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Fire on Water: Porgess and The Abyss

Fire on Water: Porgess and The Abyss

by Arnost Lustig

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Contemplations of survival by one of the leading Czech writers of the twentieth century

It occurred to me why I was able to forgive the Italians, but never the Germans. Was it because the Italians never slept on mattresses stuffed with the hair of Luster Leibling or Weltfeind Flusser?

In this pair of short novels, Arnošt Lustig continues his lifelong


Contemplations of survival by one of the leading Czech writers of the twentieth century

It occurred to me why I was able to forgive the Italians, but never the Germans. Was it because the Italians never slept on mattresses stuffed with the hair of Luster Leibling or Weltfeind Flusser?

In this pair of short novels, Arnošt Lustig continues his lifelong project of creating a universe-at once concrete and dreamlike-to examine the horrors of the Holocaust and the impossible burden of living as a survivor.
The Abyss is the fragmented memories of David Wiesenthal, aged twenty, tortured by what he has witnessed and by the knowledge that luck-not skill, not courage, certainly not goodness-separated the survivors from the doomed. He seeks solace remembering the women he's loved or desired, even the one who represents his death.
In Porgess, the narrator recounts the life of the title character, "the most handsome boy in Jewish Prague" who was paralyzed on the last day of World War II. The two discuss their mutual fascinations-women, jazz, the significance of numbers-in sometimes bitter, sometimes sardonic voices, but always with the specters of the dead and the guilt of survival close at hand.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One is grateful for Mr. Lustig's quiet prose and for the fiction that we are reading fiction."
-New Yorker

"[Lustig] is not only an eyewitness but also a skillful, gifted writer. . . . With age, exile and distance, he appears to have outgrown mere brilliance and learned to deal with the past in his own way."
-Ernst Pawel, New York Times Book Review

"Arnošt Lustig is one of the leading contemporary Czech fiction writers, and certainly the most important Jewish writer of Bohemia to have survived the Holocaust."
-Josef Škvorecký

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Writings from an Unbound Europe Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

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Copyright © 2006

Arnost Lustig
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2220-8

Chapter One PORGESS

To disturb the peace of the dead is the same as killing a man. According to Jewish laws the body of a man still has a living soul, though it is already dead. It remains with him even when his bones and skull turn to dust. The earth in which he is buried belongs to him till the end of time. To disturb the peace of the dead is a crime. To steal the soil, which surrounds his grave, is unforgivable. Talmudic Academy, Brussels

* * *

AND SO IN SPIRIT I WAS BACK IN ITALY, ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON, October 6, 1950. I was not too far from Rome's Palace of Justice in Lungotever, across Ponte Umberto, along the Vatican side of the Tiber. The building had a chariot on its rooftop with a rider steering four horses. Two workers, secured by leather straps attached to scaffolding, were cleaning the horses with sand. The building was caving in along both wings, though only a few thousandths of a millimeter. It would have been funny, as my friend Tanga once thought, when we were in the Great Fortress of Theresienstadt in September of 1944, if hell were at the center of earth and the palace were to fall all the way through. The workers on the roof were shouting at one another, and the wind carried their words away.

Down below in the bar on via Calamatta, a popular song was playing with lyrics suggesting that a man should look upon a woman the way he looks upon himself-and that a woman should do the same. And then they played another song, which compared a quarrelsome woman to a day full of rain-from morning until evening. What is it that women envy about men? And what do they no longer envy after their first sacrifice of love? What do men envy about women? The ability to give birth?

An old man wearing a L'Unità cap was sitting on a white marble stairway. His palms were spread out toward the sky, as if he were trying to catch the rain. I tossed him a lira ten note. Was I being pretentious by doing this? The beggar looked as if he were down to his last breath. Tiny drops of rain were bouncing off the tip of his nose into his mouth. I didn't know whether I wished to pity him more or whether I wanted to gauge my immediate well-being by comparing it to the misfortunes of this old Italian comrade. (The old-timers from the journal We Shall Return!-the first ones who, after the war, took over the quarters and printing shop on Panská Street 8, where the Prag Tablat was once located and where Der Neu Tag was during the war-they turned everything inside out.)

