|Jul/Aug 2007 Fiction|
I and the Page
It is said that most men who have lived well ought to have no enemies and plenty of friends. My life has been the very reversal of that adage, and to this day, I am not sure if I lived well, or whether all the people who had surrounded me with well-intentioned smiles were either double-crossed or double-crossers. The story that follows is a story of friendship and enmity and of betrayal. It is also, perhaps, just one in many tragic narratives that will grow out of the historicity of my people. I do not wish it to be a story solely about me or about Abraham Grosz, a man who could have been my brother. Rather, it should stand as a link of a man at the end of his life to what he now believes was his past.
I stand alone atop this empty page, breathing down its vertiginous slopes. Outside it is dark, and the wind blows through the street, tossing about wrinkled newspapers and cartons, cans and bottles, and whistling up a sound of hushed laughter through the crack of my front door. That's life, a laughing, risible thing. Repetitive. Circuitous. How many times before did an empty page confound the writer, and how many times before did the writer opine before the empty page? I think: I am a conscientious man, I've always been no stranger to fastidiousness, I predict before I act, yet now, here I am, like a virgin on her wedding day, sweaty palmed.
As I said, I am a man of no friends and, as of lately, no enemies. I'm old, well over eighty, and from this senescence I wish to drag out the last remaining pieces of what was once my life. Old age is a blessing, no matter what the young say or fear. I wake in the morning and walk about with a green scarf tied under my bathrobe, lest I catch a cold (and I understand that Goethe and Kant both had such a predilection to gaudy pieces of insular clothing and the same fear of the simple flu). I gargle loudly and seldom speak with my cleaning lady, while I suspect, rightly or wrongly, that she may be stealing from me. (What is there to steal, Boris Fayt, you will ask? Little bits and little pieces. Memories, names, places, a forgotten smile.) Regardless, she looks at me with her porcine eyes, and I furl my brow, and there ends our conversation.
As an old man, I am allowed pretty much anything that as a child would have earned me a severe reprimand. The woman feeds me, my son, and his wife; they visit once in a while and bring me chocolate bonbons, worriedly, as if passing poison to a dying man. I pick out the ones with liquor and suck them dry, leaving the shell to sit sadly in the shuffled box.
More and more often, reading at my kitchen window, I rest the book on my chest and I find myself floating: my feet are light, my arms grow featherlike, and my body is like some emptied, apterous hulk, a tree trunk that floats on a steady river stream, and I think, Boris, this is the fleeting feeling of death that encroaches on you, slowly, and one day, it will sweep you away, like the rising tide that sweeps mud off some dry shore. I find my mind wanders often, and I let it, because there is no point in fighting a bird that has finally seen the absurdity of its old cage. So I think of Abraham. Abraham Grosz, who was perhaps my only friend.
Abraham and I
I imagine him as he was then: a big man, wide, broad shouldered, with a back like a plateau, a prominent jowl, not a pretty man in any way, but neither a monster, rather, he was what we imagined a Golem must have looked like, when Rabbi Loew the Maharal fashioned him of earth and clay in an attic of a small, Prague synagogue. The women called out to him, Come by, Golem, we have some wood that needs chopping. He was good natured, which was a blessing for us who grew up around him, for had he been vicious, our childhood would have been less pleasant.
There were forty Jewish families in town, as far as I can remember, and another five, like mine, who had mixed with the Serb and Hungarian neighbors. My father was an Ashkenazi merchant (originally from Bukovina), and my mother a daughter of his Serbian partner. Abraham was the Rabbi's son and never hid the commitment to follow in his father's footsteps; he would say to us, importantly, that the shul is to him a second home, and so it was. I cannot remember if he was a studious boy. He wasn't dumb, wasn't extremely bright; he had that sense of right that some men are just born with and that others work extremely hard to feign. He also had a very sensitive soul, a strong feeling for others' pain, even when it was hushed by smiles, when its little head all but appeared from their soaked armpits. Never did he say a hard word out of spite or hate.
I see him now, as he was then, at the river, with his large, barque-like feet lapped by the froth at the shore's edge, with one hand on his fishing rod and the other tucked beneath his head, a reed (as was fashionable then) stuck between his front two teeth. How strange that I had become his friend, when, from my earliest youth, I expressed nothing but suspicion of the world that passed and clamored by our door. For all his gentleness, he was not a loquacious man. He neither invited others into his life, nor did he wish to be involved in theirs. He said, As a rabbi I will not dispense advice to women folk about all sorts of useless things, nor will I gossip at the butchersa rabbi should balance whatever little sadness and happiness is brought into his tribe, lest people get too mournful or too proud for their own good. This constatation would have been so much more insightful had it not taken him five whole minutes to formulate it, slowly, one word at a time. But I was there to listen. I was always there, quietly listening.
When did I first consider Abraham my friend? Was it after I had realized that my sickly disposition, my overbearing, superstitious mother, my protective father, my unease in society, and my sweaty palms would all disqualify me from any social advantages that were bestowed on those hard boys of my neighborhood? He would become my friend by default; our friendship, in its unlikelihood, would seem like some metaphysical certainty, like gravitational pull between heavenly bodies, or between men who stepped through the world askew. But I would be wrong to simplify it. Abraham Grosz was not a social man, but he was not without those who wanted to be around him, if only for his unusual size, his brow, his large hands, the fact that the room stood still when he walked in, and that his voice grumbled like the innards of some volcanic cave. Men are attracted to power, and women are attracted to its potential. Abraham had both.
