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‘On the Edge of Our City’: A Short Story for Yom Kippur by Aharon Appelfeld

A Holocaust survivor wrestles with the angel of history on the beach in Tel Aviv

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Chapter 3

To my ordinary enemies one must always add my ex-wife and my son. I don’t know which of the two has the fiercest power. The heat and humidity here have many faces, but my wife and son have constant faces. They each lie in wait for me. True, I’ve developed means to fight them all, but it’s a constant struggle, exhausting. In the winter I feel lighter and fit in a way. In the winter my enemies weaken, and I’m bolder.

I wrote a letter to Tina. I wrote about my distress in this city. I don’t like to talk about feelings and emotions. I hinted to her about the exhausting heat and about the sweat that eats up all the efforts I make against it. I’m sure she understands me. After all, she lived here and she knows exactly what I’m talking about. I didn’t urge her to answer me. The life of a nun, I imagine, is one of seclusion, laden with silence; if that’s the case I’m linked to her there, too. All my life I’ve been yearning for the arrival of silence. I often dream that the huge wheels that saw away at the city day and night have stopped turning. No longer violent music, no hollering about politics, only complete silence, pure like at the seashore I saw once in southern Italy.

Of course these are only wishes. The emptiness of this noisy city seeps into my bones without letup. If I were a believing man, I’d pray. Those who know say that prayer is an effective measure against emptiness and despair. I suppose, and maybe I’m wrong, that correct prayer isn’t muttering but heedfulness. If the rules of the convent foster heedfulness and cause the soul to rise up, I won’t say anything to Tina, but if not, it would be better if Tina came back to us. The arena is here and not in faraway Africa. Here we need people on her high level to fight against the noise and the empty tumult.

Recently I’ve been reading Primo Levi. Primo Levi is an author after my own heart. He provides facts without sentimental descriptions. Until I got to know him, I believed it was forbidden to write about the war. I was sure that our experience wasn’t one you could express, or rather, that it was forbidden to express it. Primo Levi knows how to tell what’s possible to tell. Only seldom does he step out and preach morality to us. He relates things as they were, with clear simplicity. Once I was sure it was forbidden to use the words we used before the war. It seems I was wrong. Primo Levi speaks the old language, without correcting it, without raising or lowering it, and in so doing he shows us who we are and what happened to us. The prophets spoke about future events, Primo Levi raises up the past and makes it present. The ghetto and the camp, he shows us, were not temporary prisons but patterns of life that peer out at us from every corner.

I wrote to Tina: silence and muteness are in my blood, but ascetic monasticism, with all due respect, I cannot take upon myself. I know that many upstanding members of our nation, in their despair, became attached to the Church and monasticism. To a certain degree I understand them. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but still I added: here, too, in the land of perspiration, one can seek proper prayer.

She answered my brief letter right away. She didn’t respond to my reservations. She told me about her daily routine, which begins with midnight prayers that continue until two o’clock in the morning. They sleep until six. At six there are morning prayers and a light breakfast, and after that work in the field. During the day there is time for seclusion, three short meals, and reading of scriptures. From her letter, it’s hard to know whether she’s happy. Maybe the concept of happiness doesn’t suit her situation. I read the letter and grew sad. I sensed inadequacy and fear about the future, but still I reread it. She wrote in German. Here and there she slipped in a Hebrew word. Her handwriting was clear and without flaw. Tina, I answered her, everything that happens to you is mingled in my blood.

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‘On the Edge of Our City’: A Short Story for Yom Kippur by Aharon Appelfeld

A Holocaust survivor wrestles with the angel of history on the beach in Tel Aviv