(an excerpt from the novel)
Sometimes you win when you admit defeat, but not with me. I would rather tilt at windmills, even the old and decrepit kind, the way they are now, Götz and Meyer, if they are alive. I never met them, I can only imagine them. I’m back where I began. This is what my life has turned into: stumbling, looking back, starting anew. One of those three lives I was living in parallel, maybe even a fourth. The rest continued to follow me, unchanged, and I’d wake up like Götz, or Meyer, eager to work, and go to sleep like a 13-year-old boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and repeating words in a language that made his throat ache. None of my relatives in the camp could be described as a 13-year-old boy, nor do I know where he came from, nor which life he belongs to. Götz and Meyer are also unable to help me. If we had remembered all those faces, they say, we’d remember nothing else. The boy kept popping up, and on one occasion, instead of my own hands, I saw his, clear as day. He was clutching a mug of milk and he was thirsty. He was in me that day, when, in a voice squeaky with excitement, I proposed to my students that we spend our next class in a hands-on demonstration. Although beside themselves at the thought that they wouldn’t have to be in school, they wanted to know what was going to happen. The boy had, in the meanwhile, faded, leaving me to respond. It was going to be about the difference between the tangible world and art, I explained, but also about the similarity between an instant of reality and a figment of the imagination. I was pretty busy for a few days. I had to find a school bus, collect money from the students, work out the route, get my thoughts together. This last item was the hardest for me, I admit. Then on the family tree, in a forgotten corner, I found a distant relative, a Matilda, who had died in 1929. I never learned anything about her, as if she was cloaked in a family secret. I couldn’t find her grave in the Jewish cemetery, even in the overgrown Ashkenazy section. Because of her I went to see the Jewish cemetery in Zemun, although none of my relatives ever lived in Zemun, with the exception, of course, of those months they spent at the Fairgrounds camp. And so, taking care that Götz and Meyer didn’t notice, I explained to myself that poor Matilda must have died in childbirth. The boy who was born then, who had been dragging the prickly Hebrew words out of my throat, came from her extra-marital affair with a man whom she never betrayed. The boy was given the name Adam, and Matilda, as if her death was not enough, was dropped into the deep well of forgetting. Her photographs were ripped up, her old school books burned, her clothing given to charitable organisations. How it happened that Adam was never entered onto the lists of Belgrade Jews, I’ll never know, but his name was not on the summonses distributed in December 1941. Despite that, and despite the advice of the aunt whose home he lived in then, Adam packed his little suitcase on the evening of December 7, before he went to bed. Along with some underwear and a warm blue jersey, he packed the white shirt and black trousers that had been set aside for his Bar Mitzvah, and two apples which he took from the cupboard in the kitchen. One of these would be filched by an unknown boy who would threaten to beat him if he cried. He didn’t cry. I told all this to the students while we drove around town on the bus. I spoke over the driver’s sound system. I held the microphone in my right hand, and I clutched my notes in my left. There was nothing in the notes I didn’t already know by heart, I just needed them there as encouragement. The faith in paper is odd, as if history is no more than a trace of ink, as if paper is more enduring than everything else. I clutched that wad of paper like a thief snatching a squash from a field, claiming that all he was trying to do was find shelter from the wind. I stood there, arms akimbo, to keep my balance as the bus rocked like a boat, which I referred to as Noah’s Ark. If there was a wind blowing, I didn’t feel it. While I was speaking, the driver hummed a melody to himself so at the moment when the boy walks with his aunt towards the truck, I had to ask him to stop. He did so, reluctantly, but he whistled a bit from time to time after that. Not all drivers are like Götz and Meyer, I have to say. They always knew when it was time for a song, for whistling, for yodelling, and it was duty first, and an order, even when expressed as a request, had to be respected. This is where it all began, I said as we got to George Washington Street where the Special Police for Jews were stationed although it might be better to say, I added, that everything ended here. And, of course, I continued, now it is clear and sunny, but you have to picture the December gloom, a chill morning, shivers that engulf the entire body. They had locked the front door for the last time, picked up their suitcases and set out. Adam stood and watched as his aunt turned the key in the lock and pressed the door handle and then, as she was leaving, straightened the skewed mat. They must have had at least an inkling, like all the rest, that they would never be back, and that they probably were setting out on the road their husbands and fathers had already taken, but they struggled with it, as you could see in the way they walked, interrupted