On Monday Adolf brought home a tall, strong woman from the country and said, “This is Kirtzl. Show her what to do in the house.”
“I’ll show her everything,” Blanca said in the tones of a maidservant, and went right out into the garden. “This is the vegetable garden,” she said. “In this season there are eggplants, squash, and also cabbage.” Blanca looked at the woman closely: her face was full and flat, and a heavy smile hung on her lips.
“Do you water the garden?” Kirtzl asked stolidly.
“In weeks when there’s no rain.”
They passed on into the kitchen, and Blanca said, “There’s wood in the shed.”
“You don’t use charcoal?” Kirtzl asked in the same tone of voice.
“No,” Blanca said, and the word reverberated in her head for a moment.
Then they went into the bedroom, and Blanca said, “This is Otto. He’s not an infant anymore. He sleeps through the night, eats well, and he’s developing nicely. Do you know how to take care of children?”
“I have three.”
“How old are they, if I may ask?”
Kirtzl smiled. “They’re already in school,” she said.
“Do you want to have a cup of coffee, perhaps?”
“I wouldn’t object.”
Adolf went out with his friends, and the two women sat and talked. Kirtzl told Blanca that her husband had run off six years earlier, and his trail was cold. The children had been little, and she raised them.
“Didn’t the police look for him?”
“Go look for a needle in a haystack.”
“I also have to go to work.” Something of the woman’s voice clung to Blanca.
“Don’t worry. I’ll watch out for your husband and son. You can rely on me.”
Blanca’s former life seemed like a dream to her: she had been a free person, she had parents who loved her, she was excelling in high school, she read books, and in the afternoons she would sit with her father in their store, My Corner. And then, because of a grave sin that she had committed, she became a prisoner. Until now, she had been in this prison, and tomorrow she would be transferred to another one. Kirtzl seemed to comprehend her thoughts and said, “I don’t complain.”
“I’ve learned to grab whatever comes my way,” she said, pursing her lips.
Blanca felt that this sturdy woman had a lot of strength, but she couldn’t tell what kind it was.
“Don’t you understand?”
“I,” Blanca said, “never leave the house.”
“If so, this will only do you good.”
Blanca felt that this sturdy woman had a lot of strength, but she couldn’t tell what kind it was. At any rate, she noticed, Kirtzl had sat down on the chair slowly, and when she was sitting there, her body filled it.
“Where have you been working until now?” Blanca asked.
“In the village.”
“Weren’t you happy there?”
“The men molested me,” she said, and her smile revealed her large teeth.
“Here things will be quiet for you,” Blanca said distractedly. Then she ran out of words. “Kirtzl,” she said.
“It’s hard for me to part from Otto.”
“Don’t be emotional,” Kirtzl said. “It isn’t good to be emotional. Life is rotten.”
Blanca couldn’t sleep that night. Evil visions horrified her, and she sat in the dark kitchen, awaiting the morning. The night was long, and she knew clearly that without Otto, her life would be even more abject. The statue of the crucified Jesus that hung above the altar in the church appeared before her. But for some reason his face was strong and angry.
Before going to work, Adolf reminded her that she had to come home on Saturday afternoon to prepare the house for Sunday. Blanca was groggy, but still she ironed his shirts and arranged the cupboards. Finally she fell to her knees and begged Otto not to cry.
Kirtzl arrived at eight, and Blanca rushed out to catch the morning train. On the way, she met a former classmate. Andi was a simple, reliable girl whom Blanca had thought about now and then. Now, when she met her, she could say only, “Excuse me, I’m running to catch a train.”
Andi, astonished by her sudden appearance, called loudly after her, “God preserve you.”
The first shot of brandy blurred her, and she saw the statue of Jesus again. His face had changed once again: now it didn’t seem angry, but determined. . .
Blanca got to the station at the last minute, bought a ticket right away, and boarded the train. The buffet car was empty, and she ordered a brandy. During her pregnancy and for some time afterward, Blanca hadn’t drunk. Now she felt a strong thirst for a drink. The first shot of brandy blurred her, and she saw the statue of Jesus again. His face had changed once again: now it didn’t seem angry, but determined, as if he were about to detach himself from the nails and take revenge against his tormenters.
Then her head emptied. The blur thickened, and a dull pain took hold of her scalp, spreading across her temples and down to the nape of her neck.
“Do you have a damp cloth?” she asked the waitress who was serving in the buffet. “My head is splitting with pain.”
The waitress handed her a cloth.
“Here,” she said softly. “This will make you feel better.” Hearing her soft words, Blanca burst into tears.
“What’s the matter, dear?”
“I left my son behind, and I miss him.”
