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The Silver Chest
I didn’t learn of my aunt Halina’s death until a whole month after she had passed away or, more precisely, three hours after the lawyer serving as her executor read out her will. My relatives know that my unusual eating habits make it difficult for me to travel and I can’t just go flying off to Tel Aviv on the spur of the moment. So when she died, it never occurred to them to let me know.
The lawyer sent an itemized list of what she’d left me: one small brown suitcase, approximately seventy years old, and one silver chest lined with red velvet containing eight forks and nine knives of a fish service that once had twelve settings.
\Halina’s children had no idea why she had included me at all, and I couldn’t figure out the reason for the old suitcase and the incomplete fish service, given that I hardly ever travel anywhere and never touch fish. I’ve refused to eat fish since I was little, to distance myself from my mother, a notorious murderess of fish. Every Friday morning, our bathtub was home to a young carp darting back and forth in the water until it wound up on a cutting board where my mother chopped it into pieces. And every week I watched with a fresh shudder of nausea as the cut-up bits twitched for an hour as if still alive. In my bed at night, I willed the quivering fragments to grow back together and the fish to jump off the board and splash into the tub and swim out the window into the river, where the muddy green current would carry it out to sea. Then it could swim back to our house the next Friday.
Of course I could have had the suitcase and the fish service shipped to me. But I wanted to collect my inheritance in person. And the suitcase might just bring me luck, I thought, since I’m desperately searching for a husband. Maybe I’ll find one in Tel Aviv. Several months ago I was struck by an intense desire to get married: out of the blue I started yearning for dishes spilling out of the sink and stacks of clothes to iron, and nothing seemed more appealing than the deafening screams of little babies. By chance I discovered a playground near my apartment, where I loved to watch the children ride the seesaw and totter around. I peered curiously into every passing stroller and was quickly able to tell a child’s precise age down to the day. Soon after that I mastered baby talk. Infants would reach for me with their tiny arms; toddlers started to crawl in my direction or stagger over on their shaky little legs, just to be near me. But I didn’t give much thought to this development until my neighbor’s one-year-old pronounced her first word, my name, and gazed at me, full of expectation, to the horror of her parents, whose relationship with me is strained because of the nighttime noise coming from my apartment.
Luckily I recognized this was a signal from my own children—a sign of their wish to be born. And now I’ve made up my mind: I, Tsippy Silberberg, am going to start a family.
Halina’s bequest is a further sign. Maybe I’ll meet an attractive man on the beach and ask him whether he likes fish, even though I’ll never eat it under any circumstances. If he knows how to handle a fish service and can spin a good story about the fate of the missing forks, I’ll marry him on the spot.
* * *
I arrive at the beach hotel in Tel Aviv late in the afternoon, after a trying flight, with sweaty clothes and swollen feet. When I ask for my room, I learn that someone else has already claimed it and is using my bathroom, tracking sand onto my floor, and sleeping in the bed I had booked.
“That room has just been taken,” says the clerk, softening his voice to convey his regrets. Apparently a young woman had shown up two hours earlier and asked for the room being held for Silberberg. And now the clerk’s telling me that he’s very sorry but he doesn’t have any other room for me for the next several days.
What am I supposed to do, make a scene in front of the whole hotel? Summon all the guests to the lobby and proclaim that I am the real Silberberg, the Silberberg who reserved a room for ten days in the middle of August, the hottest month of the year, when the thick, wet heat coats your body with a sticky haze, and you sweat and sweat and can barely breathe? Do I have to explain to the clerk that I’m the Silberberg who deserves their best sea-view room? Because before I left Germany I resolved to break free from my cold green passion, and this room is my reward.
This passion is really an addiction—a frozen food addiction, in fact, that propels me to the kitchen at three in the morning, after a short, dreamless sleep. I open the freezer and rip the vegetables out of their bags; I crush the icy clusters with my naked hands, scrape the frosty crust off beans, snap bits of corn and broccoli from off their crystal chains, gently massage the precooked vegetable wedges until they come apart, then stuff the frigid morsels into my mouth. I have known nights of unbridled gluttony when no frozen package escaped my craving. When I would rip each one open and devour the icy delicacies but find no peace. When, still despairing, I would return the empty package to the freezer so I could then hold it against my flushed cheeks to soothe the burning. And there I would sit, until the pale light of morning had calmed me enough that I could go back to bed, with bloated belly and trembling hands.
To completely surrender to my icy passion would mean living at the supermarket in a walk-in freezer, surrounded by open cartons, my head resting on an ice pack, an ice-crowned queen in a wonderland of frozen bounty.
