Sunday, August 20, 2017

ET: Almanac

Vitya, I'm certain this letter will reach you, even though I'm now behind the German front line, behind the barbed wire of the Jewish ghetto. I won't receive your answer, though; I won't be here to receive it. I want you to know about my last days. Like that, it will be easier for me to die.

It's difficult, Vitya, ever really to understand people . . . The Germans entered the town on July 7th. The latest news was being broadcast on the radio in the park. I was on my way back from the surgery and I stopped to listen. It was a war-bulletin in Ukranian. Then I heard distant shooting. Soem peole ran across the park. I set off home, all the time feeling surprised that I'd missed the air-raid warning. Suddenly I saw a tank and someone shouted: 'It's the Germans.'

'Don't spread panic!' I warned. I'd been the day before to ask the secretary of the town soviet when we'd be evacuated. 'There'll be time enough to talk about that,' he'd answered angrily. 'We haven't even drawn up the lists of evacuees yet.'

Well, it was indeed the Germans. All that night the neighbours were rushing round to each other's rooms - the only people who stayed calm were myself and the little children. I'd just accepted that the same would happen to me as to everyone else. To begin with I felt utter horror. I realized that I'd never see you again. I wanted desperately to look at you once more. I wanted to kiss your forehead and your eyes. Then I understood how fortunate I was that you were safe.

When it was nearly morning, I fell asleep. I woke up and felt a terrible sadness. I was in my own room and my own bed but I felt as though I were in a foreign country, alone and lost.

That morning I was reminded of what I'd forgotten during the years of the Soviet regime - that I was sa Jew. Some Germans drove past on a lorry, shouting out: 'Juden kaput!'

I got a further reminder from some of my own neighbours. The caretaker's wife was standing beneath my window and saying to the woman next door: 'Well, that's the end of the Jews. Thank God for that!' What can have made her say that? Her son's married to a Jew. She used to go and visit him and then come back and tell me all about her grandchildren.

The woman next door, a widow with a six-year-old daughter - a girl called Alyonushka with wonderful blue eyes, I wrote to you about her once - came round and said to me: 'Anna Semyonovna, I'm moving into your room. Can you clear your things out by this evening?' 'Very well, I'll move into your room then.' 'No, you're moving into the little room behind the kitchen.'

I refused. There isn't even a stove there, or a window.

I went to the surgery. When I came back, I found the door of my room had been smashed in and all my things piled in the little room. My neighbour just said: 'I've kept the settee for myself. There's no room for it where you are now.'

It's extraordinary - she's been to technical school and her late husband was a wonderful man, very quiet, an accountant at Ukopspilk. 'You're outside the law!' she said, as though that were something very profitable for her. And then her little Alyonushka sat with me all evening while I told her fairy tales. That was my house-warming party - the girl didn't want to go to bed and her mother had to carry her away in her arms. Then, Vityenka, they opened the surgery again. I and another Jewish doctor were both dismissed. I asked for the previous month's pay but the new director said: 'Stalin can pay you whatever you earned under the Soviet regime. Write to him in Moscow.' The assistant, Marusya, embraced me and keened quietly, 'Lord God, Lord God, what will become of you, what will become of you all?' And Doctor Tkachev shok me by the hand. I really don't know which is worse - gloating spite or these pitying glances like people cast at a mangy, half-dead cat. No, I never thought I'd have to live through anything like this.

Many people have surprised me. And not only those who are poor, uneducated, embittered. There's one old man, a retired teacher, seventy-five years old, who always used to ask after you and send you his greetings and say, 'He's the pride of our town.' During these accursed days he's just passed me by without a word, looking in the other direction. And I've heard that at a meeting called by the commandant, he said: 'Now the air feels clean at last. It no longer smells of garlic.' Why, why? - words like that are a stain on him. Yes, and how terribly the Jews were slandered at that meeting . . . But then of course, Vityenka, not everyone attended. Many people refused. And one thing - ever since the time of the Tsars I've associated anti-Semitism with the jingoism of people from the Union of Michael the Archangel. But now I've seen that the people who shout the most loudly about delivering Russia from the Jews are the very ones who cringe like lackeys before the Germans, ready to betray their country or thirty pieces of German silver. And strange people from the outskirts of town seize our rooms, our blankets, our clothes. It must have been people like them who killed doctors at the time of the cholera riots. And then there are people whose souls have just withered, people who are ready to go along with anything evil - anything so as not to be suspected of disagreeing with whoever's in power.

People I know are constantly coming round with bits of news. Their eyes are mad and they seem quite delirious. A strange expression has come into vogue: 'hiding away one another's things.' People somehow think a neighbour's house is going to be safer. The whole thing is like a children's game.

An announcement was soon made about the resettlement of the Jews. We were each to be permitted to take 15 kilograms of belongings. Little yellow notices were hung up on the walls of houses: 'All occupants are required to move to the area of the Old Town by not later than 6:00 p.m. on 15 July, 1941. Anyone remaining will be shot.'

And so, Vityenka, I got ready. I took a pillow, some bedclothes, the cup you once gave me, a spoon, a knife and two forks. Do we really need so very much? I took a few medical instruments. I took your letters, the photographs of my late mother and Uncle David, and the one of you with your father; a volume of Pushkin; Lettres de mon moulin; the volume of Maupassant with Une vie; a small dictionary . . . I took some Chekhov - the volume with 'A Boring Story' and 'The Bishop' - and that was that, I'd filled my basket. How many letters I must have written to you under that roof, how many hours I must have cried at night - yes, now I can tell you just how lonely I've been.

I said goodbye to the house and garden. I sat for a few minutes under the tree. I said goodbye to the neighbours. Some people are very strange. Two women began arguing in front of me about which of them would have my chairs, and which my writing desk. I said goodbye and they both began to cry. I asked the Basankos to tell you everything in more detail if you ever come and ask about me after the war. They promised. I was very moved by the mongrel, Tobik - she was particularly affectionate towards me that last evening.

If you do come, feed her in return for her kindness towards an old Yid.

When I'd got everything ready and was wondering how I'd be able to carry my basket to the Old Town, a patient of in suddenly appeared, a gloomy and - so I had always thought - rather callous man called Shchukin. He picked up my belngings, gave me 300 roubles and said he'd come once a week to the fence and give me some bread. He works at the printing house - they didn't want him at the front because of his eye trouble. He was a patient of mine before the war. If I'd been asked to list all the people I knew with pure, sensitive souls, I might have given dozens of names - but certainly not his. Do you know, Vityenka, after he came, I began to feel once more that I was a human being - it wasn't only the yard-dog that still treated me as though I were.

He told me that a new decree was being printed: Jews are to be forbidden to walk on the pavements; they are required to wear a yellow patch, a Star of David, on the chest; they no longer have the right to use public transport, baths, parks, or cinemas; they are forbidden to buy butter, eggs, milk, berries, white bread, meat, or any vegetable other than potatoes; they are only allowed to mkae purchases in the market after six o'clock, when the peasants are already on their way home. The Old Town will be fenced off with barbed wire and people will only be allowed out under escort - to carry out forced labour. If a Jew is discovoured in a Russian home, the owner will be shot - just as if he were harbouring a partisan.

Shchukin's father-in-law, an old peasant, had trabvelled in from the nearby village of Chudnov. He had seen with his own eyes how all the Jews there were herded into the forest with their parcels and suitcases. All day long he heard shots and terrible screams; not one Jew returned. As for the Germans who'd commandeered his rooms, they didn't come back till late at night. They were quite drunk and they carried on drinking and singing till dawn, sharing our brooches, rings and bracelets right under the old man's nose. I don't know whether the soldiers just got out of hand or whether that's a foretaste of our common fate.

What a sad journey it was, my son, to the medieval ghetto. I was walking through the town where I have worked for the last twenty years. First we went down Svechnaya Street, which was quite deserted. Then we came out onto Nikolskaya Street and I caught sight of hundreds of people all on thei way to this same accursed ghetto. The street was white with little parcels and pillows. There were invalids being led by the hand. Doctor Margulis's paralysed father was being carried on a blanket. One young man was carrying an old woman in his arms while his wife and children followed behind, loaded with parcels. Gordon, a fat breathless man who manages a rocery shop, was wearing a winter coat with a fur collar; sweat was pouring down his face. I was struck by one young man; he had no belongings and he was walking with his head high, a book held open before him, and a calm, proud face. But how crazy and horror-struck most of the people beside him looked!

We all walked down the roadway while everyone else stood on the pavement and watched.

At one moment I was walking beside the Margulises and I could hear sighs of compassion from the women on th pavement. But everyone just laughed at Gordon's winter coat - though, believe me, he looked more terrible than absurd. I saw many faces I knew. Some nodded goodbye, others looked away. I don't think any eyes in that crowd were indifferent; some were pitiless, some were inquisitive, and some were filled with tears.

I realized there were two different crowds: there were the Jews - the men in winter coats and hats, the women wearing thick dresses - and there were the people in summer clothes on the pavement. There you could see bright dresses, men in shirt-sleeves, embroidered Ukranian blouses. It was as though even the sun no longer shone for the Jews on the street, as though thye were walking through the cold frost of a December night.

We came to the gateway into the ghetto and I said goodbye to my compantion. He pointed out where we were to meet at the fence.

Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I'd expected to feel horror. But just imagine - I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle-pen. Don't think it's because I'm a born slave. No. No. It's because everyone around me shares my fate: now I no longer have to walk on the roadway like a horse, there are no more spiteful looks, and the people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me. Everyone in this cattle-pen bears the stamp branded on us by the Fascists and it no longer burns my soul so fiercely. Now I'm no longer a beast deprived of rights - simply an unfortunate human being. And that's easier to bear.

