Fanny and Gabriel
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Nava Semel
Translated from Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffman
Once upon a time in Bukovina. A fairytale name, like a literary invention, there's no point searching for it on a map, since it isn't a state or a country, but was a province of the Austro- Hungarian Empire before the First World War. Bukovina, which exists today only in the memories of those who lived there, remains the byword for individuals of discerning taste, possessed of wit and an ironic view of the world, seasoned with an acidic humor. It was the shared starting point for Fanny and Gabriel – both of them were born there.
Fanny loved the "land of the forests" that extended to the north of the Carpathian Mountains and nestled at their feet. Snow-capped ridges, deep ravines, meadows lush with greenery, rivers and rushing streams, and an abundance of oak, beech, and especially maple trees – called "buk" trees in the Slavic language, hence the name Bukovina.
Outside the house they spoke a polished German, while Yiddish was the language within. Eyes were always cast longingly toward Czernowitz, a miniature copy of glorious Vienna. Abraham Katz, Fanny's father, proudly dubbed it "Jerusalem on the River Prut," and advocated for enlightened Jewish learning that would go hand-in-hand with German heritage. He bought books of poetry by Goethe, Rilke, and Heine, but the height of his regard was reserved for the poet Paul Celan, a native of Czernowitz, who had become the symbol of modern German poetry. They had even met once, and he had exchanged a few words with Celan. Abraham's three daughters preferred the opera singer Joseph Schmidt, who despite his short stature appeared on the finest stages and was a star of the silver screen, in addition to being the cantor of the synagogue.
"And what does he do when he has to kiss his glamorous co-star?" wondered Paula, the middle sister.
"They stand him on a special footstool," Fanny replied, asserting that she would only agree to marry a man who was taller than she was.
Marriage – that was the main topic of conversation among the sisters. On Herrengasse, the main street of Czernowitz, they promenaded up and down in their finery before the men sitting in the cafés, eating the mille-feuille, custard-layered French pastry with cream, and the Kaiserschmarren shredded pancake dipped in fruit compote. This latter dessert was named for Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Fanny the cooking aficionado explained to her sisters, and he would wolf down his wife Sissi's portion as well, since she was known to watch her figure.
"Why must a woman strive to be beautiful for a man?" asked Lizzie, the youngest.
"There is no lack of men who strive to look handsome for women," Fanny retorted, although she couldn't actually think of any she knew.
Gabriel was much less impressed by the saccharine love story about Franz Joseph and Sissi. "Romantic nonsense that appeals to simpletons," was how he described it to his sister Anna, advising her not to emulate kings and movie stars.
Neither Fanny nor Gabriel came from Czernowitz proper. He was born in the village of Mihova, and she in the town of Siret.
In the competition between his village and her town she emerged victorious. Siret, which is part of Romania today, was more important than Mihova, which is now part of Ukraine, and this is because it was a crossroads on the trade routes between the Black Sea and the Baltic. A river separated the village from the town, perhaps foreshadowing things to come.
On a steamy summer's day in 1914, Gabriel crossed the river and strode along the main street of Siret, which was very similar to the main street of Mihova. Dressed in his best suit – which was reserved for the Sabbath and holidays – he passed between opposing rows of two-storey houses, surrounded by well-tended gardens with lilac bushes planted out front. Before a window adorned with a lace curtain and a line of flower pots he debated whether to pick a posy to present as a polite token to his hosts and then decided against it. He didn't want to appear too eager. If there was any excitement on his part about the step that he was about to take, he capably subdued it. To exhibit restraint at all times – that was what he had learned from his father who would reproach his mother, a native of Odessa, "Russians are an overly emotional people." The youth of twenty was on his way to propose marriage to Fanny, whom he had never metbefore.
The matchmaker had decreed, "She will suit you."
He listed her virtues: eighteen years old, responsible, serious, dedicated to her family – there was also a brother, a prodigy, who was at a yeshiva in Vienna – but mainly, she was industrious. Everyone affirmed how hard she toiled from morning to night in the family business. There was a filling machine in the cellar and Fanny was considered the expert at bottling the beer that came from the brewery of the German Julius Baile. She also knew how to haggle with the farmers on the weekly market day – the matchmaker embellished the praise of his human merchandise. Not to mention her cooking, which was renowned throughout the province. "You'll be licking your fingers after sampling her pickled herring in cream sauce."
Gabriel didn't care for herring. Too smelly for his taste.
And what about her appearance? He suspected that they were proposing an ugly girl, and so he asked for details about her sisters instead. Paula, the middle sister, for example. Rumor had it that she was beautiful and of a pleasant disposition. The matchmaker insisted that she was already the intended of the goldsmith Emil Stein, and in any case, Abraham Katz would never violate the order of the matches. And Lizzie, Gabriel had heard that she was all fire and flame. No, the young one's time had not yet come the matchmaker brooked no argument, and her outlook was overly modern. She tended toward the suffragette movement that demanded the vote for women, and a spouse like that was serious trouble.
He stood firm – the eldest first. It's true that Fanny wasn't celebrated for her breathtaking appearance, but it is well known that within beauty lies sin, and who wants to become entangled in temptations and jealousy which will only hinder a marriage? Besides, why do the young men of today wish to marry only pretty women? Why, when he's sleeping a man doesn't see his wife at all, and when he's dining his eyes are glued to his plate, and in the Beit Midrash he isn't obliged to opine about any woman, and when he is at work, she is not by his side. So if he meets her for only a few moments before leaving the house in the morning, and upon his return in the evening, what should he care whether his wife is beautiful or ugly? In any case, all cats are black in the nighttime, as the saying goes. Fanny is reasonable looking and even-tempered. A fair deal.