It would so transpire, that when we were both in the sixth grade, he chose me. One day I ate outside, picking through a box that my mother had filled with cabbage rolls, and he approached and sat beside me, taking out his own lunch, slapping cheese on a buttered roll of brown bread and smiling at me as if we were two oldest friends, who, having not seen each other through some circumstance of fate, just rejoined. A simple friendship. Thereafter, I followed him around, brooded behind him like an ill-fitting suit as he negotiated passage through one neighborhood after another in our adolescent conquests of the city's peripheries. Boys wander from their earliest age, driven by the primordial instinct of a hunter-gatherer. It would not be false to say that it is through these little, innocent excursions, as we push away the curtains that shade us from the emptiness, the vastness of the horizon, looking to be lost and to find, that we also seek out ourselves, both personally and socially. Some of us realize that, as our home gets smaller in the distance and the first pangs of fear grumble in our bowels, we are not cut out for adventure; we come to understand that in us, the hunter has long fallen asleep. Meanwhile, others, and here I speak of Abraham, grow enchanted by the distance, and with each step away from their center, they attain a sense of lightness that cannot be described and imparted to the rest, and they know that their life will only be complete if they press on, and push on, and see what lies beyond the thin, crisp line.
I see him now, his back, as a group of us tramps about some woodland, going further, deeper into its cool heart. The darkness grows around us, the path home is obscured by foliage, by the thickness of the verdure, and we walk forward, frightened, doubtful. We walk forward because his great arms open a path, the only path, clearing out the branches and the trees, single-mindedly, automatically. There is no fear in him, only the imagined goal as it stands at the end of the woods: a clear brook and the sunshine which had forgotten us.
Yet, by the time we were in our late teens, I was off to Belgrade to study law, and he remained in our town, at the Shul, pressing his thumb into the Tannakh, licking it, then pressing it again. I wrote him regularly from my room, and he wrote back once in a while in his strange, crooked cursive, with his typical, belabored intent. He announced his marriage in a two-liner, he announced the birth of his first child with one, and I heard of the babe's subsequent death (two months later) from a third party. He would have two more children, each stillborn, and finally, his wife would pass away without me having ever met her. By the time I finished my legal studies, he was the town's rabbi, and I came to his first sermon and sat in the front row. How he had changed, my friend! His size was not diminished by the black of the rabbi's habit, yet somehow he moved with a heavy intent, a humbleness that had poured over his insides for so many years and had finally come outward like a blissful state of nature, like a rain-washed, sunny morning. He lectured on the story of Job, and with upward facing palms he looked at the ceiling, as if Job himself, and argued with God. It is every Jew's duty to follow the word of God, but also his inner moral compass that must be, at its core, a result of careful speculation. How long he crafted each sentence of the sermon that lasted well over an hour, I could not even imagine. More than just words, these were convictions, and Abraham was their rock, their stone, their heap upon which someone could plant a flag and call them all Commandments.
That night we sat in his apartment and drank, the five of us. The others inquired about the capital. Abraham inquired about the darkness that brooded in Germany, the impending doom. I said to him that the Regent had signed a Pact with Hitler, that the Kingdom was too weak to fight the Axis and would be nothing more than a satellite. Never. The people will not allow it. You watch, Belgrade will be up in arms. He spoke with the same certainty he had employed at the lectern, with the same, slow movement of the right arm, an invisible triangle cut out of thin air. We argued well into the night.
I told him that the Kingdom would make a horrible error if they opted to fight the Germans--did he not learn anything on the Austrian example: the inherent weakness of multiethnic countries that fall apart at the seams, as even the slightest pressure is exerted? This is a badly stitched suit, this South Slavic state. You are a Jew, Abraham, a Germanophone. You know little of this country and its people. And I am half Serb. My mother has nothing good to say of the Croats, and they have nothing good to say of the Serbs, the Muslim Slavs distrust them both, the Slovenes are their own nation, while so many other nations yearn for their place... The hatred that broods deep in each village is older than our Testament. At the first sight of German guns, the entire little puzzle-set will shatter into a thousand pieces. Who will put it back together? Who will protect the Jews in all this chaos?
He waved me off with a bellicose glee. He was certain of one thing, that war would come regardless of the Regent's alliances and machinations, because Hitler was keen on fighting and disdained weakness. Whatever happens, it will be bad. But I assure you, Belgrade will be up in arms, by the time you return. As for the Jews, pray, be just, but remember that horrible inequities happen to good men and bad men alike, but only the former have the right to raise up their hands to the heavens.
How he had changed, my old friend. It was he who wandered back and forth and bathed at the river and ran through the corn fields and wanted never to sleep in one place. Yet that night I was on the train back to Belgrade, while the flatlands kept rolling on, until our town and his lantern became nothing else but a trembling star in the dark.
When I arrived, the city was bedecked in flags--the blue, white, and red bands--on cars, balconies. All about, Gypsy brass bands played and played for a hundred dinar note, officers with ladies in their laps and papers that declared a coup, posters that read "War over Slavery, Freedom over Serfdom." The young King was now the head of government, the Regent had resigned, the German ambassador was on his way back to Berlin. Young men and women drank themselves to exhaustion. Youth is intoxicating. It is blind, it is strong, it is enviable and envious, it is stupid and idealistic, and it is irreplicable. Old men, Serbian veterans from the Great War, smoked pipes and stroked their mustaches and said, Ah, here we go again...
