By Nina Foighel
Translated from Danish by the author
We were walking around the East End of London and we were worn out. By the sun, and by the sense of history that was creeping up on us.
The graffiti over the door said: Kill All Poets! in black letters.
There was the narrow back street, there were the sweatshops, the small tailors’ workshops in the attics. There were the faded lofts.
Then there was Jack the Ripper, who had committed his first murder in a nearby alley.
And the heat that day. The stench of butchers' meat in the sun, the dusty pavements. All this, and miles from the nearest park.
I was with Christian from Berlin. He was a young German, studying Yiddish because he liked the language, not because of any personal feelings of guilt about crimes committed by his grandparents.
A modest sign behind a dusty pane of glass in the building with the graffiti caught our attention. It read: Museum of Jewish Preservation. Then the guide appeared, seemingly out of thin air, and let us in to the dusty building, which had once been a synagogue.
He told us about Jack the Ripper, a fountain of spittle spraying out of his mouth as he spoke. He had his own style, and he was the one who had known Bodinski.
Not that Bodinski had ever been a poet. Nor had he ever been killed. All he had done was put the key into the lock and turn it one last time, never to be seen again.
The question is, how far can a human being push himself? Given that culture cannot be translated. No more than poetry can.
Things disappear, of course, they have to. The question is how they disappear. And what they leave behind.
We sat in the pub opposite, Christian and I, quenching our thirst beneath one of the inscriptions on the wall: A man’s reputation is like his shadow, it read. It either goes before him or behind him. It is either too big or too small.
You never really know why some things stick in the mind, while others disappear. It just happens that some people make their mark while others do not. And then there are those who leave behind a reputation. Bodinski’s was one for kindness and wit.
An image formed in my mind, between the nerve centres for nostalgia and rebellion.
This is what I saw:
Brightness, an array of sparkling lights. A heaving sea of swaying bodies beneath prayer shawls. Hebrew lettering on rolls of goats’ hide. There was a drone. Yiddish being spoken, the sound of prayers. The ones reserved for miracles.
The guide had said that the dilapidated room opposite would have looked different if Bodinski had stayed there. He was the one who cleared up after others. He would roll up the Torah and put it back in its place in the wooden cupboard, which still hung on the wall over there. During services he would move the silver pin from right to left, following the words so that whoever was called on to read aloud could follow the rhythm of the words.
He used to sit on his seat in the corner in the front row every day, all year round. When he occasionally stood up and launched himself into one of the old songs, it was like seeing a ghost from a lost age. The stretched, thin skin on his cheeks took on a rose-tinted glow as his melodic voice worked its magic. It filled the younger ones in the congregation with melancholy for the world they knew would disappear along with Bodinski. But Bodinski found joy in singing, and the congregation allowed themselves to be carried away by the old mother tongue, which, not so long ago, had flourished across the borders of Europe among people who had no expectations of finding acceptance in their surroundings.
But that was not all. Bodinski was just as revered by the beggars in the district. Every evening after dark, when prayers which had to be said had been said he filled his pockets with money, put on his large overcoat, almost engulfing his slender, stooping figure, and took his regular stroll through the narrow streets.
“Good evening, Mr. Bodinski. Could you spare a bit of change, Mr. Bodinski?” they begged.
They need not have asked. Bodinski would immediately take a note or two out of his pocket, and place them into the outstretched hands with this remarkable comment:
“Thank you for giving me the chance to give.”
He set aside a little money from his wages for one suit every year, which he had made for him by the tailors in the attic sweatshops. Some money he used for daily food, which usually consisted of canned sardines and a couple of slices of bread. Bodinski barely noticed what he ate. Unless he happened to spill it over the things that meant more to him than anything else in this world, his books. Then he would remark that in the future he should remember to buy sardines without tomato sauce. But by the next day he had already forgotten about it.
He also spent a little on boiled sweets. The rest of the money he gave away. It was the boiled sweets that attracted the children to the synagogue, and had them gathering around the desk at the front of the room in which the Torah was read. Their taste for sweets formed the first connection between the old world and the young generation.
