Hitler in Central America by Jacobo Schifter - HTML preview
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―The Sikoras are dying out!‖ I shouted as I awoke. ―The Sikoras are dying out!‖
The long dream had started in the Jewish cemetery. The graves of my maternal relatives seemed to be going up everywhere, two or three under construction while the cement was still fresh on the others, like a poorly planned but teeming slum of the dead. While the Schifters, my father's family, were reproducing like yeast, my mother's side was experiencing a population implosion. Before long, there would be more of us within the cemetery's brick walls than out.
Hector asked me to calm down. ―Stop bringing the house down with your shouting,‖ he said.
―There are still some relatives of your mother left. It's true that some of them are a little mentally defective, but there are others who can keep the species alive.‖
―You mean I had a nightmare?‖ I asked.
―Another one,‖ he said, referring to the dreams I had been having all week. ―I guess you won't be able to go to sleep right away. So,‖ he added without much enthusiasm, ―why don't you tell me your dream? It might help you to settle down.‖
San José's Jewish cemetery is located in a southwestern district of Costa Rica's capital, behind the much larger Catholic cemetery. The property was bought on April 19, 1931; my grandfather, David Sikora, was one of the promoters of the project. In one of the early dreams in the series, I saw him signing a check and handing it over to the seller in the name of the few Jews then living in the country. ―I intend to have my wife join me here,‖ he told the seller, ―and I want a plot for her. If I have to strangle her one day, I don't want her buried in the streets like a dog.‖
On October 9, 1932, the first burial took place. My grandfather was thrilled. ―Didn't I tell you that it was good to think ahead?‖ he said to the other members of the Chevra Kiddushe, the religious board that managed the cemetery and made sure that the dead were buried according to prescribed rituals. ―We already have our first tenant.‖
―The man's lucky,‖ said Don José, a fellow Jew. ―He bought this plot dirt cheap.‖
―Yes, sir,‖ said my grandfather. ―Just imagine what it's going to cost to live here in fifty years.‖
In another dream, I had seen myself in the present, entering the cemetery alone. Over the decades, the population of the graveyard had indeed grown. Hundreds were there, including 2
my mother, who had died on October 2, 1985. I had visited the cemetery to look at the tombstones and verify the birthplaces of my ancestors for a novel I intended to write.
―But you don't write fiction,‖ Hector had pointed out when I told him that particular dream.
―In the dream I did.‖
When I entered the cemetery, the first thing I saw was a marble and cement monument, financed by a group called Yad Vashem, which stands for ―Commemoration of the Holocaust‖ in Hebrew. The monument described itself immodestly as the first of its kind in the Americas and its slogan was ―Remembering is our duty! Never again, our cry!‖ Two columns tried but failed to uplift the spirit; one was decorated with the Star of David, the other with a nondescript rhomboidal shape, its symbolism perhaps best left unexplored.
―Does such a thing really exist?‖ asked Hector.
―It most certainly does and it's so ugly that it belongs in a nightmare.‖
Next to the monument, a small washbasin allowed visitors to wash their hands before leaving the cemetery, since visiting the place of the dead, like menstruation, required ritual cleansing.
A sort of vase, full of small stones to be placed on the grave markers, had been donated, if I remembered correctly, by Masha Scharf, née Teitelbaum. The graves themselves were arranged more or less chronologically. The oldest ones, to the right, were easy to recognize because of the frequent fallen-tree motif in their carvings, a symbol of prematurely interrupted lives and the unpretentious use of cement instead of marble. The names of the dead on some of the oldest tombstones were no longer legible, their occupants bereft of even this modest form of immortality. In the older part of the cemetery, some families had made reservations, so to speak, buying several plots near one another so that their relatives, even those who would not die for many decades still, could all find eternal rest together. That had not been the case with my grandparents. My grandmother used to warn us: ―I'll come back to haunt you and pull you by your toes when you're sleeping if you ever bury me next to that man.‖
During the 1970s, a competitive spirit began to guide the design and particularly the grandiosity, of each tomb: a sort of arms race, except for the fact that everyone was dead to begin with, instead of being a potential victim. The tombs, no longer content to remain close to the ground, started growing higher, vaguely reminding one of New York City's early 20th century skyscrapers, the oldest of which, the tallest of their day, were soon dwarfed by newer and ever taller buildings. Cemetery visitors started losing their way, unfamiliar with the changing landscape. Plants no longer exposed to the sun except for a few hours each day started withering. ―Moishele,‖ someone might ask a friend, ―can't you make that Star of David a little smaller so I can plant some roses? Can't you see that your mother's tomb is so high that no light ever shines on my grandmother's?‖ Others would complain that some of their departed, separated even after the death of both because of the unavailability of plots 3
next to each other, could no longer talk to each other. ―Yudko, your father's grave has a menorah1 so high that my father, who is behind it, can't communicate with my mother.‖
Yudko would reply with a question, in the time-honored Jewish tradition: ―If they never talked to each other when they were alive, why do you want them to start talking now?‖ The debate became so acrimonious that a woman known for her wisdom offered a Solomonic solution: ban any tomb higher than five feet. Since the new rule would not enter into force until the following year, to accommodate those who had already commissioned a given design at great expense, some wags suggested that several of the oldest members of the community hastened to die before the deadline so they would not have to live – if that is the right word – in cramped quarters.
―Did that put an end to the problem?‖ Hector had asked, stifling a yawn.
―No,‖ I said. The new rule, like the proletarian revolution in Russia that so interested my poor grandmother, did not bring about social equality. If encroachment into the heavens was no longer allowed, expansion would now be horizontal, with thicker slabs and fancier finishes. The plainer ones were all cement. Others combined cement and floor tiles. Many used a combination of cement and marble. But the largest and most luxurious ones were completely covered in marble or, what was even more fashionable, blue granite. Even among the fancy ones there was social distinction depending on the provenance of the stones used.
The best ones came from Italy. The middle class had to settle for a Brazilian material of inferior quality, while the poor put up with, God help them, Guatemalan marble. Some of the tombs were so luxurious that they attracted petty thieves, eager to run away with anything valuable they could prize off. But that was not the worst kind of aggression. Sometimes the neighbors would throw stones over the brick walls when a funeral was underway, to remind the Jews that even in death they would find no peace.
