Animals and Humans
By Lili Berger
Translated from Yiddish by Frieda Johles Forman and Sylvia Segal Lustgarten
And a wolf shall dwell with a lamb,
And a leopard shall lie down with a kid;
And a calf and a young lion and a fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
— Isaiah, 11, 6 (Trans by Yehoyesh in Yiddish text)
“Can you come for a visit this evening? Come over. We’ll talk and you’ll meet my friends.”
I was so glad to receive her invitation; I had long wanted to get closer to Maria Vigda. I’d heard about her: a zoologist who had written several books and had helped Jews during the Occupation. I was pleased to have met her while on my vacation, even more pleased to be invited to her home. There I would meet new people, and Maria Vigda’s friends were not just anybody.
I began preparing for my visit in the afternoon. I have a rule, no exceptions, that on vacations I shed all my city clothes and jewellery. However, visiting Maria Vigda and meeting new people was another matter altogether; anybody who’s anybody would probably be there.
I gave up my rest hour and soon after lunch I was off to the hairdresser, wasting three hours. Afterwards, I examined my vacation wardrobe over and over and began to regret that I hadn’t brought a decent evening dress. How could I go on such a visit and meet new people in a traveling suit, or in slacks? No choice, I slipped on a light summery dress and got going. As if in spite, the day was cool and windy, the sky slate grey, and a fine, steady rain began to fall. Luckily, I had a large kerchief with me.
At the door, I removed my kerchief, fixed my tousled hairdo as well as I could, wiped the raindrops from my face, looked in the mirror, and powdered my nose. Who knew whom I’d meet there —I waited awhile, caught my breath, and knocked.
The door opened, and just as I stepped over the threshold, a tawny dog, the size of a calf, jumped on me with his two front paws. At first glance, I thought I was in the wrong place. I wanted to scream but fear struck me dumb. Seeing how pale I’d become, Maria Vigda began to scold the tawny dog. The canine creature dropped his tail as if ashamed.
“Bernard was greeting you; his way of showing you his friendship.”
“Bernard? The dog?” I stammered, still frightened.
“If people have names of animals, why shouldn’t animals have names of people, especially since Bernard behaves so humanely? So, let me have your coat, sit down, sit down.”
I sat and had hardly caught my breath, when Bernard submissively lay himself down at my feet, as if he wanted to make up for scaring me. Maria Vigda, a tall, robust, blond fifty-nine-year-old woman wearing large, black-framed glasses, sat herself across from me, smiling as though nothing had happened.
“I thought the rain would detain you — not at all vacation weather, but I see you’re not afraid of it.”
“I’m much more afraid of dogs than of rain. But it looks like your friends are afraid of the rain; they haven’t come.”
“Haven’t come? Here are my friends.” She pointed all around her.
I looked around and saw, lying in a corner, another tawny coloured dog the size of a calf. He seemed to be dozing. In another corner snuggled two sleeping blue grey pigeons. On the couch a grey cat was comfortably stretched out, two suckling kittens resting on her stomach. I turned my gaze from corner to corner and recalled how I had fussed with my hairdo and attire.
“You don’t like my friends?” Miriam Vigda asked with a meaningful smile.
“I didn’t know whom I expected to meet at your home,“ I confessed. “I didn’t think you would take them along on your vacation,” I said, motioning with my hand.
“Would it be decent to go on holidays and leave them behind, abandoned? With Nike due to give birth… Oh, did she have a difficult delivery, two were stillborn. Without my help she would not have survived, she suffered so much. She kept looking to me, pleading with me to help her; rarely have I seen such conduct. Nike is good and as bright as the day…”
“Nike? A cat with the name of a goddess?”
“Yes, indeed, the name of the Greek goddess… Nike is highly moral, with exceptional ethical principles, she wouldn’t harm a weaker creature; she would fiercely defend it. If you could see how she acts in all kinds of situations, while people… A superior ethic.”
“And the dogs? No danger leaving them with those resident cats?”
“What are you talking about? Bernard and Astra would never harm anyone, except to defend someone You have no idea how able they are.”
Maria Vigda became lost in thought as though searching for arguments to convince me, and she continued: “People have a false impression of animals. Doing them a great injustice, they vilify them, and project all their own evil tendencies and ugly deeds on them. ‘A bitchy person’! Not true, not true, I tell you, I have a lot of experience both with people and with animals, and I know what I’m talking about.”
