By Henri Raczymow
Translated from French by Robert Bononno
I know nothing about Konsk.
In winter, on the outskirts of Konsk, there were wolves. And therefore forests.
Simon and his sister Matl got around in a wagon and held lit torches to scare away the wolves. The horse balked, refusing to take a step further. Sometimes an eagle approached. The children clapped their hands.
I know nothing about Konsk.
Winters were hard. Even under the thick quilt it was cold. The mothers rubbed their children’s feet to warm them. Then the men returned from the taverns. Were there taverns in Konsk?
I know so little.
Simon, who was reading the newspaper to his drowsy father whose head was in his arms and whose arms were on the table, remarked in the same tone. And so? Is that good for us?
There were foxes at night in the streets of Konsk.
And cats. And chickens.
I know nothing.
One day my uncle Noioch Oksenberg told me the following story:
It took place during the engagement of the daughter of Chaim Mandelswagg (for the older daughter, God have pity on her, they never found a suitor) with the only son of the well-known restaurateur Moishe Katz. No, wait a minute, not Moishe, Mendel, Mendel Katz. Mendel Katz, that’s right. All the customary vows had been recited, the glasses broken and crushed underfoot, when your grandfather, Simon, who had just gotten engaged himself a few weeks earlier to my sister Matl, stood up, put down his glass of vodka (sent by the father of the fiancé, Mr. Katz himself), and announced his wish to tell a story, even though I think the guests would probably have preferred to hear one of the old songs.
He began like this, with the violins playing. . . .
Many friends who were among that honorable assembly asked me about the strange behavior of my great-uncle, the renowned David Perstunski. May he rest in peace. Allow me then to relate the following story:
It took place during the engagement of the daughter of Schlomo Kurtzner to the oldest son of Yaneck Bronberg. Suddenly, a man named Schmul stood up, placed his glass of vodka on the table and began to tell a story, the story of a certain Nathan, his brother-in-law, who, during the engagement of Yitzack Rayzman, the son of . . .
Suddenly, Noioch Oksenberg placed his glass of vodka on the table and, before the startled eyes of his wife Reysele, said to me, “You know, it would be better if you just made it up.” And he added, “What’s dead is dead.”
And the violins stopped.
But one day, I don’t know how or why, they began to play again for me.
First song: the song of muddy lanes
Simon Davidowicz had a broad-brimmed hat and a gray and black beard. When he walked north, let’s say toward Polesia, the palms of his hands faced south, toward Podolia. And vice versa. Hunched over and corpulent, he lacked elegance. But in Konsk, they didn’t know what elegance was. Simon saw to it, however, that his jacket was always correctly buttoned, and he had a preference for white broadcloth shirts.
As he walked he always looked at the ground. It wasn’t unusual for Simon to find, on some muddy village lane –– who knows? –– a sturdy nail, as clean as a new penny. And he would walk a mile like that, holding his nail before his eyes, squinting to examine its rectilinear perfection. He then thrust it into his jacket pocket. But if it were a muddy or rusted nail, his jubilation was no less great. While walking he would rub it with his thumb, breaking off bits of earth, and once in a while he would sit down, right there in the dusty road, and polish it. But it could just as well have been a piece of string. Or the still warm bowl of a pipe left behind by some distracted Hassid. Although it was at bottom his fondest dream, he had long ago given up the idea of finding a star of David, in gold if possible.
Most of the time, walking along the road, in the mud, the snow, or the dust, depending on the season, Simon Davidowicz told himself stories. In these stories there was a village, a house with a straw roof, a woman who knew how to prepare carp with carrots and onions, chopped liver, and fruit compote. Who was thrifty as well. And animals—fat geese, affectionate goats, a horse with good teeth, brave and hard working. And children. The boys were studious and the girls well-behaved and it was easy for him to find a good match for them. Simon would like to have been a watchmaker. But when he thought about it, he looked at his hands and said to himself that with fingers like that he would be a sorry watchmaker. But something shiny, a few feet away in the short grass, drew his attention. He ran forward. But it was only a piece of glass glinting in the sunlight. He picked it up between his fingers just the same, looked at it to make sure he wasn’t mistaken, to make sure he wasn’t about to make some terrible mistake. He threw the glass shard behind him over his shoulder and, raising his elbow, bent his head toward his armpit, swore, and spit––pfu, pfu, pfu––chasing away God knows what bad thought.
