(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green
On Purim Irena prepares a platter of hamentashn and dried fruit.
“In honor of what?” Ernst asks in surprise.
“In honor of Purim.”
“It’s nice that you remind me of the holiday.”
“My mother used to prepare mishlo’ach manot platters for the holiday, and I would bring them to the neighbors.”
“Didn’t you have any relatives?”
“We had a cousin in Bnei Brak. He died.”
After the meal, Irena serves Ernst a cup of tea. He samples one of the hamentashn and says, “Very tasty. It reminds me of the hamentashn my mother used to make for Purim.”
It is hard for Irena to imagine Ernst’s parents. They sound like people who were plucked out of one place but not planted in another, and that sadness accompanied them into every corner. Once she saw his father in a dream, sprawled on the sofa, muttering, as though listing his sins. His mother approached the sofa, knelt, and said to him, It never was and never came to be; it was only a parable. Those words made an impression on his father, and he stopped muttering.
One time, curiosity overcoming her shyness, Irena asked Ernst, “Did your mother observe our traditions?”
“My mother was attached to the tradition of her fathers,” Ernst replied, “and she had a connection with some of the secrets of faith, but I had no understanding of her life. She was shackled to herself. I remember her face and her eyes, but not her hands. When I left home, and she knew that I had gone over to the Party, she didn’t say a word to me. Once, when I was a boy, I asked her, ‘Mother, why don’t you talk?’ When she heard my question, sorrow creased her face. I didn’t understand my parents, neither their lives nor their struggle with themselves and with God. I was in a world of bombastic phrases then, of black and white, of reforming humanity, but I didn’t see my parents’ sorrow.”
Before Irena leaves the house, Ernst asks her for a glass of cognac and invites her to join him. Irena pours the two glasses, and they drink a l’chayim. Now she notices that the wastebasket is full of torn paper. In the morning he ripped up everything he had written during the night.
Ernst’s struggle seeps into Irena. Sometimes she feels that his battle is with despair. He talks about the years he wasted and about the scandalous results, but she senses that there is strength in his despair. At night he struggles with an essence that is much stronger than he is, and sometimes he prevails. The sharpness in his eyes in the morning is not a sign of frailty but of a strong will. Once he said to her, “Life is so full of contradictions. I’ll never understand it. But I want to describe it.”
“Do you believe in God?” she dared to ask.
“Yes, in the God of my fathers. It took me years. In my youth just the word ‘God’ repelled me.”
It’s hard for Irena to take in all of Ernst’s ideas. They are too elevated and inaccessible. She understands the God of her childhood. “God dwells everywhere,” her mother said. Since her mother told her that, she has imagined God dwelling in the peach trees that bloom in the spring or in the fig trees that drop their leaves along the road. But she especially feels God’s presence on Sabbaths and holidays. She puts a lot into getting her house ready to greet them. When she sits at her table on Friday night, she feels a great light enveloping her, and she prays in her heart that God will shine His face on Ernst and show him how to struggle with that dark monster that is trying to undermine him.
A week ago Ernst felt ill, and the doctor ordered him to lie in bed for several days. He obeyed, and one evening he said to Irena, “You have no idea how good it is to lie in bed and not to do a thing. To close my eyes and not think about anything.” Irena was alarmed by his words. It seemed to her that they were spoken in fatigue and an unwillingness to struggle. She was wrong. It was a moment of relief, of escape from depression. Working at night exhausts Ernst. After a night of looking for words and for their proper rhythm his body weakens. The correct sound of the words sometimes evokes a melody. But usually the words are like gravel, and as hard as he labors, they don’t change their shape. Suddenly Ernst felt liberated from all that burden. His body existed for itself, and his soul, too.
Over time Irena has developed strategies to draw Ernst out of his gloom. One of them is blintzes filled with cheese and raisins. She immediately announced, “I’m making blintzes.”
Irena likes the way Ernst relaxes after a meal. Light shines from his face, and she feels a great closeness to him. At such times he may relate a story from his life. One time Ernst told her about his service in the Red Army. About the horses that bore him across the steppes of the Ukraine, about the brotherhood of soldiers, and about the powerful desire to live that pulsated throughout his unit. He walked over to the cupboard and took out a small box. In it were the medals of valor he had been awarded. “I loved the soldiers, and they loved me,” he said, and that distant memory filled his face.
