Authors: Aharon Appelfeld
Since the trial his hair, or rather, the remnants of his hair, had gone gray. He was short and balding, but no change had occurred in his expression, soft and attentive. “I’ve wanted to come to see you for a long time, but I couldn’t manage,” he apologized. He had brought me a package of sweets and a jar of jam. Meanwhile, he told me that he had managed to recover the jewels that Henni had left me from the agency that had confiscated them. From now on they would be in the prison office, and when the time came and
I was freed, they would be returned to me, “And you’ll have a penny to keep body and soul together.”
“No need,” I said, very stupidly.
“A person never knows what the days have in store for him.”
Now he, too, seemed embarrassed. Perhaps he was disappointed because I hadn’t appreciated his efforts enough. To correct the impression, I said, “Everything is fine with me.” And that was the end of my words. He didn’t know what to say either, and he got to his feet. No one urged us to finish the conversation, but I, for some reason, hurried back to the shed.
At night I continued digging down in search of a path to my dear ones. It seemed to me, for some reason, that if I could get to Henni, I could get to them all. That feeling led me astray. The nights grew completely opaque—not a slit and no light. Only darkness on top of darkness, and here, among the bunks, as in every tavern, they would curse and blame the Jews. If it weren’t for the Jews, everything would be different. They must be exterminated, wiped off the face of the earth. There was no false note in those voices. They sounded as clearly as the mooing of a cow, and sometimes like a coarse folk song.
In my heart I knew that those voices didn’t have the power to hurt my dear ones, but nevertheless I wasn’t at ease. Who knows what harm a curse can do? My dear ones were wandering in the world of truth, laid bare, souls without bodies, and here the evil ones stood and reviled them day and night.
I hadn’t feared in vain. The next day I learned that a pogrom had taken place in one of the villages near the
prison. The killing wasn’t very great, but there were many wounded. One of the jailers reported the details, and the news spread quickly. Apparently, the booty was plentiful this time. Now the peasants wouldn’t need the Jews’ stores anymore; they would have their own cloth, their own sugar, and high shoes of every type and size. Late that night a bottle of vodka passed from hand to hand. Everyone was happy that at long last they were letting the Jews have it.
At Passover, when it was permitted to give the women prisoners clothes and food, Jewish coats were already visible—lace dresses and woollen stockings and also a few new girdles. Everybody was happy, and they all tried them on.
“Why are you all alone?” One of the prisoners turned to me.
“I miss people.” The words came out of my mouth.
“You should forget everything. Everything that was is as if it never were.”
“And don’t you remember?”
“Certainly I remember, but right away I say to myself, You mustn’t remember. I’ve ordered my sisters and cousins not to come visit me. If I’m set free, I’ll go visit them. They don’t owe me anything. Visits just drive a person out of his mind. I would forbid visits. I don’t miss anything anymore. I did what I had to do, and now I can sit at ease.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I murdered my husband. Only you and I did the job all the way. The others just tried it and felt sorry about it.” A spark lit her eyes.
The prison was well guarded, but news still slipped in through every crack. The day before, we had heard that
Sigi’s husband had been killed in a tavern. Everyone was pleased and drank, and I too joined in the pleasure. Sigi got drunk and in her drunkenness she announced, “I love our Lord Jesus with a great, powerful love. He is our Lord, He is our Savior. I knew He would take vengeance for me. Now the time has come for the Jews who killed God. I’ve worked for the Jews a lot and I stole a lot of money from them, but I’ll never forgive them for killing our Lord. How did those children of Satan dare to murder Him, for He is love and He is grace. God won’t forgive them. He has prepared a great revenge for them. You’ll see!”
She talked so much she vomited and turned as white as a sheet, but she didn’t stop cursing everyone who had tormented her throughout her life: her father and mother, her husband and children, the Jews and their cheating. If she hadn’t included the chief guard of the prison in her curses, the night would have ended happily and everyone could have slept in peace, but since she did include her, the jailers immediately pounced on her, beat her, and dragged her to the guardroom. The prisoners’ pleas were of no avail. That night she was tried and sent to solitary confinement, and that was the end of the great celebration.
FTER SIGI LEFT SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
, she never ceased praying and crossing herself, proclaiming that Jesus was standing at her right hand, the God of vengeance had appeared, and now the hour of the Jews had come as well. A kind of flame blew on her bony cheeks. The Ruthenian she spoke had also changed. She talked like the old women in the village, mentioning Jesus every time she spoke, and the Holy Mother and the angels, who would overcome all evil and the children of Satan.
I’d lost a friend. I spoke to her very seldom, but she, for some reason, sought my company, reproaching me and reminding me that without faith there is no life and without Jesus we are lost in this world. Her voice was frightening. “You have been influenced by the Jews too much. They’ve cast their spells upon you and ruined the pure faith in you. The children of Satan know a woman’s soul and they purchase it easily. You mustn’t feel sorry for them. They’ve blackened the Ruthenian soul.”
I slipped away from her, willing to work in the frozen
fields so as not to be near her. One night I couldn’t bear it any longer, and I said to her, “What do you want from me?” She was startled and said, “Nothing. I love you. I want to return you to the bosom of faith. The children of Satan have harmed you.”
