Bread for the Departedby Bogdan Wojdowski
Bread for the Departed details the experience of the Jewish community in Warsaw between 1940 and 1942; the final chapters take place during the mass deportation of Warsaw's Jewish community to death camps. Episodic, chaotic as the teeming ghetto itself, the novel records the inexorable breakdown of morals and loyalties that accompanied the physical/i>
Bread for the Departed details the experience of the Jewish community in Warsaw between 1940 and 1942; the final chapters take place during the mass deportation of Warsaw's Jewish community to death camps. Episodic, chaotic as the teeming ghetto itself, the novel records the inexorable breakdown of morals and loyalties that accompanied the physical deterioration of the ghetto population.
Read an Excerpt
Cainan begat Mahalaleel. Mahalaleel begat Jared. Jared begat Enoch. Enoch begat Methusaleh. Methusaleh begat Lamech, and Lamech ... Over and over again he repeated this until he himself, Grandfather, Father's father, with his long, red, rain-soaked beard, appeared at the end and announced, "I do set my bow in the cloud." The rain stopped and he saw a rainbow stretched across the clear sky outside the window, and water dripping from the trees and from Grandfather's beard. He knew by now who had sat him on his knees all these years and jounced him rhythmically up and down, calling out in a singsong voice the names of all the generations from Adam to Japheth. Father used to rock back and forth, praying out loud, with a shawl thrown over his head. It was a wide shawl, made of cashmere yarn, white with black stripes. That was Father's tallis, and his forehead and left arm were bound with a long strap, and that was called tefillin. When Father stood near the window at sunrise with his shawl falling over his face and with the straps wrapped around his arm, he was terrified and hid behind Mother, peeking out to watch the praying. It was better that way. Mother ran through the orchard with her arms outstretched, and her fingers brushed the branches, brushed the tree trunks, and showers of fruit fell to the ground and rolled onto the grass. Mother's footsteps were loud. David! David! It was she who first pronounced his name. A wind blew up, swayed the trees, swayed the clouds, the sun clung to Mother's face, the wind clung to her hair, flapping a small strand near her temple, it flappedthe branches and it flapped a swarm of bees, which had abandoned their hive and were now hanging in a huge, brown, shaggy sphere at the top of the tall pear tree.
A long, long time ago, when he was very little, Mother told him in a whisper, "Once there was a black, black forest, and in the black, black forest there was a black, black house, and in this black, black house there was a black, black room, and in this black, black room stood a black, black coffin, and in that black, black coffin lay a black, black corpse!" Convulsed with shudders, he had listened to that story as darkness fell. There was a block of ice under his skull and he could feel every single hair on his head.
He is awake now and he sees how his father stealthily kisses the hem of his holy shawl and hurriedly, quietly, almost in a whisper, pronounces the final words. Mother is on her knees, her forehead smudged with soot, her cheek baked by the rosy light from the flames; she takes long, controlled breaths, inhaled deep into her chest, and blows on the fire in the cook stove. The golden gleam of the flames lightly strokes her hair. Father folds his shawl in silence, frees his arms and neck from the leather straps, turns around, and erupts in raucous laughter. She stands in front of him, timid, with smudges of ash on her face. Her rapid breathing lifts her breasts, her hands hastily pin and smoothe her hair, her elbows move above her like the wings of an angel in flight, and behind her the sun is rising. What do you want, he asks, what do you want from her? Father laughs cheerfully. That's what mornings were like. If there wasn't enough time, she would slip a herring wrapped in newspaper into the ash pan. The herring crackled in the fire, the herring hissed in the fire, the herring sang in the fire, and when it was thoroughly baked, breakfast was ready. Oh, David loved such days.
Grandfather opened the Kisvey Hakoydesh, the Holy Scriptures, and, rocking back and forth, he began to wail in a strange voice that didn't belong to him. "`At any hour it can begin, and it can end in any place.' David, listen," he crowed in a high soprano voice, "Bereyshis ... In the beginning ..."
And thus began that innocent nightmare, life. Bereyshis boro Elohim es hashomayim v'es ha'orets. Which he was supposed to translate as: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Heaven and earth? He couldn't imagine that. How, what did He make it out of? Why? In the meantime Grandfather droned on in a mournful voice and dragged the boy after him, straight into chaos, into darkness, into the void. From which the first light was supposed to burst forth. There was a vague threat in these words. Nu, nu, now. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. Not like that, no, Yehi! Yehi! Stop it. One more time. Vayoymer Elohim yehi or vayehi or. Grandfather showed him a faint mark that was lost under the verse like a blurry trace left on a road by nomads. And then, lowering his voice, he explained patiently and at length the secrets of the voiced and unvoiced schwa. He raised his shaggy brows and then slowly lowered his eyelids. Onward, onward. And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. Grandfather's eyebrows lived their own life, as restless and agile as two little animals. When Grandfather lowered his eyelids, David had to repeat, imitating Grandfather in his own thin little voice.