A deal – that's how it all began. A pragmatic issue and not something infused with romance or desire. That was the only model Gabriel knew – matchmaking – from the dawn of mankind. When he was a child, his father had explained to him that not only did the Creator of the world match Eve to Adam, but it was He who created her for him by special order, and it was according to his measurements that she was fashioned. Her entire being was designated solely for the man. A helpmate by his side. And until she bore him children, she didn't even have a name, and Adam referred to her as "the woman whom You gave to be with me."
A woman is given. A woman is handed over. A woman is not chosen. Marriage, offspring, a secure vocation – these were the stations in the life of every young Jew, obligations to be fulfilled. If Gabriel had dreams, they tended in a different direction. He wanted to make money. One day he would buy himself a car – what a fabulous invention – like the Ford Model T he had seen in the newsreel bulletins at the cinema in Czernowitz. Every three minutes a car was manufactured at the factory in Chicago in the state of Illinois, the narrator announced, and Gabriel learned a new concept – the "assembly line."
"Only in America," he heard a whispered sigh from behind him in the darkness.
Chicago, Illinois, America – to Gabriel these seemed to be beyond the mountains of darkness. His rebelliousness, like his dreams, was still locked deep within him. The untimely death of his father, the lumber merchant, did not permit any deviation from the mold, and he surrendered to the pressure brought to bear by his mother to establish a family and stand on his own two feet. The widow Herzig was in need of another pair of capable hands. His sister Anna was still a child and couldn't shoulder the burden of earning a living. Gabriel would marry Fanny or another, provided that she was an even-tempered woman from a decent family who would be a helpmate by his side for the expansion of the business. After all, someone had to travel to Odessa, the mother's birthplace, to sell the merchandise, and Gabriel spoke a very good Russian.
Everything was explained to him in advance. Nothing was kept from him, although the matchmaker did play down the candidate's less-endearing trait. She's stiff necked, chorused the gossips, although it was possible that the source of the rumor lay with the customers, who knew Fanny as a tough negotiator who did not give in to their pressure to register debt on credit. Either way, the matchmaker exempted himself from the obligation to report this hearsay. While stubbornness is the corridor that connects between paradise and hell, this was a young girl who had yet to complete her adolescence, and there was no doubt that a husband's instruction would steer her in the proper direction and dissolve any remnant of recalcitrance.
Still, no one coerced Gabriel to choose Fanny over any other. She was but one among the pool of options.
Beads of perspiration slid under his shirt in the heat of the day, while he wiped his damp palms on his trousers, hoping that his handshake with the father of the bride-to-be wouldn't feel too slippery. He had to convince the future father-in-law that he would be a worthy husband, who would support his eldest daughter and see to her every need.
He crossed the Ringplatz – the Ring Square – passed by the Annahof Hotel and entered the Kirchgasse, the Alley of the Church, popularly known as the "Jewish Matchmaking Market," because there as well the girls would gather in groups and walk back and forth under the gaze of the boys who surveyed the goods.
Unlike others engaged in the matchmaking process, who trembled in terror before the intimate encounter with a woman, Gabriel wasn't worried. Although the entirety of his sexual experience was derived from a visit to a whore in Czernowitz – a woman of abundant bosom possessed of a gold tooth – she had showered his performance with praise, and thrown in a few delights free of charge following the act, even though she had already received her full reward. When he left, as she promised a substantial discount for further assignations, the prostitute told her colleagues, in Gabriel's presence, that the young client was a natural. Who knew, maybe one day he would play a women's idol in the movies. He wouldn't need a stool to stand on like the heartthrob Joseph Schmidt.
Fanny's reaction to Gabriel was very similar to that of the whore's, although she saw him fully clothed. Even before he entered the house her breath caught in her throat when she peeked at him in secret through the window, from her hiding place behind the curtains. That fleeting glance at Gabriel standing in the street sealed her fate.
This was her man.
There are those who say that love at first sight is a battered concept that exists only in romantic novels, however, since Fanny was a big fan of that type of literature and was known to read at least three such volumes a week, for her the idea was real and valid.
She did not blame the wave of heat that overcame her on the spate of unseasonably warm weather that had graced Bukovina. She placed her hand on her chest, which was squashed into a corset, fluttered her fingers in the air, and without waiting for a formal invitation, descended from the living quarters while smoothing her long dress tight over her body and holding herself erect.
Gabriel, who stood in the entrance, hadn't yet had a chance to remove his hat. He was tall, just as she wished, and gave her a polite nod. She didn't see his eyes, and they also didn't have the chance to exchange a word for the matchmaker burst in at that very moment, mopping his damp, perspiring face and blaming the weather for his tardiness.
"Jews can't live in the heat," he sighed, "The Jewish brain must always be ventilated."
None of those present joined in his laughter, and so he hurried to introduce Gabriel, uttering superfluous adjectives – "an illustrious yeshiva student" – he wasn't especially gifted; "from a distinguished family" – they had no assets, and were not the descendants of a well-known rabbinic dynasty; while he described Abraham Katz as a Vizhnitz Hassid, close to the Admor, which was perfectly true.
The conversation progressed ponderously, and was filled with silences. Gabriel provided businesslike responses in economical language, fully aware of Fanny's glances. Indeed, she wasn't beautiful, but she was far from ugly. Her eyes were a shade of deep brown, and he noticed that they were framed by exceptionally long lashes.
