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The pale of settlement, p.4

The Pale of Settlement, page 4

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  An old black-and-white photograph hung in the hallway in Susan’s grandparents’ Haifa flat, a picture of a group of people in bathing suits posing on a beach. In the center, a man stood with his hands on the shoulders of two women, the man in the kind of black one-piece swimming costume, like an acrobat’s leotard, that was the fashion around the turn of the last century, the women in short-sleeved cotton frocks tied with string sashes at the waist, printed kerchiefs on their heads. The women were on tiptoe, their heels raised off the ground, as if they were slowly levitating. Between the women, three children sat in a descending line, their hands on each other’s shoulders, the youngest one, a girl, holding a doll. Everyone was smiling except the little girl—Susan’s grandmother—and her doll. If you looked closely, you could see that the doll’s mouth was open, her arms up by her head, her legs bent and kicking in the air, as if she were trying to wrench herself free from Susan’s grandmother’s grasp and cartwheel down the sand.

  In a dream, Susan is last in line in this upside-down pyramid, seated cross-legged at her grandmother’s feet, her grandmother’s hands on her shoulders, and she is holding the doll. There she sits on that sunny summer afternoon, on that vanished European beach, thinking how it is so peaceful and familiar, until she looks down and realizes that what she is holding isn’t a doll, but a baby, its arms and legs as stiff as plastic, its eyes squeezed shut, its mouth frozen open in a soundless cry.

  On Sunday afternoon, her ex-boyfriend drove her to the airport in his father’s car. He pulled the sunroof back and drove in silence past the stately rows of government buildings, the dome of the Capitol shining on the hill, the long scar of the Vietnam War Memorial cut into the Constitution Gardens grass.

  I’ve decided to move back to the States, he finally said.

  Susan turned to look at him. With the kid?

  He shook his head, his eyes fixed on the road, his lips pressed together in a line, as they’d been the night before. Susan wanted to reach across the gearshift to take his hand, but there was something about the pain in his eyes, the set of his mouth, that made her stop.

  It was only later, as her plane lifted and banked over the shimmering Potomac, that Susan let herself think back to that moment in Central Park, that question hanging unanswered between them in the cooling air.

  When Susan finally went to Berlin, a couple of years later, her ex-boyfriend had long since moved away. She walked along the Kurfürstendamm her first night there, through the neon lights and jostling crowds. She passed a woman walking with a little girl with fair curly hair and a familiar tilt to her eyes, and she turned back for another look even though this child was much younger than her ex-boyfriend’s daughter would have been by now. She sat for a while at the edge of the fountain and looked up at Kaiser Wilhelm’s ruined church, its hollow tower floodlit from below, like a stage set, and then went back to her hotel.

  The wall itself was long gone, of course, and the Potsdamer Platz had turned from a mine-filled no-man’s-land into the largest construction site in the world. Of the city her grandparents had known, there was hardly a trace. Cranes and scaffolding stretched across the sky. She walked all the way around the square, feeling the way she always did when she traveled alone: invisible and weightless and free.

  Before she left, she bought a postcard at a kiosk. She sat in a café and addressed it to her ex-boyfriend. She thought about writing, Thinking of you. She thought about writing, Auf wiedersehen. In the end, she put it in her purse and didn’t write anything at all.

  I look everywhere for grandmothers and find none.

  ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING

  LILA’S STORY

  Israel 1997

  In my memory, my grandmother is framed by flowers. Head-high stalks of gladioli, a backdrop of hibiscus, anemones at her feet. My grandmother is smiling, cheek to bloom. Here are the flowers still: tricolor lantana bordering the sidewalk, vermilion bougainvillea overhanging the second-story stairs. Here are photographs, a pile of black-and-white snapshots taken in the 1940s, not long after my grandparents arrived in Palestine. I flip through them like tarot cards, lay them face up on my hotel room bed. Here is my grandmother in a full skirt and blouse and walking shoes, kneeling in the Carmel woods called Little Switzerland. Here she is, arms linked with her two sons, posing on the beach. She is beautiful, or almost, cat-eyed and slim, with an aquiline nose and prematurely white hair. Here she is leaning against a railing by the sea. Her hair is blowing across her face and she is squinting just a bit. The sea behind her is flecked with white. The camera has caught that fleeting moment that precedes the self-consciousness of a smile, and that, with that slight squint and windblown hair, makes her look contemplative and a little reckless, both vulnerable and brave. I sweep the photographs back into a pile, leaving this one on the top.

