Soldiers on Crystal Horses
By Nathalie Alyon
Everything changed that summer, all at once, and without warning, like a fire that burns an entire city and changes everything, and people call it destiny. That summer the heat arrived in Edirne with the workers who plowed and shoveled our dirt roads, laid bricks, and poured asphalt over the stone-lined streets of my childhood. They toiled to make a civilized Turkish city out of our ancient town. Walking to school every morning, I saw them working on Istanbul Road, wearing cotton shirts drenched in sweat, their faces darkened with dust.
The summer of 1934 was also when my older brother Rafael left Edirne to study in France. The oldest of my brothers, Albert, had already left for Paris years before with a handsome scholarship and had even married a Frenchwoman of questionable origins—a twist of fate my mother lamented whenever we received letters from Albert. We received a picture of her once, a very pretty woman wearing an elegant hat. Who knows where that photo is now?
All of spring was devoted to preparing for Rafael’s departure. Mama dragged him on countless trips to the tailor to make sure he had just the right clothes for the trip. God forbid, that the Frenchmen she would never meet think her son a simpleton. Then there were the repeated visits to the principal of our school. Rafael was so embarrassed by Mama inquiring about the accommodations in Paris on a weekly basis, that he avoided passing by the teachers’ lounge during breaks lest the principal be lurking about. How could she have known that beyond all the anticipation of Rafael’s departure from Edirne awaited a fate not so promising for the rest of us?
Needless to say, I was even more clueless than my mama. In those early days of the summer, the biggest of my worries was keeping my braids intact until the end of the school day. I liked going to school, but looking back, most of my memories are not of the lessons or the teachers, but rather of our walks to and from school. The journey began through the narrow streets of our neighborhood, Kaleiçi, and ended on Istanbul Road, with the view of the magnificent Selimiye Mosque. Kaleiçi was named after the stone walls that had once surrounded the city, back when the Romans ruled Edirne, and was adorned with wooden Greek houses. The very house I grew up in had belonged to the Maraganos family, Mama said. They had all had to leave after the big war. The Turks wouldn’t let them stay, not after everything that had happened. “Ni mujer de Rumania, ni nave en la mar Preta, ni mülk en Turkia,” she said, when she thought about the Maraganos. “Take not a woman from Romania, send no ship to the Black Sea, and buy no property in Turkey.”
Back then I thought the Black Sea was black, the Romanian women were witches, and the story of the Greeks was an irrelevant, ancient tale. What occupied my thoughts was the prospect of receiving a crystal horse for my birthday—one like the little crystal statuettes my mother locked in the living-room armoire. They enchanted me, even though I knew they weren’t crystal but rather ordinary glass. We had an entire set that represented all of the noble and gallant members of the animal kingdom: a lion sitting on a rock with its tail wrapped around its bulky body, a falcon with its wings spread, and an elephant, its fragile trunk extended toward the sky. My favorite was the horse.
I loved having guests because that’s when my mother released her crystals from hiding and placed them in specific locations across the living room. I had a cunning design of my own, too—I waited until the guests arrived and only then approached my horse that stood ready to gallivant across the coffee-tables. With a confidence granted by the presence of strangers in the house, I petted my perfect horse, measuring the strength of its crystalline muscles with my fingertips. As I relished the beauty of my horse, even imagining riding it like a skilled soldier, I would hear my mother pacing back and forth from the kitchen, nervously serving the bourekas she had made that morning.
“Elza, darling, why don’t you come have some bourekas with our guests instead of playing with those?” she would say, before turning back to the women in the room. “Those little worthless things are there all day, and she waits until we have guests to play with them.” Then she would glance at me with reprimanding eyes, intent on distancing me from her dear crystals. Instead of scaring me, though, her chiding looks comforted and reassured me that the masquerading woman in our living room was, indeed, my mama.
These visits included a ritual that was almost as sacred to our community as the Torah scrolls: plato de dulse. It was a tray, which in our case was not silver but rather a kind of cheap metal, containing a bowl of my mother’s best jam and two glasses, one holding six silver spoons and the other half-filled with water. My mother had inherited the spoons bearing the Sultan’s signature from her grandmother, and they were even more precious to her than her crystal figurines. Once my mother placed the plato de dulse on the table, each woman, as skilled as actresses in a play, gracefully took a spoon out of the glass, dipped it in the jam, and gave their blessings to our family, one by one.
“God willing, your daughter will find a good husband this year,” was one of the most frequent, with wishes of good health and prosperity. These blessings were mostly directed at my elder sisters, Ester and Sara, as I was too young to be considered for such fortunes. After consuming their spoonful of jam and remarking on its exquisite taste, the women completed their scripted performance by placing the silver spoon into the water-filled glass on the plato de dulse.