And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. In his mournful voice Grandfather drew out verse after verse and dragged the boy after him, deeper and deeper into the world. The clouds were already spreading over the sea, the earth was already covered with grass and trees. Birds were fluttering under the sky; fish were swimming in the watery depths. In the forests lived men and beasts. Grandfather closed the Bible and tenderly caressed the spine of the black tome, the mournful chronicle of life. Yes, yes. When David grows up he'll learn everything. The most important book? The Seyfer Toyreh. Also the Mesholim, the Parables. He'll become acquainted with the shining, wise prophecies for kings and people. From the Book of Esther he'll find out about the miraculous salvation of the Jews. And the most beautiful of all beautiful things will be revealed to him in the Song of Songs, Shir Hashirim. But meanwhile, the alphabet slowly and painstakingly, alef, beys, giml, daled, hey, vov, zayin.
He mewed like a cat, crowed like a rooster, and sang the entire alphabet, striking his hand rhythmically on the table, and when he tired of that he asked David questions. They were very difficult, David remained silent, and Grandfather encouraged him and lamented over him, tss, tss, tss, tss. And it was like the hissing of geese, like the voices of village girls when they stand at the edge of a pond and call the birds. Tss, tss, tss.
The geese floated with the current, and on the river banks the stately Jews promenaded, dressed in their black clothing, and every one of them held a black prayer book in his hand, and every one of them nodded and swayed over it, and every one of them had a small black yarmulke on his head, peyes on his temples, and the fringes of his tzitzith at his waist sticking out like the white straps of long underwear. A day like this occurs once each year and it is called Rosh Hashanah. That's when the boys run down to the river with sticks, yelling and splashing water on the praying men.
"Hitler's on the way, Jew! Hitler's on the way, Jew!"
But that, it seems, is not part of the holy days, nor is the crashing noise of shattered windows.
"Close your eyes and don't look," Mother said. "If you look out the window when you wake up, all your dreams will escape."
At night he lay in wait for sleep like a cat hovering over a hole in the hope of catching a mouse. Nothing came of it. He would wake up and it was already tomorrow. He would wake up and look out the window, at the sliced-off piece of sky behind the smashed pane, at the cloud dangling above the tin roof. He looked out the window and forgot his dreams, and when he searched for them in his memory they quickly disappeared, floating away like kites on an autumn wind. He could feel the slight puff of air, the pressure of the line on his palm, and he could tell by these signs that the paper bird had not yet torn away from its string, had not taken flight, and that up there, way up high, it still belonged to him. But he couldn't reach it, just as he couldn't reach his dream through memory. But Jacob remembered his dream, the Bible says so, and other people must have remembered it afterwards, because that dream made its way into the Bible. And then it was repeated for such a long time that those ancient times passed, and then other times and still other times passed, and now the present time has come, and every child knows. About Jacob's ladder. This is how it started:
Jacob was running away from Esau and when night came he lay down and fell asleep. Jacob slept with his head on a stone. The first rung, the second rung, the third, fourth, fifth. Enough. The worst thing is when you have to tell it in your own words. "Jacob!" That's the voice of God. But the angels were blowing their trumpets, there was an awful uproar, could Jacob possibly have heard what God wanted of him? How many? He didn't tell anyone how many rungs there were and aside from him no one else knows. It's just that climbing up a ladder isn't at all hard, but climbing down--that's something else. End of the story about Jacob's ladder.
But Grandfather told it like this: "And from that time God made a covenant with Jacob and relations between them became tolerable."
If you could tell it like Grandfather did it would be great fun in class, but it has to be done in an entirely different way, and David doesn't remember how. He has to look at the book before class. The Pentateuch: An Introduction for Children. It has drawings and captions underneath the drawings.
He rubbed his nose across the greasy pages, which were damp and yellow and smelled of mildew. Cain murders Abel. Aha ... Noah sails on the waters of the flood for forty days and forty nights. Abraham sacrifices his son, Isaac. Aha ... Jacob's tents and flocks. Oh ... The Jews flee the house of bondage in Egypt. The crossing of the Red Sea. Oh ... The Jews eat manna in the desert. A miracle, a miracle. The Jews dance around the Golden Calf. Joshua lays siege to Jericho! The trumpets shatter the walls.
He filled in the outlines with colored chalk, blue for the sky, green for the palm trees, yellow for the desert, white for the sheep, brown for the faces of the patriarchs. A patriarch supported his arm on a long, heavy stick that was taller than his head. It was a shepherd's crook. He was standing in front of a tall, soaring tent, with palm trees waving above it. The palm trees cast a shadow on the well where the flock was being watered. The past had the color of brown steppes, of the unblemished azure of the sky above the altar, the cold waters of the Jordan, the woolly flocks on the hills of Gilead, the white of the fluttering cloaks on the backs of the patriarchs of Ur, the green of the slender trees in the land of Canaan. The blood shed by Cain sliced through the past with a thin thread of crimson and seeped into the desert sand. It pulsed in the slit throats of sheep and flowed onto the sacrificial stone. It was woven into people's cloaks from generation to generation, woven into their light tents. A drop of that blood dripped into the spring.
