It was all like one long dream: the eighteen-day boat trip to Argentina, the encounter with my Polish landsleit in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, my speech in the Theater Soleil, and then the trip by car to the old Yiddish colony in Entrerios where I was scheduled to lecture. I went there in the company of a Yiddish poetess who was to read her poems, Sonya Lopata. The spring Sabbath day was a warm one. We passed by sleepy little towns bathed in sunlight, everywhere the shutters closed. The dusty road stretched itself between huge wheat fields and ranches where thousands of oxen fed without being tended. Sonya kept on talking to the chauffeur in Spanish, a language which I do not know. At the same time she patted, pinched, and pulled my hand; she even dug the nail of her index finger into it. The calf of her leg she pressed against mine. It was all both strange and familiar: the bright sky without a single cloud, the wide horizon, the midday heat, the smell of orange trees which drifted God knows from where. Sometimes it seemed to me that I had experienced all this in a former life.
About two o'clock the car stopped before a house which was supposed to be a hotel or an inn. The chauffeur knocked at the door, but nobody came to open it. After he had banged and cursed a long time the owner appeared, a sleepy little man. We had awakened him from his siesta. He tried to get rid of us with all kinds of excuses but the chauffeur refused to be cheated of his dinner. He argued with him profusely. After much haggling and many reproaches we were let in. We passed through a patio paved with colored stones and decorated with cactuses planted in large tubs. We entered a darkish hall which held tables without a single guest. It reminded me of the story by Reb Nachman Bratslaver about a palace in the desert where a feast for demons was prepared.
Finally the owner came to and went to wake the cook. Again we heard talk and complaints. Then the cook woke his assistant. It took three hours till we finished the meal. Sonya said to me, “This is Argentina.”
There was a long trip in a ferry over a river as wide as a lake. The car approached the Jewish colony. The wheat fields swayed in the heat like a green sea. The road became even dustier. A Spanish cowboy on horseback drove a herd of cattle to slaughter. He chased the animals with wild cries and whipped them to make them run. They were all lean, covered with scales of dirt, and one could see the fear of death in their distended pupils. We passed the carcass of an ox of which nothing was left but hide and bones. Crows still tried to get the last bit of nourishment from it. In a pasture a bull copulated with a cow. He mounted her high, his eyes blood-shot and his long horns protruding.
All day long I did not notice the Sabbath, but when the sun began to set I suddenly felt the closing of the Sabbath day and remembered my father chanting “The Sons of the Mansion” and my mother reciting “God of Abraham.” I was overcome by sadness and longing. I grew tired of Sonya's caresses and moved away. We passed a synagogue by the name of Beth Israel. There was no candle to be seen and no voice to be heard. Sonya said to me, “They are all assimilated.”
We came to the hostel where we were to stay. In the patio stood a billiard table and barrels filled with torn books. A Spanish-looking woman was ironing a shirt. Along the patio, on both sides, doors led into rooms without windows. I was given a room, Sonya one near me. I had expected someone to receive us, but nobody came. Sonya went to change her clothes. I came out to the patio and stopped at one of the barrels. Great God! It was full of Yiddish books with library markings on them. In the dusk I read the titles of books which had enchanted my youth: Sholom Aleichem, Peretz, L. Shapiro, and translations from Hamsun, Strindberg, de Maupassant, Dostoevsky. I remembered the bindings, the paper, the print. Although it is unhealthy to read in twilight, I strained my eyes and read. I recognized each description, every phrase, even the misprints and transposed lines. Sonya came out and explained it all to me. The old generation of colonists had spoken Yiddish. There had been a library here; they had organized lectures, had invited Yiddish actors. The new generation was raised on Spanish. However, from time to time they still brought in a Yiddish writer, a reciter, an actor. A special fund was set aside for this. It was done mostly to avoid the criticism of the Yiddish press in Buenos Aires. There still remained two or three old people who might enjoy these activities.
