‘Emil and Karl’

Gleaning

Published April 21, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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In 1940, famed writer Yankev Glatshteyn, best known to English readers as Jacob Glatstein, published “Emil and Karl,” a book about two friends, one Jewish and the other not, living in wartime Vienna. Intended for students at Yiddish afternoon and weekend schools, “Emil and Karl,” written in Yiddish, was one of the first books about the Holocaust. For the first time since then, it has been made available in English, with a translation by Jeffrey Shandler, associate professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. An excerpt appears below.

The door opened, and Emil stood there, looking dazed. He didn’t say a word. He just stood in the open doorway, not knowing what to do. Karl could tell that his friend felt ill at ease, and so he didn’t dare go inside. They both stood there and stared at each other.

Emil was usually much more fidgety than Karl, but now he was as still as a statue. He usually spoke quickly, talking about everything at once so fast that he tripped over his words, and as he spoke he couldn’t stay in one place. His whole body talked — his eyes, his head, his hands, his feet. But now he stood as still as stone.

“The rabbi is here,” Emil said, as he began to come alive. “We’ve had a terrible disaster.” His long face seemed quite drawn as he lowered his eyes.

As Emil held the door open, Karl thought it made sense that Emil had said the word “disaster.” All day long he had been looking for the right word, and “disaster” described what he had been through as well.

“I’ve had a terrible disaster, too,” Karl said.

Then Emil started talking quickly. He let go of the door, and it swung shut, but Karl caught hold of it and held it open.

“They came,” Emil explained, “in the middle of the night and woke up everybody in the house. They beat my father and took him away. Then they killed him, and they cremated him, and they sent the ashes back to us in a box. And yesterday was the funeral. I was there, and my mother and the rabbi and Uncle Robert. Nobody else.”

Karl shivered and said softly, “They took my mother away from me. Three men came today and dragged her off. And she scratched one of them but good,” he said proudly.

Hearing this, Emil took hold of the door and motioned Karl inside.

Emil’s mother sat in the middle of the room on a small footstool. She looked older than Karl’s mother. Her hair was half black, half white. She didn’t even notice that Karl had come in. Every so often she broke into tears, but right away she put her hand over her mouth, as if to stifle her crying. She managed to stop, but only for a while. Soon she broke into sobs once more.

The rabbi stood by the window, drumming his fingers lightly on the glass. He was a middle-aged man with a short blond beard trimmed to a point. In one hand he held his eyeglasses, which he had just removed. His eyes were wet with tears. Each time that Emil’s mother started to cry, the rabbi went over to her and put his hands on her shoulders. He started to speak in a broken voice, but right away he recovered and spoke clearly.

“You mustn’t, you mustn’t let so much sadness into your heart. The living must continue to live, in spite of their enemies.” When he thought that his words had comforted her somewhat, the rabbi returned to the dark window.

Now Karl wished that he hadn’t come to Emil’s. He couldn’t find a place for himself there. He wished that Emil’s mother would get up from the footstool and tell the rabbi to leave. But she didn’t even see him.

The rabbi put his glasses back on. He went over to Emil and said, “Be a good boy.” And he added in a softer voice, “Take care of your mother. I’ll come back tomorrow.” Then the rabbi noticed Karl for the first time. He asked Emil, “Who is this boy — a friend of yours?”

“They took his mother away,” Emil quickly stammered. He wanted to defend Karl, to explain why he was there. “And his father died a long time ago.”

“May God have mercy on us,” the rabbi said and quickly left.

As soon as the rabbi had gone, Emil’s mother got up from her footstool. Emil wanted her to see that Karl was there.

“They took away his — ” Emil started to explain.

“I know, I heard, my son, I heard,” his mother interrupted. “Children, are you hungry?”

“Yes,” Karl cried out. Then he noticed that she was walking about in stocking feet. He felt bad that he had shouted “Yes” so loudly, but he felt such sharp, stabbing pains in his stomach.

“I’m hungry, very hungry,” he cried again, and looked about for something to eat.

Emil’s mother cut some slices of bread, spread them with butter, and put some cheese on top. Karl grabbed his sandwich and devoured it at once.

After a while the two boys lay in bed. The room they slept in was pitch black, as was the other room of the apartment. But in there was a glass sitting on a bureau, a glass with a burning wick inside. The flame flickered in a mirror on the opposite wall. The dancing wick sputtered and crackled, as if it were about to go out, but then the flame came back right away and trembled as it continued to burn. From the bed Karl could see Emil’s mother, still sitting on the low stool.

“Karl, are you asleep.”

“No.”

“Do you know why they killed my father?”

“No,” Karl answered quietly.

“Don’t you know? It’s because we’re Jews… Karl?” Emil asked. “Are you scared?”

“No! Are you?”

“Yes, I’m scared of the candle in the other room. It’s for my father’s soul.”

“Emil, are you sleeping?”

“No. Karl are you afraid now, too?”

“No, I was thinking…”

“What about?”

“About our teacher…”

“What about her?”

“Nothing…”

Karl remembered that he had sworn not to tell.

“Karl, are your eyes open?”

“Yes, Emil.”

“I’m keeping mine shut tight — so tight that it hurts…”

“Emil why did they take my mother away?” Karl suddenly asked, very quietly.

Emil didn’t respond. Karl liked that his friend didn’t have an answer for him immediately. Usually Emil had an answer for everything, but this time Karl had asked him something very hard.

“Well, why did they kill my father?” Karl asked. He was teasing Emil for not knowing the answer, but this gave Emil a clue.

“Your father was a Socialist. Everybody knows that. My father always said that your father was on the side of the poor workingman. And your mother is also a Socialist.”

“Are they going to cremate my mother, too?” Karl asked.

Emil didn’t answer.

“Emil, are you asleep?”

“No! I’m too scared. Come over here…” Karl moved nearer, but he kept one eye on the other room, where the little flame cast everything in shadow. He saw Emil’s mother was still sitting there. He couldn’t see the little stool any longer, so it seemed as though she was sitting on the floor.

Suddenly they heard her sobbing. The sound rose up from the floor. It was more muffled than before, but it lasted longer.

“Emil, are you asleep?” Karl asked softly.

He lay in bed with his eyes open and stared into the darkness, until he saw Emil sit up in bed, holding his head with both hands. By then it was morning, and they could see through the window that it was raining heavily outside.

Published with permission from Roaring Brook Press. Translation copyright by Jeffrey Shandler.






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