Commentary Magazine


Pillar of a Cloud
A Story

Eva Rosenfeld is by profession a sociologist, trained to the notation of facts; but the “facts” often demand that special quickening of perception which belongs to fiction. Miss Rosenfeld here embodies in a short story some of her experiences with the homeless children in an Israeli immigration reception camp. It is her first published story in English. 

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Janet had arrived late in the afternoon, was introduced to the manager and some of the tutors, saw the children walking around the camp, had supper in the big wooden shack, and after a little formal talk went early to bed. Now, lying on the narrow bed in the bare whitewashed room, she tried to define the flavor of her first impression.

It was a new reception camp for orphaned children recently arrived from Cyprus, capacity, three hundred. Beyond this, she had known nothing except its location on the map in the Youth Immigration office in Tel Aviv. Her friend there had suggested that she go and look around to see if she could find in the camp the “plain useful work” she had been plaintively demanding ever since the outbreak of the war; after weeks in Tel Aviv, embarrassed by her own uselessness in the midst of frantic activity, she had accepted the opportunity immediately.

There was the sand and the dreary barracks and the children—squat, ugly girls, prematurely full-breasted, humiliating to see in their skimpy city dresses; the thin, proletarian, underdeveloped boys and girls with wise-looking faces and big, sad, brown eyes; the big boys, detached and condescending in their suddenly achieved manhood; the five or six beautiful girls, silent and resentful, conscious of their beauty amidst such ugliness. They moved around the small, bare enclosure, bedraggled and graceless in the shimmering air humming with a fierce dry wind. They moved in a low key, subdued by the sun, parched and open-mouthed. The earth had no chance here against the heavenly fire, against the Eastern winds; it died without a struggle, uncovering its nakedness and skeleton-like stones. Only with human sweat could the sun be mastered, but here on this piece of land the Englishmen used to camp and the Englishmen did not bend their backs to earth that was not their own. So they left it to the and it was dead among the green fields of the surrounding settlements.

But all this was natural in this country of living and dead, where existence was chiefly meaningful as a projection of the faraway past and the uncertain future. This was it, she reflected now—and she found it impossible to connect this place with any past expectation or previous image of her own—the place was so fearfully present, insistently concrete and real. This was it. Was it simply the sun and the nakedness of the camp? She gave up finally and pushed the troubling thoughts determinedly off. Falling into a heavy slumber she was visited by old, familiar nightmares, long absent and thus more painful. She awoke several times and looked out at the bland sleeping barracks, shut in against the green moonlight, deaf to the barking of the jackals.

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She woke up heavy-headed, sticky, and swollen. With a shudder she thought of walking out into the hot glare. She was to have a look around the camp and see what sort of work she might fit into. She was given in charge of Esther, the assistant administrator, and spent the day trailing after her around the camp. Soon the children and the camp itself fell into the background and Janet found herself being absorbed by Esther.

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The immediately arresting thing about Esther was her resemblance to one of the great, film actresses. It made one think of some incredibly Hollywoodish film. Esther had pure, honest, girlishly severe and yet soft features. She was delicately built but not fragile. She wore a clean, well-cut sports dress and her hair was neatly combed. She walked briskly about the camp, her eyes quick to notice all the little things out of order, quick to correct, put in place, punish and reward. She had a little smile for the obviously inadequate excuses of the guilty and yet she was exacting and full of self-righteousness. Janet trailed after her and observed her, greedily, fascinated. This beautiful, soft-chinned, full-lipped creature exemplified the Law. The Law was simple. It said that anyone caught in the open scissors of the need to dispense charity will inevitably give in to the hopeless inadequacy of what can be done and escape heartbreak by erasing the individual from his mind and substituting, instead, the proper fraction of the mass. House-mothers and such could afford to see the human being, but those who were centrally responsible for the distribution of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, to hundreds and thousands of people, and were not given enough food, clothes, houses, physicians, if they wanted to survive at all and continue with their work, had to protect themselves against the individual by denying him. They would develop principles and techniques, and before they themselves knew it the spirit of God would be dead in them.

It was not their fault. They had been good and generous maybe, and wanted to give new shoes to all five hundred children; but there were only three hundred pairs and so two hundred children had to do without. One had to learn the tricks of doing this, because all five hundred children wanted new shoes and needed them; but some still had a wearable old pair and some had none. It was an elementary arithmetical problem—to which there was no solution.

