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Written as an introspective, lyrical letter to her missing husband, the novel begins one night in January 1943, when Roszy’s husband Moritz, a member of the French Resistance, is hauled away by the Gestapo in Marseilles. Roszy is left alone and seven months pregnant with their two sons, Erwin (the author, Yitzchak Mayer) and Jackie. Unable to locate her husband, who later will die in Auschwitz, Roszy decides to escape from Nazi-occupied France to Switzerland. They board a train to Saint-Claude, on the Swiss border, carrying false French documents and, in Roszy’s bag, diamonds embedded in a bar of laundry soap. After an exhausting trek through the snow, the three sneak across the border into Switzerland, but their difficulties are not over. Mayer cinematically recounts the details of the locations, the myriad characters, and the dialogue with care and accuracy. Silent Letter is a rare book that recounts an unforgettable chapter of history, one which has powerful contemporary relevance as it confronts the saga of desperation, of people on the run, trying to escape from danger and certain death, driven by hope of finding at a safe place.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Yitzchak Mayer was born in Antwerp in 1934 and immigrated to Palestine in 1946. After working as a teacher, he became director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village. Later, he served as ambassador to Belgium and Switzerland; he was also head of Jewish education in the Diaspora and adviser to the Minister of Education on International Affairs. Today he is senior adviser to the Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College. The French edition of Silent Letter was awarded the WIZO Literary Prize.
Read an Excerpt
By Yitzchak Mayer
Mosaic PressCopyright © 2010 Yitzchak Mayer
All rights reserved.
So I am writing, at last, but I have no idea where this will all end up. You are in the North; the South. You are in a basement; in the city; in a tent in a camp; in a prison cell. In France; in Germany; in Poland. You are everywhere and nowhere all at once; off in a forest, running away. I know you are far from a post office. You would write me if you only could, you would send me some sign of life. But you are alive, it can't be any other way. And you'll be back, I know you will. Somehow, you'll suddenly show up, show up wherever it is that I'll be when you finally return, in a place of whose existence I am not aware. Even if the very heavens themselves never recover from the madness and no longer know how to fulfil what their God commanded concerning you and me and the children and everything - in the end, even if there isn't a single soul left in the world who knows whether or not you've returned, no witnesses who might testify as to whether you could even possibly return - you will return. I want you to, so badly. And then, once you return ... you'll read what I've written.
I'm not going to write about every day that went by without you. That is simply impossible. I wouldn't even know how to write such facts. What goes on every day without you is beyond my powers of description. I want you to read about the every-now-and-then that keeps life moving from place to place, and then moving on once more to some new, unknown destination. But just the facts, without my presence altogether, the facts that you need to be aware of now - and if that's too much for now, then at least at some point in the future, you will need to be aware of them. I will leave you every page that I write - I do not know where, but when you return, you'll find them, and read them, and then you'll know everything, and, at the same time, you'll know absolutely nothing.
We boarded the train on a Sunday night. We didn't take anything with us, just our winter clothes. I had the big block of laundry soap that you had prepared in my bag. You had sliced it lengthwise with a string, dug a little well out of the two halves and hid the few diamonds that we had left and then put the halves back together, moistening them carefully so that no one would have the slightest idea what lay hidden inside. You had prepared it for me, 'just in case', as you put it, and I needed it. I took along a box of bleach as well, so that if they asked, as you said, I would just tell them I was on my way to do a load of laundry for myself and the boys. There was nothing else, just our clothing and the winter coats with some Swiss francs hidden in the folds. How much? It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all anymore. I never asked you how you managed to get a hold of Swiss francs, you just did, the same way you did everything. That's just the way you were.
For a few months, we lived in an apartment on Rue Aix-les-Bains, but we knew none of our neighbors and none of the neighbors knew us. We lived on the top floor and we certainly ran into a few of them, but not one of them ever greeted me with a "Bonjour Madame Mayer" and I never offered a single "Bonjour Monsieur Boulanger" or "Madame Charpentier." As it was, other than 'bonour' I didn't know a single word of French, and no resident started anything resembling a conversation during the course of which I would have stumbled miserably before we even had a chance to get off the ground.
But what is certain is that someone somewhere turned us in.
Was it the people coming up the stairs as we descended or coming down as we made our way upstairs? Not a single one of them, or so it seems. Perhaps it was the concierge, who never once said hello to me and only ever spoke to the boys, telling them to be quiet as they flew down the stairs in their hobnailed shoes. There wasn't a single nail in them, but she said 'hobnailed' all the same and demanded, in strict, angry tones, that they never laugh even as they competed to see who would descend the curving stairwell first. She would rebuke them for merely breathing. She was wicked. They became accustomed to going up and down the stairs in absolute silence, but she would still tell them 'no audible laughter.' And then they would apologize. They apologized every single time. They didn't laugh once, neither audibly nor otherwise, and they were constantly apologizing. I didn't make them do it. They just picked that up on their own - life itself had taught them. I like to refer collectively to these life lessons and all the other life lessons that followed as 'the concierge.'