* * *
“I demand to see this woman, with her ID and proof of her reservation!” I snap at the clerk—if he thinks I’m going to settle for an apology he’s got another thought coming.
“Please, Miss. This is a hotel, not a police station.”
All right, so the sharp voice didn’t work. Maybe if I scream loud enough the other Silberberg will come out of my room and introduce herself with the name I’ve had since birth. Then we’ll see whether I am who I say I am and can keep on being Tsippy Silberberg, or whether this upstart has taken possession of me completely. Within seconds all hell will break loose and the guests will split into three factions: those who side with the clerk, those in favor of the fake Silberberg, and those who support me. They’ll whip one another into a fury: first they’ll start calling each other names and soon they’ll be bludgeoning each other with beach bags and newspapers and cameras. The lobby will run with blood, doctors will race to the battlefield to tend the wounded before dispatching them to nearby hospitals.
“I booked a room and I’m going to have it,” I say.
The clerk sees I’m on the verge of shouting.
“Please, Miss. We’ll find you a better room for half the price, in a four-star hotel.” He turns away, dials a number, and hands me a calling card with the name and address of a nearby establishment.
“Here you go,” he says in an encouraging, fatherly tone, “I’m sure you’ll find it very much to your liking.” The bellhop is already carrying out my suitcase, and I chase after him with my hand luggage.
* * *
Hmmm. Can there really be another Silberberg from some other German city with a reservation for the same dates who’s now relaxing in my room? Or is this woman in fact a Silberstein who bribed the clerk to find her a room and wound up with mine since our names are so similar? If my name were Goldberg, I could have checked in long ago, but then I never would have met Mrs. Kugelman.
* * *
From the moment I laid eyes on her I knew that this woman had to have a round-sounding name like Kegel or Kugel—“bowling ball” or “cannonball”—because everything about her is round: eyes and ears, head, hips, legs, stomach. She looks as if she were constructed of a stack of spheres—a small one for the head, a large one for the body, and four stretched into ovals for arms and legs. Only the wrinkles in her face defy the roundness and go digging into her skin wherever they want. And her shoes have a different shape as well: large foot beds with little laces: orthopedic sandals from a German shoe factory—elderly ladies in Israel swear by orthopedic shoes made in Germany.
And I was right, too: her name really is Kugelman; she brought it all the way from Poland and has no intention of letting it go, particularly since she’s almost lost it twice—the first time when it vanished behind a number; and then, after it was restored, when she came to Israel. Her new country wanted to take the beautiful name that was so perfectly matched to her appearance, and replace it with a new Hebrew name. And with that, she could begin a completely new life, just as though she’d been touched by a wand.
Knowing Mrs. Kugelman, I’m sure she refused to give up her name. I can easily see her writing directly to the prime minister: Esteemed Mr. Ben-Gurion, even though you are the first prime minister of Israel and even though you have a lovely new name, I prefer to keep my old one, since it suits me so well.
Maybe she sent along a picture of herself to convince the prime minister. And maybe the prime minister was convinced enough to suggest that the immigration office give her not a completely new name but just a translated one—turning “Kugel” into a ball in Hebrew and replacing the “Man” with “Ben,” or “son.” So Kugelman would become been Ben Kadur, or son of a ball, a name similar to Ben-Gurion, or son of Gurion, and Mrs. Kugelman would surely be happy with a name like that, a good name for a good new life in Israel.
Undoubtedly Mrs. Kugelman thought long and hard before responding to the authorities and thanking Ben-Gurion for the suggestion, but why should she take a name she didn’t like? Even if the son of Gurion had proposed calling her daughter of a ball, which he hadn’t, it wouldn’t have changed anything: she simply didn’t want the new name. And besides, how could a new name, especially one like that, make her into a new person? Couldn’t she become a new person with her old name, just by forgetting everything that had happened? Or else go on being who she was and not forget anything, including the fact that once upon a time she’d lived in Poland, in the town of Bedzin.
* * *
And that's the Mrs. Kugelman who barges into my room very early in the morning on my first day in Tel Aviv: a woman who kept her name and didn’t forget a thing—especially about the town of Bedzin.
“The management sent me,” she explains, “to see if everything’s in order.” She pretends to inspect the bathroom, checking for soap and toilet paper, and tests for dust on the shelves or ash in the ashtray, but then out of the blue she pulls up a chair right next to my bed.
“You’re all alone here, aren’t you?” she asks gently.
“What makes you think that?”
“Yesterday when you arrived in the lobby I was watching you. I can always tell when a girl is on her own. By the way she moves. Single women don’t look around. They don’t want anybody to notice that no one is waiting for them.”
“Would you please leave?” I say, annoyed.
“Most guests ask me to stay.”
