How could a farmer, descended from generations of farmers, speak so enthusiastically of the earth? Shortly after Marceli’s arrival in New York, my aunt, related to him through his wife, asked him to dinner, and it was then that I met him. When I had left him, years ago, in my native town, he had been a young boy, working with his two older brothers on his father’s small, excellently managed farm. I remember that in his time off he had assumed a sophisticated citified air, avoiding his family and acting ashamed of his connection with farm life. And now suddenly he was saying that all strength came from the earth, that the earth was our mother, that it breathed and lived.
Celinka, his wife, looked at him embarrassed, but on meeting my ironical glance, she said: “Sometimes he cries in his sleep, ‘The earth is alive, alive,’ as others might cry, ‘The house is on fire.’”
Marceli had apparently acquired this habit after his terrible war experiences. But he was so calm and strong that there could be no question of aberration in his case, and my aunt, who had also grown up in the country, saw nothing strange in his behavior. Each time he said that the earth was alive, she would calmly echo: “Ah, the earth, the earth.”
“Some natives of the South American jungle eat earth,” I said.
Marceli looked a long time at his wife, at her protruding belly (she was pregnant) and, with a broad smile, said: “That’s wrong.” The scar on the right side of his lower jaw seemed to be an additional dimple. “You don’t eat your own mother. That would be poison, love.”
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Marceli had stayed in the woods for two years, often spending entire nights on a tree.
He was close to forty; his face reminded one of a bouquet of wild flowers. His great strength was most apparent in his gray eyes, which seemed to be lifting enormous weights. He was both virile and maternal, as though he considered himself the source of life.
When I met him in New York at my aunt’s, he had a job in a metal factory, and I could not treat his fantasies on the subject of the earth as poses or manias. Possibly I attached too much weight to his words, odd though they were.
In those days I thought a great deal about death, and I listened greedily to anything mystical, anything that blurred the boundaries between live and inanimate matter. I don’t think I really wished to die; if I had, I would have hastened my death, I would have committed suicide. I only wanted to know death with some degree of intimacy, as my family had, before they perished under Nazi occupation. I wanted my life to be threatened, but without the possibility of dying. I played with my own life, resembled a dying man, but there was an element of theatricality in my behavior—I could read this in the eyes of those about me.
But Marceli, who knew that I had spent the war years in New York, sympathized with me, as if I had been one of the victims of the Nazi terror. “Ah, you should have been with me in the woods,” he said when we parted after dinner.
Marceli sympathized with me, hence I was in need of help: for who could know this better than he—and perhaps I might really have died out of loneliness, grieving for the loss of my family?
Some time after my first meeting with Marceli, Aunt Elizabeth informed me by telephone that he had moved to the country, to a place in New Jersey where he had bought a well-equipped farm, and that his wife had given birth to a handsome boy. She also told me that Marceli and Celinka wanted us to visit them.
“Long live the earth!” my aunt cried in a martial voice into the receiver—she often startled people by saying the unexpected.
“The earth is alive,” I could still remember Marceli saying. And so after years of black marketing, after working in a factory, he had returned to the country, settled on the land.—“If the earth is alive,” I thought, “I too shall live.”
My aunt decided it was time for her to buy a farm also, and it was thanks to her that we did not delay our visit too long.
Marceli and his wife received us lavishly. Celinka kept serving native dishes and delicacies, and Marceli, holding his youngest child in one arm, used the other to fill our glasses with vodka. Each time Celinka brought a full tray from the kitchen, he cried, “Ha, you see!”
He urged me to stay with him some time. “Ah, we’ll have a good time together,” he said.
At sunset, as we sat on a rock beneath a pine tree, he confided to me that when he was a boy, I had seemed a god to him; he had dreamed of living as elegantly as I. I realized that my deplorable physical and psychological state was destroying his boyish dream, hurting him. . . .
By mid-September I appeared at Marceli’s house with two suitcases; the smaller containing clothes, the larger books. But though I stayed two and a half months in the country, I did not read a single book.