I was in Italy because I survived. Between September and October of 1944, someone else, instead of me, went up the chimney in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This process of selection would happen time and time again, without me truly deserving it, the entire time I was there. Then it would happen again, when I was elsewhere, because the Germans had exploited their death factories to full capacity, both day and night-today, every day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. It is even said that one time Heinrich Himmler, the former chicken farmer, came to view the work of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland. Along the graveyards, in the wheat fields, and in the forests, he watched the Einsatzgruppen slaughter men, women, children, the elderly, the sick, and the helpless. They slaughtered them one by one, stripping them naked and then shooting them up close with a revolver, machine gun, or rifle, so their victims would fall into the pits they had dug themselves. As Himmler grew sick, someone quickly had to bring him a chair. Apparently, he said that there had to be another way. He wanted to achieve the same thing, to continue the murdering, but rather, let's just say, in a pair of white gloves. He saw too many drunk and demoralized SS men. And so they matured to murder by gas. This Himmler would no longer have to see. He only had to listen to the reports. Hitler, too, never crossed a gate to the camps. He shunned it as much as he avoided signing orders. (It was in Wannsee, on the outskirts of Berlin, January 20, 1942, when fifteen heads of the Nazi regime, in ninety minutes, agreed around along conference table to the "necessary cooperation of all military and police forces for the final solution of the 'Jewish Question,'" and then already standing up to depart to their offices, they told one another jokes from the Stürmer, drank coffee and French cognac, and smiled satisfied smiles, like some members of a city council.)

The Germans would verify absolutely everything: even the most insignificant of administrative offices was not left untouched. Everything had to be directed toward victory for the Reich. It was obvious, as Erwin Adler once put it, that "one and one was two." Was I allowed, according to Bobby Lenta Mahler, from Belgická Street 24, to say B if I had already said A?

Someone painted on the Palace of Justice, with a brush dipped in tar, the words "Every crime against humanity begins with inequality." While the other side of the building revealed another statement: "One cannot demand freedom for an individual and a strong government for others. Chaos and freedom is better than the justice and order of a tyrant." Next to it was yet another: "We know what's going on!" The letters seemed as if they had little bristles of hair growing out of them. "Let Mussolini's body rot peacefully in his grave. If we dig him out it will bring out the stench.-Enrico Caruso, Napoli."

I was glad to be among the living, even though I wasn't exactly proud of it. I blamed myself, a bit, for reasons that are more powerful than myself. As if we, not Rottenführer Jochen Reiger or Hauptsturmführer Manfred Rudnick, handpicked ourselves to go up the chimney during the selections. I would laugh to myself when the old-timers from the Whale, the editing room for the journal We Shall Return! would say over and over again that every beginning was difficult. When a forest was being cut down, one had to expect some splinters. I was holding on to an opportunity. Nothing could be compared to the camps. I was willing to render my best to those old men and to the Whale. Above the bar on via Calamatta there was a sign: THIS IS THE PLACE FOR LIARS, HUNTERS, AND FISHERMEN. HERE YOU BELONG. HERE YOU ARE KIN.

I was still learning, with the exception of one particular area, that after my experience in the camps, I no longer needed much education. I was going over a few photographs in my mind. Photographs that would present a moment, what led to it, and what followed afterward. Some of the photos were signed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, my namesake (Dessau 1945)-one depicting survivors from the camps discovering a woman who was a snitch for the Gestapo who tried to blend in among the refugees. A photo from Robert Capa, from August 1944, depicting people in Chartes as they ridicule the French mother who had an infant with a German soldier. Her head was shaved. A Japanese officer with his arms raised, holding a sword above the head of an Australian pilot shot down in battle. (American, Australian, and British pilots apparently handed out this photograph among themselves to remind them of what would happen to them if they survived a crash.) The pilot in the photograph was still alive; he was originally kneeling, but in that moment, he had landed on his heels, blindfolded with his arms tied to his body. The last sound he would ever hear was the whistle of the wind being cut by a sword-all in a matter of a second. How long could a second like this exist in a photograph? Until the paper turns yellow and withers away?