by quick shudders, brief flights from the truth. They themselves fled, hoping that they would arrive where they were headed as someone else, that they could go back to their flowers in their pots on their windowsills while that other person kept walking towards the building housing the Special Police. Only Adam was there, heart and soul, because even if he had wanted to, he had no-one to flee to, nowhere to go back to. He held his little suitcase, ready, at last, to set out into the world. The driver whistled softly between clenched teeth. His whistling was closer to hissing, but I recognised the tune. Now I’d like to know, I said into the microphone, what would you have done in his place. Silence washed over the bus like water clumped from a basin. Even the driver turned. I waited. First a girl with long blond hair spoke. She pushed her fringe out of her eyes and said that she would take her hamster with her, that she couldn’t bear the thought of little Ćira, which must have been the hamster’s name, staying behind without her. My life without Ćira, she added, would be nothing. The rest all spoke at once. Apparently my students owned an entire zoo, and they would not leave their homes if they had to go without their dogs, cats, parakeets, canaries, turtles, rabbits, ant colonies, praying mantises. The boy with a ponytail? was the one who had the praying mantises; he kept them in jars and sometimes let them tight. Even the driver piped up: he kept pigeons. I’m sorry, I said, but the instructions are clear and allow only clothing, bedding, dry food for three days, that sort of thing. Why, this is inhuman, exclaimed the blond girl. This time she didn’t brush her fringe aside, and her eyes flashed angrily behind her hair. If we keep this up, I thought, they’ll report me to the Society for Protection of Animals, but aloud I said: That is the difference I want to talk about, the fact that you keep imagining reality as if it were an artwork in which you have a choice, while in the tangible world there is no choice, you have to participate, you cannot step out of what is going on and into something else, there is nothing else except what is going on, whether you like it or not, and that means you must feel the cold taking over, and you must have at least an inkling that you will never be back, and that you will never see your pets again, and that your rooms, as you left them, will soon be entered by people for whom none of your mementos, none of those little things you fuss over, will mean anything. The blond girl began to cry. She sobbed and sniffled, and wiped her tears away with her arm. Adam, however, did not cry. He climbed up into the military truck, sat down on the wooden floor, hugged his suitcase. Around him women and other children crowded in, and in that jostling, surrounded by excited voices, he felt a certainty he had never known before. He wanted the truck to leave soon, and the ride to last long. The truck did leave soon, 1 told them, though the drive did not last as long as Adam hoped it would. Through a gap in the tarpaulin, Adam saw people in a queue, then the buildings began to move by faster and faster. The driver nodded, turned his key, shifted gears, pressed the accelerator. The blond girl had stopped crying. She was staring at the floor and, if I saw rightly, was chewing her lower lip. 1 should have given her a handkerchief, now it was too late. I spread my feet further to keep my balance, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop swaying, as if I were inching along high above them on a loosely strung wire. The route we are taking, I said into the microphone, is not, of course, the route they took, but the final result is the same: after the city comes the bridge, after the slopes and cliffs stretch the plains. They say, I went on, that plains are soothing, and there is truth in that, though this holds more for those who live there than those who carry at least a hint of uneven terrain in their feet. They, like all sailors on dry ground, do not know how to walk through these peaceful expanses, and they tend to trip even when there are no obstacles to trip over. Turn round, I said when the bus got to the bridge, and look at how the city is getting further behind us and closing up at the same time, and how although it hasn’t budged from where it was, it seems to be fading. All the students turned and peered over the backs of their seats, even the driver glanced into his rear-view mirror several times. You might talk about that as a physical pain, 1 said, as if someone is tearing patches of skin from your body. I heard several gasps, but no-one turned back to me. They stared at Belgrade as if it would disappear any minute. Only Adam remained quiet, crouched in his corner, unmoved by the general excitement, sighs and sobs. If he felt anything, it was excitement at the prospect of a journey, he had never travelled anywhere before, with a suitcase no less, and he started thinking of the books he had read. Children of Captain Grant and In Desert and Wilderness. He had even started writing a story not long ago about a boy, a stowaway on a boat that sank somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. He got off with a few of the sailors, in a boat that had no oars, no food or water, and here he stopped, and couldn’t figure out where to take the story next. The river they were crossing, of course, didn’t much resemble