The days were beautiful. The fall was like wine—cool outside and warm inside. Throughout that time I was at Marceli’s side, helping him in his work; he made me understand that I would be useful to him. Each time he assigned a job to me, it was the one I wanted; or perhaps I found the job to my liking because he had assigned it to me. He asked Celinka to prepare dishes that I happened to crave; or perhaps I found them to my liking because he had asked for them.
During my stay with Marceli I often heard him call out in his sleep, “The earth is alive, alive,” as if he were crying, “The house is on fire.”
“The earth was your scapular,” I told him one night when I felt that contact with nature was lifting my spirits.
He did not answer this.
As we worked he told me about his life under the Nazis. He related his experiences systematically, having apparently decided to include everything. The stories were shared with me like bread. Celinka often interrupted him: “Don’t torment him, Marceli.”
“Don’t worry,” he would say. “It will do him good. Let him know how it was. Otherwise he’ll imagine God knows what. . . .”
The words in which he told his stories were transparent: not only did I not hear them, but I did not even realize that they were transporting me to the reality he described. His experiences flowed to me directly from his eyes, voice, hands, from his whole body. Since no words stood between that monstrous reality and myself, it was easier for me to find my place in it.
Our town was the first in the Western Ukraine to be “free from Jews”—that was a great distinction. This “magnificent” deportation was headed by a retired schoolmistress, Miss Troksz, scrawny, tall, always dressed in black, with a blond wig. The majority of the local Jews had been her pupils. I do not know how this neat old woman—known for her exceptional garden, in which on summer nights she would sing nostalgic Ukrainian songs in a very low voice while accompanying herself on a mandolin, and which she watched over like an angry dog—became so enthusiastic about securing first place for our town in that “noble” competition. But old people often retain only weak contact with reality, and succumb easily to strange ideas; perhaps the pedantic, lonely old spinster, bitter and full of faded dreams, had decided that to rid the town of Jews was something like ridding her little garden of weeds.
Marceli’s family for some time was not molested. As though nothing had changed, Marceli and his parents continued to work on their farm, but his two older brothers, Jozek and Wilus, ran away with several other young Jews to the thick woods on the Dniester River, about five miles from our town. They were unarmed and did not hold out long. After two weeks, a gang of young people from the neighboring villages surrounded them, murdered the entire group, and then threw their bodies into a common grave. But before sunset, one of Marceli’s brothers came to in the still uncovered grave. Waiting until dark, he climbed out of the ditch, crawled all night on the cold forest ground, and at dawn reached the house of a farmer he knew. The following night the farmer brought him home in a cart.
Jozek remained in bed several weeks and died without recovering consciousness. During that time he continually mumbled something; Marceli only much later, when he himself lay wounded, suddenly realized what Jozek had been saying—that he had been dead, but had been awakened by the odor of the earth in the grave, for the odor of the earth is stronger than that of blood.
Was that the source of Marceli’s dreams about the earth, and of his words, which sounded so strange, coming from a descendant of generations of farmers?
When, less than two months after Jozek’s death, Marceli’s parents were deported, he was allowed to stay because old Iskrzynski convinced the agricultural authorities that Marceli’s services were required on the estate he administered. His father, on being taken away, had kept silent, but his mother, stronger and taller than his father, said in parting: “Only the earth is left.” Marceli did not know the meaning of his mother’s words—whether nothing was left but the grave, or whether the earth was their only hope.
Iskrzynski disliked Jews, but in his eyes Marceli was no more a Jew than the other Jews he knew well. His ideas about Jews were not his own, but his attitude toward individual Jewish acquaintances was. This theoretical, or let us say, civilized anti-Semitism of otherwise decent people had fatal consequences: under Hitler’s terror it was this very type of anti-Semitism that chiefly accounted for the total indifference of masses of decent people toward the slaughter of the Jews. It is possible that in many cases this slaughter served to allay mass resentment against Hitler, and that the Nazis realized this and profited from it.
For the aged administrator Iskrzynski, Marceli was a capable young farmer whose advice and help he had often used. It would have been wasteful to let such a farmer perish miserably. Marceli’s knowledge of cattle was unsurpassed; and in the absence of the veterinarian the farmers often came to him for help.