“I understand you very well. I also left my two little girls behind and went out to work.”
“How can you stand it?”
“It’s very hard for me. Every day I dull my longing with Cognac. It’s been three years now.”
The damp cloth made Blanca feel better, and she sank into a pressured, choking sleep, but in the midst of it she heard a clear voice.
“Blanca, you mustn’t despair. There is a God in heaven, and He watches over you. You have to do what God tells you to do. Your suffering is not in vain. Your life has a purpose.” It was Theresa’s voice, coming from a distance; not a soft voice, but a very endearing one in its simplicity. Blanca opened her eyes. The train was close to Blumenthal. She pulled herself together and rose to her feet.
* * *
Blanca quickly learned how different the old-age home in Blumenthal was from the one in Himmelburg. In Blumenthal there were regular times for rising in the morning and for lights-out, the meals were served on time, there was a rest period from two to four in the afternoon, and visitors were permitted only on Tuesdays. The director of the home was strict with the residents, and if they disobeyed her instructions, she scolded them out loud and sometimes punished them.
“What attracts you to the Jews?” Blanca asked her.
Upon arriving, Blanca was sent to clean the rooms and make the beds. Then she went down to help in the kitchen. In the kitchen she met Sonia and quickly made friends with her. Sonia had been born in Sarajevo. Her mother was Jewish and her father was Croatian. From her childhood, Sonia had been attracted to Jews. Her father wasn’t pleased by that inclination, but Sonia was so enchanted by Jewish people that at an early age she left her home in order to live among them.
“What attracts you to the Jews?” Blanca asked her.
“I don’t know. My mother never talked with me about being Jewish, but I’ve been interested in them since my girlhood. I would stand for hours next to the synagogue and listen to the prayers. Are you Jewish?”
“I was,” said Blanca, embarrassed by the direct question.
“Why did you convert?”
“I got married,” said Blanca, without explaining.
In the evening the director summoned Blanca to her office and explained the conditions of service.
“You work for six days,” she said, “and you go home on Saturday afternoon. Anyone who is absent without an excuse or is negligent will be fired on the spot. You’ll share a room with Sonia, and there will be a special announcement regarding night shifts. By the way, my name is Elsa Stahl, and you may call me Elsa.” Her look was blue and cold, and it was evident that she was a strict woman who wouldn’t hesitate to punish.
Sonia was three years older than Blanca. She had finished high school in Serbia and begun to study to be a pharmacist, but she had lost interest in her studies and abandoned them. Since then she had been wandering. She’d already been to Vienna, and now she was here, saving money so she could travel to Galicia.
“What attracts you to Galicia?”
“The old-time Jews.”
When Sonia spoke about the old-time Jews, her eyes widened and a spark gleamed in them.
“When I was in the hospital,” Blanca said, “my friend brought me a book of stories about the Ba’al Shem Tov.”
“I never heard of him,” said Sonia.
“It’s a book about the Jewish faith.”
“Marvelous!” Sonia cried.
Sonia was an enthusiastic woman, bold and extravagant. She didn’t hide her thoughts. The residents liked her, but the director was suspicious of her. Once she had proclaimed to one of the janitors, “What difference does it make that my mother is Jewish? I’m proud of it.”
“You mustn’t talk that way,” one of the residents commented.
“Because being Jewish isn’t something to be proud of.”
“But I am proud,” said Sonia.
After a few days of depression and humiliation, Blanca felt her strength returning to her, and sensations throbbed within her once again.
“I’ve been married for more than two years, and I have a son named Otto,” Blanca told Sonia.
“And your husband?”
“He works in the district dairy.”
Sonia told her about the old-age home and its residents, and about Elsa, who treated the old people cruelly. The old people were afraid to complain. Every time a delegation came from Vienna to check on the conditions of the old-age homes in the provinces and they asked the old people about the place, they answered as one: everything is fine, everything is decent.
Blanca still didn’t understand everything that was being told to her. She still was overcome with fatigue.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me anymore,” she said, as she fell asleep.
In the middle of the night Blanca awoke, terrified. “What’s the matter?” Sonia asked.
“I saw Otto near a deep pit, and I couldn’t save him.”
* * *
From then on, Otto never faded from Blanca’s view. She heard his voice in every corner, and on every floor she saw him crawling to her.
After a few days of fear, Blanca was about to return home, but at the last minute, she changed her mind. She knew that Adolf would make a sour face and say, “Why did you come back?”