Her silky hair was tied back, and one stray curl had escaped and fell over her temple. Her skin was fresh, as though polished, and the scent of lilacs emanated from her. She sat opposite him, rigid in her chair, her limbs taut. Ever since his visit to the prostitute Gabriel had learned to study the outline of female breasts and he registered the swell of the firm breasts within the corset, and could already imagine losing himself in her curves. He would no longer have to empty his pockets to finance a gold-toothed whore. Even her teeth did not escape him, his furtive examination leading to the happy discovery of two white, flawless rows. And the admiration that her father bestowed on her – he called her "my treasure" – convinced Gabriel that Fanny wasn't as spineless as the others who had been offered to him by the matchmaker in the past.
The German in her mouth was flawless, and she answered his questions in language as compact as his own. He asked if she played the piano that stood in the parlor. No. The German "Bechstein" had been imported specially from Vienna for Lizzie, the youngest. The fact that the greater part of his savings was invested in it, Abraham Katz chose not to mention, along with Lizzie's support for women's rights. Unconventional views in a family could easily sabotage a match.
The two younger sisters peeked into the room through a crack in the door. Paula entered with a tray upon which were arrayed glasses of brandy. She was certainly lovely, fair haired, with the same dark brown almond eyes, but too pale for his taste. Then Lizzie was invited to play a Chopin polonaise while the terms were dictated to the clapping of hands. Abraham Katz would provide the couple with living arrangements on the top floor, and the dowry would include a set of porcelain dishes made in Germany, four eiderdowns, two blankets of goose feathers, and linen sheets embroidered with monograms.
When Abraham Katz shook the hand of the intended groom – which was a bit damp – Gabriel rose from his chair. Fanny remained seated, gazing at him, her hands still folded in her lap, masking the tumult within.
There were several things he would have liked to ask her. Did she have any dreams? And what was her opinion about the wide world? Would she be willing to distance herself from her father's house for his sake? But he was twenty years old and he didn’t dare to ask a thing.
Two days later they regrouped, this time in full force. Abraham Katz broke porcelain plates for luck, and the widow Herzig gave the betrothed young woman a sapphire studded ring, consigned the fee to the matchmaker's hand, and requested that the earliest possible date be set for the wedding. Fanny was already thinking ahead, and on the spot vowed to herself that she would not cut off her hair and don a wig. Gabriel would stroke her hair directly, with no barrier in between. She imagined his hand clutching her hair, intertwined in it, and his fingers penetrating with slow caresses to the very roots. She sat facing him, shuddering with the power of her imagination. That engine was set in motion inside her, with great intensity.
But Gabriel didn’t have the chance to get to know his intended, not even once did he meet Fanny alone, and he never had the opportunity to ask her even one question. Two and a half million soldiers from across the empire were mobilized for the war that broke out – and he among them. A Serbian nationalist shot the heir to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie in the city of Sarajevo, and craving revenge Austria declared war on Serbia.
The train station in Czernowitz was decked out like a carnival. Flags and ribbons fluttered from the tops of buildings, and strains of marching music could be heard from every direction. The recruits walked in formation, waving to the cheering crowd.
The widow Herzig and little Anna accompanied Gabriel to the platform, and the girl declaimed, echoing the cries sounded in the streets, "By Christmas you'll be home!" The mother altered the festival to "by Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year," wrapped a thick wool scarf around Gabriel's neck and begged him not to commit any unnecessary feats of heroism. He tore off the scarf, "Don't worry, Mother. I'll be back before the winter." He, too, was certain that he was embarking upon a short-term adventure, perhaps even one that would add some vitality to his life before he settled down. If he had known how many winters would pass before he returned home he would have smashed his leg with a hammer to evade the imperial conscription order.
A man with a first name identical to his own transformed his life completely. The assassin who changed the world order was only slightly younger than he was, and his name was Gavrilo Princip.
World War I broke out, and the marriage of Gabriel and Fanny was postponed indefinitely.
Gabriel hated the army, and he loathed the war even more.
He already had the commander's speech memorized: "Bukovina is the frontline against the Russians, allies of damned Serbia. And may their leader, General Aleksei Brusilov, be damned as well. But we, the Austro-Hungarians, have massed four armies against them, thirty-five infantry divisions, and eleven cavalry divisions. You, dear soldiers, are part of a mighty army waging an exalted war."
Major Klaus Von-Hoffenberg took pains to repeat these tiresome details again and again for the entire duration of the training period, and to roar, "Our victory is assured!" when he was done. Gabriel was swept up, against his will, in the shouting, despite not being at all confident of that victory.
He was surrounded by men speaking a multitude of tongues, but fortunately for him, the members of the officers' corps spoke German, which allowed him to function as intermediary between Von-Hoffenberg and the soldiers conscripted from across the empire. Gabriel's fluency in Romanian, Hungarian, and Russian, which he had learned from his Odessa-born mother, made him the commander's official translator.
Von-Hoffenberg, a native of Salzburg and admirer of Mozart, who hailed from the same city, was deeply impressed by the polished German of the corporal from Bukovina. And especially by his ability to recite Goethe's ballad about the father and son riding through the dark forest, pursued by the cruel Elven King.
"I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy! And if thou'rt unwilling, then force I'll employ."
"My father, my father, he seizes me fast! For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last."
The major even wiped a tear from his eye as he listened to the ballad's chilling conclusion, when the child is left dead in the arms of his father, and even when Gabriel disclosed that he was a Jew, he didn't alter his attitude toward him.