After a while a member of the committee showed up. He was short, broad, with black hair which was almost blue, and with the black shining eyes of a Spaniard or an Italian. He spoke to us in a broken Yiddish. He winked at the hotel owners and joked with them. His cheeks had a mango redness. The night fell black and thick, with a darkness that no lamp could penetrate. The crickets seemed to make a different sound than in Europe or in the United States where I now lived. The frogs croaked differently. The stars had different formations. The southern sky pressed low with its unfamiliar constellations. I imagined I heard the whining of jackals.
Two hours later I gave my speech. I spoke about Jewish history, Yiddish literature, but the boorish men and fat women in the audience seemed not to understand what I said. They didn't even listen. They ate peanuts, talked, screamed at their children. Beetles, butterflies, all kinds of insects flew through the broken windowpanes and cast flying shadows on the walls. The electricity went off and then on again. A dog had entered the hall and began to bark. After my lecture Sonya read her poems. Then they gave us a supper of extremely fatty and spicy foods. Later somebody took us back to the hostel. The colony was badly lit, the ground full of ditches and mounds of earth. The man who led the way told us that the colonists had become rich in recent years. They didn't farm any more but hired Spaniards or Indians to do their work. They themselves went often to Buenos Aires. Many of them had Gentile wives. Their main amusement was playing cards. The colonies which Baron de Hirsch had built to take the Jews away from their insubstantial businesses and turn them into useful farmers were falling apart. As the man spoke, passages from the Bible came into my mind. I thought of Egypt, the Golden Calf, and the two calves which Jeroboam the son of Nebat established in the cities of Beth-el and Dan saying, “Behold thy God, O Israel.” There was something biblical in that abandoning of one's origins, forgetting the efforts of the fathers. To this spiteful generation there should have come a prophet, not a writer of my kind. When the man left us, Sonya went to her room to wash up for the night, and I returned to the barrels of books. I could not read them now, but I touched their covers and pages. I breathed in their moldy smell. I dug a book out of the pile and tried to read its title by the light of the stars. Sonya came out in night-robe and slippers, her hair loose.
“What are you doing?” she asked. And I answered, “I am visiting my own grave.”
The night was dark and long. Tepid breezes wafted through the open door. From time to time I heard what seemed to me the steps of a beast lurking in the darkness, ready to devour us for our sins. All the endearments, the whole game and procedure of love had passed, but I could not fall asleep. Sonya was smoking and she was overcome by a garrulousness which I sometimes suspect is the passion number one with women. She spoke in a nagging tone.
“What does a girl of eighteen know? He kissed me and I fell in love with him. He immediately began to talk about practical details: getting married, children, an apartment. My father was no longer alive. My mother had gone to live with her sister, a widow, in Rosario. She was actually her maid. Men ran after me, but they were all married. I worked in a textile factory. We made sweaters, jackets, all kinds of knitted goods. We were paid pennies. The workers were all Spanish women, and what went on there I cannot describe to you. They were always pregnant and they seldom knew by whom. Some of them supported their lovers. The climate in this country makes you crazy. Here sex is not a caprice or a luxury. It attacks you like hunger or thirst. In those days the pimps still played a big part in our community. They were the bosses in the Yiddish theater. When they didn't like a play it was immediately taken off the boards. The struggle with them had already begun. The others isolated them completely. Here the elders of the burial society are the real leaders. They refused to sell them plots in the cemetery. They were not let into the synagogue on the New Year and Yom Kippur. They had to establish their own cemetery and their own synagogue. Many of them were already old, has-been pimps, their wives former whores.
“What was I saying? Yes, then they still played a big role and tried to get hold of every woman who was alone. They had special men who did the seducing. As a matter of fact, my own boss was after me. I began to write—but who needs poetry here? Who needs literature? Newspapers, yes. Even the pimps read the Yiddish papers every day. When one of them died whole pages of obituaries appeared. You came here in the best time of the year, spring. But all year round the climate is terrible. In summer the heat is unbearable. The rich go to Mar del Plata or to the mountains, but the poor remain in Buenos Aires. In winter it's often bitter cold, and modern heating didn't exist in those days, not even the kind of ovens they used to have in Poland. One simply froze. Now there is already steam heat in the new buildings, but the old houses still have stoves which give out smoke, but no heat. It seldom snows, but it sometimes rains for days and the cold gets into your bones. There is no lack of sickness here and the women suffer even more than the men, bad livers, kidneys, what not. This is the reason the burial society is so strong.