I've settled down, together with a colleague of mine, Doctor Sperling, in a small two-roomed house. The Sperlings have got two grown up daughters and a twelve-year-old son, Yura. I gaze for hours at his thin little face and his big, sad eyes; twice oI've called him Vitya by mistake and he's corrected me: 'I'm Yura, not Vitya.'

How different people are! Sperling, at fifty-eight years of age, is full of energy. He's already managed to get hold of mattresses, kerosene and a cart for carrying firewood. Last night he had a sack of flour and half a sack of haricot beans brought to the house. He's as pleased as punch at each little success of his. Yesterday he was hanging out the rugs. 'Don't worry, don't worry, we'll survive,' he repeated. 'The main thing is to get stocked up with food and firewood.

He said we ought to start up a school in the ghetto. He even suggested I gave Yura French lessons in exchange for a bowl of soup. I agreed.

Sperling's fat wife, anny Borisovna, just sighs, 'Everything's ruined, we're all ruined.' At the same time she keeps a careful watch on her elder daughter, Lyuba - a kind, good-natured girl - in case she gives anyone a handful of beans or a slice of bread. The mother's favourite is the younger daughter, Alya. She's the devil incarnate - mean, domineering and suspicious - and she's always shouting at her father and sister. She came on a visit from Moscow before the war and got stuck here.

God, what poverty there is everywhere! If only the people who are always talking about how rich the Jes are, how they've always got something put by for hard times, could have a look at the Old Town now. Hard times have come indeed - there can be no harder. But the people who've been resettled with fifteen kilograms of baggage aren't the only inhabitants of the Old Town: there have always been craftsmen living here - together with old men, workers, hospital orderlies . . . What terrible crowded conditions they live in! And what food they eat! If you could only see these half-ruined shacks that have almost become part of the earth.

Vityenka, I've seen many bad people here, people who are greedy, dishonest, capable even of betrayal. We've got one terrible man, Epstein, who came here from some little town in Poland - he wears a band round his sleeve and helps the Germans with their interrogations and searches; he gets drunk with the Ukranian policemen and they send him round to people's homes to extort vodka, money and food. I've seen him twice, a tall handsome man in a smart cream-coloured suit - even the yellow star sewn on his jacket looks like a chrysanthemum.

But what I really want to talk to you about is something quite different. I never used to feel I was a Jew: as a child my circle of friends were all Russian; my favourite poets were Pushkin and Nekrasov; the one play which reduced me to tears, together with the whole audience - a congress of village doctors - was Stanislavsky's production of Uncle Vanya. And once, Vityenka, when I was fourteen, our family was about to emigrate to South America and I said to my father: 'I'll never leave Russia - I'd rather drown myself.' And I didn't go.

But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with a maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before. It reminds me of my love for you, my dearest son.

I visit the sick in their houses. Dozens of people are crowded into minute little rooms - half-blind old men, unweaned babies, pregnant women. I'm used to looking into people's eyes for symptoms of diseases - glaucoma, cataract. Now I can no longer look at people's eyes like that; what I see now is the reflection of the soul. A good soul, Vityenka! A sad, good-naured soul, defeated by violence, but at the same time triumphant over violence. A strong soul, Vitya!

If you could only see with what concern the old men and women keep asking after you. How sincerely people try to console me, people I've never complained to and whose situation is far more terrible than my own.

Sometimes I think that it's not so much me visiting the sick, as the other way round - that the people are a kind doctor who is healing my soul. And how touching it is wwhen people hand me an onion, a slice of bread, or a handful of beans.

And believe me, Vityenka, that's not a matter of payment for my visit. Tears come to my eyes when some middle-aged workman shakes me by the hand, puts two or three potatoes in a little bag and says, 'There, Doctor, I beg you.' There's something about it which is pure, kind, fatherly - but I can't find the right words.

I don't want to console you by saying that things have been easy for me - no, it's surprising that my heart hasn't broken from grief. But plase don't worry that I'm going hungry - I haven't once felt hungry. Nor have I felt lonely.

What can I say about people? They amaze me as much by their good qualities as by their bad qualities. They are all so different, even though they must undergo the same fate. But then if there's a downpour and most people try to hide, that doesn't mean that they're all the same. People even have their own particular ways of sheltering from rain.

Doctor Sperling is certain that the persecution of the Jews will only last as long as the war. There aren't many people like him, and I've noticed that the more optimistic people are, the more petty and egotistic they tend to be. If someone comes inwhen we're eating, Alya and Fanny Borisovna hide away the food as quick as they can.

The Sperlings treat me well - especially as I eat little and provide more than I consume. But I've decided to leave. I don't like them. I'm trying to find some little corner for myself. The more sorrow there is in a man, the less hope he has of survival - the better, the kinder, the more generous he becomes.

The poorest people, the tailors and tinsmiths, the ones without hope, are so much nobler, more generous and more intelligent than the people who've somehow managed to lay by a few provisions. The young schoolmistress; Spilberg, the eccentric old teacher and chess-player; the timid women who work in the library; Reyvich, the engineer, who's more helpless than a child, yet dreams of arming the ghetto with hand-made grenades - what wonderful, impractical, dear, sad, good people they all are!

I've realized now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It's something quite irrational and instinctive.

People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It's impossible to saywhether that's wise or foolish - it's just the way people are. I do the same myself. There are two women here from a shtetl and they tell the same story as my friend did. The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included. The Germans and Ukranian police drive up and recuit a few dozen men for field-work. These men are set to dig ditches and two ro three days later the Jewish population is marched to these ditches and shot. Jewish burial mounds are rising up in all the villages round about.

There's a girl from Poland next door. She says that there the killing goes on continually. The Jews are being massacred; there are only a few ghettoes - Warsaw, Lodz and Radom - where there are any left alive. When I thought about all this it seemed quite clear that we've been gathered here not to be preserved - like the bison in the Bialowiezska forest - but to be slaughtered. Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine - I still go on seeing patients and saying, 'Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks.' I'm taking care of one old man whose cataract it will be possible to remove in six months or a year.

I give Yura French lessons and get quite upset at his bad pronunciation.

Meanwhile the Germans burst into people's houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.

That's how it is - life goes on. Not long ago we even had a wedding. . . And there are always dozens of rumours. First a neighbour declares that our troops have taken the offensive and the Germans are fleeing. Then there is a rumour that the Soviet government and Churchill have presented the Germans with an ultimatum - and that Hitler's ordered that no more Jews are to be killed. Then we are informed that Jews are to be exchanged for German prisoners-of-war.

It seems that nowhere is there so much hope as in the ghetto. The world is full of events and all these events have the same meaning and the same purpose - the salvation of the Jews. What a wealth of hope!

And the source of all these hopes is one and the same - the life-instinct itself, blindly rebelling against the terrible fact that we must all perish without trace. I look round myself and simply can't believe it: can we really, all of us, already be condemned, about to be executed? The hairdressers, the cobblers, the tailors, the doctors, the stove-repairers are still working. A little maternity home has even been opened - or rather, the semblance of one. People do their washing, linen dries on the line, meals are prepared, the children have been going to school since the first of September, the mothers question the teachers about their children's marks.

Old Spilberg is having some books bound, Alya Sperling does physical training every morning, puts her hair in paper-curlers every evening and quarrels with her father about two lengths of material that she wants for summer dresses.

And I'm busy myself from morning till night - visiting my patients, giving lessons, darning my clothes, doing my washing, preparing for winter, sewing a lining into my winter coat. I hear stories about the terrible punishments Jews have suffered: one woman I know, a lawyer's wife, bought a duck egg for her child and was beaten till she lost consciousness; a boy, the son of Sirota the chemist, was shot in the shoulder crawling beneath the wire after a ball that had rolled away. And then rumours, rumours, rumours . . .

What I say now isn't a rumour, however. Today the Germans came and took eighty young men to work in the fields, supposedly to dig potatoes. Soem people were glad, imagining the men would be able to bring a few potatoes home for their relatives. but I knew all too well what the Germans meant by potatoes.

Night is a special time in the ghetto, Vitya. You know, my dearest, how I always taught you to tell the truth - a son must always tell the truth to his mother. But then so must a mother tell the truth to her son. Don't imagine, Vityenka, that your mother's a strong woman. I'm weak. I'm afraid of pain and I'm terrified to sit down in the dentist's chair. As a child I was afraid of darkness and thunder. As an old woman I've been afraid of illness and loneliness; I've been afraid that if I fall ill, I won't be able to go back to work again, that I'll become a burden to you and that you'll make me feel it. I've been afraid of the war. Now, Vitya, I'm seized at night by a horror that makes my heart grow numb. I'm about to die. I want to call out to you for help.

When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me. I'm not always strong in spirit, Vitya - I can be weak too. I often think about souicide, but something holds me back - some weakness or strength, or irrational hope.

But enough of that. I have dreams every night. I often see my mother and talk to her. Last night I dreamed of Sasha Shaposhnikov during our years in Paris. But I haven't once dreamed of you - though I think of you often, even at moments of the most terrible distress. In the morning I wake up and look at the ceiling, then I remember that the Germans are on our land and that I'm a leper - and it's as though I haven't woken up at all, but have just fallen asleep and begun to dream.

A few minutes go by and I hear Alya quarrelling with Lyuba over whose turn it is to go to the well. Then I hear people talking about how, during the night, the Germans mashed int he skull of some old man on the next treet.

A girl I knew came round, a student at the teachers' trainign college for technical subjects, and called me out on a visit. She turned out to be hiding a lieutenant who'd been wounded in the shoulder and burnt in one eye. A sweet haggard, young man with a thick Volga accent. He'd slipped through the wire at night and found shelter in the ghetto. His eye wasn't seriously injured at all and I was able to check the suppuration. He talked a lot about different battles and how our army had been put to fight. He quite depressed me. He wants to recuperate and then slip through the German front line. Several young men intend to go with him, one of them an ex-student of mine. Oh Vityenka, if only I could go with them too. It was such a joy to me to be able to help that young man - I felt as though I too were taking part in the war against Fascism.