Mr. Blum, my boss and a prominent solicitor, called me immediately, invited me over. He offered a glass of Schnapps and caressed his rotund belly worriedly, checking the time ever so often. What will become of us all? Have you heard of what they've been doing in Poland? To the Jews? Thousands murdered... Horrible, horrible... I walked home, my tie undone, my hat lying forgotten in Mr. Blum's closet. I let the March wind blow across my face. It wasn't a warm night--quite on the contrary, the frost had formed on the grass--but I was boiling, rolling around from the inside and outward, and I thought of Job and his hands upturned to heaven.
An aside--Rabbi Loew of Josefov speaks to Rabbi Ben Isaac
Rabbi Loew was the first European rabbi, as I understand, who practiced the vivifying incantations from the Torah, the first rabbi to have built a Golem with the mud of the Vltava. Having made this creature, which was in its essence amoral and guided only by the wishes of its creator, and having used the creature to strike fear into those who persecuted the Jews of the Josefov district, the rabbi felt assured of his accomplishment and wrote to Vilnus, to Ben Isaac, who was then at the head of the Kabbalist school and a prominent scholar of the Spanish commentaries. Loew was quite proud of his achievement, and having seen its results for himself, he urged Ben Isaac to replicate a Golem in Vilnus to protect the community and to strengthen the worship of those who had started to wander off the path. Having read the letter, Ben Isaac, however, grew worried, and wrote back to Loew a letter which is now lost, but which is said to have been kept by Rabbi Elijah Ben Shlomo Zalman, the famed genius of Vilnus.
Among other reasons, Ben Isaac implored Loew to promptly destroy the Golem. He urged:
For all the good that this creature has done, it must not exist any longer, not for fear of reprisals against your community, or for fear of it turning against you in force, as these are all earthly concerns. My foremost worry lies in the fact that Golems are by nature essentialized existence, a copy of a copy, a shadow of a shadow. As shadows they are thus dangerous not just to themselves, but to those who created them and to those who will quickly learn to live beside them. For there is nothing more idolatrous than the worship of the indirect effects of G-d, the creation of the creation, the enlivened earth by a hand which in itself was once made of the same mud. And there is nothing more dangerous to those who have studied and acquired the ability to create than the exercise of that ability and their love of it, the same love that was, in essence, the very origin of their skill.
Already I am worried by the enchanted tone of your words, by the zeal with which you write of your Golem. Does he come into your dreams? Does he sleep when you sleep? Do you dream his dreams, or does he dream yours? In the end, are you not afraid, Judah Loew, that one day, when you speak to your mute Golem, he will speak back to you?
I refer you, friend, to the Sanhedrin, when Raba created a Golem using the verses from Sefer Yetzirah. He sent the Golem to Rabbi Zeira, who, having seen that the creature remained mute, returned it promptly to earth, saying that only G-d is able of creating and recreating perfection, and that to emulate perfection would require nothing less than emulation of G-d. It was not idolatry that Zeira feared, it was the cost of success... In the end, I repeat, are you not afraid that one day, when you speak to your mute Golem, he will respond to you: it is I, Judah Loew, your son and your creator?
What do I remember of the thereafter? Wars are all the same, only the way they end varies from time to time. Wars are ravines filled with holes, holes that history itself fills with arms and legs and nails and leaves open to smolder in the morning, a hunter's fire. A month before the Germans rolled into Belgrade, I had actually come close to asking Mara to marry me. She was three years younger, and at seventeen she looked like an overgrown child with florid cheeks and hair that she tied in a plaid and rolled across the top of her head like some Ruthenian peasant. We had met in the university library, where she assisted Dr. Avramovic, who, peering over his spectacles, lorded over the legal collection, and whose every cough she followed with her worried eyes. A studious man, I was a regular appearance, and perhaps it was my timidity or my manners that had appealed to the mousy woman, for she had come up to me one day and offered me some tea and biscuits.
We courted for a long time, mostly due to my inexperience, more so than her inhibitions. Even as the war approached and everyone had become more apprehensive, tense even, I continued in my single-minded pursuit and planned to propose on the first anniversary of our first meeting. But as the day approached, I had gone through various constrictions, and in the end, on the day when I should have knelt before her and looked up askance, I avoided speaking of anything more than the weather, Poland and France, which ruined the day for us both.
Yet that March night, when all seemed lost, I rushed not home but to Mara's house, where I sat with her father and drank late into the evening. And then, I begged him for his daughter's hand.
Now Mr. Simovic was a gentleman and somewhat of a well-traveled man; he had served in the Serbian diplomatic core before the Great War in France and later as a translator in the Foreign Ministry. He had in no way complained to Mara of my Jewish heritage, nor of my family's poverty. I always saw him as an excellent conversationalist, an open-minded European, a cosmopolitan, which was, at that time as it is today, a rarity. However, he could not give me an answer to what I expected was a simple question. He stroked his mustache slowly, and we looked at the rain furrows descend the length of the window. We are not fools, you and I. The Germans will walk through Yugoslavia even more easily than they did through France, and they'll be here in two months time. You know of their treatment of the Jews. Even half-Jews like you are not safe. What would become of my daughter, if she was to put her lot in with you? These are ugly times and difficult questions. If you told me that you had a plan, that you could extricate yourself from here and flee somewhere, I would be more willing to consider.