In fact, there was no need for the commander to encourage the Jewish new recruits to fight, for they had received their conscription notices with enthusiasm and demonstrable patriotism. Sixty eight years of the Emperor Franz Joseph's stable rule and the equal rights they enjoyed gave them a sense of fraternity and shared destiny. For them it was a privilege to serve their esteemed emperor and to help him to defeat Russia. Von-Hoffenberg laughed when Gabriel told him that Franz-Joseph had even been the recipient of an affectionate Jewish nickname – Freum Yossel – Yossel the Righteous.
The commander also had no difficulty convincing the Jews that Russia was a bitter enemy. From the start they resented the country because of the edicts about the Pale of Settlement and the countless upheavals that took place in the name of the Czar. Besides, wasn't it a mitzvah to fight to the death against an entity infected with the scourge of anti-Semitism?
However, Gabriel did not display enthusiasm about the order that had disrupted his plans. No wedding, no livelihood, and better not to even think about a secure future.
After ten weeks of training, which included military marching, firing ranges, bayonet practice, grenade throwing, trench digging, and crawling under barbed wire, he was stationed at the front. The lone Jew in the company. His uniform chafed his skin. The stink of battle and the stench of horse manure clung to him. The battle rations were inedible, and forget about keeping kosher. He didn't make any friends, was compelled to hear innumerable anti-Semitic jokes and to restrain himself from responding to the provocations about being "a man with a chopped-off organ."
The lice assailed him no less than the enemy forces, cunningly circumventing the hand grenades on his belt, and the bayoneted rifle he carried on his shoulder. He scratched until he drew blood, cursing Austria's arrogant generals and their ally the German Emperor Wilhelm II, who had dragged him into their mad game of honor and prestige.
On each day that he managed to evade another Russian shell and one more bullet he declaimed the Gomel, the blessing recited upon deliverance from danger, and pleaded with the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He that he wouldn't die in a war that wasn'this.
Only the connection he had forged with his commander somewhat ameliorated his daily routine. His recitations of Goethe earned him better food rations from the officers' mess, and Von-Hoffenberg even began to smuggle in high-quality tobacco for him from the supply depot. At first Gabriel smoked to mask the stench of the rotting flesh that caused him constant nausea, then he became addicted, and to his last day he skillfully rolled his own cigarettes with Chesterfield tobacco, his fingertips stained golden-brown.
He also rolled cigarettes for his commander, and their nightly smoke became their reprieve between the battles. Von-Hoffenberg still clung to the hope that the war would be over in a week, as the German Emperor had boasted.
But as the weeks lengthened into months, so did Von-Hoffenberg sink into melancholy. He started to bring bottles of schnapps along for the nightly respite and drain them one after the other. He constantly spoke of his yearning for his beloved city Salzburg, and in his drunken state would sing arias from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, with grating dissonance. Despite having been born in a musical capital, he possessed not a shred of talent, and when he moved on to sing the women's roles in the opera, especially the famous aria sung by the Queen of the Night, it was clear to Gabriel that the commander had lost his hope that the war would be over soon.
His voice was hoarse from an abundance of cigarettes and schnapps, and his singing sounded like the whistle of a falling shell.
"Are you listening to me, Corporal Herzig?"
"Yes, sir. You sing beautifully. You have a future on the stage. One day you will be famous."
"Definitely. And you will be an illustrious general. The victorious Jewboy of Europe. Why do they call you Herzig, anyway? How did a Jew come by such a 'lovely' name?
In the middle of the night, as the Russian forces opposite prepared for the next battle, Gabriel found himself telling his commander about the day when the Imperial clerk, charged with choosing names for the Jewish subjects, arrived in the far-flung village of Mihova. Why, in the name of Jesus, did Jews have to be given family names at all, he fumed, when they could all be called "Jewboy son of Jewboy," and that would be that.
Weary from the vicissitudes of the long journey and downhearted at the sight of the miserable village, he hastily entered in his notebook new names for the residents according to their vocations. The shoemaker received the name "Schuster," the tailor became "Schneider," the glazier "Glaser," and the bookbinder "Buchbinder." Only the haughty town elder, who refused to host the clerk at his inn, received in revenge the name "Arsch," which means "buttocks."
Von-Hoffenberg laughed. What a serious blow, to bequeath such a demeaning surname to your descendants. Better to remain without a name at all. Gabriel was feeling no less exhausted than the Imperial clerk by his family lore, but the commander demanded that he continue.
When Gabriel's grandmother heard what had happened to her husband, she panicked. The thought that her descendants would forever carry the degrading stain of a name like "buttocks" ignited a flash of inspiration. She sent her husband to the river, where he caught a fat fish. After that the grandparents invited the clerk to their home and even gave up their bed with the soft feather quilt for his comfort. They, themselves, slept outside on the hard earth in the freezing cold. The grandmother prepared a meal for the clerk that was fit for a king; fish roasted in onion, garlic, and tomatoes. The clerk licked his fingers, until all that remained on his plate was the exposed skeleton of his dinner.
"I will recommend you for the position of assistant cook in the palace in Vienna," he declared, "Even though you are a Jewess."
And so, with a full stomach and a resounding belch he bestowed upon them the family name "Herzig" and entered it in his notebook with a flourish, as though it was at the very least a Title of Nobility.
If he had changed just one letter and called Gabriel's grandparents "Herzog" instead, then they really could have passed themselves off as counts. But "Herzig" would have to do. That was their name from then on.
The tale concluded, Von-Hoffenberg asked Gabriel to roll one more cigarette for him, and he obeyed the order with trembling fingers. Soon it would be daybreak and the battles would recommence. If heaven-forfend he should doze off during a bombardment it would be the end of him.
