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Icchokas Meras (1934-2014) was born in a Jewish family in Kelmė, Lithuania. His family perished in 1941 when the Nazis undertook the liquidation of Lithuania’s Jews, but young Icchokas escaped the Holocaust.

Hidden and adopted by a Lithuanian peasant family, Meras survived the war. In the violent and troubled post-war years Meras attended secondary school and soon revealed an inclination towards writing when he came to work for a local newspaper in Kelmė.

In 1958 he graduated from the Kaunas Polytechnic Institute with a degree in radio electronics but began devoting most of his spare time to literature. In 1960 Meras published his first collection of stories entitled Geltonas lopas (The Yellow Patch). He based his sketches on his own childhood experiences of Holocaust terror. In 1963 Meras published two works: Žemė visada gyva (The Earth is Always Alive) and his best-known work internationally, Lygiosios trunka akimirką (A Stalemate Lasts but a Moment). In 1965 Meras published another novel, Ant ko laikosi pasaulis (What the World Rests On). In 1971 there followed Mėnulio savaitė (The Week of the Moon) and Senas fontanas (The Old Fountain). In 1971 Meras presented his darkly existentialist novel Striptizas, arba Paryžius — Roma — Paryžius (Striptease or Paris-Rome-Paris).

Under increasing pressure from the KGB authorities for his literary "deviations," he emigrated from Lithuania to Israel in 1972 where he lived until his death.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Photo from authors personal archive

By Icchokas Meras

Translated from Lithuanian into Hebrew by Batsheva Leviathan, and from Hebrew into English by Judith Cooper-Weill

 

 

 

The Last Supper

 

 

Have you ever eaten pfloymen-tzimmes?

If you never have, there’s nothing to regret, and don’t bother sampling any, it’s nothing special: potatoes, black prunes, beef: baked, dark brown, maybe due to the long baking, maybe due to the prunes, nothing out of the ordinary, just a taste of paradise, and mother used to bake it like that, a long time ago, before the war, when she was young, younger than I am today, and it was long ago, perhaps she was no older than the two sisters who invited us to dinner.

They lived in Tel Aviv, in a street with a name so strange it didn’t seem real, like an imaginary name, but I found it easily enough, and on that festival eve there weren’t many cars in the city, which was plunged in semi-slumber, so I could stop at my ease at every turn and take my time making out the street signs with their yellowish light, checking I really was driving in the right direction.

These were the names of the sisters: one was called Shoshana, the other Shulamit; but there was a time, after the war, possibly as many as ten years after the war, when I was already a student and they were two little girls who baked mud pies in the big yard on Kęstutis Street in Kaunas. We called the dark-haired one Lilia, and the other one with the light hair Liama.

Today Lilia is still tall and dark, and Liama fair-haired and plump. They were orphans, although you couldn’t really call them orphans since they were grown-up when their mother died and, after her, their father also passed away, brought down by cancer, and they were buried side by side, here in the cemetery in Kfar Saba and a gravestone was placed over their grave. They still miss their mother and their father, though more, I think, the father than the mother, since, when we had concluded our compliments on the satisfying and delicious meal, Liama said quietly: “Thats what father taught us: when you do something, do it well.”

Later, much later, when everyone was contentedly chewing chopped liver, whose flavor again reminded me of my childhood home, Lilia asked me. “Where did you know my father from?”

After all, she must already have known that our fathers were good friends. Didn’t her aunt, her father’s sister, sitting with us that evening at the same table, remember me as a small child? I was only two years old when she left for Palestine.

But that was too simple, too obvious, not even relevant. For it wasn’t Shoshana asking the question – it was Lilia, little Lilia from Kęstutis Street.

So I replied: “You can’t remember anything about those days, because you didn’t yet exist, but they broke through the German front and I burst out of the basement of the workers’ quarters on the estate, and I looked around and knew there was nothing more to fear. A black-haired soldier caught hold of me, his hair was as black as yours – they pointed me out to him – and he interrogated me: ‘Is there anyone left alive? Are any of them left, please, perhaps in spite of everything ...?’ And I said – no. That was your father. And now, as a student in Kaunas, I have the habit of going to eat at your house. Okay, little girl?”

Absently, I mused: is it possible that I have been hungry half my life? During the time of the Germans, and after the war, and for a long time after that, to this very day, I have been hungry. And nobody has reminded me that I’m no longer in Kaunas, nor that I am not a student any more. It’s not good that nobody reminded me.

“This year the matzos are tasty,” said Liama.

The matzos really were very tasty.

“The matzos in the small packets are always tasty,” declared the aunt.

That day was also a holy day: it was the last day of Passover and the day of Resurrection for the Catholics.

Perhaps because it was Passover that day, I asked my sister, who was also still alive and sitting with us at the long communal table, and I don’t know why, maybe because I thought of the stations Jesus passed along on the way to Calvary, and that in Jerusalem the real Via Dolorosa is unlike any picture of it in any church in the whole world; so that I was musing, apparently, on his travails during Holy Week, and I asked:

“Tell me, on the day they took us to be executed, there were Germans there, weren’t there? Surely there was at least one German?”