But I had no plan! My God, I'd never had a plan. Planning, decisive action, doing, this was Abraham's domain. He moved, he cleared the way with the plateau of his back, he bended trees like a giant ape. I sat the next day at home and listened to the men and women who reveled on the streets--they sang and sang to their undoing.
Mara and I would marry, secretly, a week later. I persuaded her, begged her, wrote to her and rang her, and finally she and I found a priest to wed us, where I lied about my origins and pretended that I was a son of a Russian Orthodox émigré. We got drunk, alone, on a Danube barge; I remember it was sunny. Then we had sex for the first time in our lives. I do not remember anything but how cold her cheeks were and how she looked like an overgrown child with large breasts and a big behind.
On April 6, 1941, the Third Reich bombed Belgrade into a smoldering ruin, a day which Mara used to sneak out of her house and come live with me. We cowered in each others' arms and shivered like children while the sirens wailed, and I thought of the Golem. Her father cursed me thereafter. He sent a complaint to the police, but by the time the paperwork was done, the police was no longer there.
I do not know how Abraham awaited the beginning of the war. I understand that he volunteered as soon as the general mobilization was declared, that he left his little flock behind him, that he forgot about his baby's grave and his wife's. I heard that he was captured by the Hungarians three days after the capitulation was signed, and that he put up a great fight. Because he could. Because he was a giant.
I heard that he escaped from captivity in just two days, and that he hid for months in the interior. He was seen with Communists, he was in Belgrade even, some say, and I believe them, as it is hard to hide when you're a Biblical creature. I understand that while the Hungarian Nazis emptied our little town of Jews first, the Communists, then the Serbs and other Slavs, as they tossed them into freshly dug holes, their arms, legs and bodies, and nails, and left those holes to smolder in the morning like some hunter's fire, I understand that he killed his first German and then many more. I imagine that he killed them with his bare hands, but that was not the case. Our rabbi had become a good sharpshooter.
When the uprising came, he was known as the Golem, and despite his size, he would fight without suffering a scratch. I heard that in '43 he took another wife, a Montenegrin woman who had volunteered into the partisans, and who, as most of her kin, was a giant herself, well over a meter-ninety. She died at childbirth in '44. In October, he rode into Belgrade on a tank. In '45 our rabbi was a colonel.
I do not envy him. Not his for his intrepidity, his freedom, his lack of fear, not even for my fortunes that were, simply put, more typical. They took me away in December of '41 and left my wife alone in our apartment. I woke up at Sajmiste, after three days of sleep deprivation in the military prison in Belgrade, where they beat us with thick, military belts and buckles, and the first face that I saw was of my boss Mr. Blum, who was blue around the eyes. Fayt! You look horrible! Can you move your arm? I couldn't even feel it. Perhaps I had fallen asleep on top of it and cut off its circulation. I remember looking at the ceiling and wandering what day it was and why I had forgotten my favourite pen at home. I wished to write something down, a farewell note to Mara, a letter to Abraham, wherever he was.
In the back a man was squealing. I remember a deep voice, almost comical, asking for silence. The protester couldn't concentrate. Concentrate on what, dear God? Blum helped me get up to nothing less than fifty men strewn about the bare concrete floor. There were metal pots, white, chipped at the sides, in each corner. This is where they wanted us to perform our excretions.
Mostly Jews around me, I recognize some of them. A few ex-Jews, a few half-Jews, some of whom protested, loudly, that they were not Jewish, that their mother/father/grandmother and so on had converted, that their ancestors had refused to be part of the cursed tribe, but such men would grow to be despised even more by the Guards. Some Serbs were with us. Mostly their quarters were further down, closer to the river. I said to Blum, This is the old Fair Grounds. They've brought us to the Fair Grounds?
He mumbled something. He was blue around the eyes. I wanted to scrawl something on the floor, on the wall. I was sure that I would not survive the night. I was calm, but I shook from within, the worst sort of degeneration.
I would say this to my children, to those who would later come and ask, Mr. Fayt, how was it at Sajmiste, how did you survive? If I had known that night, that first night, when my stomach rumbled and I wanted to scrawl something, anything, even with my nails, onto the damp floor, that I would spend another three full years there (three full, long years, over a thousand days, countless minutes, counted gunshots, spiders and diarrhea, all of it madness...) I would have borrowed someone's belt (for they had not stripped us all) and hung myself that instant. They asked me, usually, after hearing that somber quip, Why didn't you kill yourself a year into it, or even two weeks thereafter? To that I have but one answer: I think that it takes only one day to make an animal from a man, but it takes years to reshape the man from the beast. The first night at Sajmiste was my last as a man; I would transform that same night, like some Greek God, into a beast, and thereafter no human concerns touched me--I wanted only to live, to crawl, to breathe, and to eat. I would push my wicked body past others that looked no less and no more human than I, I would squeeze the last drop of water onto my tongue, I would lick the last bit of gruel, I would eat my lice and my nails, and I would curl up in the corner, so that the darkness would protect me. I understand now that bats live like that. They cannot expect the same Fayt, those who asked me with their wide open eyes, their mouths agape, they cannot expect the same Fayt to go to sleep and then wake up in that hellish place, his back halved by the very border of madness.