Iskrzynski made him supervisor, and gave him a riding horse and a room next to his own in the slovenly wooden house, full of cats and dogs, with which the old administrator filled his solitude.
Marceli did not have to be told what to do on the estate. He performed his duties instinctively, as other men breathe.
Iskrzynski had for years been a widower; his children had long ago left him, and scattered about the world. He felt really lonely only after Marceli had come to live beside him: Marceli’s bereavement reminded him of his own isolation. But rather than feel sorry for himself, he felt sorry for Marceli, without realizing that his attitude had become paternal.
People began to whisper that Marceli was Iskrzynski’s illegitimate son, and at the same time everyone realized the improbability of such a rumor: Marceli’s mother was reputed for her virtue and great strength of character. Everyone remembered how, during the First World War, while her husband was at the front, she beat up an Austrian lieutenant who tried to make love to her, locked him up in her neighbor’s sty with the pigs, and took his sword to his colonel; everyone remembered how she marched across the market square with the sword in her hand.
Neither Iskrzynski nor Marceli attempted to fight this gossip: it was preferable that the occupation authorities and local Jew-haters consider Marceli a half-Jew and Iskrzynski, former major of the Austrian army, his father. Moreover, Iskrzynski derived some pleasure from the rumor—for many years he had been in love with Marceli’s mother. Marceli suspected that the rumor had been deliberately started by Oleksa Dusen, a neighbor who later, at the risk of his own life, helped him.
Marceli was the only “legal” Jew in our county. There were several other Jews, but they were in hiding, and Marceli did not know where, nor did he try to find out—if they needed him, they would find him through the people who helped them. Marceli himself, though his status was legal, avoided the town and open roads; in any case, he never went there on foot. In the town or on the open road he never dismounted from his horse, as though his horse insured his safety.
The world in which he had grown up, and which he had never before left for more than a few days, now appeared alien to him precisely because it had not changed outwardly. And because this world was alien to him, he became a stranger to himself, as though he lived outside himself. He had not redeemed his life by fighting for it, hence it did not belong to him; it had been entrusted to him, and he clung to it as stubbornly as the enemy tried to wrest it from him. His inner split, his self-estrangement, made him less flexible, but more stubborn.
However, he had moments when he was himself—when his work required not only concentration but also initiative and intelligence. Then occasionally he was invaded by the severed past, and through it he reached himself for a moment. When he was cut off from his past, he was cut off from himself. Only through the past could he reach his own life, and reality. Those returns were painful, as though each time he gave birth to himself all over again—the silent labor pains of an animal. And because this was birth, he perceived distant signals of joy and hope. The past thus gave birth to the future.
Not only to himself was he a stranger: the whole population looked upon him as one. This was a way of not seeing him. (The Ukrainian newspaper in Lwow reported triumphantly that our town was “the first in the Western Ukraine to rid itself of its Jews.”) Those who hated him did not want to see him—and they were few in number; those to whom his fate was indifferent did not want to see him—and these were many; those whose hearts were bleeding at the thought of him did not want to see him either—and there were few of them also.
Because of the attitude of his friends and acquaintances his sense of self-estrangement deepened. Eventually he was regarded as a supernatural phenomenon—with disbelief by the Jew-haters, with amazement by the unconcerned, with religious reverence by friends. The latter revered in Marceli the whole martyrized Jewish population, which they retrospectively endowed with all his virtues. Occasionally an old woman passed without looking at him, bending her head and crossing herself.
He was sunburned, an image of health, but the very fact that he was alive threw the local hooligans into a state of anxiety. None of them believed in God, but some believed in the devil, and in the case of Marceli they suspected supernatural interference.
One day Slawko Tanuckyj, the local militiaman, a former schoolmate of Marceli’s, stopped him on the road. “Hide, Marceli,” he wispered. “I am supposed to escort you to Kalusz. We’ve received an order. Run. I’ll shoot, but don’t stop. . . .”
This was no ruse. Tanuckyj could have shot him on the spot; he needed no attempted escape as a pretext. Marceli, who never dismounted from his horse on the road, galloped wordlessly across the fields to the estate. He left his horse in the stable, and hid in the nearby woods. For two days he sat on a tree without food, drink, or sleep. With his belt he tied one of his legs to a branch in order not to fall if sleep overcame him. He was perched on the tree waiting for the angel of salvation, hoping that someone in whom he could trust would pass by. On the third day he was discovered by the local militiamen and two agents specially sent from Kalusz by the so-called Cripo, or criminal police.
