By Nekoda Singer
Originally written in Russian
Translated from Hebrew by the author with Gabriel Levin
An ancient Czech legend recounts that in the time of King Ladislaus II, in the Golden City of Prague, near the Royal Palace, hard by the Powder Tower, there lived the royal weaver Kokot with his wife and children. He toiled all day long, sighing without cease, and at night he paced to and fro, his footsteps resounding off the walls and the floor in his home. For Kokot’s heart was heavy and his mind burdened by a puzzle he could not solve. In his youth he had learned from his father that his grandfather, who had also been a royal weaver under the previous king, had bequeathed to his grandson Kokot a pot of gold coins which his ancestors had saved up by the sweat of their brow . The grandfather had concealed the pot, and on his death bed had revealed the secret to his son. But before Kokot reached manhood, villains had lured his father to Streletsky Island, where he had been tortured in an attempt to extract from him his secret. The poor fellow died and took the secret with him to the grave. The lawful heir spent many sleepless nights searching for his inheritance, but all in vain.
One stormy, wintry night in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 1505 — so the tale runs — a barefoot and ragged, long-bearded old man knocked at the door of Kokot’s home, and introduced himself as Joseph. The elderly Joseph didn’t tell Kokot where he came from, he only asked whether he might be sheltered for the night. The royal weaver pitied the elderly beggar, fed him cheese and beer, and prepared for him a bed in his workroom. All the while the guest kept peering every which way, as if trying to recollect something he had seen long ago. The next morning, the grateful stranger asked his host for a spade and to step out with him into the yard. He then strode a few measured steps from the wall and instructed his host to dig. Kokot struck the ground with his spade two, three times, and soon enough his spade rang against a flat stone covered by a thin layer of earth, which when pushed aside revealed a hollow space. Need I add that it was there that the pot of gold coins had been hidden? Joseph informed his host that many years before he had come to Prague on the very same stormy day and a kind weaver had sheltered him in the very same house, and he, Joseph, had had helped him bury this very same pot of coins, intended for his grandson. Kokot was overjoyed, and ran to show the treasure to his wife and children, and when they had calmed down — so the tale runs — they found that the old man Joseph had vanished into thin air. No one ever saw him in Prague after that day. Joseph, after having refused to help the suffering Jesus on his doleful way to Cavalry, had been doomed to wander the four corners of the world in abject poverty, waiting for the Last Judgment and atoning for his terrible sin, by revealing buried treasures to the destitute.
But how many virtuous persons exist in this world who have never failed to help their fellow man? Or has something fundamental changed in the world order because the one who was spat on the face was endowed with special powers, that is to say, was able, in spite of his angelic tenderness and compassion towards all living creatures, to respond to the offender by casting the evil eye on him and cursing him to the high heavens? Has something changed? Have the billy-goats burst out singing and the lambs whistling? It is not our business, however, to discuss the world order, for otherwise one may be confronted with such paradoxes that the reader will question the author’s intellectual and moral dissoluteness, and give up reading. And this will sadden the author, since he did not intend to speak of God or of Caesar. He only wished to remind the reader that there was, as they say, such an uncanny occurrence in the Golden Prague of Ladislaus II.
Far more important and of far greater interest to the reader than deciding whether the world is a fair place or not, is the indisputable fact that four hundred and forty years later, on a rainy, snowless winter night, as a mighty storm brewed on a distant shore on some God-forsaken, disputed territory, administered — in accordance with the League of Nations mandate — by the Governor of His Majesty the King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there landed a group of illegal immigrants, and that this particular group included a young woman who suffered from a partial loss of memory.
Now the tale will speak of her, and not of the young kibbutz members, who’d covered with their own bodies the barbed wire stretched by the ever-so considerate British soldiers, in order to assure that the exhausted illegal immigrants wouldn’t have an easy time crawling on the earth from which, from this moment on, they would gaze up at the moon and the stars. Therefore, the author will not speak of these kibbutznikim, although he could certainly tell you a thing or two. But time is too short to speak of all that had happened in their lifetimes. A simple arithmetic: on the one hand, life, and on the other hand, all that we shall be recounting about it. See? Life already took over an entire life, and if we add to it the tale taking place during the same lifetime, the life, and with it the tale will terminate prematurely, before either attaining any sort of wholeness or integrity. Therefore, the author will neither speak of the young and brave kibbutz members, nor of all the thirty-six immigrants from that ship; he will simply ignore them, just like he ignored countless details in presenting the legend of the royal weaver Kokot and the Eternal Jew Joseph. We will learn something, even if, to be perfectly honest, not a whole lot, only about one particular young woman, even if the fate of each and every other kibbutz member is no less amazing, of course, and the number thirty-six certainly fascinates and intrigues us.