When he came down the muddy lane through the villages, the children flocked around him to sell their odds and ends. Shouting loudly, he pushed them away. “I’m the salesman! I’m the one who does the selling around here! Get lost, you little thieves.” And the children, from a distance, threw pebbles at him. Simon headed straight for the market, threw his blanket on the ground, spread out trousers and various objects of uncertain use. Then, as the women walked by, he grabbed them by the arm and, at the same time, pretended to stick his fingers in his eyes, redoubling the force of the invitation.
“Care to have a look, Ma’am?”
Around two in the afternoon he went to old Shlemielky’s inn for lunch, and the owner’s dog would sidle up to him for a pat on the head and a piece of bread, for he knew Simon was kind to animals. After admiring Matl’s figure, which grew more pleasing day by day, he returned to his father’s house and went to sleep in his clothes on the puffy quilt, falling like a stone, whistling like the new locomotive on the Kalush-Konsky line or like the coachman’s new whip, the one who drove travelers to the station and who was called, Simon had no idea why, Railroadky. And even in his sleep Simon thought that the new line –– KK, KaKa? –– wouldn’t amount to much good.
Second song: the market song
Simon couldn’t remember having met her. The Old Man, yes, he knew him, he was a fixture at the shul on Tailor Street. His wife must have given up the ghost and there was no one around to feed him, so he spent his days, spent his life, reading and discussing the Torah. The Old Man had had to resume the difficult life he’d left behind long ago, the day he got married.
When her mother was still of this world, Matl, the daughter, rarely went outside, which is why it seemed to Simon that he had never seen her.
Matl strongly resembled Simon’s sister, who was also called Matl. But her figure . . . I mustn’t think like that, he said to himself, God keep us from impure thoughts.
So it was in the market square that Simon saw for the first time Matl Oksenberg, before her own stand, together with her father Mendel, an old man with a beard and a grim look on his face, selling exactly the same merchandise as Simon: the same trousers, the same shoes, the same laces, the same partly burned candles. He wasn’t offended by this but when the same thing happened the following week, he dared to approach old Mendel to request an interview whose true object he did not reveal, pretending that it had to do with business.
They spoke at Schlomo Katz’s coffeehouse; Matl took care of their bag of merchandise, which even a man would have had difficulty lifting, and returned home alone.
It was agreed that the two men would combine their meager goods, would sell their homes (houses whose walls were steeped in the filthy mud of Konsk’s less reputable neighborhoods), and would take rooms at the town hall, if possible, on Pripitchik Street.
This was done. They opened a store. But soon Mendel was overcome with nostalgia for his shul and the old friends he used to see there and enjoyed arguing with. They would discuss the interpretations of the rebbes, sometimes for, sometimes against, while smoking a pipe, stretched out on what were supposed to be oriental rugs, and drinking shots of vodka brought by Schlomo Katz, who in this way pretended to contribute to the spiritual life of the community.
From this time on Simon and Matl were free to make their decision. But in this quarter of Konsk they were unknown; they had to devise some form of foolproof publicity to attract customers. In the store right next to them was a respectable shoemaker who was skilled in attaching iron taps to shoes. To attract customers would mean attracting their shoes and therefore the taps they wore on those shoes. Simon thought of magnets. It didn’t seem to be a bad idea. In front of the shop he built a wooden floor incrusted with magnets. But when it was finished, Chaim, an old friend of Simon’s, passed by leading behind him a stubborn horse (he had recently joined up with a rich Polish carter), and the horse remained stuck to the floor in front of the shop. They used pry bars to free his hooves, whips to lash his croup, carrots to whet his appetite, but nothing worked. And the horse continued to spew a mountain of horseshit as high as Mount Horeb onto the wooden slats. Which attracted a number of onlookers. And it attracted even more when the most beautiful flowers began to bloom on top of the pile of manure, flowers that had never before been seen anywhere in Volhynia, or in Galicia or Podolia, Polesia, Masuria, Posnania, Moldavia, Lithuania, and probably not even in the little paradise of Tel Dan in Upper Galilee, a variety of flower unknown to botanists, whose scent was so strong that it masked the odor of the manure on which it grew.
A crowd gathered. Jews and Poles were for once united in their sense of amazement. The word “Messiah” already began circulating among the crowd, no doubt without justification.
Then the crowd grew bored. Of its own accord, the nag ambled off, apparently as bored as the others. It was then that Simon’s sister Matl arrived, who suggested that the flowers be cut and steeped overnight in water that had been boiled and left to cool. A perfume of rare quality supposedly would result from this concoction.
Since that day every inhabitant of Konsk, coming to purchase some odd or end from the Davidowicz family, received as a gift, in the hollow of their hand, in their hair, or on the nape of their neck, a few drops of this perfume. For, as you can imagine, the Davidowiczes were careful to preserve the manure from Chaim’s horse.