You were very respectful towards her, addressing her as though she were some sort of aristocrat of noble descent. I thought you were overdoing it a bit. You were a ragman posing as a scion of the upper class who had fallen on hard times and was living, as the result of some accident or other, in a hovel, when, by right, you should have really been living in a mansion. Was that just some sort of a justification, a mere excuse? You said it suited a researcher, a man of science, someone who worked in a laboratory somewhere. You wanted to camouflage the truth with the closest possible thing to the truth itself. You altered your identity by showing off just a little part of it. You didn't even change the name you brought with you from Romania, that country of origin that left no mark on you whatsoever. You were Romanian by a simple twist of fate and posed as a gentile as a matter of taste, or simply because you had no other choice. It's all the same in the end. And so we too became what you at once both were and were not. You thought it was a rather clever solution - lying by telling a bit of the truth, if not the whole truth. You were always in the habit of innocently dreaming your many dreams at the same time that you employed every bit of cunning at your disposal to interpret them.
Not a single Sunday went by that you didn't give her a flower. And you always accompanied the flower with a quotation from some poem, with an accent befitting any native poet born and raised in France. You liked all that, incurable romantic that you always were. You were generous. You seized every opportunity, real or imagined, to slip her a few francs.
And still someone turned us in.
If I had told you it was she you would have said that you couldn't stand unfounded accusations. So I won't tell you it was her, or anyone else for that matter. I'll just say that someone did it. You know that someone turned you in. I know that the true identity of that someone doesn't concern you anymore. If you could, you would tell me that this sort of information would not undo what was done, would not bring you back to me, to us.
But they turned you in.
You knew it right away. When the scoundrels in the black raincoats stood before you in our narrow room, and the kids emerged in shock from their own tiny bed room and stared at you without saying a word - because that was what their life had taught them, which consisted then of one fear after another in an end-less concatenation, and which forced even a child who had not yet turned six, seven, or eight, to be wise beyond his years. They stared at the men, these men who ad-dressed you with their exaggeratedly benevolent tones, "Monsieur Mayer, would you be so kind as to come with us? Please, Mrs. Mayer, there's no reason to worry, he'll only be an hour or two, just a minor matter that needs to be cleared up with the police, a mere trifle, go to sleep and when you wake up he will be by your side once more." What language, what breeding! And the kids heard what was said and stared at the men and I could see in their eyes that they would never forgive these men in their black raincoats for as long as they lived. You knew this then and you know it now, and the same goes for that anonymous somebody who was to play the most pro-found role in the story of your life, and mine, and that of the boys, that somebody who turned you in - we do not know who that person was and we do not know their name and we have no real proof, we have nothing at all, we just know that it was somebody, no more than somebody! And the concierge said, "they were giggling again."
You did not say a word. You were about to leave with them in nothing more than your house clothes. One of the men then said, "A coat, Monsieur Mayer, it's January, the nights are cold even in Marseille." And you smiled. You wrapped yourself in your worn overcoat and stood still for a moment. It was a farewell stance. You said nothing, hugged no one, kissed no one. You deceived your self and us too into believing that you would only be away for an hour or two. I stood there rooted to the ground, as did the children. The front door, which had remained open the entire time, was shut behind the last scoundrel who walked you out. And then there was silence, a silence so profound that it tore through my very eardrums. Afterwards we just sat there, the children and I, sat on the faded couch until dawn and said not a word, not a word, not a single, solitary word.
They took you away on a Tuesday. Wednesday morning - in a city that came to life as though men in black raincoats had not disturbed its rest during the night - we began to look for you. First we went to the police station right near Rue Aix. But you weren't there. They told us that we should perhaps have a look somewhere else, so I went with the children close to my side so that we wouldn't be separated from each other for even a moment. And so we roamed into the night and the entire next day as well, until an officer whispered to us, in a barely audible voice, that the prisoners from the 26 of January had been taken to the Gestapo building to be interrogated. He said when we go there, that we should never tell them who revealed this secret to us. When the war is over I am going to go look for him, that frightened officer who gathered the courage to whisper to a woman all alone with her children who were swallowed up behind the counter ... I will find him and I will greet him with a kiss on the cheek.
We walked over to the Gestapo building utterly exhausted and with our nerves well-frayed. I was convinced that in the entire city no one but me knew the secret address that the officer had whispered to me in a moment of kindness. But there in the doorway stood literally hundreds of people - some men, but mostly women and children standing around with their mothers. They all knew the address. Perhaps the entire city knew it. Well-armed German soldiers in their helmets stood there and maintained order.