People had brought him some bread, beans and potatoes, and one old woman had knitted him a pair of woolelen socks.

The whole day has been full of drama. Yesterday Alya managed, through a Russian friend of hers, to get hold of the passport of a young Russian girl who'd died in hospital. Tonight she's going to leave. And we heard today, from a peasant we know who was driving past the ghetto fence, that the Jews who were sent to dig potatoes are digging deep ditches four versts from the town, near the airfield, on the road to the Romanovka. Remember that name, Vitya - that's where you'll find the mass grave where your mother is buried.

Even Sperling understood. He's been pale all day, his lips are trembling and he keeps asking conusedly: 'Is there any hope that specialists will be spare?' In fact I have heard that in some places the best tailors, cobblers and doctors have been left alive.

All the same, this very evening, Sperling summoned the old man who repairs stoves and had a secret cupboard built into the wall for flour and salt. And Yura and I have been reading Lettres de mon moulin. Do you remember how we used to read out loud my favourite story, 'Les Vieux', how we'd look at each other and burst out laughing, how each of us would have tears in our eyes? And after that I set Yura his lessons for the day after tomorrow. But what an ache I felt as I looked at my student's sad little face, as I watched his fingers note down in his exercise-book the numbers of the paragraphs of grammar I had just set.

And what a lot of children like that there are! Children with wonderful eyes and dark curly hair - probably future scientists, physicists, professors of medicine, musicians, even poets . . .

I watch them running to school in the morning, with a quite unchildlike seriousness, and wide tragic eyes. Though sometimes theydo begin laughing and fighting and romping about; then, rather than feeling happier, I am seized with horror.

They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren't going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goosenecks - this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear for ever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won't be here, we will have vanished - just as the Aztecs once vanished.

The peasant who brought us the news about the mass graves said that his wife had been crying at night. She'd been lamenting: 'They sew, and they make shoes, and they curry leather, and theymend watches, and they sell medicines in the chemist's. What will we do when they've all been killed?'

And how clearly I saw someone walk past our ruined houses and say: 'Once some Jews used to live here. Do you remember? An old stove-repairer called Borukh. On saturday evenings his old wife sat on the bench and the children played round about.' And someone else said: 'And there was a doctor who used to sit there, beneath that old pear-tree - I can't remember her surname but once I went to her and have my eyes treated. After she'd finished work she used to bring out a wickerwork chair and sit there with a book.' Yes, Vitya, that's how it will be.

As though some terrible breath has passed over people's faces and everyone knows that the end is approaching.

Vityenka, I'm finishing this letter and taking it to the ghetto fence to hand to my friend. It's not easy to break off. It's my last conversation with you. Once I send it off, I will have left you for ever and you will never know of my last hours. This is our final parting. What can I say to you in farewell, in eternal farewell? These last days, as during my whole life, you have been my joy. I've remembered you at night, the clothes you wore as a boy, your first books. I've remembered your first letter, your first day at school. I've remembered everything, everything from the first days of your life to the last news that I ehard from you, the telegram I received on the 30th of June. I've closed my eyes and imagined that you were shielding me, my dearest, from the horror that is approaching. And then I've remembered what is happening here and felt glad that you were apart from me - and that this terrible fate will pass you by!

Vitya, I've always been lonely. I've wept in anguish through lonely nights. My consolation was the thought of how I would tell you one day about my life. Tell you why your father and I separated, why I have lived on my own for so many years. And I've often thought how surprised my Vitya would be to learn how his mother made mistakes, raved, grew jealous, made others jealous, was just what young people always are. But my fate is to end my life alone, never having shared it with you. Soemtimes I've thought that I ought not to live far away from you, that I love you too much, that love gives me the right to be with you in my old age. And at other times I've thought that I ought not to live together with you, that I love you too much.

Well, enfin . . . Always be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become closer to you than your mother. Forgive me.

I can hear women weeping on the street, and policemen swearing; as I look at these pages, they seem to protect me from a terrible world that is filled with suffering.

How can I finish this letter? Where can I find the strength my son? Are there words capable of expressing my love for you? I kiss you, your eyes, your forehead, your hair.

Remember that your mother's love is always with you, in grief and in happiness, no one has the strength to destroy it.

Vityenka . . . This is the last line of your mother's last letter to you. Live, live, live for ever . . . Mama.

Vasily Grossman - Life and Fate

Saturday, August 19, 2017

ET: Almanac

Everywhere it was a time of collapse: powers were falling, one after another, two ancient oaks (saplings when Caesar was crossing the Rubicon, said the Ottawa newscaster) came heaving down, struck from crown to root by a frenzy of lightning. For days the bitter smell of charred bark and ashen leaves drifted past nearby towns, arusing the nostrils of nervous dogs. In New York a pair of famous editors, intimidating and weighty as emperors, in a flash of the guillotine were suddenly displaced; overnight their names tumbled into blackest obscurity. The young ruled, ruled absolutely; the outmoded old were forgotten, they were diminished and dismissed, and whoever spoke of their erstwhile renown spoke of vapor.

And on the earth's far-off other cheek, beyond the Pripet Marshes, beyond the Dnieper and the Volga, in the very eye of Moscow, where the cold cellar walls of Lubyanka Prison were wont to break out in pustules of bloody mold, like executioner's mushrooms, Communism was cracking, falling. The Soviet Union was on its way out, impaired, impaled, stumbling, exhausted, moribund--though who, in the ninth decade of the twentieth century, dared to suspect the death of the Kremlin?

Yet there were signs: fascism was pressing through the fissures. In Red Square, a mocking phalanx of blackshirts openly paraded. Thugs invaded Writers' Union, yelling insults to Jews. Fossil Cossacks, old Czarist pogromchiks, renewed, restored!

Ruth Puttermesser, white-haired, in her sixties--retired, unmarried, cranky in the way of a woman alone--had no premonition about the demise of the Soviet Union; yet she believed in collapse. The skin on the inside of her elbows drooped into pleats; her jowl was loose and bunched, as if governed by a drawstring; the pockets under her eyes hung, and the ophthalmologist, attempting to dilate her pupils, had to lift the lids with deliberate fingers. All things fallen, elasticity gone. Age had turned Puttermesser on its terrible hinge.

She was as old now as her long-dead father: her father who, fleeing the brutish Russia of the Czars, had left behind parents, sisters, brothers--Puttermesser's rumored Moscow relations, aunts, cousins, a schoolboy uncle, all swallowed up in the Bolshevik silence, dwindled now into their archaic names and brittle cardboard-framed photographs. Puttermesser's Moscow grandmother, a blotched brown blur in a drawer: wrinkled Tatarish forehead, sunken toothless mouth; a broken crone, dim as legend. "Do not write anymore," Puttermesser's Moscow grandmother, a blotched brown blur in a drawer: wrinkled Tatarish forehead, sunken toothless mouth; a broken crone, dim as legend. "Do not write anymore," Puttermesser's grandmother pleaded as the thirties wore on: "My eyes are gone. I am old and blind. I cannot read." This was the last letter from Moscow; it lay under the old Russian photos in an envelope blanketed by coarsely printed stamps. Each stamp displayed the identical profile of a man with a considerable mustache. Stalin. Puttermesser knew that the poet Osip Mandelstam had likened that mustache to a cockroach: whereupon Stalin ordered him murdered. Isaac Babl was murdered after months of torture and a phony trial. Mikhoels the Yiddish actor was murdered. All the Russian Yiddish poets were murdered on a single August night in 1952. Shot in the cellars of Lubyanka.

And between Moscow and New York, a steady mute fright. The hidden warning in Puttermesser's grandmother's plaint was clear. Stop! We are afraid of a letter from America! They will take us for spies, you endanger us! Keep away! The old woman was famous among her children for eyesight so sharp and precise that she could see the altertly raised ears of a squirrel on a high branch in a faraway clump of trees. Puttermesser's father too had owned such a pair of eyes. Blue, pale as watery ink. Her poor orphaned papa, cut off forever from the ties of his youth: from his little brother Velvl, ten years old, his head in the photo shaved in the old Russian style, his school uniform high-collared and belted, with a row of metal buttons marching down his short chest. A family sundered for seventy years--the Great War, the Revolution, Stalin's furies, the Second World War, the Cold War: all had intervened. Puttermesser's papa, dying old of stroke, longed for his mother, for Velvl, for his sisters Fanya, Sonya, Reyzl, for his brothers Aaron and Mordecai. Alone in America with no kin. Never again to hear his father's fevered voice. Continents and seas lay between Moscow and New York, and a silence so dense and veiling that in the three decades since her papa's death Puttermesser had almost forgotten she had Russian relations. They were remote in every sense. She never thought of them.

Cynthia Ozick - The Puttermesser Papers

Thursday, August 17, 2017

ET: Almanac

Puttermesser has promised to transform the City of New York into Paradise. She has promised to cast out the serpent. On Election Day, Malachy ("Matt") Mavett, the incumbent, is routed. Of the three remaining candidates, two make poor showings. Puttermesser is triumphant.

Puttermesser is now the Mayor of the City of New York!

Old ardors and itches wake in her. She recites to herself: Justice, justice shalt thou pursue. Malachy ("Matt") Mavett takes his wife and family to Florida, to be near Mrs. Minnie Mavett, his adoptive mother. He is no longer a lucky orphan. He gets a job as a racetrack official. It is a political job, but he is sad all the same. His wife bears his humiliation gracelessly. His children rapidly acquire accents that do not mark them as New Yorkers. Turtelman and Marmel vanish into rumor. They are said to be with the FBI in Alaska, with the CIA in Indonesia. They re said to have relocated at Albany. They are said to be minor factotums in the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, with offices in Sourgrass, Iowa. They are said to have mediocre positions in the Internal Revenue Service, where they will not be entitled to Social Security. They are said to have botched a suicide pact. No one knows what has become of Turtelman and Marmel. But Puttermesser is relieved; she herself, by means of a memo from City Hall, has dismissed them. Turtelman and Marmel are sacked! Let go! Fired!

