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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 5

Sometimes the relief of September goes against me: I sink into deep sleep. Prolonged sleep takes me places where I don’t want to be, and when I wake up, I no longer have the strength to struggle. Prolonged sleep, you must know, weakens you. Once I slept without interruption almost all September. Now I’m cautious about this comfort. Now I force myself to get up and go out to the seashore. True, on the seashore, coarse life rumbles, but that’s preferable to pinching nightmares.

Some time ago a man approached me and said openly, “I read Primo Levi. He’s an author who purifies my thoughts. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

“Me, too,” I said happily.

“Thank God we have an author like that.”

“When did you discover him?” I went on to ask for some reason.

“A short time ago. Since then my life isn’t what it was. It’s completely different. It’s found a strange kind of rehabilitation.” Why “strange,” I wanted to ask, but I didn’t.

I knew he was one of us, but I didn’t ask him where and when and that sort of probing. What can you do? We’re not so good at expressing, rather at suppressing words, which is why we’re glad when one of us finds words and tells what happened in those years.

“What kind of music do you listen to?” I asked nevertheless. I was sure that, like me, he was addicted to music. Upon hearing my question, he slipped away and disappeared.

On the shore, after midnight, you meet marvelous people, mostly our kind. They are drawn to the sea. Apparently that’s our real home. In the middle of the night I’ve found some of our kind, sitting on the shore and smoking, devoted heart and soul to the sea.

Sometimes it seems to me that they, like me, are struggling against sleep, which threatens to imprison us. Sleep, if I haven’t said so already, is one of our enemies. It weakens us every time it can. One has to sleep, but only the minimum.

September is a fateful month for us. You struggle against heat and sweat in July and August, but September is an essentially inner month. You struggle, as strange as this may be, with the ghosts of your sleep.

Last year it was unbearable. All the ghettos and camps where I was pressed into me. As if they were afraid I’d forget them. In sleep as well I repeatedly said and swore: I won’t forget either the ghettos or the camps, not my parents, not my brothers, not my sisters, but I cannot remember them every single hour. My voice apparently wasn’t heard properly, because the demands were repeated. In September nights I have no alternative but to stay out of the house. It’s better to roam about than to be subject to the dominion of nightmares. After midnight the seashore is populated by our people, not all of them are friendly, sometimes they’re so introverted it’s hard to speak to them. Some of them also fall upon you for no visible reason. I don’t get angry at them. Occasionally it seems to me that we are one family, which, for incomprehensible reasons, has scattered, but one day it will join together. I said one family, and I want to take it back. I don’t include my ex-wife or my son in the family. They removed themselves from our order. There are weeks when they’re erased from my memory, but in September, as though out of spite, they come back to me. As if there were still some connection between us. Most annoying of all are her registered letters. Always new, galling demands. I know exactly what’s written in them, but they still drive me out of my mind.

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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