A few hours later it was our turn to enter. A man in uniform with his hair carefully combed and his outfit rather well-pressed received us. Suit sat at a nearby desk and her long fingers, with their manicured nails, tapped away at a big, black typewriter. Next to the typewriter there was a tray filled with documents that seemed to have been arranged by the hand of some exacting artiste. From time to time she raised her head and listened for a moment to the many things that the uniformed man was saying. Her hair was pulled back and a golden braid rolled off her shoulders, fastened there with a long, black pin just above her neck. She gave off the scent of a perfume that filled the room with a sweet smell that was completely out of place. There were quite a few such well- ordered desks scattered around the room, and at each desk there was a soldier in a well-pressed uniform and a woman typing away with her hair pulled back and her perfume ever-present, and before each one of the soldiers sat people just like me and my children, wearing rumpled clothing and smelling like they hadn't slept all night, people who came alone or two by two, in groups of three, to ask where their loved ones had disappeared to after they were taken from their homes in the night.
All the people posed their questions in near silence. The answers were delivered almost soundlessly. Even those who wept were careful not to weep beyond what their shoulders could bear, or revealed the many of tears they held back. Everything unfolded as though in some temple where those who entered were all warned to worship in shock and sorrow, but with the restraint appropriate to an assembly of the faithful. I was convinced at the time that you were in the bowels of the building with who knows how many other people, in the infamous cells that hid behind this large, long, silent, perfumed room. You could not possibly have imagined what this hell looked like as it prepared to receive those who came along to inquire as to the whereabouts of their lost loved ones.
Erwin spoke up. But even he spoke softly, in his exaggerated politeness. He projected tremendous pain across his small, pale features. His words were well-chosen, his sentences measured, restrained. There was not a stitch of supplication. He said that the men in the raincoats had only mentioned a minor investigation. They had said that our father would be back in no time, and now, two, three days had passed already and he hadn't returned - where was he? The soldier listened patiently and replied that, indeed, it was no more than a simple investigation. Our father would certainly return in no time at all, and our concerns - the concerns of a wife and mother, and beloved sons - were only natural and certainly understandable, but it was also unnecessary and as such, without a doubt, excessive. It would be best for us to go home and wait there. That would be a much wiser approach. The woman next to him raised her head above the typewriter. Her weightless fingers kept tapping away as the hint of a benevolent smile formed across her painted lips. She went back to her typewriter once again. The tapping sound her fingers made joined the tapping sounds of the typewriters going simultaneously. The sounds filled the room like tiny drums that seemed to tirelessly announce and repeatedly proclaim that, in this place, one would do well to give up all hope.
We got up and left. Outside there were many more people standing around, some of them in well-ordered lines as we did before entering, while others were scattered around the square. Somebody told us that we had come in vain because just the day before a number of buses and trucks had departed filled with the prisoners who had been seized in the night between Tuesday and Wednesday,. The entire city already knew of the transit and there was nothing to be gained by waiting around or searching anymore. As soon as we heard the news a number of other people gathered around us and repeated the same thing we had already heard from the first group.
One woman told us that with her own eyes she had seen her husband in the window of one of the buses and that he had waved to her from behind the glass. Another woman refused to believe this even though she swore she had really seen him. There was another man who listened to everything the woman said and nodded his head. He said that someone had thrown a note from the window of one of the buses in which they had been taken away. Immediately the entire crowd tried to seize the note, but it was trampled underfoot after it torn to pieces and covered in mud. It was lost beyond all recognition. Every member of the crowd was certain in their heart that the note had been sent to them alone and they clambered and climbed over one another, but little by little in absolute silence they all gave up finding what it was they were looking for and retreated, one by one making way for all the others. The man who was describing the scene said that somebody came back after a little while and tried to look once more for the note that was gone forever. Maybe he was still there, or he might be back tomorrow or he may well never stop looking for it as long as he lives. Some notes are just like that.
We listened to everything that was said and we stared at all the speakers and believed each and every one of them. Erwin asked the people standing in line if they knew that they were standing there in vain. "They've been told to," the people all replied, each one of them pronouncing the words with their own particular emphasis. An old woman dressed elegantly in black, as though she had been to some ball the previous evening, stared off into the city above the heads of all the people around her and said, as though speaking to herself, "They're standing there because waiting around with no purpose is a sort of prayer that has no answer, and even so the people keep offering up that same prayer since time immemorial." "I never heard such useless talk," some man or woman said, and added "They're standing there because they wouldn't be able to forgive themselves if they didn't stand there, and some of them are standing in line because it is the only thing that they can do for someone whose destiny has already taken them away to that place of no return."
Excerpted from Silent Letter by Yitzchak Mayer. Copyright © 2010 Yitzchak Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
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