My parents weren’t sophisticated people, but they were intent on providing their children with a fine education. As my mother ran a series of home-based businesses, from laundry services to catering tea parties for the delicate wives of the men my father worked for, we children sat in the back room, studying math, biology, and history—all in French. In many ways, I was lucky, as the youngest of five; there was always someone to help me decipher the tricky grammar questions Madame Guéron asked in random examinations. At school, we were expected to speak French in almost all subjects, and even though we came back from school in the early afternoon, it wasn’t until dinner time that we were released from our studies.
Without a proper education of their own, my parents could not take a comprehensive interest in our schoolwork, but they enforced their rule to speak French at all times with utmost vehemence. Despite the annoyance of having to speak a foreign language with my siblings, our parents’ rule did present an opportunity; Since they themselves couldn’t understand French, we could always claim to be discussing European geography when, in fact, we gossiped about the latest letter Ester had received from our neighbor Jak, who had been in love with my sister ever since I could remember.
I liked being the youngest member of our family, though I was probably a “mistake,” since all of my friends had mothers much younger than mine, but more importantly, my mother called me her little “sorpreza.” The story of my arrival into the household was one I liked to hear more often than my mother wished to tell. As the story went, I was born just a few days before the Turkish parliament declared the Republic. I had been brought to our home from the midwife’s clinic as “everybody in the city spilled into the streets yelling, ‘Hurray to the Republic,’” Mama would begin her story, as she sat me on her lap. “You were a tiny little thing, but you were smiling all the time, as if you could understand the hurrays and the yippees of the men.
“I took you outside and we stood under that walnut tree,” she would continue, pointing to the wooden steps that led to our house facing Cumhuriyet Street, as she continued to describe the procession of people waving flags, singing songs, playing drums and pipes, in long lines down the street as far as the eye could see.
My father listened to our reminiscing with a stern face, growling as he smoked his tobacco, waiting for the right moment to interrupt us. “Aren’t you sick of hearing this story already, Elza? Help your mother set the table for dinner.”
The last day of school was also Rafael’s last week in Edirne. It was hot and humid beyond what one would expect in June—even on our porch, which always had a calming breeze. The trees were silent and still. Inside the house, though, everyone scurried around to prepare for the ceremony celebrating the end of the school year. My mother was in the middle of all the commotion, sitting on the sofa, surrounded by two heaps of laundry. The ease and efficiency with which she folded each piece of clothing astounded me. Her hands worked tirelessly, as a matter of course, and she didn’t even look down at the clothes, but rather gave constant directives to my sisters about where she had put our lunches, which shirts they should wear, how they should wear them, and all kinds of other advice my sisters didn’t heed.
Ester and Sara were busy at the other end of the room, arguing over who deserved to wear the bright yellow headband, which had been the subject of many previous arguments. Their raucous quarrelling was only put to an end when my mother, already exasperated by the heat, scolded them.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves. Almost at the age to be married, and this is what you’re occupying yourselves with. Good thing your father has already left for work, or else he’d know what to do with you,” she said, and put down the pants in her hands. Then she picked up the fan buried under the pile of clothes and told Sara to bring her a glass of water. “Edirne’s burning with a hell-heat,” she said, and fanned herself.
The morning sun shone from a cloudless sky as we walked to school. Even though Rafiko was usually too proud to walk to school with us girls, we all walked together. I guess he must have felt that he would miss us in Paris.
“Did you see the bag Mama has been packing for you, Rafi?” Ester asked, as we walked past the old Greek church that lay in ruins.
“Unfortunately. She packed things like dried almonds, and even that soap rotting in Grandma’s oak chest since the last century,” Rafiko said, and my sisters giggled. “God forbid, I’ll be left without good soap in all places but Paris,” he said, imitating my mother, and I laughed along with my sisters. Mama had been spending her every free moment in the kitchen cooking my brother’s favorite dishes. I can still smell the kopetas de pirasa frying on the stove. I never did learn how to make them like she did.
“You’d better not marry a Frenchwoman like Albert, or she will die out of sorrow,” Ester said to Rafi, and they all continued laughing.
“Can Mama really die of sorrow?” I asked, trying to speak loudly enough to overcome the laughter, but my question made them laugh even more.
We were just a few blocks away from our school, when a group of boys as big as Rafi approached us. “You are dirtying our streets with that foul language you speak. What, you too good to speak Turkish?” one of them asked, and then spat on the stone-paved street. He was standing in the middle of them all and seemed like the leader. We were speaking a combination of French and Ladino, but lately our teachers at school had counseled us to speak only Turkish when out in public. Rafi told the boys to mind their own business and let us continue on our way, but the boy who spat on the street continued hurling his taunts. Sara pulled me closer to her and held my hand tightly. I saw Moishe, a friend of my father’s who owned the tailor shop across the school at the end of the street. He was pouring a bucket full of water to clean the entrance to his shop, and I yelled out his name, but he didn’t see us and went back into his shop.