He was escorted to Kalusz, and placed at the Cripo headquarters in a cell with two other Jews from our town. One of them, Hahn, was a court official, and the other, Schubert, an attorney’s secretary. They did not say hello but merely, “You’re alive,” to each other, and that exhausted their conservation. They were afraid to talk, even in whispers.
Late in the afternoon the agent Karpinski, known for his bloodthirstiness, came to their cell and took Hahn and Schubert. An hour later he returned, handcuffed Marceli, and led him out. They walked along an endless dark corridor, Marceli first, Karpinski behind him; then through a rear door emerged on a large courtyard surrounded by a high wooden fence. Marceli walked slowly, Karpinski kept pushing him, so that they were in continual physical contact. He was sure that Karpinski was leading him to his death, and that Hahn and Schubert were no longer alive. He could see dry blood stains on the courtyard pavement. Karpinski was pushing him in the direction of a wooden shed, around which the earth seemed rusty. Marceli raised his eyes: summer was in full swing, the sky was veiled by a thick cobweb-like mist, the sun was setting. “So I’m seeing a sunset for the last time,” he thought.
Karpinski was small, about the same size as Marceli, and held a revolver.
“Could a single man kill me?” Marceli thought, and cast a side glance at Karpinski who was almost leaning on him. “One man won’t take my life.”
He turned about in a flash, struck Karpinski in the head with his fist and handcuffs. Karpinski fell. Marceli rushed forward, took a jump, grabbed the edge of the fence with his hands, and pulled himself up. At that moment shots resounded. Marceli felt a scratch in the region of his chin and lower jaw, and a pinch in the back of his neck; but by then he was already on the other side, running toward the river, where a group of Jews were hiding in a barn behind the slaughterhouse. Blood was dripping from his mouth, he felt something hard on his tongue. “Must be a tooth,” he thought, and spat out a bullet.
No one was pursuing him; apparently Karpinski had managed to fire a few times, and then lost consciouness.
Marceli crossed the river on a footbridge, went around the slaughterhouse, and began to crawl deeper into the garden. When he reached the shed used by the Jews as their hiding place, they met him with angry cries: “How dare you, you’ve been dripping blood all the way, now the police will be led here by your track. You can’t stay here, you must go, if the authorities find you, they’ll shoot everyone for giving shelter to a guerrilla, while if you’re not here, we only go to a camp. . . .”
Well, he thought, they are right, I must leave.
It was dark now. He hid in the bushes on the river bank, near the wall of the slaughterhouse. He did not know what on him was sweat and what was blood. He felt something hard in the back of his neck, and touched it with his fettered hands: it was a bullet. He pulled it out and flung it away; he heard a soft splash as it fell into the river. Then he felt a terrible pain in his lower jaw and lost consciousness, or perhaps fell asleep.
When he woke it was still dark, and he decided suddenly to walk home. For the first time since he had been left alone in the world, he realized fully that it was he, Marceli, who had survived—not that he had been left alive, but that he had preserved his life. His life was his own, like a fruit he had obtained from the earth through his labor. No longer a stranger to himself, he recovered his full strength.
He followed the river knowing that it would lead him home; he did not walk to the estate and Iskrzynski, but to his parents’ house. Despite the loss of blood, he felt no exhaustion; the sharp pain that spread from the back of his neck to the rest of his body kept him in a state of continual excitation. This pain was not merely his strength, it was something like a proof of his identity, and a proof of his identity with himself: I suffer, therefore I exist.
Only a strong man can suffer such pain. Occasionally, when exhaustion caught up with him, he felt relief, and then he was like a singing river. When the sky that had been motionless all this time began to move, announcing the approach of dawn, he turned into the woods, found a leafy hollow, lay down, and fell asleep.