What I did not mention to my little ones is my silent prayer, one delivered each night almost in a guttural, sotto voce, the prayer to the Golem Abraham, if he could hear it, to keep in his earthen heart my strength, my absolution, to remain beside me, because everything in my mind was at that time blank except for his looming figure, the brush through which he led us, as boys, the brush which was dark, thorny, which he cleared with his giant arms.
In '44, when so many had been slaughtered beside me, when so many times I had thought I'd be slaughtered, too, I finally found a pencil and etched a note onto a wall, beside one of the metal bins (the bins that had chipped white paint around the edges, the edges that thus appeared like teeth and the teeth that appeared as if brightening a cynical smile). The note was but my name and the date (as close as I could ascertain), and below a list of random names, not just of dear people, but of places, writers, poets, musicians, desserts that I particularly enjoyed, legal theoreticians over whose books I wracked my brains, and my favourite games as a child. It was a list that came out of me with the same violence and release as the fecal instinct, and it stayed smeared onto the wall with the same vulgarity. This was not Fayt the Man who had written a farewell note, this was but a lump of clay that lay forgotten on the damp floor at Sajmiste, rising one day as if wound by God, who in turn, touched it with a single command: Remember. Remember me.
As the war drew to its fourth year, the Germans had gotten nervous. Their fascist collaborators, local Belgrade boys, grew wild eyed and started to miss shifts, though some of them still brought in their neighbours and disposed of them with zeal. How many died at Sajmiste? Fifty thousand? A hundred? I haven't a clue. They shot people daily, nightly, they shot women, children, and men, all naked, but separated, grouped together and driven to holes dug up far enough so that the opposite gender could not see thedm, as if murder had been touched by some strange bourgeois decency. They used a gas truck to dispose of the little ones, children mostly, and babies, and they drove their cadavers into an open field, across the river, slotting them under a thin line of poplar trees. That tree line still stands there, having grown thicker by the enriched compost. Of the nine thousand Jews in the camp, by '44 there were a handful of us. The number of Serbs was in the tens of thousands, and I do not know how many Gypsies were killed there. Some say over three thousand, some say more.
Poor old Blum, he died in his sleep, blue around his eyes and drained, a shadow of the rotund man who swung his belly like the hull of a ship. Did I speak with him the night before he expired? I believe I did not. I had crawled into my dark corner, had not spoken to anyone for days. Someone shook me, said, Fayt, your boss is dead. My boss. People clutched in their hands whatever they could bring from that netherworld, the world of yesterday, whose vestments they had forced off us, together with our clothes, our privacy; they held on to relationships and titles, street names, and childhood monikers, brought these things into the abattoir shamelessly, and I resented them for it. Blum was not my boss, he was no one's boss, he was a heap of flesh, of arms and of legs and of nails, that was thrust into a hole by history and left to smolder there in the morning cold.
The night before the camp was destroyed, we were lulled to sleep by revelry. Our captors drank and listened to music, and they threw bottles at prisoners, random men, mostly Serb peasants, Communists, women with shaved heads who looked like emaciated boys. They kicked them and shot them and left their bodies in the court yard. Then a rolling, rumbling noise shook us from sleep, and soon thereafter I heard loud explosions. One after another. Like a giant tortoise's shell being cracked open. Screams and flames and more screams. We made our way past the wreck of the door, and those who were not too weak to walk proceeded to the river and further down, and then walked or ran into the clearing. I was one of them. American bombers, on their way to attack some munitions depot, had accidentally bombed the camp. Their mistake cost some hundred people their lives, but it saved mine.
Silence. I remember the silence of the river, as we lay in the mud. A thick-necked Zemun boy, Cviic was his surname, washed his legs in the cold stream. The water lapped against his feet, the gentle caress of the throbbing ebb. Another man, Valdman, who was a converted Jew from Belgrade, a music teacher by profession, let out a cry that should have been a laugh, but had choked somewhere in his larynx. Our hands shook. We danced and sang like boys in the courtyard, like madmen.
Abraham and I
From September until the liberation (more than two months), we were hidden in the attic that belonged to Cviic's old uncle. The man fed us and doted on us, even washed our wounds. He was an old Communist and listened to Soviet radio each night under the hush of his curtains. Excited, he'd crawl up into the attic among us, put his feet under his behind, and tell us that the Red Army was in Hungary, in Romania, that Belgrade is in their sights. We counted their advance, imagined it faster with all our hearts.
Two days after liberation, I wandered into Belgrade a skeletal figure. Those who recognized me crossed themselves thrice. Little children threw rocks at me, and why shouldn't they? Did they not just chase away one sort of monster only to see another? The main difference between the black clad Nazi and yours truly was that my sort of countenance was medieval, while theirs was utterly modern; they represented designed, stylized menace while I, with my long, thin limbs, shaven head, and sunken eyes was an homage to the age of magic and folk superstition. No one believed that I could exist. Yet at that moment, in Europe, the great camps of Poland and Germany were opened, and an entire army of ghouls was let loose upon the confused, frightened Europeans. Many Germans will claim that they did not know, could not know of the enormity of the Holocaust. Many other European gentiles will confirm their disbelief. They are liars, but not completely. They knew quite well that cities were emptied of an entire stratum of their population, that men and women and their offspring were being shipped off into some unknown horizon, beyond sight, out of mind. The horrors that were later committed against this unfortunate multitude were also known; stories circulated quickly and traveled at the speed of the emptied railway carts, rushing back for their next fill. Yet as distance and tale commingled, a fantastic aspect veiled the most horrendous outrages of our century: never before was man able to destroy on such a scale, an utmost scale, a scale at which not even Lucifer could have undone. This total slaughter was, for the lack of a better term, divine. It was miraculous, destruction in the root, in and for itself, sui generis. Appropriately, it ended with an army of transformed beings coming back to their cities, to their pillaged apartments, to their empty schools and shuls, an army of unicorns that should not have existed, could not exist, in a world governed by the rule of men.