Ernst writes at night and doesn’t rip up the paper. When a stack of paper is piled on his desk and he is content, Irena feels that soon he will lift her up again, and she will soar with him to other worlds. Sometimes it’s a tangled forest, and sometimes it’s one of the big cities where he lived in his youth. He speaks very little about the war. Irena knows that his parents, his first wife, Tina, and their daughter, Helga, perished on the banks of the Bug River during the war. Sometimes Irena feels that she knows them well, and that she has played with Helga on a carpet.
Ernst always speaks with restrained fury about his second wife, but one time he lost his self-control. “Two monsters stood in my way in Israel,” he said, “the investment company and Sylvia. I don’t know which of the two was more damaging to me.”
Ernst is expressive. Even his silence is sharp. A few days ago he said to Irena, “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m repulsed by degeneration. A person should disappear modestly, without disturbing anyone. Slow death is a curse. If I knew how to pray, I would pray for a quick death.” Ernst sometimes says, “If I knew how to pray.” Why does he say, “If I knew”? Irena wonders. How hard is it to pray?
Two days ago Irena had a long, clear dream. She saw Ernst from a distance, holding his knee, trying to soothe a pain. But as she approached him, her error became apparent. Ernst wasn’t in pain. He was wearing a splendid uniform, walking with quick steps toward the entrance of a palace.
Irena, he said to her when he noticed her standing on the sidewalk, why are you standing on the side? Why don’t you join the ceremony?
I’d rather stand here. I can see from here, too.
But you won’t be able to see the ceremony in the palace.
I’ll hear it on the loudspeaker.
But you have to sit next to me. I want to pass all the documents on to you.
Irena was frightened and said, I don’t want to receive anything. I’ve received far too much. I don’t need anything.
Ernst lowered his head and said softly, It’s a simple transfer, much simpler than you imagine. The orchestra immediately started playing.
Irena awoke from her dream and wanted to go to Ernst right away. But it was early, so she made herself a cup of coffee. Since Ernst spoke to her about his papers, the nightmares return regularly, a mixture of celebration and dread.
Irena wanted to arrive early that morning, but in the end she was half an hour late.
“I’d begun to worry about you,” Ernst greeted her. “You’re always early.”
“Why are you asking to be forgiven?”
That morning Ernst was in a good mood, and after breakfast he put some papers in the pocket of his three-quarter coat and went out to the café. Irena knew that this time he would sit in the café and write down some of his thoughts. “My thoughts run away from me,” he sometimes complains. When he’s in a good mood he speaks about himself in the third person, saying, “Ernst is a fool. He’s sure that if he wears the three-quarter coat, the coat will make him walk. He thinks it’s possible to make the years go away. The years are visible in every step and wrinkle.” And sometimes, to tease Irena, who when speaking to him uses the formal German “Sie,” which means “they,” he says, “Who are those people you’re talking to? There’s just one person here, and you have to talk to me directly.” Irena understands him, but it’s hard for her to use the informal “du.”
The day was bright and pleasant. Ernst went out in a good mood and returned happy. Irena prepared lunch and at four o’clock she served him mint tea and went home.
All the way home she said to herself, Ernst is pleased with his writing, and that’s why he’s in a good mood. When she reached her apartment, she immediately lit two colored candles as a sign of gratitude that her efforts didn’t disappoint him. For a long time she sat and watched the candles. She saw Ernst leaning over his papers, and she was filled with gratitude and joy. That night she washed and went to bed early, and her sleep was untroubled.
But for Ernst the night didn't go well. After midnight thieves broke into his house, tied him up, and covered his mouth with a bandage. Ernst resisted and paid a heavy price. The robbers beat him. When Irena arrived in the morning, and she came early, her eyes darkened in distress. The front door was smashed in, the cupboards were open, papers were scattered. Irena found Ernst lying tied up in the back room, his face as white as a sheet. She peeled the bandage off his mouth, untied the ropes on his hands and feet, and with a voice that wasn’t her own, she cried, “Ernst!”
Ernst opened his eyes, but his voice failed him. Irena immediately rinsed his face and called a doctor. The doctor arrived, and the police came after him. The house, which had until then known only silence and suppressed struggles, was now laid open. Detectives poked around in every corner, and a police officer tried in vain to get Ernst to say something.
The doctor sent for an ambulance to bring Ernst to the hospital without delay. Irena went with him. By noon the x-rays revealed his injuries: a fractured right leg and two cracked ribs.