“No,” she replied, “there wasn’t. Only at the end, when they were leading the last ones, a car appeared with Germans in it and they took us back half the way.”

“I thought the priest intervened on our behalf ...”

“The priest stood on the hill and made the sign of the cross from afar, thus meaning to baptize us, in the belief that if an innocent person about to die was blessed, the blood he shed would baptize him a Christian.”

“But people said ...”

“You’re mixing things up,” she explained in a metallic voice. “The Germans came to photograph and ordered some of the children to be allowed to live, for the time being, so that it shouldn’t be said afterwards ‘You see, they took them and massacred them all at once.’”

“I thought the priest ...”

“Mikulas told me and he should know. When I was living with Ponia Klimienė, he lived there too, had you forgotten?”

I had not forgotten.

When Ponia Dinikienė used to dress me in girls’ clothes, so nobody would know and bring me to Kalnų Street to meet my sister, a stern-looking man sometimes came too. His name was Mikulas, one of the ones who killed Jews, but people said he wasn’t really dangerous anymore. And I didn’t think about the dangers, for the little girl, with her round face and eyes as black as hot coals, her straight black hair plaited into two braids – that little girl was my sister, the daughter of Klimas and his wife’s servant, Klimienė, tripping about, running to the granary to fetch bread, to get milk and sausage or a bit of meat. And Ponia Klimienė never looked at us, as she chattered to Ponia Dinikienė, and Klimas, her husband, would get ready to go fishing: set down the tackle, disentangle the threads of horsehair, tie fresh knots or sort the fat worms which he removed from the lavatory and rinsed until they were quite white, and he was either already drunk or on the way, for he drank all the time till he collapsed, saturated with home-brewed spirits. Sometimes Klimas would give me an encouraging look and I would eat, for I was always hungry.

And in hunger I remembered the wonderful sound that a green cucumber makes when your teeth bite into it: the sort of cucumber which is cut in half and spread with honey.

Then I asked Liba, whom we used to call Liba’le, dear one: “I wonder if the priest from the village of Moliai is still alive? He always offered me cucumbers with honey when I came.”

“You went to his house too?” asked Liba’le.

“No, it was after the war. I’d go to see him if I happened to be in the area. After the war and quite by chance.”

“He’s still alive,” said Liba’le. “He’s ninety-three and due to his great age he has a position of honor at the altar at Ziburiai. He never went far in all his long life. How many miles is it from Moliai to Ziburiai?”

Six miles from Moliai to Ziburiai.

Liba’le sat across from me on the other side of the table and she, too, looked different from how I remembered her. I had an image of her as in a photograph: round cheeks, dark brown high-school uniform trimmed with a knitted white col­lar, or as a lively student in Vilna, not particularly tall, letting me sleep in her bed for lack of anywhere else, at the outer edge, while she lay next to the wall, and there were three other students in the room, all sleeping in their own beds, in the stu­dents’ dormitories, and nobody said a word, though I was already an adolescent boy, and that night, the whole night, I didn’t sleep a wink for I didn’t feel comfort­able at all. Liba’le then was known as Marytė.

“Tell me, Elisheva, how did you return to Judaism?” Time and again Lilia’s and Liama’s aunt would ask Marytė. This aunt was known as Lalia, nowadays Avital, and I never said anything rude or unkind to her, and never will, for the more I stared at her the more I thought: by now, almost certainly, my parents might have been like her, that’s how they would have looked perhaps, not young, dried-up, wrinkled.

But I answered from my point of view, since Marytė never found the right words for herself, perhaps because the right words don’t exist: “No Jew who has never been a Christian, even for an instant, can ever understand.”

That’s what I said, I who was baptized Jonas Algirdas-Jonas Victoras Dinikis.

“Shut-up, you toad!” Lalia suddenly exclaimed in fluent Lithuanian, possibly for fun, or else she was serious.

I thought, said nothing. I knew it wasn’t blood coursing in her shriveled old veins, but venom, venom in which she was ready to drown everything – it wasn’t clear what or whom but everything in general, because of their having murdered us, of their having baptized us, on account of our having believed in Jesus Christ, on account of our once having prayed to him, devoutly, from the depths of our hearts, as children.

It took a long time while Liba’le recounted how she, Marytė, got papers in the name of Liba and married a Polish Jew so that she could immigrate to Israel; how she had two children with him and ended up throwing him, the drunkard, out; how she raised the girls by herself, bestowing on them all her beauty and femininity while she, willy-nilly, got older and no longer believed in God, and it was a shame, but she didn’t believe, though she still couldn't bear it if anyone insulted the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ.

“But how could you ... how did you believe ... how could you believe in Jesus?” Lalia wouldn’t drop the subject.

This was Avital, refusing to calm down, never at peace.

At this table she was the oldest of all, wrinkled by life, having sacrificed her­self for her people: youth, family, joy; all sacrificed for the sake of the Jewish people and state, defending every bit of ground with her frail body and the bod­ies of her dear ones: her brother, her husband and son-in-law, who had fallen, while she carried on living, creating, singing patriotic pioneering songs, the same songs which even now, as we sat around the table, were being broadcast on the television, songs we might have been expected to learn by heart in the fifteen to twenty years we had been living in the Jewish state, for she had given up every­thing for people like us, so that we would have a home, so that we would be Jews, simple-hearted Jews.

