The Story of a Life
World War II went on for six straight years, but sometimes it seems to me that it lasted only one long night, from which I awoke a completely different person. Sometimes I felt that it wasn’t I who was in the war, but someone else, someone very close to me, and that he’s going to tell me what exactly occurred, for I don’t remember what happened or how it happened.
I say “I don’t remember,” and that’s the whole truth. The strongest imprints those years have left on me are intense physical ones. The hunger for bread. To this very day I can wake up in the middle of the night ravenously hungry. Dreams of hunger and thirst haunt me almost on a weekly basis. I eat as only people who have known hunger eat, with a strangely ravenous appetite.
During the course of the war, I was in hundreds of places — in railway stations, in remote villages, on the banks of rivers. All these places had names, but there’s not one that I can remember. Sometimes I see the war years like a large pasture that blends into the horizon; sometimes it’s like a dark and gloomy forest that goes on interminably; and sometimes it’s like a long line of people weighed down with bundles and knapsacks. From time to time some of the people collapse onto the ground, only to be trampled by all the other feet.
Everything that happened is imprinted within my body and not within my memory. The cells of my body apparently remember more than my mind, which is supposed to remember. For years after the war, I would walk neither in the middle of the sidewalk nor in the middle of the road. I always clung to the walls, always staying in the shade, and always walking rapidly, as if I were slipping away. As a rule I’m not given to crying, but even the most casual partings can reduce me to tears.
I say “I don’t remember,” and yet I still recall thousands of details. Sometimes just the aroma of a certain dish or the dampness of shoes or a sudden noise is enough to take me back into the middle of the war, and then it seems to me that it never really ended, but that it has continued without my knowledge. And now that I am fully aware of it, I realize that there’s been no letup since it began.
Because I spent a large part of the war in villages, in fields, by riverbanks, and in forests, this greenness is imprinted on me, and whenever I remove my shoes and step on the grass, I immediately remember the pastures and the dappled animals scattered over the endless space. And then a fear of these open spaces returns to me. My legs feel tense, and for a moment it seems to me that I’ve made a mistake. I’m still in the war, and I have to beat a retreat, to the outer edges of the forest, running and ducking, because the outer edges provide more safety. At the edges of the forest you can see without being seen. Sometimes I find myself in a dark alley — as one can in Jerusalem — and I’m sure that the gate will soon be closed and I won’t be able to get out. I quicken my pace and try to get away.
Sometimes the very act of sitting down or standing up brings to mind visions of a railway station filled with people and baggage, with arguments and children being slapped, with arms and hands thrust out in continuous entreaty, “Water, water!” And suddenly hundreds of legs raise themselves, moving as one toward a water barrel that is being rolled onto the platform, and the sole of a large foot pushes into my frail chest, crushing the breath out of me. It’s unbelievable, how the sole of that same foot is still imprinted on me, how fresh the pain is, and for a moment it seems to me that I can’t move because of it.
Sometimes a month goes by without anything of what I saw during that time coming back to me. Of course, this is merely a temporary hiatus. Sometimes just an old object, lying on the roadside, is enough to bring hundreds of feet up from the depths, feet that are marching in a long column. And if anyone collapses under it, no one will help him get up.
In 1944, the Russians recaptured the Ukraine. I was twelve years old. A woman survivor who noticed me and saw how lost I was, bent down and asked, “What has happened to you, boy?”
“Nothing,” I replied.
My answer must have astonished her, for she didn’t ask me anything else. This same question was asked in different ways on my long journey to Yugoslavia. Even in Israel there was no end to it.
Someone who was an adult during the war took in and remembered places and individuals, and at the end of the war he could sit and recall them, or talk about them. (As he would no doubt continue to do till the end of his life.) With us children, however, it was not names that were sunk into memory, but something completely different. For a child, memory is a reservoir that doesn’t empty. It’s replenished over the years, and clarified. It’s not a chronological recollection, but overflowing and changing, if I may put it that way.
I’ve already written more than twenty books about those years, but sometimes it seems as though I haven’t yet begun to describe them. Sometimes it seems to me that a fully detailed memory is still concealed within me, and when it emerges from its bunker, it will flow fiercely and strongly for days on end. This is a fragment about a forced march that I’ve been trying to describe without success, for years:
We’ve already been marching for days, slogging through muddy roads, a long line surrounded by Romanian soldiers and Ukrainian militia who lash out at us with their whips and shoot randomly at us. Father holds my hand very tightly. But my short legs barely touch the ground, and the icy water cuts into them and into my small waist. Darkness surrounds us, and apart from father’s hand, I don’t feel a thing. In fact, I don’t even feel his hand, for my arm is already partially numb. It’s clear to me that with only one small wrong movement I’ll sink down and down, and even Father won’t be able to pull me out. Many children have already drowned like this. At night, when the convoy stops, Father pulls me out of the mud and wipes my legs with his coat. My shoes were lost some time ago, and I bury my legs for a moment in the lining of his coat. The slight warmth hurts me so much that I quickly pull them out. For some reason, this rapid movement makes him angry. Father can get bitterly angry at me. I’m afraid of his anger, but I refuse to put my legs into his lining. Father never used to get angry at me. Mother would slap me from time to time, but never Father. If Father is angry, that means that I’m going to die soon, I tell myself, and grip his hand tightly. Father relents and says, “This is no time to act spoiled.” “Spoiled” — a word that Mother would frequently use — now sounds strange. As if Father is wrong, or perhaps I am. Without letting go of his hand I drop off to sleep, but not for long.
While the sky is still dark, the soldiers wake up the convoy with whippings and shootings. Father grabs my hand and pulls me up. The mud is deep, and I cannot feel any solid ground beneath it. I’m still drowsy from sleep, and my fear is dulled. “It hurts me!” I call out. Father hears my cry and responds instantly, “Make it easier for me, make it easier.”
I’ve heard those words often. After them come a dreadful collapse and the futile attempts to save a child who has drowned. Not only children drown in the mud; even tall people sink into it, fall to their knees, and drown. Spring is melting the snows, and with every passing day the mud gets deeper. Father opens his knapsack and tosses some of the clothes into the mud. Now his hand holds mine with great strength. At night he rubs my arms and legs and wipes them with the lining of his coat, and for a moment it seems to me that not only my father is with me, but also my mother, whom I loved so much.
The above was excerpted from “The Story of a Life,” which will be published this month by Schocken Books.