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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 8

In September and sometimes in early October my son Emil appears. I see him twice a year, in September and March. Sometimes he calls, but aside from those brief meetings, I don’t see him.

When he knocks on my door, my body shrinks. It’s hard for me to meet him. Meeting him cuts into my flesh. Let me say right away: he’s no different from other people, not in his manners and not in his way of speaking. On the contrary, in him you can see certain outlines of a person settled in his mind, but his essence is the absolute opposite of what I am. He has, I won’t deny it, several of my traits, but the build of his body, his movements, and his way of thinking are all his mother’s. When he was young, I hoped he would change. Not that I wanted him to resemble me, I just wished he wouldn’t resemble his mother. That hope dissipated fast. His mother’s features are stamped in him. Now he’s a copy of his mother. A person mustn’t be a copy, I want to shout every time I see him. Apparently features like his can’t be uprooted. They run deep in all his limbs. Even worse, in his thought—his thinking is like his mother’s: petty and practical. The thought that my son owns a mini-market shouldn’t disturb me. Lots of decent people, with noble thoughts, run small businesses, voluntarily or against their will. A person can run a mini-market and be perfectly respectable. My son Emil is all petty commerce. He seems to like that occupation, and he’s immersed in it up to the ears. I could be satisfied and say that it’s good for a person to be happy in his business. But what can I do? The thought eats me up, really and truly. When I wake up at night, Emil and his mini-market immediately flash before my eyes, and my body shudders.

He was five when I divorced Frieda. I used to see him once a week, sometimes more. In the short times available to me I tried to plant my thoughts in his soul. Sometimes he seemed to get it, but the years, his mother, the friends who surrounded him, did their work. I had no control over his upbringing. Often I would keep him with me until night so that he could view the sea and our people. I drilled it into him again and again, that I, and therefore he, are different from the others because of that. Different because we have seen and heard things that other people have neither seen nor heard.

When he was very young, my words used to inspire him. He would ask me questions, and with great enthusiasm I would heap up words. I would talk about nobility, greatness, and broad-mindedness. I would repeat to him that we had the responsibility to preserve the image of humanity. I loved his questions, and in the depth of my heart I hoped that one day he would summon up the strength to rebel against his mother, come to me, or run away and live in another city. I even hinted to him that if he wanted to go abroad, I’d help him.

But as he grew older, the attention he paid to me weakened. A suspicious tone accompanied his questions, something that weakened and annoyed me, but I didn’t let up. I wanted so much to influence him that my words sounded exaggerated and pathetic, even to my ears.

From year to year he resembled his mother more. Once, when he was seventeen, he said to me, “Dad, I don’t understand.”

“Not even after I explained to you?”

“No.”

“What isn’t understandable?”

“Everything.”

“I’m willing to start all over again,” I said angrily.

“You don’t have to, Dad,” he smiled as if he had caught me out.

Then I understood that his mother was sunk deep in his body. An ax couldn’t root her out of him.

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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