When I returned, I searched for my wife. She had survived the war with her parents and looked as sweet and young as when I left her. At first sight of my squalid state, she cried and could not stand to sit beside me. I slept in my old apartment that night, on a mattress that her father had given me in a rare display of affection. It would be five days before my wife would look me in the eye and speak to me in a tone that did not border on disgust. I remember her father's rage, not at me, not at all, but at his daughter. I remember that he brought her to my apartment the next week, holding her by the hand like a school girl (she stared at the floor): She should be here with her husband, now when he needs her the most. He offered us money. He brought us meat.
But did I need her? In '41 yes, I needed her with my entire being. I was afraid, I was innocent, I did not even dream of what would happen to me, yet I needed someone to shield me against the invisible tidal wave that headed my way. Now, however, I needed no one. I looked at her, across our empty kitchen table, looked at her red, full cheeks, her plump breasts (compared to all the nude, sagging, white breasts that I had seen run before me, sagging and jumping all the way to death), her unsure eyes, and I wondered why I was forced to spend a night with this stranger. But this would change.
I saw Abraham, Comrade Colonel Grosz, in early '45, when he came to see me and brought some apples. He smiled like a hero. In a brown uniform. Larger than life. Had he told me that he was going from my apartment to Berlin, alone, to kill Hitler, I would have believed him. He spoke slowly, importantly, no longer a rabbi but a functionary, an officer and a party member, a man who shaped the world with his own hands, while others had reshaped my body against my will.
My wife looked at him like a girl looks at a movie star. She was so tiny and he seemed a giant. It did not take long before Abraham came back with American chocolates, liquor, not long at all, before I realized that these presents were not for me, but for her alone.
Did I rage at him, my childhood friend, who worriedly fed me and promised me a position in some ministry or another once "all this was done"? Did I feel betrayed by my wife, who ever since I had returned, did not dare touch me as we slept beside each other, like brother and sister? I took long walks. I left them alone. I invented excuses that allowed Abraham to save her as the thought of him had saved me. Heroes deserve happy endings.
I divorced my wife in early winter of next year. It was all done very amicably. Abraham had even written me a letter than implored my permission:
You ard Mara are two different people now. My feelings for her are as pure as yours were, my intentions just. I feel a great shame, nonetheless, because I am betraying you, and you and your friendship was to me as sacred as our flag, as our fight. Yet my love for her is as strong. I only implore you to understand that war changes people as it changes countries and histories. That it transforms the very essence of our souls, of what we are, of who we are, and, therefore, it transmutes what we find dear. Mara loves you as strongly as she did years ago, but it is a changed love. I care for you as strongly as I did when we were boys, but my love for her is only conflicted by my love for you. I ask you to exercise your love for both of us and to tell us what we ought to do.
They wedded two months later. He picked her up like a little girl. They twirled around the banquet hall as if in some peasant scene. Her skirt rose up, fluttered up and fell down. Three months later, I was called into the Ministry of Labour and asked whether I wanted a position in their administrative offices. Someone very important had told them of my legal background, someone who heroically fought for the socialist republic. I gratefully accepted this dowry. She could have been my daughter.
They moved into her parents' apartment, which was spacious, white, and had a large black piano in the salon. In the euphoria of the liberation, they decided to get rid of it, as it represented nothing less than the bourgeois corruption of popular esthetics. Her parents, in turn, moved into a smaller flat, just a few blocks south. Apartments, houses, buildings were all up for grabs then in those wild few years after liberation. People moved, arrived, left, disappeared and reappeared, transformed, modified, improved or shamed. A whirlwind all about us, and we all laughed and sang and listened to accordion ballades.
A year later I met Lea Kojen, the sole survivor of a Sarajevo Sephardic family that had disappeared in an Italian concentration camp. She was a teacher. In her dark features she reminded me of my second cousin, Ella Frank (a creature that always cried, was always solemn, in her melancholy was considered extremely beautiful, was courted by gentiles and Jews, moved to Budapest with a Hungarian pianist, and died of tuberculosis at twenty one). I was a child when Ella died, but I remembered her well. Lea was her jovial reincarnation. She spoke with the soft Sarajevo sibilants, and at every moment looked to find a reason for a quick joke, which had a palliative effect on me. We married quickly, as most people did then. We danced in the banquet hall, and her skirt fluttered up and down as if in some peasant scene. Abraham and Mara congratulated us with beautiful flowers, red roses, red carnations. Political botany of our paradise.
In the early '50s we had our first, then our second child. I can only say that this was the period when Abraham had become different in his relationship to me, and as far as I can understand it, it was due to the frustrations that he and Mara were having with pregnancy. She had gotten pregnant in '47 but had a miscarriage quickly thereafter. A few years later, they tried again, and kept her state a secret, as people usually do when fortune selects a curse with which to plague them. Yet she was unlucky again and had to spend some time at the Military Hospital, fighting for her life.