He halted the nomads, those free sons of the desert, in the midst of their distant journey. The patriarchs had bare torsos that exuded manliness. They spread their arms wide to welcome the angels and the newcomers from a foreign land, and that gesture signified for him an open friendliness and nobility. They had high foreheads and held their necks stiffly, and for him that signified dignity and pride. They put their arms up against their temples and spied out their enemies; their eyes looked into the distance from under their sternly raised brows. They were strong, just, and free.
He colored their sunburned faces with blood, breathed life into them, and they were alive once again. With the tip of his tongue protruding earnestly between his teeth, he drew and filled in the colors of that world that did not exist, a world of nomadic shepherds that came to life before his eyes. How solitary and strong they were, herding their flocks along distant roads. How they raised their hands in fervent prayer. How they went in search of women who would give them sons. How they begat generations worthy of their Lord on the plush skins of lions and does from the mountains of Bethel.
In their language, in their ancient tongue, Father said his prayers and Aunt Chava conducted obscure conversations with Grandfather. It frightened David to think about how Aunt Chava drew the curtains, lit the candles in the silver candlesticks, and read the Bible, slowly moving her crooked yellow finger under the lines of the Book which has neither beginning nor end. And how she and Grandfather talked at length by the light of the candles about Haman, the cruel and majestic deputy of King Ahasuerus. In the blackness of her clothing, in the anxious blackness of her eyes, crumbling in her hand a flat, drily rustling pancake, she shouted words that made the flames of the candles flicker. And when those words issued from the lips of the king, Haman's face was instantly covered up. She had colorless, sparse, damp hair, which she concealed with a wig, and an obvious strip of hair--a moustache?-above her upper lip. Her speech was full of wild, snorting sounds that enveloped him in vague terror.
On Father's lips the ancient language sounded so melodious! And when he drew the words out there was something both kindhearted and authoritative in his voice. Grandfather's voice rose and fell in a soprano, and David could hear the voices of all the animals in it: the goat, the rooster, the horse, the sheep, and the lion. Haste and irritation summoned the impatient cry of the rooster. Laughter embellished his words with the melody of a sheep's bleating. But not even Father, with his bald spot covered with drops of sweat, nor Aunt Chava with her smudge of a moustache, traces of egg yolk, and tiny pancake crumbs above her upper lip, nor Grandfather with his beautiful beard, whose strands were combed into two wings as glistening and soft as the downy feathers of ducklings, merged in David's imagination with the image of those patriarchs whose faces he colored bronze, overpowered by the seductive force and truth of the legend. They were different, they were long ago and far away. They had generously condescended to lend their ancient language to Grandfather, Father, and Aunt Chava, so their brows might be illuminated with the light of distant suns.
David repeated after Grandfather the words of the Bereyshis. And Jared lived one hundred sixty and two years, and he begat Enoch: and Jared lived after he begat Enoch eight hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years: and he died. He repeated the verses in a state of stupefaction, and the ages of the patriarchs stretched ever onward, back into the endless past, where their restless fates had vanished in a cloud of dust, along with their flowing tents and their swift-legged flocks. What remained was the sounds of their ancient language. The carefree, unconstrained cries of birds, their primal note, remained. The sweet fluttering of the Song of Songs remained.
It was the music of the Hebrew language, full of deep, moist aspirations. The verses followed along evenly, unhurriedly, in the rhythm of the hooves of a herd moving along desert roads, with the creaking of harnesses, the rustling of the disturbed sand, the thundering of taut skins filled with water, across the distant space surrounding the hidden sources of rivers, far from the stone walls of the cities where the temple's tower shone golden, guarding the visage of the pagan idol. Their land, their fatherland, was the road--a broad track along which they had wandered for millennia. A space which was always mercifully open for the nomads, where they rested their flocks and set up their tents without fear. He could think about them over and over and over again. But a voice was summoning him from the Promised Land.
No longer were there long roads in the sunshine and dust, nor the unblemished azure of the sky. No longer were there the gentle nostrils of kids cautiously bathing in the waters of a spring. In front of him sat Grandfather in his long black coat that was shiny with age, with his parted beard. He was waving his arms in the air, impotent and furious, like a large old bird trying, too late, to take flight. David called Jehovah; the other one God belonged to the Christians and was called Jesus Christ; but most gods belonged to pagans. There wasn't anyone left for David. When you squeeze your eyelids very tight in the darkness, stars float down and you can't count them. But Professor Baum says that the earth revolves around the sun at a speed of 30 kilometers a second. And is he revolving, too? Along with that skinny tree opposite his window? And the trolley car that clangs its bell at the intersection of Srebrna and Miedziana Streets? He is circling around the sun at a speed of 30 kilometers a second? When you're lying there with your eyes closed, and seeing the flight of the stars in the darkness, you can believe that. But Grandfather says God moves the moon and all the planets with his little finger and when he wants it to be day, it's day, and when he doesn't want it to be day, it's night.
