Sad at heart

I lost track of R. many years ago. From time to time someone of my old office told me of a conference where he had given a talk or of a summit where he had spoken. He is asking how you are doing, my old colleagues said. But I never enquired after R. nor told them more than the most common version of: „I am fine.“ I just turned around and left. I couldn’t care less. Once when the old office was not the old office but my actual workplace R. and I shared a room. R. was not good at his job. He was brilliant. Quick and always a step ahead of anybody else. In many ways he was a savant, it was always fun to work with him. It was better than fun, it was mesmerizing. I was pretty young back then, R. was not old back then and we both thought we would share this office for a long time. In the office they called us the twins and yes we were entwined in our convictions and in our desires and yes, we were as earnest as ironic in our ambitions and of course we were too young for the job we were doing. But probably such a thing as the right age doesn’t exist anyway. One day after we failed badly in convincing someone so absurdly important that we were right and he was wrong, we drank too much. Way too much. We sat on my sofa that I gave away a few months later and you looked at a picture hanging on the wall. An old black- and white photography. You stared at it for a long time. Then you said: „I don’t like Jews, you know.“ „You know I am Jewish“, I said and you nodded. „They control the banks, they control everything“ you went on. „All of them came from their Polish Ghettos, telling their children not to work with their hands. They told them, but I wasn’t up to listen any longer and showed you out of the door. „Go to hell I said“ and this was the last thing I ever said to you. From upstairs I looked down on the street you were still standing there and probably babbling on about the Jews telling their children. The picture that inspired your outburst back then shows an old woman standing next to an even older woman. The woman you were staring at is long dead. Her name was Chaya Zilkha. She belonged to the close circle of friends of my grandmother. She belonged to the „Auschwitz circle“ of my grandmother.While my grandmother of course was many, many years older than me, Chaya was old and she lived together with her even older mother in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. But old doesn’t do any justice to the age of Chaya. I don’t know the right words to describe her age. Her skin was parchment- thin and of a delicate white, as I child I thought she might be older than the quite old pyramids. She was prehistoric or antique or old as the hills, I don’t know, in my perception she was at least a 100 years old but again I do not know for sure. I only know for certain that she was old enough to be born and raised in one of the many Stetls once so characteristic for Central Europe. My grandmother and even my great-grandparents never lived in a ghetto. My grandmother never spoke a single word of Yiddish and my grandfather learned Yiddish not in his childhood but in Auschwitz. When I met Chaya, there were no more stetls left. Her mother was dead long. Chaya, a piano teacher came once a year to  Germany to visit my grandmother. She was a lively lady, who spoke an ancient version of German and who never called me something else than her little bird. But in a distinct way of looking out of the window or touching her forehead or picking up a fork it always seemed that Chaya was only alive in a quite narrow way, she resembled more a carefully preserved butterfly or an old hidden away silk-dress than anything else. Whenever she and my grandmother sat on the sofa and chatted, a certain sadness covered the air. Whenever Chaya and I played the piano together the unspoken question: „What am I doing in this world in the first place?“ floated through the air. Years passed and Chaya grew older till she left a world she never had truly inhabited. Chaya was never married, she lived in the same small apartment she had shared with her mother for years, and I don’t know what her parents back then in the ghetto have told their children growing up. I know that the stetl was burnt down by the Germans as so many stetls were burnt down in these years. None of Chayas brothers survived. Chayas father died. If there was ever a fiancée of Chaya bringing her flowers, he died as well. And I wished, oh how I still wish that Chayas parents and grandparents would have told their children to get away, to leave the stetl just in time, to work in a bank in Caracas or to write for a newspaper in New York City. But they never did. They never even got close to the chance. When my grandmother died I found the photograph of Chaya and her mother: fly away little bird, I still hear her saying.

I never went back to working together with R. He handed in his termination and soon after I left the office and the town. Last weekend I attended a party of the old office of my mine. It was much more nice than awkward and still the people working in the office are not just good at their job, they are witty and smart, ambitious and still believe as we did once that the world could be turned around just by the sheer force of will. „You know that R. is here?“, a former colleague said to me, but I didn’t know and didn’t care. Half an hour later you saw me and I saw you. I looked away.

4 thoughts on “Sad at heart

  1. Your description of Chaya is so strong as captured in this sentence: „she resembled more a carefully preserved butterfly“ And the story of you and your fellow worker is poignant, sad, heartbreaking, and horrid all rolled together. You ended it perfectly with „Half an hour later you saw me and I saw you. I looked away.“

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