Later Ernst was asked again, “What do you remember?”
“Nothing,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Irena didn’t move from his bedside. He now looked to her like a wounded soldier who had returned from the front. She knew that because of his communist past, when war was declared he had been assigned to an accelerated officers’ course and then sent into battle. For a year and a half he had been on active duty and had apparently been an outstanding soldier. Once he said to her, “Too bad I didn’t continue in the army. That was a healthy struggle. Any other struggle is against yourself.”
Ernst was in pain and asked for a sedative. After receiving it, he sank into a deep slumber. If he would only awaken, Irena thinks, he would tell her about the war: about the front and about the artillery that shelled the German headquarters without letup.
Ernst’s recovery is slow, and it has its ups and downs. When the pain attacks him, he grits his teeth and bites his lip. He struggles with it and receives praise from the nurses and doctors. One time Irena was about to tell him, We’ll light a memorial candle on the anniversary of your parents’ death. They will come back and forgive you. Parents always forgive their children. When Irena has taken care to keep her house properly maintained and has gone to prostrate herself on her parents’ graves on the anniversaries of their deaths, she knows that ghosts won’t disturb her rest at night.
Irena has noticed that since Ernst has been in the hospital, his speech has been flowing in torrents; whenever the pain lets up, he talks about his parents, about his home, and about the distance between the house and the grocery store. The narrow space disturbs him. Irena doesn’t know how to respond or what to do to calm his spirit. On Sabbath eve, when she lights the candles, she prays and asks Ernst’s parents not to be angry with him, to speak slowly to him. He will listen to everything they say, but in the state he is in they mustn’t be angry at him. One evening, Irena went to Ernst’s house, dusted, washed the floor, and before leaving lit a memorial candle. Perhaps his parents would hear of this and forgive him.
Ever since Ernst told her about his parents at length, Irena has known no rest. She listens to his thoughts, and she keeps trying to reach his parents in another way. She tries so hard that she can see them before her eyes: they are tall people, somewhat stooped, and wrapped in silence. There is no anger in their eyes, just the perplexity of forgiveness. When they draw near to Irena, she wants to say to them: Ernst is looking for you. He has been looking for you for years. What should I tell him? They look back at her, and their confusion increases. But they have no words.
Of course Irena tells Ernst nothing about these secret contacts; nevertheless, he seems to feel that she is trying very hard to raise his parents up from the depths. Every morning, when he opens his eyes and sees Irena, he says, “Why don’t you go to sleep?”
“But you’re always at my side.”
“I slept for three hours straight.”
Sometimes it appears to Irena that he, too, is trying to reach his parents with all the strength of his pain, and she wants to tell him, There can be no doubt that you’ll reach them one day. The path is unpaved, but longing can reach any place. You aren’t alone. There’s someone watching over you. Ernst is aware of her efforts, and he says to her, “Thank you, Irena.”
“What are you thanking me for?”
“For sitting by my side.”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“You’re doing more than I deserve.”
“You deserve every help.”
Sometimes Ernst speaks about his writing, about the many nights he has invested in digging up the wrong wells.
“For years I didn’t understand why the wells were dry. I thought that if I dug deeper, I’d find a living spring.”
Once he told her, “I have to go home urgently.”
“To which home?”
“To my parents’ home.”
You’ll go there. You have already going there, she was about to say, but she didn’t say it.
Irena knows that Ernst doesn’t like useless consolations, ornamental words, or hollow expressions. Once he told her something that she will never forget: “Words that aren’t connected to pain aren’t words, but fluff. For so many years I went to places where I didn’t belong, with words that didn’t grow from within me.” What did he mean by “words that didn’t grow from within me”? Irena wanted to ask. Ernst sensed this and said, “Words that don’t grow out of one’s pain.”
The next day Ernst is released from the hospital and returns home. Irena had prepared the house carefully. Ernst is surprised. “Everything is in its place. I didn’t imagine that I’d ever be back here.”
“Now let’s celebrate,” Irena says, and she takes a cheesecake out of the refrigerator, like the one she had made for him on his seventieth birthday.
“Irena. . . ” He doesn’t hold back his gratitude.
“Thank God you’ve come home.”
“I don’t know how to recite blessings, and I don’t think that I ever will.”
Irena doesn’t understand his comment. She remembers her dream and says, “Last night I had a dream about you.”
“You were in a courtroom.”
“And I was found not guilty?” He is eager to know.
