First Edition | Proseby ellen ullman
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This week marks the debut of “First Edition,” an exciting new offering that features original works by Northern California Jewish authors and poets. In the first issue of each month, j. will publish a poem and an excerpt from a piece of new fiction. Our aim is to inspire readers with Jewish-themed poetry and fiction, showcase the best new works by local Jewish writers, and nurture an active Bay Area Jewish writing community. The fiction section is curated by Oakland writer Ilana DeBare, the poetry section by San Francisco poet and teacher Joan Gelfand.
Setting the scene: It is the mid-1970s. Through a thin office door, the narrator of By Blood overhears the therapy of a young, adopted woman, whom he knows only as "the patient." He learns that she was born in the Bergen Belsen displaced-persons camp after the war, to a Jewish mother. Surreptitiously, he helps her find her birth mother, Michal Gershon, who now lives in Tel Aviv. In this scene, the narrator listens in as the patient tells her therapist, Dr. Schussler, what happened when she first met her mother.
Your mother, said Dr. Schussler. You found your mother.
No, said the patient. I can’t call her that. Mrs. Gershon. I found Michal Gershon.
Ah? How? What? asked the therapist.
Completely on impulse, said the patient. I bought a ticket from a travel agent, flew stand-by to Tel Aviv the next day.
A mistake. A disaster. The worst experience of my life.
The patient was silent for several seconds. Dr. Schussler’s venetian blinds banged against the sills in the faint, hot breeze. The street was strangely quiet, deserted because of the heat.
There’s only one good thing about it, the patient went on. I don’t have to worry about mothers anymore. I’m free of all mothers. Adoptive, birth, natural, first, second, blood, not. She laughed. I’m Mutter-frei. You’ve heard of Juden-frei, free of Jews? Of course you have, being German, I suppose. Europe cleared of all the Jews. Well, I did better than Hitler. I’m Mutter-frei.
Suppose you tell me what happened, said Dr. Schussler.
What’s there to say? When someone says to you “Get out of here! Never try to contact me again!” what else is there to say? Want to hear it in her own voice? Here. I brought a cassette recorder. It’s all cued up.
There was a click, then a voice in a scratchy recording shouting:
Do not look for me again! I beg you: Never again try to contact me!
The patient immediately clicked off the recorder.
Okay, so I got it a little wrong. She didn’t exactly say, Never try to contact me again! She said: Never again try to contact me!
The patient said nothing more for several seconds. The venetian blinds rattled and bumped. All the while one could hear the slish of Dr. Schussler’s stockings as she crossed and recrossed her legs -- one could almost feel the stickiness of her thighs as they suffered in their nylon casings. She was extemporizing: What should she possibly say in reply to that shouting voice?
Let us put aside the recording for the moment, the therapist said finally. First let us talk about your decision to go to Tel Aviv. Tell me how the trip came about, how you made your decision.
It was an impulse, said the patient. As I said. It would cost a fortune to fly to Tel Aviv at the last minute. But I’d just received a bonus. Why not go? I walked into a travel agency. Plane, hotel, done.
I had to change planes in New York, and all the while there was a little whisper in the back of my head saying, You can turn around; you don’t have to do this. Just the same, I kept going.
The patient stopped, coughed, adjusted her position in her chair.
And so you went on, said the doctor.
Yes, I went on.
Then what happened?
Tel Aviv was not what I expected. I don’t know what I thought it would be like. But I wasn’t prepared for everything being new, white, concrete, a city built all at once, it seemed. And then there were the soldiers, young men and women everywhere in uniform carrying Uzis. People my age and younger, walking around with machine guns slung over their shoulders the way kids here carry a book bag. There was a beachfront, also unexpected. Hotels lining a crowded shore on the Mediterranean. Sparkling sun.
The receptionist at the hotel told me how to get to Michal Gershon’s address. She didn’t live in Tel Aviv proper, but in a suburb. I had to take a long ride in a stifling, crowded bus. My stop was on a dusty street. There were no shops, only a drive-in restaurant advertising “shashleek.” The counterman spoke some English, and he directed me to a narrow street of three-story apartments. They seemed shabbily built, not old but already showing cracks. It was mid-day, the sun directly overhead. Cool breeze. Hot sun. I was the only one out on the streets. I found the house number, walked in, went up two flights, and was facing the apartment door: Mrs. Gershon’s last known address.
It was an out-of-body experience. I felt nothing at all, no fear, no anticipation, nothing, as if the concrete that built Tel Aviv was in my veins. I was just this body performing an action. Knock, knock, knock.