an ocean, but water is water, isn’t it? Everyone agreed. Some things are simply accepted without the need for a lot of convincing. When the truck crossed over to the other shore, Adam thought of a huge city, entirely of glass, in which you could see the endless blue of the sky. The reality, of course, at the Fairgrounds was something else entirely, but no less exciting than the one the 13-year-old boy was imagining. He got up early in the morning, shivered during roll-call, tasted the watery soup, watched them carrying away the dead, and yet at certain moments he couldn’t repress the happiness he felt that he was experiencing it all. He knew that he was in the middle of the greatest adventure of his lifetime, and he did not want to miss a single part of it, although he was no different from that little boy in the boat who was dependent on the whims of the sea’s currents. Adam didn’t understand the currents that were sweeping him along, but he could sense their force, and he soon realised that there was no point in resisting. But what happened, asked a student in a checked shirt, to his prayers? I never mentioned prayers, I answered into the microphone, all I said was that he was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, when he was to come of age in his faith. I did say that. And he really had been working at it, I think, repeated to himself the part of the Five Books of Moses that you are supposed to read in Hebrew. I do not believe I convinced the student in the checked shirt. At that age, suspicion is a constant companion. On that point, of course, Götz, and Meyer were not so different from them. They trusted only Germans, anyone else might cross over and join the enemy at any moment, if they hadn’t already done so. They even cast suspicious glances at each other now and then. The enemy has been known to crop up in the most unexpected places. By this time we had arrived at the Fairgrounds. Before that, we passed a hotel and business premises entirely of glass, quite similar to those in Adam’s fantasy, and which never would have occurred, for instance, to Götz and Meyer, although they drove their truck through this area countless times. They were thinking of other things: of where they were born – a place somewhere, I assume, deep in the German or Austrian Alps – but no need to rush things, the time would come for Götz and Meyer, indeed. First I told the students about how the camp was organised, no, first we walked around in silence, I allowed them to sense the space, I prepared them for what it used to look like, and only then did I begin to tell them about how the camp was organised, the accommodations, the daily schedule, the workshops, the living and the dead. They stood huddled in a circle around me, as if they were afraid to step back at all. They had already known, of course, that they were on a journey with no return, but hope kept them from truly believing that. There can be no doubt that the greenery contributed, the dense greenery that had surrounded the Fairgrounds on all sides, so that from far away a person would be convinced he was coming to a wooded area, and once he stepped into the tangle of shadows, he might think it was a park, rather overgrown, yet still a park. So I slowly erased it all, that greenery, removed it leaf by leaf, picked up every twig, until nothing was left but the bare, decrepit buildings, standing in a void. Nothing is more awful than a void, nothing more present than absence. After all, I told them, that was how Adam felt: he was here, but actually he wasn’t, just as the camp, despite its overcrowding, consisted of an empty place in which every step echoed like the blow of a hammer on an anvil. Do you understand what I’m talking about? They didn’t. They looked at me and blinked, the way people blink when they are startled by a gust of wind or the sun bursting through the clouds, and what would they do it I were to ask to hear how their teeth chatter, their stomachs growl, their joints creak? Adam heard all those things, from other people and from himself, especially at night, when he had to bite the pillow to stop his teeth from chattering and curl up in a ball to quiet the howling of his stomach. By day, he’d double over with a nasty cramp cinching his stomach in a steel vice, but even then he kept his eyes open, because someone had to see it all and remember every humiliation, every escape into madness and flight into dreams, every bit of frostbite or bruise from being struck by the butt of a gun or kicked by boots. But why, said a girl with spectacles, when, at the end, he would, I mean, since he knew, he had to know, that after everything else the only . . . She didn’t finish her sentence. She couldn’t say the word die, as if she would be taking her own life by saying it. Götz and Meyer would certainly have understood her: they didn’t use the word either, instead they spoke of “moving” or “processing”, using the euphemistic German terminology in which no things are what the language usually calls them but are something else, a reality taking place within unreal coordinates. Memory, I said, is the only way to conquer death, even when the body is forced to disappear, especially then, because the body merely goes the way of all matter and spins in an endless circle of transformations, while the spirit remains in a transparent cloud.
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac