germany, or at least came for a visit. And Karl of all people. You have no idea how fond we were of him. We were such good friends. Don't look at me that way just because I am German. We weren't all responsible for what happened. Look, both my sons are pacifists and didn't enlist in the army. My older son is learning to build organs and the younger one is studying theology at the university. And here we were sure that Karl was dead. Not a word. How can it be? You know Clarechen waited for him for years. She rejected all the suitors she had. She finally got married only ten years ago, and she was already too old to have children of her own. Her husband agreed to add her family name to his,” he continued, breathlessly, “so that his kids, whom he had had with his first wife, would continue to carry the name Boys, and keep her brother's memory alive. Ach, you're not even aware that Rudolf, her brother, was killed at the Russian front. But how could you know? Ach, what a tragedy that was. Such a wonderful boy. Perhaps the brightest boy raised around here. Forgive me, but I just don't understand Karl. How could he not have written us all these years, how could he not come to visit us? What, he doesn't care what happened to all his friends?” He gets up and goes over to the bar. I signal Robert to come over and join us. I am in such need of his presence. With his fine European manners he could sit off in the corner for another long while. But right now I need his benevolent, supportive eyes, his brave hand, its form still imprinted on my knee. He is wonderfully able to transmit warmth and feeling in his mere touch. What would I do now without him in this place?
With trembling knees the German man returns to our table with a bottle of cognac and several glasses. Robert responds to my silent call and joins us. Petrified and dissolving at the same time, I mumble to Robert that I will soon explain everything to him. I feel like I have turned to stone and have trouble skipping between time periods, leaping from the past to the present, and then diving back into the past. I am as moved as the innkeeper.
I don't know who or what we are toasting. The dead? The living? The joy of the encounter? The innkeeper pours a second glass for himself and Robert, but I turn it down. That's all I need right now: to get drunk as well. Life is intoxicating enough as it is.
“Clarechen and Max live in the suburbs, not far from town,” the owner informs us. “We can go see her in the afternoon, if you like, and I will prepare her for the meeting. It is going to be a shock for her. There's really no way of knowing how she will take the news.”
I knew, Gertie, I just knew. I understood you better than all the rest of them. Like some experienced fortune teller I read your inner secrets. Your heart was like a deck of cards laid out before my eyes.
Robert and I take a little stroll around the town. Without a map, without asking any of the passersby for any information, my legs take me to 16 Wilhelmgasse, and I find myself standing before the house where my father was born. I recognize the tree in whose shade Oma was photographed. The garden is well kept. There is a thorny Dornenkrone planted in one corner, with its fiery, red crown of flowers. Oma brought a cutting of that bush with her to Israel, and my mother planted one of its children's children in our garden. In another moment, I expect the front door to open and Oma will emerge with a warm plum cake in her hands and offer her granddaughter a thick slice.
I am suddenly assailed by weakness. Like an adopted daughter who is about to meet her birth mother and struggles with certain ethical questions – like how the adoptive parents will respond to the liberty that the daughter has taken upon herself, to arrange such a meeting without consulting with them first and tracking down the mother from whose womb she issued. The pictures in Opa's photo album flit before my eyes one after the other. Here is Gertie once more in the grass, laughing for all the – as yet unblemished – world to see, waving at me in greeting. Is she trying to turn me away from the front of her house? Perhaps I will be able to salvage the innocent expression on her face if I don’t share the real facts with her?
We return to the hotel and pack our things. Dad, you are already a big boy now. It is not for me to atone for your sins. The wheels of justice will turn towards the past or the future – who am I to interfere with their progress?
Copyright © Karin Heskia 2013
Karin Heskia lives in Tel Aviv and holds a Master of Theatre from Tel Aviv University. She has published articles on Chekhov, Hanoch Levin and Yosef Bar Yosef, and co-authored the book, Experiencing Theatre: Introduction to Drama and the Theatre, presently on the curriculum of the Open University of Israel. She has published two books of short stories, as well as stories in literary magazines. She is retired from the Open University where she worked as a scientific editor for 33 years, and continues to work as a freelancer.