“Well, I’m not most guests. Leave this minute or I’ll call the front desk.”
She leaves. Half an hour later there is a knock at the door.
“I thought I’d stop by again. Do you have time for me now?” she asks when I open the door a crack, and pushes right past me into my sparsely furnished room.
I have to get rid of this woman, I say to myself, and ask her to leave.
The next thing I know she’s out in the hallway, clumsily shoving a chair up to my closed door, and there she sits. I peek through the peephole: incredible—she’s sitting there without moving a muscle, patiently waiting.
“How long are you planning to stay there?” I call out.
“As long as it takes for you to let me in,” she answers casually.
“What is it that you want?”
“To talk to you.”
She obviously has no intention of leaving me in peace. The next thing I know the whole floor will start complaining and blame me for the noise; they’ll say I have no compassion for the elderly, they’ll call me heartless for leaving a woman who could very well be my mother sitting in the hall like that. So I fling open the door and ask her in.
“You don’t work for the hotel. Who are you?”
“I’m as much part of this hotel as the sofas and chairs.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I come here every day and wait.”
“For what, the messiah?”
“But now the waiting’s over, at least for the next few days.”
“You mean he’s finally come?”
“If you want, I’ll stay with you and help you pass the time.”
“What if I don’t want?”
“I’ll tell you stories from my school days.”
“I won’t listen.”
“Listen to just one little story from Bedzin.”
“I’m not interested in Benzene.”
“That’s not how you say it. Try it softer, with more feeling. The letters need to run together like chocolate melting on your tongue. Here, have some.”
And she actually hands me a piece of chocolate. I sniff it and pop it in my mouth. The name isn’t so hard to say, I think. Who could imagine that popping chocolate into your mouth was a good way to learn Polish pronunciation. Maybe if I were addicted to sweets or chocolate bars or cream cakes or ice cream or caramels, then I’d be able to say all sorts of words in Polish and possibly even pick up a few other Slavic languages.
“Where is this Bedzin?” I ask hesitantly.
“Not far from Katowice,” she answers.
Katowice, in Upper Silesia. Right near my father’s hometown.
* * *
Of course stories from her school days are the last thing I want to hear about. I hated school. If she starts talking about school I’m going to grab my bikini, dash out of the room, run down to the beach, and stretch out right next to the fake Silberberg, or better yet, take her place. Even if Mrs. Kugelman begs me or ties me to the bed and gags me, I don’t want to hear about any school.
Except how am I supposed to tell an old lady, probably a survivor, that I don’t want to hear her story? She leans in and grabs on to me, whispering urgently in my ear:
“Listen carefully to what I have to say. Don’t run away. I have to talk to you or else my town will die.”
“Well, I might die if you start talking about school.”
“Just hear me out a little. You won’t believe what I have to tell you about my school. All our teachers and all the students are alive. Right here in Israel.”
“You mean that some of them survived?”
“No. I’m just saying that they’re alive, every last one of them.”
“Every last one of them survived in a small town in Poland? I don’t believe it.”
“Not the way you think. There’s a group of us classmates who keep them alive. We tell stories about them. We dust off the years, rub in the polish, and work and knead and massage everything until it’s supple and smooth, and before you know it they’re up and moving.”
“You mean they literally move?”
“Most people can’t see them. But you’re one of those who can.”
“How do I know what you’re telling me is true?”
“Oh, there’s no end of truths in Bedzin. There’s a whole mountain of truths inside every single thing that happens. One day there were one hundred twenty thousand truths in Bedzin. See, now you’re getting curious.”
“Yes,” I said, turning red, and somehow feel caught out.
“Just keep listening and I’ll tell you how it was. When you looked down the main street, which ran through the middle of town, the first thing you saw was the church, which was much taller than the synagogue on account of the steeple, and was probably much older as well. But the synagogue was right in front of the church: a great big flat gray building you couldn’t miss. So it’s a good guess that the Jews saw only the synagogue, the Christians saw only the church, and the nonbelievers saw nothing except the boundless horizon, and that means there were already about as many truths in Bedzin as there were people—let’s say forty thousand. But I remember a day when all in the blink of an eye, these truths multiplied to three times as many, when each person looked from the church to the synagogue to the sky and each person saw all three. That means a hundred and twenty thousand truths. That day had started just like any other but turned into a nightmare when the Christians went mad and fixed their eyes on the damned synagogue and set upon it and the Jews stared at the damned church that was the source of their suffering. Even the atheists stopped gazing at the boundless horizon and noticed the world of the here and now and the damned houses of God where the masses were being drugged with the opium of religion. So how many truths were there in Bedzin on that day? It’s impossible to count.”
