Authors: Aharon Appelfeld
The next day I was standing, lost in the mass, and a woman approached me and said, “Perhaps you’d like to work for me.” After days of wandering, struggle, and despair, once again an angel had appeared from on high. God almighty, only miracles happen to me. Every day the miracles are renewed and I, in my haste, had said that there was only ugliness here, only darkness.
She was a tall woman, with measured movements, very pretty, like a heroine of the Polish nobility. For a moment I was pleased that fortune had favored me with a different face this time. A Jewish home is a quiet one but very strict.
“Where have you worked until now?”
I told her.
“I too, if you don’t mind, am Jewish.”
I was astonished and, greatly embarrassed, I said, “I’m familiar with the laws of
“We are Jews of course, but we don’t observe the commandments.”
I didn’t know what to answer, so I said, “As you wish.”
It was a spacious home, different from regular Jewish households. In the living room stood a piano, and there was a bookcase in every room. Here, no one recited blessings and no one prayed, and in the kitchen there was no separation between milk and meat. Here, they only insisted on one thing—quiet. “There are also other kinds of Jews,” Maria’s mother had once informed me. “Free-thinking Jews. I don’t like them. The Orthodox Jews are a little coarse, but they’re stable.” Then I didn’t understand what she was talking about.
“My name is Henni, and I’m a pianist,” she introduced herself. “Don’t call me madam or Miss Trauer, and don’t
address me formally. Call me Henni, and I’ll be very grateful to you.”
“As you wish.”
“We eat very little meat but a lot of fruit and vegetables. The market isn’t far. Here’s the pantry, and these are the pots and pans. I have no time for anything. I’m a slave, as you’ll see. What else? That seems to be everything.”
Henni practiced hour upon hour, and at night she shut herself up in her room and didn’t leave till morning. With Rosa I had been used to talking, and we would discuss everything, even secrets. There were days when I had forgotten that I had been born to Christian parents, that I was baptized, and that I went to church, so immersed did I become in the Jewish way of life and their holidays, as if there were no other world. And here there was neither Sabbath nor holiday. At first this life seemed like an unbroken stretch of pleasure, but I quickly learned that Henni’s life wasn’t at all easy. Once a month she used to travel to Czernowitz to appear in the concert hall, and when she returned, her face would be drawn, her mood gloomy, and for days she wouldn’t leave her room. Her husband, Izio, a quiet and mild-mannered man, tried to console her, but words were of no use. She was mad at herself.
“Henni, why are you angry?” I dared to ask.
“My performance was terrible, beneath contempt.”
“Who said so?”
“A person mustn’t blame himself.” I used one of Rosa’s expressions.
“That’s easy to say.”
So she dismissed me. It was hard for me to get close to her. I didn’t understand her. In the village I had never met women like that, and Rosa was different. Sometimes, after many hours of playing the piano, she would come to me and, somewhat distractedly, say, “Katerina, I thank you very much for your service. I’m giving you an extra hundred. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have a home. You’re my home.”
Before the holidays, Henni’s mother used to appear, a tall and powerful woman, casting dread on everyone. The old mother was very Orthodox and anguished by her daughter’s way of life. She addressed me directly, saying, “My daughter, to my heartfelt regret, has forgotten her origins. Her husband is no better than she is. You must do that which is pleasing to God.”
Immediately, she ordered me to take all the pots and pans out of the cupboards, to boil a large pot of water, and to prepare sand and lye. Henni shut herself up in her room and didn’t leave it. The old mother was glad that the laws of
weren’t unfamiliar to me, and in her great joy she hugged me and said, “I’m glad I have someone in this world who understands me. My daughter doesn’t. She thinks I’m mad. By your grace, Katerina, you’ll keep watch over the house, and I’ll pay you fully for being on guard. What can I do? Conceits are more important to my daughter than a kosher home.”
For a week we worked to purify the house. At the end of that time, the kitchen was divided into dairy and meat sections, according to the rules. The old mother gave me a banknote worth two hundred and said, “This is a lot of
money, but I trust you. My daughter is living in sin, and I can’t do anything about it. Everything she does is only to make me angry. If you keep watch over the kitchen, perhaps the kosher food will kindle good thoughts in her.”
Later, she approached the door of her daughter’s room and called out, “Henni, Henni, I organized the kitchen together with Katerina. I’m going back home. Do you hear me?” No answer was heard. She mounted the coach and set out on her way.
Late at night, Henni came out of her room and said, “That’s it. We’ve survived that steamroller, too.” Just then our eyes met and my soul was bound to hers. That very night she told me that once she and her mother had been close, but in recent years her mother had been seized by religious qualms. Once every two months she would appear like a whirlwind. She was a very strong woman, and the effect of her dreads was strong, too. For some reason, it seemed to her that Henni was about to convert to Christianity.
That night I learned from Henni that Izio wasn’t her husband but a childhood friend with whom she had been living for years. Izio was studying the ancient, marvelous monasteries dispersed throughout Bucovina. With the passing years, he had found pleasure not only in antiquities but also in the monks’ way of life. On the weekends he would return, tired and dusty, like a tramp. That, of course, was merely what met the eye. He was entirely flooded with discoveries and experiences, and his face looked beatific.
I was happy there. The big house was at my disposal, and I strolled along its full length, with music accompanying me in every corner. Sometimes the house seemed like a church
to me, where angels soared. When Henni went to Czernowitz, the silence was all my own.
For entire days I was by myself, following the old mother’s orders scrupulously. Henni sometimes joked and told me, “You’re my rabbi, you’re my Bible. Without you, who would know that today was Shavuot?” For the Shavuot festival I prepared cheese and strawberry tart: I remembered how Rosa told me that Shavuot was a white holiday, that the Torah was given on a day that was all light.
