דאס דרעדל זול זיך שון דריען
און ברינג מאין מאזל זיריק?
די וועלט איש באשאפן געבארן
פאר אלע מענטש גלייך
וי נעמט מען א ביסאלע?
יוכאס א ביסאלע
וי נעמט א ביסאלע גליק?
וי נעמט א ביסאלע?
יוכאס א ביסאלע
וי נעמט מען
How can one strike a little tad of good luck?
How to strike a tiny bit of happiness?
That the roulette shall run forth anew
And that my good luck will come back.
The world has been created
For all the same
Where can one find that little,
Even that tiny little,
Where can one find a tiny bit of happiness?
How can one strike a little,
Even is only a little bit
How to find
(Popular Jewish song)
"With a stone in my shoe", an unpublished novel by Diana Wang, translation from Spanish by Ari Akkermans-Amaya. Chapter I
There were no margarine bits or caviar on table.
Nor waiters pouring fancy drinks in crystal glasses.
It was not Saturday, and by night one couldn't hear the usual music.
There were people, those we had known for a life time yet at the same time we couldn't find at all familiar. It wasn't one of those celebrations, at which we had always seen them. They stared at with a different intention, under another spell.
It was rather odd to see them at that hour, that day of the week, under such circumstance.
In the morning.
There was no bouquet over the coffin.
The coffin was solid, strong, of dark wood, relying on the window through which revealed itself a pale sunlight, almost European.
And the clouded, turbulent river in the distance.
There were no religious objects or the like. Dad wouldn't have taken pleasure in that.
Only the coffin. Closed. Of course.
There was nothing I could know about the folder then. There would have yet to pass three days. But, in a somehow mysterious fashion, it was present, there, in between the murmurs and the eye-glimpses.
Dad would have liked his funeral. Almost all his immigration mates had been there, his friend from the poker table, the wives, the widows.
That Monday morning death came around once again, and gathered them together as it was before, in Poland, hidden in forests, little hiding places and barns, fleeing frightened in between mud, snow, hunger and hopelessness, persecuted by the sorrow of those who had been left along the way. Parents, sons, boyfriends, friends, uncles, neighbors, work colleagues, cousins, foes, ex boyfriends, grandparents, teachers, counselors, had vanished together with photo albums, dried flowers, certificates. They fled bereft of almost all their pivoting points, empty of so much not understanding.
Without families or belongings, without perspective or strength, damaged and scared, but dangerously alive, they slowly slowly arrived to our port. And this country, contradictory no less than human nature, provided them with shelter through the same gate by which many of their victimizers were left in, the Nazis, accountable for so much. I see in the pictures from my earliest birthdays that bunch of resurrected men, so thin, with big eyes, breathless, a forced smile before the imminence of the flash and that –even today incomprehensible- terrifying will to live. They gathered once a week and spoke about the past. They remembered, but they were also dying to forget. Halina played the piano in a duet with Nusio on the violin. After the adagios and pizzicato, it was truly animated and then we started to sing. They started in Polish, with those European tangos at which I burst into laughter and finished with old songs in Yiddish. Moischale main fraint, Reisale, Papirosn, A Idishe mame, Vi nemten a bisale mazl, Warshe main, Oif'n pripetchek, Tumbalalaika, S'brent, Kinder iurn.... It was Roman who always started with "Hatikva" that we all sang along while standing. I had no idea it was the anthem of Israel. Nor did I know, it spoke about hope.
But those gatherings had been left in the past. In forty years, life led them through very different paths and they saw each other every time less often. They only stumbled upon each other, like that morning, in the funerals. Death brought them together. That old bride that they believed forlorn returned to collect her share; they had learnt to take her very seriously, without fear or solemnity.
I left the living room. The friendly voices went back to my childhood, to old odors that would come back and calm me down. I didn't accept their refugee. I went to dad's bedroom. I stared into his placard door, as usual well-locked. I sat down on his bed. Sank my face onto his pillow that still bore his smell. The room wasn't at all empty, his tobacco, his pipes, his lighter… I didn't cry. His absence wasn't yet obvious.