“They’re a cowardly bunch of sissies. Not worth our time,” one of the boys said. They pushed us aside with their shoulders and walked through us. No one spoke the rest of the way to school, but Sara didn’t let go of my hand until we entered the building and went into our separate classrooms.
When we arrived back home that afternoon, no one mentioned the boys on the street, so neither did I. The next morning, we all dressed up to go to El Kal Grande. The synagogue was on the opposite side of the city from the school, deeper into Kaleiçi, and as usual we walked with our neighbors, the Toledanos. The Toledanos had one daughter, Suzan. She was as old as Ester but they weren’t friendly—I suspected Suzan was as keen on Jak as he was on Ester, which was probably why Suzan didn’t walk with us to school on weekdays.
Saturdays were my favorite; stepping on the stone stairs of the synagogue still exhilarated me, even though I had practically grown up there. The largest building in Kaleiçi, it was the pride of our community. My father said it was the biggest synagogue in Europe, but to me, Europe seemed too worldly to house even our majestic synagogue. “There was a big fire that burned everything,” my mother would say with tears in her eyes every time the history of the synagogue was mentioned on our walks, which to me seemed to happen every Saturday. “I was your age . . . within five minutes, flames were everywhere. We used to have thirteen synagogues back then, but after the fire they decided to make one huge synagogue the size of all thirteen combined.”
But even that fire couldn’t compare to the sorrows of war, my mother always said, to conclude her speech. “May God keep us far from war,” she said, and I could hear the fear in her voice. “With guns and fires and bombs, patapatapata, that’s how the Bulgarians came, patapatapatapata all the time,” she said, shaking her head from side to side as she imitated the sounds of the guns. I laughed whenever she said patapatapata and thought war couldn’t be that bad if it sounded so funny.
When we arrived at the synagogue, my father and Rafi went with Monsieur Toledano to the men’s prayer section on the ground floor and we went upstairs to the women’s balcony. As the men congregated downstairs, the women caught up on the gossip of the week: how much dowry so-and-so’s father offered for his daughter, and how so-and-so wanted to marry his son to the butcher’s daughter and how the butcher’s daughter refused. . . . The women wore their best clothes on Saturdays and I liked walking among their chairs, feeling the fabric of their skirts. Everything inside the synagogue was delicate and pretty, and the best part was the ceiling, covered with thousands of little stars. Even more than Saturday mornings, I loved the synagogue during weddings. I would wait until my mother was in deep chatter and then sneak out of the women’s balcony to my secret spot on the side stairs. From my special place, I could see the bride almost as well as the men downstairs. Hidden from view, I was free to watch the wedding without disturbance, the way stars floating in the sky watch us.
On Rafi’s last Shabbat in Edirne, Mama didn’t join the gossip of the week as usual. She was quiet and distant, staring down from the balcony, watching Rafi. I’ve never stopped thinking about that Shabbat, even long after my parents died. Looking back on that day, I think that my mother must have known, as she stared down from that balcony, that she would never see her sons again. I think she knew, somewhere deep inside.
But at the time, that Saturday wasn’t so out of the ordinary for me. I was daydreaming about all the upcoming weddings when my mother grabbed me by the hand and told me to pay attention to the rabbi. But it wasn’t the rabbi who was getting ready to speak. Instead, a man with white hair and a tie stood at the bimah. I had seen him before in the synagogue, but I had never heard him speak—and certainly not in Turkish. He wished everyone a Shabbat Shalom, and then spoke in calculated yet assertive words about the need for our community to stay strong and help each other through these hard times. Ever since I could remember, we had been “in hard times,” so I wasn’t sure what it meant when adults said that.
“As citizens of the Republic of Turkey, we must show our loyalty and solidarity with this country. I urge all members of our congregation to make an effort to speak only Turkish in public areas, and encourage your children to speak Turkish at school,” he said. His words sounded too much like those of the boy who spat on the street the day before, and made me feel like I had swallowed an entire apple in one bite.
After we said farewell to Rafiko at the train station, our house grew quiet, but not in a peaceful, calm way. With every passing day, my father arrived home from the Ali Pasha Market where he worked, a bit more apprehensive than he had looked the day before. My mother stopped inviting guests over, which meant I couldn’t play with my crystal horse for weeks, and she didn’t allow me to go out of the neighborhood to play with my friends from school. It was turning out to be the worst summer ever, as I was spending most of my days alone in our back yard, picking flowers to dry, or following trails of ants to discover how ants make little holes in the ground.
One morning, I overheard my parents talking in their bedroom about sending my sisters to Istanbul to stay with our cousin who had married into a large family there.
