By Peter Sichrovsky
Translated from German by John Howard
The rabbi was a young man, not yet forty, not big, not small, with a round, heavy belly that hung over his belt. At least one button on his tight-fitting white shirt was always open. His black hat was too small, his beard thin and, despite his youth, it was sprinkled with a number of gray hairs.
One could call him neither a handsome nor even a dignified man. He lacked the charisma of a wise man, his voice was light and thin, and his words came haltingly.
What he said was often difficult to understand. He jumped from one topic to another and lost the thread of his discourses, so that he ended on a different subject than he had intended at the beginning of the conversation.
Still, everyone loved him. Despite all his faults, he exuded humanity and goodness, so that everyone liked to approach him with their problems and only very rarely left him without feeling a sense of relief. As much as he lacked the ability to captivate larger audiences, so much more was it possible for him to provide comfort in private conversation, to help or cheer up a desperate man so that his almost insoluble problem seemed small, insignificant and no longer unmanageable.
He had his office hours every morning between ten and twelve o’clock. He waited for his visitors in a small room on the second floor of an office building that was right next to the synagogue. It was rare that the rabbi received visitors at other times, but it was possible. One could telephone him at home and get an appointment before or after a wedding, a funeral or a circumcision. Even if he only had a few minutes, it was more important to the rabbi to listen to the concerns of the petitioners than to dismiss them.
One day the rabbi got a call that was different than the many daily others he received. It was a male voice that was familiar to him, but he couldn’t recall the face that it belonged to. It was the voice of an old man who asked the rabbi if he could speak with him. The rabbi pointed out his office hours, as he often did in such cases, but the old man declined and said that it was impossible for him to come to the Jewish community’s office; they must meet at a different place. The rabbi had answered the call on a wintery Friday afternoon. The sun did not intend to shine upon the city much longer, and the time was approaching when the faithful among the Jews began to prepare for the Sabbath.
The rabbi, who otherwise patiently lent his ear to each petitioner, had to break off the conversation and say to the old man that rather than being entirely alone with his worries, he could come to the temple for the service.
It was a cold night, and the rabbi went alone to the synagogue this time. His six-year-old son, who always accompanied him, had a fever and was not allowed to leave his bed.
The way to the synagogue took at most ten minutes, but this time the wind blew icy cold in his face. He was constantly afraid of losing his hat, and he probably wouldn’t make it there even in double the usual time. He crept close to the house walls, crossed the old University Square, walked through the doorway of a building and out the back of it to take a shortcut.
It was the same path that his father had taken before him, who had been a rabbi for many years in the same city. Only a few had come to the synagogue today, a few older men and women. The mood was not cheerful and there was no joyful expectation in this hour before the start of the Sabbath. The rabbi was actually glad when it was over; he longed for the hot soup and cooked chicken that awaited him at home.
He was the last one to walk to the door; the others tried to reach their homes or cars that were parked at a considerable distance as quickly as possible. The rabbi turned up his coat collar, pulled the scarf almost to his eyes and was about to leave when someone touched him on the shoulder.
He turned around and saw an old, emaciated man in an expensive coat, its inner fur lining sticking out at the collar, wearing a fur cap on his head that the rabbi had otherwise only seen on actors in American Westerns.
“Excuse me, you’re the rabbi?” the old man asked timidly.
“Yes, what is it?”
“I called you this afternoon.”
The rabbi recognized the voice and also the man’s face. “I know you, you were once in our temple and donated the Sabbath meal.”
The man nodded.
“I can’t help you just now, my family is waiting at home, you should know …”
“Only ten minutes, I beg you, only ten minutes.” The old man clapped his hands together.
“How do you think that would work? Where would we go? I need to go home now, and it is too cold to be standing around in the street. Why don’t you come to the temple tomorrow morning, we’ll have plenty of time then.”
“No, I can’t go to the temple any longer. Now - it must be now, I don’t know what I will do until tomorrow.”
“All right.” The rabbi was not enthusiastic about his own idea, but what else could he do now? He invited the stranger to accompany him home.
“I’ll be satisfied if I can walk with you to your front door.”
They walked a few steps next to each other without speaking. The rabbi interrupted the silence, “What is your name?”
“Slansky, Harry Slansky.”
“Oh, now I remember. You came back to Vienna with your family from the United States.”
“Yes, I had lived there since the end of the war and wanted to return to Vienna. My daughter, her husband and her son came with me.”
“You must speak louder, I can hardly hear you.” The rabbi leaned over to the old man and almost shouted in his face.
The man stopped and took an envelope from his coat pocket. “I’ve brought you this letter. I think you’re not allowed to open it tonight. Also, there is no money in the envelope. It’s not sealed, I just want you to read the letter.”
“Now? Here, in the street? How am I supposed to do that?”
“Read it, I beg you, read it.”
