Authors: Aharon Appelfeld
I won’t hide the truth. At that time I felt a strong attraction toward the master of the house. I don’t know what aroused me—his height, his pale face, his prayers in the early morning hours, the coat, or perhaps the footsteps at night. My young body, which had known disgrace and pain, was aroused. In secret, I waited for the night when he would approach my bed.
Apparently, the Jews are very sensitive. Without saying a word, the lady of the house kept me away from the kitchen at mealtimes, and on the Sabbath I wasn’t permitted to be in the dining room. The distance didn’t blunt my desire. On the contrary, it intensified. In the village I had been drawn to the shepherd, and in the city the boys had lusted for my flesh and devoured it. This time it was a different
desire. But what could I do, bite my own flesh? Had I had the courage, I would have gone to the priest and confessed, but I was afraid the priest would reproach me and impose fasts and vows. I didn’t then understand that my desires were rooted: Imperceptibly, I had become bound up with the Jews.
My friends at the tavern were right: The Jews have a quiet power to charm. When I first came to their house, it had seemed that they were turned inward and gloomy and that they took little interest in strangers. Sometimes they seemed stooped, as though pervaded by depression. And sometimes arrogance flashed from their eyes and I didn’t seem to exist. But after two years of service a change took place. Waves of stares began to touch me; first I felt it with the children, and later with the lady of the house. They aren’t indifferent, it turned out. But my dreams in those days were shamefully wild. I know that dreams speak vainly. Nevertheless, their power was evil and great. In my dreams it was only I and the master of the house sitting at a table, drinking glass after glass. His touch was not like the Ruthenians’. He caressed my neck gently. So it was, night after night.
I had other dreams too, harder to bear than those, that would terrify me like the sights of the church on fast days. In my dreams, I saw a flock of Jews standing at the mouth of a pit. Strong lights were aimed at them, but they stood their ground, not moving. We have killed Jesus once and for all, and we won’t permit his resurrection; their eyes were furious. The strong lights kneaded their flesh, and they stood their ground, as though they had become a single mass, blocking the entrance.
These sights have not been erased from my memory. Even
today I remember them with great clarity. In those dreams I knew all my sins. Not only had I left my ancestors and their land, I had abandoned my daughter and, to add insult to injury, I was living among those who had raised their hand against God and His Messiah. I knew that my punishment would be too heavy to bear, not only in the world of truth but first of all here too, on this earth.
I considered abandoning the house and going wherever my legs would carry me, but I was weak, afraid, and everything around me seemed alien and neglected. My friends in the tavern didn’t let up: “You must leave those accursed people.” “It’s better to starve.” “You don’t know what they’ve done to you.”
“A lot of people work for the Jews.” I tried not to get upset.
“But you’ve changed.”
“They don’t do me any harm.”
“You don’t know. They work silently, secretly. They change you from the inside. Those fiends are clever and smart, and one day you’re going to get up, and you’ll see: You’re tainted with Jewish leprosy. What’ll you do? Who’ll take you in? No young fellow will want to sleep with you. Where will you go then? Where?”
They rebuked me in that manner.
In the end they were right: Fear gradually overcame me. Not a distinct fright but a dread that gnawed from within. I kept working, eating, and sleeping, but everything I did was tinged with fear. More than once I saw with my own eyes the whirling sword over my head.
One night I left the house and ran away. It was the end
of October. The cold and the darkness blew through the empty streets. I felt I was losing my mind, and I could do no more. Fear drew me inward, into the tunnels of damp and cold. After walking for an hour I felt relief. My feet were wet and my body was cold, but I wasn’t sorry. Joy suffused me, as though I had been released from prison.
The tavern was locked that night, so I headed toward the railway station. At the station I didn’t find anyone I knew. A few drunks were lying in the corners, grunting merrily. For a moment I wanted to join them in a drink.
“Why don’t you come over to us, it’s warm here,” one of the drunks called to me. I knew that was no summons from on high but an earthly call, clumsy and evil, but I was still glad to hear the Ruthenian language, my mother tongue. I stood where I was and drew no closer.
“Come over to us, and we’ll have a drink. Where do you work, darling?”
“For the Jews,” I said, and immediately regretted that I had revealed my secret.
“Damn them, it’s good you left. Liberty is as necessary for us as the air we breathe.” That sudden, coarse contact with my mother tongue brought a thrill of pleasure to my body. They grunted, shouted, and whinnied out loud. As though by enchantment, those clumsy noises reminded me of the tranquil meadows of my native village, of the water and the isolated rows of trees planted on the broad plain and scattering shadows with a generous hand.
Only now did I realize how detached I had become from the good soil, from my late mother, from the light of grace that had encircled me in distant days. The drunks seemed
to guess what I was thinking, and they called out again: “It’s good you left those cursed ones. It’s better to go hungry and not take shelter under their roofs.”
Now I knew clearly what they were talking about. In that neglected, filthy place, which everyone called the central railroad station, I felt for the first time that a Jewish mood had penetrated my bones and destroyed my joy in life.
“Why don’t you come over to us? What harm have we done?” they called again.
“I have to go back to work.”
“You don’t have to go back. By no means. The Jews are cursed. They’ve already enslaved you.”
“They’ve done me no harm.”
“If that’s what you think, you’re stupid.”
When I drew close to them, the sight struck me in the face. The drunks were lolling in rags, bottles, and scraps of food like beasts. The thought that soon I would be among them froze me. “Leave me alone,” I screamed, shackled as if in a nightmare.
“Stupid girl,” one of them called, and threw a bottle at me. “Those cursed ones have already enslaved you. You’re trapped in their net, you stupid thing. You had something, not much, and that’s just what they took from you. You don’t know, stupid, but we know already. You’ll end up regretting your life.”
