“Excuse me …” I said. “I think I know you … we’ve met somewhere before …” She looked at me with an air of curiosity that quickly changed to suspicion.
“Avivele, come!” she said to the little girl who had been hiding behind her mother’s big blue shopping bag.
It was a hot morning in the month of Tammuz in Ramat Gan, at the hour when mothers take their children to kindergarten, doing their shopping on the way back.
She was a dark-haired woman in her late 30s with heavy eyebrows and, around her temples, fine wrinkles that looked like rays of light radiating from her dark eyes. She walked away without responding. I felt guilty and wanted to remedy my error, so instead of looking after her I hastily turned my back and opened my morning paper.
Today my bus was late. I stood leaning on the bus shelter, leafing through my newspaper. I remembered her face very well—I wasn’t mistaken. Or was I? No. I had met her, about 10 years ago. I had been taking this bus every morning for two years now, and she must live near here, so why had I not encountered her before? The khamsin is going to blow today. The coolness of the night still lingers in the air. What’s the news in the paper? I realized that I had no idea what was in the newspaper. Just big, screaming words. I had been standing there for half an hour, staring at them without taking them in. I crumpled up the newspaper and stuffed it into my pocket.
The unknown woman was coming back from the kindergarten. Avivele was already playing with the other children. The heavy shopping bag weighed down one of her shoulders. She had the early morning freshness of an oleander in full bloom. I laughed at myself. No, I simply had to give her an explanation, so that she didn’t think I was the sort of man who would rudely accost an unknown woman in the street.
“Please don’t be offended at my speaking to you again. I wouldn’t have done so if you hadn’t just been passing by while I’m still waiting for my bus. I do know you.”
I said these words with an urgency and certainty that even surprised me. She put her shopping bag down on the pavement and looked at me silently.
“I traveled across Ukraine with the Soviet army, and somewhere in a shtetl in Volhynia I met you. It was a strange encounter. Don’t you remember the Russian soldier who talked to you in Yiddish? Have you forgotten a night journey in a truck with two armed soldiers?”
She wrung her hands and her lips began to tremble. “I don’t know you. I don’t want to know you!” she shouted. Her vehemence made me certain that she was the woman I remembered.
At last the bus came. I was grateful to the driver for saving me.
The whole day I thought about what had happened that night in the shtetl in Volhynia. I really didn’t want to remember it. What sort of stupid curiosity had driven me to address that woman? Why did I have to remind her of those days? No, it wasn’t just curiosity. It was absurd vanity, a subconscious desire to remind her of my noble deeds. If I had done some good then, I was destroying it now. Not just destroying it but trampling a human being underfoot with my soldier’s boots—a human being who had managed to escape from a swamp and reach the shore.
The next morning I met her again at the bus stop. She was wearing dark clothes, and I didn’t see the blue shopping bag. She looked as if she was heading into town, and I wondered if we would be taking the same bus. I didn’t greet her, but she came up to me and said: “I’ve been waiting for you for an hour. I didn’t know exactly when you would be traveling. I have to speak to you. Perhaps I was a bit harsh yesterday, but that wasn’t my fault—it was yours. Come!” she ordered me.
I followed her. She led me through several little alleys. On the small balconies people were beating rugs and hanging out clothes. The milk sellers were already returning with empty cans. She walked in front of me, and when I tried to catch up she increased her pace.
We went into a municipal park. Her silence was making me uneasy. I felt that something was going to happen, and I was starting to feel afraid of her.
She suddenly stopped, and I saw that her face was fiery red.
“Erase that night in Volhynia from your memory. The woman you met then is dead. She doesn’t exist anymore. Another woman lives in her place—not far from here, in her own villa with a garden. Her husband is a civil engineer. She has two children, a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. It’s not just the children who were born here—I was reborn, raised from the dead. Why have you shown up? What do you want from me? Remember, we don’t know each other; we have never met. It is a horrible mirage.”
“Yes, it was surreal: a dream that you and I both dreamed simultaneously. Forgive me,” I said. “I have really made a mistake: It wasn’t you.”
Despite myself I smiled at her. I wanted to show her that I didn’t take the incident too seriously, but apparently my smile came across as sarcastic because she became angry. I had the feeling that she despised me.
“But you don’t want that woman you met to be dead. That would destroy the legend of your great achievement. You want to revive my shame for the sake of your pathetic egoism, just so you can pat yourself on the back. I despise you. You have come to call in a debt. I’m sure you would have liked me to respond to you with warm, humble, grateful words, to invite you into my home, introduce you to my husband and say to him, ‘This is an old friend I met in those difficult times.’ You would have kissed my children, bowed politely as you left, and been happy and proud of your behavior … wait, don’t walk away. Don’t be a coward. Have the courage to hear me out.”
