Authors: Aharon Appelfeld
M WITH THE JEWS,
” I said, and I didn’t know what I was saying. I burned my damp and ragged clothes that night. The cast-off clothes from the lady of the house fit me. They were clean, odorless, and for some reason aroused my suspicion that they had belonged to dead Jews. The lady of the house apparently noticed my apprehension, opened the door, and showed me the apartment: three dingy, not very large rooms—a dining room and two bedrooms.
“Have you ever seen Jews before?” she asked again.
“They used to come to the village to sell their wares.”
The work was simple but oppressive. My mother and father had taught me to work but not to be meticulous, and here I had to be careful about every single pot. The man of the house, a tall and reserved man, used to sit at the head of the table and, after saying the blessing, didn’t utter a word. The Jews’ religion, if you don’t know, is restrained.
The lady of the house didn’t spoil me. With great rigor she taught me what was forbidden and what was permitted.
, that’s what they call the separation between milk
and meat. For them, strict observance of
is connected with a kind of continual concern, as though it weren’t a matter of household utensils and food but of feelings. For many years I tried to fathom that concern.
Had it not been winter, I would have fled. Even wretched freedom is freedom, and here were nothing but prohibitions. But when I peeked out of the window, I saw snow piled on all the roofs, the traffic in the streets sparse, no one going in and out of the stores. I didn’t have the courage to leap into that frost.
I haven’t mentioned the two boys, Abraham and Meir. The elder was seven and the younger, six. Two pinkish, merry creatures, like two old clowns, who would suddenly fall silent, fixing you with their big eyes, as though you were a creature from another world.
The youngsters studied from early morning till late in the evening. That’s not the way to teach children; that’s how you train priests and monks. Among us, we scarcely studied for four hours. With them they stick a book in a baby’s hand before he opens his eyes; is it any wonder that their faces are puffy and pinkish? Among us, a child swims in the river, goes fishing, and catches a colt on the run. My entire being recoiled at the sight of those youngsters being led to their prison early each morning. At that time, I hated the Jews. There’s nothing easier than to hate the Jews.
I used to spend Sundays with my own kind in the tavern. Most of them also worked for the Jews—some in their yards, some in their stores. Our impressions were identical. Our youth, the joy we took in life, made us hold the Jews in contempt—their height, their dress, their food, their language, the way they dressed and mated. Not a detail escaped
our eyes. What we didn’t know, our imagination filled in, and imagination, after two or three drinks, flourished.
We vied with each other in telling jokes. We used to sing and curse the children of Satan, amongst whom everything is accounts, money, investment, and interest. Everything done in measure—eating, drinking, and copulation. For hours on end we would bawl:
The Jews have plenty of banknotes
But they only pay pennies to you
They take a bath on Thursday
And on Friday night they screw
In the spring I knew I was pregnant. I was seventeen. I knew that pregnant girls get fired on the spot, so I didn’t say a word to the lady of the house. I made an effort to do the work attentively, not to cheat and not to steal, but as for the boy who had done what he did to me—I lay in wait for him. He made an odd movement with his head and said, “You should go back to the village. In the village no one pays attention to that.”
“We’re not going to marry?”
“I don’t have a penny.”
“And what about the child?”
“Leave him in a convent. That’s what everybody does.”
I knew that words would do no good. Shouting would only make him angrier, but still, how could I not say anything? So, stupidly, I asked, “What about your promises?”
“What promises are you talking about?” he said, and his face blushed with anger. My mouth shut and I turned away.
Now I don’t remember his height, whether he was tall
or short, and his face has been completely erased from my memory, but the baby girl, flesh of my flesh, I cannot forget her. It is as though I hadn’t abandoned her, as though she had grown up with me. Years ago I had a dream, and in my dream I led her to the altar. The girl was as lovely as an angel, and I called her Angela. Who knows, perhaps she still walks in the land of the living.
Again, I’ve put the cart before the horse. In my fifth month, I revealed my secret to the lady of the house. I was sure she would fire me on the spot. But to my surprise, she didn’t. I remained in the house and kept working. The work wasn’t easy, but she didn’t rush me and she didn’t reproach me with my disgrace. Without noticing it, I got used to the odors of the house, to the strange separation between milk and meat, to the thin darkness that reigned from morning to evening.
In my ninth month of pregnancy I traveled to Moldovitsa, and there, next to the convent, I asked about renting a room with an old peasant woman. The old woman knew why I had come to her right away, and she asked for a high rent. I didn’t have any money. I had a stolen piece of gold jewelry, and that’s what I offered her.
“How did you get that?”
“I inherited it from my mother.”
“Don’t disturb your poor mother’s rest, and don’t tell lies.”
“What should I tell you, mother?”
“Tell the truth.”
“It’s hard to tell it, mother.”
The old woman took the jewelry from my hand and asked no more questions.
I could see the convent walls from my window, the steeple with the bells and the meadows that surrounded the convent. I stood beside that window for many hours, and in the evening my head was heavy and dizzy.
“You must pray, my daughter.”
“It’s hard for me to pray.”
“Blindfold yourself with a kerchief. The eyes are the great seducers of sin. Without eyes it’s easier to pray.” I did as she ordered and tightened the kerchief around my eyes.
The pregnancy went beyond term, and I walked around the walls of the convent day after day, the way the children of Israel marched around Jericho. My desire to enter it, to touch the altar and prostrate myself at its feet, was strong but I didn’t dare. When I came back from the meadows, the fear of God would seize me. For a few days I controlled myself, but finally I told the old woman about it.
“What are you afraid of, my daughter?” She spoke to me softly.