After the rain, the air was fresh. It was a pleasure to breathe. From somewhere, I smelled the scent of oranges. I no longer wanted to think about what sort of line of selected prisoners it would be. To see the faces of those who replaced me or paid for my life with theirs-their expressions, eyes, and wrinkles. The things they could have accomplished in life, in their own professions, or even in mine. Adler subsequently read me the statistics out loud. Do Jews have more influence than they deserved, even after the war? Should Nazism be condemned? Who was to blame? All Germans? All Italians? All Japanese? Don't we already know that when guilt as well as innocence poses for clarity, with all their complexity, no one can ever draw a definite shape of their face, name, or address in a single stroke of a brush? Should we continue to write and speak about this? Shouldn't we, just once and for all, cross everything out with a thick black line? Existence is a weight alloyed from the metals of humiliation. As if I didn't know that. Adler would make up quotes from the Bible and noticed that no one (besides experts) would dispute him. If all this is impossible to confess to anyone, because it is inexplicable, could it be inexplicable to one's own address as well? What drives a man to insanity? Was there only the word in the beginning? Will it be also at the end? "Go to hell!" Adler would say. He didn't have to shout. I would have heard him if he whispered. I would have heard him if he was completely silent. It wasn't a matter of distance. It was primed by the music from the bar on via Calamatta: "Quando, quando, quando?!"

The man on the marble stairs didn't even bother to thank me. Neither was he in the habit of using a handkerchief. Perhaps he was like Weltfeind Flusser in the orphanage on Belgická Street 24, who detested underwear and bathrooms. (W.F. would say, "When someone wants to beg, they can't be fat, look happy, and want a strawberry when a cherry is being offered. Only an idiot wouldn't be able to beg enough to afford a mink coat.") If he would have invested those ten liras, his granddaughter could have been whistling a sweet tune of profit, but unfortunately not for long.

Drenched to the bone, I sauntered toward the more flamboyant center of Rome and pushed away all the pickpockets, pimps, drug dealers, rough and dainty adventurers, thugs, beggars, and slackers-homeless people with an occasional guitar or mandolin, pocket radio, or accordion. Proprietors of bottles filled with alcohol bulging from their side pockets, street thugs on a stroll after the rainfall, like me. Ladies of the street, some dressed better, some worse. Should I have taken bus 26 and had a Peroni beer at the Frantina Bar, where I already knew the headwaiter? I bought an orange at a kiosk. Adler's ears were probably ringing again. I slowly peeled it, eating it piece by piece. I ate the peels from the inside and threw them on the sidewalk.

In Prague during the war, along with Adler, W.F., and Luster Leibling, I saw the weekly news and UFY at the Cinéma Koruna. In 1940 actresses were singing to Italian soldiers in Somalia, while natives brought them baskets of fruit-frutti per gli soldati. We had tickets to see the Nazi films Legion Condor, Das Gewehrüber, Es leuchten die Sterne (we saw that twice), and Heimat with Zarah Leander, who sang the tune "Frau Wird Schon Durch die Liebe." Back then Luster Leibling, alias Black Pepe, punched a boy from the Hitler Youth at the coat check. We had to race out of there to the blare of whistles blowing as the boys' unit was sounding the alarm. We took the corridors and back alleys, all the way to Belgická Street 24. We knew Prague and all her shortcuts, as Little Narcissus's legendary cuttlefish knew its piece of the sea. We saw Jew-bashing films when the term "Jew bashing" could no longer be said in Prague: films such as The Eternal Jew, Robert and Bertram, Rothchild's Stocks from Waterloo, and Rembrandt. We ended up seeing The Jew Süss by Veit Harlan, who kept repeating in his postwar radio program that he never had anything against his Jewish colleagues. He just didn't want to get in a conflict with Goebbels. Had everyone forgotten what the Gestapo was capable of doing?