Third song: the song of the chickens
Buying and selling didn’t provide enough for them to live on, so Simon began raising chickens. He started out by buying five chicks. Because he was shrewd, realizing he could make a profit selling eggs, at night he put a high-power lamp in the coop. The hens, fooled by the lamp and thinking dawn was breaking again (although it was quite dark outside), each produced a second egg. And Simon Davidowicz wasn’t just boasting when he claimed that each of his hens did the work of ten ordinary hens.
Matl now had one constant source of concern: saving the kopecks, zlotys, and groschen that every day, like a stone dropping into a well, she dropped into a blue cloth sack, counting them every evening before joining Simon beneath the quilt. When they were forced to leave Poland for France, passing through Germany (may you be spared such a thing!), they brought with them the sack filled with clinking coins, which they did not use, either because they did not want to or because they could not, since there was no way for them to convert this money in France. A great misfortune.
On that most ill-fated of all days, when Noioch Oksenberg, Matl’s brother, got the harebrained idea of making a “pilgrimage” to Konsk, Simon gave him the sack as a gift so he could use the money back home. But brave Noioch’s enterprise came to naught––they had changed the currency used along the Vistula. And not only the currency. In Konsk, for example, everything had changed. In Kalush the Jewish quarter was no more. There were no Jews at all. And in the little Jewish cemetery he visited, Noioch had great difficulty locating the stars of David, the portraits in the medallions, the small stones on the marble tombs. He had great difficulty making out the verses of the Psalms: God has given. God has taken away. Let God’s name be blessed. He had great difficulty, Noioch Oksenberg, in locating the graves. But he easily found a large field of potatoes into which some chickens had strayed. How sad, he said to himself, they’ve wiped it all away, erased everything. Then he walked to the river and emptied the contents of the blue sack.
Fourth song: the song of white bread
Mrs. Waisbrot was as sweet as white bread. Everyone in Konsk wanted a taste, as if to make sure that her name truly reflected her presumed flavor. Surelé Grinberg had noticed, ever since they had married her to Herschl Waisbrot (a fanatic rebbe who had left for the Orient to meet the true Masters and had been chased out no one ever knew why), that men looked at her with desire. However, as a young girl she had had no success, and no one ever came to ask for her hand in marriage for their son, in spite of the likelihood of her father, Schlomo Grinberg’s, fortune. She assumed therefore, Mrs. Waisbrot, that the newfound charm she acquired in Konsk was simply the result of her name.
When Simon Davidowicz met her in Pripitchik Street, he stared into her eyes and with ostentation raised his fur hat swollen with water in a movement he tried to make fluid––without succeeding however. Mrs. Waisbrot smiled at him as she continued on her way:
“I’m in a hurry, Mr. Davidowicz, I have some brioche in the oven.”
“Why of course Mrs. Waisbrot. May your brioche be as white as your lovely hands, God keep you!”
And Simon Davidowicz at once made a detour near the shul on the southern edge of Konsk, by the pine forest, and glanced admiringly at Herschl Waisbrot (may God strike him dead) as he flung his head against a wall, the Book of Psalms open in his hands. . . . But listen, my grandmother Matl Oksenberg continued, Herschl’s fervor was so great that at one point his head struck the wall and flakes of plaster broke off, danced around his black side curls and, when at rest, settled on the floor. Simon thought he saw two little bumps, like two small horns, pushing out from the rebbe’s forehead, as if they were chicks trying to break out of their shell. “What a simpleton that one is,” he thought. And he ran to Mrs. Waisbrot, ran to Surelé Grinberg, the little woman as sweet as white bread, God preserve her.
He tapped a finger against the fogged window pane and Surelé appeared, traced circles on the glass with her palm, pushed her nose forward and, as if she had just seen a Golem of some sort (God preserve us), drew back suddenly toward the back of the room. And Simon tapped again, “Don’t be afraid. It’s me, Simon Davidowicz.”
Then Mrs. Waisbrot came forward with slow steps, pressed her nose against the window, her hands cupped around her eyes, and after recognizing him, opened the door.
“What sprightly steps bring you here, Mr. Davidowicz? You know I have work to do, I’m never short of that, with all the shawls I have to patch for my rebbe.”
And gentle Surelé was already returning to her sewing machine, a new one that came from Berlin (at least that’s what she said), and which at once began whirring and whizzing like all get out.
Master Davidowicz, somewhat discountenanced (he had expected to receive a slightly more effusive greeting, but Simon is dreaming), sat at the table, his head bent over his hands, his fingers carefully tracing the contour of the birds on the tablecloth, a new one, probably, that also came from Berlin.