For those who could not afford fancy building materials, the epitaphs on the tombstones provided some compensation. ―Thou was the princess of our home,‖ read one in Spanish and Hebrew. The inscription next door raised the stakes: ―To the queen of our happiness.‖ A variation on that theme was more precise:―To the tsarina of our joys.‖ Men, for some reason, were never princes, kings or tsars; they were ―righteous,‖ ―loving,‖ ―just,‖ or ―wise.‖ One inscription, ambiguous because it was unclear whether it should be read as a description of the departed or a post-mortem admonition, read: ―The wise in heart shall be called prudent: and the sweetness of the lips increaseth understanding. (Proverbs 16:21).‖
In that dream, I remembered what my mother had once said to me during a visit to the cemetery. ―Even the most ganefim2 have epitaphs that proclaim their rectitude,‖ she noted.
―But mother,‖ I said, scoring one for gender equity, ―there are also a lot of kurvehs3 who are described as saints.‖ My mother, Elena, ignored my comment and laughed at Don Abraham's tomb. His wife had demanded that the inscription describe him as the wisest man on earth.
3 Easy women
―And all the damned fool knew was how to write checks,‖ she said. I retaliated by pointing to Dona Mishke's tomb. To call her short would have almost been an understatement and yet there she was, described as ―the dove that flies the highest.‖ Elena responded by pointing out Mr Guasesteyn's tomb. The inscription spoke of him as ―a generous soul,‖ whereas everyone knew that his métier was exploiting financially troubled fellow Jews, buying him or her out when their businesses were on shaky ground. One of his specialties was taking over businesses whose owners were at death's door and not paying the heirs.
In my nightmare, the poor, the ever-present poor, had their own ways of getting even. One cannot take flowers to a Jewish cemetery, but nobody ever said anything against planting a few bushes. On Dona Sarah's tomb, the daisies were as profuse as if they were being taken in a truck to market. Rachel's had so many rosebushes that they were considered a public hazard. ―Miriam,‖ said a visitor, ―I've just impaled my arm on your thorns. You can't walk in peace around here with that jungle you've planted.‖ Competition in the gardening division even led some to theft. ―They say Samuel is so tightfisted that he steals his neighbor's daisies to plant them on his father's grave,‖ some would say. The rivalry soon extended to tree planting. Don Rogelio planted some pines. Herman, his neighbor, not one to be outdone, planted some beautiful fichus trees. What he did not know was that this species grows enormous roots and pretty soon his departed wife and several other occupants were inadvertently disinterred. And of course the birds perching on the many branches did not exactly help to keep the fine marble slabs clean. The wise woman who lay next to my grandfather suggested that a regulation be passed to ban the planting of more trees.
―Did that put an end to the problems?‖ my friend asked.
―No, competition sprang up in another quarter,‖ I said.
The more numerous families had a clear advantage in their reproductive force. When someone died, family members arrived in droves, regardless of how close they had been to the departed. Nobody could compete with the Rubipleins: like mushrooms, they seemed to reproduce by spontaneous generation. Their funerals were as crowded as those of great statesmen or popular entertainers, the cemetery overflowing with mourners.
―When you see such a packed funeral,‖ Dona Ruth would say, ―it's to die for.‖
The mortals who had less aggressive genes would compensate by employing social or economic pressures. If someone had amassed a reasonable fortune, hundreds of debtors could be called upon to attend the funeral or settle their debts. ―Who was Dona Menche?‖ I heard someone ask. ―Why, the grandmother of Golcha, your grandmother's cousin. If you didn't know her, why did you come?‖
―I owe money to her son.‖
For one without such means of persuasion, a final strategy remained: to attend everyone's funeral, in the hope that the relatives of the departed would reciprocate when the time finally came for one's own reconversion to dust and ashes. Dona Perla, a friend of my grandmother, looked forward to a well-attended funeral, since she had not missed one in four decades. So terrified was she of alienating potential mourners at her own funeral that if someone died while she was on vacation, she would rush back into town, even from abroad. At the risk of acquiring a reputation as a bird of bad omen, she would call the relatives of the sick to plan her agenda. ―Do you think I can go to Puntarenas?‖ she would ask solicitously about her plans to visit a seaside resort. ―Of course,‖ her friend would reply, ―Lupita still has a week to live.‖
The most haunting fear was not merely the lack of a decent turnout, but far worse, a lack of quorum. The Jewish faith required a minyan, a minimum of ten men, for the funeral to take place. Women did not count, of course. Some families had to suffer the anguish, in the very middle of a funeral, of trying to find a man, any man, when things ground to a halt. ―How many dicks have we got?‖ an enraged feminist asked in my dream, upset that in spite of thirty women being present, the proceedings could not begin because only seven men had turned up. ―We need six baitsim4,‖ said her sister. The poor woman had to rush to a payphone to call three nephews who had just turned thirteen and therefore qualified. ―If you don't show up right now at the cemetery,‖ she shouted into the phone, ―you won't be left with a single ball among the three of you to make a minyan!‖
Although I had been looking down upon such silly games of one-upmanship, in tonight's dream I got caught up in one. It is the Jewish custom, when visiting the dead, to leave a pebble atop the gravestone. Nobody knows how the ritual started. Some claim that it began during Biblical times, when the pebbles could be used to help build the crypt. At some point they stopped having any practical use, except as a memento. In my dream, however, the ritual served as an excuse for another arms race, since some gravestones did not have a single pebble, while other ones had so many that it could only be explained as the result of a suspiciously large number of visits.