“A writer does not write just for his files. I tried to find recognition in the newspapers and magazines, but when they see a young girl, and in addition not an ugly one, they're drawn to her like flies to honey. The big shot who himself led the war against the pimps became interested in me. He had a wife, but she had a lover. Why he consented to such conduct I will never know. He must have loved her immensely. Here there is not much religion. They go to synagogue only on the Days of Awe. The Gentiles have many churches, but only the women worship there. Almost every Spaniard here has a wife and a mistress.
“To make it short, I came to the editor, and he said to me almost openly, ‘If you sleep with me, I will publish your work.’ The critics disguised their meaning, however they wanted the same thing. I wasn't so holy, but a man has to please me. To go to bed with someone cold-bloodedly, this I cannot do.
“And there was Leibele, my present husband. He also wrote poems and had published some of them. He had even brought out a little book. In those times when somebody's name was printed black on white he appeared to me like a genius. He showed me a review by some critic in New York. He had a job with the burial society. Till today I don't know what he did there. Most probably he was somebody's assistant. We went to the rabbi and got married. We moved into the Jewish section on Corrientes. It soon appeared that his job wasn't worth a penny. He earned little and what he earned he spent. He had a whole bunch of friends, little writers, beginners, amateurs who attach themselves to Yiddish culture. I never knew that such creatures exist. He was never alone, always with them. They ate together, drank together, and if I had allowed it, he would have slept with them as well. Not that he was a homosexual. Far from it—he was not sexual altogether. He was one of those who cannot stay alone for a minute. Every night I had virtually to drive out his cronies, and every night my husband begged me to let them stay a little longer. They never left before two o'clock. In the morning I had to go to work. Wherever he took me, to the theater, to a restaurant, to a lecture, even just for a walk, his bunch of shlemiels followed. They could babble and discuss each bit of nonsense forever. Some men are jealous, but he didn't even know that jealousy existed. When one of his colleagues kissed me, he was overjoyed. He wouldn't have minded if they had gone further. This is how he was and how he still is. When he heard that I was going with you on this lecture he was in seventh heaven. You are to him a god, and no one can be jealous of a god.
“We had no children and things might have come to an end, but a divorce only makes sense if you are in love with somebody else. However, the years passed and I didn't fall in love with anyone. The few affairs I had were with married men. In the beginning I had a high opinion of my husband's writing, but then he disappointed me in this too. I grew as a poetess—at least the critics praised me—but my husband stagnated. He began to be more and more enthusiastic about my poems. Everyone wants to be admired, but his admiration irritated me. He infected the others too. My house became a kind of temple, and I, its idol. One thing he forgot, we had to eat and pay rent. I still went to work and came home in the evening dead tired. I was a second Georges Sand, just the same, I had to cook supper for him and his parasites. I stood over the pots and they analyzed my verses and marvelled at each word. Funny, isn't it?
“Lately things are a little easier. I stopped going to work. Once in a while I get a subsidy from the community—we now have a few patrons of the arts. From time to time I publish something in a newspaper, but basically everything remains the same. Occasionally he earns a little money, not enough!”
“Why don't you have children?”
“What for? I don't even know if he can father children. I suspect that we are both barren.”
Sonya laughed. “If you remained here I would have a child with you.”
“Yes, what for? Women have such a need. A tree wants to give fruit. But I need a man to look up to, not someone I have always to apologize for. Recently we even stopped sleeping together. It's all platonic.”
“Does he consent?”
“He doesn't need it. All he wants is to discuss poetry. Isn't that strange?”
“Everything is strange.”
“I have castrated him spiritually, that is the truth.”
At dawn Sonya returned to her room. I covered myself and fell asleep. I was awakened by sounds I had never heard before. I imagined that I heard the voices of parrots, monkeys, and birds whose beaks are shaped like bananas. Through the open door there drifted in the fragrance of oranges mingled with the scent of fruits and plants which I could not identify. The breeze which blew in was warmed by the sun and seasoned with exotic herbs. I breathed deeply. Then I washed at the faucet and stepped outside. The barrels with books still stood there, waiting for a Yiddishist redemption. I left the patio and saw women and children dressed in Sunday finery—the mothers with mantillas on their heads and lace on their sleeves, prayer-books in hand—riding to church on horseback. In the distance I could hear the ringing of church bells. All around me stretched the wheat fields and pastures. The grass was full of flowers: yellow, white, all colors and shapes, and the grazing oxen blithely chewed up all these wonders.
