Bialystok 1939 – Fred Skolnik

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Fraida and Liba had their babies toward the end of June. As they were both boys, they had back-to-back brises. This was Fraida’s third son and fourth child so Liba asked Yisroel if he was now going to open a fourth store. Yisroel said he would but not right away, there were too many uncertainties in the current situation. By this time Yoel had arrived, so Emma was not entirely present in spirit at these events. Instead she held his hand very tightly outside the circle of guests gaping at the mohel and his little charge. The Warsaw contingent, however, was not even present in body. They promised to see everyone at the wedding.

A week later Dina turned up. The screams all around the building made Emma think someone had died again. But the opposite was true: a body risen from the dead. She had a long and convoluted tale to tell about her travels, having arrived by sea via Denmark and disembarking at Gdynia near Danzig, then taking the train down to Warsaw and back up to Bialystok.

Everyone studied her very closely, trying to read in her face what had transpired in her life since leaving Bialystok five years ago to live in Warsaw and then in Paris, with only a couple of short visits in all that time. What they saw was a twenty-four-year-old woman who had remained a girl, much like Liba in that respect, her face somewhat drawn but still beautiful and the defiant look still in her eyes. That was how she looked back at everyone now.

Dina was not going to explain herself. She felt a little alienated from the family. She was amazed at how the children had grown, though Emma was just a slightly more mature version of what she had been the last time she’d seen her. The aunts and uncles, on the other hand, hadn’t changed at all. Everyone was asking her questions. She did not feel inclined to confess that she had become neither a poet nor a playwright though she’d slept with quite a few. She was not really happy with herself. Nothing in her life had been resolved.

Later she went downstairs to see Liba. Liba was in bed with her infant while her little girl was sitting on the floor with something gooey smeared on her face.

“You’re getting fat again,” she said to Liba.

Liba screamed like everyone else and jumped out of bed to embrace her. They danced around for a minute or two and after Liba asked all her questions, Dina said, “How old is Yetta now?”

“Two,” Liba replied. “Do you want to be her cousin or her aunt?”

“I’m her second cousin. That’s how it works.”

“Let’s be sisters then.”

“You’re out of your mind.”

“I’ll talk to Chava. You can be her sister too.”

All through the day the cousins arrived to say hello, first Yisroel and Fraida with their four children and then Tadek and Zissel and their two boys and then Mina and her three children. Chana and her husband arrived too and then her brothers, Daniel and Eliezer. A little later Yoel arrived so there was now a competing reception line. Emma introduced them and Dina looked him over very thoroughly. He looked like a hundred other boys she had known in the movement, intense and dreamy at the same time, and very cute with his curly black hair. Emma was clearly smitten so she was happy for her, remembering that Emma had once been her protégé.

Later Dina was bedded down with Emma in Tadek’s old apartment, now Emma’s as she understood it, and they had a long talk about life and love. Life for Emma was Eretz Yisrael. Dina said nothing to dampen her enthusiasm. About Paris Emma didn’t ask a single question. Dina might just as well have been talking to a rebbetzin for all the curiosity she displayed about the City of Light. “Are you a virgin?” Dina said.

“Of course,” Emma replied.

“You don’t have to rush things. If you don’t feel ready, you can put it off.”

“What?”

“Penetration. Just let him kiss you and feel you up a little until you’re in the mood.”

“You haven’t changed,” Emma said.

“I should hope not.”

“Are you going back to Paris?”

“Not in this lifetime.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Maybe I’ll go to Palestine with you.”

“Really?”

“Peut-être quand l’enfer sera gèle.”

“What does that mean?”

“Quand les poules auront des dents.”

Hinda did not take to the cosmopolitan version of Dina, referring to her as “that vulgar child.” Dina also smoked now, getting the cigarettes from her mother. At a certain point she also put on a beret. Ester didn’t know what to make of her, nor how to respond to her, whether to embrace her or scream at her. To Chana she said, “What’s wrong with her?” Chana said, “She must be tired after such a long trip.”