In the meantime, Bernard had forgotten that I hadn’t so gladly accepted his friendship and once again began to show me affection. As though encouraged by his mistress’s words, he got up and, placing his long snout on my lap, began to sniff me. I drew back involuntarily, revealing to Maria Vigda my cold feelings towards the canine species.
“I’m afraid of such a wolfish snout. With such dogs the Nazis…”
“The Nazis made of dogs what they were themselves. A pity, a pity you didn’t t see my offspring in the zoo. My little son used to play with a young leopard, with a small tiger; I raised the young wild animals, making gentle creatures of them. As for our domestic animals, it goes without saying. I could tell you many things…”
“You mean to say that from a wild animal…?”
“I think you can turn a person into a wild animal. Do only a few two-footed wild animals roam the earth? We have the wrong image. Animals are good, loyal creatures, so loyal! My Astra” — she pointed to the corner — “has shown such astonishing loyalty. Today she’s eighteen years old, such an old age, a rare old age for a dog, deaf in one ear; her heart weakened, but still a good, faithful heart. I can still rely on her; she’ll never let me down. You can’t imagine such loyalty. I tell you, a person has only two great friends: a mother and a dog — a mother who never fails you, nor does a dog who understands you like a mother.”
Hearing these comparisons, I probably scowled because Maria Vigda began lecturing me and presenting evidence: “Don’t make such a face, don’t grimace, a mother’s honour is not offended. I tell you, a dog is a great friend to people, understanding and intuitive… Just listen: At the time of the Occupation, Jews and members of the Resistance would come to me; Astra never barked at them. Although she did not know them, she did not bark. If she sniffed someone to be guarded against, especially one who spoke German, she would let loose with might and main, instantly alerting us; an amazing display in those years.”
I was so afraid that the whole evening would be spent only on canine matters that I grabbed on to Maria’s last words and asked: “And how did it go with Rachel Golldshtayn?“
“With Rachel? Do you know her?”
“No, but I know… And you went to see her in Paris.”
“Astra rescued her.” She pointed to the dozing dog. “She was young then, agile, not even two years old, the same as Bernard is now.”
It seemed we had interrupted Astra’s nap. No longer wanting to lie in the corner, she got up with slow, phlegmatic movements. Stretching her old head, she turned her loyal dog’s eyes to me as if she wanted to win my confidence in the canine species. Then, with uncertain steps, she came close to me, looking me in the eye pleadingly. I began to overcome my antipathy to the canine species, and tentatively stretched out my hand and stroked her head. Astra took several more tiny steps and faced me meekly, sadness and gratitude showing in her teary eyes.
“Became sentimental in her old age,” Maria Vigda interpreted the dog’s behaviour. “She’s heavy-hearted, and as soon as she’s shown the slightest sympathy, she looks for empathy and begins to complain.”
“About her old age. She tolerates her old age poorly, weakness lies heavily on her spirit. She cannot make peace with aging: her heart is still young, her body reduced to nothing. Who doesn’t need a little warmth, an extended friendly hand in such circumstances? I don’t have enough time for her and she needs someone constantly. Old age doesn’t tolerate loneliness and Astra tolerates neither… Aye, old age…”
Maria Vigda broke off, wrinkled her forehead somewhat strangely, as though carrying on a great debate with herself. Apparently she’s one of those people who need to share their own thoughts and debates.
“A strange chaos in nature, incomprehensible, why is one creature given a long life and another such a short one? So many injustices in nature itself. If it were true that God had created everything around us, then God would be without a trace of justice. But the worst is that we can’t comprehend the causes; we grope in the dark, blindly. See here: the elephant and the crocodile live for hundreds of years, and my Astra is already old, has already had a foot in the grave for a long time. At fourteen, a dog is already old, worn out at an age while many small, weak creatures are still in their youth and reproduce until old age. They’d live longer than such strong creatures like the horse and the ox. And the human being, the crown of God’s creation… The crocodile, the carp, lay eggs for two hundred years and even longer; or take the parrot, the crow, they live long while other similar birds have quite a short life.
“But I tell you, the greatest wrong happened to the human being. The organism at fifty or sixty years, begins a natural decline. The human brain is then at its most developed, a bizarre contradiction. Look at the human female, incomprehensible, without a bit of fairness or sense. Take me, something has matured in my brain… I now know what I want, I would conquer worlds. So, look at my face; in about ten years I’ll be like my poor Astra, but in my head, more thoughts and plans are born all the time. Such nonsense in nature, a weird contradiction: the brain, the heart and the face…”
Hearing Maria Vigda’s reflections, I became heavy-hearted. But Astra was not disturbed by her mistress’s philosophical-pessimistic exposition. On the contrary, she became more lively, bolder, moved closer to me, very close, stretching her neck as if asking for a pat; she licked one of my hands then the other. I instinctively took away my hand.