I went out into the streets and wandered all night long. My heart screamed: Jesus, Jesus, save me the way You have always saved all sinful women. Gather me up together with them, and don’t let me die in my sin. The night was cold, and I tramped through the streets, from alley to alley, from square to square. If the angel of death had come and taken
me, I would have thanked him, but the redeemer didn’t come, only darkness, all shades of darkness, and all kinds of cold.
If no one wants me, I’ll go back to the Jews. Jesus would also have returned to them, I said to myself, but the fear was fiercer than I was.
Finally, the rain made the decision for me. Rain mingled with hail fell toward the morning and forced me inside. I opened the door. The house was sunk in deep sleep, and everything was in its place. On all fours, I crept to my bed.
OUR EYES ARE RED,”
said the mistress of the house.
“Dreams tormented me,” I lied.
Meanwhile, life resumed its open course: rising, tidying the house, washing, and ironing. During pauses or at night, I used to tell the boys about my home, about the meadows and the rivers, all the beloved things preserved within me from my childhood. But so they wouldn’t think that everything was quiet and pleasant, I rolled up my sleeves and showed them the scars on my arms.
More than once I observed them in their sleep and said to myself: Dear Lord, they’re so frail. Who will defend them in a time of trouble? Everybody hates them, and everybody wants to harm them. More than once I spoke about it to them. Boys of their age in the village ride on horseback, go out to the pasture, sharpen scythes. Ten-year-olds are like twenty-year-olds, with their hands in everything. They swim in the river and drift on rafts, and when they need to, they join in fights. When I told them about all those wonders, they looked at me very attentively and wonderingly but
without fear. They, apparently, knew what to expect in the future. They were prepared for it. Talking with them, in any event, always amused me: They learn to ask at an early age. I didn’t mind if they asked. I told them about everything. My stories made them laugh and amazed them. They asked about details, sometimes about the tiniest details.
For amusement, I too began asking. They were miserly in their answers. Don’t talk too much. That’s a general rule that the Jews are very strict about. I had also learned how to be quiet, for a different reason. My mother beat me several times for shooting off my mouth. Since then, it’s been hard for me to talk.
Meanwhile, I received greetings from my village. My cousin Karil looked for and found me. The winter rains were bad, the harvests were meager, illness had spread among the cattle. My old father needed a little money now. Karil spoke in a temperate and serious voice. I undid my kerchief and gave him everything I had. “Have you any more?” he asked.
“That’s what I have.”
“When will you have more?”
“In a month or two, when they give me.”
“Honor thy father and thy mother.” My old cousin found the proper occasion to preach a moral lesson to me. He also added, “Honor not only with speech but also with money.” The way the peasants use verses from the Bible makes me laugh.
In that short time, my cousin managed to tell me that my father’s wife wasn’t as good as my mother. She was lazy, pretended to be sick, and last summer they hadn’t seen her in the field. The details recounted in his stories brought my
native village before my eyes, my father and my mother. Now I felt the strangeness that had been suspended between myself and them, as though a yawning abyss and a black river separated us. Almighty God, what happened? I wanted to scream. All that beloved green was once mine. What had seized it from me? I didn’t know then that my few years in town had molded me, changed me, and all the possessions I had brought from my ancestors’ house were lost. But never mind. I had received far more, more than I was worthy of. The Jews didn’t abandon me. I was with them all along the way.
The next day the cold sun shone and the mistress of the house announced to me: Passover is coming. Who still remembers a Jewish Passover here? I’m the last one, it seems to me. Those weren’t easy days for me: I worked hard; I scoured pots with sand. Afterward, I used to dip them in a barrel of boiling water, to scorch them. Those smells are still encased within me like hidden secrets. Years in the service of the Jews are no laughing matter. The Jewish odor is a complex affair. In my childhood, I heard people say that the Jews smell of soap. That’s a lie. Every one of their days and every one of their holidays has its own smell, but particularly pungent are the aromas of Passover. For many years I lived in the midst of those fragrances.
Passover has many odors, but for me the flowers of spring became flowers of mourning. On the second day of Passover, in the middle of the street, the master of my house was murdered. A thug attacked him and stabbed him to death. Every Passover they kill a Jew, sometimes two. I heard afterward in the tavern how he was killed. One of the toughs
decided the master of my house would be the victim that year, because he had refused to sell to a peasant on credit. That was only an excuse, of course. Every Passover they make a sacrifice. This time the lot fell upon Benjamin.
Thus, in broad daylight, my beloved was murdered. Forgive me, Jesus, if I say something that won’t please You, for if there was one man whom I loved in my lifetime, it was the Jew Benjamin. I have loved many Jews in my life, rich Jews and poor Jews, Jews who remembered they were Jews and those who tried to forget. Years passed before I learned to love them properly. Many hindrances prevented me from drawing close to them, but you, Benjamin, if I may address you personally, laid the foundation for my great love, you, in whose eyes I did not even dare look, whose prayers I heard from a distance, and it’s doubtful whether I ever entered your thoughts even once. You taught me to love.
In their burial arrangements, as in other ritual matters, the Jews are frightfully practical. All their pain and mourning are without a melody, without a flag, and without a flower. They lay the body in the grave and rapidly cover it, without delay.
The next day, after the funeral, I was sure all the Jews would gather up their belongings and flee. I too felt a fear of death, but to my surprise, no one left the city. The lady of the house sat on the floor with her two children, and the house filled with people. The weeping was scant, no one cursed, and no one raised his hand against his fellow man. God has given and God has taken away; that’s the verse, and that’s the moral. The common opinion that the Jews
are cowards is baseless. People who lay their dead in an open pit, without decoration and without glory, are not cowards.