We came to visit them. I brought fresh apples and lemons. He held her tiny hands in his paws and doted on her like a wounded bear. General Grosz had army doctors tend to her every need. I remember her wet, oyster eyes as she looked at him, worriedly, fearful of catching even a droplet of disappointment. You see, Mara loved him with all her little heart, and she thought it too small to love such a man. And he loved her with all his giant arms, and thought them too large for such a delicate woman. I cannot say that I had ever met two people who loved each other more intensely and wrongly than them.
One night, as we sat with them in the hospital room, Abraham and Lea had gone downstairs to smoke. Mara looked at me and said, Sometimes I think that he cannot speak. He sits and just looks at me with such passion that I feel like I'm drowning in it. I fell in love with him the first time I saw him you know. I worried about telling you, I could not sleep. But I must tell you, that to this day I am grateful for every day that I spend with him. He leads me. I feel safe when he is around, and when he is gone, I feel safe just at the thought of my image in his mind. But when we are alone, he is mostly silent. I ask him all sorts of foolish questions and he just smiles. I fear, that if he spoke, he would shatter my heart in two.
They never had children. He wanted them, badly, but unlike so many men, Abraham did not cheat on his wife with some woman of broad hips. He did not raise his voice at her even once, did not confide in me or anyone else that I know of his disappointment with her. The more time others spent with their growing children (and there were so many children then, just after the war), the more time Abraham and Mara spent alone with each other. They walked quietly in the park, climbed the Kalimegdan fortress, and took summer vacations alone at the Dalmatian coast.
We saw them as often as before. I do not think that he had many friends, although, as always, there were people who loved his company. At his large gatherings, one would rub shoulders with generals, functionaries, ministers, even foreign dignitaries. Poets and writers, mostly those who made quite a career in churning out socialist prose (World War Two heroics, bloodied verses, socio-realist drama), crowded around our giant. There were a few novels that either spoke directly of his exploits or had Leviathan commandos and effusive dedications that did not hide the source of their inspiration. In '63 Abraham was at an audience with Tito himself, behind closed doors, and for an entire year the city was abuzz that he was slotted to be the next Chief of the General Staff. Naturally, he knew that as a Jew this role would never come his way. In a way he rued his background quietly, entertaining once or twice the idea of Slavicizing his last name. Grosz is nothing more than a Hungarian perversion of a Germanic root, a simple name that stands for Big. I could quite easily adopt my father's name as my last name in the old Slavic style. It would mean no more or no less to who I am. Abraham Josipovic? Sounds Slovenian, no? Like a Lutheran priest. These delusions did not last long. Luckily and I did not have to spend too much time in dissuasion. For all his despondence he could not see himself laughed at. How could I possibly be Comrade Grosz one day and Comrade Josipovic the other? I am not some sort of a KGB agent. Besides that name sounds too Russian.
Nevertheless, I sense that just as I avoided men and was readily avoided, Abraham had in his older age become less garrulous. Even those wide, sweeping gestures of his arms, the avuncular solicitude with which he shepherded his many admirers, had become more reticent. I took the role of his confidant, and we grew closer, talking often of our childhood days, of the old Yugoslavia (knowing full well how unpopular and unwise it was to romanticize that unfortunate state). He never stopped talking of Mara as if she was the only woman in the world, in fact, as if she was the only woman in history, thereby erasing any trace of my involvement with her. I cannot say that I remained untouched by his romanticizing; she was, after all, my first wife. No one understands me like her, Fayt. Absolutely no one. It is as if I had known her from my earliest days, as if she grew up with us, ran our streets with us, like some little urchin. I imagine her in pigtails and torn socks. He traveled a lot, across the country, the Warsaw Block and the West. He even toured West Point and came back with a Stetson rimmed about in golden spurs. He brought me a book on the history of Washington, its architecture, its museums. He gifted Lea a silk neckerchief, as were quite fashionable then. I like to believe that no one was closer to him during that period, although the tumults that were heading our way would prove me wrong.
During the '60s, as the political upheavals swept the country, Abraham was accused by some of reactionary activity. He was even called out as a spy for Israel. Naturally, all of these accusations were false, and the party leadership never took them too seriously. Yet, Mara was affected more so than he. She cried each time Lea saw her, and people were worried about her health. She refused to eat. Each day she grew more pallid. One time she said to me, I cannot stand to live in a world that can accuse men like Abraham of disloyalty. There is nothing worse than being disloyal. Murder out of rage, honest rage is more forgivable than disloyalty. And men like Abraham are capable of everything, just not betrayal. She was fanatical about defending his reputation, even when it wasn't questioned. In the grocery store she argued with her neighbours, wives of other high ranking officers who were careless enough to mention Abraham in the context of his work. And in turn, he became even more concerned and doting, turning finally into a substitute for her father.