Where did that inkblot come from? He spat on his finger, rubbed the paper, turned it over, and saw an ugly hole. He ripped the page out and the notebook fell apart; but there was still a stain on the paper. There was no way to hide it. Then Teacher said that it is not at all nice to tear up one's notebook. Shame on you. But what if a hair or a speck of dirt gets on your pen point? It troubled him that his handwriting was so ugly, and he was afraid to go up to the blackboard.
"There's nothing you can do," said Eliahu. "That's the nature of penmanship."
The nature of penmanship. Eli knows everything and that's why he likes going to the board. He raises two fingers. He raises two fingers and stands up, bows to the teacher, takes the chalk, quickly solves the problem, writes the answer at the bottom, underlines it, and then looks her straight in the eyes for a long time, and without any fear, to see if it's correct. She says it's correct and tells him to sit down, but Eliahu does not sit down. When she opens her grade book and writes in it with a red pencil, Eli looks over her shoulder. Eli is the top student in the class and has a fountain pen with a gold nib. Then Teacher calls Albino to the center of the room. A tiny little boy stands up near the last bench and says that he is present. White hair, a white forehead, white hands, he is just like an agile white mouse. He doesn't do anything at the blackboard; he just laughs. Teacher looks at him sternly, opens her grade book, and says out loud, so that everyone can hear, "Ernest Bierka--unsatisfactory."
When he returns to his seat the boys stick their feet out between the rows to trip him and call to him in a whisper, "Wipe your nose, Albino!" He stumbles and gamely smiles at his tormentors. Teacher coughs quietly and just barely restrains her laughter.
But in the gymnasium, skinny little Ernest climbs nimbly onto the rope ladder and from his high perch mimics Zyga, who is the strongest boy in the class.
Stone on stone,
Stone on stone,
And on that stone
Yet another stone.
And so on, without end. In his rough voice, which is horribly off key, Zyga always hums the same song over and over. He does everything with his left hand and that's why Ernest calls him "Sh'maya."
Albino is at the bottom of the class and Zyga says that he'll surely be kept back to repeat the year. It's embarrassing and a nuisance. Zyga is repeating the year and he's bored stiff. He's been playing naval warfare all winter long with Baruch Oks, who sits next to the wall, in the corner, in the third row of benches counting from the door. Once there was an uproar because Teacher heard one of them yelling, "Four d's!" And the other, "Dead." She ordered him to stand up at once and tell her what that meant. He answered glumly, "The last three-master."
Teacher didn't understand what was going on. There was quite a to-do about it and she ordered one of them to speak up. Now Zyga was called "Three-master" in school. He used to box with Baruch Oks during recess and go to the bathroom with him to smoke a cigarette. He wrote on the bathroom door: "Look to your left." On the left wall: "Look to your right." On the right wall: "Turn around." And on the rear wall: "..." And that was all, but Dyrko called them both into his office and asked what that was about.
They were sent home halfway through the school day and the janitor spent the rest of the day scrubbing and washing the wall.
The janitor was quite a guy: he sniffed like a dog, reported everything to Dyrko, and always rang the recess bell late. He would take their lunches from their bags, certain they would be afraid to complain. And on the Third of May, on Constitution Day, he would lead the boys out to the school yard and drill them. The janitor tried to place a shepherd's crook in those hands but it slipped out; in his mind's eye, he tried clothing the old body in the dignified robes of the desert patriarchs, but they slid to the ground without so much as a rustle. And all that remained was the voice that said it could begin at any hour and end at any place, a voice that was growing faint, the grating Hebrew words, and their distant, crippled echo.
Eli doesn't study religion, he just swears. He doesn't have a grandfather, but he does have an album full of postage stamps and a mark on his neck and cheek. The mark is the color of borscht, only it's a birthmark, not a borscht stain. He went with Eli across the railroad tracks to the area behind the freight yards. There were an awful lot of boys in Gymnasium caps whom they didn't know. They had sticks, knives, and pockets full of old coins. They called them dytki. They watched them fly through the air and then measured the distance between the coins with their hand, two fingers, or a thumb. They did long-distance spitting. They sang, "O Lord, the day it poured, Julek and Manka went out of town, and kissed so hard that the trees fell down." Back home, he got a whipping and he felt awfully embarrassed, just as when he heard that song. Eli told him not to say where he had been. Mother said he had to tell, and he didn't get supper that day. But Father only laughed; he called him an old horse and boxed his ears so they hurt. An old horse, an old horse. Saba, the mare who pulls Mordechai Sukiennik's wagon--now that's an old horse. But Eli gave him a triangular Tanganyika with an antelope on it for keeping quiet. O Lord.
