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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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Tel Aviv, 1948. (Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos)

Chapter 1

Tel-Aviv in July is a sticky city. You can’t touch a railing or lean against a wall. I bought a pair of gloves to separate myself from the murky substances that surround me.

Everything is sweaty, and I spend hours in the shower. But the steamy sweat outside penetrates my house, sullying the air and stifling. I turn on the classical music station and sit in an armchair. An hour or two of music pluck me out of the boiling pot and restore my thoughts to me.

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Only toward evening do I dare to leave the house. Even at six o’clock the heat doesn’t disperse. I flee to the sea and fool myself into thinking that I’ll find a little cool air there. That’s wrong. Only late at night does the sea wind reach the shore, slightly release the tension in my limbs, and cast slumber upon me. Once I fell asleep on the sand and woke up at dawn. Since then I’ve been careful. When I feel slumber gripping me, I gather all my strength, cross the streets, and steal into my lair. Then my small, eternal dilemmas arise: should I open the west window, turn on the fan, or maybe the air-conditioner? The air-conditioner is the enemy of my bones. I only turn it on when my distress is acute. If it weren’t for the winter, it’s doubtful whether I could keep going in this place. At the end of March I start longing for winter.

In the winter I’m another man. I open the my apartment door and step out, standing straight. My hat and coat immediately give me privacy, and I feel isolated. People who scurry about always depress me. In the winter few people are in the streets. I walk along them, and my liberty returns to me.

Not many years ago I used to bathe in the sea during the winter. Now I don’t allow myself luxuries like that. I go out and enjoy the open sky, the chilly air, and the empty streets. In the winter I return to Devora’s small café. Devora remembers me, asks me how I am, reminds me that I wasn’t there all summer long. It’s hard for me to explain the tangle of my life to her. I hate explanations and interpretations. I do what I do, but I never explain. In that respect as well I’m a strange creature in this city. Here arguments, excuses, and explanations are very widespread and acceptable. At night I sometimes hear a man walking and explaining to his wife why he refrained from doing the greatest deal of his life. You never know what’s an explanation, what’s a deception, and what’s just boasting. Talk, in any case, wearies me.

Sometimes it happens—actually it did a year ago—that in mid-July clouds cover the sky of Tel-Aviv, as if rain were about to fall. Rain didn’t fall, but a pleasant coolness blew in from the sea for for a few hours. Miracles like that happen once every three or four years, but that’s enough to pluck me out of despair and restore the desire for action. But why complain all the time? I live the life that suits me. I have a roomy apartment, a nice shower, a device that produces classical music, a library, and savings sufficient to support me.

True, women ruined my life, but not without leaving a few pleasurable memories. Not of my ex-wife, of course. From her all that’s left for me is the buzz of words. I’ve learned that only passing, swift meetings are bearable. The rest is just a tangle. It’s better to long for a woman than to be with her over time. I have a good memory of Tina, who lived in Jaffa, actually in Jibalia, in the fifties. I met her several times. Every moment with her is imprinted in me. Her eyes when I entered her room, the way she stood and let down her hair, took my coat, bent her back when she served me a drink. She didn’t ask who I was or what I do, as people do, and I didn’t ask her, as though we had both agreed that, while the past was important, its importance wasn’t decisive.

Tina was thirty, maybe less. She had a nobility that’s already disappeared from the world. All her movements said, “Let’s be good to each other, as much as possible. Who knows what tomorrow has in store for us?” She was like all of us, a refugee, but refugee nature didn’t cling to her. She spoke fine German and French, like all well-brought up girls from my home town of Czernowitz. Her words were few and shaped with grace. She apparently knew what it took me a long time to learn: words are only confusing or wounding or leave a prolonged dispute in the soul, and it’s better to avoid them.

One evening she announced that she intended to travel to Africa and work as a nurse in Albert Schweitzer’s hospital. She spoke about the trip in an ordinary voice, and that deceived me into thinking she only intended to stay there for a short time. Later I learned she had converted to Christianity and gone to live in a convent to prepare herself for a monastic life. Now I know I wasn’t worthy of her. A woman like Tina you meet only once in your life. I apparently didn’t know how to appreciate what was given to me.

Afterward I sought tranquility with many women. As I have yet to reveal, they only left muddy feelings. Sometimes it seems to me that the women aren’t to blame, only the city. A city subject to the fiery sun’s dominion, to humidity and sticky sweat, can only produce clumsy words. The words, like the fans in cheap cafés, don’t bring relief or understanding, just buzzing.

Everything buzzes here. No wonder big, boisterous women pop up in every corner. Fat men sit under tattered awnings, and streams of sweat drip on their faces. Who are they? How did I end up here? How did I get to be their neighbor?

Sometimes it seems to me that everyone is trying to escape the sweat and the noise. The sticky sweat won’t break up, the noisiness grows from day to day. From my apartment it sometimes sounds like series of curses and sometimes like violent merriment.

I’m considering installing double windows and doors to separate myself once and for all from the sweat and the turmoil. Clumsy words and sticky sweat are a murderous combination. More and more I burrow into my apartment, and the thought that I don’t belong to this turmoil hugs me the way the bunker did during the war.

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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