Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heda Margolius: 1919 -2010

I'm reading her amazing story, Under a Cruel Star. Just one excerpt, thanks to Kindle's copy and paste...
Sometimes a bedraggled and barefoot concentration camp survivor plucked up his courage and knocked on the door of prewar friends to ask, “Excuse me, do you by any chance still have some of the stuff we left with you for safekeeping?” And the friends would say, “You must be mistaken, you didn’t leave anything with us, but come in anyway!” And they would seat him in their parlor where his carpet lay on the floor and pour herb tea into antique cups that had belonged to his grandmother. The survivor would thank them, sip his tea, and look at the walls where his paintings hung. He would say to himself, “What does it matter? As long as we’re alive? What does it matter?” At other times, it would not turn out so nicely. The prewar friends would not make tea, would not suggest any mistake. They would just laugh and say in astonishment, “Come on now, do you really believe we would store your stuff all through the war, exposing ourselves to all that risk just to give it back to you now?” And the survivor would laugh too, amazed at his own stupidity, would apologize politely and leave. Once downstairs he would laugh again, happily, because it was spring and the sun was shining down on him. It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies. He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in a corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about. Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer’s sonorous voice would boom through the crack, “You would have thought we’d be rid of them finally, but no, they’re impossible to kill off – not even Hitler could manage it. Every day there’re more of them crawling back, like rats...” And the survivor would quietly get up from his chair and slip out of the waiting room, this time not laughing. On his way down the stairs his eyes would mist over as if with the smoke of the furnaces at Auschwitz. Friends from the country would send an invitation: Come see us! We want to feed you. We have plenty of everything! The survivor would arrive at the village, unable to believe his eyes. The farmhouse would be twice its prewar size. A refrigerator would be standing in the kitchen, a washing machine in the hall. There would be Oriental carpets on the floor and original paintings on the walls. The sausage would be served on silver platters and the beer in cut glass. The old farmer would stroke his whiskers and worry, “No sense denying it – we did very well during the war. People had to eat, you know, and with a little thinking... But now things are different... Just as long as the Communists don’t take over...” It took me some time to muster up the courage for a trip to the village of Hut where we used to spend our vacations. Our country house there was as much of a home to me as our apartment in Prague had been, maybe even more so for all the happy memories it held. To return there all alone, the only one of my family who was left, was hard. On the way out the train seemed to be moving too fast, the air was hot and stifling, my head throbbed, and my stomach ached. In Beroun, where I had to change trains, I was seized with such anxiety that I almost returned to Prague. At last I reached Hut and made my way haltingly from the station to the village, glimpsing from far away those windows where I used to see my mother looking out, alive and happy. The trees in our orchard were past their bloom and no one seemed to be about. The door of our house was locked. I rang the bell and, after a while, a fat unshaven man opened the door, stared at me for a moment, and then yelled, “So you’ve come back! Oh no! That’s all we needed!” I turned around and walked into the woods. I spent the three hours until the next train back to Prague strolling on the mossy ground under the fir trees, listening to the birds.

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