Authors: Aharon Appelfeld
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1983 by Aharon Appelfeld
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in Hebrew in Israel as
by Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, Ltd., Tel Aviv, in 1983. This translation was originally published in hardcover in the United States by E. P. Dutton, Inc., New York, in 1983.
Schocken Books and colophon are
registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
[Kutonet veha-pasim. English]
Tzili : the story of a life / Aharon Appelfeld.
1. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Fiction. I. Title.
813 2012 892.4’36—dc23 2011050301
Cover photograph by Alexander Kenney Photography/Flicker/Getty Images
Cover design by Linda Huang
ERHAPS IT WOULD BE
better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus’s life untold. Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one, and but for the fact that it actually happened we would never have been able to tell her story. We will tell it in all simplicity, and begin right away by saying: Tzili was not an only child; she had older brothers and sisters. The family was large, poor, and harassed, and Tzili grew up neglected among the abandoned objects in the yard.
Her father was an invalid and her mother busy all day long in their little shop. In the evening, sometimes without even thinking, one of her brothers or sisters would pick her out of the dirt and take her into the house. She was a quiet creature, devoid of charm and almost mute. Tzili would get up early in the morning and go to bed at night like a squirrel, without complaints or tears.
And thus she grew. Most of the summer and autumn she spent out of doors. In winter she snuggled into her pillows. Since she was small and skinny and didn’t get in anyone’s way, they ignored her existence. Every now and then her mother would remember her and cry: “Tzili, where are you?” “Here.” The answer would not be long in coming, and the mother’s sudden panic would pass.
When she was seven years old they sewed her a satchel, bought her two copybooks, and sent her to school. It was a country school, built of gray stone and covered with a tiled roof. In this building she studied for five years. Unlike other members of her race, Tzili did not shine at school. She was clumsy and somewhat withdrawn. The big letters on the blackboard made her head spin. At the end of the first term there was no longer any doubt: Tzili was dull-witted. The mother was busy and harassed but she gave vent to her anger nevertheless: “You must work harder. Why don’t you work harder?” The sick father, hearing the mother’s threats, sighed in his bed: What was to become of them?
Tzili would learn things by heart and immediately forget them again. Even the gentile children knew more than she did. She would get mixed up. A Jewish girl without any brains! They delighted in her misfortune. Tzili would promise herself not to get mixed up, but the moment she stood in front of the blackboard the words vanished and her hands froze.
For hours she sat and studied. But all her efforts
didn’t help her. In the fourth grade she still hadn’t mastered the multiplication table and her handwriting was vague and confused. Sometimes her mother lost her temper and hit her. The sick father was no gentler than the mother. He would call her and ask: “Why don’t you study?”
“I do study.”
“Why don’t you know anything?”
Tzili would hang her head.
“Why are you bringing this disgrace on your family?” He would grind his teeth.
The father’s illness was fatal, but the dull presence of his youngest daughter hurt him more than his wound. Again and again he blamed her laziness, her unwillingness, but never her inability. “If you want to you can.” This wasn’t a judgment, but a faith. In this faith they were all united, the mother in the shop and her daughters at their books.
Tzili’s brothers and sisters all worked with a will. They prepared for external examinations, registered for crash courses, devoured supplementary material. Tzili cooked, washed dishes, and weeded the garden. She was small and thin, and kneeling in the garden she looked like a servant girl.
But all her hard work did not save her from her disgrace. Again and again: “Why don’t you know anything? Even the gentile children know more than you do.” The riddle of Tzili’s failure tortured everyone, but especially
the mother. From time to time a deep groan burst from her chest, as if she were mourning a premature death.
In the winter evil rumors were already rife, but only echoes reached the remoter districts. The Kraus family labored like ants. They hoarded food, the daughters memorized dates, the younger son drew clumsy geometric figures on long sheets of paper. The examinations were imminent, and they cast their shadow over everyone. Heavy sighs emerged from the father’s darkened room: “Study, children, study. Don’t be lazy.” The vestiges of a liturgical chant in his voice aroused his daughters’ ire.
At home Tzili was sometimes forgotten, but at school, among all the gentile children, she was the butt of constant ridicule and scorn. Strange: she never cried or begged for mercy. Every day she went to her torture chamber and swallowed the dose of insults meted out to her.