A sound played in the air, a mixture of birds' song and breezes in the trees. It reminded me of the story from the Talmud about the North Wind playing on King David's lyre and awakening him to midnight studies. Sonya came out in a white dress embroidered with red and blue. She looked fresh and was in a playful mood. It seemed to me that only now I saw her for the first time as she really was: small and broad, with high cheekbones and the slanted eyes of a Tartar. She had a high bosom, rounded hips, and muscled calves like the magician's helpers who used to come to our courtyards to roll barrels on their soles and swallow fire.
Who knows from where she came, I thought. Perhaps from the Khazars. What doesn't a people go through in two thousand years of exile? But nature has a memory.
Sonya gave me a sideways glance. She smiled questioningly, knowingly, with a wink. I remembered the passage in Proverbs, “Such is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats, and wipes her mouth, and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” Yes, the Enlightenment which our poets praised in such lofty phrases and called “The Daughter of Heaven” has made us all into lechers and harlots. Nobody cared about serving us breakfast and we went to look for a coffee shop. We strolled like honeymooners. The chauffeur who had brought us here was to come for us at one o'clock. We were told that he had a mistress among the laborers in the colony. Most probably he would be hours late. After walking a few minutes, we came upon a house. On the porch sat an old man in a gray jacket and gray cap, the kind they used to wear in Warsaw. The color of his face reminded me of the Warsaw porters: reddish, bluish, with the stubble of a gray beard. His hairy throat with its pointed Adam's apple was heavily veined. Although he was without prayer shawl or phylacteries, he rocked back and forth as he recited from a prayer book. As we came nearer he lifted up his eyes which might have once been blue, but were now yellowish, spotted, and bloodshot.
I said to him, “You are praying, aren't you?”
The old man hesitated, and answered hoarsely (I imagined that I recognized a Warsaw voice): “Do I have something better to do? You are the speaker, isn't that right? I was at your lecture last night. Did they let you talk, the scoundrels? They need a speaker like I need a boil. All they need is to stuff themselves and play cards. May their guts rot in hell! And you, young lady—what is your name?—I heard your poems, yes, I heard them. I couldn't understand them all. I am a simple fellow, but. . . .”
He closed the prayer book and rose, “You will eat with me.”
We tried to decline; the old man lived alone. But he said, “When will I have a chance like this? I am already eighty-one years old. When you visit again I will be lying there,” and he pointed toward a grove of trees which must have hidden the cemetery.
The old man's house was full of broken-down furniture. His dishes seemed not to have been used for a long time. On an uncovered table in the living room there lay fresh eggs, still encrusted with the dirt of chickens. He prepared an omelette for us. He cut thick slices of whole wheat bread, full of bran and kernels. On his half-paralyzed legs he hobbled back and forth bringing us more things to eat: gooseberry jam, stale cookies, dried cheese. As he served us, he spoke.
“Yes, I had a wife. Fifty-four years we lived together like doves. I never heard a bad word from her. Suddenly she lay down and it was all over. The children wandered off. What was there for them here? One son is a doctor in Mendoza. A daughter is married in Brazil and lives in Sao Paulo. One son died and left three orphans. I always thought that I would be the first to go. But what can you do? If one is destined to live, one must live. A woman is not so helpless when she is alone. As you see, I am one of the first colonists. When I came here it was all wasteland. You couldn't even buy a piece of bread. While on the ship we all sang Zunser's hymn, “The Lord's Blessing is in the Plough.” We were told that peasants are healthy because they live in the lap of nature, and that kind of poppycock. But the moment we arrived an epidemic broke out. Children fell ill and died. Older people also became sick. There was talk that the water was poisoned or who knows what. The Baron sent us delegates who were supposed to be agriculturalists, but they couldn't tell wheat from rye. They gave us endless advice; nothing helped. We all wanted to leave but didn't have the fare. We had signed contracts and were debtors. They bound us hand and foot; still they were—what do you call it—philanthropists. A great man came to us from Paris and spoke only French. We didn't understand a word he said. Of Yiddish they were ashamed, these charity lords.