“No, I can’t take it and just read it here, you know that.”
“Fine, then I will read it to you. I won’t let myself be stopped by any Jewish law.”
The rabbi felt edgy. This was not an ideal way to start the Sabbath. His family waiting at home, his son sick in bed, his wife in the kitchen in front of the hot food, the table set. He was at least able to calm the old man enough to keep him from reading the letter in the middle of the sidewalk.
They reached the entrance of the building where the rabbi lived, pushed the heavy iron door open and stood in the hallway, when Slansky said, “I won’t go up to your apartment with you. Just stay a few minutes, and I’ll read this letter to you.”
There was no way to escape now. The two stood facing each other in their heavy coats. Slansky took the envelope from his pocket and removed the letter. It was handwritten with blue ink.
“Will you tell me who the letter is from and what it’s about?”
“It’s written by a girl, her name is Sonja. The letter is addressed to her boyfriend, Robert. Robert is my grandson. Both are seventeen years old and go to the same school.”
“How did you get the letter?”
“I found it by accident. I know I should not have taken it, I know. You’re always right, but please listen to me, then you’ll know why.”
The rabbi leaned against the wall, unbuttoned his coat, took the scarf off his neck and the hat from his head, and Slansky began to read.
My dear Robert –
I’ve been working for days on this letter. Not writing it, but working on it. Every afternoon after school, in the evenings, and often late into the night.
I was planning to explain to you why I can’t see you anymore, why I can’t laugh like before when we are together, why I am scared by the thought of a touch from you, where before we used to have such a nice time together.
I can’t explain any of it to you. But eventually I had to recognize that I can’t give you a logical justification. I can only tell you what I’ve experienced in the last three weeks and how much it’s affected me.
I don’t know whether you can understand me. This sounds very cold, but don’t be angry, because I don’t care how you will respond to this letter. I must write it, maybe more for me than for you.
It all started three weeks ago, when I accompanied my grandmother to temple on Sunday morning. You know Onju from your visits with us. She is a grumpy woman but still lovely. “Leave me alone, I can walk on my own,” she said then, angrily, when I tried to help her. She propped herself up with her right hand on a cane and pushed me away with her sharp elbow. “Have I fallen down yet? Then you can help me, but now I want to walk on my own!” Slowly, with small, careful steps she drew near the entrance of the synagogue.
The street was wet from snow that had fallen on the town the night before and melted again in the morning. It was one of those gray mornings, not winter, not spring, not really cold anymore and not yet warm.
Two young men stood in front of the entrance of the synagogue. When Onju approached the door, one of them stepped in front of her with his arms crossed. “Do you have an ID card?” he asked with a Slavic accent.
“What do you want from me, a card? You snot-nosed brat, you are asking for a pass from me?” Her legs began to tremble, and she sought my arm with her left hand. I tried to calm her and told her the two young men were only doing their duty. “You are defending them, these lousy bastards?” she yelled at me. “They can ID whomever they want, but me? How many decades have I gone into this temple, every Saturday, every Friday evening? And now these two, who can’t even speak German, want to see a pass. We’ve come a long way – Am I glad that your righteous grandfather did not live to see this!” Then she pushed one of the two men aside, who stepped back startled. The other, however, stepped in front of her and snapped: “No ID , no entry, new rules.”
“Sonja – Let’s go!” she said to me. “I don’t have a temple in this town anymore. It’s time for me to wait for the Messiah in a different place.”
Grandmother turned and began to go laboriously back down the steep path.
But then the door of the temple opened and the rabbi stepped out. “Mrs. Wagner!” he cried. “Come in, where are you going??
She stopped and looked the rabbi, who had followed her, in the eye. He was startled by her tears and offered her his arm. She took it, and together they went back to the entrance, where with a triumphant expression she made a way for herself with her cane and didn’t bother to even glance at the two men who leaned silently against the wall.
“Yes, I remember the scene,” said the rabbi. He felt hot, his face was wet with sweat. He pulled off his coat, put it over his arm and nodded to Slansky.
Slansky was also leaning on the wall by now, and read on:
The temple was well attended this time. In the front row sat and stood a few old men who crowded together and argued heatedly, further back sat a group of tourists with black paper yarmulkes on their heads, which they had taken from a cardboard box that was put there for visitors. With a trembling hand, the old cantor distributed books to the guests with prayers written in German on one side and Hebrew on the other. We slowly climbed up the stairs, one step after another, taking short rests as needed.
When we reached the first floor, Grandmother stopped. “I would like to see a temple where the men have to go upstairs and the women can sit downstairs,” she said haltingly and breathed heavily. Then she walked to the fourth row from the front, where she always sat, folded down her seat, leaned her cane against the desk, sat gingerly, looked around a few times and leaned over the railing, looking for familiar and especially strange faces, which she usually found more interesting.