At night Sonia would sit on Blanca’s bed and tell her about her childhood and youth. While she was studying in high school, she had been a Communist, and her boyfriend was also a Communist. The two of them were going to go to Switzerland. But once, as though in passing, her boyfriend said to her that the Jews stood in the way of redemption because they were petites bourgeois in their souls and that the revolution was hateful to them. At first, she didn’t catch the meaning of his words, but once she did, she understood that old-style anti-Semitism was coming from his mouth. That very week she broke off her connection with him and with the party.
Were it not for her nightmares, Blanca would have been immersed in the hard work. But they would return each night and bring Otto with them. Now Otto looked like baby Jesus lying on a pile of straw. The yellowish colors surrounding him looked unpleasant.
“Otto!” she would cry, alarmed. Hearing her voice, he would move a little, but he wouldn’t respond, as though he had been kidnapped and wrapped up like a mummy.
Blanca slept very little, so as not to see Otto in the figure of Jesus. She sat in the kitchen, and if one of the residents was hungry or couldn’t sleep, she would sneak a sandwich to him.
When Blanca laid her head on the pillow, Otto came back, looking out at her from the long oil paintings that hung on the walls of the church.
Elsa lived outside the old-age home, but she had informers—two janitors who flattered her and told her what was happening in the home at night. Luckily for the other workers, the janitors were sound asleep after midnight, and not even shouts could awaken them.
Sonia also told Blanca about her father, a wise, sensitive man who had studied philology for two years but whose hatred of Jews was boundless. Every time he spoke about them, his rage would burn. When Sonia was little, her mother used to object to his prejudices, but in time she stopped. She had gotten used to his arguments and even believed them a little. Once Sonia had been very close to her parents, but over the years a barrier of alienation had arisen between them. Now all she wanted to do was get to Kolomyja, her mother’s birthplace.
“What do you expect to find?”
“I don’t know, but my heart tells me that I have to go there.”
“I would very much like to join you, but I’m shackled.”
When Blanca laid her head on the pillow, Otto came back, looking out at her from the long oil paintings that hung on the walls of the church. A cold, sad, puzzled expression appeared on his pure face, as though he were wondering, ‘What am I doing here, and what will my fate be when morning comes?’ Dry plants and people bent over with hunger surrounded him on every side, but Otto was lost in his amazement and ignored their plots against him.
“Dear,” Blanca whispered to him, “watch out for those people. They’re plotting and liable to harm you.”
Only at noon, when she was serving lunch to the old people, did the feeling of oppression let up slightly.
Hearing her voice, his lips parted and he said, “Don’t forget. I’m Jesus Christ, and no one can harm me.”
“But you’re also my son,” Blanca said, alarmed.
“Correct, Mother, but no one knows that.”
For a moment Blanca was happy, but when she woke up, her head was spinning, her heart was pounding, and she felt weakness in all her limbs. Only at noon, when she was serving lunch to the old people, did the feeling of oppression let up slightly. The old people liked her and told her about their sons and daughters who had converted to Christianity and who were ashamed to have parents living in a Jewish old-age home. Among the residents there was an old storekeeper named Durchfall who didn’t hold his tongue.
“I’m a Jew,” he proclaimed, “and I’ll never hide it. It’s not a special virtue, but it’s also not a shame. At Hanukkah we’ll light candles and sing ‘Rock of Ages,’ and we’ll remember the times when Jews were Jews and their Judaism was dear to them, when they were prepared to rise up against a mighty empire.”
Sometimes Durchfall spoke in a different tone of voice.
“There’s no doubt,” he would say, “the Jews are a changeable and frivolous nation. It’s hard for them to be Jewish, it oppresses them, and at every opportunity they throw a few old books into the Danube. They’re sure that if they convert to Christianity, their neighbors will embrace them and take them to their hearts. They’re wrong. They’re simply wrong.”
* * *
When Blanca returned home on Saturday, she noticed from a distance that the front door was ajar and that the garbage pail kept it from closing. A faded November light shone on the empty lots around the house. She had come at a run from the station, but when she approached the house, she halted. The anxiety that had shackled her body for a week wrapped itself around her legs, and she felt her knees weaken.
At a distance from the door she called out loud, “Kirtzl!” No one answered.
Blanca addressed Kirtzl as though she weren’t a woman sitting across from her but, rather, a large animal.
“Kirtzl!” she called again, and for a moment she stood frozen, trying to absorb what was happening. She opened the door and went inside.
Kirtzl was sitting outside in the garden, wearing a loose cloak. Her stolid face conveyed a kind of indifference, the relaxed expression of an idle person.
“How are you?” Blanca addressed Kirtzl as though she weren’t a woman sitting across from her but, rather, a large animal. Because you couldn’t know how it would react, you quickly appeased it.