But fortune smiled upon Simon, and Mrs. Waisbrot rose suddenly, “Oy vey, excuse me, Mr. Davidowicz, where is my head today?” and ran to the armoire of hand worked wood, the gift of one of her husband’s students, she explained, and took out a bottle of schnapps and filled a small glass, which she pushed across the table toward Simon. He looked at her smiling, “Oh, Mrs. Waisbrot, you mustn’t, you mustn’t . . .”
But with her bird-like gait, Surelé returned to the new machine, supposedly from Berlin, which again began hammering away like all get out, and forgot about Simon.
Simon again began fingering the outline of the birds. He finished his schnapps.
“So Mrs. Waisbrot, what do you say?”
Whirrrr, Whirrr, the machine from Berlin said.
“Surelé, did you say something?”
The machine. . .
“What? . . .”
The ma. . .
“And sew and sew is what I’m doing. I don’t have to draw you a picture, do I?”
And so, yes, and so; Simon released the bird on the tablecloth, got up, put the fur hat (which was now dry) over his bald spot, and left.
He went immediately to the shul on Tailor Street to see if Reb Herschl Waisbrot could see him to discuss the difficulties he was experiencing in praying fervently and help chase the bad thoughts from his mind, God preserve us, pfu, pfu, pfu.
And now Simon Davidowicz and Herschl Waisbrot, arm in arm, as thick as thieves, are on their way to gloomy Pripitchik Lane. But just as they were at the point of entering the rebbe’s house (blessed be his memory), as if on a sudden impulse, Simon hesitated. Something in his heart prevented him from going further. “Reb Waisbrot,” he said to the rebbe, “I am very grateful to you, very grateful, but I just remembered that my Matl has been waiting for me since this morning; her cramps started last night.” And he placed his hand on his stomach, making a terrible grimace as if to accentuate the impression of suffering. The rebbe looked at him. “As you wish, Simon, come see me tomorrow on Tailor Street. But not too early.”
And on that day, in the streets of Konsk, everyone could see a madman running through the mud, crying, cursing, begging, lifting his hands heavenward. It was Simon, who was about to become a father. . . .
When Matl Oksenberg, my grandmother, after finally deciding to silence her Singer, told me pieces of this story, obviously I didn’t believe her. But she ignored my questions. “Go on. I have work to do now. There’s never a shortage of that, not with all these trousers he brings me.”
And who bothered to count the number of pairs of trousers and the shawls that had been caressed by the soft, trembling hands of my ancestors of blessed memory?
And who will talk to me about Konsk? Who still knows the melodies of those songs? Because, when it comes to Konsk, or Kalush, or Gustawan, I know nothing. I have to make it all up.
On winter nights there wasn’t a soul in the streets of Konsk. It was like a cemetery.
In the summer the children ran around barefoot, their trousers held up with string. The girls wore aprons and braids. Who can tell me about Konsk?
In the morning the children sold calendars that went from Tishri to Elul. Or buttons. Or safety pins. They would approach and hold out their odds and ends. Their heads were shaved except for two long curls at the temples. They teased one another about whose curled the most. In the afternoon they snuck off to climb the hills in the pine forest on the other side of the lake. Or maybe it was forbidden to do so and they didn’t even think about it.
The men wore black hats with wide brims. And beards.
Who can tell me about Konsk, the shadow of a shadow, where there is no grave?
First published in French in 1979 by Éditions Gallimard as Contes d'exil et d'oubli
Copyright © 1979 Éditions Gallimard. English Translation Copyright © 2013 Robert Bononno.
Henri Raczymow was born in Paris, France, in 1948 in a Jewish family. His grandparents came from Poland to France in the 1920s. He belongs to the second generation post-Holocaust and all his work is primarily concerned with Jewish Memory. He has written many novels and essays, among them the novel Writing the Book of Esther (Holmes and Meiers, translated from French by Dori Katz), and Swan's Way, translated by Robert Bononno at Northwestern UP. In 2008 he received the Prize of the Foundation of French Judaism, under the category of Letters. A former teacher of French, he is now retired. He is married to Anne Amzallag, and has a daughter.
Robert Bononno (the translator) is credited with the translation of over a dozen full-length works of fiction and nonfiction and numerous shorter pieces. These include René Crevel’s My Body and I – a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation Prize – Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymow’s Swan’s Way. In 2002 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete a translation of the non-fiction work of Isabelle Eberhardt and in 2010 he received an NEA grant for the retranslation of Eugène Sue’s classic crime novel, The Mysteries of Paris. Mr. Bononno’s latest translation, Michel Foucault’s Speech Begins after Death, was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.