Ironically, just as his name had been cleared, mine had gotten into a lot of trouble. I was accused of opinions that were, to be true, my own. I did not defend myself, I had said what had to be said. My opinions were not political (I had stopped thinking politically in the camp, having had my social conscience beaten out of me), but were purely moral. I had identified a gross violation of ministry funds by a number of functionaries and communicated this to their superiors promptly. I knew very well what this sort of a memorandum may cause. In our system, people vouched for others through thick and thin; socialism was based on a mutually agreed upon level of loyalty and dishonesty that could only function if everyone agreed to steal just enough for his needs and just a little bit under his abilities. Breaking rank was tantamount to betrayal. I was a man who was capable of nothing except betrayal. For my role in this unpleasant episode, I was removed from my post and transferred to another ministry with reduced pay. In addition, I was put through a lengthy process that impugned on my political activities (lack thereof), a process which may have, had Abraham not intervened, led me to a prison cell. Yet, this act of kindness to me was to be his last. In truth, I did not make it easy for him to help me. Incensed, as most honest people are at injustice, I saw every accusation thrown my way as a conspiracy against not just me, but against morality.
Those few months were perhaps the hardest of my life since the war. And I had grown harder, more taciturn, dour. I was determined to fight them, whomever they may have been--as always when a person fell in our society it was done publicly yet anonymously, at meetings of Workers' Boards, where one's alleged colleagues could stand up and accuse a person of reactionary activities, of unethical behaviour, of undermining the state. I had faces stare at me from across the smoke-filled room and call me a spy. A woman claimed to have seen me read French press (even though I could not read French), another man was quite certain that I was preparing to emigrate with my family to the West. I demanded their names, refused to stop speaking, was eventually thrown out of the very meetings that had me as their sole agenda item. My wife was certain that I would go to jail. Even some of her friends stopped visiting, in fear of being connected to me in any way. Only Abraham spoke in my defense. And I resented him for it.
I had learned that he had intervened with the Minister personally behind closed doors. He guaranteed, vouched for my suitability. He had said to the man, Fayt is a Holocaust survivor. He doesn't need another persecution. We should drop this. And the Minister did. Having learned of his words, I grew into a fit. What did my suffering have to do with my perception of injustice? What sort of injustice was thus done upon my suffering, what sort of equation were they making? Were they seeing in me what I had seen as well, long ago: the empty husk of a man, replaced by an unaccountable animal? Let the dog bark. Let him growl. Let him be, for he is a dog. They did not wish to hear me speak. They did not even wish to reprimand me for what I had said. Abraham had taken me up in his great arms and squashed me into the ground. Overnight, as if by magic, he had turned me into a creature. I could not forgive him.
He visited me some days after the affair's end and with his usual earnestness said, You do not realize what you are doing. You cannot endanger this entire system, which is in its core is good and just, in order to satisfy a personal dispute. That is the very definition of selfishness. That is bourgeois morality.
And I said to him, calling him something I had not dared since I saw him in '45, My good Rabbi, is it not each Jew's duty to follow his moral compass, even as he understands the commandments? Is that not the lesson that we have from the Book of Job? He turned green. He sat quietly looking at me, and I believe that at that moment I was a hair's length away from death.
You never understood anything at all, Fayt. Even after what you had seen, what you lived through, you've come out unchanged. You suspect men, do not trust in the goodness of the human spirit, you dislike even your own reflection in the mirror. He grew even more agitated. Everything you've been, I've helped you become. And even that, you've nonchalantly thrown down-river. At each step you frustrate me, your only friend, and you frustrate yourself. Some of us question, others fight. I chose to fight. I see that you've chosen to lie down and die.
He left my house that night and never spoke to me again. He died three years later of a heart attack, at some wee hour of the morning.
Perhaps his death was for the best. He had started his life as a leader of men. He led them through forests, then in the synagogue he promised them paradise, under German fire he told them of victory, in peace he protected their hard-won freedom. At each corner, they looked up to him, literally and allegorically. He had the luxury never to have had to change, because the world does not ask such men to bend to the wind. In the '80s and the '90s, the second Yugoslavia came first to a slow, then bloody end. My daughter, always the prescient one in the family, emigrated to Israel with her husband in '93 and from there rather quickly to the United States. On the other hand, my son remained here with us, even after Lea passed away. In '99 I had the privilege of hearing, once again, the sound of American bombs in the distance. Like a giant tortoise's shell being cracked open. I thought of Lea a lot, and I thought very little of Abraham.
Recently, in early 2006, the Serbian government finally decided to open Sajmiste to the public and to erect an appropriate memorial. I hadn't returned there since my escape. My son and his wife decided to accompany me, and we proceeded solemnly, in a long line of grey haired ghouls, all of whom had come back, after 60 years, to the place of their Calvary. Interestingly, none of us raised our eyes to confront the fear in the faces of others. We did not wish to see or recognize a single soul. This was a solemn, lonely procession, nothing at all like a funeral. This was a trance.
I remember walking into a room that looked very familiar, although it had been cleaned and sanitized by the government. On the walls there remained black engravings, notes and letters and even drawings; they did not paint over them. Instinctively, I moved away from the crowd and proceeded to the corner, where, just toward the bottom, I knew what I would find. I had written it. I had spoken it into the wall. It was my only, my first, and final word. The list appeared clearly: dear people, dear places, my favorite writers, poets, musicians, desserts that I particularly enjoyed, legal theoreticians over whose books I wracked my brains and my favourite games as a child. I recognized the date: a day in April, scrawled just a few inches below a patch of white where I thought I had etched in my name. Yet my name was nowhere to be found. It was my writing, indeed, it was my hand that surely imprinted but two words, my first and final words: Abraham Grosz.
I had woken up from a dream. A single river, hushing the sounds of the woods behind me, sunshine beating into my eyes. Strangely I was not afraid to find out that when I spoke to the mute wall, it had spoken back.