Malachy ("Matt") Mavett, following protocol, telephones to congratulate Puttermesser on her victory. But he confesses to bafflement. Where has Puttermesser come from? An ordinary drone from the Bureau of Summary Sessions of the Department of Receipts and Disbursements! How can she, "an unknown," he asks, "a political nonentity," have won the public over so handily? Puttermesser reminds him that some months ago she wrote him a letter asking for justice, condemning patronage and spills. "You did not reply," she accused him in a voice hoarse from speechmaking. The ex-Mayor does not remember any letter.

Though Puttermesser is disconcerted by the move to Gracie Mansion (in her dreams her mother is once again rolling up winter rugs and putting down summer rugs in the wide sun-exiled apartment on the Grand Concourse), the golem immediately chooses the most lavish bedroom in the Mayor's residence for herself. It contains an antique dresser with gryphon feet and a fourposter arched by a lofty tester curtained in white velvet. Old brass bowls glint on the dresser-top. The golem fills one whole closet with fresh overalls. She wanders about studying the paintings and caressing the shining banister. She exhorts Puttermesser to rejoice that she no longer has her old suspicious landlord on East Seventy-first Street to worry about. Millions of citizens are her landlord now!

Puttermesser cannot pay attention to the golem's sprightliness. She is in a frenzy over the job of appointing commissioners and agency heads. She implores Xanthippe [the golem - ET] to keep away from City Hall--the campaign is over, she will only distract from business. The new Mayor intends to recruit the noble psyches and visionary hearts. She is searching for the antithesis of Turtelman and Marmel. For instance: she yearns after Wallace Stevens--insurance executive of probity during office hours, enraptured poet at dusk. How she would like to put Walt Whitman himself in charge of the Bureau of Summary Sessions, and have Shelley take over Water Resource Department--Shelley whose principle it is that poets are the legislators of mankind! William Blake in the Fire Department. George Eliot doing Social Services. Emily Brontë over at Police, Jane Austen in Bridges and Tunnels, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allen Poe sharing Health. Herman Melville overseeing the Office of Single Room Occupancy Housing. "Integer vitae scelerisque purus,"* the golem writes on her notepad, showing off. "That's the ticket," Puttermesser agrees, "but what am I supposed to do, chase around town like Diogenes with a lantern looking for an honest man?" Xanthippe writes philosophically, "The politics of Paradise is no longer Paradise," Puttermesser retorts; "don't annoy me anyhow, I have to get somebody fast for Receipts and Disbursements. "You could promote Cracow," the golem writes. "I already have. I moved him over to Bronx Landfill and Pest Control. That's two levels up. He's got a good idea for winter, actually--wants to convert that garbage mountain out near the bay to a ski jump. And he's stopped asking me out. Thank God he's scared of dating the Mayor." "If you would seek commissioners of integrity and rosy cleverness," the golem writes, "fashion more of my kind." Fleetingly, Puttermesser considers this; she feels tempted. The highest echelons of City management staffed by multiple members of the genus golem! Herself the creator, down to the last molecule of ear-wax, of every commissioner, deputy, bureau chief, executive director! Every mayoral assistant, subordinate, underling, a golem! She looks over at Xanthippe. Twice already Xanthippe has quarreled with the Mansion's official cook. The cook has refused to follow the golem's recipes. "One is enough," Puttermesser says, and hurries down the subway and off to City Hall.

Despite its odious language reminiscent of Turtelman and Marmel, Puttermeser repeatedly consults the

                                                                           PLAN
                                       
                                                                          FOR THE 
                                                                                      RESUSCITATION,
                                                                                        REFORMATION,
                                                                                     REINVIGORATION,
                                                                                    &  REDEMPTION
                                                                                              OF THE 
                                                                                    CITY OF NEW YORK 

She blames Xanthippe for such a preposterous text: only two days spent in the Bureau of Summary Sessions, and the golem has been infected by periphrasis, pleonasm, and ambagious tautology. But behind all that there glimmers a loveliness. To Puttermesser's speeding eye, it is like the spotted sudden flank of a deer disturbing a wood. There will be resuscitation! There will be redemption.

And it begins. Mayor Puttermesser sends the golem out into the City. At first she tends to hang out among the open-air stalls of Delancy Street, but Puttermesser upbraids her for parochialism; she instructs the golem to take subways and buses--no taxis--out to all the neighborhoods in all the boroughs. It goes without saying that a robust reformist administration requires a spy. The golem returns with aching tales of what she has seen among the sordid and the hopeless; sometimes she even submits a recommendation on a page of her notepad. Puttermesser does not mind. Nothing the golem reports is new to Mayor Puttermesser. What is new is the discovery of the power of office. Wrongdoing and bitterness can be overturned: it is only a matter of using the power Puttermesser owns.

Crowds of self-seeking importuners float up the steps of City Hall; Mayor Puttermesser shoos them away. She admits visionary hearts only. She takes signs up all around her desk: NO MORE SPOILS QUOTA. MERIT IS SWEETER THAN GOLD. WHAT YOU ARE, NOT WHOM YOU KNOW.

Lost wallets are daily being returned to their owners. Now it is really beginning--the money and credit cards are always intact. The golem ascends from the subway at Sixty-eighth and Lexington (this is the very corner where Puttermesser's alma mater, Hunter Heigh, used to stand), looking slightly larger than the day before, but also irradiated. The subways have been struck by beauty. Lustrous tunnels unfold, mile after mile. Gangs of youths have invaded the subway yards at night and have washed the cars clean. The wheels and windows have been scrubbed by combinations of chemicals; the long seats have been fitted with velour cushions of tan and blue. Each car shines like bullet. The tiles that line the stations are lakes of white; the passengers can cherish their own reflections in the walls. Every Thursday afternoon the youths who used to terrorize the subways put on fresh shirts and walk out into Central Park, reconnoitering after a green space; then they dance. They have formed themselves into dancing clubs, and crown one another's heads with clover pulled up from the sweet ground. Foliage is browning, Thursday afternoons grow cold and dusky. But the youths who used to terrorize the subways are whirling in rings over darkening lawns.

The streets are altered into garden rows: along the curbs, between sidewalk and road, privet hedges shake their little leaves. The open sanitation carts are bright, like a string of scarlet chariots. They re drawn by silent horses who sniff among the new hedges. Flutes and clarinets announce the coming of the cart procession every day at noon, and children scramble to pick up every nub of cigarette or scrap of peel or paper wrapper, pressing with fistfuls toward the singing flutes and gravely marching horses, whose pairs of high nostrils flare outward like trumpets.

The great cargo trucks still spill into the intersections, carrying bolts of cloth, oranges; fowl, refrigerators, lamps, pianos, cards of buttons, lettuces, boxes of cereal, jigsaw puzzles, baby carriages, pillowcases with peacocks imprinted on them; some deliver uptown, others downtown; they pant and rumble freely, unimpeded; buses and taxis overtake them effortlessly. Except for fire engines and ambulances, there are no other motored vehicles. Little girls dare, between buses, to jump rope in the middle of the street. Some roads, though, have been lushly planted, so that lovers seek them out to hide in one another's breast. The tall grasses and young maples of the planted roads are haunted by pretzel sellers, hot-chestnut peddlers, hawkers of books in wheelbarrows. The children are often indoors after school, carpeting bookshelves. The libraries are lit all night, and the schools are thronged in the evenings by administrative assistants from the great companies, learning Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, and Japanese. There are many gardeners now, and a hundred urban gardening academies. There is unemployment among correction officers; numbers of them take gardening jobs. No one bothers to drag the steel shutters down over storefronts after closing. The Civil Service hums. Intellect and courtliness are in the ascendancy. Mayor Puttermesser has started the Department of Receipts and Disbursements with intelligent lawyers, both women and men, who honor due process. Turtelman and Marmel are replaced by visionary hearts. Never again will an accuser take the job of the accused, as Marmel did with Puttermesser! there is no more rapaciousness in the Bureau of Summary Sessions.

A little-known poet who specializes in terza rima is put in charge of Potter's Field. For each sad burial there, she composes a laudatory ode; even the obscure dead are not expendable or forlorn. The parks, their arbors and fields, are speckled with wide-mouthed terra-cotta urns; no one injures them. Far away in the Bronx, the grape-wreathed heads of wine gods are restored to the white stelae of the Soldier's Monument, and the bronze angel on top of the Monument's great stone needle glistens. Nothing is broken, nothing is despoiled. No harm comes to anything or anyone. The burnt out ruins of Brownsville and the South Bronx burst forth with spines of pines and thorny locusts. In their high secret pride, the slums undo themselves: stoops sparkle, new factories and stores buzz, children gaze down in gladness at shoes newly bought, still unscratched; the shoe stores give away balloons, and the balloons scape to the sky. Everywhere former louts and loiterers, muggers and thieves, addicts and cardsharps are doing the work of the world, absorbed, transformed. The biggest City agency is what used to be called Welfare; now it is the Department of Day Play, and delivers colored pencils and finger paints and tambourines to nurseries clamorous as bee-loud glades, where pianos shake the floors, and storytellers dangle toddlers in suspense from morning to late afternoon, when their parents fetch them home to supper. Everyone is at work. Lovers apply to the City Clerk for marriage licenses. The Bureau of Venereal Disease Control has closed down. The ex-pimps are learning computer skills.