There was no reply. I knocked again and waited. Still no one.
Then a voice called out something in Hebrew, then in English, Who’s there? And the head of an old woman -- about seventy, seventy-five -- poked out of a neighboring door.
I’m looking for Michal Gershon, I said.
Who’s asking? she said.
I’m a friend from America, I told her.
She eyed me a moment, then said that Michal Gershon had moved to what she called “a nicer place in Jaffa.” I had no idea what she meant, where of what “Jaffa” was, and simply asked her if she would write down the new address for me. Which she did, finally saying, Tell Michal she could remember once in a while where she came from.
I thought it was a strange thing for her to say. I left with a noncommittal nod.
I went back to the hotel to cool off, and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was dark outside; the clock said eight. With my jetlag, it took me a few seconds to remember that I was in Tel Aviv, and on the dresser was the real address of my birth mother.
Then the words of the woman at the door of the old apartment came back to me. Tell Michal she could remember once in a while where she came from.
It seemed to be a warning.
The patient paused.
A warning not to go. It told me Michal Gershon is a person who likes to leave her past behind.
Then the patient fell silent. She sighed and shuffled about in her chair, scraped her feet on the carpet, withdrew a tissue from the nearby box, coughed, sighed, and coughed again. Moments floated by on the heat.
But you did go to Jaffa the next day, said Dr. Schussler.
And there you found her.
I took a bus to Jaffa, the patient continued. There were little cobbled streets going off in all directions. I got turned around, lost. I sat down at an outdoor cafe, ordered iced tea, and handed the waiter the scrap of paper with Michal’s address. Did he know the way? He was a tall man of about fifty, an Arab, clean-shaven, wearing jeans and a shirt open at the collar. He laughed and pointed across the narrow street.
There is a courtyard, he said, just to the right. Michal’s little house is at the far end. Under the curving stone wall. And tell her Schmuel says hello.
You’re Schmuel? I asked him.
He laughed again.
No. But that is what she calls me.
He waved away my attempts to pay for the tea. I thanked him with the little bit of Arabic I knew.
Shokran, I said.
Afwan, he said, with a small bow.
This Schmuel suddenly seemed…well, propitious. I had no plan. I didn’t know what I’d say when Michal Gershon opened her door. I couldn’t say, I’m your daughter. Or Hi, Mom. Now I felt he’d given me a sort of passport. I could say, Schmuel says hello.
I went where Schmuel directed me. I crossed the road. Went into the courtyard, turned right. And it was just like he said. A curving stone wall. Under it a house. Made of the same stone, so it seemed part of the wall. But with a door. And windows. A fairy-tale house.
The door was a hard, solid piece of wood. With an iron latch, an iron handle.
There was no choice now: Knock, knock, knock.
I don’t know how long I stood there until I heard steps , a voice, a young voice, with a thick accent saying something, maybe in German.
I said: Do you speak English? I’m here to see Michal Gershon.
The door opened a crack. A young woman looked at me. She had blond-gold hair, green eyes, white skin, cheeks like apples.
Schmuel sends his greetings, I said.
Ah, Schmuel, she said laughing, opening the door and waving me in.
Schmuel: my magic word, my open-sesame.
Then I saw things in flashes. A dark room. Heavy wood furniture. Embroidered tablecloths. Doilies on chair arms. Bare walls. No pictures, not even family photos. I followed the young woman who’d let me in. A big strong girl. She called out in German to “Frau Gershon,” maybe saying someone is here, I don’t know, I’m guessing.
She led me around a corner, then into a small, dim room. The window shades were drawn, but there was a gap. A slice of light broke through it -- brilliant, dusty, opaque -- like a scrim. Behind it was a figure. All I could see was a shape, bent over, but otherwise only a shadow. For some seconds, nothing happened. The figure did not move.
Behind me, the girl sang out something in German.
When suddenly a face burst through the light. Her mouth was frozen open. Her eyes were startled wide. They rolled back and forth over me.
Otherwise her face was still, a rictus, stricken. Then tiny muscle movements began rippling over her features -- the muscles twitching but paralyzed, the way a dreaming dog trembles in its sleep -- as if waves of emotions were running through her, but in fast forward, so it was bizarre, almost comical.
What? I wanted to shout. What! What are you seeing! Because I knew whatever was going on was set off by the sight of me. I was a part of those racing expressions, a player, but with what role? The ripples of memory kept running across her face. Meanwhile, her body was fixed, hidden behind the beam of light, so that the whole drama was being played out with this head suspended in a cloud.
Gerda! she abruptly screamed, going on to yell curses in German at the girl who had led me in -- even I understood they were curses.
Then she stepped forward through the light.
Now I could see her, head to toe, in the low, even shade of the room. She was sturdily built, broad-shouldered, of medium height. She had blonde hair, high cheekbones, a broad clear brow. She looked young except for her bent posture -- I noticed now she held a cane. She would be beautiful, I thought, weirdly, if her face were not tied into a knot of rage.
All the while, she kept screaming in German, walking toward me, waving her cane, until I understood she was trying to force me out, the way you’d use a broom to shoo a dog. I was instantly angry, thinking, How dare you treat me like this!
But you know me! I screamed back at her, walking toward her, putting up my arm to ward off the cane. I saw it on your face. You recognized me immediately. You know who I am!
No! No! she answered me. Go away! How did you get in here?
You know me! I kept shouting. You know me!
The girl Gerda came up beside me.
Please to leave, she said, taking my arm.
I jerked it away and said, No! You know who I am!
Michal raised her cane as if to wave me away again. And then, all at once, she deflated. That’s the only way I can describe it. A long breath came out of her; her head and shoulders shrank down; her back slumped. She said, “Ay! What is the use?” then stumbled toward an upholstered chair and sank into it, head down, eyes focused between her knees, her left arm hanging limp over the cane, like a rope.
Gerda, bring me something to drink, she said in a mixture of German and English, still looking at the floor. Tea, she said. And whiskey. Then she looked up at me and said, And something for... something for this girl.
I sat down -- there was another upholstered chair, catty-corner to hers. She looked straight ahead, not at me, and we said nothing. This gave me time to look at her more closely, and I saw that her eyes were very brilliant, maybe blue or green -- I couldn’t tell exactly in that light -- and that her skin was exquisite, pale, translucent, without lines except for a few delicate sketches at the sides of her eyes.
Suddenly it came to me: Mother -- my adoptive mother -- wanted me to be pale like Michal, pale and blonde and light-eyed.
I don’t know how long I sat in that chair wishing I were dead. Two blonde mothers and there I was: an alien, not appearing to be the spawn of anyone.
The tea appeared on a tray. The whiskey. Teacups and saucers and little pitchers of cream. Gerda served me a cup, put in sugar and cream without asking. She did the same for Michal, but with a shot.
Michal took her first sip. Then she said, very slowly, dropping each word like a rock into a pond:
I hoped you would never know anything about me.
She had a beautiful voice: low, resonant, accented with a smooth blend of several languages I couldn’t identify -- a voice so beautiful that the meaning of her words did not penetrate for several seconds.
So you just wanted to be rid of me, I said.
She winced. That is not it at all, she said.
She sat back and sighed. How did you find me?
A librarian at a Catholic adoption agency in Chicago.
You are an American?
Yes. I live in San Francisco.
Too bad, she said. Americans. Ignoramuses all. Ill-educated, overconfident people. I had planned for you to be a European. How did you get to America?
All I know, from my mother -- adoptive mother -- that the Church was looking for Catholic homes for babies, some of them Jewish, who had been sheltered with the Church during the war. Europe was in tatters, and there were more takers in the U.S. than in Europe.
I see, she said, staring away from me.
Well, she went on, at least you are a Catholic.
No, I said. I was brought up Presbyterian.
Ah! Even better!
What do you mean? I asked.
Now she turned to look at me, calmly, surveying me for the first time. Emotions played across her face again, but slowly now. Tiny frowns, surprised eyebrows, fleeting smiles -- they might have meant anything. Then she simply gazed at me. She looked at my hair, my mouth, my chin. And then into my eyes. On her face was an expression of love so powerful, so open, that I realized I had never been loved in the whole of my life. Then the emotion moved on. Her eyes turned cold.
I wanted to make sure you would not be a Jew, she said.
You can hear the BBC recording of “Hatikvah” as sung by the internees at the Bergen Belsen displaced-persons camp online at: http://www.fsgbooks.com/byblood. To hear Ellen Ullman in conversation with Dan Schifrin of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, visit http://www.thecjm.me/TSBpodcast
Ellen Ullman is the author, most recently, of the novel “By Blood.” Her past works include “Close To The Machine” and “The Bug: A Novel.” She lives in San Francisco and New York.