He dreamed that he was performing extraordinary labors which made everybody rich while a choir of birds sang, Mar-ce-li, Mar-ce-li. When there was no work he died, and then a sharp pain brought him back to life. He lay in a cradle, his mother sat by him, singing, “What man has brought with him to earth, he must spend here, on earth. . . .” Then he left his cradle, and performed great labors, and the earth kept singing, Mar-ce-li, Mar-ce-li. . . .
He woke several times during the day, and fell asleep again. It was late at night when he resumed his walk along the river toward his home. When he reached it, he did not stop, but entered Oleksa Dusen’s courtyard. The dog barked, recognized Marceli, whined, and fell silent. Marceli walked into the cowshed, climbed a ladder to the attic, lay on the straw, and fell asleep.
Suddenly he felt a great stillness in his sleep, and awoke. Over him stood Oleksa with a razor in his hand, and Oleksa’s wife Hanuska stood beside him holding a black earthenware pot in one hand, and a glass with strong vodka in the other. There was a sharp smell of alcohol in the air.
Despite the unbearable pain in his jaw, Marceli burst out laughing. But the sound he made was not that of laughter, it was a gargling noise, as if he were rinsing his throat. His lips, tongue, and palate were swollen.
“Psht,” said Hanuska.
“I’ll remove the bullet from your jaw,” Dusen whispered. He opened his razor, dipped it in the glass of vodka, and bent over Marceli. Marceli clenched his lips and did not even groan when Dusen made an incision and removed the bullet. Then Hanuska washed his jaw, his neck, and his palate with water and spirits. He also saw her prepare a bandage of leaves and linen rags, then lost consciousness, and felt nothing when the Dusens removed his handcuffs.
For many days he lay there feverish, often unconscious. The Dusens nursed him. They could use only homemade remedies, and never left him alone, fearing that his fever might make him scream, and that someone might hear him.
He had never doubted that the Dusens would help him, even though Oleksa associated with Ukrainians belonging to anti-Semitic groups. Marceli relied on the many-year-old friendship between his family and Dusen’s.
He remained exhausted for about a week after his fever left, and when he recovered some of his strength, Oleksa told him that he had an excellent hiding place. At the same time he informed him that he had been sheltering Celinka, and that his wife had then taken her to the mountains, to her sister, where Celinka no longer had anything to fear for no one knew her there, nor would suspect her of being anything but a Ukrainian. (Celinka’s father had been tied by militiamen with barbed wire; they had crowned him with it too, and thrown him from a bridge into the Dniester; under the bridge the water had turned red. The pikes began to eat him while he was still alive. “For God’s sake, he is no Jew,” an old woman kept crying while the militiamen tortured him. “He is a peasant like all of us. And they’re crowning him with thorns!” Celinka’s father had been the best swimmer at Siwka, and during the annual floods of the Dniester he had always directed the rescue operations.)
One night Oleksa drove Marceli to Petro, who lived in an isolated hut at the edge of the woods, on a hill covered with bushes, and full of clayey trenches; that hill had always been used as a horse graveyard, and the hut belonged to no one. From the hill one could view a long strip of the highway and all the roads and paths in the fields, but from below the hut was invisible for it merged with the thick woods that bordered a long series of villages.
Petro, a lumberjack, about forty, was alone in the world like all the hut’s previous occupants; none having anyone left behind nor anyone to look forward to. He belonged to no one, like the hut in which he lived.
Oleksa provided Marceli and Petro with potatoes, flour, groats, beans, drawn butter, oil, kerosene, salt, and matches. Marceli had two hiding places in the woods, one underground, another above—a well camouflaged lair, and a nest on a tree.
“For two years I sat on a tree and didn’t give a damn about the world,” Marceli said, laughing.
Petro never left his hut for long, and each time he left he returned with a bird or a rabbit, and then they had a feast. He entertained Marceli with long stories about animals, about how they lived in the woods and the fields, how resourceful and intelligent they were, and how the weakest little animal managed to defend itself against the strongest enemy. He told stories about himself, his childhood and boyhood, about all he had suffered and borne. Marceli listened as if he were studying something—probably as I now listened to Marceli.
“I lived like a stupid little animal,” he said, “as if I had entirely entrusted myself to the earth. And the earth did not deceive me.”
