Frozen Spring - Jerusalem Returning
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Entela Kasi
Translated from Albanian by the author with assistance from Sarah Lawson
“I need to forget everything,” Hannah wrote to Johan as she passed through the last stone arch connecting the gardens of the Mishkenot Shaananim Centre with the narrow stone path of the Beit Israel synagogue. She continued to walk along Dror Eliel Street, then stopped for a while in Teddy Park, the green zone with fountains planned from its inception as an open space for children. She passed the intersection of Dohha Isaac and Al Batriarkeya Al Armaneya to enter the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. When she reached St James Cathedral, on the road between the Armenian Patriarchate and the Orthodox Monastery, Johan called her.
“We can’t forget, Hannah! We live to witness our memories. When will you return to London?”
“I think in two weeks,” she answered.
“They’re saying that the world will be closed down soon. There will be isolation and limitations in travelling, so please take care.”
“All right, Johan. I am going now to the Armenian Gardens.”
“When you simply say ‘all right,’ I am afraid it is not so,” said Johan.
“Kozeta is waiting for me there.”
“Well, dear, how was the exhibition at Mishkenot?” he continued.
“Kozeta and Marianne said ‘all right’. The pictures from 1938 of the house of Mohamed R., the elder, superimposed on the pictures from 1998 of the body of Med R., the nephew, made the visitors burst into tears. They are used to pain, but they weren’t expecting this. The Righteous among the Nations massacred in the darkness of the Balkans—this reminded them of the Holocaust. ”
“Listen Hannah, yours is not just an exhibition; it is history.”
“Yes, Johan, it is. This evening I will go out for a glass of wine with Kozeta and Marianne. We will be near downtown, at Mishkenot. My room there is number 12. Pictures of Yehuda Amichai are in the lobby. He stayed there once to write. Outside the windows of my room is the Tower of David, all lit up. It shines all night and keeps me awake. I am as light as the feather of a bird.”
“Listen, Hannah. If things get worse you should take the first flight from Tel Aviv to London.”
“Johan, you know that I will be stopping in Tirana and Pristina, and in The Hague.”
“All right, Hannah. You know what is best for us both,” Johan said, and the conversation was closed.
“Shalom,” she said.
Kozeta and Marianne were waiting for her in the Armenian Gardens. During the Prague Spring, Marianne had been in Jerusalem with her family. In those days she was a young woman and her father was working for the embassy of Czechoslovakia in Israel. Marianne recalled when her father made the decision not to return to Prague until the Eastern Bloc fell. When they returned to Prague, she’d worked for President Havel. She was the adviser on culture in the cabinet of the Czech president.
“Johan is scared this time,” Hannah told Kozeta when they met.
“Maybe he is right this time. It seems that strange things are going to happen. Who knows what else is coming.”
“What can be worse?” Hannah asked both women.
“After Med R. died, you do not take death seriously, is that it?” asked Marianne.
“Yes, that’s right. After he left us, nothing else can ever scare me.”
“You need time to get over it, dear,” said Marianne. “The pictures in the exhibition were traumatic. Very painful for us all. We share the same stories and we become the stories we write. That’s what my father would say if he’d seen the photos on the stone walls at Mishkenot. Do you remember the last time you were here with Med R.? It was January and I took your picture on Mount Herzl. He insisted, saying you very much wanted your photographs taken there. Med was a noble man. I have never understood your strong relationship, though. I still need time to understand what you both were to each other.”
“If I tell you that we were like Constantin and Doruntine in the legends of the Albanians, can you understand that?” asked Hannah, looking at the walls of the Armenian Patriarchate. “I told Med R. I would go to Mount Herzl only with him. I told him that I would visit Yad Vashem only with him. And so we did. He kept his promise.”
“But you didn’t let Johan show you his letters,” Kozeta said softly.
“Yes, this is true. I asked Johan not to show me Med’s last letters. I couldn’t face it. My illness has returned. Sometimes I do not feel my left hand. But it is different from 1989 in that now I can feel pain.”
“Everything stems from your sadness, Hannah.”
“Do you think it will return, Kozeta?”
“What are you saying, Hannah? Do you want to break my heart into little pieces?”
“I am afraid. Johan is afraid, too.”
