Arnošt Lustig's fiction has always been too close to the facts for comfort. In The House of Returned Echoes, he pays tribute to the life of his father, who died in Auschwitz in 1944. In Prague in the difficult time between the wars, a man fights to keep his family and his business alive despite anti-Semitism and economic hardship. Emil Ludvig has always relied on the simple rules of his family and the basic laws of civilization to counteract his misfortunes, and being a decent man himself, he refuses to believe that the Nazi threats will be carried out. Yet, he also becomes a victim of the camps, and his story resonates with both Lustig's personal experiences and the shared memories of the Holocaust.
About the Author
Holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig was born in Prague in 1926. Lustig became a radio reporter and upon his return from Prague with his mother. Currently, Lustig teaches at the American University in Washington, D. C. Lustig's short story selections include Children of the Holocaust, Indecent Dreams, and Street of Lost Brothers. His awards include an Emmy, a National Jewish Book Award, and the Karel Capek Award for Literary Achievement by President Valclav Havel.
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THE HOUSE OF RETURNED ECHOES
By ARNOST LUSTIG
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2001
All right reserved.
Chapter One You have to learn how to be born," Emil Ludvig said. "Isn't it a wonderful thing to breathe the fresh air to your heart's content?"
"The most important thing is to start on the right foot," Anna replied. "Let's go, then, so we'll be back in time. How long do you want to stay there?"
"Why do you think about the end before you even get started?" Emil asked, smiling.
Life is a question of practicality, he thought. It's clear what escaped me. I need money. There's nothing new under the sun, as Anna always says. Where'll I get it without stealing?
Emil sometimes thought about the fact that even the most ordinary people play many roles in their lives. In his mind, he stood in front of a mirror: he saw himself as a breadwinner, businessman, and husband; friend, relative, brother-in-law, and uncle; and, at various other times in his life, son, student, soldier, and shop assistant. He was reminded of the way he'd sometimes slipped out of one role and then had to return to it later, and how at other times, certain roles merged and became, or were, mutually exclusive of one another. A man had to cue himself as to when to take on a role with the curtain up: to say "yes" in one role, "no" in another, and "maybe" in yet another. Sometimes he had to appear to play one role and talk as if he were playing a second, while in reality, he was playing a third.
Emil laughed at his own ludicrous thoughts. For the moment, he was lucky in at least one role: even though he sometimes had to be on the run all day, away from home, he always made it home and never had to spend the night anywhere else. I'm like a swallow-gone all day but always coming home at night to rest, he thought to himself. He managed to maintain his carefree ways-that helped him. He didn't bother much about the role of housekeeper and doctor. (Anna outdid him in those arenas, anyway. She believed in the generic healing power of garlic, even if the smell forced you to hold your nose.) He took delight in his children, Richard and Helena. He wondered which roles in his life he had yet to play and to what depths a person might stoop for his family. He knew that there was one role he'd have to play in a little while, but he didn't yet know quite what it would be. He only knew what he wanted from it. Subconsciously, he asked himself if he was up to it. He knew that a person wants to stand his ground in all his ventures, especially if they are witnessed by people who matter to him.
It was a clear winter day. The snow had been swept off the sidewalks, but the rooftops were still white with the painless weight. Emil looked over at the children, Helena and Richard. They hadn't a clue about his troubles, which fit with the way Anna blew them out of proportion. It was good; one day they would have enough troubles of their own. It occurred to him that they were still a young family with the very best still ahead of them. The thing was to not let anything worry them. Money is only money, after all; the important thing is still to be young and to have enough strength to do everything. (Unfortunately, he added to himself, for everything.)
"Papa, why do people kill animals?" asked Richard.
"The last thing I would kill is an animal," replied Emil. "Why did you think of that?"
"You didn't answer me," Richard objected.
"I don't like to talk about killing," Emil said.
That morning he had read in the newspaper how a tiger at the Busch circus had killed a keeper with a swipe of its paw to the skull, which had burst like a hazelnut. They had been to the circus last Sunday. The newest attraction was the hypnotist. He chose a woman from the audience and conjured up in her memories of her parents she'd forgotten. Had her parents beaten her? Yes, they had, the woman said.
"It isn't that easy to kill," Emil added.
"Are you going to talk about killing?" interjected Anna. "If so, I don't want to listen."
"Killing always comes last," Emil stated. He felt an echo inside of the lightheartedness that revives the energy and the inexperience of youth. If carefree ways or frivolity meant youth, he couldn't complain; he felt young. It was as if one half of a man could already be the head of a family and the other half still be in the realm of youth, which believes in success and in miracles big and small and which trusts almost everything or everyone else, except himself. Wasn't it part of lightheartedness to believe that most people had their opinions but only he could really see?