The gravedigger – not a Jew but a Tico, a Costa Rican with a beer belly and strong sun-burned arms – told me that the gravestones that had no pebbles belonged to people who had no living relatives or whose families had forgotten them. ―Others were not from Costa Rica but died here during a trip, far away from their loved ones,‖ he said and then added slyly,
―Some relatives simply cannot bring themselves to visit the cemetery, or they think they're too busy. I personally visit my poor little mother's grave every other Sunday, weather permitting, but then I'm a Catholic, you know…. I don't think I've seen you around here very often, have I?‖ I chose to ignore this comment. What the digger had said accounted for the gravestones that had no pebbles, but what about the ones with a surfeit? ―Is it true what they say,‖ I asked him, ―about you getting paid to put pebbles on some of the tombs so the 4 Testicles (literally, eggs)
relatives don't have to visit the cemetery every month?‖ The man scratched his beer belly, grinned and said, ―One tries to be of service. It is one's Christian duty.‖
―What sort of a sick brain could think that a humble worker would try to profit from people's pain?‖ asked Hector. ―I really think you should talk this over with your therapist.‖
In the dream, I decided to even out the competition so that my mother would not be in the lowest percentile, pebble-wise. But I got lost and could not find her grave, although I walked up down among the gravestones. I wondered if my mother, annoyed at my infrequent visits, had decided to move house, leaving no return address. In desperation, I reluctantly enrolled the gravedigger in my search in spite of his persistent grin, which seemed to suggest that some people visit their loved ones so seldom that they forget even the whereabouts of their graves. I finally apologized to Elena in my mind. ―If I have not visited you more often, it's because it still hurts to know that you are dead,‖ I said under my breath.
As is the way in dreams, I found the grave immediately. ―You mustn't forget to write about how your mother punished you by hiding herself from you,‖ the gravedigger said, laughing and scratching his belly as he walked away.
The gravestone had only two pebbles. I deposited twenty more, pilfered from nearby markers. It was cheating, I suppose, but at least it would uphold the tarnished honor of the Sikoras. While I did so, I paid attention to the two original ones and noticed that one of them
– not the one I had left during my last visit – was blue, with a red triangle in the middle.
Somebody had taken the trouble to paint it. I looked for the gravedigger and asked him if knew who had left the colored pebble. The man asked me to please take it away. ―Otherwise, others will start competing with brighter colors and before you know it this place will look like a fast-food restaurant's playground,‖ he said. ―That pebble was brought by a gentleman who always comes on the first Monday of every month at two o'clock. He always brings a different one, not like some people I could mention who pick them up off the street.‖
I ignored his obvious retaliation for my earlier comments about his reputed sources of extra income and I asked him what the man looked like. ―Oh, I don't know,‖ said the gravedigger.
―Tall, distinguished-looking, maybe 75 years old, white hair. Does that ring a bell?‖
I had to admit that the description did not fit any of her living relatives. ―Well, he's no ghost,‖ the gravedigger said. ―That pebble's pretty solid.‖
I ventured a guess. ―Elena – that's my mother – founded an organization to fight cancer.
Maybe they helped him and he's still grateful.‖
―Listen, young man,‖ said the gravedigger. ―I don't know who that gentleman is, but I've been working in this cemetery for more than thirty years and if there's something I can tell you, it's who he is not. He's not a grateful acquaintance and he sure as hell is not just a 'friend 7
of the family', if you know what I mean.‖ He grinned again, a habit I could have done without.
Nothing, I vowed to myself, would keep me from being there on the date of the next visit by the gentleman of the colored pebbles. Looking at my watch, as is often the way in dreams, I realized that the day was Monday, that it was Monday the third and that it would be two o'clock in a few minutes. I went away a few paces, so that I could watch the arrival of this mysterious visitor without revealing that he was being observed.
―That's a pretty long dream,‖ said Hector, apparently despairing of going back to sleep anytime soon. ―It makes Gone with the Wind look like a short film.‖
―There's more,‖ I warned him.
A man who fit the gravedigger's description to a T arrived at two o'clock sharp, as if the dead should not be kept waiting. I watched him take out a colored pebble from his pocket, kiss it and deposit it on my mother's grave. While I was torn between respect for his privacy and the urgent desire to find out who he was, my curiosity won out. ―Excuse me, sir,‖ I said, approaching him. ―I am a son of Elena and I was told about your visits. I am very impressed by your devotion and I just want to thank you for your lovely gesture.‖
―You startled me,‖ he said, his Spanish tinted by a northern-European accent, his eyes pleasantly blue. I noticed that he was also looking deeply into mine, as if we were two oculists.
―My name is Carlos,‖ he said. ―I was a friend of your mother and I like to visit her. Would you care for some coffee?‖ I mumbled something incoherent about not wanting to take up too much of his time, but he insisted and soon led me to a waiting Mercedes Benz driven by a chauffeur.
That he was rich was plain to see. A Mercedes Benz in Costa Rica is worth a fortune and Rohrmoser, a Western suburb of San José where he lived, is not a place where real estate comes cheap. His white two-story house, emphatically modern with its straight lines and large dark mirrors, could be described only as ostentatious in a tastefully understated way.
Finally hearing his well-known surname, I realized that he was German and had made his fortune with a string of clothing stores and private medical clinics.
―Please come in, Jacobo; this is your home,‖ said Yadira, his wife, giving me a thorough inspection. The living room was large enough to feel spacious in spite of the black leather couches, the glass-and-mahogany coffee tables and the dark cabinets filled with exquisite vases and a collection of colored crystal wineglasses from Czechoslovakia and Krakow that revealed his exquisite taste. The walls were decorated with modernist paintings, some by famous painters from the early 20th century like Georges Braque, Paul Klee, Stuart Davis and Marsen Hartley.
―They're good pictures,‖ I said, ―but I don't care for modernism.‖
Without any prompting from him, I launched into a tirade against modernity.
―It left us with the worst universal ideas ever,‖ I said, ―like nationalism, psychiatry, modern jails, sexual education, Nazism and Stalinism, the modern State, the concentration camps.
Modern art, with its exploration of perception and its limits, strikes me as useless.‖
Don Carlos disagreed. He believed in the potential of reason and scientific development. He admitted that people had sometimes wandered off the right path, but there was no option but to ―go forward.‖ He did agree, however, that Nazism had been the worst tragedy in history.
I apologized for criticizing the paintings. ―I'm a disenchanted postmodernist,‖ I said, ―unable to believe in anything.‖ I had lost faith in my scientific discipline, history and above all in the possibility of publishing my research without engaging in self-censorship or provoking the rage of my contemporaries. But I confessed that I wanted to write a novel. My goal was to preserve the experiences of a generation of Jewish survivors, brave men and women whose breed was in danger of extinction. The new generations were a pale imitation.