“Don’t spread that nonsense,” I said, and I was scared by my own voice.
The warning worked. People, it seems, fear murderers, and I too was afraid of my voice. In court they had exhibited the jackknife I had used to murder the murderer, and they asked me if that indeed was the same jackknife. It was a simple jackknife that I had taken with me when I left Henni’s house. There had been no reason for that little theft.
Afterward, the days were short. The cold was great, and the work exhausting. My thoughts shriveled, and my legs moved along as though by themselves. I was cut off from my own life and buried in a kind of hard hollowness. I wasn’t angry and I didn’t want anything. If they punished us with overtime, I would work without a word. Everyone used to wait for visiting days with impatience. I didn’t look forward to them. My lawyer would come once a month and bring, as was his habit, a few sweets and some jam.
“How are the Jews?” I asked, not in my own voice.
The lawyer was surprised by my question and said, “Why do you ask?”
“Rumors are flying about here that they slaughtered them in the villages.”
“Does that worry you?”
“Jews, you should know, are very close to me.”
“You’d better think about happier things,” he whispered.
“They are dear to me.” A voice came from my throat.
“I don’t understand what you’re driving at.”
“I love their little houses.”
“Don’t talk out loud,” he cut me off.
“I love to talk Yiddish. I miss it, like the breath of life.”
The lawyer got to his feet and said, “That’s irrelevant. We’ll talk about it later.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“I won’t stop loving them.” I managed to get out that sentence before the visit was terminated.
Later, I knew that it wasn’t Katerina speaking. When Katerina is connected with her dear ones, her voice is full, her vocabulary different, and her feelings radiate from her body; but when she is cut off from them, she is like anyone else, weary and depressed.
That winter was very long. Occasionally, strong feelings would assail me, acute beliefs that would make my head spin till I felt faint. There were moments when I was very close to my dear ones, a great and very private closeness, especially to Benjamin, my little angel. That winter I told one of the women prisoners, “I don’t need Jesus. I have my own Jesus.” I didn’t know what I was talking about, but they allowed me opinions and beliefs. People are cautious with murderers.
But most days I was depressed and kept to myself. My vision was diminished, my ears grew deaf, and I was sealed up like a wall. When they put out the lights, I curled up in my coat like an abandoned animal. The morning didn’t inspire me with will or faith; I would dress and report for roll call as if it were an extension of a restless sleep. For a long time we would wait for the truck, and when it came
at last, the women prisoners hurried to clamber aboard, knocking each other over in their rush. The truck was closed with a tarpaulin, and it was warmer there.
“Start working. That’ll warm you up,” said the old guard. He didn’t beat us, but he berated us, saying that man was born to toil, there was no sin without punishment, and that one must accept punishment with love. The guards weren’t evil spirits but human beings who did their duty. This world was only a corridor to the anteroom. Without doubt, there was a religious tinge to his words. Sometimes that tone evoked a thread of awe as in the priest’s funeral prayers.
For six hours we would extract beets from the frozen earth. The spades were dull, but nevertheless our limbs did the impossible, bringing the beets up from their icy beds. After a few hours, there would be a pile of white beets. In the afternoon they brought us soup and a crust of bread. The food was tasteless, but a person can get used to anything. Sometimes a woman would despair of her life and flee, but not for long. The gendarmes would find her.
“Why not accept torments with love?” the old guard would preach his sermon to us all.
“These aren’t torments, that’s just humiliating,” one of the women prisoners answered him blandly.
Nothing mattered to me. In those dark and opaque days, I did what I had to do. I didn’t complain and I didn’t make accusations. But occasionally, in the winter—and this happened several times—a kind of malicious joy would spread and grate upon my nerves. The pain was great, but I restrained myself. In the end I couldn’t bear it anymore. I raised my voice and shouted, “Silence!”
“What do you want?” a prisoner asked impudently.
“Not to talk.”
People treat murderers with respect. Not even the women guards yelled at me, but in my heart I knew my strength wasn’t my own. Only when I was close to my dear ones did I have a voice, and there was awe in me.
At the end of the winter a lot of stolen shirts and sweaters reached us. Everyone was happy, but they didn’t show it. “Don’t put on that shirt. Katerina is roaming about.” I would hear the whisper, my small revenge in this darkness.
N APRIL THE DAYS WERE BRIGHT,
the mornings very cold, but in the afternoons the sun would come down and warm us. We worked in open fields and we would return drunk with the pure air. Had it not been for a few escapes, the days would have passed uneventfully. After every escape came the beatings and the screaming. The chief guard, a sturdy, cruel woman, was responsible for the beatings; she beat with lust and devotion. She didn’t torment murderesses, but she wheedled them, “Why face trials? Solitary confinement is no Garden of Eden, believe me.”
Time vanished in the daily schedule. Your previous life grew ever more distant and vague, as though it wasn’t your own. A prisoner came back to the shed after a day’s work and sought nothing but her bunk. One woman remembered that she once had been held back a class in school, and her father, a senior official in the local council, wept from sheer embarrassment.
“My father,” she confessed to me, “was apparently a little Jewish. At any rate, there was something Jewish about him. Only Jews are capable of crying about something like that.”