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Authors: Judith Kalman

The County of Birches

BOOK: The County of Birches
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Title Page

Copyright Notice




Not for Me a Crown of Thorns

What's in a Name?

The County of Birches

Personal Effects


Channel Crossing



Allures of Grandeur

Monahan Avenue


Ladies' Wear

A Reason to Be

The Making of a Jew

A Property of Childhood

Eichmann's Monogram



In memory of Gusztav Weinberger Kalman


This book would not have thrived without the care of the following individuals:

Murray Lamb, who read tirelessly through countless drafts and served as my agent, advisor, personal editor and chief support in every way; Anna Kalman Dollin, who let a lot go as literary licence and who provided inspiration; Elaine Kalman Naves, who shared unstintingly of her research on the Jewish middle class in northeastern Hungary, and who was my spiritual companion through the first crucial stages of the manuscript; Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, my ideal reader, who never let me forget I had to get back to writing; Marlene Kadar, who got me started by suggesting I might be an “immigrant writer” but earned a laugh of derision for her efforts; Nathan and Gideon, who returned to me the voices of childhood; Barbara Pulling, who accepted the manuscript and provided meticulous editorial guidance. To all of you, my heartfelt thanks.

I am also grateful to the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for recognition and financial assistance.



“Come down,” Sári hissed at her sister Cimi, glancing back at the white stuccoed house. Anyone stepping from the cook's entrance to the outhouse at the end of the verandah would notice the elm's trembling branches. Rózsa the cook, looking out the window over her broad, pine-planked counter, might glimpse a yellow hairbow winking through the elm's flame-shaped leaves. Pulling her hands from the bread dough, she'd descend on them in a trice, surprisingly agile despite her girth and shuffling slippers. More often than not she could spring from one side of the big kitchen to the other to smack away the fingers of one of the seven children—even the grown ones—anticipating the hand that would stealthily approach the cheesecloth covering her freshly baked

When Sári and Cimi were little, Rózsa struck like lightning if they toddled into the path of the servant girl as she hauled a vat of steaming laundry off the wood-stoked stove. Little one screaming in the clutch of Rózsa's elbow and Rózsa shrieking too that now she had to do the work of the Fraulein! Poor mistress; if she only knew the peril that stalked her brood. But better she was spared so she could preside in the shop with patience and grace. Rózsa liked to feel in charge. After all, it was she who had prepared the first solids to pass the lips of each of the babies, she who held the choicest morsels to their pink satin mouths, feeding them like birdlings from her hand. The Fraulein taught the babies to take food off a spoon, but it was Rózsa's privilege to give them the best bits from her thick red fingers.

“Get down
” Sári commanded her sister, who had leapt into the tree without thinking.

Cimi ignored her. “Did you hear that? I'm sure I heard something. I know it's up there, poor little thing, and now it can't get back.”

Before Sári could retort, “It's a cat. That's what cats do, they climb,” Cimi had tucked her dress into her knickers and melted into the thick foliage of the elm's lowest boughs. They would be lucky if it was only Rózsa who caught them. Wiping her hands on her apron as she waddled across the lawn, she would instinctively reach up into the tree and haul Cimi back by the foot before she had gotten far. “Have you lost your senses?” she'd demand, giving Cimi a light cuff. “Don't you realize your Apuka will be home from the field at any moment?” But Cimi didn't realize anything when an impulse overcame her. If Sári had to go up after her, she'd give her plait a good yank.

“Just wait until Apuka gets hold of you,” Sári threatened, but she found small comfort in the prospect because he would blame her too. Her father, losing his head in terror, would hold her responsible for letting Cimi climb. Sári chafed from the unfairness of it.
hadn't chased the cat up the tree.

At this very moment Apuka might be turning off the main road that led into town from the vineyards, his light coat draped over his shoulder, his head hatted like any good Jew, but not the flat round hat of the highly orthodox. His was contemporary and businesslike with a deep front V and a brim he pinched as he greeted an acquaintance. Apuka had little patience for the traditions of the devout. If they lost themselves in the scriptures and let their children starve, why shouldn't the world also believe it had a right to sweep them aside? As for the rich and holier-than-thou who scattered charitable disbursements in hopes of buying a seat in heaven, perhaps they believed the Lord's ear, too, might be purchased?