―My mother was very independent, a feminist, a fighter,‖ I said, ―while the new generation of Jewish girls only aspire to be chosen as cheerleaders in high school and later be elected Miss Dadeland in Miami. Ever since Elena died, they speak of her as a devoted wife and an upstanding member of the community, when in truth they could never bear her ideals of social justice and women's liberation. I want to write her story before the patriarchal dinosaurs at the Israelite Center manage to silence all dissent and make us believe that Hebrew women, those who could not vote until 1997 or lead in prayer to this day, were submissive from the start. My mother never accepted the submissiveness to the baitsim and I don't want them to score a victory now that she is gone.‖
―That's a pretty passionate speech,‖ said Hector. ―I had no idea you felt so strong about writing a novel.‖
―I didn't either,‖ I said. ―I don't, really. That was in the dream.‖
I told Don Carlos that, much as I wanted to write the book, I had no idea how to go about doing it. ―I feel paralyzed. I'd like to write a true story, but I don't have enough information.
Besides, I've never written fiction.‖
―Why bother describing what never happened, when reality is so magical, sometimes so hellish,‖ he said.
But I had to admit that I was not sure about my ability to describe even real events. A good novelist could set the scene so that others could visualize it clearly, bring characters to life with a few well-chosen strokes of the pen. Me? I could not even remember what color my shorts were. How could I describe a landscape, a city, or a person, if I was so unobservant that I sometimes wore shoes that didn't match? ―One day,‖ I told him, ―when I was living in Chicago, I walked three blocks on freshly paved sidewalks. The only reason I noticed that I was leaving a trail of deep footprints in the wet cement was that the workers started cussing me out.‖
My host wanted to know what my objective was in trying to write the novel. ―Do you want to make a contribution to the Jewish faith, to Israel, to the Hebrew people?‖ he asked. I had to admit that I was not clear on my purpose, that all I knew (perhaps echoing what the gravedigger had said back at the cemetery) was what it was not meant to be. My book was certainly not aimed at promoting the complaisance of the religious, the rabbis, the orthodox, the Zionists, those who would eat only kosher food.
―How can we the Jews still believe in God after Auschwitz?‖ I said, repeating my favorite rhetorical question.
I could not stand those who would not, for example, eat meat and cheese in the same meal, as if God, who was not brave enough to stop the gas chambers, would have the chutzpah to punish them for it. ―I'd love to stand before God and have him tell me that I wasn't kosher and can't get into heaven,‖ I said. ―I'd look at him straight in the eye and tell him: 'You did not keep your promise to protect the Chosen People. Who gave you the right to judge me?'
But I won't be meeting God. He burned in the ovens, went up in smoke.‖
―But there's the State of Israel,‖ Don Carlos said.
―The Zionists,‖ I said, ― negotiated with the Nazis and played their own little selection game.‖ I knew they had worked out a deal with Hitler to funnel Jewish confiscated wealth from Germany to Palestinian banks, precisely at a time when American Jews were for the boycott of Hitler's economy. When the Nazis still allowed Jews to leave for Palestine, the Zionists chose the ones they considered most 'fit.' I can imagine them saying, 'Let's fill this small quota of visas with ignorant Jews who know only how to plant potatoes. In Palestine, what do we want intellectuals for? Let's leave them in Germany.' When the news came out that Hitler intended to kill all the Jews, it didn't even get front-page coverage in Hebrew newspapers in Palestine. They thought a football match was more important. Now Israel has proclaimed itself heir to the Holocaust and the protector of all Jews. They just use it to promote nationalism. No, I don't want to write my story for any of them.‖
―Then who is the novel for?‖ asked Don Carlos. ―For women, for witches and for queers,‖ I said.
―You sound just like your grandmother,‖ he responded and reproached me for my breach of etiquette. After all, we hardly knew each other. He might have spent the War in Germany, helping to push the Jews into the cattle wagons. I did not know anything about him and here I was, exposing my deepest thoughts and feelings.
―I couldn't agree more with Don Carlos,‖ said Hector. ―You're sometimes such a schmuck,5
and shoot your mouth off, so I'm not surprised you do it even in dreams.‖
I apologized to Don Carlos and then asked the Big Question. ―Well, where were you during the War?‖
―In a detention camp for people suspected of being Nazi sympathizers in the United States,‖
he said. I then remembered one of the photographs on a coffee table next to the vast couch where I sat. It showed a young man, shirtless, in what would have looked like the inside of a warehouse had it not been full of bunk beds.
―Was this -- ?‖ I began and he nodded. I noticed that he had been very handsome and dashing.
―So you knew my grandmother?‖ I asked. ―I most certainly did!‖ he said with a smile. I did not know what to say. I did not dare to ask the Other Big Question. While I was considering how to phrase my inquiry with more diplomacy than I had displayed so far – the when, the how and the why – I looked at one of the paintings on the wall. It was a cubist picture. At first one noticed mostly triangles and globes, but one of the triangles, a yellow one, framed the face of a beautiful woman whose eyes looked strangely familiar to me. I suddenly felt as if I were looking into a mirror. ―Is that … Mom?‖ I asked in a small voice.
―Yes, it is. I had one of my fellow prisoners paint it for me. He needed money to buy drugs.‖ ―Is that triangle around her face the same one you paint on the pebbles?‖
―Why did you change the color?‖
―Because red is the color they used in the German concentration camps to identify the Germans who had opposed Nazism,‖ he said.
―Did you … like each other?‖ I asked.
―Of course! We loved each other! But what made you think of that?‖
―My mother hated the Nazis, but she never said a word against the Germans,‖ I said. ―Three of her best friends were German.‖
―I can't believe you had such an immoral dream,‖ said Hector. ―Your own mother!‖
―What do you want me to do? Censor my unconscious?‖
In the dream, I could not help thinking that my mother's story was becoming more and more like Romeo and Juliet, or, perhaps more appropriately, West Side Story. He was Christian and German; she was Polish and Jewish. The families must have been opposed to the match; religion would not have allowed it. Since there was a need for a shrew, the role would fall to my grandmother Anita. The lovers would have had a favorite song, perhaps ―Singing in the Rain,‖ given the rainstorm undoubtedly brewing in the horizon. They did not die in the end; in a concession to modernity, they only married the wrong person. In the case of my mother, at least, that was absolutely obvious. Hers had been an arranged marriage and my father had been the worst possible man for her.