  Palestine 1939

  Lila knows it isn’t true the world is round. The ship from Trieste pitched forward and fell right off the edge. The gulls wheeled up off the deck and screamed into the wind. Here in Haifa, it is primitive, dusty, dirty, hot. It is the Orient, the Levant, the Near East but not nearly near enough. The road they live on is unpaved. Only cold water from the tap. Lila boils the drinking water, scrubs the fruit and vegetables with soap, makes sure to toast the bread. She pores over the notebook her cook gave her when they left, recipes handwritten in a slanting German scrawl. She cooks in the heat of the afternoon while Josef takes his nap—the kind of food they’re used to, too heavy for this climate—Wiener schnitzel, potato salad, a chocolate roulade. It is just so uncivilized, she writes to her sister in a letter she will never read. Everyone wears khaki shirts and shorts—even the girls! You see women squatting by the roadside, breaking paving stones, while Herr Doktor Professor drives a bus. Even Josef has had to take work selling curtains door to door. There are fedayeen and jackals in the hills. At night, the jackals come down into the wadi behind our house; you can hear them howling at the moon.

  Lila’s Story

  Everything was so difficult for me then. The boys ran wild; I wasn’t used to doing everything myself. Back home, you understand, I had my cook and nanny, my parents and my sister close to me. So I thought I would be happier living on a kibbutz. I would do any work they wanted me to do—picking oranges at dawn, or weeding in the fields—in exchange for the communal kitchen and dining hall, the children’s quarters, the company of friends. We went to visit Deganya and I was so enthusiastic, I couldn’t stop talking about it for days. But your grandfather said no. We are not socialists or Bolsheviks, he said. It is not what we are used to. It is not our way. And, of course, he was right.

  Merkaz

  Back in Haifa for the first time since her death, I retrace my grandmother’s steps. I’ve been coming here since I was a child, and it’s a child’s universe I know: the shady playground in the Gan Ha’em; Panorama Street with its picture-postcard view; the shortcut, slippery with dead pine needles, around the back of my grandparents’ old flat. I walk up Hanassi toward the town center, the merkaz, the way my grandmother did each day: past the Delek station on the corner, past the soldiers smoking outside the barracks gate, past the Dan Carmel and Panorama hotels, past Goldman’s art gallery, an indoor mall, the entrance to the Carmelit. I pass an ice-cream shop, a pizza parlor, branches of the banks Leumi and Hapoalim. Here at the corner there used to be a handbag shop, dim and pungent with the smell of leather hides. Next door, now gone as well, there was a toy store stacked with dolls in cardboard boxes crinkly with cellophane. Across the street, Mr. Schaeffer’s market is still there, although someone else in a white apron is standing by the door. Here, around the corner, is Steimatsky’s, the English-language bookstore, and here’s the newsstand where my grandmother bought me treats—I remember the Bazooka bubble gum with Hebrew comic strips, glass bottles of Fanta with paper straws that unraveled when they got wet, the bars of Elite chocolate my grandmother liked best. Further on, up the hill, are more cafés, the concert hall, the tennis club, a shady park. There, I sat
on a bench in the late afternoon while my grandmother told stories. An Egged bus pulls away from the light with a black cloud of exhaust. The air smells of diesel fumes, of pine and eucalyptus, of garbage ripening in the sun. Childhood smells. So are these my grandmother’s footsteps or my own?

