Below is an excerpt from “Aunt Rachel’s Photograph,” a short story based in the Macedonian town of Bitola, formerly Monastir. Written by playwright and screenwriter Tomislav Osmanli, it was recently awarded first prize in a literary contest sponsored by the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts and by “Fund March 11, 1943,” an organization that memorializes the day when more than 7,000 Macedonian Jews were killed at Treblinka.
I saw Aunt Rachel for the first time on that old photograph with worn-out edges. The same photograph that my father had shown me an infinite number of times, the photograph we still keep in the family album. Sitting behind the elderly serious images of my grandmother and my grandfather, that girl with the soft round face looks at you with an odd, withdrawn and modest, yet clear and persistent gaze.
“All right,” I asked my father not so long ago. “Are you going to tell me something about her?…”
“Who is Aunt Rachel? How can I explain…She is one of us. She was not a relative, and yet she felt so close…
Rachel was a child from a poor family, which my mother, Euridika, may her soul rest in heaven, took to our home to help. She was the eldest child in her father’s large family in order to work and earn. Her father was a modest man, a shoe-sewer that barely fed his family…He was a big man with a round face, and sad eyes which in time, I believe, became sadder. Although different Rachel and her father had something in common in their gaze. Some kind of serenity and deep sadness…
Whenever Rachel would take me by the hand and bring me into his small, clean but old and weary shoe-sewer store, we would sit on the two left shabby chairs, and then I would watch her and her father look at each other silently for a long time. He would always ask us if we wanted ginger ale or lemonade, and after Rachel would look at me straight in the eyes refusing for both of us, he would put his big hand on her head and pet her along the thick, shiny hair. He would gently slide his hand on his daughter’s cheek, smiling softly, and would keep looking in the sad reflection of her deep, intelligent eyes. Than he would put his arm to rest, and with a nod he’d show her that it was time to go.
In time, Rachel started sleeping over at our house, but every day she would take time to visit her home, see her family and fetch them something. It didn’t matter if it was a share of her monthly pay, of some food, prepared in our kitchen for a holiday or some special occasion. Rachel would go home and come back sooner than anyone of us would have expected.
“Why did you rush, there’s no more work to do,” often said my mother, while Rachel would smile and disappear somewhere in the house to prove the opposite.
Rachel quickly grew closer to our family. She learned the habits, even the weaknesses of all the family members, and she would always act in the best interest of the family. She quietly reproached my eldest brother when he started coming home late and when she found a pack of cigarettes in his pocket stolen from my father’s store. She took care of me, since I was the youngest of all, and helped my mother when I was both, sick and healthy. She taught my middle brother mathematics and covered him whenever he would do an unintentional mischief, but also helped my father with the bookkeeping and the tax forms.
Rachel simply became a part of us. Quiet and delicate she helped everyone, mostly my mother. She became so close to us, that after a while, she started speaking the language of the family. She, a bright Jewish girl from Bitola, started speaking Vlach so well that people could not recognize that she was not a Vlach herself. That is how Rachel grew to our home.
There, just like on the family photograph with Aunt Rachel, everyone is gazing at you. And although they are all gone, everyone is still here, together, now…