"Don't worry, Corporal Herzig. When the war is over I'll take you with me to Salzburg and appoint you my personal clerk. You're a man after my own heart."
Gabriel didn't view himself as someone likely to be endeared to his fellow creatures, especially in his current dismal circumstances, when he had to pick the lice off his privates, and when the stink rising from his socks could discourage even the most tenacious trench rats. Why, oh Master of the Universe, were the German soldiers the only ones to receive a change of socks in their kitbag?
"Tomorrow I will get you some clean socks," promised Von-Hoffenberg.
Gabriel crushed the end of the cigarette with the butt of his rifle and saluted his commander, hoping that the other would understand the hint. It was the last chance to grab a nap before the morning attack began.
However, Von-Hoffenberg was not ready to release his subordinate. Now he instructed him to sing him a Jewish song.
"What luck that you aren't Corporal 'Arse,'" he said. "No woman would consent to marry you with a name like that. Now sing me a lullaby."
Although Gabriel was not blessed with musical talent either, it was not possible to refuse an order from a commanding officer.
Von-Hoffenberg dragged him over to the latrine, and with his pants round his ankles, as he emptied his bowels, he listened to the only tune that Gabriel could conjure up at that moment, "When the
Rebbe sings – all the Hassids sing."
He sang in Yiddish. And by the time he reached the last verse, the commander had picked up the melody and joined in, humming along, out of tune, with the Hassidic song, bare-assed and not comprehending a single word.
"And when the Rebbe cries
When the Rebbe cries
All the Hassids cry
Ya ba ba ba bum
All the Hassids cry."
And so Gabriel and Klaus Von-Hoffenberg sang a duet in the latrine, until the thunder of the cannons cut them off. On that particular morning the Russian artillery fire started earlier than usual. They barely made it back to the trench in time.
Attack, counter-attack, over and over again in a never-ending loop. More than once Gabriel played dead and cleaved to the earth. His terrified inhalations filled his lungs with dust. Once the barrage of shell-fire was over he coughed and spat mud.
The longer the battles continued, the more lost he felt. What did this war have to do with him? How had he become entangled in a snarl of foreign interests that transformed him into a pawn on the chessboard of "the corpse of the Danube," the nickname for the Austro- Hungarian empire among those who despised it. From day to day he felt that his life was hanging in the balance. Sometimes, when he awoke from a fitful sleep, he didn't know whether he was dead or alive.
At first, confronted by the corpses scattered across the crater-strewn battlefield, between the trenches and the mounds of dirt, he would murmur, "Finds a sure rest in the Divine," but he soon kept his mouth shut. No rest and no Divine.
The cries of the dying, "Mother!" "Father!" would pursue him his entire life, and when, many years later, he would see his grandson in an Israel Defense Forces uniform, he would discharge a venomous curse against leaders who send innocent youths to war, never disclosing what they should expect.
Like Gabriel, Von-Hoffenberg also appeared more lost from day to day, and his efforts to motivate and inspire his charges fell flat. The soldiers, of a range of nationalities, did not exhibit any loyalty to the ebbing empire, and in August 1914, a group of Czechoslovakians defected to the Czar's army. Soon other defectors hurried to join the French Foreign Legion.
In April 1915, two more companies from the Royal Imperial Regiment defected to the Russian side, numbering 28, including their officers. In a gruff voice, Von-Hoffenberg read out the daily order from Emperor Franz Joseph, "From this day there no longer exists a company that was morally poisoned and left the battlefield in order to betray the homeland."
Morally poisoned and a traitor is he who drags people off to an empty war in the name of a false ideal, thought Gabriel. To get away. The idea began to take root in his mind.
But the fear of the military police, with their expertise in capturing deserters, paralyzed him. He had already seen those brought handcuffed before a military judge who remained at a safe distance from the front, and sentenced them to death by firing squad. No. The risk was too great.
On the day when the commander instructed them in how to defend themselves against gas attacks, Gabriel again reflected on the idea of deserting. Artillery shells that contained tear gas were fired at the Russian forces stationed at the Rawka River, but due to the low temperature the gas froze instead of evaporating and the attack failed. The chlorine gas used in April and May 1915 was more successful in its mission of slaughter, and Von- Hoffenberg ordered those under his command to cover their noses and mouths with a handkerchief soaked in water. "Soon a supply of gas masks will arrive, made in Germany," he made the festive promise to the soldiers, while confiding to Gabriel that the effectiveness of the handkerchief defense was improved if you saturated it in urine. Every night Gabriel found himself standing by the latrine and emptying the contents of his bladder on a cloth he used to clean his gun. His body's waste is his means of defense? Maybe he should cover his skin in shit to block out the poisons? To what depths would he sink?
Damned warmongers, he cursed, if only your urine would be transformed into tears.
He rolled himself another consoling cigarette by the latrine. For rolling paper he used one of the posters that were distributed by the War Ministry on the frontlines and on the home front. It depicted a sergeant and a private attacking an enemy firing position together. The cheery-looking caption read: "An exemplary case of fortitude on the battlefield." Gabriel usually used the patriotic posters to wipe his butt, although the ink made his tattered underpants stick to his skin.
Patriotism my ass, he said to himself as he sucked on the ever-diminishing cigarette.
Suddenly a sob could be heard from behind one of the huts. At first he thought it was another miserable soldier who had drowned his terror of death in Schnapps and was about to shoot a bullet through his head.
The whimpering continued, and he realized that the sobbing man was mumbling in German. He crept softly behind the hut and to his amazement discovered his commander, kneeling on the crater-pocked ground whispering fragments of sentences to a wrinkled photograph that he kissed again and again. The saliva from his lips gleamed in the beams of the searchlights that scanned the sky to expose enemy planes.