  Palestine 1941

  Lila walks with her three dogs: a spaniel, a terrier, and a little white one of indeterminate breed. Her bunions hurt but she ignores the pain. No, she doesn’t ignore it—the pain is what reminds her she’s alive. The dogs sniff at the wooden crates of produce at the grocer’s tin-roofed stand. She buys a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, some tomatoes, cucumbers, and grapes. There’s no real coffee these days, not even Nescafé. Some days she has to force herself to eat. She counts out the money carefully in German; the tinny coins all look the same. She carries the groceries in a string bag, which cuts into her palms. Across the merkaz, she climbs the steps to the post office, checks the box. There’s not often mail from home. From time to time a thin blue aerogram arrives from London, from one of Josef’s sisters there. Lila tells herself that it rains too much in England, that even Britain is no longer any place for Jews. Of course, the British are here, too, red-kneed and stiff in their high socks and shorts. They smile at her dogs. They are too polite to smile at her; even the younger ones avert their eyes.

  Lila’s Story

  We were very lucky. From a cousin, we got entrance papers for Palestine. He was a doctor and by this time the Nazis no longer permitted him to leave. Josef’s sisters went to England; his parents were, Gott sei Danke, by then already dead. My parents and sister stayed behind. They believed, nebekh, that everything would be all right. My sister was much more beautiful and clever than I, only she had no luck. We learned, after the war, that my parents were sent to Theresienstadt in 1942. My father died there, but my mother was sent on a transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz on October 23, 1944—imagine, only days before the gas chambers were shut down, weeks before the liberation of the camp. What became of my sister, I do not know.

  View

  Back at the hotel, I cross the shiny lobby floor, past the tour groups waiting amid piles of luggage, past the buzz around the front desk. It is strange staying at the Dan Carmel alone, but my aunt and uncle’s place is small, and of course my grandparents’ flat is gone. I take the elevator to the sixth floor. My grandmother never rode in elevators; even in her eighties, she always took the stairs. The doors open to a wall-sized blown up photograph of the Old City in Jerusalem, peeling where it’s come unglued along the center splice. The view from my room, onto Haifa bay, is another classic tourist shot. I push aside the drapes and step out on the balcony into the failing light. I can see out over Panorama Street to the golden dome of the Baha’i Temple, its gardens spilling down the mountainside; a glimpse of the taller buildings on the Hadar; and to the north, the oil refineries’ storage drums, the curved arm of the coast. As the sky fades from pink to gray, lights begin to twinkle from the battlements of the U.S. Sixth Fleet gunships at anchor in the bay.

  I go back inside and pick up the pile of old photographs my aunt has given me, shuffle through them one more time. Here is the one of my grandmother leaning against that railing by the sea. She is smiling, her head tipped back, her lips slightly parted, as if she were about to speak. There is a flower—a narcissus, maybe—in her hand. If she had looked up then, she would have seen the ridgeline of the Carmel, green with cypresses and olive trees and pines. She would have been looking at the spot where this hotel now stands. Now she gazes up through time at me and I gaze down at her. What am I looking for? Something tiny in the background—a half-glimpsed face, an out-of-focus sign. A footprint, a fingerprint, a trace of scent, a follicle of hair.

  No. I am looking for myself.

  Palestine 1941

  So you could say that they survived, but they were not survivors, not exactly, not in the new sense of the word. They were never in the camps. They never had to hide out in a gentile’s barn or forage in the forest with the partisans. They were not displaced persons— not officially, anyway—even though they were among the refugees, the dispossessed. They were immigrants, among the lucky ones. Lila had packed their belongings in trunks and crates—a wooden angel that had hung over her boys’ crib for luck, an oil painting of the Weinerwald, her dolls, her gilt-edged dinner service for sixteen, a Gallé table lamp, their goose-down quilts, the bedroom set her parents gave them when they were married, several reels of sixteen-millimeter film containing footage of ski trips to Kitzbühel and Zürs, her jewelry, a gold watch, her silverware engraved with her initials, a box of photographs, thirty-two Moser crystal goblets—and they set sail for Haifa, as if they were going on a holiday. They were Europeans, not exactly Zionists, but there was no escaping being Jews. Now they were yekkes, German-speaking Jews, with their poor Hebrew and assimilated Prussian ways. They were always punctual, drank Kaffe mit Schlag in the merkaz cafés, kept their jackets on even in the stifling summer heat. The old Russian socialists, who had been in Palestine for generations, made fun of the yekkes, of their stiffness and bewilderment and fear. Everyone was talking about the new Jews, the pioneers, which all their children would doubtless be. The posters showed blond, blue-eyed, snub-nosed kibbutzniks grinning in the sun. The yekkes had never seen Jews like these before. These boys and girls had sun-bronzed skin and calloused hands. They worked the land. They would fight back. They would show the world.

  Lila’s Story

  Things were different by us, back home. We were Jewish but we were not religious, do you understand? We had many wonderful friends. In the winter, we went skiing—in those days, you climbed up and passed the night in a hut, then skied down the next day—and ice skating in the park. We went mushroom picking in the forest in the spring. When I first knew your grandfather, he took me on his motorbike. He told me that once he’d lost a girlfriend off the back—he found her later, of course, back at her parents’ house, but as you can imagine she refused to speak to him. Later, he got a sidecar, and we used to say that when we had a baby we would put it in the sidecar in a basket, tied on with a bow! Of course, we never did. By then we had a car.

  The Married Man

  The last time I saw my grandmother, just over a year ago, she was in a nursing home and my grandfather had been dead for nearly six years. I sat on the only chair and she sat on the single bed. She smoothed her knotty hands over her skirt, a girlish gesture. Her shoulders curved forward and the skin hung in wrinkled folds along her neck. But her faded gray-green eyes were clear. Do you ever wish you’d married him? she asked. We were talking about my ex-boyfriend. No, I said, although the truth was I wasn’t sure. How could you be? He was married to someone else now and had a child. You don’t have to get married, my grandmother said. I just wouldn’t want you to end up old and all alone. Israelis marry young; at thirty-three, I know she thought that I was over the hill. Although it’s possible, of course, that she was just thinking about herself. There was a sweater folded by her pillow, a gray V-neck that had been my grandfather’s and that, she told me, still retained a faint trace of his smell. I speak with him every night, she said. By all accounts, my grandparents loved each other well. As long as I knew them, they called each other by the same pet name—mükki, mükki—as if they were reciprocals of one another, two parts of the same whole.

  I didn’t tell my grandmother about the man I was seeing at the time. The man was married, though I didn’t think of what we were having as an affair. I never wanted him to leave his wife and kids for me. I wasn’t really in love with him, although later, after it was over, I felt betrayed. He once told me that he knew we’d be close forever, and so I had pictured the two of us, mellow and gray, side by side in rocking chairs on a weather-beaten porch, looking out at rolling hills. In reality, what we had together was sex. You are the ultimate mind fuck, he once said. I was needy enough, at the time, to take this comment as a compliment.

  Palestine 1941

  Lila sits at her dressi
ng table, brushing her hair. She puts on lipstick, rolling the crimson tube so it tapers to a point. She rubs pencil across her brows, pats powder on her cheeks and nose. In the mirror, she considers her face. At thirty-seven, her hair is almost completely white, although she dyes it black leaving just one white streak in front. Her face is approaching that borderland between youth and age, her cheekbones and jawline more angular than they used to be, faint lines tracing her smile and her frown. Pressed beneath the glass of her dressing table, next to photographs of her parents and her sons, she keeps an edelweiss Josef gave her years ago for luck—an albino fallen star. She thinks back to those early days, before they were married, when she’d tell her parents she was going to see her best friend, Hanni, but would meet up with him instead. Their tongues touched with the urgency of disobedience and little lies. He wore a brown wool overcoat. He curved around her like a spiral shell. They walked slowly, arms wrapped around each other’s waists, under leafy chestnuts and spreading firs, under a sky bleached white with scudding clouds. Later, she found that he would often walk ahead. He walked steadily, stubbornly, like the Great War officer he had been, never breaking pace to rest or run ahead, while she (taking off a sweater, putting it back on again) skipped along behind. But it was true that where the path got rough or steep, he would wait to take her hand. Now she touches the edelweiss with one finger through the glass. Edelweiss doesn’t grow here in the Holy Land. Here she has to search for other talismans—a night-blooming cereus, a hidden violet in the spring.

 
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