―He isn't very bright,‖ my grandfather David used to tell my mother, ―but with him you'll never starve.‖
My father had been as close to me as the planet Pluto. If Elena had been involved with this charming fellow, I considered it an excellent choice. At least there had been one man she had loved.
A question had been bursting to come out of my mouth and now I blabbed it. ―What about Elena's children?‖
―Among the Sikoras,‖ said Don Carlos, ―it has always been said: 'Have no doubts about the paternity of the first two children, but worry about the third.'‖
―Now it turns out, according to this dream, that you're a bastard!‖ said Hector.
―And proud of it.‖
My mother's friend was concerned about my turning my back on my people. He said that, according to the Shoah, the new generations had the obligation of ―not granting Hitler a final victory.‖ Assimilation, loss of faith and indifference to the State of Israel were all ways of making him win. If I was to write a book about Elena, how could I possibly leave out her Judaism? He admitted that it might be hard to hear it from German lips, but he claimed that he had lived in torment ever since he had realized the enormity of the Holocaust.
―Nazism,‖ he said, ―came close to erasing the Jewish people from the face of the earth and it is a moral imperative, both for the Jews and the Germans, to make sure it never happens again. In a sordid sort of way, our peoples were linked for all Eternity.‖
In spite of his belief in modernity, my host detested the notion that a nation must be made up of people of the same race, same religion and same ideology and, he did not hesitate to add, same sexual orientation.
―The true wealth of states lies in their diversity and tolerance, not in their all going to Mass and to the football stadium,‖ he said.
I asked him once again if he had ever sympathized with Nazism and he said yes, at first, but he had become disillusioned with it in time, just around the time he met Elena.
―You're not lying to me?‖ I asked. ―You're sure you didn't push a single old woman into the wagons?‖
―No,‖ he said, ―but like the rest of my generation, I abandoned her on the platform.‖
I asked why he wanted me to support the State of Israel when, until recently, it did not allow gays to immigrate. ―Can you imagine a nation founded in response to Nazism passing laws that it is a crime to love people of the same sex, while it was bombing civilian Arab villages?
We did not learn a great deal from the Shoah if even today we Jews treat one another this way. And most of the Costa Rican Jewish Community, the same ones who experienced the Holocaust up close, treat us like dirt. I'll write for them the day they consider it a reason for naches6 every time a faigeleh7 is born.‖
―I don't like groups who try to take advantage of the Shoah,‖ said Don Carlos. ―Gay activists now use the extermination camps as a public-relations tool. Some have even had the gall to talk about a Gay 'holocaust,' as if there could be any comparison. The few thousand homosexuals who may have perished due to Nazism were a very small sector of the German gay movement. The others did not face any persecution.‖
―What others?‖ I asked.
―The macho ones,‖ he said; ―the ones who were Nazis.‖
―What would you like me to do?‖ I asked Carlos.
―Before you start writing, I'd like you to learn more about your history, more about your mother's story, which is also my own. I don't want you to do it like those cows in the Spanish saying: if they don't shit on the way in, they shit on the way out.‖
He said all writing had a mission and mine could not be divorced from my people. He spoke of the ―other Jewish tradition‖ that I seemed to ignore, that of the Talmud and the quest for justice. He was astounded by my ignorance of what he called ―the most important Jewish book of all, more important even than the Bible.‖
―I fail to understand how you could have embraced postmodernism without being aware of one of its most important sources: rabbinical literature.‖
Don Carlos also felt that my ―paralysis‖ as a writer was due to a struggle not between fiction and non-fiction but instead between going all over the world ―like a real wandering Jew,‖
and finally growing some roots of my own.
―You, and by that I mean, you and your mother, have always become paralyzed when faced with the important decisions in life. She was paralyzed twice. One time was before leaving Poland and the other was in 1942. And how many times has it happened to you?‖
―I don't know, Don Carlos, but if you keep on talking to me like that, you'll soon see another fit.‖
The man was a Talmudic expert. He had obtained the Talmud, in a German translation, from a Jew who had been to his store and had sold it to him for a few dollars in order to pay for the boat trip for his wife, who had found temporary refuge in Spain. ―When I met Elena I became interested in learning about the Jewish religion and I came very close to conversion.
Although that didn't happen, this book remains for me an extraordinary source of wisdom, a cry for universal justice, which is at bottom what your mother always sought. I learned much from your grandfather, with whom I used to discuss the Talmud.‖
―Hang on a minute,‖ I said. ―Are you telling me Don David used to talk with you and accepted your being a friend of my mother?‖
―At first there were a few problems,‖ he said, ―but later on we became good friends and enjoyed discussing rabbinical lore.‖
My West Side Story script was starting to unravel. In my mind, I had already prepared the scene of Carlos and Elena ready to elope, only to have my grandfather find them and shoot them both. Don Carlos would have been wounded, but not mortally since he was still evidently alive; my mother would also survive and from a back room you would have heard a lullaby.
―Well then,‖ I said, ―I'm sure my grandmother must have been opposed to your friendship,‖ I said, to save the few remaining scraps of my far-from-original plot.
―Not at all,‖ he said. ―Dona Anita did not like us discussing religion instead of Marxism and she did not like the fact that your grandfather had homosexual friends, but she never had any problems with me as such.‖
―That can't be!‖ I said. ―We've all seen Fiddler on the Roof and we all know what happened to the third daughter. Don't you come to me with that cute story about how they had no problem accepting you.‖
―Your problem,‖ he said, ―is that you consider yourself the national hero of the oppressed and as my American captors used to say, you don't know shit.‖
I could not reconcile what I was hearing with my image of Don David and Dona Anita, to whom I had never felt close because their Spanish was so poor and they seemed so old-fashioned, he praying and discussing the Talmud all day, she a common housewife who blamed him for all her suffering, possibly for all the suffering in the world. Where could they even have met any homosexuals? At the synagogue? In the family kitchen while beheading a chicken?