So now he knew that the train tracks were close by. All you had to do was cross the street and they were right there. And when he was falling asleep he could hear the voices of the trains in the evening silence. The steam locomotives, switched from track to track, came closer and then moved away in the darkness. The long, slow freight trains clanged loudly as they crossed the street, then slowly subsided into the quiet, measured rhythm of their wheels, the whispering of the tracks, the strip of smoke that stretched out over the rooftops, the breeze caused by the stirring up of the air. Where were they going? Where to? Where to? Where did the trains go? All night long the locomotives howled painfully, heavily, through the outskirts of the city. That was terror. He wanted to run away, his legs were rooted in the ground, he was thinking: Any moment now and I'll fly. That was a dream.
A roar, a roaring noise. There was a furious roaring that kept growing louder, but still he couldn't see the train. He saw a man in black running across the roof with the lead ball and rope of a chimney sweep. A button, where's a button? He looked for a button and couldn't find it. He didn't have a stitch of clothing on, not even a button. He was naked. The passenger cars flew by, windows, heads went past him, and outstretched, threatening hands rode past. Jew! But he couldn't run away, he couldn't scream. Then Eli fluttered down from the roof amidst a flurry of scattered postage stamps. He had six wings like a seraph: two he used to cover his face, two to cover his legs, and two to fly. In his hand he held a glowing coal and he held it out toward David's mouth. I don't want it, no, no. He knew that Father would come to his rescue ...
... And Father did float gently to earth by the same means. A black and white scarf fluttered above him. He was trying in vain to hold out his arms, which were restrained by thongs. He said what he always said. We don't know when we know too much. He could hear neighing in empty, dark Towarowa Street. It was Saba the mare, galloping along the tracks into the sky. She tossed her mane and acorns fell out of it, and chestnuts. Mordechai Sukiennik stood there on his sturdily planted legs and gathered them up in a sack. When he slashed his whip, the dust whirled up into the air. Mother appeared. David, what are you doing here? She was coming from far away, from the marketplace at Zelazna Brama, and she was carrying a grayish herring in one hand and a lemon in the other. That was for Friday dinner. Grandfather is supposed to come on Friday with a prayer on his lips. Sh'ma Yisroel adoynoy eloheynu adoynoy ekhod. No, that wasn't smoke, not smoke, it was Grandfather's beard fluttering in the clouds. Straight from the chimney where he had gotten stuck. It can end at any place. And it was from there that David heard his strange, changed voice, when he was calling above the city.
Ki adoynoy eloheynu eysh okhlo hu eyl kano.
And he opened his eyes to hear the painful, loud beating of his heart. On the other side of the transparent curtain a flash of lightning flickered, more fleeting than a sigh. Rain, the swaying lights of the street lamps. He strained to listen: everyone was fast asleep; he was alone.
That night he wanted very much to pray, but he didn't know which God to pray to. The one God belonged to the Jews and was shouted, "Long live the Polish Republic!" And the boys responded, "Long may it live!" The janitor would hiss an aside, "May it rot, may it rot." Then Dyrko would hold an assembly, collect flowers from the parents, drink water from a thick crystal glass, and lead the cheer in place of the janitor. The Third of May was a historic moment. May was the loveliest month of the year, when the lilacs bloomed in Kazimierz Square. In the evenings, the girls called attention to themselves, standing inside the gates till late at night, and the statue of the Mother of God in the alley off Wronia Street glowed with the flames of candles. She was painted for spring: her garments were bright blue, her face and arms lilac, and her kerchief white. She stood barefoot, trampling on a snake and the moon. The snake held a blood-colored apple in its jaws, and the moon was crescent-shaped.
In May thunder rolled across the sky and at dusk there were short, heavy rainstorms. In May, Mr. Stankiewicz, a seasonal dealer in pigeons and owner of a large, cooing aviary on Kercelak Square, would sing out in his passionate, hoarse tenor voice: "Titina, ah, Titina ... "Strumming the mandolin, he rolled his eyes up toward the windows; when he opened his mouth, his gold tooth glittered. He was called Gold Tooth in Kercelak, and his street orchestra was made up of real artists. In the summer they wandered from courtyard to courtyard; in the winter, they spent time in the lockup and the papers would write about which of them was arrested, and when.
When the mandolin falls silent a pedlar carrying a sack enters the courtyard and goes from door to door on the ground floor, the first, second, and third floors, and the basements; he buys cheap goods, an old wardrobe, brass coffee mills. Everyone trades with him, leaning out their windows. Later, a knife sharpener sharpens knives and hammers sheets of metal into circles, and in the afternoon a circus dancer steps onto a carpet, gracefully lifts her arms, turns around, and bows once more in the other direction. The man rolls up his sleeves, under which can be seen a dark blue, tattooed Scorpio and Libra. Their breath whistles, the veins are distended in their faces, darkened from their effort. Oh, won't she get hurt? It's dreadful, the woman is frozen in the shape of a bow! She leaps down lightly from the man's arms and blows a kiss to the first floor. A somersault, a bridge, and a split--then they roll up the carpet and go on, and in the evening a man with a wire hook can be heard rustling in a corner of the courtyard where he collects bottles and puts them in a sack, makes separate piles of bones, rags, and paper, rummages in the garbage bin without lifting his head, while the golden light of the streetlamp glimmers faintly in front of the gate. You can definitely hear that he is saying something. Is he talking to himself? You can hear the jingling of the glass, the scratching of the hook. But what is he saying? He is a mute and he babbles. Sometimes he appears in the gray hours of the morning, when the first yawns of Mr. Wladyslaw, the janitor, can be heard through his open window.