It occurred to me why I was able to forgive the Italians, but never the Germans. Was it because the Italians never slept on mattresses stuffed with the hair of Luster Leibling or Weltfeind Flusser? I guess I would never feel comfortable in a German hotel, laying my head upon a pillow and a mattress stuffed with God knows what.

The German newsreels weren't as pleasant as the Italians', although they did have better music. For the Somalis, it never made a huge difference anyway. But perhaps I would see it differently if I were in the shoes of Enzo Vittorini. Enzo feared that all aggression was fascism, even if I changed places from the chair on the right to the chair on the left. The fascists needed to see blood on their hands, so they could sleep better. They liked blood better than a weasel that fed off of it. Albert Weltfeind Flusser-alias the Caveman-knew this fact. I had to give credit to some of his prejudices.

I passed by several parked cars with newspapers covering the windows like curtains from the front, back, and sides. They were bouncing up and down, their shocks screeching according to the make of the car or the passion of the couples inside. This not only confirmed what W.F. once told me-that the Italians would always, in every war, end up on the other side of the battlefield from where they started, usually at the eleventh hour, under the flag of any victorious power-but also explained why the world was filled with so many Italians.

On the corner of via Ludovici, I picked up the prior day's evening post from a bench under the shelter of a bus stop; I glanced at the headlines and threw it into a gutter. I was looking at a shop display for the company Bruno Magli of Bologna and noticed in my reflection that I needed to comb my hair a bit. As Grandmother Olga would say, "If you behave, little boy, your hair will grow nice and wavy." And then I remembered Porgess, who had similar curls. The last day of the war on the eighth of May 1945, before Porgess could cross the border to Germany, the soldiers paralyzed him, so he was subject to a bed since the first day of peace on Wednesday, the ninth of May 1945.

Porgess was blond with golden curls. He was the most handsome boy in Jewish Prague. I knew him from the summer of 1940, when France surrendered to the Germans with its entire Maginot line, including its freedom and brotherhood, not to mention its best cuisine and suspicion of the British and their modern military equipment, which later proved useful to the Germans. During the time after the Jewish Maccabiah gymnasium was banned, when Ping-Pong and sometimes even jazz (when the rabbi leniently turned the other way) was played in the basement of the Vinohrady synagogue, because Jewish children were no longer permitted on public playgrounds, Bobby Lenta Mahler discovered Ibn Khaldun, who claimed that the less a person glutted himself and the more he hungered and lived modestly, the more courage he would gain, the more resiliency he would have, the better skin he would boast, the better figure he would retain, and so on. And vice versa. Did he mean the Germans? The more audacious the conquerors, the more they spread out, and the more they lived in the lap of luxury, which their stomachs were unaccustomed to, the sooner they would feel the demon of a bitter end. It was during these days that Bobby practiced hunger and read Franz Kafka and Baudelaire, not only to carry the "burden of the Time" but also to absorb the answers to questions yet to come.

Porgess looked as if he carried the head of a German prince, painted by Cranach from the gallery of Bobby's favorites, on his shoulders. Porgess didn't have to demand the right to be equal. If he didn't have a yellow star with black lining and the semi-Gothic letters spelling jude sewn on in the place of his heart, he could have enrolled in the Hitler Youth out of jest, or at least in the Czech equivalent, the Kuratorium. He had fresh light skin, golden locks, and a nose as straight as a ruler.

Porgess boxed at the Hagibor in the summer of 1940 under the guidance of Freddy Teveles, also known as TV or Teve-Sugar Face, and Kona Levit, who later hanged himself on a curtain string in a hotel room at the Grand Operetta. Teve-Sugar Face broke Porgess's nose during a training session, and Porgess's father, with his petite blond-haired wife, came to the gym to see the shady Jewish party of their son's friends. Porgess felt at home among the orphans.


Copyright © 2006 by Arnost Lustig. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Arnošt Lustig was born in Czechoslovakia in 1926. After internment in Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz, he escaped from a train of prisoners bound for Dachau. He returned to Prague to fight for the Czech resistance in 1945 and went into exile following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Lustig now lives in the United States, where he teaches writing, literature, and the history of film at American University in Washington D.C.

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