Kralovska Avenue led straight as an arrow from their shop at number 137. There was a barbershop next to the vacant lot where a post office was to be built; on the other side was a marriage bureau with big photographs of happy couples in the window. The Balek and Cezare di Carlo Company, importers of southern fruit and delicatessen, sat in the same block next to a cutlery shop, which had an advertisement in the window beside a picture of forks for the American movie Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
The lower part of the shop in the building where Uncle Arthur lived was rented to a hardware store. Every winter-this one too-they had a display of heaters without prices listed: the slow-burning American stove, the Musgraves Original; Belgian radiators for factories or warehouses; German heating pistons with fireproof glass; and fake English fireplaces.
Emil Ludvig, holding Anna by the hand, stopped in front of the display. He studied the heaters to see which one, if he had the money, would best suit their shop on Kralovska Avenue. (Every winter Anna's hands got frozen.)
They had already passed the vacant lots left by condemned, demolished buildings. (He didn't like empty spaces.) He could see his own reflection in the window case. He was wearing a new coat; he buttoned it up. After the third fitting, the tailor on Kralovska Avenue had taken two of his assistants out to the sidewalk to demonstrate that a man has to know how to walk in a fine suit. ("You look like the president of a bank, Mr. Ludvig, it's only the truth," he'd said.) Emil wasn't the largest of men, and it made him feel bigger when he dressed well and walked upright. He couldn't explain it to anyone (and he didn't try), not even to himself. There was a little touch of vanity in it, but everyone likes to look his best in front of others.
The tailor had become famous in the neighborhood for his stolen, state-owned Zeiss telescope. Since the fall, he'd been peeking in on the honeymoon of the music teacher who lived above the cleaner's on the first floor of the building across the street. The teacher would wake up this, his second wife, in the morning by kissing her on her stomach, and once she awoke, he would put a mug of coffee and her morning roll right on her bare skin. If anyone in the Mercury pub claimed that some men were afraid of women, including their own wives, that didn't apply to the music teacher.
"I'm thinking about Arthur," Anna said. She was wondering where Emil had gotten his carefree spirit or his sometimes almost out-of-place happiness. Where did his energy come from? (She should have been asking herself, at least, this last question.) Her thoughts led to their relatives.
How could someone be amazed by someone and curse them at the same time? Anna asked herself. You have to learn how to get along with relatives. Her mother had taught her that. As far as relatives were concerned, the maxims "Silence is golden" and "silver speech" applied. Everybody loves a winner, but if you're unlucky, don't pay attention to the score. Last time Arthur put it better: The war between men and women was the only war where enemies happily slept together in the same bed. Arthur also liked to talk about the tailor's observation escapades. No one had yet stolen a telescope from the state which could look at what he really wanted to see.
"I wouldn't want to tell anyone twice how they're supposed to behave on a visit," Anna reminded the children. "That applies to Papa too. It would be sad if I have to repeat this again at Arthur's."
They stopped at the landing in the mezzanine. Anna glanced at Helen and Richard. Emil admired the little cherubs with their rounded stone rumps set into semicircular hollows. The walls of the stairwell were papered with Dutch windmills.
Emil Ludvig rang the bell. The noise sounded like lead buckshot hitting a tin bowl.
"Next time around I want to be born as an Arthur," Emil exhaled. (He thought of the remark Arthur had made the last time they'd visited, that the happiest man in the world was the one satisfied with himself and who didn't need anybody else. There's not many of those and never will be, he said to himself.)
"Oh, it's you," Aunt Martha called out through the open door. She squinted a bit; her blue eyes were extremely nearsighted. She wore the same gold wire-rimmed glasses as Emil: 20/300 in her left eye, 20/500 in her right. "We were expecting you last Sunday."
"Well, here's our guests," Arthur sang out. "Who do these beautiful children belong to?"
"How goes it, Arthur?" asked Emil. "What's new?"
"A couple of people died in the business; one of them was a big competitor of mine. He shouldn't have pushed himself so hard. Where've you all been that you didn't show up last Sunday?"
Arthur was all smiles. He had raven-black hair and thick eyebrows of the same color. A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the living room. All kinds of scents and smells mingled throughout the flat. Double curtains of (already yellowing) white silk and faded red velvet hung in the windows.
"It smells like a forest in here," Emil said. "If you had bought a bigger tree, you would've had to make a hole in the ceiling to the flat upstairs. Who lives up there anyhow?"
"Some big shot from a failed bank," Arthur replied. "He fought at the Piave River, like you. Got a leg wound like you too-the only difference is that he got rich from it." The Piave was a place and time far in Emil's past, but a person never forgets what he went through, heard, saw, or did. Arthur had touched a nerve. Sometimes, you're lucky if you were born a hundred or a thousand kilometers away from where you would have been if it had occurred to some ancestor to wander a little farther or a little less far. He wasn't saying that he would be happy to have a grave someday that somebody could take care of as the two of them and Richard (and Helen and Anna) took care of Grandpa Ferdinand's resting place. You have a different view of death when you're close to it and another one from far away.