 

“At the final shooting,” Liba’le seemed to be defending herself, “Sternas’ neighbor hid us in a pit used for storing potatoes in winter and we stayed there day and night, while they combed the place for hidden Jews. The high-school secretary, Steponkus, came on a bicycle, you remember?”

“I remember,” I said. “Steponkus, together with his friend the monk, sat us on his bike, and we set out for Ziburiai, right through the town in broad daylight, and we were terribly scared but the monk reassured us, laughed and said that if God was our keeper he would surely be a tower of strength also in daytime, not only in the middle of the night, and so they took us to the old cemetery next to the church. Do you remember the cemetery?”

“I remember.”

“And then they told us that they didn’t have room for us, but there were some god-fearing women living in a place called Padubysis, the Raubaitis sisters, who were prepared to take us in if we were baptized, but if not, they wouldn’t, and it was the same with you, wasn’t it?"

“Different, but does it matter that much?”

“We looked at each other, me and my sister, and we nodded that it was alright, and on the spot in that church we were baptized and taken to Padubysis, and there, in their little tumble-down hut with the big fire, in a home blessed with the Divine Presence, the Raubaitis sisters welcomed us warmly. The priest used to come from Moliai to teach us, and Pausytė, the sisters’ friend, also a god-fearing woman, used to visit too, and suddenly everything became clear: whom else could one believe in if almost the entire world believed in Jesus Christ, and only the Jews did not, and look how they had killed all of them – wasn't that so?”

“Yes,” I agreed.

For all at once a being was on our side, nearer to us than any other Christ. God and Man, a Jew crucified on the cross with nails, his head hanging to one side and his ribs pierced with a spear, you could actually touch him, he was so real, so alive, in that flickering yellow candlelight. To him you could pour your heart out, unload your pain, you could beseech him, and he would listen with all his might, from beginning to end, without interrupting, without asking any questions. Long, long ago.

That was why the widow Pausytė, when she saw me vacillating, absolved me as it were by command: “If ever you cease to believe in Jesus, better to disavow everything, but whatever you do, don’t be a Jew.” She said this when the time came that I changed my Lithuanian name back to my real name.

“Last year Pausytė passed away,” said Liba’le, “I invited her to come and live with us and she hesitaded so long that it was too late.”

“And the Vaigauskas family?” I asked.

“Also gone,” replied Liba’le.

Now it was I asking questions. “Can you remember,” I asked, “climbing some stairs, going into a house, and there was a fire and the table was laid? How they knew I was a Jewish child I don't know. How they knew I was hungry I’ll never know either. I used to take Ponia Sutkienė’s cows to pasture, and the Vaigauskas would say: ‘Bring the herd as far as our fence and come in to eat.’ At that table one of Stemas’ daughters sewed me a black cap with a little button. How many Jews passed through their house?”

“Many,” said Liba’le.

“For God’s sake!” sighed the oval-faced woman sitting next to me. She seemed familiar and nice. She alone, perhaps, only she could let out such a sigh, for she was the only one of all those around the table who had never changed her name. They said she was my wife. When I reached out for a packet of cigarettes, she stopped me gently with a “Please, don’t ...”

No, no, smoking is not allowed, I really mustn’t smoke, in case the cancer gets me and I die like Lilia’s and Liama’s father did. But I didn’t know this woman, familiar to me. I wanted to inhale the smoke, like in the forest at Ziburiai, sitting on the tree stump, till I felt giddy. Could I have been married then? Could that child, the child that was I, have had a wife?

Liana poured me a glass of red wine and I reached out to take it, but another woman, also sitting next to me, stopped me, saying:

“Better not drink ...”

She had gray hair, cut short.

They said she was my sister.

I knew I wasn’t allowed to drink or I might be consumed and die like Klimas. I don't know this woman either.

It couldn’t be my sister, for my sister was a twelve-year-old girl with straight hair, carefully plaited into long black braids.

And I was a small boy, stark naked, barefoot and hungry.

My narrow shoulders were weighed down with all that had happened, and all that would happen, and I couldn’t bear the burden any longer, for the load was so great, so I preferred not to go back halfway from the path which led to the pit, but simply to go on, till the end, but the path wasn’t there, and I felt a sharp blow in my chest, like Jesus, in the same place, and I collapsed on the table, all laid as it was for Passover. Only after I was pronounced clinically dead did I become aware that I had knocked over the goblet of red wine and everybody, frozen, had watched as I bled.

I lay in Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv, in a raised bed, and the doctors did their best to revive me and nobody knew if I would live.

I also didn’t yet know if I would be resurrected.

If I rise again, they will say that eating too much at night is forbidden, even if the food is delicious, and even if you are very hungry; a dish as hard to digest as pfloymen-tzimmes is off-limits to a man of my age.

They never knew that I had died when I was eight.

 

 

 

From “The Vilnius Review”, 2005, Spring/Summer edition (No 17)

 

 

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