"If I should ever lose you, will you be able then to go to sleep?" A Rilke poem. Gabriel recognized it immediately.
Even when he leaned over Von-Hoffenberg, attempting to drag him toward the officers' quarters, the major wouldn't let go of the photograph, and as if possessed by a dybbuk, continued to mumble the following lines: "…saying words as tender as eyelids that come to rest weightlessly upon your breast, upon your sleeping limbs, upon your lips?"
"Herr Major, you must control yourself."
Gabriel addressed him with authority, while at the same time taking care not to exceed the boundaries of the required distance to be maintained between an officer and a simple soldier.
However, Von-Hoffenberg eliminated all distance, pressing his fists into Gabriel's shoulders – the bayonet swinging between them – and Gabriel felt the edges of the photograph scraping against the bristles on his face.
"My love, mein liebling. I must return to you."
"Herr Major, calm yourself…"
"I haven't done anything…"
"Herr Major… your whole life is ahead of you."
"I have never lain with a woman. I will die a virgin."
At least I managed that, thought Gabriel. For the first time he thought of Fanny. The engagement had also been erased by the war. Only the outline of her breasts hidden within the corset remained.
On one of their rare furloughs the soldiers and officers had attended a performance in one of the neighboring villages. Gabriel was invited to join them. During the dance the captivating women kicked their legs high. Beneath the whirling dresses they weren't wearing underclothes. Unlike his fellow soldiers, Gabriel was not equipped with field glasses, and so he missed the sight of those who shaved their genitals, as was the Tatar custom. Still, the detailed description provided by the others, who saw it all as if from the front row, inspired not only his furtive masturbation when on guard duty, but the entire battalion. Von- Hoffenberg was the only officer who refused to attend the performance. There were more than a few kind souls who gossiped that the officer actually preferred men, but the truth of the matter was that he actually remained scrupulously faithful to onewoman.
"Look at my liebling," he urged Gabriel, "Is she not the most beautiful woman in the world?" Von-Hoffenberg held up the photograph in front of Gabriel's eyes.
The red umbrella of the bombing illuminated the portrait of a woman with a sharp nose, fleshy cheeks, small sunken eyes, and thin lips gaping in an exaggerated smile above a string of pearls adorning a high collar.
Von-Hoffenberg wasn't satisfied with the brief showing of his liebling, and insisted on positioning it under the next barrage of light from the sky so that Gabriel could appreciate it in improved conditions, but this did not present the woman in a kinder light. She was and remained an unlovely creature. Why, in God's name, had the major chosen her of all women?
At that very moment the sound of an explosion shook the air around them.
Even the shelling did nothing to interrupt the commander's longing for his leibling. He was focused on her to such an extent that he didn't bother to take cover, and Gabriel pushed the photograph away, dragged Von-Hoffenberg to the nearest trench and shielded him with his body. The shell's impact deafened them both, and in that moment the commander pulled himself together. He slipped away from Gabriel and righted his helmet that had been knocked askew as he tried to reach the photograph that had been blown outside the trench.
"You saved my life, corporal."
Gabriel was silent.
As the major promised him that he would be guest of honor at his wedding and dance a waltz with the bride, and this despite the fact that he was a Jew, a second shell exploded, this time right next to them. The ground shook with the blast as clods of earth broke apart and rained down. More splinters of fire flickered in the air. Gabriel hurled himself face first to the ground. In the grip of his terror he wet himself.
"I will come to your wedding, Herr Major," Gabriel stammered through a mouthful of earth.
"Your leibling really is the most beautiful woman in the world."
He stood up, but in the chaos around him he couldn't make out the commander.
His outstretched arms encountered something. Gabriel cast about like a blind man, and the wetness spread from his groin down the legs of his pants, hindering his movement. Drops of urine slid down his thighs beneath his uniform and were absorbed into his filthy socks.
Maybe he would manage to wash himself between this barrage and the next one. It was at just that moment, stinking of urine, when he suddenly remembered the scent of lilacs that wafted from Fanny.
When he finally managed to stand upright, Gabriel saw the ruined body of the commander, half inside the trench and half outside. The face was unscathed, the eyes open wide. They wore an expression of incomprehension, such as one might see in the eyes of a child who has received a scolding but doesn't understand what he's done wrong or why this is happening. The photograph lay close by, its edges trembling in the light breeze between attacks. Unthinking, without pausing for even a second, Gabriel snatched it up and began to run toward the darkness.
When he deserted he didn't even know that he had deserted.
Gabriel's next actions were pure instinct with no premeditation. With the aid of the pliers attached to his belt he cut the barbed wire and crossed over on his belly to the other side, seeking all the while to evade the non-stop patrols. He had to circumvent the fortifications and the trenches where the Russians lay in wait. A ghastly mirror-image of what he knew so well from his side. The same depths of human degradation, the same meaningless lust to kill.
He continued to crawl slowly, keeping his breathing shallow. A sniper spotting suspicious movement would kill him on the spot, for those dug-in in the opposite trenches as well, those referred to as "the enemy" by all, were as terrified as he was. Unlike his commanders, Gabriel did not view the soldiers on the opposing side as bloodthirsty monsters, but as simple, ordinary people, caught up in the inferno against their will. Exactly as he was, they were trapped in the identical horror of death and ached with longing for their previous lives. At the same time, the thought of being taken prisoner by the Russians made him shudder.