It was the same routine every Saturday. Grandmother showed me the important young men in the temple, who owed their importance mainly to their fathers’ bank accounts. When services were over, people would move to the back room of the temple.
The cholent this time was donated by a real estate broker nobody knew. He had been in town for only a few months, it was said. No one knew where he came from, but everyone was glad he had provided for the food on Saturday and praised him for his generosity.
The beans smelled wonderful, and Grandmother, who had been looking forward to the food, was among the first to stand by the pots.
When everyone was sitting around the long table, the rabbi began with the benediction, Grandmother muttered impatiently, how long would she have to wait, and took the ladle so she could fill her plate first.
Then the benefactor was introduced. Your grandfather, Harry Slansky, who was new to the community, had lived many years in the U.S., but now was back with his family in Vienna.
He was a small, old man with only a few hairs on his head, gray skin, and thick, heavy lips that hung on him like old rags. He got up slowly, no one had noticed him before, he nodded without saying a word, and sat back down. Like children in a boarding school, everyone grabbed at the food, piled mountains on their plates and ate like it was the night after Yom Kippur.
“Pass the ladle!” said a thick, plump woman who was sitting next to my grandmother.
Only now I noticed that Onju was still holding the ladle in her hand. But her plate was still empty. She had put her fist on the table, the ladle in her hand sticking up into the air. Her eyes were fixed somewhere in the distance. She seemed to hear nothing, to see nothing. Then she stood up slowly, slowly put the ladle on the table and said quietly to me, “Come on, Sonja, we’re leaving.”
“But Onju, we still haven’t eaten, you were looking forward to it so much,” I told her.
Still in a quiet, now tortured, forced speech, she asked me to follow her. She squeezed between the chairs and the wall until she passed the rabbi who stood up and pushed his chair under the table to make room for her.
“Is everything all right?” he asked her.
“No, it’s not all right, so I’m leaving!” She spoke so loudly that, despite the noise in the room, everyone could hear her. It was quiet in the room now, only a few people continued serving themselves the beans and meat.
Everyone looked at her. Some covered their mouths because they had eaten too fast and tried to be as quiet as possible while they chewed the last bite.
Grandmother leaned on her cane and looked from one to the next. There were a few old men who could not look her in the eye and bowed their heads, stared at a table or a plate, as if there were something there to discover. Grandmother pointed with her cane to one of the old men, walked a few steps until she stood behind him, and struck the legs of his chair with her cane. He didn’t move, kept looking at his plate, and didn’t say a word.
“Does it taste good? Then keep eating. But you won’t be able to forget it, no matter how many beans you eat.”
Now Slansky, the man she was standing next to, who had donated the cholent, slowly stood up, took a step back and pushed his chair in. His face was moist, beads of sweat ran down his neck to the much-too-wide shirt collar and disappeared under it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come,” he whispered, but it was so quiet in the room, everyone could hear him. “I thought, it’s all been so long…” He spoke slowly, haltingly.
But Grandmother interrupted him harshly. “Nothing is over, nothing and never!” Then she turned to me and said, “Sonja! Let’s go!”
We left the room and the temple and took a taxi home. Grandmother didn’t observe Shabbat so well.
During the ride, she didn’t say one word to me.
Now, what should I have done with this experience?
I had only known you for a few weeks. You came to this city like you were from another planet.
Unbelievable, all that you could tell me about, all that you have experienced. I think I have said this about every new boyfriend, but with you it really was true, you were so different from the others.
Everything was beautiful with you, partly because it was so new. With the others I already knew what they were going to say as soon as they opened their mouths.
But that Sunday everything changed. I saw your grandfather there and my grandmother’s reaction to him and just wanted to know what the big secret was.
You might not have noticed that I recently kept asking you about your grandfather. But your answer has always been the same. He was in a camp, and moved to America after the war. And you always claimed you didn’t know anything more. Today I know more, and I can’t imagine that you didn’t at some point find this out for yourself. But I don’t want to spare you from knowing how I found out.
During the next few days I kept thinking about how I could at least start a conversation with my grandmother with some innocuous question that could then lead to the right answer later. But whenever I saw Grandmother, I didn’t dare. Onju sat stone-faced in her armchair all day, looking straight ahead and often didn’t seem to know where she was. But the worst part was that she no longer wanted to go to the synagogue.
I tried my luck with my parents. It didn’t work. They wouldn’t tell me anything, either.
One night when everyone was already in bed, I got up and got myself a glass of water. I saw my mother come out of her bedroom. She went into the living room and turned on the television. She does that often when she can’t sleep. I sat down with her and simply asked her what was going on with Grandmother and told her what had happened at temple, but all she said was that there were things in life one could not talk about. She asked me not to torture anyone with my curiosity, and certainly not Grandmother.