He remembers: it was a very long time ago. Mr. Wladyslaw's sons, laughing, dragged him into the janitor's apartment, where a Christmas carol with the monotonous, sweet melody of a lullaby, and words full of threats, floated in air that was saturated with the aroma of unfamiliar holidays. They were singing that fire gives strength, that the mighty tremble. And in the corner by the window stood a tall, pointed tree dressed in white, in sparks, in the glow of burning candle ends. It was the tree of knowledge. Of good or of evil? He didn't know. At any rate, it was the tree under which Adam and Eve, naked, sought shelter. He noticed an apple on a bough, wrapped in a strip of tinfoil. And a snake that coiled in long loops among the branches and encircled them like a chain. And he noticed a star, the star that showed the shepherds the path into the wilderness. And the big fish that still, after so many years, could not spit out Jonah was rocking carelessly and gently on a branch. And he saw a bird on the branch beside the fish, the dove that our forefather Noah had released when the waters receded. And angels, white angels with puffed-up cheeks, flaxen hair, quicksilver wings. The candles were burning, the golden nuts sparkled, bright sparks showered down, there was the sweet smell of the straw hidden under the tablecloth, the suffocating smell of candles, of poppyseed, of the damp fir tree. In front of him, right in front of his enraptured eyes, stood the tree of life.
Clang. The clanging comes from the bell on the shop door. Professor Baum enters and loudly greets Father, holding his arms out in front of him. David mimicked their voices when he was alone:
"How do you do, Mr. Fremde."
"How do you do, Professor Baum."
Professor Baum jabs his finger at the newspaper that is spread out before him. There's something in it. "And what do you say to that, Mr. Fremde?"
Father answers, "We don't know when we know too much."
Professor Baum, carried away, holds the paper high over his head: Europe in grave danger, Czechoslovakia annexed, Klaipeda occupied, Minister Beck and Goering, shaking hands in a photograph. Both of them had shotguns on their shoulders; it was clear they were on their way back from hunting. He shouts, "Sturm-und-Drangperiode!"
And Father replies, "Schwein-und-Dreckperiode."
When he worked, Father sang. He hammered away and the floor shook. He grabbed a saw and a song was heard. "Der yold iz mir mekane mit mayn klayn shtikele broyt. Oy, oy. The fool grudges me my little crust of bread. Oy, oy." He picked up a plane, there was a hissing sound, and golden, oily-smelling strips of damp wood fluttered to the floor. They clustered together, grew into a tall stack, and every single shaving glistened like sunshine.
And then, in the autumn, to the crashing sounds of collapsing walls, the first bombs fell from the sky and also a new word: Jude. Juuuude. Now he knew who he was.
Triumphant, he brought home his last prewar report card: conduct--unsatisfactory; religion--unsatisfactory; arithmetic--unsatisfactory; shop-unsatisfactory; zeroes from top to bottom. Mother and Father studied that report card for a long time, shaking their heads in disbelief. It was unheard of; how had he done it? Now no one will ever know, because summer vacation began right after that, and at the end of vacation the war broke out and Father was conscripted into the cavalry, and then there was the siege of Warsaw and the airplanes circled above the city, the population sat in dark cellars, and then Father was taken prisoner, escaped and crossed the Bug River, and by the time he came home everyone had long since forgotten about the report card. He'd gotten off easy.
A military soup kitchen full of German soup drove into their street and the civilians were jostling for places in the line. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, let me in, people!" A cook, wearing a white apron over his putrid-green uniform and a floppy three-cornered hat, dispensed smiles and goulash from the cart and, gesturing grandly, waved his shiny brass ladle in the air. Rubbish swirled in the wind, dust blew up and coated the cook's apron and landed in the cauldron and in the people's soup containers. Warsaw was under occupation.
He remembers: every evening police patrols passed under their windows, guarding the freight station; dogs followed silently behind them. Every morning under their windows two September beggars passed by, men without faces, two shadows. And he didn't know whom to fear more. A Jew with a box of glass on his back came here, right beside the walls of the tenement houses that still bore the traces of the September bombardments. His face was dirty, earth-colored, sunken, and sharp as a shard of glass. He looked at nobody and nothing as he walked. He would stop, raise his eyes to the sky, roll them, and cry: "Windowpanes, I install windowpanes." Then he would walk on, continuing his wanderings through the ruined city, stooped under the weight of the glass, his face hidden in the upturned collar of his jacket. He would be passed by a man wearing a coat pinned closed with a safety pin, and without a shirt underneath. White cloth armbands with the six-pointed Star of David fluttered on a hanger that he carried in front of him like a shop window.