The woman suffering a partial loss of memory did not have in her possession any documents apart from a letter of recommendation from a certain Dr. Mlynek to a professor Bodenheimer, a letter which did not explicitly contain, however, any recommendation. Dr. Mlynek simply sent greetings to his old Viennese friend professor Bodenheimer and reported to him that he was still alive. She had no memory of her name, nor could she remember her family or any relations. And yet she remembered Jeruzalemska street in Prague, being certain that the city was indeed Prague, and that the street, awash in bright summer light, was indeed Jeruzalemska street, which led to the small park near the train station. She also remembered the Powder Gate, the crisp sound of its Czech name “Prashnabrana,” its flamboyant turret, which in her mind’s eye she always saw emitting clouds of smoke and wrapped in a fragrant haze. But she had no recollection whatsoever of where she had lived until the Germans left. She had apparently been hiding somewhere since she had no camp number tattooed on her thin forearm. In her mind, moreover, the aggravating memory of having once belonged to some sort of strange group kept surfacing, as if someone unrecognizable, but who might have been, say, her great-uncle, were saying “we” and “people like us,” in referring to himself and to some other people, who were for her complete strangers, all the while knocking his pipe over the dying embers in the hearth, and at the same time he seemed at an infinitesimal distance from being recognized by her, not, as one might say, at arm’s length, but rather across the divide of onionskin paper. This paper she recalled perfectly, it covered an illustration in a book, and the book itself as well as the illustration in it must have cohabited the memory of the unrecognizable great-uncle — thousands of miles away from the onionskin paper drawn by the power of static and clinging tightly to the illustrated page. In Ostrava hospital, where she spent a few days, Czech and German words and whole phrases would now and then emerge from the past. But neither one tongue nor the other was restored to her, even though she was able to understand and respond to the people around her, using what little knowledge she possessed. She was told that apparently she was Jewish. “Look for your kind,” advised Dr. Mlynek. “Perhaps someone will remember you in Prague or in Palestine.” She arrived in Prague on foot and went to the synagogue on Jeruzalemska Street, without recognizing a thing. There she met Uzi, who shepherded young people to a place he breathlessly called “Eretz Yisrael” — down the Danube to Constanta in Romania, and from there by sea. She was furnished with a name: “Ruth,” which she herself chose from a dozen proposed by Uzi.
No one recognized her in Kibbutz Degania. The speed with which she acquired her new, third, language, however, surprised her teachers. Irma Singer, who wrote stories for the children of the kibbutz, said she envied her Hebrew pronunciation: “Tov meódd”, not like her Yekkish one: “toff meót”. But the author is determined not to spend too much time talking about Miriam Singer, though she certainly deserves no less attention than our heroine, and he would undoubtedly have something to say about her, starting with the fact that she had two names: Irma and Miriam, and that Franz Kafka himself took note of her first published fairy tale, and that Karel Polacek... No, indeed, it is the narrator’s privilege to trim all that is not absolutely necessary!
Therefore we will not mention Kibbutz Degania again, and instead we will turn our attention to Jerusalem, as one bright morning Ruth left the kibbutz and traveled to the city of Zion. Now she had a document of sorts issued by the kibbutz in the name of Ruth Israeli. This paper wasn’t suitable for the mandatory authorities, but together with the letter by Dr. Mlynek it made its possessor seem somewhat more real than before. In addition, having had enough to eat in the kibbutz, Ruth Israeli had put on some weight and become, in the words of Irma, more like a living person, “domá le-ish chai.”
Alas, that very day Professor Bodenheimer had departed for Lausanne to attend the International Congress on the History of Natural Sciences. That is why such a remarkable zoologist falls out of our history, as if the author has nothing to say about him, which really is not so, since the professor’s birth had even been duly noted in a congratulatory letter from none other than Dr. Herzl himself. But we have no choice, we must abandon not only Dr. Herzl and Max Isaac Bodenheimer Sr., who received the letter, but the professor as well, who in infancy was christened, like Irma Miriam, with two names that had little in common: Friedrich and Shimon — though it was his study that disproved the biblical critics’ allegation of an anachronism in the book of Genesis where camels are referred to as domesticated animals. In the end, accepting the invitation to the Congress and traveling for the first time to post-war Europe, Professor Bodenheimer voluntarily steps out of our tale in which he otherwise might have played a more active role.