Dina spent the summer hanging around the house, mostly with Liba. Emma spent the summer with Yoel, mostly in the den, where they were both working as counselors, and afterwards in the woods or in his house as Dina was still sharing the apartment with her. Dina said, “Don’t worry, I’m going back to Warsaw after the wedding. I’ll move downstairs to Zeide Yeisef’s place a few days before.

Emma said, “You don’t have to move. You can have the other room.”

“Don’t be crazy,” Dina said.

Once or twice, when Dina was out for the day, she did bring Yoel to the apartment and again they lay fully clothed on the bed and kissed and touched each other for what might have been an hour. They were a little worried about their certificates now as they kept getting the same answer in the movement, namely, that they were working on them. Yoel told her that boats were being organized to sneak past the British patrols so they could also get to Eretz Yisrael illegally if they had to.

“Do you have boots?” she asked him.

“We can take our hiking boots.”

“Isn’t this exciting?” she said.

“It’s our real life,” he replied.

“We’ll just take backpacks,” she said. “We don’t need too much clothing.”

“What about our books?”

“You can carry the books. I’ll carry the clothes.”

“The books will be heavy.”

“Maybe we can take a trunk then.”

“Or two. We might as well take all our things.”

“We’ll see,” Emma said. “We don’t have to decide now. Let’s talk about getting married.”

“Let’s just kiss a little. That’s better than talking.”

“I wish we could take off our clothes.”

“We’ll do that after the wedding.”

“That will be nice,” Emma said, and then: “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Yoel said.

By the beginning of August they had their date and their rabbi and their guest list. In the end they’d taken a little hall so that they could invite some movement people too and in effect say goodbye. A week before the wedding the Germans and the Russians signed their nonaggression pact and everyone began to prepare for war while the Lefkovitzes prepared for the wedding. Windows were taped and sealed and provisions were stocked and sorted in dark cellars. A few days later the Warsaw contingent arrived on the crowded train – Tomek and his family along with Rivka and Faiga. They were naturally happy to see Dina safe and sound. Tomek stayed at Tadek’s place and Rivka and her girl stayed with Yisroel while Dina moved in with Yeisef as she’d said she would. Alone, Emma contemplated her satin wedding gown and wished she could get married in what she wore every day. Nonetheless, she was also coerced by Hinda into going to a hairdresser as well as having her nails done. As long as she didn’t look in the mirror she could pretend that she was still herself and even phoned Yoel to assure him that her horrible hair wasn’t her idea, having made the mistake of forgetting what Hinda had done to it back in the Liz and Harry days.

All the women had in fact gotten new outfits. Some came from the factory store, some from Warsaw, so they spent the week making adjustments, with Jadzia crawling around on the floor with pins in her mouth or tailor’s chalk in her hand to mark up hems. The older men complimented the younger women, calling them stunning. Sonia looked somewhat matronly now, which perhaps suited her as the mother of the bride. Hinda wore chiffon, Ester a plain suit and the sisters something from the last century. All the young girls wore bridesmaid’s dresses and the boys long pants and white shirts.

Then the wedding party began to move, meeting up with guests outside the hall, including Yoel’s parents and two sisters with their families. It was a warm evening. The sky was clear. Yisroel transported the bride and later the groom in his little Fiat. Basha led the first wave of children into the hall. These included Shmul, Faiga and Moishele. Kaila marched in at the head of the others. The toddlers and infants were brought in by their parents. Finally they were all there, enjoying cocktails and canapés. The movement people stood off to the side, not quite sure whether to approve or disapprove of what was going on. Faiga said to Basha, “I’m missing a piano lesson for this, and I have my recital in another few weeks.” “What are you reciting?” Basha said. “Chopin and Liszt,” Faiga said. “I can recite Bialik,” Basha said.