Time flowed quietly and monotonously with Petro, and this monotony restored Marceli’s sense of permanence and security: it was like a sad cradle song. He was now so much himself that more and more often he would merge with his environment, being less haunted by the painful awareness of existing. Eventually he began to feel in Petro’s hut as in his parents’ home, except that instead of living in the bosom of his family, he lived in the bosom of the earth. Occasionally, late at night, Oleksa would visit them, bringing some food, and spending an hour or two, talking; it seemed as if he came there to get some rest.
One night a schoolmate of Marceli’s, Henryk Synkowski, son of a distiller from Dolpotow, came to see him, bringing a jar of vodka. Petro had just caught—as usual without the help of firearms—a rabbit and two partridges. They drank and ate, and then sang Ukrainian and Polish songs.
Synkowski reported to them that many peasants knew about Marceli’s hiding place, but that they would not harm him; the local murderers were no longer thirsty for blood, he said, they had had too much of it. Moreover, people had apparently ceased to believe that the Germans would win the war. In the course of one of his night visits, Synkowski said that a guerrilla army had made its way through the German lines coming from the Russian Ukraine, passed through the Dolpotow forest, and was marching on the Transcarpathian Ukraine across the mountains. Synkowski, a Ukrainized Pole whose family had lived on Ukrainian land for centuries, said that those guerrillas comprised not only Ukrainians, but also Poles, and even Jews. Henryk Synkowski communicated his excitement at the news to Marceli, and through the latter to Petro. That night, when Henryk returned home, the two men walked with him part way, and for the first time Marceli left his hiding place so far behind that Petro had to warn him by a silent gesture. From that time on Marceli ranged ever more widely in his solitary expeditions, which he began to make after realizing that his hiding place was known. Without a clearly defined purpose, he would roam a little, like a puppy exploring the world by itself. He finally realized that it was people he sought, the herd.
Petro, too, disappeared more often from his hut, and Marceli knew that he too, who had been a recluse since childhood, had suddenly begun to yearn for the herd. Perhaps Petro, precisely because he was a recluse, had felt before Marceli did how much the individual had declined in strength in those bloodthirsty days. It is easier for a man to be alone, when the social bond—not coercion—is strong. Persuaded by Petro, Marceli occasionally slipped into a friendly house. Those who welcomed him were deeply moved, their emotion being one of sadness, and he was always given, as a farewell gift, a bag of food, as though a sacrifice for the dead.
One night Simon appeared in Petro’s hut; then came little Sabinka, and finally Dolko, Simon’s son. Simon had escaped from a concentration camp and reached his native village, from which Synkowski brought him to Petro’s hut. A peasant found Sabinka in the woods and brought her to Oleksa Dusen, who drove her to Marceli. Dolko was brought by Petro.
Simon was about fifty years old. From his childhood on he had been known for his bravery, agility, shrewdness, and strength. He was the terror of all the toughs. The village youth worshipped him because he had subdued the local bullies, and the older men respected him because of his excellence as a farmer.
In his native village he had been a dairyman like his grandfather Joseph and his father Abramko, whom the Germans had hanged immediately after they entered the village. Within a radius of several miles he knew every inch of ground, every tree, every blade of grass; he could reputedly recognize a tree from his region even after it had been reduced to boards. He had become so much a part of his neighborhood that he could hear with his eyes and see with his ears; in other words, he could see what no one else saw, and hear what no one else heard.
When Simon found himself in Petro’s hut he decided that he must first accumulate large amounts of food, preserve them properly, and store them in the largest possible number of places. Food had to be conquered, one must not depend on charity. To conquer it meant to steal it. Simon stole at night, though occasionally it was preferable to steal in the daytime. This was intricate work, and Simon was the master. Marceli merely kept watch and carried loads; he was, so to speak, Simon’s dog and beast of burden.
Simon stole only from farmers who voluntarily collaborated with the Germans; he imposed a tax on them, as it were. He usually left a note saying “Petlura was here” in the houses he visited, but sometimes he emptied his bowels in the middle of the best room. His victims did not report him to the authorities, fearing that Simon would set their houses on fire. They were convinced that he was at the head of a powerful gang. At all events, Simon was a Jew, and since he was so bold, it meant that he had power behind him, and that the Germans would lose in the end.