“With Rafiko gone, I don’t like the girls waltzing around the streets alone,” my mother said.
“We’ll see,” my father said.
“There’s nothing to see. We can’t continue ignoring what’s going on, even if they’re only rumors.”
“Today I’ll send a telegram and you can take the girls to Istanbul next week,” he said, and then left the house to go to work.
But it wasn’t even noon when my father returned home that day. He said the city was swarming with villagers roaming about the town, and that Isaac, the owner of the shop where my father worked, had decided it best to lock up and go home.
“They say we have to leave the city,” he said, as he took off his shoes in a slow, calculated manner.
I could tell my mother was becoming angry at my father’s laconic state. She was pacing back and forth in front of him, asking him question after question, receiving no answers. My sisters and I sat in the kitchen, afraid of our mother, more than anything else.
“We’re not going anywhere,” she kept saying to my father. “We’re not going anywhere!”
It wasn’t half an hour before someone started knocking on the door with an unrelenting perseverance. That’s what the patapatapata of the Bulgarians must have sounded like, I thought, just as my mother opened the door to Suzan Toledano. She was drenched in sweat, and it was clear that she had been crying. She tried to speak, waving her arms about towards the city, but she was too out of breath from running to get out any words.
“Suzan, calm down. Come inside. Tell us what’s going on,” my mother said, and instructed us to bring some water and a wet towel.
“They’re coming here,” she said, after she sipped some water from the glass.
“Who’s coming? Where are your parents?”
“I was with my mother at the market by the mosque. Then these people in donkey carts came into the market, started breaking into stores, taking everything. I lost my mom in the crowd. All the women disappeared. There were only village men everywhere. Screaming and shouting. I didn’t know what to do so I ran here.”
As my mother tried to calm her down, Suzan’s mother also showed up at our door, even more hysterical than her daughter. Seeing Suzan in our living room, she let out a sigh of relief and, for a moment, I thought she might faint. She looked around the room at each of us before she walked inside, grabbed her daughter by the wrist, and said that everyone was rushing to the train station to escape from Edirne, and that we should do the same. Then she pulled her trembling daughter with her and left our house.
Meanwhile, my father, who was sitting on the couch, shoeless, had said nothing throughout this entire episode, which all in all had taken less than fifteen minutes. With the harsh sound of the banging door as the Toledanos left, he awakened from his dream and started shutting all the windows.
“Ester, go to your grandmother’s chest and hide all the jewelry inside your clothes,” he said, as he looked out the last open window facing the main road before shutting it. At the other end of the room, my mother was hiding her silver spoons under the linoleum covers on the floor. It felt as though a big storm was approaching, and we would be safe if we could stay inside. Realizing that I had left the flower petals I had been drying all week outside in the sun, I panicked. I had to bring them inside where it was safe. As everyone was occupied inside, hiding things under blankets and covers, I snuck out the back door to the yard.
The air outside was filled with an intense roar. I saw a group of men turn into our street with their donkeys and horses, just as Suzan had described. They wore dark, loose clothes and looked so dirty and big that I wondered if they were the same men I saw paving Istanbul Road on my walks to school. Their faces were hidden under their thick moustaches and the brims of their hats. Holding big wooden sticks, they hit the railings of our neighbors’ porches and their husky voices demanded that people come outside with their cases of gold. “Get out and leave this town, you swindler Jews,” they yelled, over and over again.
I ran back inside with my flowers and hid behind the couch. I tucked my head between my knees and closed my eyes, but the tighter I closed them, the louder I heard the beating of my heart. I heard them break our door, and then someone, who I later realized was Sara, held me tightly. Everything was so loud. When I opened my eyes, the couch I had hidden behind was gone, along with everything else in our house. Two men still roamed our living room, cursing and saying things I could barely understand. Angry that there was nothing left to take, one of the men removed a window sill and started hitting the windows with it. Shattered glass flew in the air like heavy rain, and I hugged Sara so tightly that she started screaming.
“There’s nothing left here, leave us alone,” I heard my father say, but Sara’s screams were so loud that I couldn’t hear anything else after that. The man hitting the windows, finding nothing else to break, left through the broken door, but Sara continued shrieking. I saw that a piece of glass had stabbed her thigh over her skirt. I looked at my mother. She was sitting on the floor with Ester, motionless, holding the tablecloth we had eaten breakfast on that morning. I grabbed the glass and pulled it out of Sara’s leg, and she stopped crying. Just then, everyone hovered around us, looking at the bloody glass and Sara’s injured leg.
“It’s not a deep cut; you’ll be all right,” my father said, holding Sara’s hand.
I got up and walked over to where the armoire used to stand. On the floor, among the shattered glass, I saw my crystal horse. Its legs were broken off from its torso. It lay on its side, gasping for its last breath, and even I knew that horses couldn’t live without legs.