―Don't tell me that my grandfather and the rabbi were a couple or I'll faint,‖ I said. ―Much less that Dona Anita would leave the chicken boiling in the pot to attend Communist meetings.‖ And now on top of it all, it turned out that my grandfather used to discuss the Talmud with a former Nazi. I felt like shouting at him, ― A lung un leber oyf der noz !”8
―Don Carlos,‖ I said, ―you've ruined my novel. Nobody's going to be interested in an impossible love in which the lovers faced no obstacles whatsoever. Somebody's got to die, commit suicide, or at least suffer on a grand scale. Besides, you've even brought faggots into the story and now no newspaper is going to print a review, especially not La Nación, which is jam-packed with queens but makes a taboo of printing anything that has to do with gays.‖
My host burst out laughing. ―Poor little Jacobo! You've lost your tacky little theme! It makes me want to cry. Besides, a book like the one you were contemplating would have been just another cliché. ― A klap fargeyt, a vort tsvey,‖9 he added in perfect Yiddish. And who told you there were no obstacles?‖
8 Literally, “Don’t imagine a lung and a liver in your nose” or “You are speaking nonsense”.
9 A blow passes on, a spoken word lingers on
I had been feeling tempted to run out of the house, complaining that all those cubist paintings made me dizzy and shouting, ― Ahf meine sonim gezogt!‖10 But Don Carlos' last words made me stay. However, he did not want to discuss personal matters just then.
―There'll be time for you to learn what I know about your mother,‖ he said. Instead, he wanted me to learn more about the Talmud, which brought to Judaism the possibility of contradictions, resistance and rebellion. Sometimes, he said, utterly contradictory interpretations could be found on the same page; minority views, instead of being repressed, were preserved for posterity.
―Notice that, when this law was approved, there was a dissenting minority opinion, which was also included.‖
He also wanted me to note that, no matter how elevated was the topic under discussion, it always led to the ordinary, the everyday, to what others might consider trivial.
―As an historian, you must appreciate that the Talmud does not disregard what some might consider insignificant – the small stories of the minorities, the voices of the marginal.‖
Don Carlos was also charmed by the playful use of language, by ―the fascinating idea‖ that reality rose out of those words. ―There is no awareness apart from the word; there is, therefore, no independent perception. We are all literary creations, built by language.‖ That is why he was so concerned about my objectives in writing the novel.
―Perhaps you will turn us all into monsters, force us to wander like dybbukim for all eternity.‖ If there was something I needed to learn from that great book, it was the wealth of possibilities in the lives of the characters.
―Your perceptions about your grandparents and about your fellow Jews, are a minuscule part of what they were, which is in itself a small part of what they might have been, of their potential. Why should we be afraid, when writing your novel, to discover what you did not expect? If you repress that, wouldn't you be yet another censor of dissident tales? Why don't you let the characters develop naturally, according to their potential, instead of forcing them into a straightjacket?‖
―What do you want me to do?‖ I said. ―Ask my characters how they would like to be portrayed? Hand out a questionnaire? '1.Who are you? [Fill in the blank.] 2. What would you like to be? 3. In case you have sex in my novel, select your preference: (a) sex with men, (b) sex with women, (c) sex with both, (d) sex with yourself, (e) sex with Mother Theresa.'
The questionnaire could even take into account the dissenting opinion of the characters. 'If you disagree with the author's physical description of you, please describe yourself in 100
10 Let this happen to my enemies!
words or fewer.' Of course, these precautions offer no guarantee that my characters will be pleased with their roles. I can already see the headlines: 'Secondary character sues author over homosexual sex scenes, claims severe psychological trauma.'‖
Don Carlos was not amused by my Talmudic caricature of an author's responsibility towards his characters. ―If the novel is going to be the last refuge of dictatorship, it isn't worth it,‖ he said. ―If you want me to help, I should warn you that I will not give you the kind of material you would need to write a standard historical account. It is impossible to tell what actually happened with the information we have available. There are gaps, blanks that you will have to fill in by using your imagination. I have documents, to be sure; photographs, journals, letters, newspaper clippings and above all, memories; but you will have to weave them with your own memories and your own fantasies to write your novel. And you will have to claim it is a work of fiction, because a lot of this information cannot be presented factually. Some of the people involved are still alive, including relatives of mine. I cannot betray my own friends, even if they were the worst Nazis on the face of the Earth. I cannot betray my wife.‖
Don Carlos would have written the story himself, he said, but he had cancer and his days were numbered. At one point he thought the story would die with him. Now here was Elena's son in front of him, telling him he wanted to write a novel about his mother.
―You don't know how much I loved her,‖ he said; ―how much I love her still.‖
Don Carlos went away for a while and came back with a cardboard box. It was wrapped in blue, with a red triangle pasted on it. ―Here is just the first installment,‖ he said. ―I suspect you will not see me again. I went to see my doctor on Friday. But on the first Monday of every month, at two o'clock, my chauffeur will deliver a package like this. It'll be done 'on Polish credit' or 'in Polish installments,' as they say here, so you don't forget about your heritage.‖ We embraced.
―I never thought you would have been able to push an old lady into a train wagon,‖ I said.
―I'm not sure I believe that story about the Sikoras and the third child, but I would have wanted it to be true,‖ he said.
In my dream, I rushed home and opened the package. I saw myself sifting through letters, brittle yellow newspaper clippings and copious handwritten notes that, however tidy the script, were not necessarily chronological but seemed to follow some other ordering principle, perhaps Talmudic. I saw myself writing the novel, unable to wait until I had all the information, because I would have had to wait for years and the story had to be written, my memories supplementing the material provided posthumously by Don Carlos, the characters themselves demanding to be heard, guiding my fingers on the keyboard, refusing to cooperate even when I argued heatedly that this or that scene was exactly what the plot needed, telling me exactly where I could put the scene I had in mind. And every month, on the first Monday, at two o'clock precisely, the new ―installment‖ of information showed me 17
that the characters were right, even if I would have gladly fired or even killed some of them, since murder is still the lawful prerogative of novelists and executioners. I decided that Don Carlos had been right: if novels were to be the last refuge of dictators, why bother writing them? As I looked at my completed manuscript on the desk, a gust of wind started blowing all the sheets out the window. Although I tried to grab at least a few, they were all soon gone, every page a relative, a Sikora and the wind, death taking them away.
―The Sikoras are dying out!‖ I shouted.
