Commentary Magazine


The Survivor A Story

I met my cousin, Yitzchak, in Tel Aviv for the first time, about a year after the State of Israel had come into existence. He was the only survivor of that part of my father’s family which had remained in Lithuania until the outbreak of the war in Europe. At our first meeting he and I sat together on the terrace of a caf6 on the sea-front, looking out across the idle Mediterranean, which flapped its small waves down on the shore and glittered and winked in the distance, every little movement of its surface producing much light. Yitzchak asked me innumerable questions which I answered as well as I could, about the members of the family in South Africa, whom he had never seen, who were merely names to him; but I found, when he at last was finished, that there were fewer questions I could ask him. I knew already that he had been in Israel for only a few months, and was living in an immigrants’ camp; that the office in Israel which helped immigrants to trace their relatives had listed his name in the South African Jewish press; that the name had been seen by a friend of my father’s; and so—as I happened to be in Israel at the time—our meeting had come about. Yitzchak now told me that he supposed he would have to go into the army. He would like to go into some unit where he could learn a trade—he knew nothing, he said; he was uneducated; he hadn’t had time to go to school. No, he had no relatives on his mother’s side, neither in Israel nor anywhere else. He was quite on his own.

We were both silent. And I found that there was only one question that remained for me to ask Yitzchak. What had happened?

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* * *

What had happened? Yitzchak repeated the question. He swirled round the inch of tea which remained in the glass he was holding, and drank it down. He smiled faintly, and pushed the glass to one side.

He had lived. The others had died. Within a day of the German invasion, he told me, even before the Germans had arrived, the gentiles in the shtetl had fallen upon their Jewish neighbors. “All day,” he said, “all day they were gathering on the corners, talking and drinking. And then late in the afternoon they began. We were in our house: we heard them down the street, attacking other houses; we heard their shouts and the screams of the people inside. Then they were at our house. One, two, three times they crashed against the door, and it was down.”

He spoke calmly, without gesture or emphasis; and he continued in the same way, though there were times later when he fell into silence, staring away with an ironic, withdrawn, almost scornful expression.

“The first one inside was a young fellow, Peter, who had sometimes helped my father in the shop. The man behind him already had blood on his clothes. They stank: the smell came into the house with them. My father said, ‘Peter, think what you’re doing.’ My mother sat at the table, saying my sister’s name over and over—she lived with her husband in another part of the village. Then my father shouted, ‘Yitzchak, you run!’ and spread out his arms wide, to try to hold them back. I jumped out of the window, into the yard, over the fence. Some of them were chasing me. I heard screams behind me—everywhere screams. There was smoke in the air. And I ran—ran over backyards, over potato patches, under clotheslines, through ditches with water in them. Someone came out of one of the houses and tried to stop me, but I managed to push him over, and ran on.”

Their house had been near the edge of the village—“that was my luck,” Yitzchak said. So he was soon in the open. There was a clear space ahead of him, then the forest began. He looked over his shoulder. They had stopped running after him. He went into the woods. Even there he could smell the smoke. And he could hear the noise: it sounded like a fair-day, when the children scream on the merry-go-round. He went deeper into the woods. He didn’t come out of them until the war was over.

He had lived. In holes in the ground, in burnt-out villages, in trees; on berries, on raw potatoes, on the carcass of a dog, once; usually by himself, sometimes with small groups of other Jewish fugitives. Finally he had found refuge with a peasant and his wife, living in a lonely spot, who had known that he was Jewish, but had taken him in nevertheless. “Not like all the other peasants, who always ran straight to the Germans or the Lithuanian militia—when they found a starving Jew.”

The peasant lived in a clearing in the woods, miles from the nearest village, which was itself miles from any main road. He had a few pigs, a couple of goats; he grew potatoes and cabbages and a little corn; he chopped down trees for fuel. They were desperately short of food, of clothes, of everything. Still, it was an easier life for Yitzchak than what had gone before. He slept with the goats; but he had a roof over his head.

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Why had the peasant—at the risk of his own life—taken the fugitive in? At first Yitzchak used to wonder. It was true that the man needed help around the place, for he was old, his chest wheezed, and his left leg dragged. After a little while, however, Yitzchak decided that the peasant valued him more for the amusement he could provide than for the labor he could do. Before Yitzchak’s arrival the old man had had only his wife to bully, beat, and torment. A strong young Jew on the run, at his mercy, was a welcome change, offered a fresh diversion. He was a humorist, this peasant: that was what had saved Yitzchak’s life.

The old man was short and thickset—he must have been very powerful as a young man. His lower jaw protruded and was curved to one side, and his lips seldom closed, so that he looked as though he were always smiling. He had a tiny nose, bulging brown eyes, and a low brow; on his misshapen chin there grew a stubble of white beard. When his chest troubled him he would tear open his clothes and scratch and slap at it, as if trying to get at the source of irritation with his bare hands and pluck it out of himself. “You devil, you’re eating me alive,” he said at these times, gasping for breath, grinning, scratching at himself spasmodically. He also used to speak to his injured leg as if it did not belong to him, and was deliberately hindering him. “You won’t let me run, but I’ll stand on you all the same,” he said to it often, banging it down on the ground like a club.