“You have nothing to fear. You’ll leave the baby in a box, the way they left Moses, and after that the good Lord will do what He thinks best. The nuns are merciful, and they will take care of him. Every month women come here and leave their babies. The babies will be educated in the convent, and they’ll become priests and monks.”
Every morning the old woman made porridge for me. My body was swollen, and weariness forced me to the couch. I no longer had the strength to approach the convent walls, and I no longer walked far. The old woman urged me to pray every morning. “You mustn’t be lazy. A person must get up in the morning and do his duty.” Her words of
reproach pierced my body like nails. I knew that my sin could not be atoned for.
The birth was hard and painful. The midwife said that she hadn’t seen such a difficult birth in years. If someone comes to give birth here, people aren’t respectful of her honor. The midwife had no respect for me: “From now on, don’t believe men. Do you promise?”
“How do I know you’ll keep your promise?”
“People violate oaths easily.”
“What shall I do, mother?”
“I’ll put a chain on your ankle, and it will always remind you that you mustn’t sleep with boys.”
“Thank you, mother.”
“Don’t thank me. Don’t sleep with boys, and that will be my reward.”
The next day I was about to abandon my baby, but I didn’t have the strength to get up. The old woman wasn’t happy, but she didn’t drive me away. She stood by my bedside and told me about her distant youth, her husband and children. Her husband had departed as a young man, and her daughters hadn’t taken the right path. They had been ruined in the city. Now she had nothing in the world but these four walls.
“And where do you work?” she asked suddenly.
“Is this the Jews’?”
“It’s from our kind,” I said. “Ours.”
In the evening, she softened and tried to console me. The nuns in the convent would raise her and call her Angela.
Sometimes it was good for a person not to have any memory of father or mother. He draws faith straight from the heavens. We were all made in sin. You have suffered enough. From now on the church will take care. In the church everything is clean and quiet. Our lives here pass in turmoil, and there is sublime tranquility. You have nothing to worry about. You’re doing the right thing. Without noticing, I had closed my eyes and fallen asleep.
The baby girl nursed without letup and wore me out. If she hadn’t worn me out, perhaps I would have stayed longer. For a week I sheltered and nursed her. At the end of the week, my strength failed. I asked the old woman to bring me the basket so I could cushion it on the bottom with my own hands. The old woman helped me quietly. Thus my sinful deed ended. The next day, while darkness was still spread over the meadows, I placed the baby in the basket. The baby was asleep, at rest, and she didn’t make a sound. I crossed the fields with long strides, and at the convent gate, I summoned up my courage and left the basket on the stoop.
Sometimes during the long winter nights I see her at a distance, tall and thin, wrapped in many veils of light, as beautiful as the paintings in a church. We have gone a long way, I say to myself, and I sense that soon we shall be face to face, without barriers. My faith in the world to come sometimes floods me like a warm wave.
RETURNED AND SANK INTO
my work as though into oblivion. Strange is the life of the Jews. Over the years I learned to observe them. They are fearfully diligent. After morning prayers, the master of the house goes out to work in his store, not a large shop, on the edge of the market, and later his wife joins him, and they work together without a break and without having a drink until the evening. I am in the house, cleaning and straightening up. The house is as full of books as a convent. My cousin Maria informed me once that on the eighth day they circumcise the boy babies, so as to heighten their virility when they mature. One needn’t believe every word that leaves Maria’s lips. She mostly exaggerates or makes things up, but she isn’t a complete liar. She, for example, isn’t afraid of Jews. She assured me that no ill would befall me with them.
The trip to Moldovitsa was forgotten. Had it not been for my dreams at night, life would have gone smoothly for me then. In dreams, my sins lay spread out before me, the way only sins can lie open, in all their searing hues. More
than once I heard Angela’s voice: “Mommy, Mommy, why did you abandon me?” But in daylight, the slate was wiped clean. I learned to work without talking much. In the village people say that the Jews are chatterboxes, splitting hairs about every little thing to cheat you. They don’t know Jews. Speech is only for practical needs. Speech for its own sake doesn’t exist with them. There’s a kind of compulsion in their industry.
Is theirs a good life? Are they happy? I asked myself more than once. “A person should do his allotted task and ask for no reward,” the lady of the house once told me. Still they aspire to greatness. They don’t deprive themselves of the pleasures of this world, but there’s no avidity in seeking them. The Jews keep taverns, but they themselves don’t get drunk.
Not only was I observing them, it appears. They too watched my steps closely. They noticed, for example, that I didn’t go out to have a good time on Saturday nights. The lady of the house was content, but she didn’t express her approval in so many words. Direct speech isn’t common with them.
My loveliest hours were spent with the boys. Boys are boys; though it’s true they have an extra dose of cleverness, they’re not spirits.
After a few months I gave in to temptation and went back to the tavern. My acquaintances were astounded: “What’s the matter with you, Katerina?”
“Nothing at all.” I tried to apologize.
Nevertheless, something within me had changed. I had a couple of drinks, but my spirits didn’t soar. Everyone around me, the young and the not so young, looked coarse and
clumsy to me. I kept on drinking, but I didn’t get drunk.
“Where are you working?”
“With the Jews.”
“The Jews are having a bad influence on you,” a young woman said to me.
“I have no other work.”
“You could join me. I’m working in a canteen.”
“I’m used to it already.”
“You mustn’t get used to them.”
“I don’t know. They have a bad influence. After a year or two a person starts making their gestures. I knew a girl, a good friend, who worked for the Jews. After two years she lost the look of a healthy person. Her face got pale, and her movements had no freedom—a kind of trembling of the jaws. Our life is different. I wouldn’t work for them for any amount of money.”