Xanthippe's heels have begun to hang over the foot of her fourposter bed in Gracie Mansion. The golem is worn out. She lumbers from one end of the City to the other every day, getting ideas. Mayor Puttermesser is not disappointed that the golem's ideas are mainly unexciting. The City is at peace. It is in the nature of tranquility--it is in the nature of Paradise--to be pacific; tame, halcyon. Oh, there is more to relate of how Mayor Puttermeser, inspired by the golem, has resuscitated, reformed, reinvigorated and redeemed the City of New York! But this too must be left to dozing and skipping. It is essential to record only two reflections that especially engage Mayor Puttermesser. The first is that she notices how the City, tranquil, turns toward the conventional and the orderly. It is as if tradition continuity, propriety blossom of themselves: old courtesies, door-holding, hat-tipping, a thousand pleases and pardons and thank you. Something in the grain of Paradise is on the side of the expected. Sweet custom rules. The City in its redeemed state wishes to conserve itself. It is a rational daylight place; it has shut the portals of night.

Puttermesser's second reflection is about the golem. The coming of the golem animated the salvation of the City, yes--but who, Puttermeser sometimes wonders, is the true golem? Is it Xanthippe or is it Puttermesser? Puttermesser made Xanthippe; Xanthippe did not exist before Puttermesser made her: that is clear enough. But Xanthippe made Puttermesser Mayor, and Mayor Puttermesser too did not exist before. And that is just as clear. Puttermesser sees that she is the golem's golem.

In the newborn peaceable City, Xanthippe is restless. She is growing larger. Her growth is frightening. She can no longer fit into her overalls. She begins to sew together pairs of sheets for a toga.

                                                             





                                                        VII. RAPPOPORT'S RETURN

On a late spring afternoon about halfway through her mayoral term, and immediately after a particularly depressing visit to the periodontist (she who had abolished crime in the subways was unable to stem gum disease in the hollow of her jaw), Puttermesser came home to Gracie Mansion to find Rappoport waiting in her private sitting room.

"Hey, you've got some pretty tough security around here. I had a hell of a time getting let in," Rappoport complained.
"Last time I saw you," Puttermesser said, "you had no trouble letting yourself out."
"How about we just consider that water under the bridge, Ruth, what do you say?"
"You walked out on me. In the middle of the night."
"You were liking Socrates better than me," Rappoport said.
"Then why are you back?"
"M God, Ruth, look who you've become! I can't pass through New York without seeing the Mayor, can I? Ruth," he said, spreading his impressive nostrils, "I've thought about you a lot since the election. We read all about you up in Toronto."
"You and Mrs. Rappoport?"
"oh come on, let's give it another try. Not that I don't understand you have to be like Caesar's wife. Above susp---"
"I have to be Caesar," Puttermesser broke in.
"Well, even Caesar gives things another try."
"You're no Cleopatra," Puttermesser said.
There was a distant howl; it was the cook. She was fighting with the golem again. In a moment Xanthippe stood in the doorway, huge and red, weeping.
"Leave that woman alone. She'll cook what she'll cook, you can't tell her anything different," Puttermesser scolded. "She runs a strictly kosher kitchen and that's enough. Go and wash your face."
"Plump," Rappoport said, staring after Xanthippe in her toga. "Rubenesque."
"A growing girl. She wears what she pleases."
"Who is she?"
"I adopted her."
"I like a big girl like that." Rappoport stood up. "The town looks terrific. I came to congratulate you, Ruth."
"Is that why you came?"
"It turns out. Only I figured if you could bring a whole city back to life---"
"There are some things, Morris, that even the Mayor can't revive."
Rappoport, his briefcase under his arm, wheeled and hesitated. "It didn't make it through the move? My avocado tree that I grew from a pit in Toronto? It was doing fine in your old apartment."
"I don't have it any more."
"Aha, you wanted to dispose of me lock, stock, and barrel. You got rid of every symptom and sign. The least bit of green leaf--"
"All my plants are gone."
"No kidding. What happened?"
"I took their earth and made a golem."

Rappoport, flaunting his perfect teeth under his mustache, laughed out loud. In the middle of his laughter his head suddenly fell into the kind of leaning charm Puttermesser recalled from long ago, when they had first become lovers; it almost made her relent.

"Goodbye, Ruth. I really do congratulate you on civic improvement." Rappoport held out his hand. "It's one terrific town, I mean it. Utopia. Garden of Eden. In Toronto they run articles on you every day."

"You can stay for dinner if you like," Puttermesser offered. "Though I've got a meeting right after--municipal bonds. Myself, it's eat and get on down to City Hall."

Someone had seized Rappoport's outstretched hand and was shaking it; it was not Puttermesser. Xanthippe, practiced politician, her wide cheeks refreshed and soap-fragrant, had sped forward out of nowhere. Rappoport looked stunned; he looked interested. He slipped his fingers out of the golem's grasp and moved them upward against her chest, to catch hold of the card that twirled there: DEAF-MUTE. 

That's awfully generous of you, Ruth, adopting someone like that. You're a wonderful person. we really ought to get together again. I will stay for a bite, if you don't mind."

The golem did not bring her ballpoint to the table. She dealt with her stop spoon as if it were her enemy, the cook. Disgruntled, she heaped a fourth helping of mashed potatoes onto her plate. but here was on Rappoport, and her mouth was round with responsiveness: was it his teeth? was it his reddish mustache, turning gray? was it his wide welcoming nostrils? was it his briefcase bulging with worldly troubles?

Rappoport was talkative. His posture was straight-backed and heroic: he told of his last clandestine trip to Moscow, and of the turmoil of the oppressed.

When Puttermesser returned at midnight from the meeting on municipal bonds, the golem was asleep in her fourposter bed, her heels thrust outward in their pink socks over the footboard, and Rappoport was snoring beside her.

Eros had entered Gracie Mansion.

Cynthia Ozick - The Puttermesser Papers

*The upright life and free of sin






Saturday, August 12, 2017

ET: Almanac

Leah, his wife, had gone off to attend a ten-day course at the Kibbutzim College of Education that would train her to be a caregiver at the children's house. Roni Shindlin was happy to have a few days without her. He showered after his shift in the metalwork shop and at four in the afternoon went to the children's house to pick up his five-year-old son, Oded. On the days it wasn't raining, he held Oded's small hand and they went for a stroll around the kibbutz. Oded wore green boots, flannel trousers, a sweater, and a jacket. Roni always tied the strings of the boy's hat under his chin because his ears were sensitive to the cold. Then he picked him up, hugged him, and took him to see the cows and the sheep. Oded was afraid of the cows, which wallowed wet dung and mooed faintly from time to time. His father recited for him: "I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one/But I can tell you anyhow/I'd rather see than be one."

Oded asked "Why is it roaring?"
Roni explained, "Cows don't roar. Cows moo. Lions roar."
"Why do lions roar?"
"They're calling their friends."
"Their friends are mean."
"Their friends play with them."
"They're mean."

Oded was a short little boy, slow and always frightened. He was often sick: he had diarrhea almost every week, and in winter he had ear infections. The children in his kindergarten tormented him constantly. He spent most of the day sitting alone on a mat in a corner, his thumb in his mouth, his back to the room, and his face to the wall, playing with wooden blocks or a rubber duck that squealed mournfully when you squeezed it, and he squeezed it all the time. He'd had it since he was a year old. The children called him Oded-pees-his-bed and when the caregiver turned her back, they pulled his hair. He cried softly for hours, snot running down his mouth and chin. The caregivers didn't like him either because he didn't know how to stand up for himself, or because he wouldn't play with the others and he cried so much. At the breakfast table, he would pick at his porridge and leave most of it in the bowl. When they scolded him, he cried. When they tried to coax him into eating, he withdrew into himself and was silent. Five years old, and he still wet his bed every night, so the caregivers had to spread a rubber sheet under the regular one. He got up wet every morning and the children made fun of. He would sit barefoot in his wet pajamas on his wet bed, his thumb in his mouth, and instead of trying to change into dry clothes, he'd cry quietly, the snot mingling with his tears and smearing his cheeks, until the caregiver arrived and scolded him, "Oh, really, get dressed, Oded. Wipe your nose. Enough crying. Stop being such a baby."

The Committee for Preschoolers instructed Leah, his mother, to be firm with him in order to wean him off this self-indulgent behavior. And so during the afternoons he spent at his parents' house, Leah saw to it that he sat with his back straight, always finished everything on his plate, and never sucked his thumb. If he cried, she punished him for being a crybaby. She was against hugging and kissing, believing that the children of our new society had to be strong and resilient. She thought Oded's problems stemmed from the fact that his teachers and caregivers let him get away with things and forgave him his oddities. Roni, for his part, hugged and kissed Oded only when Leah wasn't around. When she was gone, he'd take a bar of chocolate out of his pocket and break off two or three squares for Oded. Father and son kept these squares of chocolate a secret from Leah and everyone else. More than once, Roni had intended to take issue with Leah about how she treated their son, but he feared her angry outbursts, which drove Oded to crawl under the bed with his duck and cry soundlessly until his mother's anger subsided--and even then, the boy was in no hurry to leave his hiding place.

On the kibbutz, Roni Shindlin was considered a gossip and a comedian, but in his own home, he hardly ever joked because Leah couldn't stand his wisecracks, which she found coarse and tasteless. Both Leah and Roni chain-smoked the cheap Silon cigarettes the kibbutz distributed to its members, and their small apartment was always full of smoke. The smell persisted even at night because it had been absorbed by the furniture and the walls and hovered under the ceiling. Leah didn't like unnecessary touching and talking. She believed in solid principles. She adhered to all the kibbutz tenets with a zealot's fervor. In her view, a couple on the kibbutz should live a simple life.