It was enough to think of those whom his own side had taken prisoner, louse-infested and starving, poking their fingers through the coils of barbed wire and begging their captors in broken language for a cigarette butt or a scrap of food.
He would not become a shadow of a man in a Russian POW camp. He had to survive, no matter what.
As he stooped close to the ground, he saw himself in the guise of the snake in the Garden of Eden, condemned to crawl along on its belly. The front raged both ahead of him and behind, making the air vibrate. The barrages continued to pound the earth and the fragments flashed above his head. He bypassed the Russian mortar positions, located behind a stand of felled poplar trees, and the supply trucks that looked like the silhouettes of animals, as his body reacted with uncontrollable shaking to the shriek of every shell.
"And by thy sword shalt thou live," the words said to Esau in the Book of Genesis reverberated within him.
The verse should be changed to, "And by thy sword shalt thou die," was the thought that flitted through his head. Verses from the Five Books of the Torah that he had memorized at heder popped into his head as he ran, and his memory filled in the words that followed, "…thou shalt shake his yoke from off thy neck," as Gabriel drew from it validation that he had done the right thing.
For hours he kept moving, paying no attention to where he was going. He tripped over blackened tree stumps and walked into smashed trees, stumbled in craters in the scarred and pocked earth, and only when he began to encounter bushy branches and an abundance of green leaves did his breathing start to return to normal. He never stopped moving.
Onward and onward. Like the migratory birds with their inbuilt navigational systems, impelled toward the rural areas of Russia, far from those who hunted down deserters and a safe distance from the front.
Only when his lungs were taking in air untainted by gunpowder and the remnants of shelling did he stop, but he remained in a crouch. In fear of being discovered, he tried to quiet his breathing, but his breaths erupted like lava from a volcano. He placed his hand on his chest to quell the pounding within, not believing that he was out of danger.
Dawn rose, grey as an apron that has been washed innumerable times, and beneath the smoky sky Gabriel buried his ammunition belt and his grenades among some juniper bushes. He held onto the gun and the bullets. Who knew when he might need them?
It seemed to him that Von-Hoffenberg's gaping eyes continued to stare at him from every direction. He saw them in the fields, in the trunks of the birch and the leaves of the poplar trees, and even in the clouds rent by the planes. He murmured defiantly in their direction, "Unmerciful God."
When he stood, he barely managed to straighten his back. A sharp pain cut through him. In the coming years he was particular about his posture, walking straight and somewhat stiffly, and each time he bent to tie his shoes a dim echo of that pain would make itself felt, a souvenir of his deserter's flight on his belly. As far as he was concerned he had expelled himself, and not from the Garden of Eden but from Hell. Russia, into which he fled, would be his Tree of Knowledge.
He didn't yet dare approach populated areas, and so he chose to move in the opposite direction to the supply convoys, careful to keep to the untamed edges, and continued to cross more and more of the grey and white woods.
In a thick grove he found a blanket and a basket containing leftover bread. Perhaps they had belonged to a couple looking for a secluded spot. For an entire day he huddled under the blanket trying to get some rest but his nerves were so frayed that he didn't manage to close his eyes and he was plagued by convulsions, as if the battlefield still raged within his body.
When he rummaged in the basket searching for more crumbs he found a woman's handkerchief and a wilted bouquet. For a moment he could conjure them before his eyes. A man and a woman making love in the heart of nature, turning their backs on the mutual slaughter that was taking place nearby. He hoped they hadn't been killed on their way home.
When all the bread was gone, Gabriel placed the basket exactly where he had found it, replacing the handkerchief and the drooping bouquet. He was on the move again, surviving on blackberries, wild berries and crops that he plucked from the edges of the fields. He worked over the grains with his teeth for a long time, as though he was chewing his cud, impersonating an animal in the densest bushes. For some reason he made sure to recite the blessings, "Creator of the fruit of the earth," and "Creator of the fruit of the tree."
Only when he discerned the trickling sound of water did he strip off his uniform that still reeked of urine and gunpowder, and set off in search of its source. He immersed himself in the stream he discovered, scrubbing his body with bunches of leaves. "The Almighty has made me a pure mikve," he whispered to a fish that swam by. The water that washed away the blood and the traces of urine soothed his bruises to some extent, and soon he dropped to the ground, his naked body caressed by the smooth vegetation. Only then did he manage to close his eyes and sink into a short nap.
The rank smell coming off his uniform roused him and he ripped off every sign and indication that he had ever been an Austrian soldier – he used his teeth – and just before he washed it in the stream the photograph of the commander's leibling fell out of one of the pockets.
Gabriel was surprised. He didn't even remember snatching it up before he deserted. He examined the woman, this time in daylight. She still looked entirely unappealing.
A wave of pity washed over him for the woman who didn't know that her betrothed would never return to her. For the briefest of moments Fanny flitted through his thoughts. He placed the photograph carefully on the bank of the stream, inside a bush, so that it wouldn't fall into the water. Maybe one day he would manage to return it to the woman who Von- Hoffenberg had loved so much.
He didn't wait for his uniform to dry. Those in pursuit of the deserters never rested from the hunt. Despite his exhaustion he had to keep going, and so he wore his uniform wet. The prickly cloth stuck to his skin and hindered his movements. Still, he took the time to reclaim the photograph of the leibling watching him from the riverbank. He buried it in his damp pocket, turned to the fish swimming in the stream, counted ten for a minyan and said the Kaddish prayer for his commander.
Someone had to pray for his soul, even if the deceased wasn't a Jew. "He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all the world; and say, Amen.
