Excerpt from Louisa by Simone Zelitch, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Louisa

by Simone Zelitch

Louisa
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2000, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2001, 384 pages

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Why did she cling to me? She said she loved me. "Dear," I said, "that's not a reason."

"You're all alone."

"I'm going to my cousin."

"I want to be where you are."

"And what if they don't want you?"

In fact, they all knew: Poles, Slovaks, Romanians, Greeks, even the British at Cyprus. Everything about Louisa told them she was German. They'd start with questions, and I'd answer, "I owe her my life."

On the boat, she sought out a rabbi. It is Louisa's way to look for things without hesitation or embarrassment. She wanted to convert before we reached the Holy Land, and she cornered anyone who looked like he might do. There were few contenders. The emigrants were young and sullen, and none of the men had beards. Sometimes, Louisa would catch a fellow with a hat on, who was staring at the sea with an expression that she chose to read as prayerful, and she would ask him to baptize her and make her a Jew.

One fierce girl gripped my arm and asked, "Does she know where the boat's going?"

I couldn't keep pace with her Yiddish, and again I only said, "I owe her my life."

"You owe her something? Work it out with God. Don't bring us such a burden. Don't bring it to Israel. You know what she is?"

She pressed close, chin all but indenting mine, and her hot breath steamed all over my face so that I had to ask, mildly, "Do you have a cigarette?"

"She's their daughter," the woman said. "Even here we can't escape them."

So much for Yiddish. To me, it's greasy black hats, the smell of fish, wet eiderdown, that truck. My own emerges a resentful mouthful at a time. I prefer German. In Budapest, our set spoke German, and it was in German that I wrote my letters to my cousin Bela. The telegram I sent Bela from Trieste was in German, and in German I received his answer. Das gibt's doch nicht! Wann? Wo?

That answer met my expectations-joyous, tender, and inquisitive. It was printed in blue type so faint it might have floated, and only after I'd replied with the details of our arrival did I notice the unfamiliar Haifa address on the bottom of the page. So had Bela left Kibbutz Tilulit? That seemed impossible.

Bela had founded Tilulit. I imagine it the way it was in a photograph he sent me in '25, a photograph I lost: himself and two comrades in front of the kibbutz chicken coop. Dori sat on a spool of wire, legs stuffed into shorts, elbows on thighs, blond hair blown back. Bela and Nathan knelt on either side. They were substantial people, muscular and happy. They had just finished building the coop that day. Sunlight or overexposure filled their hair and glanced off bare knees into the camera. Bela would be grizzled now, and his hair would have gone gray, but he would whip open the tarp over the truck full of Poles with that same happy, frank expression, as though it were the gate of a chicken coop he'd built with his own hands.

If I had sent the date of our arrival to the wrong address, it stood to reason that Bela would not have received it in time to meet our boat. It would be futile to try to contact him that night, but until I saw him, everything around me would feel impermanent, the camp, mud underfoot, Poles, Yiddish. Also Louisa. She jumped off the truck, pulling both myself and our luggage with her.

"Mutti," she said, "we must thank God we have arrived." She bowed her head.

"We'll be trampled," I said to Louisa, for by now there was a push for bedding and ration-books. Such were our numbers that the camp administrators made no attempt to keep records, but they sprinkled us with disinfectant powder and handed out papers no one had the equilibrium to read. What with the rain, the ink of the documents was running.

No one paid attention to bed assignments, and by the time we reached our block, Louisa and I had to make do with a single cot under a window that didn't quite close. Around us, the Poles emptied carpetbags and fought over the space around the fizzling electric heater. The barracks were a shell. When the British left Palestine in '48, they'd stripped them down to a few walls of corrugated tin that more or less held up a roof. On that roof, rain slapped and the light hummed like a mosquito, and between those high and low notes ran the Yiddish, a tongue no cultured person speaks. The Poles were all old friends. They had been liberated by the same battalion, and at the same American DP camp in Belsen they had attended the same Labor-Zionist meetings and would probably settle into the same apartment block in Tel Aviv and turn it into Warsaw.

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

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