My cakes couldn’t sweeten Henni’s sadness. When Henni returned from her trips, she was shattered and her mood was overcast.
“Why aren’t you content? What happened? All the newspapers praised your performance.”
“But I, my dear, know about the flaws. Applause can’t repair deeply rooted flaws.”
“Why do you torture yourself?” I couldn’t restrain myself any longer.
“That’s how I am. What can I do?”
On the weekend, Izio would return from his journeys with a bundle of books at his breast. He looked like one of the monks ambling through silent courtyards with even, full steps. When they reach the northern wall, they strike large wooden mallets to remind their brothers that the hour of prayer has come.
“Where are you going?” I heard Henni’s voice.
Izio’s answer shocked me. “To myself,” he answered, adding nothing.
It was hard for me to understand their life together. Sometimes they seemed to be in love, and sometimes it was as if chance had thrown them together. I, at any rate, kept my
promise and observed
. That observance gives me great joy, as though I had returned home to Rosa and the boys.
Afterward, the old mother again descended on the house like a whirlwind. When she had ascertained that all the pots and pans were still in their place, the dairy utensils set apart from the meat utensils, she embraced me and kissed me. Henni, naturally, wasn’t happy. A few days earlier she had returned from the capital tired and once more depressed. Of course, the newspapers praised her playing, but she was contemptuous of them, and now her mother had come, with all her outdated beliefs, all her fears. Because Henni wouldn’t open her door, her mother sat with me and explained the whole affair: “It’s all because of Izio. He corrupted her.”
“He’s a quiet man,” I said in his favor.
“That’s not quiet, it’s madness. He’s in love with monasteries, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day he converted from the faith of his ancestors.”
Before leaving the house, she told me, “The High Holy Days are coming. Please, be gracious and remind Henni. She’s lost all contact with heaven. She’s completely sunk into herself. May God have mercy on her. She needs mercy very much.”
The seasons passed, year pursued year, and I immersed myself in Henni’s life as though it were my own. I accompanied her when she left, and I loved it when she returned. She used to come back shattered and gloomy, but I also loved her gloom. After a week of agitated sleep, we used to sit for hours. I saw with my own eyes how music was destroying her day by day, how she became intoxicated, vomited,
and became intoxicated again. I hadn’t the power to save her.
The disaster, or whatever you care to call it, came from another direction. Izio slumped and clung to the monasteries with a kind of morbid desire. His face changed and a greenish light covered it. The old woman turned out to be right. He went too far. The Christian faith overcame him, and one day he appeared in a monk’s habit.
That very week, Henni sold the house, packed three suitcases and, without a farewell to anyone, left for Czernowitz. She paid me down to the last penny. Before leaving the house, she handed me a packet of jewelry and said, “This is for you. It will be very useful to you.”
WENT BACK TO THE TAVERN
. Every time I left a household, I returned to the tavern. I sat by the window and before my eyes, one by one, the sights of the past days appeared to me. Two merchants had bought Henni’s house after brief negotiations. Henni did not bargain hard. More than she sought to sell the house, she sought to rid herself of it. The merchants understood and quickly got her to sign a contract.
After the sale, she burst into tears. The sobbing made her whole body tremble. I wanted to say something, but nothing I could think of was appropriate. I stood like an idiot, and the longer I stood there, the more obvious my idiocy became.
“Make some vegetable soup,” she said to me suddenly.
“I’ll do it right away,” I said, glad she had released me from the shame of silence.
We ate soup, and Henni spoke enthusiastically about the need to escape domineering managers and live a simple life, far from other people, near a forest. It was hard for me to follow what she was saying, but I sensed that she was trying
to point to the error that had ruined her life and to warn me against the blindness that drags one, imperceptibly, down to destruction.
The next day Henni was on her way to Czernowitz, and I, bearing two bundles, was without a home, as on the day of my arrival here. I could have gone back to the village. Women of my age used to return to the village, marry, and have children and the slate was wiped clean. Even whores went back and got married and raised children, but I knew that I didn’t belong there, and I didn’t return.
I sat in the tavern and waited for a miracle. Meanwhile, there was no shortage of offensive propositions. Young peasants would attach themselves to me, make promises, threats. Once I would have slept with any lad gladly; but years of service with the Jews had changed me, apparently. Sturdy peasants now repulsed me.
“I’m sick,” I lied.
“What’s that matter with you?”
“My kidneys hurt.”
Rumors flew from mouth to ear. Now they ignored me or kept their distance and, when they got drunk, shoved me out the door. I noticed they looked at me the way they look at a Jew: a mixture of anger and disgust.
For hours I sat and pictured Henni’s face. Her presence was palpable even in her absence. Now it seemed to me that I could cling to her like a sister. But she was in Czernowitz and I was here. I sipped drink after drink and raised my spirits. With Rosa I had tried to wean myself away from drink, but my will wasn’t firm. Without a drink, I trembled. Five, six drinks lifted me up out of depression and gave me the strength to live. But on days when I overdid it—and
once a week I overdid it—I would joyously hallucinate. Sometimes it seemed to me that I was sitting beside my mother. My mother also liked to drink. But she always drank alone. All of her actions were done in solitude, with her teeth gritted.
In the meantime, wicked looks began to surround me. You must return to your village, the Ruthenian eyes chastised me. That was the custom in this area. If a person was sick or had lost his mind, they returned him to his native village. If the brothers couldn’t bring him back, then cousins brought him back. Sometimes an anonymous Ruthenian would even perform that good deed. A Ruthenian is always a Ruthenian. If your life has gone awry, you must return to your native village and ask pardon of your dead parents, promising them that henceforth you won’t leave their shelter, and if you do leave, your blood will be on your own hands.