The house in Bukovina was also transformed into a battlefront. In September 1914, the Czar's soldiers, under the command of General Abraymov, entered Czernowitz conquering Siret on their way. The Austrian army dug in to the south of the town, and there were battles in the streets. A mass exodus began. The wealthy left for Vienna, and Abraham Katz and his daughters chose to flee to the Moravia region, far from all the fronts, where they found refuge with a Christian family named Schindler, perhaps relatives of the Oskar Schindler who became renowned as a savior of Jews during the next world war.
During the months of exile as well, Fanny waited for word from the front. When the Russian forces retreated, and the Austrian army regained control of Siret, the father and his daughters also returned to the ghost town. Their income was meager, and Fanny went back to bottling beer in the cellar. At night she sat at the writing desk, by the piano that Lizzie refused to play, and filled pages with her cramped handwriting.
Fanny sent three letters to the front. The first, immediately after Gabriel's conscription, was responded to in the same economical and polite language that he had employed during their only meeting. He signed formally, "Gabriel Herzig," and made no mention of their engagement.
Her next letter, sent before the Russian takeover, returned with the stamp "address unknown," and the response to her third letter had yet to arrive.
The postal services were disrupted during those calamitous days she tried to reassure herself, and letters had been stranded for long months because of the battles. "Stubborn as a dybbuk," her father took to calling her, but she wasn't offended. She would never cry, "Out, dybbuk, out" to her stubborn nature. And when he began to look at her askance, she said, "Gabriel is a strong man. He will survive."
" How do you know? You don't know him at all."
"I know all that I need to know."
"Even if you knew more, you wouldn't really know him."
On the day when that argument took place between them, the widow Herzig and her daughter Anna suddenly appeared at their house, and the mother informed them through bitter tears that Gabriel had been declared missing in action.
People gathered round them. The mother raised her arms to the sky and beseeched that her son had not been killed, but just taken prisoner. Abraham Katz promised to pray with fervent intent to the Holy One Blessed Be He that she would soon merit the commandment of the rescue and release of prisoners, and only little Anna was silent. She was convinced that her brother was no longer among the living, or he would have sent her a sign, even from hell. Were they to sit shiva and say the Kaddish prayer for him? The rabbi refused to rule on thequestion.
Customers in the beer cellar shook Fanny's hand, expressed their condolences and said, "May you know no more sorrow." Others cursed the gentiles' war of Gog and Magog that had brought this disaster upon her, while she refused to grieve and held fast to her belief that Gabriel was alive and well.
In the years to come her father would speak to her about ceasing to wait for the fiancé who had vanished; urge her to break her promise and the pledge she had made. After all, she had met Gabriel only once, and they had never managed to spend any time alone. And even if by some miracle he should return, who knew what state he would be in. Maybe a cripple, stumbling along on a prosthetic limb, or mentally impaired, ridden with nightmares and scars, like those wounded who were still hospitalized across the empire, screaming into the night. Why attach herself to the fate of a damaged man? In any case he would be a different man from the one to whom she had promised her hand, and so even the matchmaker in the sky would discard His plan. The two would not be together, because they were not destined to be. No one in the world would fault her, including the matchmaker. Why, she was permitted to be with any man.
If Gabriel had seen how Fanny stood firm like a fortified wall despite the pressure brought to bear, he would have been even more impressed by that same inner tenacity that he had discerned during the only meeting that ever took place between them.
"You're stiff-necked," said her father, while she reminded him that King David had raided the Amalekite camp and allowed the prisoners to return home.
"We have no King David, and only the Amalekites are the same Amalekites," Abraham Katz hung his head in sorrow. How could he rescue his daughter, imprisoned in a delusional dream? This Gabriel or another Gabriel, if only she would finally stand under the marriage canopy, for time doesn’t stand still, especially for strong-minded women.
Meanwhile, the beautiful sister Paula married goldsmith Emil Stein, while Lizzie announced that she would never marry, and vowed to dedicate herself to the struggle for women's rights.
On her sister's wedding night Fanny had a dream. She saw Gabriel standing on a riverbank, his bare feet splashing in the water. He was dressed in only a shirt, white and starched, the same one he had worn at their only meeting. Except that the buttons were undone and his chest was exposed. He aimed his rifle directly at her.
In the dream she wasn't frightened and she didn't scream, but took a step toward him, held out her hand, and her fingers crept under the shirt and caressed his flesh – something she had never done in reality to any man.
"Don't you remember me? I am your fiancée Fanny," she said.
Not only did Gabriel not lower the gun, but he moved it closer to her, and the tip of the bayonet touched her tightly corseted breast.
"I don't know you," he said.
She took the gun from him without encountering the slightest resistance and aimed it at his chest.
"You have to remember me," she said, "You made a promise to me, and you will keep your word."
At that moment the gun went off and a red stain began to spread on the white cloth. Still, Gabriel remained standing, as if nothing had happened. The gun dropped into the water – its gurgling sound in the dream intensified – and he stepped toward her with a smile, something he had not favored her with in the one and only meeting that took place between them.
Gabriel said, "Now I remember you."
Then he dipped his finger in the drops of blood trickling down his chest and wiped them with a caress upon her cheek.
"I will always recognize you," she said in the dream, and he continued to smile.
She awoke with a stabbing pain in her chest. For days she felt it there, and although there was no outward sign, the bayonet from the dream would not be dislodged.
Even when her third letter returned many months later, stamped "Addressee Missing," Fanny continued to insist that her engagement was valid, and that until Gabriel's body was found, as far as she was concerned he was alive.
Although she wanted very much to see him again, even if only in her sleep, she didn't dream about him anymore.