Their apartment was furnished with a plywood bookcase and a sofa with a foam rubber mattress that opened into a double bed at night and was closed again every morning. There were also a coffee table, two wicker armchairs, an upholstered armchair, and a rough floor mat. A painting of a field of sunflowers glowing in the sun hung on the wall, and a mortar shell casing that served as a vase for a bouquet of dry throne stood in the corner of the room. And, of course, the air reeked of cigarettes.

In the evening, after the work schedule for the next day had been hung on the bulletin board, Roni liked to sit with his friends and acquaintances at his regular table at the far end of the dining hall, smoking and talking about the goings-on in the kibbutz members' lives. Nothing escaped his notice. Other people's lives aroused his unflagging curiosity and unleashed a torrent of witticisms. He thought that the higher our ideals, the more absurd our weaknesses and contradictions. Sometimes, with a smile, he quoted Levi Eshkol, who said that a person is only human, and even that, only rarely. He would light himself a fresh cigarette and say to his cronies in a slightly nasal voice, "Some people play musical chairs, but here, we play musical mates. First Boaz ups and leaves Osnat for Ariella Barash, and now Ariella ups and leaves Boaz for her cat and tomorrow some newly abandoned woman will come and collect the newly abandoned Boaz. In the words of the Bible: 'I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for . . . a warm bed.'" Or he'd say, "Anyone on Kibbutz Yekhat who needs a wife can just stand in line at the bottom of David Dagan's steps and wait for a little while. Women are flicked out of there like cigarette butts."

Roni Shindlin and his stablemates sometimes laughed raucously, and the kibbutz members did their best not to become the butt of their jokes.

At ten at night, Roni and his gang dispersed to their apartments, and he would stop in at the children's house to check on Oded and tuck him in. Then he'd trudge home, sit down on the steps to take off his shoes so as not to track in the mud, and tiptoe inside his stocking feet. Leah would be sitting there, chain-smoking listening to the radio. She listened to the radio every night. Roni would also light up,  his last cigarette of the day, and sit down across from her without speaking. At ten thirty, they put out their cigarettes, turned off the light and went to sleep, he wrapped in his blanket and she in hers, because they had to get up before six in the morning for work.

In the metalwork shop, Roni was known to be a hard worker devoted to his job, and he also never missed a meeting of the Farm Management Committee, where he was always on the side of those who supported careful, balanced management of the agricultural divisions and opposed potentially reckless initiatives. He voted for a limited expansion of the chicken coop but against taking bank loans.

He had a stamp collection that he pored over with Oded every day after work: they would sit with their heads bent, almost touching, over the coffee table, the room warmed by a kerosene heater that burned with a blue flame. With water from a small bowl, Oded would wet the pieces of envelopes that bore the stamps in order to melt the glue and separate them from the paper. Then, under his father's supervision, he'd place the stamps face-down on a piece of blotting paper to dry. As Roni arranged the stamps in an album, following the English catalog, he would explain to Oded about Japan, the land of the rising sun, about the freezing country called Iceland, about Aden and the ancient Hazarmaveth, the Courtyard of Death, near the Strait of Tears, about Panama and the large canal that had been dug through it.

Leah squeezed fresh orange juice for them, admonishing Oded to drink it all, then she sat down in her corner and read an education journal. Every now and then they heard a faint burbling from the pipes of the kerosene heater, and the flame behind the iron grate flared up momentarily. Outside, the rain and wind pounded the closed shutters, and the branch of a ficus tree brushed against the outer wall again and again as if begging for mercy. Roni stood up, emptied the ashtray, and rinsed it under the tap. Oded sucked his thumb and clung to his father. Leah scolded him, "Stop sucking. And, you, stop spoiling him. He's spoiled enough as it is." Then she added, "He's better off eating an orange instead, and he should get rid of that pathetic duck of his. Boys on't play with dolls."

Now that Leah had gone away for ten days, Roni went to the children's house every afternoon at four o'clock to pick up Oded and his squealing duck. With the boy astride his shoulders, he'd stroll around the cow barns and chicken coops. The acrid smell of rotting orange peel rose from the compost pile, mingling with the heavy stench of animal feed and wet manure from the barn. A damp wind blew in from the west, and an early twilight fell on the storerooms and sheds and enveloped our small, red-roofed houses. Now and then a bird chirped piercingly in a treetop and the sheep in their pen replied with a heartbreaking bleat. Sometimes it began to drizzle, and father and son inched over and hurried home.

At home after their stroll, Roni coaxed Oded into eating a slice of bread and jam and drinking a cup of cocoa. Oded reluctantly nibbled two or three bites of bread, took a sip of the cocoa, and said, "No more, Daddy. Now stamps."

After Roni had cleared the table and put the dishes in the sink, he took down the green album and the and the two of them bent over it, heads almost touching. Roni lit a cigarette and explained to Oded that stamps are small visitors from distant countries, and each visitor is here to tell us a story about its homeland, its countryside and famous people, its holidays and beautiful buildings. Oded asked if there were countries where children are allowed to sleep with their parents at night and where children aren't mean and don't hit. Roni didn't know how to answer, so he said that there are good people and cruel people everywhere, and he explained the word cruel to Oded. In his heart, Roni believed that, here, cruelty is sometimes disguised as self-righteousness or dedication to principles, and he knew that no one was completely free of it. Not even he himself.

Oded grew anxious as seven thirty approached, the hour he had to go back to the children's house and leave his father for the night. He didn't plead to stay at home, but instead went to the toilet to pee, and when he didn't come out, Roni had to go in after him and found him sitting on the closed toilet, sucking his thumb and hugging his rubber duck, its once-red bill now faded and one of its eyes slightly sunken into its head.

Roni said, "Dedi. We have to go. It's late."
Oded said, "We can't, we just can't. There's a big wolf in the woods."

Finally they both put on their coats. Roni helped Oded into his green boots and tied the strings of his hat under his chin. He took a large, thick stick from behind the steps for chasing away the wolf, held Oded in his arms, and walked to the children's house. The boy hugged his father's head with one hand, and in the other he held the duck so tightly that it emitted a constant stream of faint squeals. When they passed the grove behind the dining hall, Roni waved his stick, striking the wet air every which way until the wolf ran off. Oded thought about that for a moment, then said sadly that the wolf would come back late at night when the parents were asleep. Roni promised that the night guard would chase away the wolf, but the boy was inconsolable because he knew very well that the wolf would devour the night guard.

When they reached the children's house, the electric heater was already on in the dining room and there were plates on the small tables, each filled with a slice of bread and yellow cheese, half a hard-boiled egg, tomato slices, four olives, and a small mound of cream cheese. The caregiver, Hemda, a dumpy woman wearing a white apron around her waist, made sure that the children placed their boots in a neat row by the door and hung their coats on the wall hooks above their boots. Then the parents went outside to smoke, the children ate and took their plates and cups to the sink, and the monitors wiped the tables.

After the meal, the parents were allowed to go in and put their children to bed. The children, in flannel pajamas, gathered around the sinks, screamed and pushed each other, washed their faces and brushed their teeth, and climbed noisily into bed. The parents were given ten minutes to read them a story or sing them a lullaby, then they said good night and left. Hemda turned off the lights, except for a small one in the dining room. She stayed for several more minutes, forbade the children to whisper, ordered them to go to sleep, gave them another warning, said good night, leaving a dim light on in the shower room, turned off the electric heater, and let.

The children waited until she was gone, then got out of bed barefoot and began to run around the bedrooms and the dining room. They hurled their muddy boots at each other, growing rowdier by the minute. The boys wrapped blankets around their heads and frightened the girls by roaring, "We're Arabs, we're attacking now." The shrieking girls huddled together, and one of them, Atida, filled a bottle with water and sprayed the ARabs. The mayhem didn't end until Eviatar, a broad-shouldered boy, suggested, "Hey, let's go and snatch Oded's duck."

Oded hadn't gotten out of bed when the others did but, instead, lay with his face to the wall and thought about a country from the stamp collection that his father said was called the Hazarmaveth, the Courtyard of Death. The name frightened him and he thought that the courtyard of the children's house located in the darkness right on the other side of the wall was also a hazarmaveth. He pulled the blanket over his head and hugged the rubber duck, knowing it was dangerous to fall asleep or cry. He waited for the others to get tired and go back to bed, hoping they'd forget about him tonight. His mother was away, his father had gone to smoke with his friends at their table in the dining hall, the caregiver, Hemda, was off somewhere, and the Hazarmaveth was right there in the darkness behind the thin wall, the door wasn't locked, and there was a wolf lurking in the woods that they had to pass on the way home.

Tador, Tamir, and Rina tore off his blanket and threw it on the floor, and Dalit chanted in an infuriating singsong: "Oded-pees-his-bed is out of his head."

Eviatar said, "Now he'll cry." And he said in oh, such a sweet voice to Oded, "So, cry a little for us, Oded. Just a little. We're all asking you nicely."

Oded curled into himself, brought his knees up to his stomach, dropped his head down between his shoulders, and clutched his duck, which squealed weakly.

"His duck is filthy."
"Let's watch the duck."
"Let's wash his peepee. His peepee's filthy too."
"Give us the duck, Oded-pees-his-bed. Come on, give it to us. Be nice."

Eviatar tried to pull the duck from Oded's grasp, but the boy held on to it with all his might, pressing it hard against his stomach. Tadmor and Tamir pulled at Oded's arms and he kicked them with his bare feet, and Rina pulled at his pajamas. Tadmor and Tamir pried his fingers away from the duck, and Eviatar wrapped his hand around it, wrenched it away from Oded, and waved it in the air, dancing on one leg, chanting, "Oded's dirty duck is out of luck. Whattya say, let's chuck it away!"