Simon began to live with Sabinka because she was a female: in his group he stood guard over life, and he could not have behaved otherwise. Since she was his only female, and shared his board and bed, he looked upon her as his wife. On the other hand, as a result of his constant contact with her tiny, childlike body, he developed a paternal attitude toward her, and began to take care of her as if she were a frail child of his.
Sabinka was barely fifteen, and she looked ten. Her mother had been deported to a concentration camp, and her father had been killed by the agent Karpinski, who had formerly been his subordinate in the mortgage office. She lived in a perpetual state of bewilderment and found her physical intercourse with Simon neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but she had full confidence in whatever Simon did with her because in her eyes he stood for life, he was a life-giving source, a master of life. Sabinka would have yielded unresisting to any of the men in the hut, but she would have considered it rape, part of the martyrdom to which she had been doomed.
Dolko did not mind that Sabinka had taken the place of his mother who had remained in the concentration camp; this was normal. He also agreed with Marceli and Petro that since a woman had happened to be with them, she belonged to his father. He resented the fact that Sabinka had taken his place while he was with his father. He was too young to look upon the tiny, childlike Sabinka as a woman, but some day, out of resentment, he might have vengefully raped her. That is why, when Dolko found another hiding place with the Tomaszowce fanner, his father was relieved.
“It’s too bad about my son,” he said, smiling gently. “He thinks he’s better than I am, because he’s the son of Simon Petlura, while I am merely the son of Abramko.”
Petro and Marceli looked upon Sabinka as Simon’s wife. Since there was a master, there must also be a mistress. Everyone needed a mistress, only Simon needed a woman. “It’s the devil who keeps the old stove going,” was what Marceli thought about it.
Petro had always been alone in the world, he even had no ancestors, and all he wanted was that out of the union of Simon and Sabinka a child might be born in his hut. It never occurred to him that a child could be the product of a union between himself and a woman.
Simon was very discreet in his relations with Sabinka: he protected human dignity. All his life he had dealt with animals, and he never forgot that animals were one thing, and people another.
After the Germans fled, and the Soviet army entered, he immediately took Sabinka to Oleksa Dusen and left her with him. In this way, he thought, Marceli, after returning to his farm, would be near Sabinka and eventually marry her. That was the decision taken by Simon who would have married her himself if he had been young; and since Marceli was “the young Simon,” Sabinka, he thought, should be his wife.
Marceli brought Dolko from the nearby village where he had been hiding, and then returned to his farm, and Simon and Dolko to theirs.
Marceli agreed with Simon’s suggestion that he marry Sabinka, but Sabinka displayed no inclination for Marceli, she wanted to be with Simon who needed her now. After the Germans fled, Simon experienced complete exhaustion, as though all his strength had suddenly left him: he was an old man, and Sabinka noticed this. He now had no more strength than Sabinka had had in Petro’s hut. She needed no husband, she needed parents, and Simon was her old father, her old mother, for whom she, their surviving daughter, had to care.
For some time all of them waited—perhaps some of their relatives were alive and would turn up. Unfortunately, very soon after they emerged from their hiding places, they had to hide again, for once again they lived under the daily threat of death. The woods were infested with gangs of Ukrainians, former Nazi collaborators, who murdered Jewish and Polish survivors, and sometimes even Ukrainians. One night they carried Synkowski and Petro to the cemetery and crucified them there. Simon, Marceli, Dolko, and Sabinka now spent the nights at the post of the Soviet military police: this was the only safe place. After some time they realized that there was no room for them in their own village, their enemies being stronger than their friends, and they set out westward. For about two years, with other refugees from their town, they lived in the western provinces, and then they moved westward once more and found themselves in Germany, where the monster had been born. Concentrating in one place, the people of our town began to treat Simon Petlura as their leader, having learned of his exploits under Nazi occupation. But Simon, who had become weak after the flight of the Germans, never recovered his strength, and his spirits never rose again. He had not only aged prematurely, he was a broken man.
