I smoked my first cigarette when I was six years old. I found it on the kitchen windowsill, though the railway platform proved more reliable. The butts I gathered on that platform made terrible, gritty cigarettes, hardly worth re-rolling, yet to my mind, they're all mixed up with where I smoked them, by the tracks. I loved the trains, window after window of Budapesti smokers who would carry cigarettes to theaters, lectures, and cafés. I'd do those things too. But later there would also be smokes passed, like gifts, between strangers in the dark.
Now where the hell can I get a cigarette? Everyone in Israel is a smoker, but nobody gets something for nothing, and what do I have to trade? Not that my head's the clearest. We're just off the boat, Louisa and I, and we expected my cousin, Bela, to meet us at the dock, but he wasn't there. We went through customs, and there were so many of us piling in at once that we were backed up for hours. By the time they let us go, it was dark. Rain fell by the fistful. No Bela.
So we were forced onto a government truck parked by the gate, a flatbed full of Poles. Some young clods in wet leather jackets unfastened the tarp and hoisted us on board, and those Poles reluctantly made room between their trunks and carpetbags and feather mattresses. The rain slapped on the tarp and cut through a stream of aromatic Yiddish. It was hard to tell where the luggage ended and the humanity began. There is a kind of Jew who looks deep fried, a chinless sloucher. Here was a happy family of them.
Louisa whispered, "Ich verstehe kein Wort."
The Poles fell silent. A woman to my right asked, in Yiddish, "What is she?"
"My daughter-in-law," I said.
She asked, "What is she doing here?"
"The same as me."
"She's not the same as you."
It was no use saying no, here in the truck skidding through mud that would take us to a transient camp where we would share close quarters. Could I begrudge them curiosity?
Ah, the trouble was, I could. I had no use for these people. I had no use for this country. If Bela had met us at the dock, I would have understood why I was here.
The easy answer was: where else did I have to go? I'd lost my parents and my husband and my son. I had only Louisa. I owe her my life. It was Louisa who had kept me hidden during the German occupation. This was five years ago, in Budapest. Louisa stayed through a siege under a rain of bombs and steady gunfire, and she kept me in the cellar of her family house through the winter, in constant danger of discovery and death. The latticed vent under the piano of her music room was our lone gateway, and through it she passed water, rolls, canned meat, and cigarettes. Often, she would sing a composition by my son.
What is lost, what is lost
We can not have back again.
It is like a breath we've taken.
We can not breathe it again.
It is like good bread we've eaten.
We can not eat it again.
It is like a heart we've broken
Or our own heart, lost in vain.
Some days, I could hear nothing but a constant roar in my ears. It must have been the sound of my own blood which, my cousin Adele the nurse once told me, renews itself once every three weeks. In that case, in that cellar my blood was renewed four times. I don't doubt it made a noise.
After the war I didn't seek out Louisa, but she found me. I was at the border station on my way to Italy, and she grabbed hold of me and cried out, "Mutti, I'm going with you!"
She wore a rabbit-fur coat and she gripped me so hard that I could feel through the fluff straight to the skin. "What do you want from me?" I'd demanded then. "You've done enough. Let go."
But she didn't let go, even as the train pulled from the station, and though she didn't have the proper papers, somehow we were rolling through the mountains of Slovenia and then to Trieste, where after some time we secured passage on a boat bound for Haifa to the Holy Land, and during our months on the road, not once did she let go.
Reprinted from Louisa by Simone Zelitch by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Simone Zelitch. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission
Blood at the Root
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