Oded gritted his teeth, fighting not to cry, but his eyes welled and snot ran from his nose onto his mouth and chin. He got out of bed barefoot and tried to attack Eviatar, who was a lot taller and stronger. Eviatar pretended to be afraid and waved the duck high over Oded's head, passing it straight to Tamir, who passed it to Rina, who passed it to Tadmor. Oded, suddenly filled with the despair and fury of the weak, gathered momentum and charged Eviatar as hard as he could, smashing into his stomach and almost knocking him down. The girls, Dalit an Rina, squealed with delight. Eviatar straightened up, pushed Oded away, and punched him hard in the nose. When Oded was finally lying on the floor sobbing, Dalit said, "Let's get him some water," and Tadmor said, "Stop it. That's enough. What's wrong with you? Leave him alone." But Eviatar went to the dining room, took a pair of scissors out of the drawer, cut off the rubber duck's head, and went back to the bedroom, the duck's body in his right hand, its head in his left. He bent over Oded, who was still lying on the floor, and laughed. "Choose, Oded," he said. "You can choose."

Oded got to his feet, pushed his way through the children crowded around him, ran blindly to the door, opened it, and booted straight out into the darkness of the Hazarmaveth that lay beyond the children's house. He ran barefoot in the mud, shaking all over in his pajamas from cold and fear, ran and hopped, like a hunted rabbit, completely soaked by the rain that dripped from his hair down his cheeks and mixed with his tears; he passed blocks of dark buildings, crossed through the darkness of the small grove near the dining hall, heard the thudding of the black wolf's paws pursuing him, felt its breath on the back of his neck, ran faster as the rain grew stronger, the wind beat against his face, and he stumbled and fell onto his knees in a puddle, stood up wet and covered in mud, and ran on alone in the darkness between one streetlamp and the next, ran and wept in small, rapid sobs, ran, his ears frozen and shining, ran until he reached his parents' house where he dropped onto the steps, afraid to go inside, afraid they'd be angry with him and return him to the children's house; and there, on the steps, his little body curled up and frozen and shaking, his father found him crying soundlessly when he came back from the evening's gossip session in the dining hall.

Roni took his son in his arms, carried him inside, removed the wet pajamas, and cleaned off the mud and mucus with a washcloth, then rubbed his frozen body with a large, coarse towel to warm him. He swathed the boy in a warm blanket and turned on the heater while Oded recounted what had happened in the children's house. Roni told him to wait beside the heater and bolted out into the rain, running, panting, burning with rage, as he raced up the hill.

When he reached the children's house, his shoes heavy with mud, he saw the night guard, Berta From, who tried to tell him something, but he didn't hear and didn't want to hear. Blind and deaf with despair and fury, he burst into Oded's room turned on the light, bent over and yanked a gentle, quiet boy named Yair from under his blanket, stood him on his bed, and slapped his face savagely over and over again until the boy's nose began to bleed and his head banged against the wall with the force of the blows, as Roni shouted in a rasping voice, "This is nothing! Nothing! I will kill anyone who touches Oded again!:

Berta the night guard in the children's house, grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him off the child, who flopped onto the bed, his sobs thin and piercing, and said again, "You've got crazy, Roni, completely crazy." Roni punched her in the chest, then ran outside and dashed through the mud and rain back to his son.

Father and son slept with their arms around each other all night on the sofa that opened into a double bed, and in the morning, they stayed in the apartment. Roni didn't go to work and he didn't take Oded to the children's house; he spread jam on a slice of bread and warmed a cup of cocoa. At eight thirty int he morning, Yoav, the kibbutz secretary, appeared grim-faced at the door and curtly informed Roni that he was expected in the kibbutz office at exactly five o'clock the next afternoon for a personal interview at a joint meeting of the Social and Preschool Education Committees.

At lunch, Roni's friends sat at the gossip table without him and talked about what the entire kibbutz had been talking about since morning. They speculated about what Roni would say if someone had done those things. You can never know, they said, such a quiet guy with a sense of humor, and look at what he's capable of. At three in the afternoon, Leah appeared, having been summoned by phone from her course. Before going home, she stopped at the children's house and left warm underwear, clean clothes, and boots for the boy. Tight-lipped, a cigarette burning between her fingers, she informed Roni that she and she alone would be in charge of Oded, and, what's more, she had decided that, for the boy's own good, he would return to the children's house that night.

The rain had stopped, but the sky was still heavy with low clouds and a cold, damp wind had been gusting in from the west. The room filled with a cloud of cigarette smoke. At seven thirty in the evening, Leah bundled Oded into his coat, pulled his green boots firmly on his feet, and said, "Come on, Oded. You're going to bed. They won't bother you anymore." And she added, "No more running wild for them. Starting tonight, the night guard will do her job properly."

They went out, leaving Roni alone in the apartment. He lit a cigarette and stood at the window, his back to the room, his face to the darkness outside. Leah returned at nine and didn't say a word to him. She sat down on her wicker armchair, smoked, and read her education magazine. At ten, Roni said, "I'm going out for a walk. To see how he is."

Leah said quietly, "You're not going anywhere."

Roni hesitated, then gave in because he no longer trusted himself.

At ten thirty they turned off the radio, emptied the ashtray, opened the sofa, and made up the double bed. They lay under their separate blankets because tomorrow they had to get up for work before six again. Outside, the rain had resumed and the wind blew the stubborn ficus tree branch against the shutters. Roni lay on his back for a while, his open eyes staring at the ceiling. For a moment, he imagined that he heard a faint whisper in the darkness. He sat up in bed and listened hard, but he could hear only rain and wind and the branch brushing against the shutters. Then he fell asleep.

Amoz Oz - Little Boy

Friday, August 11, 2017

ET: Almanac

Now I really did feel a powerful urge to do something against the war! I had the material ready to hand; to get me started I had needed only this last visible confirmation of what instinct told me. I had recognized the enemy whom I must fight--the false heroism that would rather send others to suffering and death, the cheap optimism of unscrupulous prophets promising political and military victory, keeping the slaughter going, and behind them the chorus they had hired, the "wordsmiths of war", as Werfel called them in his fine poem. Anyone who expressed reservations was disturbing them in their patriotic business; anyone who uttered a warning was derided as a pessimist; anyone who opposed the war which inflicted no suffering on them personally was branded a traitor. It was always the same, the whole pack throughout history who called cautious people cowards, human people week only to be at a loss themselves in the hour of disaster that they had rashly conjured up. Because the pack were always the same. They had mocked Cassandra in Troy, Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and I had never before understood the tragedy of those great figures as I did now, in a time so like theirs. From the first I had not believed in 'victory', and I knew only one thing for certain--even if victory could in fact be gained at the expense of countless victims, it did not justify that sacrifice. But I was alone among my friends with these warnings, and the wild howl of triumph even before the first shot was fired, the division of the spoils even before the first battle, often made me doubt whether I myself was mad among all these clever heads, or perhaps was the only person to be shockingly sober amidst their intoxication.

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The generation of my parents and grandparents was better off, they lived their lives from one end to the other quietly and in a straight, clear line. All the same, I do not know whether I envy them. For they drowsed their lives may remote from all true bitterness, from the malice and force of destiny; they knew nothing about all those crises and problems that oppress the heart but at the same time greatly enlarge it. How little they knew, stumbling along in security and prosperity and comfort, that life can also mean excess and tension, constant surprise, can be turned upside down; how little they guessed in their touching liberal optimism that every new day dawning outside the window could shatter human lives. Even in their darkest nights they never dreamt how dangerous human beings can be, or then again how much power they can have to survive dangers and surmount trials. We who have been hunted through the rapids of life, torn from our former roots, always driven to the end and obliged to begin again, victims and yet also the willing servants of unknown mysterious powers, we for whom comfort has become an old legend and security, a childish dream, have felt tension from pole to pole of our being, the terror of something always new in every fibre. Every hour of our years was linked to the fate of the world. In sorrow and in joy we have lived through time and history far beyond our own small lives, while they knew nothing beyond themselves. Every one of us, therefore, even the least of the human race, knows a thousand times more about reality today than the wisest of our forebears. But nothing was given to us freely; we paid the price in full.

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That world was a wonderful tonic, its strength reaching our hearts from all the coasts of Europe. At the same time, however, although we did not guess it, what delighted us was dangerous. The stormy wind of pride and confidence sweeping over Europe brought clouds with it. Perhaps the upward movement had come too fast, states and cities had made themselves powerful too swiftly--and an awareness of having power always leads states, like men, to use or misuse it.... one group of companies was set against all the rest--the economic situation had maddened them all in their frantic wish to get their hands on more and more. If today, thinking it over calmly, we wonder why Europe went to war in 1914, there is not one sensible reason to be found, nor even any real occasion for the war. There were no ideas involved, it was not really about drawing minor borderlines. I can explain it only, thinking of that excess of power, by seeing it as a tragic consequence of the internal dynamism that had built up during those forty years of peace, and now demanded release. Every state suddenly felt that it was strong, and forgot that other states felt exactly the same; all states wanted even more, and wanted some of what the others already had. The worst of it was that the very thing we loved most, our common optimism, betrayed us, for everyone thought that everyone else would back down at the last minute, and so the diplomats began their game of mutual bluff.

