Translated by Miriam Hoffman and Beverly Koenigsberg
This story originally appeared in the Forverts of July 30, 1993.
My father was at one time a handsome and elegant young man — tall, with broad shoulders and a forelock of curly red hair. He loved flirting with the girls. He told me that many young women had set their sights on him but that he cared for only one of them — Geleh. She boasted a pair of hot flaming eyes and a head of silky blond hair; she was sensuous, agile and clever. Her mother kept close watch on her and commented on every move she made: “Don’t go out with this one; don’t hang around with that one.”
But she made no objections to my father’s courting of her daughter. He worked in an editor’s office and had made a good living until the difficult 1930s crept up on Poland. In those days, the Jewish youth felt as though it had been trapped in a net. Where could they flee when every door was closed to them?
The Soviet Union enticed them with promises:
Come children! Come precious ones! Help build a new world, a free world, where the worker is the boss; whoever wants to put a shoulder to the wheel can be assured of a golden future.
What was one to do?
So Geleh broke the sad news to her lover, my father that is, that she and her family had passage on a boat bound for Canada. She promised that as soon as she got there she would send for him, and then they would get married and live out their years in total bliss. They swore eternal love, wept and wailed. My father gave her a gold watch and accompanied her to the railroad station. It was excruciating for him to separate from Geleh.
A year passed, and Geleh’s letters took on a different character. One thing and another. She had become acquainted with a young man, and they were “keeping company.” Actually, they were at the stage of planning their wedding. “Forgive me,” she wrote. “My mother feels that it is for the best.”
You understand that what my father suffered at that time I cannot put into words; this was his private tragedy. He informed his sister, his stepmother, his stepbrother and his stepsister that he had made up his mind to seek his fortune in the Soviet Union. And he took off, smuggling himself illegally across the border.
At any rate, what he endured in the prisons of the Soviet Union and in the camps I don’t intend to record now. I want to return to Geleh.
In 1950 we were lucky enough to reach Boston, and from there we took the train to New York. We were met at Grand Central Station by my father’s Uncle Yedidya and a couple of friends from our displaced persons camp, Hindenburg-Kaserne, in Germany.
It didn’t take much time before we were settled into our own little apartment. Everything would have been perfect if my father had succeeded in finding work in his own field. He was a printer and linotypist, but getting admitted into the printer’s union was a demeaning, gut-wrenching challenge for him. In the meantime he worked at sorting rags. He felt demeaned and humiliated, but what won’t a man do to earn a living?
All of a sudden, a letter arrived from Canada! It’s from Geleh — how ecstatic and overjoyed she is, having learned we were saved and are still alive. At the very first opportunity she is coming to visit us; she can hardly contain herself. And before we had time to compose ourselves, the doorbell rang and into our home marched an exquisite lady, beautifully dressed, flaunting a broad-brimmed white hat. Near her stood her stunning daughter in a sky blue satin outfit, wearing a pair of patent leather shoes and, in her hair, a red ribbon. The ladies pranced around our pathetic little apartment, heartily embraced my father, and hastily acknowledged my mother and me. Geleh expounded on her great good fortune, proud of how lady luck had smiled on her and how she was enjoying such smooth sailing. Life is so wonderfully beautiful and interesting and rewarding.
My father sat, crushed and withered, in a state of deep gloom. My heart went out to him. What a scenario. Here is this gorgeous lady who was once his bride, and here we are, refugees from a catastrophe, barely alive. My mother busied herself in the kitchen while I appraised the daughter, the “belle.” We were of an age, though she was fully two heads taller than me, bursting with health, her cheeks rosy and her bosom full. By contrast, my clothes hung on me like a scarecrow’s, and I weighed scarcely 90 pounds. I still wore a Shirley Temple hairdo because my mother wouldn’t allow me to cut my curls. The daughter continuously patted her red lips with an embroidered handkerchief. We couldn’t converse, because she didn’t speak Yiddish and my English still rolled around my teeth like hard peas. At long last, they bade us goodbye and made their departure.
The three of us remained sitting there as though embalmed. Father felt altogether defeated and lost, and though he ordinarily enjoyed his food, he had no appetite for a long time afterward.
The Lord provided, and Father was admitted to the printers union. He got a good position on a Jewish newspaper and was even made a shop foreman. Not quite a year had gone by when my father said to me:
“Mirele, dress yourself in your snazziest clothes. We’re going to Canada to repay Geleh’s visit.”
I was truly amazed at him and how he had recaptured his former confidence. He stood straight and tall, he was lively and full of enthusiasm and he had a devilish twinkle shining in his gray-green eyes.
When we arrived in Toronto, we went first to visit relatives. And the very next day, we left and went to Geleh’s house for dinner.
She lived in a small house in a poor section of town. The rooms were narrow and overloaded with heavy furniture. Geleh opened the door. This time she was wearing a modest dress with an apron tied around her trim waist. Her hair was arranged in a bun. She invited us to sit on the hard, overstuffed sofa, assuring us that her husband would return from work at any minute. It came out that he was a simple tailor, one who put long, hard hours into his tailoring. It didn’t take long, and Geleh’s husband appeared in the doorway. He was a short, narrow-boned man with a weak smile on his soft, pale lips. He excused himself and disappeared into one of the rooms to wash up and get ready for dinner.
Father suddenly came to life! His features were radiant, and he accepted a glass of whiskey, on which he made one l’chaim after another. He clapped his hands and smacked his lips at the tasty dishes that were served. This was no small event! Worlds had vanished, years had flown by, and here they were, together under one roof, he and Geleh. She has a man, if you could call that emaciated relic a man, and he, her onetime groom, is back, still a sturdy young fellow. He’s not far from mastering English, and how far is that from conquering the world? A hop, skip and a jump! Geleh sat, depressed and forlorn, and asked father to talk about how things were during the war. But right now the war did not even remotely concern him. He had seen for himself the existence of poverty, emptiness, pretence.
We rode home in good spirits, revived, and I remember how Father kept regaling me with stories and witty anecdotes. And he simply didn’t stop laughing. From that time on we were often guests in Canada for bar mitzvahs and family weddings, but first and foremost my father always fit in a visit to Geleh.
The last time we were in Toronto, both my father and Geleh were in their late 70s. Her husband had long since passed away, and the beautiful daughter — now divorced and rather thick around the middle — was looking around for a new groom. This time when my father phoned and said that he wanted to see her she said it was fine with her. But Geleh insisted he must bring someone along, because she was afraid for them to be alone together.
So once more I accompanied my father. This time Geleh was in a tidy, comfortable little apartment. She was totally gray, her hair still arranged in a bun. Her waist was already a little fuller, and she wore a pair of thick glasses. Here and there you could catch a glimpse of her former beauty. She was strongly moved by our visit. Deep in my heart I knew that my father was waiting for an answer to the question that had plagued him all those years: “Why did you do such a thing to me, Geleh?” But she only sighed and cast melancholy glances toward the dreary street.
Today they are both already in their eternal resting places. Who knows? Perhaps all questions will finally be answered in that other world.
Geleh: A Love Story