Bodinski had never married or had a family. His first love was always his books. He returned to them every evening after the service. They were waiting there for him, to run his fingers carefully over the pages at night. He sat in the glow of a couple of candles which, just like the oil lamps in the age of the Maccabees, could burn for over a week at a time. Bodinski lived for reading and the acquisition of knowledge. Books were piled up all over his room. The least accessible ones were covered in dust. There was just about enough space to sit with whichever book he was reading opened in front of him on the table, but no room for him to lie down and go to sleep, although it is said that his concentration was so deep when reading, that it was very much like the deepest sleep.
He never even noticed when disaster struck The Yiddish Theatre opposite, despite all the shouting and screaming just under his windows.
It was in the middle of The Gypsy Princess, in a scene about a fire. One of the actors shouted, “Fire!” and the audience panicked and rushed towards the exit, pushing and crushing so violently that twenty people were trampled to death. When the police later tried to find independent witnesses of the event, they interviewed Bodinski but he had seen and heard nothing.
That evening he had been wrapped up in a study of the possible link between the Buddhist term shunyata, or emptiness, the Jewish concept of God, and mathematical zero.
He was what people of the time considered a “luftmensch” — he lived for his books, while the world outside carried on and everyone was busy with quite different matters.
Like now for example, with the congregation’s preoccupation with getting on in life and moving away from this inner-city area where foreigners were moving in, out to the suburbs, blending in with the surroundings, keeping up with the Joneses, getting the children into the best schools, money no object. And the disturbing chatter in the pews about new purchases, about radios, televisions, and technical jargon, about winter holidays and the royal family, not to mention the way the ladies were dressed. Their hats made it seem as if they were competing with the queen herself. There was soon hardly room for them in the gallery, although they only ever came on the most important holy days. On a normal day it was getting harder and harder to find ten people for prayers.
There were plans to convert the building into a Jewish museum, and a rich Japanese businessman had offered to invest a considerable amount. One evening there had been a knock on Bodinski’s door and the full delegation of the parish’s most influential men was there to consult with him about the organization of such a venture. They had walked in, in single file and stood on tiptoe in the tiny room, holding up plans for showcases designed by architects, producing lists of items they were thinking of exhibiting: a couple of candlesticks, a ceremonial tablecloth, a silver wine goblet, possibly a couple of plaited loaves cast in plaster, a ram’s horn, a copy of a miniature tabernacle, a skullcap, a prayer shawl, and of course a Torah scroll.
They were now asking Bodinski to contribute a simple, easily understandable text for each item in the showcase. Surely this would be a fairly simple task for a man who had studied for most of his life. And finally, they had also thought that it would add an interesting, folksy touch if Bodinski himself could be the curator of the museum. Of course his salary for this would be more than his current income.
During the whole performance Bodinski had sat on his chair, his hands in his lap, looking from one person to the other. When they appeared to have said whatever they had come to say, he stood up and started picking up his books from the floor. He lifted the most holy ones to his lips and kissed them. He did not utter a single word.
After several minutes’ silence, an eternity for men like those in the delegation, they maneuvered themselves out past the piles of books in the tiny room, which was as uncomfortable to leave as it had been to enter.
No one had seen Bodinski since. He’d put on his heavy overcoat and left.
Outside in the street the air was oppressive, with a lingering odor of curry. Pakistanis had moved into the area. Unprompted, Christian started grumbling about the Turks in his part of Berlin, but he broke off when he caught sight of a small, bent, old man who was rummaging around in a garbage container, As we walked past, he stopped what he was doing, put his head to one side, and flashed a roguish smile at us.
“Bodinski!” laughed Christian, and started humming a few bars of an old tune:
“O hemrl, hemrl, klap!
Nit glitsh fun mayn hant zikh aroys!
Mein einsiker shpayzer bistu.
Fun hunger ohn dir gey ikh oys!”
(O little hammer, do not slip out of my hands. You are the only tool I have. I would die of hunger without you.)
The old man was walking down the street, his large, unbuttoned overcoat hanging off him like a tent. We stopped for a moment and watched as he disappeared around the corner.