If it didn't prolong the life of the dead, it did prolong the memory of their life-of what had been the best in them. Emil's father, Ferdinand, had died when Emil was fourteen; afterward, he'd taken care of his mother and Martha, though sometimes they'd also looked after him. It was a pity, for whatever reason, that Ferdinand had drunk himself to death. It was ironic that Ferdinand had drunk to his children's health so often that in the end, he'd left them all alone.
Richard pondered what his father wasn't saying, and all of a sudden, the same thought occurred to Emil too. (Did telepathy run in the family?) Arthur had always earned more than they had, no matter what he did; there was probably no point in competing with him. Maybe a person needed someone else to compete with. (From time to time it seemed to Richard that his father thought of Arthur as a rival, so he could prove, by someone he knew well, that he was equal to if not better than him.) Emil Ludvig fought with his suppliers and deliverymen just like Arthur Pick, who had already gotten rid of his own sole proprietorship. Like Uncle Arthur, Emil hated rent and tax-due dates. But Papa could have been a soldier in a split second-which was something Uncle Arthur probably never could do. Papa's shop, which they had gotten from the owner as part of Anna's dowry shortly after the wedding, was a mixed cornucopia, as Uncle Munk had once said. Papa's tribulations didn't get him any contacts, like Mr. Tanzer, Dr. Mautner, and Mr. Neuman from the shop on Primatorska.
It wouldn't be right to talk with Papa about it-here, especially. Richard sensed what his father worried about-even if he probably didn't want to admit it.
"We haven't been to the forest for ten years," Martha said.
Anna and the children sat down. The coal heater glowed in the corner.
Arthur smiled. His nose curved deeply. He knocked on the wooden arm of his chair with the knuckle of his ring finger.
Several Venetian mirrors hung in the apartment. They were placed so that Arthur could see himself from all sides.
"I just can't tear myself away from a mirror," Arthur said.
"The older you get, the more vain you get," Martha stated.
"I don't want to cheat myself out of something nice to look at," Arthur replied.
Anna thought to herself that Arthur would be happiest if he could climb into the mirror itself. What he'd really like was to get so close that he could go right through it so he could be certain that nothing had escaped his notice. The mirrors were expensive, and when the family was still alive, Arthur's mother would always remark how much they'd paid for them. Once in a while, Arthur would joke that his mother had been so thrifty that his father had had to tear her holey nightgowns off her. She was known to wear one for ten years before she wore it out beyond any hope of mending. His father would shout that he didn't want a wife wearing a nightgown with holes next to him in bed. He would always tell her that he earned enough in his business to buy her ten of the most beautiful lace nightgowns if she wanted them, but Arthur's mother would still buy only one of the cheapest kind, and soon it, too, had holes. She always said that no money-not even his-grew on trees. Anna was frugal, too, but not to that degree. Arthur took after his father in that he couldn't bear holes in women's lingerie. He insisted that Martha buy only the best for herself and Susanna. When Martha said that to her, this was throwing money away on foolishness, he would tell her that rich enough for him was being able to afford a single hard-boiled egg every day. Arthur's mother had always defended herself, saying she liked holey nightgowns. His father would then ask her, shouting, whether she liked holey underwear too-and then pull them off her. That made her laugh, but she was nervous when he did it with little Arthur watching them. She answered that, no, she didn't like holey underwear, but that she didn't want to end up like Arthur's grandfather had-having to gradually sell off their crystal lamps and Persian carpets, along with his wife's white mink and gold ring with the two diamonds, as well as the big, black piano that no one was allowed to put anything on top of. Those were the years when Johann Strauss composed his famous opera, Die Fledermaus. "Go right now and buy new underwear and nightgowns!" he bellowed. "If you insist," she replied. "Today ... now!" his father had yelled.
Arthur always told stories when the subject of family and ancestors came up. His father had been the most cautious person in the family. He didn't believe that the days when someone would throw them out of where they'd settled were long gone. On the contrary, he was convinced that the entire world hated them and would keep on hating them, and that just around the corner, hordes were getting ready to burst in on them without any warning. Arthur's father had made sure that every family member had a valid passport at all times, along with at least twenty gold pieces with the portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph or Empress Maria Theresa on them.
Excerpted from THE HOUSE OF RETURNED ECHOES by ARNOST LUSTIG
Copyright © 2001 by Arnost Lustig. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
PrefaceFamilyThe Buying of TimeHopeThe EchoNotes