Ruth spent the night in the hospice Tiferet Tzion v’Yerushalayim in the Mahane Yehuda quarter, opposite the souk. Before the war this building erected by the master-builder Shapiro, had been a four-floor high-rise surmounted by a two-floor tower with a solar chronometer, which the local inhabitants continued to call “The Clock Building,” even though the clock caught fire, and consequently freed the new immigrants spending the night in the two bottom floors from the need to think of time. In the morning, at breakfast — for “Tiferet Tzion” provided a breakfast of bona fide black tea and dark brown bread — a fellow lodger who’d been snoring terribly at night told Ruth that ten years before the building had resembled the Prague City Hall, “like two peas in a pod.” he gazed at a photograph of the latter over the receptionist’s desk. “Just look, look at it!” Before leaving, Ruth looked closely at the picture, but not a single memory was roused.
Ruth had to find some way to remain in Jerusalem, otherwise she would be forced to return to the kibbutz. She decided to to visit the Jewish Agency. The guard at the hospice told her to walk straight through the souk, crossing through the neighborhoods of Zichron Tuvia, Shivat Tzion, Nahalat Achim, Shaare Tzedek and Rehavia. The souk was bustling with activity. A dirty, ragged old man, wandered from stall to stall, extending his shaky bony hands toward the vegetables and clucking into his long, shaggy beard: “Ko-Ko, Ko-Ko!” The merchants drove him away: “Hey, Yoséf, get outta here! Get lost, Professor!”
Undoubtedly you will ask, how could Jews insult and drive out their decrepit, poor fellow tribesman, as if they have forgotten the laws of mercy and charity, and countless touching and instructive stories told on this painful subject by our righteous sages? You may even question the author’s credibility and suspect him of distorting reality and falsifying evidence. “Where have you seen such things? Where did the author witness such an outrageous example of callousness?” But we have no time to be distracted by the solution of such a conundrum. No, the author is certainly not trying to escape from his duty to answer such legitimate questions; it’s just that he is too occupied by what occurred before his very eyes. And what he sees is that this unsound elderly gentleman is staring at Ruth Israeli with his faded sunken eyes, as if he had recognized her, as if he were remembering not only her, but the whole tale, in which he himself had been involved in a faraway land, in the olden days. He stares at her, and his gray tremulous lips move. If we now strain our ears, it seems that we just might grasp his words and understand his cackling speech. And we must try. We must make every possible effort to understand them, because the old man is saying something very important. “Pani Ko-kotova, at last, how ca-ca-can it be!” — this is what the decrepit Joseph says. There is certainly nothing special in the fact that we have begun to understand his words, since the author has deliberately arranged things for us in such a way that we shall not trip him up, nor shall we be disappointed in ourselves; one might say that he makes sure that we behave as he intended. What is truly remarkable, however, is that Ruth Israeli herself begins to understand Joseph’s slurred speech. Not only does she distinguish in his cackling individual words and phrases; she suddenly recognizes her name: Kokotova. Like onionskin paper lifted by a sudden gust of wind from a picture in an unknown book, she seems to see for a split second the interior of a room from a long forgotten life, and anonymous people, etched into copper. The picture remains for her blurred, but she manages to feel that to the now familiar name Ruth Israeli, to her illegal document from the kibbutz, and the useless letter from Dr. Mlynek, has been added something new and of paramount importance, which henceforth will help her stay on her feet and retain her balance, rather than being blown away by the slightest gust of wind.