Once a week a tutor came from the village to teach her her prayers. The family no longer observed the rituals of the Jewish religion, but her mother for some reason got it into her head that religious study would be good for Tzili, besides putting a little money the old man’s way. The tutor came on different days of the week, in the afternoons. He never raised his voice to Tzili. For the first hour he would tell her stories from the Bible and for the second he would read the prayer book with her.
At the end of the lesson she would make him a cup of tea. “How is the child progressing?” the mother would ask every now and then. “She’s a good girl,” the old man would say. He knew that the family did not keep the Sabbath or pray, and he wondered why it had fallen to the lot of this dull child to keep the spark alive. Tzili did her best to please the old man, but as far as reading was concerned her progress left much to be desired. Among her brothers and sisters the old man’s visits gave rise to indignation. He wore a white coat and shabby shoes, and his eyes glinted with the skepticism of a man whose scholarship had not helped him in his hour of need. His sons had emigrated to America, and he was left alone in the derelict old house. He knew that he was nothing but a lackey in the service of Tzili’s family’s hysteria, and that her brothers and sisters could not bear his presence in the house. He swallowed his humiliation quietly, but not without disgust.
At the end of the reading in the prayer book he would ask Tzili, in the traditional, unvarying formula:
“What is man?”
And Tzili would reply: “Dust and ashes.”
“And before whom is he destined to stand in judgment?”
“Before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.”
“And what must he do?”
“Pray and observe the commandments of the Torah.”
“And where are the commandments of the Torah written?”
“In the Torah.”
This set formula, spoken in a kind of lilt, would awaken loud echoes in Tzili’s soul, and their reverberations spread throughout her body. Strange: Tzili was not afraid of the old man. His visits filled her with a kind of serenity which remained with her and protected her for many hours afterward. At night she would recite “Hear, O Israel” aloud, as he had instructed her, covering her face.
And thus she grew. But for the old man’s visits her life would have been even more wretched. She learned to take up as little space as possible. She even went to the lavatory in secret, so as not to draw attention to herself. The old man, to tell the truth, felt no affection for her. From time to time he grew impatient and scolded her, but she liked listening to his voice and imagined that she heard tenderness in it.
HEN THE WAR
broke out they all ran away, leaving Tzili to look after the house. They thought nobody would harm a feeble-minded little girl, and until the storm had spent itself, she could take care of their property for them. Tzili heard their verdict without protest. They left in a panic, without time for second thoughts. “We’ll come back for you later,” said her brothers as they lifted their father onto the stretcher. And thus they parted from her.
That same night the soldiers invaded the town and destroyed it. A terrible wailing rose into the air. But Tzili, for some reason, escaped unharmed. Perhaps they didn’t see her. She lay in the yard, among the barrels in the shed, covered with sacking. She knew that she had to look after the house, but her fear stopped her from doing so. Secretly she hoped for the sound of a familiar voice coming to call her. The air was full of loud screams, barks, and shots. In her fear she repeated the
words she had been taught by the old man, over and over again. The mumbled words calmed her and she fell asleep.
She slept for a long time. When she woke it was night and everything was completely still. She poked her head out of the sacking, and the night sky appeared through the cracks in the roof of the shed. She lifted the upper half of her body, propping herself up on her elbows. Her feet were numb with cold. She passed both hands over the round columns of her legs and rubbed them. A pain shot through her feet.
For a long time she lay supporting herself on her elbows, looking at the sky. And while she lay listening, her lips parted and mumbled:
“Before whom is he destined to stand in judgment?”
“Before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.”
The old man had insisted on the proper pronunciation of the words, and it was this insistence she remembered now.
But in the meantime the numbness left her legs, and she kicked away the sacking. She said to herself: I must get up, and she stood up. The shed was much higher than she was. It was made of rough planks and used to store wood, barrels, an old bathtub, and a few earthenware pots. No one but Tzili paid any attention to this old shed, but for her it was a hiding place. Now she felt a kind of intimacy with the abandoned objects lying in it.
For the first time she found herself under the open night sky. When she was a baby they would close the shutters very early, and later on, when she grew up, they never let her go outside in the dark. For the first time she touched the darkness with her fingers.