by Laurent Sagalovitsch
Translated by Sandra Smith
I only learned of my grandmother’s death several months after she died. By a strange coincidence, I found myself in my mother’s apartment when the news reached me.
Two weeks every year, at Chanukah, I left Montreal to go to Tel Aviv, staying at the apartment where my mother had spent the last years of her too short life. An aggressive form of lung cancer killed her when she had just turned fifty and I was thirty. I had just begun my career as a lawyer, which I would give up a few years later to dedicate myself to teaching. I had hurried home from Paris where I’d been living to take care of her. When her cancer was diagnosed as at a stage that was too advanced to be treated, my mother refused to go into the hospital. A nurse herself, she knew only too well what to expect and preferred spending the little time she had left living in her apartment on the Avenue Ben Yehuda.
I slept on the sofa in the living room while my mother, too tired to get up, stayed in bed, her windows, that overlooked the sea, opened wide so she could watch the sea all day long; and as night fell on the chaotic hustle and bustle of the Rue Ha-Yarkon, I tried to get her to talk to me about her past, about her childhood, which she never wanted to tell me about, about her parents; she simply remained silent as I questioned her, or if I pressed her too much, she would shout that she couldn’t remember.
On very rare occasions, when I would back her into a corner, when I spoke of things besides her outward signs of internal suffering and badger her with questions, she would start to howl in German, sharp words she would hurl in my face in a tone of voice that was broken, jerky, angry, as if the words were burning her tongue; then she would lock herself in her room for hours.
I had begged her, threatened to never speak to her again, to enlist in the army to punish her, to run away abroad where she would never hear from me again; I’d held her tightly in my arms, urging her to give me even a hint of an explanation, broken down in tears in front of her, implored her, smashed an entire set of dishes – all in vain. She never gave in.
I didn’t have a normal childhood. I knew nothing about my father. My mother had never lied about him for the simple, good reason that even she knew nothing about him. One night when she couldn’t get to sleep, she had gone out for a walk beside the sea, and walked all the way to Jaffa to tire herself out. On the way home, she had stopped to sit down on a bench and watch the sea when a man appeared out of nowhere and had asked her, with a simple nod of the head, if she would mind if he sat down next to her. He had started to smoke, offered my mother a cigarette, which she had accepted, and the two of them had sat there, in silence, listening to the sound of the waves washing up along the shore. It was as if time had stood still, and when their eyes finally met, in the darkness of the night filled with stars, feeling the warm sea breeze, without even needing to say a single word, they both knew how they would spend the next few minutes.
Many years later, my mother still did not know why. It was meant to be, she said again and again. Simply meant to be.
The slightly damp sand had welcomed their entwined bodies, the beach had held its breath, the moon had looked away; at dawn, they had each gone their separate ways without even bothering to say who they were, without exchanging a single word, knowing each other only through the pleasure of their brief embrace. Everything was just perfect, like in a silent movie, my mother recalled when I pressed her to tell me, for the hundredth time, the story of her only encounter with my father. She never tried to see him again. Even when she had to resolve to accept that the doctor was not mistaken when he promised she was going to have a baby, even then she did not do anything to share the news with the creator of this unusual surprise. She had patiently awaited my birth, unconcerned that I might suffer from being deprived of the presence of my father. Or, more precisely, thinking that the man, whom she had met at the crossroads of chance and destiny, could not be real.
My mother was a solitary woman. I never knew her to have friends, let alone lovers. Her days off were spent at home, sleeping, or spending hours on end on her balcony, watching the sea. Her telephone wouldn’t ring for days at a time, she never seemed interested in anything, she hated getting dressed up and bought her clothes by mail, she always refused when I asked her to go to the movies or the theater with me, she lived frugally, ate food out of cans or from the freezer, never went on vacation, didn’t read, and the only vice I ever knew her to have were the cigarettes that she chain smoked. The hospital where she worked was a few streets away from her house, she always took the same route to go there and back, she never ventured beyond that perimeter, and if, after interminable debates, she agreed to visit me, I had to go and pick her up, then take her back, as if she was afraid she might get lost. She never complained, never asked about my life, welcomed my academic or professional successes with barely a little smile of satisfaction, as if she had never doubted me or it wasn’t really important, she never made the slightest remark about my girlfriends, didn’t ever seem particularly sad or particularly happy, just resigned, detached from the contingencies of existence, impervious to the reality of the outside world as if, in fact, her life didn’t really count. As I grew up, I understood that something inside her had broken, but until I received that piece of mail, I could never put a name to the nature of the damage that was eating away at her and led her to behave as if she were hiding from her own life.
It was December of 1998.
My mother was no longer of this world, but once a year, during Chanukah, I would visit her ghost and stay at the apartment I’d inherited and which I loaned to friends the rest of the year. Every day, in the late afternoon, at the time when the sun was setting, I would go to the bench where the encounter with my father had taken place. Staring out at the horizon, my hands in my jacket pockets, a cigarette between my lips, wearing a cap, I would sit and think about what that event must have meant in my mother’s life. I liked to think that it was a sort of enchanted digression, when, for one night, she had been at peace with life. A moment when she had decided to forget herself in the arms of a man, forget who she was, what her life might have been, and allow herself a chance to belong to this world, to accept its rules and to participate, in her own way, in moving forward.
On that night, I was going down the beach, walking on the sand where my father had captivated her: I stayed for a long while, crouched down, watching the night fall, then, slowly, I headed back to the house. A bulky envelope was waiting for me in the mail box. It was addressed to my mother and had a German postmark. On the back was written “Von Herr Krauss. Notar. Weisbaden. 65183. Germany”. Inside was an old notebook; the corners were tattered and its cover was all wrinkled; there was also the kind of notebook you had in school, and a typed letter.
Dear Madame Kaplan,
I regret to inform you of the death of your mother, Madame Vera Kaplan, known as Vera Schwartz.
She took her own life on May 2, 1998 in her apartment located at 24 Rue Frederick in Wiesbaden, in the Republic of Germany.
Having been unable to contact you, I proceeded by default as her testamentary executor when she was buried, on May 5, 1998, in the Wiesbaden municipal cemetery.
Her grave is located in section D, number 26, third row.
Her headstone has no inscription for the moment – it will be up to you to decide the nature of the words to be engraved on it.
In her Will, she indicated that all her possessions, her apartment, her furniture and rare books (you will find enclosed a complete list of them) were to be left to you or, by default, to your lawful descendants.
Also mentioned was the fact that she has had no contact with you since 1946, so she did not know your address and consequently instructed me to find you.
In order to successfully conduct my search, she left me an envelope containing her Will and the sum of three thousand marks in the form of six 500 Mark bills (you will find the detail of my expenses on pg. 2).
As you can well imagine, it was extremely complicated for me to find you and I would have undoubtedly failed if, when inspecting her apartment to compile a list of her possessions, I hadn’t stumbled across the two documents which I have included along with this letter.
It was obviously not my intention to read them, as their most intimate nature was quite obvious.
It was only after exhausting every legal method possible to try to trace your whereabouts, police records, hospital registers, census bureau, etc., that, as a last resort, after much procrastination, I took it upon myself to consult them, desirous as I was to carry out the final wishes of the deceased.
I must say that their discovery has been of the utmost importance. Otherwise, I greatly fear that all my efforts to find you would have been completely in vain. Reading them carefully allowed me to learn the circumstances under which you had been separated from your mother.
It would take too long to enumerate in detail the steps undertaken to reach my goal; the very fact that you are receiving this letter nearly eight months after your mother’s death should, nevertheless, explain the numerous difficulties I have faced.
Suffice it to know that after much trial and error, I finally found the name of the organization that, after the war, dealt with cases such as your own. It no longer exists but its archives have been conserved by the Ministry of Defense. After battling with the administration for a long time, I was finally authorized to consult them, and was thus able to read your file in which I found mentioned the name of your foster family in Israel. Thanks to the German embassy in Tel Aviv, it was possible to obtain their address and thus, one thing leading to another, sometimes at the margin of legality, I was able to find you.
Before closing this letter, I must clarify a few points of procedure:
Your mother’s apartment has been sequestered until further notice.
According to the realtors I have contacted, the sale of the apartment should yield, after taxes and payment of inheritance fees, something in the region of 180,000 marks, that is, given today’s exchange rate (1 mark = 4.64 shekels), the sum of approximately 800,00 shekels.
The value of her furniture and the books in her collection is valued at 15,000 marks (70,000 shekels).
If you would be so kind, please contact me as soon as possible, by return, with your instructions concerning your inheritance. I remain, of course, at your entire disposition for any additional information on the matter.
It would be a great pleasure to meet with you in my office should you decide to come to Wiebaden.
I am aware of how shocked you must be to learn of your mother’s death in such a sudden way, and the circumstances surrounding it, and I beg you to accept, Madame, my most sincere condolences.
It is important to me to conclude this letter by telling you that while my relationship with your mother was strictly professional and, alas, hardly close enough for me to retain any true memory of her, reading the documents I found allowed me to get to know a woman who was utterly fascinating.
Yours most sincerely,
Von Herr Krauss