During the first day it was decided that Janet would help Esther in the wardrobe house, and in the days that followed Janet had an opportunity to observe the victim of the Law in the seemingly early stages of petrification. With all the children all the time Esther was reserved, her friendliness was cool and her informality curt. She brushed them with her eyes and if she looked at them at all it was to see if they were lying. Even with little Sarah, a pretty little old woman of eight who had lost both her parents during the war and was wise to the ways of this world, even with little Sarah, whom Esther often gave special attention, she was severe, as if she feared that the child might take advantage of her. She did her utmost to help the children and she thought of their welfare long after working hours, but she would not have the children think they had a right to be cared for. “It hurts me so,” she said to Janet one day, after one of the children had refused to accept an old and worn-out shirt (a gift from America’)—“It hurts me so! When they came here in rags from Cyprus they were grateful for everything they got. Now, after only three months, they are already choosey.” For a moment Janet, who had been following Esther’s movements like a shadow, was so taken in by her sincerity that she doubted herself. But she recovered when a moment later Esther said to her, thoughtfully, “You know, I was told that one of the girls to whom we gave a piece of linen for a pillowcase made herself a blouse instead. I am worried now that they will all do the same thing.”

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There were times when a child suffered some childish agony because of a trifling thing that could easily be adjusted; Esther did not take notice. There was the time, for instance, when one of the slim, pretty girls, delicate and obviously from a “good” family, neat and clean in her worn-out dress, came to ask for a pair of shoes; she was going to visit an aunt in Haifa. Esther pointed to a bundle of old shoes in the corner: “See if any of those fit you.” There were new shoes in the other storeroom, shoes from America, and the children knew. But to the girl’s mortification one pair of old, worn-out shoes did fit her and she could not argue with Esther’s triumphant, “There, they fit perfectly!” Janet stole an embarrassed glance at the child’s unhappy face and looked quickly away. It was out of the question that she interfere—she felt as helpless and as indignant as the child.

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But as yet she did not look at Esther; she looked only at the Law. Only after several days did she begin to think about Esther herself. Janet was working in the second storeroom arranging the clothes “from America” according to size and type. Two little girls were helping her, picking up various items from the huge pile of dresses and coats and estimating their sizes. Among the garments were many charming little dresses for infants, unusable in this camp for older children. Many of the dresses were “sweet” and “darling” little things, hand-embroidered, lavish with lace and trimmings. Janet was embarrassed at feeling herself identified, in the eyes of the two children, with this world of pampered, safe childhood. The pink and blue silks and laces had no place here—they were offensive. But the two little girls did not seem to mind; they delighted in each new charming, silly little thing, clicked their tongues in wonder and giggled happily. At one dress they both exclaimed; a white baby dress with big red appliqué apples on it.

“Oh, please!” one of the girls said to Janet, “please, could I have this for my sister’s baby?”

“Yes, of course, take it,” was what Janet wanted to say. But she did not want to give out anything without Esther’s approval, and she knew that, in principle, such gifts were strictly taboo. She revolted at the false realism of this institutional principle. Life was not so poor—it was more generous, less exacting. You could get things in life for a smile—you could win, find, be rewarded. You weren’t always pushed down to the level of the lowest denominator of charity. Well, then why not, for God’s sake, why not here? Wouldn’t it be better for the children to know that someone else had a piece of luck than to feel that no one, ever, had any luck?

But to the child she said, “I couldn’t decide—you must ask Esther.”

“yes,” said the girl, hope fading, and she put the little dress aside.

Shortly afterwards Esther walked in, listened to the girl’s halting pleas, answered curtly “No,” looked briefly at the dress, took it, and walked out with it.

For a long time the three worked in silence, too crushed to react, avoiding each other’s eyes. It was then that Janet began to feel that maybe the Law was not a sufficient explanation of Esther’s behavior. And from this moment she began to lose interest in her. Human frailty was too familiar a sight.

Or maybe it was only that she was now getting to know more and more of the children and her interest had just naturally shifted in their direction. She was working in the main wardrobe house now and was called on to help fit shoes, trousers, dresses, and shirts. She watched their faces flushed with excitement, their fingers trembling as they handled the second-hand clothes, their elation or disappointment. She realized, with wonder and embarrassment, that here for the first time she was learning from these children what it meant when one had just one shredding pair of pants and a shirt too tight for the growing body, what it meant to try on a pair of new shoes, stiff and shiny, after having gone barefooted for months, years, maybe always. She shrank from the naively misplaced thankfulness of the children whenever she managed to fit them with something new. In her confusion and utter discomfort she tried to concentrate on observing the children, their behavior, words, games. “I will think about all that later,” she determined, “when I leave this place. Not now.” She felt very tired at the end of the day, dry and lifeless.

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The three little boys were going away for the weekend and they came into the storeroom to get their Sabbath clothes. Janet remembered their faces because they were always together and also because the smallest had the kind of stolid, serious face that always moved her in children. She would see him in the evening sitting on the steps of his barracks and watching others play. Whenever he was scolded, he would do whatever he was told in the manner of a superb footman following the orders of an erratic master, without protest and without fumbling but at his own pace, detached and dignified. He was the older of a pair of twins—he had told her once—half an hour older. He was also the brighter of the two, although his twin brother was taller. They were twelve years old but the smaller looked no more than seven and the bigger no more than nine. The third boy was always with them and had the same quiet, serious, and unflinchingly honest way of acting. They had met somewhere in Germany after having spent the war years in Russia, where their parents had died. They were inseparable—and now they were going away for the weekend together.

Some of their clothes had been misplaced and Janet led them to the back of the storeroom where lost articles were neatly arranged on shelves. She stood back and watched the boys examining the various items of clothing, discussing, rejecting, recognizing one piece or another as their own, helping each other to remember, to find. They were eager but, again, they kept their pace. There was a sense of measure in their world which few men live to achieve in their old age. It was this quality of maturity which Janet so prized in them. What she felt toward them was primarily respect, a deep, humble respect such as she seldom felt toward anyone. Finally they found what they needed except for some socks which the older brother had in his valise in the main storeroom, at the other end of the camp.

She walked out with him, key in hand, into the dry, sandy, humming heat. They walked slowly and heavily in the soft sand. A hundred yards before them the wind whirled up a column of dust which stood still, whirling, gray against the white merciless sky. “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud to lead them the way”—she thought to herself, smiling faintly.

They walked in silence. On the way they were joined by two other children and together went up to the door of the barracks. Janet opened the lock and they walked into the dark storage shed filled with stagnant, musty air. The boy went directly to his bag and opened it with a key hanging on a long chain attached to his belt. As he lifted the lid of the valise a gray mouse ran out and scurried across the floor and out of the barracks. Janet and the two other children laughed, but the boy only smiled and shook his head reproachfully as he pointed to a pair of trousers, new, with the Jewish Agency card’ still pinned on, in which several large holes appeared. Now he took out all the neatly arranged things, a sweater, also new and also shredding, another pair of trousers, towels, socks, a shirt. Suddenly all four of them crowded around the valise let out a little shriek: there, huddled between a towel and a pair of brown socks, three tiny, wriggling mice were suddenly exposed. They looked disgustingly naked, like little pygmy pigs, and one of them had a white stripe across its pink body. But the boy gave no sign of disgust. He took a torn shirt out of the valise and gathered the three little mice in it. Then he walked slowly out with the weakly wriggling bundle and threw the mice out into a ditch next to the barbed-wire enclosure. Returning, he shook his head again and said, “Now, let us have a look down to the bottom.” And lo, there was a fourth mouse, rather half alive, at the very bottom of the valise. This one, too, he took in the torn shirt and threw out. Then he replaced his belongings neatly, efficiently, locked the valise, thanked Janet, and walked out, always at his pace.

At lunchtime Janet saw the three boys and yet another small boy with a peeling red nose now all dressed up for the trip in boots and high socks, khaki shorts and blouses and farmer-style soft hats with brims pulled down all around. They ate in silence, concentrated but helping each other to more bread, margarine, soup. The meal over, they got up heavily and walked out together, looking grotesquely like a group of diminutive farmers setting out for the market. She felt somehow proud for them, for their self-sufficiency, for the firm world they had succeeded in creating for themselves—their little society.

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Late in the afternoon, she was startled to J see them suddenly standing in the door of the storeroom. They had come to ask for the key to their cabin. “The man we went to see in Hedera has left already. There was no other place we could go to spend the night, so we decided to come back.” They looked sideways and, after receiving the key, walked away, a silent little group. At supper Janet was afraid to look in their direction—she was afraid they would still be silent and beaten. But to her great relief they were behaving quite as usual, concentrated on eating, helping each other to more soup, carefully dividing the grapes into equal portions. Then they walked off together and from their purposeful gait she gathered that they had some plans for the evening.

Janet said “Shabbat Shalom” to Esther and walked out of the dining hall. Walking slowly down the hill she beheld the setting sun and the sand softly aglow and the calm dome of the darkening skies. She looked to the left where this morning the wind-blown column of dust had been stretched like a threatening finger against the white, glaring sky. But the air was clear and still and, instead, she saw at the bend of the road leading out of the enclosure into the green fields, the now distant figures of the three little boys out for a Sabbath evening walk.

She watched them until they turned left on the broad white road and disappeared in the darkening green of the lemon orchards.

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