"Rags, rags! Who needs a rag?"
Now he knew who he was--when his mother sewed an armband just like that onto his jacket sleeve. And one day masons appeared in the streets and they began to build the wall.
Is this what the Tower of Babel is supposed to look like? Is this what the Tower of Babel actually did look like? And had God already mixed up all the languages? He had always thought that myth murky, unclear. Probably because of the gloomy, blurred picture printed on cheap paper. It fused in his memory with the colors of the approaching storm. Probably he had looked at that picture at some dead time of day, in the winter, when the weak electric light was unable to vanquish the grayness of the gloom in the alcove behind Father's workshop where they slept, or to chase away the shadows of night from in front of his eyes. Srebrna Street was full of such alcoves, pierced by the clamor of the freight trains, pierced by the wind that blew through the outskirts of the city, enveloped in a pillar of coal dust. Blackness, darkness, and in that darkness a crowd of toiling shadows circles endlessly, and the thunder rolls. For a moment, the figures bent beneath their burdens, their mouths open and their teeth bared from exertion, can be seen clearly and sharply; you can see the stones passed from hand to hand. The thunder rolls, it hurls bodies down from the tower and stones and more stones tumble to the ground, the bowed bodies fall heavily onto the ground, and the clouds gather low, very low. That's it. The myth was somber, abruptly ended like the tower that was broken in half.
A large sheet of paper was pasted up at the entrance to his closed school, a black and yellow poster showing a huge upper arm encircled by an armband with a star. On this arm a Jew with a hooked nose perches comfortably, extending his own arms, astride which sit two Jews with the same hooked noses, on whose arms sit four Jews with hooked noses, on whose arms sit eight Jews, on whose arms sit sixteen Jews, on whose arms sit thirty-two Jews ... The Jews who didn't fit on the black and yellow poster walked along the streets of the Ghetto. Swarms of Jews in the form of a pyramid that vanished somewhere high up, far away, climbed over each other, and all of them wore the armband with the star around their arms. Achtung! Weltjudentum. Gefahr!
The wall was already completed when Father said, "David, how long has it been since you've gone to visit Grandfather, eh? It's not nice. Let's go there for New Year's."
But they didn't go for New Year's; they didn't go until Purim. They walked along the streets, skirting the naked flame-blackened ruins that hung over their heads like the skeletons of enormous long-dead animals dangling from a butcher's hook. They walked in a crowd of crying pedlars, of women who guarded their barrels of herring and barrels of sauerkraut from dawn to dusk, of teenagers with wings on their heels and little boxes hung around their necks, who shouted while running and ran back and forth while shouting. "Ciii-garettes! Maaa-tches!"
They walked past an endless line of beggars who were sobbing for mercy and impudently showering the passersby with curses full of Polish words, Hebrew words, zhargon, and the soft German of the eastern border towns. They passed cantors who had been driven from the provinces to the city, to the streets, and here they were on the sidewalk, singing their hunger and their psalms. They passed stern old men in tattered black garments, rabbis expelled from their little towns and villages who, raising up loud prayers under the open sky, timidly stretched out their hands for alms, and those hands, always in motion, desiccated and frail, hung loosely and trembled in the air like leaves set quivering by a puff of wind. Alms, prayers, curses--the everyday music of those streets.
When they arrived they found everyone seated in his usual seat: Grandfather, Aunt Chava, Dora Lewin, Professor Baum, Uncle Yehuda, Uncle Shmuel, Uncle Gedali. At the head of the table, in the corner, was Grandfather, but where was Grandfather's beard? Unconsciously, David checked for it--that beard that was as carefully cultivated as a garden--where it usually lay, broadly spread out and curling over Grandfather's gabardine. Dry as a fruit stone, yellowed, unkempt, wearing a stained vest, the distraught old man pressed his pale fingers to his pale temples. When shouting could be heard from the street he grew smaller in his corner and his eyes tightened with despair. His bent figure sank into the gloom of the late winter afternoon, while Aunt Chava bustled about nearby and thrust little pillows behind the old man's back. Brushing the dust from his sleeves and yarmulke she tried to give him a straighter, more acceptable demeanor through the power of her despotic love.
His old eyes looked past them today; they were focused on a point on the ground. Purim, Purim. In the old days, Grandfather used to brighten the holidays with the light of his stern dignity. His eyes banished from the table and dispelled everything that was petty, insignificant, unworthy. A restrained joy would inhabit his face, hope supported by prayer, a pledge of humility before the Lord renewed throughout the holy days. That's what those days were like, days of destiny, days of the legend of victory, days both joyous and stern. Capable of instilling strength through good news, through cheerful spirits, from generation to generation. Grandfather had the legend fixed in his smile; with every gesture, every glance, he infused it with warmth for all the people gathered around his table. Purim, Purim, holiday of destiny, when the characters from the ancient intrigue stepped out of the pages of the Bible and enacted, as they had done every year from time immemorial, their ambiguous roles. There is Esther, there is Mordechai, there is Haman, there is King Ahasuerus, docilely obedient to the promptings of a beautiful Jewish girl.