She sat down on the uncomfortable bench made of eucalyptus branches. She had calmed down, and her face was no longer burning but pale. Her upper lip was damp with little drops of sweat.
“When you met me I was 20 years old. I had been hiding in the woods among peasants for three years. A Ukrainian had raped me in the forest and left me lying in the snow. He returned at night with bread and warm milk and took me to his home. I lived with him until he was murdered. A comrade of his shot him. ‘You’ll be my lover now,’ said the comrade. ‘He is lying by the pond in the forest.’ I wept. I was 18 years old. ‘Take me to the pond,’ I demanded. We walked through the night under bright stars and a full moon. Yes, it was Apanasyev lying there. Although he had mistreated me, I loved him. Hritsko said to me: ‘I will save you, Jewess,’ and he threw me down onto the cold forest floor, not far from my dead lover’s body. I lived hidden away in his house. He threw a party every Sunday, and I had to come and sing for them, and I began to sleep with his comrades from the forest. I had to; they forced me.
“Then Hritsko disappeared, and I was left completely alone. When the first Soviet divisions arrived, I ran out into the village street shouting, ‘Take me away from here! Save me! I am Jewish!’ A Russian officer took me to a little shtetl and installed me in a comfortable dwelling. The next night he came with lots of food and vodka. He left at dawn. His name was Volodya. I didn’t see him again. Instead, he sent someone with a note from around Rovno. They say his grave is beside the river Horyn. Then his comrades started coming to see me. They were always drunk, and I started drinking as well. Then they began to turn up one at a time. ‘How did you manage to survive?’ one of them asked me. I laughed drunkenly. ‘You slept with Germans, and with Ukrainian bandits.’
“I wept, I screamed, I laughed. ‘It’s all the same to me,’ I said.
“Then a young Russian officer appeared, his lips pressed together, a lock of his black hair falling over his left temple. He spoke to me in Yiddish, and when I heard the sound of the language I wanted to weep. But I had no tears left. He didn’t want to drink with me, and he left.
“In the middle of the night a truck drove up and two Russian soldiers entered the house. I heard their heavy footsteps on the porch and saw the dazzling light of their lanterns.
“‘Citizen, get dressed. Come with us—you’re under arrest.’
“I stood there in my nightdress, screaming, ‘Why?’ But it didn’t help. They gave me 10 minutes. They were stern and silent. I sat in the open trailer of the truck between the two soldiers. We traveled for an hour, and I recognized that we were on the road to Rovno. I knew then that they weren’t going to kill me. If they had been bandits in disguise, they would have shot me immediately. I don’t know why, but as we approached Rovno, when I saw the first little houses of the suburbs, I started to sob. Perhaps it was the memory of my childhood and of my parents, who had perished in the town.
“The truck stopped; the driver’s door opened swiftly and a soldier jumped onto the back platform. The two other soldiers stood at attention. I immediately recognized him in the gray of the dawn—it was the young officer who had spoken to me in Yiddish.
“‘Don’t be scared. Nothing bad will happen to you. You are free. We’ll find a place where you can live among Jews. In Rovno there are some 30 Jewish families. I’ll bring you to an elderly Jewish woman, and you can live with her. Remember, if you come back to the shtetl and lead the kind of life you were leading, you are done for. Stay here, and later, when it is possible, you can go on to somewhere else, along with other Jews.’
“I lay there curled up and didn’t say a single word. I was thinking: Let them do what they want with me. It’s all the same to me.
“I had an iron bedstead in a miserable, half-ruined house that I shared with another woman. From time to time they brought me money and food. I knew that it was sent by the black-haired officer who had spoken to me in Yiddish. And now you have turned up. I know that it’s you. Tell me, why have you suddenly reappeared out of the forgotten past? Is it sheer curiosity? Is it perhaps … no. I don’t know why. Go away—be well. … Everything I have told you was invented, a lie, a mistake. My life has started now, here, in my home, with my husband and children. Forget, and let me forget.”
She went away and did not even look back.
I said to myself: “All this was a mirage, a daydream in Ramat Gan. It is an unhappy invention. It is not true.”
Mendel Mann (1916-1975) was born in Płońsk, Poland. When World War II broke out, Mann fled to the Chuvash Soviet Socialist Republic, where he worked as a teacher before enlisting in the Red Army. The family emigrated to Israel in 1948. In 1961 he moved to Paris to work for the Yiddish newspaper Undzer vort (Our Word).