Joseph is not homeless, as you might think. He lives in the neighborhood of Nahalat Achim in a hovel added on to a large white house on Zippori Street. Ten years ago, during the riots, his cobbler’s shop in the Old City, which he’d inherited from his father, was razed to the ground. Fortunately, he himself was at the time wandering through Turkey and the Balkans. All traces of destruction in the quarter were carefully removed, and the neighbors even had time to celebrate the Cherikovers’ eldest daughter’s wedding. During the seemingly infinite length of his life he had been so accustomed to returning to this shop that the sight of a vacant lot where his shop had once stood brought on a stroke, which failed, however, to kill him. He left the hospital with his speech and memory partially impaired. And in the memory of those who knew him he was also only partially preserved — to them he remained an eccentric old man without any life-experience to speak of whom they nicknamed “Professor”. He himself remembered very little and in only the vaguest way, and whatever he did succeed to recall was of absolutely no importance. For example, he recalled that for many years he was engaged in collecting the folklore of Spanish refugees, but his mind retained only two words: “por favor”. What had he done in Turkey and the Balkans? Looking for something, for someone, in order to repent for something. From time to time it seemed to him that he had lived countless lives, and therefore he was immensely tired and his mind confused everything. He could not return to the Old City. A lonely, old Yemenite woman sheltered him in her illegally built hut, and she even began to talk of the bridal canopy under the Law of Moses and Israel, but suddenly, one night, she passed away, holding Joseph’s hand and passionately whispering to him some unconvincing stuff about a treasure hidden in the house. For ten years he was haunted by the wild whisperings of the old Yemenite about the mystery of this same hovel, in which he continued to live, because neither the neighbors nor the city authorities had enough leisure time to evict him and demolish the illegal building extension, one of many in the neighborhood that burgeoned like mushrooms after rain.
When Joseph saw Ruth there was a vague flow of clarity in his muddled mind, as if from the stone wall surrounding him on all sides, one small pebble had suddenly been removed, and from the crack flowed a trickle of clear water.
“The professor’s granddaughter has arrived from Europa,” Hannah from Kurdistan announced to all the inhabitants on the street, watching them from the balcony.
Joseph slept on a long, wooden synagogue bench inside his hovel, and Pani Kokotova-Israeli slept on the tin-covered chest, which the old Yemenite had used for a bed . A large, plywood box passed for a table, and an empty kerosene canister from the “Shell” company served as the only chair. My intention here, in describing such abject poverty, is not to demoralize the reader, but rather to create the effect of credibility. For everything else that the author is about to recount in the conclusion of this tale, is going to be quite incredible and even of an implausible nature.
Joseph, filled with joy by the slow recovery of the Czech language, told Ruth, whom he called Martina, that there was one last treasure he had to uncover and pass into the hands of the needy. This mystery fell upon him so suddenly, when all he had hoped for was the quiet, peaceful end of his life. Ah, these Yemenites! If they can’t live without secrets, they should keep them to themselves! He had suffered for a whole decade. But now he was so glad, so glad! Pani Martina will ask the neighbors for a pick or a spade, on the pretext, say, that she wants to plant a vegetable garden in the courtyard, nowadays many folks are managing such gardens on their tiny plots of land. And at night, when no one is awake to interfere, she will demolish the rotten wall facing the east. Old Naomi hid there something, something which she did not have time to tell him about. Maybe gold, maybe gems - these Yemenites can’t live without secrets.
And so it happened that that very same treasure was indeed Joseph’s last treasure. The old man died in the early morning hours. That same morning, solemn-looking officials from the funeral society, dressed in black, removed the body of the “professor”. The funeral took place in the afternoon. At night, Ruth began to pry into the east wall of the hovel, confident that behind this wall a long tunnel would reveal itself and lead her to her previous life. In this new life she would immediately recognize both people and the scenery, and all the links between disparate parts of a whole, something which no one had ever succeeded in doing. The word “Prashnabrana,” for example, would connect syllable by syllable directly with dozens, hundreds of other words that were void of meaning in the past, and from such links countless new sounds would diverge and run in every possible direction, seeking to bond with the same infinite variety of sounds, words and meanings. And henceforth neither gold nor gems would have any value.
After a dozen blows, a lump of damp clay fell from the wall and opened a secret compartment, in which old Naomi had hidden her father’s trade license for a stand in the souk of Sana’a, as well as his marriage contract, written in his own hand.
Time marched on, inexorably, or, at least, so it seemed to most observers. The United Nations consulted and conferred, and decided what it decided. The War of Independence came to an end. The Old City remained in the hands of the king of Jordan, along with the old cobbler’s shop where Joseph was born and raised. Irma Miriam Singer tried a number of times to inquire about Ruth Israeli, but all her attempts failed. Professor Bodenheimer heard nothing of her. There now lived in the renovated mud extension of the white house on Zippori street a family of Iraqi refugees blessed with offspring — seven souls occupying thirty square meters.