“Instead of talking about life, you talk about death. Enough is enough. I am with you for the first time in the land of your grandparents and you talk about death. This is not good, my dear. I am happy that in my old age I am here with you. We will have wine this evening. I will tell you many things you do not yet know. Do not make me sad, my dear.”
“Dear Kozeta! How much Mother Thalin loved you!”
“She has inherited Rachel”s nature,” Kozeta whispered to herself and took Hannah’s hand.
“My poor mother lost her mind when she was quite young,” said Hannah. “I am afraid I am like her. She lost her mind after I was born, Poor Mama, my sad mama! My beautiful amma,” added Hannah, as though whispering an old song.
“Hannah, she did not get sick because you were born, and she did not get depressed because of your birth. She got depressed because she was afraid for your father. They were both under surveillance. They were terrified. I was terrified, too. It was the peak time of terror in Albania in those days. All the artists were sent to prison or labour camps after the eleventh Festival of Music. Many of your parents’ friends were arrested. The dictatorship in Albania was insane. Nazism and Bolshevism were the same as far as they could see. We who lived through it remember it well. Now the best thing is to forget a bit. Back then I could never have imagined that one day I would visit these holy sites with you. Now I’m here. Here we are, Hannah!”
“You are strong and beautiful, Kozeta.”
“Where do you see beauty?” smiled Kozeta.
“The way I remember you. The same beautiful woman who was on television and the news. Your face is the same.”
“I was younger and stronger in those days.”
They were walking along the stone streets in the Armenian quarter of the Old City. Hannah stopped in front of Sandrouni Armenia Ceramics, one of the best known ceramic ateliers in the old city. She entered it and carefully approached the handcrafted plates displayed on a large wooden, pomegranate-coloured table. The owner of the workshop, a man of at least eighty, started telling her about the skill of handcrafting porcelain, clay, and ceramics. The works she saw were stylized with carved arabesques, and to her they resembled the paintings of Chagall that she’d seen on the stone walls of Ljubljana Castle, when she and Med R. were there for a meeting of the Writers for Peace Committee in 2009. Med presented his diaries from the war in the Balkans to the public in that castle, at an event sponsored by the embassy of Kosovo in Slovenia. It was May, and she remembered everything vividly. They had their picture taken in front of one of the Chagall paintings. A grandson of A. Schultz the elder (A. Schultz, the younger, the architect), had taken the picture. This grandson wrote the story of his grandparents’ family during the First World War, when they were displaced from Saint Petersburg to Stockholm when his father was a small child. This novel was considered one of the best in 1984 when it was published in Sweden—the best novel about both wars, the first and the second. Schultz the Younger had given it to her as a gift. She told him that one day it might be translated into Albanian. Med took care of the entire process, the book was published in Kosovo in 2010, and, the writer came to visit. Those days were memorable.
“Med was always able to make things happen!” whispered Hannah to Marianne while they were in the atelier.
“Yes, he was like that,” she answered.
“You know, Mother Thalin used to keep some porcelain bowls like these for Pesach.”
“Yes, I remember well.”
“She also had some porcelain plates like these small ones on our wooden dining room table.”
“Yes, I know,” said Kozeta. “She used them for celebrations when relatives visited her for different feasts.”
“I would like seven of these porcelain plates,” Hannah told the old master craftsman, gazing at the colours and the carved letters on them.
“If they make you happy, I am honoured,” said the old man, coming to the wooden table where all the handicrafts were displayed. “Where are you from?”
“Albania,” said Kozeta.
“Albanians saved Jewish people during the Holocaust. We know the story very well,” said the old man to the three women.
“My grandmother Thalin was Armenian and my grandfather Jacob was Jewish,” said Hannah.
“They were saved by Albanians from Kosovo in Prizren, a beautiful little town there,” Kozeta said.
“You are one of us, daughter,” said the master craftsman, and his eyes took on another colour, somewhere between shadows of grass and grey clouds.
“Yes, indeed,” Hannah answered, lifting a porcelain plate of deep blue. “I am Albanian, Jewish, Armenian, and recently an Englishwoman, as long as I remain married to a rabbi in London.”
“There are many of us all around the world.”
“The same is true of us,” added Kozeta.
“Charming lady, your mother!” said the old master craftsman to Hannah, looking at Kozeta.