At the end of that week, on Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. I was still in bed, my father was making breakfast as he does every Sunday, and he went to the door. My room is right next to the front door. I heard my father speaking with a man, it sounded like an argument, which grew louder and more intense. I slipped out of bed, put on my robe, and opened my bedroom door a little.
My father had the front door open a crack, but blocked the entrance with his foot so the other man could not enter. I didn’t know who was at the door, but the voice sounded familiar.
“Go away. This is senseless,” my father said.
But the other answered, he had to come in, that he couldn’t live like this anymore, he would explain everything, and then he would also be understood.
But my father raised his voice more and more and told him to leave.
Then I recognized the voice. It was your grandfather who was at the door. I didn’t care if anyone saw me. I opened the door a little more and sat on the floor, with my ears at the opening so I could hear every word.
Your grandfather talked for a long, long time. His story didn’t seem to have an end. He talked about his youth. He only wanted to survive just like everybody else in those difficult times. Nobody, he assured my father, died by his hand. On the contrary, he had been able to help hundreds, hid them, got food for them. He began to cry, begged to be allowed to see my grandmother once more, hammered on the door, and pushed himself against it to force his way into the apartment.
Then I heard the shuffling steps of my grandmother.
He couldn’t see her. He wailed, begged, and threw himself against the door that my father kept closed with all his strength.
“Go away!” Onju said to my father, while she was standing behind him.
I could no longer restrain myself and pulled the door back far enough to see into the corridor. My father had stepped aside and Onju had opened the door. Your grandfather was on his knees. He looked up at my grandmother. His face was contorted, his eyes red, and I thought to myself, that’s how a dying person looks.
She looked at him for a while and then said in a quiet, slightly trembling voice: “If you really want me to, I forgive you. I forgive you that you picked my husband out of the line because he refused to give your friend the bed in the corner. I forgive you, you miserable bastard, that I’ve had to live half my life alone because of this absurdity, and that you, like many others of his so-called friends, that all of you…”
Suddenly she trembled and seemed to be falling. My father, who was standing behind her, grabbed her under the arms and slowly lowered her to the floor. It was a strange picture, my grandmother sitting on the floor and your grandfather kneeling before her.
At that moment, my father kicked the door and it shut with a loud bang. “Get out of here!” he yelled. “Or I’ll call the police.” He tried to lift Onju, but she was as stiff as a board and her legs were spread out. So he sat down beside her and put his arm around her shoulder. Outside it was quiet.
Onju didn’t cry. She had an almost peaceful face. She nodded a few times, suddenly looked around and saw me sitting in the doorway of my room on my knees. For only a brief moment, we locked eyes. But it seemed to me like she was saying: Do you understand me now?
Then she shook my father’s arm off her shoulder. “What’s wrong with you?” she said loudly. “Are you going let me sit here on the floor forever? Am I going to eat breakfast here?”
It was comforting to hear these discontented, sullen tones again. My father jumped up and helped her to her feet. I got up, too.
And then it was a beautiful Sunday. Onju was in the best mood she had been in for ages. She complained about everything, made jokes about my mother’s cooking skills, and threatened to move into a nursing home if my mother did not finally learn how to make grilled fish right. My father, she explained, had always been too stupid to succeed in business, and she had warned her daughter before they got married.
But she didn’t speak to me. Only in the evening when I was going to bed and started to give her a good-night kiss, she said very softly, so only I could hear her, “I know that you like Robert. Don’t blame him. It’s not his fault. He is a very nice boy. It was only his grandfather. He has nothing to do with it.”
“But Onju,” I said, “how shall I…”
She put her finger to my lips. “Be quiet. It would be the worst thing for me if this affects your life, too. So, now go to sleep.”
I kissed her on the cheek and went to my room.
This is, Robert, what I wanted to tell you. Do you know now what I know? Can you imagine what happened back then with our grandparents?
And you, Robert? Who are you? The grandson of a kapo? The son of the son of a kapo? Or just my boyfriend Robert? When we are together, how can I forget what I have seen at home? How can I just go for a walk with you, sit beside you at the movies somewhere in the back row, where it is dark and no one can see us? Laugh with you, or listen to your stories from a faraway world? Robert, I’m desperate, what should I do?
Slansky was able to read the last page of the letter only haltingly. Tears ran down his face, and dripped onto the paper. He kept wiping them away and continued reading. He no longer looked left or right, he didn’t care about the rabbi; he was instead only absorbed by these words of a seventeen-year old girl that were so terrible to him.
When he had read the last sentence, he carefully refolded the damp letter and looked for a handkerchief to wipe his face. He took off his glasses and wiped them until the lenses were dry. Then he put them back on, turned and asked the rabbi, “Now what…?”
But the narrow corridor to the stairs and the elevator, where the rabbi had been leaning against the wall and listening, was empty. No one was there.