Yoel hadn’t seen the bride yet. Emma was in another room, seated on a kind of throne, surrounded by the children and the rest of the family and even having a canapé or two and something to drink. Everyone told her she looked beautiful but she really didn’t feel like herself. It was Hinda who stood nearby and acted as a kind of usher, extending her arm like an orchestra conductor to direct everyone’s attention to her and occasionally pointing out some feature in her gown as though she had designed it herself. Hinda had denied herself such a sense of proprietorship at Szlojme’s wedding, since she had despised his bride at the time. She would soon be sixty but nevertheless felt that these were the best years of her life. She would not have said that she had ever been deeply in love with her husband, and might even have been prepared to admit that this was largely due to her own deficiencies, but she tolerated him now and was able to use him for her own purposes instead of being constantly at odds with him. Izak was smoking a cigar, together with Pesach and Rubin, and she did not resent him for it as she might have in the past, however irrationally. She even smiled at him and he smiled back. This was the usual signal, when they went out together, that she would be receptive to him in bed and caused him to have a little erection. He also had some drink in him now so he was feeling buoyant. Rubin, on the other hand, still resented Hinda. He would go to his grave despising her. He looked around for Ruchel, always feeling a little more comfortable when she was in the vicinity. Instead he saw Mina and her family standing off to the side like poor relations. Shaul had incredibly worn his workingman’s cap. Mina looked forlorn. Then Tomek and Tadek came in with their beautiful families. He preferred to admire them from a distance as he was not very adept at developing conversations and never knew what to say to the wives so he would bluster a little and they would look at him somewhat blankly. Sarka came in with Eliezer. Pesach waved at them. “That’s a woman,” he said to Rubin. “She sure knows how to dress,” Izak said. “How to dress,” Rubin added. Ester spotted them too and looked around for Pesha, whom she had taken under her wing and was determined to see safely through the pregnancy. “Where’s Daniel?” she said to Eliezer. “I think in the other room,” he said. “Here’s Chana.” Chana kissed her mother and then kissed Sarka. Michel kissed Ester too. A few minutes later Daniel came in with Pesha, holding her arm as if to support her. She was in her sixth month and looked a little peaked. They all asked her how she was feeling and now Pesach joined them so the family circle was complete with the exception of Dina, whom Ester was beginning to think of as not really part of the family any longer or at least not someone whose actions reflected on it in any way. Otherwise she no longer had very much to complain about. Like Hinda, she had arrived at a relatively quiet place in the latter part of her life, feeling, if not entirely fulfilled, then at least a sense of resolution with the coming of the grandchildren.

Fraida came in with Rivka. Yisroel was apparently still chauffeuring people around. Without him, Fraida looked a little lost. They really did complete each other. Her perfume and jewelry and powerful body counted for little if Yisroel was not there to validate her, so to speak. Rivka looked comfortable anywhere, not by virtue of fitting in but as a result of her indifference and self-containment. She had liberated herself completely from the pull of the family, cut loose in the vast space that was the outside world and exercising her own magnetic force, which now attracted Dina and right behind her, Liba. They had not seen each other yet so Rivka took Dina into her arms and kissed both her cheeks, saying “Ooh-la-la.” Fruma came over too to say hello, first to Fraida and then to Rivka. Liba had gotten it into her head to make a shidduch for her mother, who was only fifty-six. As crazy as the idea sounded to everyone, Fruma actually considered it and had begun to wonder what it might be like to be united with an active husband. However, she had left the matter in Liba’s hands, thinking she would follow through and begin to make practical arrangements. This was not, however, how Liba operated, so Fruma was still waiting for a call from the matchmaker. Chana, in any case, had put her on a diet and she had lost five pounds in less than a month.