Thereafter, the journey to the cemetery.
Long awaiting at the entrance hall while the body was purified.
Then later the bewailing in Hebrew, atavistic, heartrending. A little walk to the place whereby he would find a burial place, close to the monument to the survivors. The rabbi, the davening and the penknife that opened a new ditch in a hidden spot of the clothing. The sound of the earth that falls down, dark and perfumed. Kissing good-bye.
Three days later, mom rang up:
- I've found something. I can't open it all by myself. Come.
We went. We refused to sit and eat the barley soup she had insisted in preparing and that were so fond of. There was something urgent in the air, we heeded and went to the bedroom.
Mom took the keys out of her handbag. She opened the left door of the placard. Pulled out a box that was also key-locked. She opened it. Took out of it a handful of keys. With one of them she opened the right door of the placard. (Dad's suits, the trousers, and his smell irrupting again...) There was a wooden box on the bottom, with a little key-lock. She took it in her hands, sat on the bed and proceeded to open the last key-lock.
My brother and me, hypnotized, just looked into the endless sequence of keys and locks that were opening as though mouths lined up, to finally, speak out.
Mom was leaning with a hand over the cover of the box.
- Dad told me "when I will die, I'm going be in this box". I don't know what he kept there, he never let me see, he said it belonged only to him.
With trembling hands she lifted up the cover.
I don't know what we expected to find. Her anticipatory words had created an almost unbearable expectation.
There was one folder, merely a folder. It was seemly of little significance. Which kind of things kept in such a flat little folder, could contain a whole life?
It was a cardboard folder, one of those with flaps. It had been grey, perhaps green; it no longer had almost any colour. The crumpled sides indicated it had been opened manifold times. It read "The Flint" and down, three empty lines. Nothing else.
We sat on the floor, by mom's feet, as though coming closer to the fire in a cold night. We could hear our own breathing. We were the whole world concentrated in what those hands would midwife from within the folder.
The first thing she pulled out was a poker or casino chip, a red one.
- He always said that life was a roulette-, remarks mom with kindness.
A bill from his carpentry workshop, with the logo that he had himself drawn, in red as well; my brother wasn't born yet, we had just arrived in Argentine; I remember him sitting by the kitchen table, covered with green oilcloth with red and orange flowers, trying out which drawing fit better…. Whether a table, a tiny writing desk, a bedroom set…, I remember when the first receipt books arrived with the final logo, I remember his pride at seeing written the pompous-sounding "Carpentry Factory"…
Later she took out a lock of blond hair tied with a little colourless ribbon, mine? My brother's?;
- I can't remember-, Mom said. Most probable my brother's. I don't believe they would have brought a lock of hair of mine from Poland. My brother's, he was born here after all. Certainly it should have been his.
At once appeared a white envelope. Within, my brother's diploma and my first professional card; we were meant to be more than carpenters or sewers.
Mom then took out a newspaper cut-out with the police note of "the accident" with our Mercedes and our names as survivors from the tragedy.
Then a mandolin cut out from a magazine.
-Like the one he had in Poland- Mom explained, after the saw mutilated his left index, he could never again play it.
-Look at this picture- said Mom- he had it taken when he dreamt of being an actor, with pressed cloth, suit and cigarette holder, on the stage, to sing and dance, that's something he loved… Look how attractive he looks in this picture…. He looked like a gentleman… he was boasting.
That was everything, it seemed. She took out the folder.
-There's something else here, she said when she found a wooden envelope lying at the bottom.
She opened it very slowly and then appeared some yellowing, cracked documents, written in Russian.
-The motorbike, she explained, the Skoda he had bought for himself after years of savings, the Russians relinquished it in 1941, when the Germans invaded, they came home and took it away, but they left these documents, "so that you shall claim it back when it all will be over": the technical inspection certificate, the official taxes and the relinquishing receipt; everything properly signed and stamped, poor thing, he could never forget about it.