“The Spanish people in the neighborhood hated us. They always shouted, ‘Go back to Palestine!’ One day a rain started and continued for eight days without stopping. The rivers overflowed their banks. There was a flood. In the middle of the day it became as dark as night. There was such thundering and lightning that we thought the world was coming to an end. It hailed too. The hailstones were as large as goose eggs. One chunk of ice made a hole in a roof and destroyed the house. How does ice come from the sky? There were among us a few elderly people and they began to recite their confessions. They believed the Messiah was about to come and that this was the war between Gog and Magog. Those who could write, wrote long letters to the Baron, but he never answered. The women did one thing, they cried. There came to us a young man, Hershelle Moskver. They called him—how do you say?—an idealist. He had long hair and wore a black blouse with a sash. He had already been to the Holy Land and had left it. ‘There,’ he said to us, ‘is a desert. Here the earth is fat.’ He brought with him a young woman. Her name was Bella. She was beautiful, black like a Gypsy, with a mouth full of white teeth. All the men fell in love with her. When she entered a room it became brighter. She comforted and helped everyone. When a woman gave birth, she was the midwife. But the women began to complain that she had come here to seduce their husbands. There was a lot of gossip and fighting. In the middle of all this Bella contracted typhoid fever and could not be saved. Her enemies had put a curse on her. Hershelle Moskver stood at her grave and refused to recite the Kaddish. Three days later he was found hanged. Do you want another cup of coffee? Drink, my good friends, drink. When will I have such an honor again? If you want, come with me to the cemetery. It's right here. I will show you everything. The whole colony is buried there.”
Our breakfast finished, the old man took his cane and we walked to the cemetery. The fence was broken. Some headstones were bent, others had toppled over. They were all grown over with weeds and wild flowers, the engraved letters green with moss and half-erased. Here and there protruded a rotting wooden tablet. The old man pointed toward a hill. “There lies Bella, and next to her, Hershelle Moskver. They lived together, and . . . how is it in the Bible?”
I helped him out. “Lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.”
“Yes, you remember. My memory has weakened. What took place seventy years ago is clear to me like yesterday. What happened yesterday seems far away. It's all the years, the years. I could sit with you seven days and seven nights and I wouldn't be able to tell you a tenth of what we suffered. And does the younger generation know it? They don't want to hear a thing. Everything was prepared for them. All work is now done with machines. They get in a car and drive to Buenos Aires. Are you two husband and wife?”
“No, we are friends.”
“Why don't you get married?”
“He already has a wife.” Sonya pointed to me.
“Well, I will sit down here.”
The old man sat on a bench. Sonya and I walked among the graves and read the inscriptions on the headstones. The air smelled sweet, like honey. Bees hummed as they flew from flower to flower. Huge butterflies such as I had never seen before fluttered over the graves. The wings of one butterfly had the black and white stripes of a prayer shawl. Sonya and I came over a hill and saw a stone with two names, those of Bella and Hershelle Moskver.
Sonya took my hand and began to pinch, and pull. She dug her nails into the flesh. We stood by the stone and could not move away. Every few moments another kind of bird sounded his call. A strong perfume filled the air. In Sonya's hair all sorts of insects gathered. A ladybug landed on my lapel. A caterpillar fell into the cuff of my pants. The old cemetery teemed with life, death, love, vegetation. Sonya said, “If only we could remain here like this.”
After a while we returned to the bench where the old colonist Waited. He had fallen asleep. His toothless mouth was open and he looked as stiff as a corpse. But his eyes under his shaggy brows seemed to smile. A butterfly had settled on the vizor of his cap. It remained still, congealed in thoughts as ancient as its species. Then it shook its wings and flew off in the direction of the hill where Bella and Hershelle lay buried—the Romeo and Juliet of Baron de Hirsch's grandiose dream to turn Russian Jews into Argentine peasants.