―Well, what do you think?‖ I asked Hector, certain that he would recommend my switching therapists immediately, preferably hiring four or five of them, since just that one dream would keep a single analyst busy for a decade or two, with little hope of success. And yet I must admit that I felt pride in the fertility of my unconscious. Coleridge, after all, must have bored every relative, friend and acquaintance of his, for months on end, with his feat of writing Xanadu in his sleep and all he had composed was a measly poem, of which he had forgotten the better part after a short interruption. Whereas I had written a whole novel in my dream and could remember every last scene, every character and every description of places in Poland I had never set eyes upon in real life. I could prove it, too, as I intended to demonstrate immediately by telling Hector the plot in profuse detail, even if it meant condemning us both to weeks of sleeplessness and myself to chronic hoarseness. But he had foiled my plan by going to sleep. I had no choice but to write the damn novel after all.
Elena looked at the harbor and the vast transatlantic ship, an overbearing gray plateau that was going to take her away, she knew not where. In 1934, what notion could a Jewish girl have of a country called Costa Rica? It sounded to her like an exotic fruit or dessert. The girl knew that the place had been named by another traveler who was believed to also be Jewish and who, shortly after the time that the Sephardim were expelled from Spain four hundred years earlier, crossed the same ocean four centuries before in a much less overwhelming vessel.
The clouds over Hamburg were turning reddish brown, with small darker patches like ink-spots. She had never seen so much water in one place; she came from central Poland, far away from boats and from the sea. At 14, she was about to be saved from death, but she did not know it. She had lived in Długosiodło, a village half-an-hour away from Treblinka, one of the most efficient extermination camps during the Nazi era. A German train had allowed her to escape and now a German liner was about to take her away from the pulsating heart of the coming Holocaust.
The girl walked a few feet away from her mother and the other passengers, from the shouting dock laborers, from the cranes and trolleys and the bales of cargo that were still being loaded, to where it was a little quieter and she could see more of this fascinating immensity of water.
She fancied that she could see her own reflection in the swirling eddies below the wharf. The face in the image in the shifting black mirror was that of another Elena, the one whom she would never be, the one who stayed at home and yet knew things about Elena's life that the girl herself did not know.
Ever since Elena was seven, poverty and the absence of a father had forced her to help her mother in the shop and to care for her brother and sister. David Sikora had gone to America in search of better prospects. Although Elena had heard legends about the fabulous wealth to be gained in the New World with little effort and discipline, she was not sure what form this wealth took. Some said that in America the streets were paved with gold, but her mother had explained it was only in the United States, not the rest of that remote continent.
―Where your father went,‖ she said, ―I doubt the streets are paved with gold, or even silver or copper. Since he went away, the man has not sent me so much as a little paving stone.‖
Długosiodło, between Warsaw and Białystok, was a lumber town. The only large structure was the Christian church, which she had never seen from the inside. On the outside it looked imposing enough. Its two tall towers of red brick had long arched windows and pyramidal black spires so pointy that they made her think of fairy-tale castles or witches' hats; in the center of the façade, a rose window was flanked by two other stained-glass arched windows, as if the church has aspired to become a gothic cathedral in its over ambitious youth. In the Polish village, or shtetl, Christians and Hebrews lived together but apart; although they had 19
economic relations and were sometimes even partners, they did not socialize. The Christians lived mostly in the neighboring countryside, in farms, while the urbanized Jews preferred to live in the center of the village. For the Christians, the Jews were the Other; their own shadows, everything they themselves were not supposed to be: competitive, materialistic and obscene, far from generous. Some considered the Jews idolaters, because they danced and worshipped rolls of paper; others called them stubborn, because they would not accept the obvious fact that Christ was the Messiah.
The Hebrews had their own prejudices. They denigrated the Polish peasants as ignorant, for not knowing how to read or write. Unlike the religion of Abraham and Moses, which emphasized the reading and discussion of the Holy Book and the many rabbinical commentaries thereof, Christianity seemed to promote the blind acceptance of dogma and—
in its alliance with the wealthy classes—the continuing poverty and illiteracy of the peasants.
The latter's ignorance, whatever the cause, made them blame the Jews whenever something went wrong. They believed that, to celebrate Passover, the Jews poured the blood of Christian children and that they had made a pact with the Devil to suck dry the wealth of the nation. In times of crisis, these beliefs encouraged pogroms. In normal times, however, the stereotypes did not prevent daily contact. The Polish peasant would buy his horses from the Hebrew seller and in return sell him wheat and potatoes. His wife would buy her clothes at the Jewish shop and sell the owner her ducks and chickens. For more than a thousand years, this arrangement had prevailed. Each was the other's other, but one that was familiar, known if not loved.
The houses in the village, wooden and painted in pastel colors, their roofs and fences made of the same material, surrounded the village square and the monument to a General, a Polish national hero who had killed countless Russians and Ukrainians and who still sat scowling on his rampant horse, ready to destroy all enemies of the Fatherland. The Poles, like the Jews, thought of themselves as a long-suffering nation; they used to compare their misfortunes.
Before World War I, Poland had been annexed by neighboring Prussia, Austria, and Russia.
The loss of independence during the whole 19th century had been a hard blow to Polish nationalism and it promoted conflicts with the Hebrews. When Austrians granted Jews more rights than the Poles had ever done, the Poles resented the Jews' willingness to support Vienna's policies. On the Russian front, the situation was different. The Polish Jews who had fallen under the power of the Czars dreamed of greater freedom and fought alongside the Christians for the independence of what they considered – however provisionally, until the next expulsion – their land.
The Brums and Sikoras were small merchants whose two shops faced each other across the village square; one belonged to grandmother Rivke Malke and one to Helena's mother, Anita Brum. Inside, the merchandise was varied: it included kitchen utensils, decorative knickknacks and suitcases, always ready to be used by the owners themselves in the event of a pogrom. As was the custom among the wealthier Jewish families, the women worked while the men read the Talmud and studied the Torah11. In the shtetl12, the Jews could not aspire to 11 The five books of Moses
12 Mostly Jewish town
title, political power, or an academic degree; the only status to which a family could aspire was having a rabbi or a Talmudic scholar in the home. The men would spend their days practicing their dialectical skills in the synagogue, while the women took care of more humdrum tasks such as securing the daily sustenance.