A little Yiddish book with a man's sad face picture on the cover.
-The lyrics of Gebirtig songs-, Mom smiled while she caressed the pages as though she heard his voice, -if he would have had it at the hiding place, so much he wanted to learn them by heart, but he never had a good memory, he only remembered the beginning and ended with a tararara... when everything was over, he found the little book in an old bookstore in Krakow and bought it as treasure, I don't know, like a symbol of whatever it was he was recovering. Gebirtig's songs....
She turned back to us and now pulled out a little notebook with an orange cover meticulously written in Polish.
-The songs, what I had told you before, our guide whispered, -the songs he wrote when we were in hiding, he was afraid to forget them…. We had to do something, to keep ourselves busy, he insisted; songs from school, the fashionable tangos of the time, the theater plays in Yiddish… he said that he must have them for when we will be free, that he would sing again…- And then she stopped. Turning the page, the stage shifted, another drawing, another climate, another hand-writing, a nervous calligraphy.
-It's my writing-, and she was left in still reading those words… We wanted to know. She then explained: -we were desperate, hearing the planes full of bombs fly over us, we couldn't escape and had to remain stale, in silence, no one should know where we were, it seemed as though the whole world had disappeared..., there was no future, only fear. The Russians were battling, that Stalin could save us, we depended on him... I wrote him a letter-.
- To Stalin?- we asked.
-Yes, to Stalin. I explained him, told him we hadn't done anything, that we didn't know why all this was happening to us, that we had never attacked anybody, that we didn't know how to defend ourselves, that someone had to come and do something, that we were lonesome and frightened, that he would please help us, he shall send the Red Army, to finish off those murderers!... Look from whom I was asking, he himself a murderer… But what did we know back then? He was our only salvation.
We didn't dare ask whether the letter had been ever sent. We couldn't, because right then, she took out the last three objects that the envelope kept.
We had seen them in the movies so often that they had already become familiar.
-Yes, these were ours-, she answered to a question no one had asked as she handed over to us the white sailcloth bracelets with the star and the numbers in blue. She couldn't go on talking either. Then pulled out, from the bottom at the very bottom of the envelope and out of that memory that death brought to light, a little sock or perhaps a sewn woolen slipper, we couldn't see it well, she pressed it against her nose and inhaled deeply; embraced to it, closed her eyes and just breathed. There was no need to say anything. We knew what it was about, we knew it was the only thing left from that son they had to give away so that he would survive and that they lost forever. We embraced with her around our lost little brother, and around dad, who had kept these treasures so that we could begin to know.
"When I will die, I'm going to be in this box" dad had told you.
Dad had dreamt. He was always so careful. Always a step ahead of what could happen.
Not only that he was in the box. There's much more inside. There was a wish, a permission. To open it was for me like plundering into that certain somewhere that hadn't been possible, to see things that I had never seen before, to know and to listen about events that craved to be questioned about and wouldn't dare ask, mom, I could never have, you know?... My desire to know wasn't clear at all. Clouded, blurry as that sight one's got as he awakens, as when one's just wept, as when one's sleepless. I wanted and I didn't want to know. I was afraid to open scars that seemed healed. I was afraid to penetrate beyond and violate, disturb a holy precinct. I was afraid of being afraid. I preferred to be unaware, to be an accomplice of that mockery we placed that everything was alright, that everything will be alright, that it's always been that way.
The box granted me permission. Dad's box wherein he believed he was therein alone. To see pulling out all those witnesses of the past that had been suspended as though an invisible roof over our everyday life, it made me see that the scars were not such, that the wounds subsisted, that else how in a mysterious way everything had been like it was then, that the past had never gone anywhere, but had been rather betrayed, bribed as to bother the least possible but however present, imperturbable, haunting, awaiting for me, challenging me.
Like Eve of the 20th century, I let myself be tempted by the serpent, disturbed about the past and I decided to plow, right therein, at the core of an uncertain but necessary apple of knowledge.
Yes mom, that's how I started to ask you.
1] Popular Yiddish songs.