Mrs. Kugelman stares at me. I’m at a loss for words. Taking advantage of my silence, she quickly introduces herself.
“My name is Bella, by the way,” she says, with a broad, winning smile. “Everyone at school knew who I was because of my blond braids. They were so thick and long that most of my schoolmates tried pulling them at one time or another just to see if they were real. They never pulled a second time, though; I made sure of that. One chance to check and that was that.” She shot me a brief glance, sensed my interest, and went on.
“Out of my whole high school class only four went through the terrible times and came out alive: handsome Adam, the proud Polish girl, myself, and my cousin Golda who stayed in Poland.
“When Adam and the Polish girl were still in good health, we used to meet regularly here in Tel Aviv, in Adam’s apartment. As soon as he let me in the door he’d ask if he could pull my braids, even though my hair’s been short and gray for years. Usually the Polish girl was there, too, and the two would grab at the air where my braids used to be their thickest. If they pulled too hard I’d cry out in pain, but they seldom did that.
“Every time we sat down on Adam’s sofa to talk, the strangest thing happened: the door to the apartment seemed to open and close by itself, and all sorts of familiar figures started filling up the room.
“Then, just like that, we’d hear cobblers hammering away, we’d see tailors snipping at their fabric, we’d taste the delicious food sold on the street, and we’d hear the lively mix of Polish and Yiddish we knew so well—all the sounds of the butchers and bakers, the merchants and the manufacturers, the porters and the beggars. If one of us coughed, we would race in our minds to Gablonski’s drugstore for some of his bitter cough syrup, then hurry around the corner, past Lachman’s barbershop, to get something sweet next door at Potok’s. Sometimes the room was full to bursting, with girls in dark blue blouses and red hat-ribbons squeezing into the corners and boys with ice skates or wet swimsuits crowding through the door. Marysia Teitelbaum’s little poodle Kajtus would run around in circles, so excited he didn’t know who to greet first. Pani Kleinowa, our nervous Polish teacher, was the first of the staff to turn up, followed by Fanny Sternenlicht, our beautiful Latin teacher, wearing those fetching ankle boots of hers—she really loved to fluster her students. Then our math teacher, Professor Rado—his face was nothing to look at, let me tell you—marched into the room with small but determined steps, followed by our skinny Christian caretaker Kowalski with his son Bolek. And after them came all the school groups and political clubs, the Zionists and Bundists and whoever else, until everyone who’d disappeared was right there with us once again.
“On and on it went, street after street, house after house, until our Bedzin rose up before our eyes, just the way it had been—a hardworking little Jewish town in Polish Silesia, just within sight of the German border, smack in the middle of the busy coal district called Zaglebie—such a musical name don’t you think?”
* * *
“We all lived on Malachowski Street,” Mrs. Kugelman hurries on—“me, the proud Polish girl, and sly Gonna, just a few houses apart from each other. Moniek lived in an imposing house right next to the Fürstenberg mansion, which belonged to the man who’d donated the money to start our school.
Mietek, the poor devil, lived much farther down, in one of the dilapidated rear houses that were hidden behind the magnificent buildings that lined the street—a stranger wouldn’t even know they existed.
Handsome Adam lived farther out, with the Poles, by his father’s soap factory. Oh, I almost forgot: my best friend, Kotek, also lived on Malachowski Street, a little higher up than us, on the square named after the third of May, the day when Poland first proclaimed its constitution.
“We actually had two main avenues, real boulevards, Malachowski Street, which was very grand, and Kollataj Street, which was very elegant. Both were broad enough for whole regiments to march up and down on holidays. From Kollataj Street you could look between the buildings and catch glimpses of the synagogue. It was in the neighborhood where the very pious Jews lived, a little uphill from the market, which was always bustling with peddlers from the nearby villages who never stopped hawking their wares. At the market, each voice was louder than the next, but by the time they drifted down the streets to us they sounded smaller, like children at a playground. Higher up on the hill you could see King Casimir’s ancient castle, with its enormous, stately park. And on the other side was our old modest cemetery, built on terraces cut into the hill and shaded by magnificent trees, with Hebrew inscriptions on the gravestones, all facing east, toward Jerusalem. Just next to it, separated by a narrow path, was the Christian cemetery, with crosses and flowers, neatly arranged in tight rows. And a little ways past the cemeteries was the poor district, where if it was quiet you could hear our river, the Black Przemsza, gently hugging the bank, splashing along peacefully, pleased to carry the dark waters from the coal mines in Dabrowa, the neighboring town, to us in Bedzin.”
Copyright © 2005 Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt
Translation Copyright © 2013 by Philip Boehm