“Enough, Astra, leave us to our conversation! To your place!”
With one ear Astra caught her mistress’s demand, moved away from me to her place and, resigned, she lay down.
I felt guilty, because of me she had to return to her corner; she had sought human warmth and I didn’t even give her a pat. I wanted to redeem myself for my hard-heartedness, at least to compliment her…
“A smart dog, she understands everything…”
“Smarter in many ways than people. A dog understands people’s needs but people don’t understand a dog’s wordless speech. But what is there to say when people don’t understand one another, though they speak the same language? I’d rather deal with Astra than with certain… I’ve already talked about her accomplishments in those years; at that time I was convinced, you wouldn’t believe if I told you.”
“I will believe you, tell me,” I said to her half in earnest, half in jest.
“Aha, you’d have to sit with me all night, and I still wouldn’t have told you everything. Every day a remarkable event… and if not for Astra…”
I felt Maria Vigda was prepared to sit with me the whole night; to tell the truth, I too was tempted, but I now had reason to fear that my major interest might drown in a sea of talk about the canine species. And so I persisted and asked again: “And Goldberg? How was that?”
“It happened this way: I lived in a country house then, far from the city. It was a cold morning, a wet snow had come down; nonetheless, I opened the door and let Astra out, as usual, to get some air. It was a disturbing night, echoes of shooting were heard in the distance. On such a day, people were afraid to stick out their heads. Astra was in a more fortunate position, less exposed to danger. She would go out and live it up, to her heart’s content. This time, she was back in a short while, scratching at the door as if she had to tell me about something important. Holding the hem of my dress with her snout, she pulled and dragged me out the door. I allowed myself to be led, following Astra until she stopped at the fence and growled. On the other side were thick bushes. I looked through the pickets and saw nothing. I was then more near-sighted than I am today; the years make you farsighted … In short, I noticed nothing. But since Astra did not move, I stood and looked. Suddenly, a voice of sorts, as if coming from under the ground: ‘Have mercy, let me hide somewhere.’ Nearby, two planks were broken off. I sent Astra out to the road to stand watch, and if there was anything, she’d let us know. A hidden woman crawled out through that same opening and followed me like a shadow. I tell you, a terrifying picture. She had escaped when they had driven them out of the town and had wandered through the forest all night; she saw someone on the road in the distance and hid in the bushes. Just looking at her, I was seized by fear. How can I describe that tangle of rags, dead eyes looking out, and a face of terror?”
Maria Vigda remained silent, her mouth open, as if the fear of the past had now robbed her of speech. Her gaze hung on the old dog, lying stretched out, as if she reminded her of happier events. She regained her speech: “Believe me, she guarded her the whole time. During the day, when she was in the kitchen, Astra would watch over her. As soon as she sniffed someone on the road she didn’t like, especially a German, she let loose loudly, then an alarm went off. By her barking I knew who was approaching the house and whether to send the woman back to the cellar. Sometimes I let her stay in the kitchen at night, it was cold in the cellar, freezing. Just imagine, Astra would lie at her feet at night, never moving away, her ears pointed and alert…”
A dark cloud spread over Maria Vigda’s face, a memory had suddenly come to mind: “A bank employee lived less than a kilometre away. Oh, if that one knew what was going on in my house! A handsome, blond young man with not a spark of humanity. How many unfortunates had he denounced! There, a man, and Astra, a dog. Believe me, Astra seethed when she saw him, at times, visibly so; she held him responsible. I tell you, we have a false conception about animals and people. You may believe me, I have a lot of experience; people can be worse toward one another than animals. And look here, at my house-mates.”
Once again, I began looking around the spacious room. Astra was asleep, the old dog’s heart beating rhythmically beneath her fur; in another corner the two doves rested quietly. We had apparently disturbed their sleep, they looked as if they were still dozing. On the sofa the mother cat was spread out in all her majesty, the kittens warming themselves at her stomach. At the foot of the sofa stood the young tawny dog the size of a calf who looked about with intelligent dog eyes, as if drawing joy from the matriarchal picture. Miriam Vigda followed me with her bespectacled eyes and, smiling, said: “So, what do you say now? Am I not right?”