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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 6

A few days ago, late at night, I approached one of our own and said to him openly: “Doesn’t emptiness oppress you, too, in this season?”

“What emptiness are you talking about?” He opened his eyes in surprise.

“Is there any need to explain?”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“About the emptiness. I have no other word.”

“Excuse me,” said the man. “I live my life, and I don’t think about things that are beyond my understanding.”

“But at night, nevertheless, you come here. What brings you here?”

“I come here for fresh air.”

“And nothing threatens you?”

“No, to tell the truth.”

“But you’re one of us.”

“Correct.”

I knew what he was talking about, but still I kept bothering him. It’s hard for me to accept that one of ours doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. I told him that I was reading Primo Levi, and recently Jean Améry. “I don’t read,” he said, short and sweet.

“So what do you do?” I asked, and I knew nonsense had left my mouth.

“I’m a practical nurse in a hospital,” he answered and turned his back to me.

That night I wandered on the seashore for hours. I felt like a child whose face had been slapped. A few people tried to make conversation with me, but I slipped away from them. I circled the seashore on every side and returned to the lair toward morning. I was tired and didn’t turn on the cassette player. I sat in my armchair and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was already noon. In my sleep I had been far away and tangled in some argument whose remnants clouded up my mind. I didn’t remember what the argument was about. I just knew that my adversary had logical, detailed reasons, and I just repeated a single word like a fool. The more I repeated that word, the rounder my adversary’s face grew. Finally he stopped reciting his sharp arguments in my ears and a kind of thin mockery, the mockery of a victor, broke out on his lips. I was about to tell him, don’t make fun, but the words stuck in my throat. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat at the table. The pungent coffee seeped into me and made me forget the nightmare. Toward evening I went down to the grocery store, bought what I needed, and returned home with a feeling that I had to muster my forces and strengthen myself.

Before an hour passed, the special delivery postman knocked at my door and handed me a letter. My wife is the only one who sends me special delivery or registered letters. Happy Birthday, she wrote on a pink greeting card. I wish you years of happiness and health. I was about to rip up the card and throw it in the trash. The thought that, after many years of separation, she remembers my birthday stirred a hidden sadness in me. I put the letter on the table and rushed out of the house. On the way I remembered that I had delayed responding to Tina for many days. In her last letter she had praised Bible verses and mentioned our Bible commentator Nechama Leibowitz, who had shed light on several obscure passages. That objective letter actually made me weep.

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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