“What?” Kirtzl said, her mouth falling open.
“Where is Otto?”
“He’s in his room,” she replied, without moving.
Otto was standing in his cradle, wide-eyed. Blanca sank to her knees, extended her arms, and started to pick him up. Otto burst into tears, frightened by her sudden return.
“It’s Mama,” Blanca said, putting him down. “Don’t you remember me?”
Kirtzl got up and stood very close behind her. Blanca felt her fullness and moved aside. Otto cried, and Blanca tried in vain to calm him. Kirtzl observed her desperate efforts without interfering, but eventually she said, “Give him to me.” Blanca passed Otto to her, and, to her astonishment, he stopped crying.
“How did you do that?” Blanca asked distractedly.
“You have to lift him up high,” Kirtzl said tonelessly.
It was two o’clock, and it seemed to Blanca that she had done her duty, that now she had to return to the old-age home. A week of separation had distanced her from those oppressive rooms. Even Otto seemed different to her, perhaps because of the blue shirt he was wearing. He had received that shirt some time ago from Adolf’s elder sister. The sister had said at the time, “That’s a boatman’s shirt. Anyone who wears a shirt like that will be as strong as a lion.” Because of what she’d said, or maybe for another reason, Blanca had never touched the shirt, and it lay in the bottom drawer of the dresser. She had hoped that Otto would outgrow it and never wear it.
“Mama,” Otto suddenly called out, as if he had just realized she was his mother, and reached out toward her. Blanca took him and held him to her heart. She immediately forgot she was working in the old-age home in Blumenthal and far away from Otto. It seemed to her that she had been sunk in a long sleep and now she had awakened.
“How is Adolf?” she asked.
“He’s fine,” Kirtzl answered briefly.
Only a week had gone by since Blanca had departed for Blumenthal, and Kirtzl’s fingerprints were in every corner. It wasn’t the house she had left. Every piece of furniture appeared to have changed shape. To the smell of beer and tobacco the scent of cheap perfume was added. But she discovered the most conspicuous change of all on the wall: a blue icon, Jesus in his mother’s arms.
“You don’t change children’s diapers at night.”
“Who hung up that icon?” Blanca asked, feeling as though it were no longer her house.
“I did,” Kirtzl said. “A house without icons is liable to meet disaster.” Kirtzl spoke like a peasant.
Now Blanca noticed that Kirtzl wasn’t as ugly as she had seemed to be at first. Her broad shoulders suited her face and her full, solid body. For a moment Blanca was about to ask her how one grows such a sturdy body, whether the sun did it or thick corn porridge, but then she realized that it would be a stupid question, and she kept her silence.
“Did Otto ask about me?”
“And did you change his diapers at night, too?”
“You don’t change children’s diapers at night.”
“They have to get strong.”
Kirtzl had the confidence of a peasant who had received the lessons of life as an inheritance from her ancestors.
“And how is work?” Kirtzl surprised her by asking.
“The old pet.”
“And they didn’t make passes at you?”
“They’re old people.”
“There are old men with very young urges. In our village, there’s an old codger who sleeps with his niece every night.”
Blanca looked at her broad face again. A kind of satisfaction filled it. It was clear to Blanca that a head like that, stuck onto a sturdy neck and planted on cushioned shoulders, never got dizzy. She never vomited and she didn’t have insomnia, and when she got up in the morning, guilty feelings didn’t gnaw at her. Her limbs were fastened on well. She had no backaches and no weak knees.
“And are you pleased?” Blanca asked for some reason.
Kirtzl smiled a narrow, secret smile, which immediately revealed what had happened in the house during the week that Blanca wasn’t there. After eating his dinner, Adolf had made clear how it was going to be and then left for the tavern. When he came back, he had gotten right into Kirtzl’s bed, peeled off her nightgown, and, without any niceties, mounted her. Later, after nodding off for a while, he had mounted her again. Then she had become heated up and planted her teeth in his neck. Adolf had kneaded her and eaten her flesh with a greedy mouth. Toward morning, before leaving for work and while she was still groggy, he had mounted her again, gotten dressed, and gone out.
Blanca looked at Kirtzl and knew with certainty that this was what had happened. A secret jealousy flooded through her, as though she understood for the first time that there were healthy, coarse people for whom life was intended, and the rest were thrown to the side.
Excerpt from Until the Dawn’s Light: A Novel by Aharon Appelfeld, published by Schocken Books
© 2011 by Aharon Appelfeld.
Aharon Appelfeld is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Iron Tracks (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and The Story of a Life (winner of the Prix Médicis Étranger). He lives in Jersusalem.
Photograph by Kenneth Moyle via Flickr