“You were very quiet, and you smiled every once in a while.”
“Irena!” he cries out.
“What?” She raised her voice, as though she had been caught in a regrettable error.
“Why did you light candles?”
“On a holiday it’s customary to light candles, isn’t it?”
“What holiday is it today?”
“Isn’t your return home a holiday?”
On Passover Irena sets the table for the holiday. Ernst is very moved.
“I would like to say the blessings,” he says, “but I don’t know the melodies.”
“It’s just nice to sit at a Passover table,” Irena says.
Strange, Ernst says to himself, Sabbaths and holidays brighten Irena’s face, but they only depress me. I must have inherited this depression from my father.
“My father didn’t like holidays,” he can’t resist telling her. “My mother would set the Passover table exactly the way it had been set in her parents’ house, but that meticulousness embarrassed my father. He would skip things when he read the hagaddah, close his eyes, and sink into himself. His separation from his father and mother apparently pained him, but he didn’t talk about it. Sometimes in the middle of the Seder he would rouse himself and start singing.
“In the Party everything was in a ferment. Our activities were festive and full of energy, and they took place in the fields, in barns, and on riverbanks. For obvious reasons we weren’t called the Communist Youth but, rather, the Progressive Culture Club.
“By the age of twelve we had already learned to hate religious Jews. We would watch the way they hurried to the synagogue, speaking to one another in whispers, trading merchandise or promissory notes. The young commissars explained to us that no act of the Jews was pure. Everything was done with cunning or deceit. Helping the poor didn’t count with them, only performing rituals.
“We were organized into sections. Each section was divided into squads, and each squad had five members. We were supposed to steal from the Jewish stores. We would distribute the stolen goods to the needy in the poor part of the neighborhood. The mission had to be planned well. We would watch the store owner for a few days and figure out the opening and closing times. We would choose stores that didn’t have thick grills or bolted doors. We didn’t examine only the doors and windows, but also the narrow openings to the basements. We quickly learned that even a narrow opening offered an excellent gap that we could wriggle through.
“Usually we succeeded, but if we were caught, the section leader would hold an inquiry. If it turned out there had been a flaw in the plan, they would put the squad leader on trial, and sometimes the whole squad. It was like the army, and sometimes more serious. We often broke down the door of a store, and to cover our tracks we would burn down the store after robbing it.
“The violence was accompanied by a feeling of justice. We weren’t stealing for ourselves, but for the poor. The stolen goods would be delivered to the poor neighborhood at night, and there we would distribute it according to a list.”
Irena listens. It’s hard for her to understand this tangled reasoning, but in her heart she feels that the flaws that Ernst keeps talking about haven’t yet been corrected in his writing.
A few days after he returns from the hospital, Ernst begins to talk about his summer vacations with his grandparents in the Carpathians. They dressed in long smocks, just like the peasants, and they were attached heart and soul to the fields of grain and the orchards. That was before the communists arrived and confused everyone. The communist years erased, among other things, those splendid sights. Ernst saw marvelous things during his visits to the Carpathians. But exactly what he saw is hard for him to say now. He makes an effort to remember.
Several times Irena finds Ernst drunk and merry when she arrives in the morning. She fears his drunkenness, and because of it she stays longer in his house. In truth, she feels that she has to stay with him watch over him.
On one of his drunken nights Ernst embraced Irena. “You are my light,” he said. “You brought me everything that was stolen from me.” Irena was stunned but not frightened. His big body felt solid but also had a great gentleness, and she felt his hands on her, and his breath.
When she returned home that night Irena couldn’t sleep. She walked from room to room, and finally sat down and read the diary of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch woman who had died in the Holocaust. In her young life she had known many men and also a powerful love of God. Love of God and love of people are the same thing, Irena decided, but then became alarmed by this thought.
Excerpted from Suddenly, Love by Aharon Appelfeld, to be published by Schocken Books on May 6, 2014. Copyright © 2014 Aharon Appelfeld. Buy this book here.
Aharon Appelfeld is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Badenheim 1939, Tzili, The Iron Tracks (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), and The Story of a Life (winner of the Prix Médicis Étranger). Other honors he has received include the Giovanni Boccaccio Literary Prize, the Nelly Sachs Prize, the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, and the MLA Commonwealth Award. Appelfeld was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received honorary degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Yeshiva University. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now part of Ukraine) in 1932, he lives in Israel.