That was one style of his humor: the other was more painful for Yitzchak. Day after day he announced that he was going straight away to turn Yitzchak over to the militia who had a post in the village. “I’m tired of your Jew face!” he would cough and gasp. “You’ve grown too fat on my food. Enough! Enough!” And off he would go, dragging his foot, shaking his head, to return ten minutes or some hours later, smiling with that permanent half-crazed grin on his face, his eyes bright and watchful. “They’re coming, my Jew. They’re behind me. They’ll be here soon. You better run while you can.”

They never came. But nor did the old man ever tire of his simple joke. And he had many others of a similar kind. There was, for example, the joke about Yitzchak’s hidden wealth. It was a well-known fact, the old man said, that all Jews were rich: that was why poor peasants like himself had always hated them. Now Yitzchak was a Jew—but where was his money? Buried and under the floor at home? Hidden in the woods? Or had Yitzchak a few diamond rings stuck up his arse? Where was Yitzchak’s fur coat? What had happened to his motor car? Where was his gold snuff-box? How much of his gold would Yitzchak give to f—the old man’s wife? Well, how much?

Sometimes, by way of variation, he would ask his wife how much she would pay Yitzchak to have him f—her. His wife was an ugly, bony, mumbling creature whom Yitzchak trusted even less than he did her husband, though she never threatened him; indeed, she hardly ever spoke to him. She hardly ever spoke to anyone but herself, even when her husband was abusing her, raining blows upon her, or asking of her this question about Yitzchak. “Pay him, pay him!” the old man cried at her. “You’ll get your money’s worth. It’ll be good with the Jew. His blood’s hot—they’re all like that. And his p—’s naked. Come on, Jew, show her what you’ve got. Give the old woman something to look at. She’ll pay you.”

Then there was the matter of Yitzchak’s conversion to Christianity. Earnestly, fervently, happily, the peasant tried to persuade Yitzchak that Jesus Christ was the true Son of God, to whom he should go down on his knees to pray. Not, he would add, that this would help him at all when the Germans came. But afterward, after the Germans had made “cold meat” of him, then his immortal soul would be eternally grateful that he had accepted the one true religion. He would see all the other Jews—Yitzchak’s father and mother and all his relations among them—roasting in hell, suffering tortures far more terrible than any the Germans could think of. But he would be safe in heaven. And he would be able to intercede with the Blessed Virgin on behalf of the old sinner who had taken him in, succored him and shown him the light. The old man wept, grinned, and crossed himself at the thought.

At other times, when he and Yitzchak were working in the potato patch, he simply marveled to see a Jew sweat; he offered to cut Yitzchak’s throat in the kosher manner; he called his pigs Yankele and Berele and Yitzchak. He also told Yitzchak that when the Germans or the militiamen came and killed him, he would feed Yitzchak’s corpse to the pigs. “It’s a happier sight to see a pig eating a Jew than a Jew eating a pig.”

But he never struck Yitzchak. This was just as well for him, for Yitzchak had made up his mind that if the old man ever laid a finger on him, he would kill him. He would kill the old woman as well. And the old man seemed to know how far it was safe for him to go, and kept his hands and his feet to himself. The decision, arbitrary and irrational though it was, made it easier for Yitzchak to suffer in silence all the abuse the old man heaped on him. However, there was yet another reason for his silence of which Yitzchak remained ignorant, until one day when he was alone in the woods, he suddenly found himself grinning, chuckling, shaking his head, struggling to compose himself and breaking down once more into a laughter that sounded to his own ears as inhuman and mechanical as the chattering of a squirrel or the rattling call of a night-jar. As he struggled to still the laughter, seizing hold of his own breast and stomach, Yitzchak was sure that what was happening to him, what had happened to his family, the life he was leading in the wilderness, had at last driven him out of his mind. For the grotesque, unspeakable truth was that Yitzchak also was amused by the old man’s jokes.

He lay on the ground and roared with laughter: he saw the sky swinging around him, the branches of trees whirling like arms. He beat his own head with his fists, he stuffed his mouth with earth and leaves, he sobbed with his forehead against the trunk of a tree and sank to the ground again, scoring his forehead open against the rough bark; he lay with his eyes closed, his shoulders shaking in spasms.

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Hours passed before Yitzchak opened his eyes. It was late in the afternoon and the woods were still; under a covering of moss and dried leaves, the earth breathed forth its coolness and damp. Where Yitzchak lay it was already dusk; overhead a few dazzling rays of sunlight still reeled among the leaves and branches of the trees. Conscious of the calm around him, breathing it in with every lift and fall of his chest, he remembered his own frenzy as if from days before. He felt washed out by it, purged, released. For months, ever since he had fled from his house, he had been telling himself that he must live, he must live, he must live for the sake of his mother who had sat at the table with clasped hands saying “Rivele, Rivele” ; he must live for the sake of his father who had stretched out his arms wide in an attempt to slow the chase of the mob; he must live because he had run away, leaving them both to be killed. Now Yitzchak knew that he was under no obligation to them. It didn’t matter whether he lived or died: it didn’t matter to them because they were dead; it didn’t matter to himself because he no longer cared. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all.