While Anita worked at the shop, Elena played the role of mother and father, caregiver and disciplinarian, to her brother, Samuel and her sister, Sarah. She also had to help with the bookkeeping and even tend to customers. Since the Brums and Sikoras sold mostly shmates13
she learned early on to recognize the fears and inhibitions in clients that might lead to the loss of a sale and she used her powers of intuitive salesmanship to secure the deal.
―That yellow blouse looks divine on you,‖ she would say in perfect Polish.
The woman was at all not certain the color or cut became her at her age, but a child could not possibly lie: the garment must indeed suit her. The child was not so innocent, however. ―The poor woman doesn't realize,‖ she would think, ―that in that blouse her tits look like cabbages!‖
There was no electric light in the village, or even much awareness of the existence of the peculiar powers of electromagnetism. Transportation involved horse-pulled carts, often carrying timber headed for Warsaw or Białystok. In the winter, the lumbering wooden wheels kneaded the snow that shone so white on the roofs and the branches of trees, mixing it with the soil of the unpaved roads and producing a light-colored mud that spattered on the shoes of all passersby. The only establishment in the village intended for recreation was the tavern, which only the Christians visited and which was infamous for drunken brawls. In the summer, the richer Poles departed for their farms and country homes, leaving the village half-deserted. They were not much wealthier than the Jews, but since the girl could not leave the village, she had no way of knowing how they lived. A few of the Jews had more money than the rest, such as Magda, the butcher's daughter, who ate much better, could afford beautiful dresses and did not have to work like Elena.
―It's because her father is here,‖ her mother explained.
Elena would think then that a father was worth his weight in gold.
Their decrepit house always smelled damp. The rooms were small and lugubrious. For some reason, the windows faced the backyard where the corral and the outdoor privy stood. Since all the houses huddled next to one another, their chickens and those of the neighbors enjoyed a great deal of mutual intimacy.
―Elena, go get me a chicken for dinner,‖ Mother would say. ―Try to pick a neighbor's by mistake.‖
Excrement—human and avian—was collected only on Mondays; the man with the foul smelling cart took it away at night, shoveling when no one could see him. The stench was so strong that sometimes they could not sleep, victims of olfactory insomnia. In winter, the cold was so intense that one of the worst tortures in this vale of frozen tears was being the first to tuck into those icy bed sheets. Since they shared a bed, the two girls would dispute the privilege of not having to warm it.
―Sarah, I did your homework. Don't you think I deserve a warm bed?‖
Samuel, as a boy only a couple of years away from his bar mitzvah, had the dubious privilege of his own room and bed, with no one to warm it. Whenever it rained, however, although leaks in the ceiling were profuse throughout the house, the holes in the roof over his bedroom were particularly large and he had to go back to sleeping with his sisters or face a downpour that would have forced him to build an ark and collect two of each kind of animal, male and female as He created them.
―Why do you complain about the holes in the roof?‖ Mother would say to Samuel, who fancied himself a scholar and romantic poet. ―Didn't you say you love nature? Well, look at the moon and the stars through the holes in the roof!‖
That was the end of the argument, for no gelt was ever available to pay for repairs. ―I don't know why they complain about the leaks,‖ she would say. ―Are they going to dissolve in a bit of water, as if they're made of sugar?‖
Elena's fond memories of village life were few. But she enjoyed the summer walks into the nearby forest. Amid the tall evergreens, wild berry bushes proliferated; she loved filling her basket and taking the berries home so her mother could bake a pie. Her mother, however, would often eat them uncooked in large quantities, until indigestion set on.
―The only stuff that's free in Poland are these berries,‖ she would complain, ―and they give me a belly-ache. Instead of bringing wild fruit and putting your mother's life at risk, why don't you go to Golde and bring a few eggs?‖
Friday night dinners, in honor of the Sabbath, were also pleasant. Mother would unfurl a special tablecloth, light the candles and cook the best meal of the week, particularly gefilte fish, or fish cakes, that Elena loved. Aside from these few pleasures, everything else was tzores: sorrows.
The other Elena, the one who heard the story in the Hamburg harbor as if it were not hers, was aware that all memories are colored by later events. The way things end determines their interpretation. She felt guilty remembering even those few joys. They seemed to suggest that people who decided to stay in the village had been in the right, but she was sure, somehow, that they were not. The wind had started to blow.
Walking away from the edge of the pier, saying goodbye to her reflection in the water, it was as if she had been forced to leave early the funeral of the girl she would never be. Leaving a life behind is a kind of death, a road abandoned for another. Travelers know it well. Millions of possible actions lie at the bottom of the ocean, she would later think: the actions of those who left and never came back. To leave her reflection behind without even a small ritual felt like sacrilege to her. She threw a few breadcrumbs into the sea. ―I'd rather leave you something to eat, instead of flowers,‖ she said to her image.
But Jews never knew when things ended or began. Some said their martyrdom had started at the time of Abraham; others, at the time of Babylon or the Romans; others talked of the Christians. Elena was never certain of how the end of her village life began. Her
―countrymen,‖ as they called themselves, were always ready to pick up their belongings and leave; the question was how to manage it, in this day of nation-states and borders. Her mother had taken her to Warsaw to get some photographs taken and arrange for their passports.
―I need to have the papers ready, in case the bum who fathered you ever sends for us,‖ she said.
In Poland, securing a passport was as complicated an ordeal as crossing the border with Germany. In the absence of a generous bribe, applicants were at the mercy of bureaucrats whose procedures seemed arbitrary except in one respect: the applicant's inevitable need to visit one government department after another, to wait endlessly, to be sent back because the necessary stamps had not been applied to the travel documents.
During these expeditions, Anita never lost an opportunity to complain to Elena about her marital sorrows. Her marriage had been a shidduch14 since people did not marry for love but to survive.
―One looks for the man who can give us something to eat,‖ Anita always said.
The marriage was Anita's second, not at all a common situation among Polish Jews. Anita asked the shadchan15 for a good match this time, but she was disappointed.
―The bitch didn't look as hard as she should and got me the first man she found,‖ she said.
―Your father read the Talmud and she thought that it would be good enough for me. She said divorcées can't be choosers and I would have to pay her extra for finding me a husband. I would have been better off spending the money on a dress.‖
14 An arranged match.