He continually pointed to Marceli as the foremost of our fellow countrymen; he said it was because of Marceli that he and Dolko and Sabinka had survived. Finally Marceli was treated as the leader, and Marceli, before he knew what was happening, actually became the leader.
Simon urged Sabinka to leave him and marry Marceli. But Sabinka, still tiny, thin, and seeming like a ten-year-old, invariably answered, crying: “Grandpa, I’ll die without you.”
On learning that Celinka, who was the same age as Sabinka, was somewhere in Germany, Simon found her and married her to Marceli, and arranged a grand wedding party. That was his last manifestation of energy. All his comrades waited for American visas, but all he wished was to go to the Holy Land, to rest his “old bones” there. Each time he spoke of this, Sabinka’s eyes shone—she had recently become an ardent Baptist.
While I was with Marcelli it often seemed that the earth on which Marceli had survived, the earth on which I was born and grew up, was healing me—it spoke to me like a mother, through the intermediary of Marceli. Eventually I began to ascribe healing properties to the earth that Marceli now worked, and where he had harnessed me to work: I was being healed by the earth in the State of New Jersey, near New York.
“There is no alien earth,” Marceli said, “just as there is no alien baby. If you are kind to any baby, it will stretch its arms out to you, and cuddle as if it were your own. A man who considers another’s child a stranger will regard his own as one. The same goes for the earth—mine, yours—the earth you work is your own.”
At the end of my visit I was convinced that Marceli’s restless dreams of earth resembled his wartime scars, and I thought the same of his strange pronouncements on the subject. This was his way of saying, in a mystical way, that he owed his survival to his bonds with the earth. For how else could he account for it? After all, many of his fellow townsmen, resourceful, shrewd, educated, people who were his superiors, had died like flies, while he had survived.
Before I left, Marceli told me a detail which he had omitted, I don’t know why—and this detail made everything clear to me.
During his flight from the Nazi policeman, shortly before dawn, when the previously motionless sky had begun to stir, Marceli suddenly noticed that the earth was moving: a strip of dug-up earth beside him moved as if it were alive. The day before, thousands of Jews had been killed on that place, and apparently some were still alive. There was complete silence, and in this silence only the earth moved. Marceli walked into the woods in order to hide before sunrise, he kept walking and staring at that living earth. And it was while staring at this living earth, that he decided he must live, since the buried were rising from it.
When he related this incident, I, too, decided that I must live, and on leaving I was certain that the earth had cured my depression—an earth that moved as though it were alive.
But who can tell what Marceli had really seen, since all night he had been fleeing death with three bleeding wounds and a bullet in his jaw? On the other hand, how could anyone merely dream such a thing?
Soon after returning to New York from the country I met a man whose entire family had been murdered by the Nazis. He himself, throughout his confinement in a concentration camp, until the Allies entered, had buried the dead: day after day, for nearly two years, he stood on a pile of corpses and threw them into a ditch. An agronomist by profession, he had, before the war, worked in France at a government experimental station. He had come to New York with his second wife and their two-year-old son.
“There will be another war,” he said to me. “Don’t you think so?”
“I hope you’re wrong,” I answered.
“And I hope I am right. Let this world end once and for all.”
I did not answer. He was silent for a long moment, as though embarrassed, and then asked me: “When did you come to America?”
“In 1939, shortly before the war.”
“Ah, then you won’t understand. . . . You know, I could have sworn that you lived under the Nazis. You have that look. . . .”
In the spring, when I visited Marceli again, I told him of my encounter.
“There are people like that, too,” he said, smiling.
“Tell me something, Marceli,” I said, “do you still make pronouncements about the earth?”
He stared at me as though unable to understand.
“Well, you know. You used to say that the earth was alive, that all strength came from the earth, that the earth was our mother. . . .”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t recall.” He laughed.
“Celinka,” I said to his wife, “does he still cry in his sleep, ‘The earth is alive, alive’?”
“The earth is alive? The earth is alive?” she repeated as though trying to remember something.
She rose from her chair, and then I noticed that she was pregnant. For a moment she stood before me, erect, broadly smiling, then she took the empty tray from the table, went to the kitchen, and returned with a new load of pancakes.