Chana herself was beginning to think about having another child, as was Sarka in fact. They had talked about it and agreed that two would be enough for them. As both had boys, they both wanted girls, so it was if they had made a pact and shared a secret. Chana liked Sarka. She knew what she wanted, much like Fraida but in a less obvious way. If one were going to be a hausfrau, Sarka was the perfect model: efficient in the home and elegant enough to keep her husband’s interest up. Eliezer had fallen completely under her spell. Chana, for her part, preferred her own egalitarian marriage and her own loving husband. She lived best without distractions, in a narrow world, moving between the hospital and her home, caught up in her various routines, with a time and a place for everything. Michel was a little less regimented and could always take her out of herself when she became too single-minded. She was just thirty-two now and understood that she could still grow and thought of the years that lay ahead as a mountain that she must climb without ever knowing what lay ahead.

It was almost time to begin. Yeisef had arranged for a pair of badkhanim to lead the procession to the wedding canopy. The year before, with tens of thousands of others, he had completed the seven-and-a-half-year Talmud study cycle and had even had Yisroel drive him 150 miles to Lublin for the celebration. Now he felt as if he had fulfilled all his duties as a Jew and saw this day as a culmination though he hoped he would see other, no less joyful days as well. He instructed Yoel to approach the bride and pull the veil down over her face and then the two sets of parents escorted their children to the chuppah with the music playing and everyone clapping his hands. Then Emma circled the groom seven times and then the wine and the ring and the rabbi reading out the ketubah and the seven blessings and the groom breaking the glass and they were married.

Now the guests sat down to eat and Emma felt as though she had cheated life a little to be so happy. Yoel kept glancing at her and catching her eye with a smile of complicity, as though he felt it too. Sonia sat beside her and let their happiness wash over her. Her own happiness would never be complete again but sometimes it would be strong enough to obliterate the sorrow for a while though she thought less and less about Yudka as time passed. She called Chaya over and said, “You look very pretty.” Chaya blushed and said, “No I don’t.”

“Of course you do,” Sonia said. “One day someone will love you the way Yoel loves Emma.”

“I’m only fifteen.”

“Aren’t there any boys you like?”

“I’m too busy for boys.”

Sonia smiled at her. Chaya drifted away, feeling a little lost, so she looked around for Basha, but Basha was busy with what looked like one of her more elaborate schemes, leading a troop of children between the tables. Chaya felt a little alienated from her too. In the end she sat down to eat at one of the children’s tables, thinking about one of the boys in school and resolving to talk to him. That lifted her spirits a little. She could imagine walking in the woods with him and being kissed and then he would become someone like Yoel and they would get married and she would be a scientist and maybe he would too so she thought about Chana and Michel and hoped her life would be like theirs.

There was dancing between the courses and Emma and Yoel were lifted up on chairs and then dessert and everyone starting to leave. Yisroel drove his family home and then came back to get Emma and Yoel, delivering them to the doorstep of the big house, where they climbed the stairs holding hands and slipped into their apartment without seeing anyone and kissed a few times before getting undressed. Emma experienced none of the fear or nervousness she’d been warned about. Getting undressed was a formality, for she already felt united with her husband.

“Finally,” she said when they were in bed.

“Let me look at you,” Yoel said.

She was not shy at all. If anything, he was, just a little. They had the covers off and a little light coming in from the street. Now they faced each other and kissed for a long time just as they had kissed in the woods on their rock and in the hallway before saying goodnight but this time he kissed he breasts too and her leg was entwined with his as she clung to him, wanting to be swallowed up by him and even savoring the slight pain when he came into her and when they were finished saying, “Now I really belong to you.”

The next morning Emma woke up to the sound of an enormous boom or crash. At first, still half asleep, she thought something had fallen in the house; maybe a bookcase toppling over in the library as had happened once before. Perplexed, she turned her head, expecting to find Yoel beside her, but he wasn’t there. When she came into the salon she heard another boom, more distant, and saw the whole family gathered around the radio. The Germans had invaded Poland.

 

Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963. He is the author of two novels, The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) and Death (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015). His stories and essays have appeared in over 150 journals. In addition, he is the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. “Bialystok 1939” is an except from his novel-in-progress A Woman of Valor, which follows its characters through the years 1920-2000, in both Europe and Israel.

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