He went back to the cottage, and when the old man opened his mouth in an abusive greeting, Yitzchak took him by the throat and squeezed it until his eyes started more than ever out of his head. The woman sat in her corner, making no move to come to her husband’s help. They were all insane, all three of them. The old man’s fingers clutched at Yitzchak’s coat, his legs kicked and twitched. The thickness of the neck between his hands disgusted Yitzchak, even as he clenched them more and more tightly around it. There was no sound in the cabin, but for the noises made by the old man’s legs and those that came from his throat. He was weakening; suddenly his legs collapsed. Yitzchak released him. “Now go to the village,” he said. “I’ll wait for you.”

The old man did not go to the village. He made no more jokes, either. Instead, he rested for a few days, then got up and went about his work. One night he beat his wife because she was barren, barren as a mule. Why had she never given him a son? What was the good of a barren wife? Even daughters would have been better than nothing; then he could have had sons-in-law to help him and protect him. He should have left her, years before; she wasn’t worth keeping, she had nothing inside her that a woman should have. He would have done better, he said, to have married a widow with children, or even the mother of a bastard; then he would have proof that she was fertile. Unlike this she-mule, this blocked-up creature without organs, this Sarah. When he had done with her he told Yitzchak that he had said to people in the village that he, Yitzchak, was the son of his wife’s brother: that was why no one had ever come for him, though he had been seen in the woods a few times. And he asked Yitzchak to call him, “Father.”

“Yes—father.”

The old man laughed, slapped his chest, and rubbed his chin. “And you’ll call her mother?”

“Yes—father.”

“Get up, mother,” the old man said, and kicked his wife by way of encouragement, where she lay in a dazed, groaning heap at his feet. And they went on as before, except that the old man was subdued and silent for hours at a time, and Yitzchak called him father.

Yitzchak knew nothing of the way the war was going, and could learn nothing from the wild stories the old man brought back from his occasional trips to the village. Where they lived there was only stillness, isolation, hunger, the rare sight in the woods of some bearded, savage figure lurching north or south, east or west. Once a gang of such people came to the cabin, stripped it of everything edible, killed the livestock, took the ragged clothes off the backs of Yitzchak and the old man, but, rather to Yitzchak’s surprise, refrained from cutting their throats before making off. The months that followed were almost as hungry for Yitzchak as those he had endured before the old man had come upon him asleep in the woods, kicked him awake, and then led him to the cabin which had so unexpectedly become his home.

Toward the end of an interminable winter the old man’s rumors became wilder than ever before: he spoke of having seen Satan in the woods, Stalin in the sky, Germans and militiamen in flight. The horizon gave out noises, concussions, lights at night. One day Yitzchak went out to inspect the rabbit traps he and the old man had set up in the woods; he returned after sunset. The ground was covered with snow; there was a whitish haze in the dark throat of the sky. As he came out of the trees, within sight of the cottage, Yitzchak halted suddenly. The cottage was surrounded by soldiers. In the dim light, they looked like the spots a man might see under his own eyelids: dark, squirming irregular shapes that wavered, disappeared, darted to one side. He could not count how many of them there were. As he turned he heard behind him a burst of machine-gun fire. Two days passed before, crazed with hunger and cold, dreaming when he was awake and waking with savage starts from periods of total unconsciousness, stopping to stare obsessively at individual stones, sticks, berries, leaves, Yitzchak staggered back to the cottage.

He found that both the old man and the old woman were dead. The blood that had welled from their breasts was frozen around them. Their eyes were open. And Yitzchak danced around the cabin, sobbing and cursing and kicking, shrieking at the old man that he hoped he was in hell, burning there with the Germans and Jews, Lithuanians and Russians, Nazis and Communists, every accursed breed of the whole human race.

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Then, Yitzchak said, there followed three years in a Russian labor battalion. At the end of that time he and the others in the battalion were put on a train and sent east. How far east it was intended to send them Yitzchak did not know, and did not wait to find out. He jumped the train, and made his way back to the shtetl in which he had been born. There was no one left alive in it whom he wanted to see again; and it was clear that no one there wanted to see him. He was looked at as though he were the criminal; as though it were unforgivable that he should have survived and come back.

He went through Latvia and Poland, living under false papers, begging, stealing, smuggling currency and cigarettes; eventually he found himself in Austria. And after living there for some time, working as a day laborer, he at last chose to take the route to one of the camps in Italy for Jewish refugees awaiting transfer to Israel.

That was how he came to be with me now, Yitzchak said. That was what had happened.

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