If this story had fallen into the hands of some experienced journalist, one of those who write in the Saturday supplement about complex human destinies and other vicissitudes of life, he would have titled his article: “The Circle is Now Closed,” and readers would have been left completely satisfied, uttering a few meaningful phrases, of the kind that never mean anything, like “God works in mysterious ways,” and adding a few interjections as well, starting with “phew” and “indeed,” and “hoity-toity,” and “well-well-well,” and “my foot,” and ending with some fragmentary sounds, before they forgot all about the article. But the author recounting this particular story is aiming higher. He has set out to sow into the reader’s soul some doubt, some distrust of the tale, which he himself has written. He does this, it must be said, by applying prohibited methods — deliberately displacing certain details, so that all meaningful connections are lost, and so too all credibility is undermined. For example, it is not at all clear who this Martina Kokotova is, and how, moreover, she might be related to the royal weaver Kokot. Who is she to him: a daughter, a great-great-great-and-so-on-granddaughter from the seventeenth generation? Perhaps his wife? For he had been married to a Pani Kokotova, and since over the years and centuries the whole story runs rather oddly, who can declare that this Martina is not the same person, lost in time? How else would the old man recognize her if he had not been to Prague since the sixteenth century? But on the other hand, neither the royal weaver, nor his wife, apparently, was Jewish. All we know about Ruth Israeli, however, are nothing but assumptions, though seemingly very likely assumptions, just like the ones about the family of the weaver. Where did it say that he was a Christian? Or, for example, the old man Joseph — can he be considered a character from the Gospels, known in the apocrypha and in certain folk legends as The Wandering Jew, Ahasuerus, Kartophilos, and Buttadeus, or was he nothing more than the crazy son of the shoemaker Motke Praeger and Bolissa Raquel? None of us knows the right answer, nor will we ever know for certain. The author, of course, is well aware of our lack of knowledge, and he uses such incertitude to create a sort of hazy atmosphere. Here arises a legitimate question: Why does he need such an unhealthy atmosphere, which undermines the reader’s confidence in the events, and prevents him from wisely nodding and saying “Amen” to the narrator?
Hold on a minute! He just said that this tale (this one, ladies and gentlemen, this one, and no other!) would be perfectly acceptable as the presentation of some skilled journalist or another. Was he hinting that this journalist would distort the facts which are so difficult to understand, would rig something up for his own personal needs? Is it possible that this notorious author is able, without batting an eye, to encroach upon the good name of an honest professional? By the way, what is the journalist’s name? Whom did he choose as his target? If he means Gedalia Buchbinder, then you need to know. No, not Gedalia Buchbinder, of whom the author has neither time nor energy to speak of, though there are countless details about him that might interest us, in particular the fact that his essay in the pre-war Davar concerning the inhabitants of the Nahalat Achim quarter was entitled “What secrets does Naomi keep?” and referred to the old Yemenite from Zippori street. In short, Gedalia Buchbinder would not distort the facts, and the author knows it all too well. It is he himself who distorts everything, pursuing, as was already mentioned, his purely literary interest. This interest is to ever so slightly peel his story away from life, not to let it merge with life, but at the same time not to conceal it completely, just as when a sudden gust of wind loosens onionskin paper from an illustration that guards its secret. For a moment, it uncovers a corner, some people come and go in a flash, some objects flicker, we hear a couple of broken-off phrases — a reference to life or to the possibility of life, which neither he nor we are able to behold.
Originally written in Russian. Translated from Hebrew into English by the author with Gabriel Levin.
Copyright © Nekoda Singer 2013. Translation copyright © Nekoda Singer 2013.
“Treasure” is a story from Nekoda Singer’s new book, Drafts of Jerusalem.
Nekoda Singer was born in 1960 in Novosibirsk (Russia), and since1988 lives in Jerusalem. Artist, writer, translator. Together with Gali-Dana Singer he edits bilingual (Hebrew and Russian) literary e-zine Nekudataim - Dvoyetochie (Colon). Translator of the midrashic literature, novels by David Shahar and David Grossman, and dozens of pieces of contemporary and classic prose. Winner of Russia’s Nora Gal 2013 prize for translators of English literature for his translation of Costigan by Dennis Silk. Writes in Russian and Hebrew. Author of two books of prose in Russian: Tickets at the Box Office (Gishrei Tarbut, 2006), Drafts of Jerusalem (Russkyi Gulliver, 2013). His Hebrew prose is published in various Israeli magazines.