David remembered the moment when, with fear and shame, he felt on his temples the crown of golden oakum. Esther's gown was draped over his shoulders. Baruch Oks was Haman, the cruel deputy. Eli was the Persian king. And Zyga, because he was "Sh'maya"--the lefty, whom everyone in school feared, because he had a terribly strong left hand that he used for writing, lifting heavy loads, and giving beatings--was Mordechai.
Behind them stretched a paper Shushan and the royal gardens, and in front of them sat the audience, their parents, noisily blowing their noses. They were here, in the light, acting their parts, and there, on the other side of the proscenium, the rest of the world sank into the terrifying darkness. Slowly, slowly, in the black abyss of the auditorium, bright spots began to shine, faces, eyes, and tears glistened. From far away they sent them signs, smiles, sighs, while Dyrko ran around in the wings like a madman, looking for Ahasuerus's scepter. Meanwhile, they had to drop the curtain and there was an awful uproar in the hall before Eli found an apple in his lunch bag to hold in his hand. And the King and Haman came to Queen Esther's feast. Baruch Oks, in a terrifying voice, roared that he was going to murder all the Jews. That was required by his role. But he yelled a little too loudly. King Ahasuerus kept going outside to the fig tree in the garden in order not to hear him. Esther fainted. That is to say, David fainted, or rather, he forgot to faint on time, so Zyga kicked his ankle.
"Faint, right now! What are you waiting for?"
David fell down and lay there on his back. But Dyrko kept getting in the way, and just at the most important moment he pushed the janitor out onto the stage. The janitor burst on stage, shouting, "Here it is!" and handed Haman his sword.
Baruch Oks didn't miss a beat and said in his own words, "What does this mean? Yet another delay?"
The audience realized what was going on and burst out laughing, and the janitor stood stock still. Finally they managed to get him off the stage and the performance continued. Haman kept intriguing against the Jews, but nothing came of this because King Ahasuerus was wrapped around Esther's little finger and happily followed Mordechai's advice. Then the gallows was driven onto the stage, with the evil Haman hanging from it, and ...
Uncle Shmuel is saying, "The Allies will declare war and it will all be over in a month." His left hand gestures expressively, all the way up to the elbow. "Go on! In the worst scenario," and, pretending to think, he leans over to his left, toward Grandfather, "in the worst scenario, it will go on until winter. The Germans will have time to send us to Madagascar in the summer, and that will be the end of it."
Father says, "I once heard a story about a baby that was born to a couple on Smocza Street, and the moment it came into the world it predicted that no later than New Year's, during Rosh Hashanah, all the Jews would be saved. And then it died."
Uncle Shmuel shrugs his shoulders. "During Rosh Hashanah itself? So what? The New Year has already passed."
Uncle Gedali asks with dead seriousness, "And the baby didn't have time to say anything else, Yakov?"
Aunt Chava absentmindedly places in front of Uncle Shmuel the tea she prepared for Grandfather. Grandfather, not even glancing in her direction, slowly and approvingly nods his head. An ambiguous silence reigns.
"Ersatz Herbatol? From a cube? No, I won't put that slop in my mouth," Uncle Shmuel declares grimly.
"Not a word," says Father. He looks sorrowfully at Uncle Shmuel. "Unfortunately, it didn't want to say anything else, but had it lived--blessed be the memory of that child," he interjects in a shaken voice, "--even one more hour, we would have learned unbelievable things."
"That's entirely possible," Uncle Gedali roars, and draws the rejected glass of tea over to his place.
... And that's how the Jews were saved. The gallows was supposed to be "fifty elbows" high, but they could never have managed such a tall one. And then the children took off their costumes amidst the applause and kisses and their parents took them home. They walked home at dusk, when the city was enfolded in a carnival tumult, colorful balloons floated in air filled with laughter and spring breezes, and Chinese lanterns extinguished the light of the stars. High above the crowds, Haman moved around on enormous stilts, with a gallows attached to his collar and a noose flapping freely over his head. In the many-colored, swaying light of the lanterns his grimacing mask was flooded with a dead, unnatural glow--green, red, violet. And as soon as those words issued from the king's mouth, a hood was pulled over Haman's face. The noise-makers rattled furiously. Purim, Purim.
Where should one seek fate? Where seek Queen Esther? Her voice will no longer echo from the pages of the Book, her beauty will not save her people. Mordechai will defeat their enemies. On the table lies half a loaf of rationed bread and in front of Grandfather is the Bible, spurned, unopened.
[CHAPTER CONTINUES ...]
Meet the Author
Bogdan Wojdowski was born in to a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1930. He committed suicide in 1994.
Henryk Grynberg was born in Warsaw in 1936. He is known for his writings on the Jewish experience of World War II.
Madeline G. Levine is a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >