Excerpts from "Friedl"
Up and about at the crack of dawn, her eyes greedily devour everything that comes their way, gulping without chewing a red palmate leaf with branching veins, a gnarled tree trunk wrapped in its own roots, yellow thorn tree flower heads with their figured feathery foliage, a corrugated pipe peeping out the window, and a bare wire on the balcony. Yesterday she was groaning under the weight of pillowcases and bedsheets, but today she is standing bolt upright and tall; today she is free. “Don’t look around. Follow the example of your father. He’s never late!”
The faster you walk the less you notice. After all, can a high-speed train discern houses and trees? It races by right on schedule.
The same is true of the lives of adults who check their watches every five minutes, and only artists live beyond time, and come to think of it, while there is actually no time to think—the doorbell rings, and I pull the heavy door handle—the more frequently you look at the clock, the less time there is left.
Today our whole company, not only I, listens to Ullmann’s reports from the frontline, read aloud by Annie. “On October 24, at two after midnight, we, from our vantage point, observed a massive gas attack launched. It was a signal for us to engage in battle. We observed our artillery battery in action. By the third day, the military action area was far away from our positions. I believe that such a blow, which has forced the enemy back a considerable distance, is a giant leap forward toward peace. We were descending from our vantage point. A sigh of relief filled the air—the landscape had been cleansed of the horror effected by the missiles.”
Franz abhors war heroics. He was down there, where bombs exploded. No war brings about peace. Such an idea may only be conceived in the head of someone observing from the watchtower.
“But the theory of contrast teaches that there is no peace without war and no war without peace,” Annie objects, “And the lookout may be killed, too!”
“I would love to spend the rest of my days between or, as Teacher says, within an extended pause between war and peace,” Franz argues his point. “And may my life be all gray, with gray joys in the form of family and children.”
He never looks at me, though. Is he engaged?
I fire away at him in a heartbeat; and I have my answer, and a charming smile, hugs, and kisses.
“And with whom are you planning to build a family?”
“Surely not with you, my dear Friedl. You’re not cut out for family life. Your calling is art. Art is in your womb, so go ahead and give birth to it, and I’ll find someone else to bear my children. As for love, I will love you, though, you alone.”
“You must be kidding, Franz!”
“No, I’m not,” he whispers in my ear and holding me in his arms all the while. “You are my favorite.”
“Franz, I’m going to die of jealousy!”
“No, it’s I who’s going to die of jealousy! Contemplating your paintings compels to rip mine apart, and to find safe haven where I, an everyman, may enjoy a life of comfort and ease.
“Why are you saying that? Even Ethan admires your talent!”
“Nonsense! I have nothing of my own, and I know my limits. You, on the other hand, have no limits. Yesterday, I saw—from a distance—an outdoor announcement on a pole about Debussy. I knew right away who had a hand in it. Of course, Friedl Dicker! Even the slightest lie betrays your signature style. On the other hand, you can examine my paintings without discerning the smallest fraction of me in them. A man can create art and have a family at the same time—he can even have several if he is a Muslim, which we, obviously, are not—but a woman cannot. She has to make a choice.”
“I choose you.”
I should not have said that. Franz lowered his arms, and my shoulders started to tremble. How can you stave off a tremor without loving hands caressing you, or how can you quench jealousy looking into the near future when these hands caress someone else. Her name is Amy Heim, and she will bear his child who, in turn, will die at the age of nine, and his death will mark the end of not only our love but of any love in Franz’ life. He will survive me and die a natural death, albeit in solitude.
The rain is nicer in spring than in fall, though both make you wet and none makes you dry. Yes, there are raincoats and umbrellas to protect us, but either way walking in the rain is a joyless endeavor. Even the residents of Weimar prefer to stay at home, unless they absolutely have to leave, and their otherwise measured and gliding gait becomes tottering and shuffling. Everything, including the sky, the trees, and the roofs, seemed to be pouring down rain.
Franz and I are standing on a bridge. The Lim River is shrouded in mist, with its roaring waves crashing against the rocks. We feel warm thanks to the strong herbal tea Ethan treated us to earlier. Primroses and the first grass shoots appearing on the surface are stored for drying in nylon stockings expropriated by Ethan from his wife for this very purpose: green stockings for herbs and brown ones for some equally beneficial moss. The only problem is that the drying process is pretty much dead in the water, because the stove is lukewarm at best. Ethan cannot afford sufficient heating either.
Franz has plunged headlong into designing the furniture of tomorrow. The pockets of his shiny raincoat contain a whole kitchen, including folding chairs as small as the palm of a hand, as well as tiny tables. They will be light and easy to use, with bended nickel tubes and woven backrests and seats. The only remaining task is technical, that is, to come up with a device putting together burlap and nickel, and then the mass production of this invention can be put on track.
“You cannot find a regular table for us, can you? If anything, get a tall one, so we can stand at it and save on chairs.”
“How about half a chair? An American, one Feininger’s daughter, gave me a whole one, so I can slice a half for you.”
And behold, Franz drags in half a table! He nails a panel to the wall and screws the wooden semicircle to it.
Next day marks a sequel to this story: The American woman visits him only to find half of her chair gone. How horrible! “You have to understand me,” I tell her, “I was freezing… I had to burn half of it. And she replies, ‘What a pity! I would’ve brought firewood if I knew.’”
“Did she believe you?”
“Friedl, look at me. Do I look like a liar to you?”
Outside the window, it is a grayish-rosy day with momentary outbursts of blue, and a lonely tree by the edge of a parapet. From the balcony, which leads to railroad tracks, a red-roofed yellow booth can be seen with an inscription “Prague—Visegrad.” As the steam locomotive whistles, a chubby middle-aged auntie dressed in a uniform emerges from the booth and raises a flag. As the train flies by, she lowers the flag and disappears in the booth—a ritual of sorts. What if she forgets to come outside, and the train ends up passing by without having caught a glimpse of the flag? No. She cannot oversleep. She is responsible for traffic safety.
The auntie leaves the booth exactly sixty seconds earlier. I have no idea what kind of clock she has, but I keep track of the time using my wall clock with a big dial. The hour hand stands strong as the train approaches. Why? Well, let the subordinates tremble. The second hand, when observed closely, is not in a mad rush at all, because its every step marks yet another milestone in its path. The sixty seconds preceding the appearance of the train last much longer than a regular minute. Looking at the clock, time stretches like dough in Dali’s painting. The distant muffled honking transforms into a whistle, something from Ethan’s exercises, and on the 58th second the daddy train appears from behind the curve along with its offspring. If asleep, trains will blast through the dream noiselessly.
Can she feel my stare from the fourth floor in the dark of the night? What if someone else is staring at me, too? Someone catching my reflection in the framed mirror. The semicircle under-eye bags, these traces of my Vienna interrogations and insomnia in Prague, are unlikely to be visible at night. Who is up at night, who examines his own shadow on the wall and plays with it like a kitten with a ball of yarn…?
I am a stationmaster. My railroad epic, which started in Prague, continues in Hronov, where our apartment will be even closer to the station, and then Terezin… I do not remember whether Auschwitz had a railroad station, I guess only a platform…
“The train” in the Czech language is “vlak”, and “the station” is “nádraží”. The Main Station is located in the center. I wander around town with one goal in mind, which is to get tired and fall asleep. Later, when time becomes compressed and every second will matter, I will regret bitterly the railroad carloads of idle time wasted on waiting.
What lies ahead of us? We discuss this subject in the morning, with our heads aching. A castle on the top of a mountain; how did we get up here? A beautiful view opens from the veranda, which somewhat resembles the view from Ethan’s roof with the exception of the tables and the presence of polite servers. It was there that we in the company of Bruno Adler, Franz, and Margit, had discussed The Decline of the West by Spengler.
What lies ahead? European art will emigrate to America, subsequently to be reshaped. Anyone who thinks that he can stay in Europe and continue what he has been doing so far is sorely mistaken. “Degenerates”, unless reformed and reeducated, will be killed; much like what is happening now in the Soviet Union. At least, there is a role model to look up to. You know, relatives of those missing in action often turn for assistance to Brecht, and our beloved Brecht has a habit of answering: “The Soviet Union has its own legal doctrine, and we have no right to interfere with the affairs of a sovereign state.” Why, then, are we allowed to interfere with the affairs of Spain? Any single-party system will annihilate its enemies in scores, in millions. No one has the right to interfere!
If we take Ludwig’s word for it—I, for one, trust him, and the exhibition in Paris has undermined my previously unshaken love for the Soviet Union–perdition is what lies ahead of us. Multidirectional forces will pull and tear Europe apart. What about my beloved Brecht? Could he be mistaken?
It is spooky. Better not talk about it at all.
I quit wearing a watch. The time measured from death cannot be squeezed into a flat dial. It has a different configuration. It is deep, and its rhythm is different from that which we hear when we count time away from life.
It is only here that I learn how complex and weird all these transformations are… At the end of the day, what counts is stamina and infinite perseverance.
Today you are helping a kid not to fall off a cliff, but tomorrow you may end up cracking your head open against a rock. It is endless…
What cliffs? It was a level platform, one with no perspective. Not the slightest possibility to see what lies ahead, just rows of people’s backs.
Ugly, shameful death.
In light of current events, nothing makes sense. I focus exclusively on things that do not care what Hitler says or whatever happened to the Red Orchestra. Garlic on a cutting board, the fluorescence of a sliced lemon, enormous snow-covered fields… visible vastness where the wind blows freely, where one can breathe.
Humid air is intoxicating. It rained recently, and the asphalt is freckle-dotted. The palmate sycamore leaves with white dormant buds resemble candlesticks. My head is spinning, but it should not be because of spring, more likely because of the still-life painting. I paint nowadays, like Van Gogh, not in terms of style, of course, but in terms of the scarcity of objects: A potato, an onion, or garlic, an occasional lemon, not that juicy lemon from the Flemish still life works, but a coarse oldie with squashed sides. Yes, and one time a pumpkin graced me with its visit, and I oil-painted this beauty. And, of course, a bottle—just cannot make it without the verticals.
Laura’s class is over at four, and after her it is my time to arrive. She is a tough teacher who gives Fs for failing to memorize a poem and demands dictation exercises be rewritten several times. This is her stance: You are normal schoolchildren, though you do not attend school, and we are your teachers, not your aunties who strive to entertain you. Discipline is the only way to overcome chaos. Later in Auschwitz, Laura will make the girls comb their shaved heads with a handful of hay. In the realm of subtle bodies, Arachne is destined to weave a spider web, and Laura is engaged in an eternal battle against chaos.
Two boys, both aged ten, are transported from Náchod. One is Ivan, skinny, almost translucent, and the other is Misha, strong and buff. They are inseparable buddies “working on the illustrations to a novel with a sequel that will not come to an end.” They talk like adults, using long sentences with a bunch of subordinate clauses. They always bring drawings for “the penultimate chapter” to school, also captions for the illustrations purposefully translated for me by Ivan’s father, a former bank director in Náchod. Of course, the novel is about treasure hunting, and the treasure will be found very soon. “But the beauty of it is that it will be found someplace else, not where they seek it!” Ivan’s father drives the boys in a car, but it is about to be confiscated. Jews are not supposed to have cars.
Ivan frequently rushes to caress Yulenka, looking into her eyes with considerable trepidation… But he will get killed, too. There is no such thing as mercy in this world; there is only a word for it.
Mister Holtzner opens the door; the glare of his black eyes, and his eyebrows pulled together. “Something happened?” “Yes.” We must have a word with him. We, as is the custom, take off our shoes and follow him down the narrow hall and into his room.
He does not offer us to have a seat. We are standing in front of him, barefoot but dressed in overcoats. There is something degrading about it. He does not want us to study in his house. Our worldview is not only alien to him but also dangerous to those around us, especially children. Yet, since we are already here, he will pay us. As he pronounces these words, Holtzner pulls a ten-koruna bill from one of the pockets of his pants.
“What seems to be the problem, anyway?”
“Political platform is the problem. Anyone can tell from a mile away that you are a communist.”
For ten korunas and the loathing smirk, with which Mister Holtzner hands them, he gets hit below the belt. We were too short to aim higher.
I do not recall how we put our shoes back on and left. I was quivering all the way home, and Laura was laughing uproariously. And it was not nervous laughter. She should have seen herself in the mirror!
Would I hit Holtzner if I knew he would die in Auschwitz? Stupid question. Even if we knew what exactly lies ahead of us, we would not change a thing in our behavior. The future has no effect on the present.
Holtzner will be transported from Terezin using the same vehicle as Pavel. His daughters will live in our orphanage, and Laura will be their tutor.
I have no soul. Whether corpses are delivered in a hearse, people are transported to camps, or blind people probe the ground in front of them with a cane— all the same, it does not resonate with my soul. What does it make me, then? A body suffering from hunger or cold, a body constantly wining about its infirmities. And the spirit that is not registered to this address.
Nothing compares to what happened here. Apparently, it is something way above and beyond the ordinary. The middle link has fallen out of the body—soul—spirit trichotomy. The body is aching, but the spirit lies beyond. Worries about my identity—whether I am an artist or a teacher, an architect or just a loser whose time to become someone has been taken away—vanished along with my soul.
Very rarely did I have surges of phantom pain, the feeling that comes when pain strikes a part of you that has already been taken away. It happened:
When I saw the dying Charlotte in the attic (that my father died here before my arrival, so that we never had a chance to meet, did not imbue much emotions in me).
When people, including my little students, were transported to camps in Poland. It happened five times before my very eyes: three times in 1943, in February, October, and December, and twice in 1944, in May and September.
When Ravel was sent away; it happened on September 29, 1944.
I signed up, volunteered to follow him wherever he was transported with thousands of other men in order to end it. End the phantom pains.
I would rather keep quiet about everything that happened from September 20 to October 6, when I was finally allowed to travel along, everything that happened on the train and after it stopped.
Eva and Robert are children raised in family. They are easy. Orphanage kids, on the other hand, are much tougher to deal with. Many have forgotten what their homes look like. They draw doors resembling barrack arches and attach stairs to beds. They cover tables with ornamented tablecloths and set them against bunk beds…
I am trying to resurrect scenes from “normal life” in their memory. The past, in their heads, has turned into a fairy tale. Drawing these “fairy tales” in detail—such as the interior setting in the apartment, the clock on the wall, the kiosk across the street from home—gradually edges out boot camp reality. It simply takes a back seat.
The sun, previously squinting from around the corner, now glides into the middle and sends its rays to illuminate parks with their swings and merry-go-rounds, roads with little girls and their baby doll strollers, with cars splashing water with their tires. The sun illuminates many things.
Kids’ paintings. A world of values and reason. I watch them, and it makes me feel like drawing. I also want some of Hilda’s goose with crispy skin and tender meat.
I shine my flashlight under the bed. Needless to say, there is no goose. There is a box of watercolors, instead.
“Freedom is about establishing a special new path, which has not existed before, not even in the form of a possible solution.” Who said that? Maybe Muntz in his book on the artistry of the blind? I rub my hands numbing with cold against a sweater made from Scotch wool, a present from Elsynka-Oslik. All my personal effects are gone, but I did not have a sweater as warm as this one even when I was free. It is impossible to paint with a flashlight in your hand. There is a wire, however, which you can use to attach the flashlight just above your head. Rembrandt’s painting: An old man under a staircase, in total darkness. I, on the other hand, am sitting in the hall, behind sackcloth curtains, with the ceiling as tall as the one in Rembrandt’s painting. A ray of light falls on paper.
And life goes on, or draws to a close, to be precise.
“You got that right,” is the answer one little girl has for everything you tell her.
“When somebody dies, nothing can save him,” Eli, a twelve-year-old boy, explains to me. “Look, I drew a wheel with spokes, and a small man on a hillock nearby, and an old man lying on a bed in the back, who screams, ‘Help!’
I visited grandpa in the nursing home where I saw a dying person.
I went outside, sat on a hillock, and started pondering the meaning of life… There I am sitting and pondering,” he says with childish naiveté and draws my attention to the tiny man on the hillock, “I’m still small, what do I know? And then I pictured the wheel of life. I’ve just failed to show how it spins and falls into the ground for good. How do you draw something spin and fall? Then somebody walks by the wheel, thinking, ‘Nice wheel, maybe I should keep it.’ This is how he is given life, and so he, too, starts spinning and then falls into the ground, but that I did not draw…”
“I ran out of paper.”
People are drawn to death. To them, it is not a mysterious otherworldliness, but part of life.
Bright light. White alabaster bodies are standing, leaning against each other. The doors close hermetically. The burning eyes freeze in the land of the dead.
“What time is it?”
“Go back to sleep. It’s too early.”
“No, it’s too late!”
The bodies are wallowing in mire and swamp slime, their alabaster whiteness mixed with blood and impurities, and someone dressed in black pulls pearly white teeth together with the flesh… Small nostrils emit streamlets of blood… The bodies turn crimson, blue, gray…
Pavel holds me as tightly as he can. No, I am not made of alabaster!
Light. But not that one, not the bright one. Pavel treats me hot tea from a thermos, pets me on the head. “You are very tired, my Friedl…”
It is all so nonsensical…
Apparently, sense is somewhere we are not.
Or maybe we are looking for it where it is not supposed to be?
…Right now, I am dwelling on a small picture, a fleck consisting of brownish spruces, which I am painting looking through the window. Everything evolved from this fleck, which materialized abruptly on the backdrop of the rose and blue glimmer of snow (rose stretches horizontally, bluish at an angle, and dark blue soars vertically into the dark shadow)—and the trees are very dark, so everything behind them looks so very tender, and the blueness far away further underlines the violet brownness… Yet it does not appear boring because brown is placed next to violet, and the chimneys are of the same, albeit more intense, color—and these protrusions are not out of the picture, do you know why? Because the light brown and very elegant banner of smoke connects them to the top of the hill across from them. The smoke, in the form of a light gray ribbon, splices the sky, as though counterbalancing the snow in the foreground… And so I keep painting at length, sighing more frequently, and pondering the small glimmering fleck, but where is it? Where has it disappeared?