“This beautiful lady is, shall we say, my other mother. Yes, she is very charming. ”
“Pardon me, my dear. Maybe I’m overstepping the limits of our conversation, but I very rarely see Albanians in these streets of our old town. I would like you to remember me with these pomegranate-coloured porcelain cups. They can be used for wine during Rosh Hashanah or Pesach. I want to present you, Hannah, with seven of these cups. So you will remember me and my atelier in the Old City.”
As he was wrapping the cups carefully, she gazed at his hands, unable to say a single word. The three women were all looking at the old man”s hands. Suddenly there was the sound of a crack. Hannah had dropped a porcelain plate onto the stone floor. She suddenly thought of the other crises like the war in Kosovo. The seconds passing felt to her like hours.
“Don’t be alarmed, Hannah. Okay, my dear? Everything is all right,” said Kozeta, taking Hannah’s hands in hers. Mother Thalin on such occasions would say that the evil eye is at it again. Hannah felt her fingernails press against her palm, tightly and painfully. Kozeta was massaging her hand and fingers gently. After some minutes Hannah whispered with difficulty a half “We.” Then she added a half “re,” then an m, and at last she pronounced with effort the entire phrase, “Where am I?” Then she asked, “Where is Med R.?” and “Where are we?” Her eyes looked as though they’d been flooded by a high tide during an unexpected thunderstorm. “Yes,” she added, “across from the Armenian Church. The monastery is nearby.”
“Yes, Hannah,” said Kozeta. The master craftsman brought a cup of pomegranate juice.
“Perhaps you are a little tired, daughter,” he said. “You will feel refreshed with this juice. We call it ‘the juice of life’.”
“Thank you for your kindness. I’m sorry to bother you,” said Hannah after a couple of minutes. After she finished the juice, the master craftsman accompanied the three women to the stone pavement of the Armenian Church opposite his atelier.
“Do remember me with these cups and plates,” he said to her. “These are my gifts to you. I am an old master craftsman, and I’m happy that I can give you some little symbolic heritage of ours. Take care and stay happy.” He went back into his atelier. Hannah had the impression that he continued looking at them from inside the blue glass windows.
“Zalman Shazar was the third president of Israel,” said Marianne as they continued walking through the Old City.
They sat at a table near the Jewish Quarter, in one of the many restaurants there. “Mishkenot is near the Zalman Shazar Centre. When we visit there later, you will see all the pictures on the walls.”
“If you feel tired, we can postpone our visit for another day,” said Kozeta, looking at Hannah.
“Don’t worry, everything is all right,” Hannah answered. It was late afternoon. “Of course we’ll visit Shazar’s house today. I feel fine. Thank you for lunch, Marianne. It was delicious.”
“It was just a light meal,” answered Marianne. “but I am happy you liked it.” She went on, “Shazar was the first Minister for Education and Culture. Golda Meir describes him well in her book. She quoted him as once saying: ‘There are no typewriters here. Well, we will write by hand. All the children of Israel from the age of four to eighteen will be offered education granted by the state.’ In the year 1947 he and his wife Rachel participated in an Arabic language class for teachers of Hebrew. The picture I was telling you about yesterday evening at Mishkenot is from the Jewish National Fund Photo Archives, through the Office for Public Communication of the government at that time.” Marianne finished the story as they approached Zalman Shazar’s house.
The stone slabs of the entrance pavement were the same as those in the streets of the Old City. They had a unique colour, somewhere between white and light beige. The same colour as Mother Thalin’s braids wound around her beautiful head. The shade was between baked wheat grains and hay. This afternoon Hannah was dressed in a long, olive-coloured dress made of soft cashmere, decorated carefully from the neck to its hem with light olive branches and leaves. She’d bought this dress in one of the women’s handmade-clothing shops when she was with Med R. in the Old City for the first time. Hannah had put on her head the pomegranate-coloured scarf that Med gave her when they went from Mount Herzl to the shops along the walls of the Old City.
The garden of the house was full of flowers. Everything glowed in the sunset. In front of the garden the walls of the Old City seemed near.
“Shalom! I am Rachel,” said the woman at Zalman Shazar’s house. “I’m sorry I could not join you yesterday evening at the opening of your exhibition at Mishkenot. I returned late yesterday evening from Lebanon. Please feel at home. I am very happy to welcome you here.”
She invited the women into the house, and suggested they sit on the sofas in front of the big windows.
The house was completely white inside.