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Every foray down to the city was a distressing experience at the time. For the first time I saw, in the yellow, dangerous eyes of the starving, what famine really looks like. Bread was nothing but black crumbs tasting of pitch and glue, coffee was a decoction of roast barley, beer was yellow water, chocolate a sandy substance colored brown. The potatoes were frozen. Most people trapped rabbits so as not to forget the taste of meat entirely. The only fabric on sale was treated paper, a substitute for a substitute. Almost all the men went around dressed in old uniforms, even Russian uniforms, collected from a depot or a hospital, clothing in which several people had died already. You often saw trousers made of old sacks. Every step you took along the streets, where the shop windows were as empty as if they had been looted, mortar was crumbling away like scabs from the ruinous buildings, and obviously undernourished people dragged themselves to work with difficulty. It was deeply upsetting. Country people on the plain were better off for food. The general breakdown of morale meant that no farmer would dream of selling his butter, eggs and milk at the legally fixed 'maximum prices.' He kept what he could in store and waited for buyers to come and make him a better offer. Soon there was a new profession--hoarding. Unemployed men would and go from farm to farm with a couple of rucksacks, even taking the train to particularly productive areas, and bought up food at illegal prices. They then sold it on in cities for four or five times what they had paid. At first the farmers were happy with all the paper money coming in for their butter and eggs, and they in turn hoarded the banknotes. But as soon as they took their fat wallets to town to buy things for themselves, they discovered, to their discomfiture, that they had asked only five times the price for their food they sold, but meanwhile the price of the scythes, hammers and pots and pans they wanted to buy had risen by twenty or fifty times. After that they tried direct exchange for manufactured objects, bartering in kind.  Humanity had already cheerfully reverted to the cave-dwelling age in trench warfare, and was now rejecting thousands of years of conventional financial transactions and going back to primitive exchange. A grotesque style of trading spread through the whole of Austria. Town-dwellers took what they could spare out to the country, Chinese porcelain vases, carpets, swords and guns, cameras and books, lamps and ornaments. If you walked into a farmhouse near Salzburg, you might see, to your surprise, an Indian statue o the Buddha staring at ou, or a rococo bookcase containing leather-bund books in French of which the new owners were inordinately proud. "Genuine leather! France!" they would boast with a broad grin. Real goods were in demand, not money. Many people had to get rid of their wedding rings or their leather belts just to keep body and soul together.

Finally the authorities intervened to put an end to this under-the-counter trading, which did no one any good except those who were well off already. Cordons were set up in province after province, and good were confiscated from the hoarders transporting them by rail or bicycle and handed over to the rationing offices in urban areas. The hoarders struck back by organizing a Wild-West kind of nocturnal transport, or bribing the officials in charge of the confiscations, who had hungry children at home themselves. Sometimes there were actual battles with knives and revolvers, which after four years at the front these men could handle expertly, just as they knew the fieldcraft of taking cover when in flight. The chaos grew worse by the week, and the population more and more agitated, for financial devaluation was more obvious every day. The neighbor states had replaced the old Austrian banknotes with their own currencies, leaving tiny Austria with almost the entire burden of redeeming the old crown. As the first sign of distrust among the people, coinage disappeared, for a small copper or nickel coin still represented something more real than mere printed paper. The state might crank up the printing presses to create as much artificial money as possible, in line with the precepts of Mephistopheles, but it could not keep pace with inflation, and so every town and city and finally every village began printing its own 'emergency currency', which would not be accepted in the neighboring village, and later on, when it was recognized, correctly, that it had no intrinsic value at all, was usually just thrown away. An economist with a gift for the graphic description of all the phases of the inflation that began in Austria and then spread to Germany would, I think, have been able to write a book far more exciting than any novel, for the chaos took increasingly more fantastic forms. Soon no one knew what anything cost. Prices shot up at random; a box of matches could cost twenty times more in a shop that had raised the price early than in another, where a less grasping shopkeeper was still selling his wares at yesterday's prices. His reward for honesty was to see his shop cleared out within the hour, for one customer would tell another, and they all came to buy whatever there was to be bought, regardless of whether they needed it or not. Even a goldfish or an old telescope represented 'real value', and everyone wanted real value rather than paper. Most grotesque of all was the discrepancy between other expenses and rents. The government banned any rise in rents in order to protect tenants--who were the majority--but to the detriment of landlords. Soon the rent of a medium sized apartment in Austria for a whole year cost its tenant less than a single midday meal. In effect, the whole of the country lived more or less rent-free for five to ten years--since even later landlords were not allowed to give their tenants notice. This crazy state of chaos made the situation more absurd and illogical from week to week. A man who had saved for forty years and had also patriotically put money into the war loan became a beggar, while a man who used to be in debt was free of it. Those who had observed propriety in the allocation of food went hungry, those who cheerfully ignored the rules were well fed. If you knew how to hand out bribes you got on well, if you speculated you could make a profit. Those who sold in line with cost price were robbed; those who calculated carefully still lost out. There were no standards or values as money flowed away and evaporated; the only virtue was to be clever, adaptable and unscrupulous, leaping on the back of the runaway horse instead of letting it trample you.

In addition, while the people of Austria lost any idea of financial standards as values plummeted, many foreigners had realized that they could fish profitably in our troubled waters. During the period of galloping inflation, which went on for three years at ever-increasing speed, only one thing had any stable value inside the country, and that was foreign currency. While the Austrian crown was dissolving like jelly in your fingers, everyone wanted Swiss francs and American dollars, and large numbers of foreigners exploited the economic situation to feed on the twitching corpse of the old Austrian currency. Austria was discovered and became disastrously popular with foreign visitors in a parody of the society season. All the hotels in Vienna were crammed full with these vultures; they would buy anything, from toothbrushes to country estates; they cleared out private collections of antiquities and the antique dealers' shops before the owners realized how badly they had been robbed and cheated in their time of need. Hotel receptionists from Switzerland an Dutch shorthand typists stayed in princely apartments of the Ringstrasse hotels. Incredible as it may seem, I can vouch for it that for a long time the famous, de luxe Hotel de l'elope in Salzburg was entirely booked by unemployed members of the English proletariat, who could live here more cheaply than in their slums at home, thanks to the generous unemployment benefit they received. Anything that was not nailed down disappeared. Word gradually spread of the cheap living and low prices in Austria. Greedy visitors came from further and further afield, from Sweden, from France, and you heard more Italian, French, Turkish and Romanian than German spoken in the streets of the city centre of Vienna. Even Germany, where the pace of inflation was much slower at first--although later it would be a million times worse than in Austria--took advantage of the falling value of the Austrian crown in relation to its own mark. As Salzburg was on the border I had a good opportunity of observing these raids on us every day. Germans crossed from the neighboring towns and villages of Bavaria in their hundreds and thousands, pouring into the small city. They had their suits made and their cars repaired here, they went to the pharmacist and the doctor in Salzburg, big firms in Munich sent their letters and telegrams from Austria soap to profit by the difference in postage. Finally, at the urging of the German government, a border checkpoint was set up to prevent German citizens from buying everything cheap in Salzburg, where you could get seventy Austrian crowns for a single German mark, instead of in their shops at home, and all goods coming out of there was one item that couldn't be confiscated; the beer you had already consumed. And every day the beer-swilling Bavarians worked out, from the rate of exchange, whether the devaluation of the crown enabled them to drink five, six, or even ten liters of beer in and around Salzburg for the price they would pay for a single liter at home. No greater temptation could be imagined, and whole troops of visitors came over the border from nearby Freilassung and Reichenhall, complete with their wives and children, to indulge in the luxury of pouring as much beer down their throats as their bellies would hold. The railway station was in pandemonium every evening, crowded with hordes of intoxicated, bawling, belching and expectorating Germans. Many of them, having overestimated their capacity had to be wheeled to the carriages on the trolleys generally used to transport baggage before the train took them back to their own country, to the accompaniment of bacchanalian shouting and singing. These cheerful Bavarians, of course, had no idea that a terrible vengeance lay in store for them. For when the crown stabilized, while the fall of the mark assumed astronomical dimensions, the Austrians traveled over from the same station to get drunk on the cheap in their own turn, and the same spectacle was repeated, although in the opposite direction This beer war in the midst of two inflationary periods is among my strangest memories because it clearly illustrates in miniature the entire crazy character of those years in perhaps its most graphic and grotesque aspect.

Strangest of all is the fact that day, with the best will in the world, I cannot remember how we managed to keep house in those years, when everyone in Austria had to raise the thousands and tens of thousands of crowns and in Germany the millions of marks they needed every day just to survive, and had to do it again and again. But the mysterious fact was that, somehow, we did manage. We got used to the chaos and adapted to it. Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days at first hand would probably imagine that a time when an egg cost as much in Austria as the price of a luxury car in the past, and later fetched four billion marks in Germany--roughly the basic value of all the buildings in the Greater Berlin area before inflation--women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and the theaters and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt a great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in banks and government securities melted away, spectators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept on turning into the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. The baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated the land, trains ran regularly, the newspaper lay outside your door every morning at the usual time, and the places of entertainment in particular, the bars and the theaters, were full to overflowing. For the daily loss in value of money, once the most stable aspect of life, people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in the midst of disaster the nation as a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch. Young men and girls went walking in the mountains and came home tanned brown by the sun, music played in the dance halls until late at night, new factories and businesses were founded everywhere. I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at that time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.

I will never forget what operatic performances were like in those days of our greatest need. You groped your way through dimly lit streets, for street lighting was feeling the effects of the fuel shortage, you paid for your seat with a bundle of banknotes that would once have allowed you to hire a luxurious box for a year. You sat in your overcoat, because the auditorium was unheated, and pressed close to your neighbors for warmth--and the theater itself, once brilliant with uniforms and expensive gowns, was so dismal and grey! No one knew whether it would still be possible for the opera to keep going next week if money went on falling in value and there were no coal deliveries. Everything seemed doubly desperate in this scene of former luxury and imperial extravagance. The musicians of the Philharmonic sat in the pit, also grey shadows of themselves, emaciated and exhausted by deprivation, and we in the audience looked like ghosts in this now ghostly theater. but then the conductor raised his baton, the curtains parted, and it was more wonderful than ever before. The singers and musicians gave of their best, for they all felt that this might be the last time they performed in the theater they loved. And we listened with bated breath, more receptive than ever, knowing that for us, too, this might be the last time. Thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, lived like this. We all strained ourselves to the limit in these weeks and months and years on the brink of downfall. I never felt the will to live in a nation and in myself as strongly as I did then, when the end of everything, life and survival itself, was at stake.

The World of Yesterday - Stefan Zweig