Apuka had no use for those who showed off their faith any more than he had for morning, afternoon and evening prayers. A blessing for the fruit of the earth, yes, naturally. As for rest, let the
yeshiva bochers
who came begging for their meals at the cook's entrance put in a few extra words for him. He wasn't ashamed to ask or to slip a coin into their pockets. He was a busy man. What else had
to do?

He gave a little snort, remembering the poor rabbinical student last week who had entered through the kitchen and been engulfed in the rich cooking odours that built up since daybreak.
still baked in the great, wood-stoked oven, and a steaming soup steeped on the range. Rózsa ordered the boy to the table piled high with crockery, pointing a red arm bared by her rolled-up sleeve, so that the shamefaced student had to avert his eyes. While he squirmed uncomfortably, he heard voices raised in the other rooms, and then someone's skirts swished past him and out the door. Girls moved in and out to pick up clean washing and to tear chunks from the loaves that lined the counter. The bocher was afraid to raise his head lest he glimpse the pale flesh under an arm that reached up to fix a hairpin. By the time the servant girl had cleared him a place and pushed a bowl under his nose, he was too overwhelmed to eat.

Apuka's hard elbow had poked him in the back. “Does the Lord forbid even a bite of bread? Eat or you won't grow a beard long enough for the anti-Semites to tug.”

While his daughters tittered, Apuka bent down to whisper, “No harm will take you here.
is not the devil's camp.” And, as was his custom, pressed a few coins into the young man's fingers.

If Sári and Cimi were lucky, Apuka would be stalled a few moments along the way home by someone he knew. Well, business could always be better, but he daren't complain. As long as there was food on the table.

Food on the table and stores in the larder, chickens in the yard and fruit from his vines. Five beautiful daughters and two smart-mouthed sons, he mustn't seem ungrateful for the bounty of the Lord; nor dare he boast lest he tempt the evil eye. Apuka was shrewd and superstitious. Spitting into the dirt to ward off ill-intentioned hexes, he would tip his hat and continue home for his midday meal.

When he came in from the field, he was usually in good humour. If a child had a desire or appeal, now was the time to present it. Apuka was best approached while the outdoor air still filled his lungs, before he turned to town and the affairs of the shop. Rózsa would have cleared the sink of dishes for the master's arrival. Pumping the handle above the deep basin as Apuka rinsed what he called the “clean dirt” of the fields from his hands, the child would present his or her request. This was when Apuka felt most disposed to listen to the hankerings of his children: a few
for the “useless cinema” the older ones frequented, or the porcelain-headed doll one of the girls had set her heart on. In the fall, after he'd been shut in at the shop for days on end, Apuka would lash out at the things he'd let his children accumulate, threatening to burn the dolls with the autumn leaves, “As if there aren't enough bodies underfoot already!” It would go especially hard for them, Sári thought, to disrupt Apuka's midday peace.

She looked up into the tree's twitching branches. Its thick foliage spread over her like a green sky dotted with stars of sunlight so sharp she had to squint. Cimi's legs drooped indolently above her. Anyone glancing from the house would notice the dangling legs without knowing exactly whose they were. After all, both little girls from that house ran around naked-legged in the sunshine save for the white ankle socks on their sandalled feet. It incensed her to be implicated in Cimi's caprice.

The cat wasn't hers. Like all cats, it had attached itself to Cimi. In the nursery last night, the kitten seemed hardly more than a balled-up sock, or a pom-pom that might hang on the tie of a fur-trimmed hood.

“Shut up,” Cimi had warned her before she could protest the presence of a cat in their bed and alert Fraulein to another flouting of the household's rules. “It's too little to have any fleas yet. Just look at it.”

Sári ran a finger along the delicate spine of the kitten. Its grey fur was meltingly soft, like the downy head of a baby. It was impossibly sweet—but already Cimi's. It nestled only in the crook of Cimi's skinny arm. Cimi was a charmer of felines. She had but to breathe on a cat and it would let her do anything—wrap its head in a doll's bonnet or stuff it into a pram. They sheathed their claws for Cimi.

“Get down here, stupid,” Sári ordered again, her throat sore from the strain of whispering.

“I heard it just this minute,” Cimi called, not even trying to lower her voice. “I'll find it, even if you won't help.”

“Idiot,” Sári muttered. Sári would have to go up there to silence her before Apuka heard.

BOOK: The County of Birches
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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