Once again I have flown out to the Balkans, that is, to Belgrade. It is the end of Elul, and the heat is intolerable, both in Israel and in the city situated between two rivers, the Danube and the Sava, and between the Ottoman the Austro-Hungarian empires. An internal border in Europe, and within the Jewish world a border between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry. But that is no longer relevant. A personal journey of ten days.
In my handbag I carry a little book of 60 pages by the Italian-Jewish writer Alain Elkann. In the preface Aharon Appelfeld writes: “Alain Elkann is an assimilated Jew in the full sense of the word, but at the same time he has relationship with Judaism, and that relationship is rooted in a childhood experience that occurred on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is described in the book with familiar details; but its influence, continuing through the years, connects Elkann to his tribe and his ancestors and makes him, paradoxically, into a Jew defending his Jewishness.” The paradox described by Appelfeld and expressed by Elkann accompanied me on my journey at the end of Elul and the beginning of Tishrei.
Novibelgrad, Daniela and Sasha
Scattered on the table in Daniela and Sasha’s small kitchen in New Belgrad, a city of apartment houses and shopping centers on the bank of the river, are pictures that Sasha has taken out of a black box which is covered with an embroidered tablecloth and serves as a decorative coffee table. I realize that at the heart of the living room, disguised as a coffee table, is a hidden family archive which is also a microcosmic archive of the Jewish people. And perhaps in every Jewish home, in the middle of the living room or the bedroom, a hidden archive of a Jewish family awaits discovery. Every family is like a drop of the ocean, every drop contains the collective memory within the personal fate.
Daniela has been my friend since 1976, when I first came to the summer camp for Jewish youth in Pirovac, in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia. She is the daughter of the saintly Rabbi Danon, who fought as a partisan and went back to being the rabbi of Yugoslav Jewry. Today Daniela works in the Jewish community center at 1 Karlija Petra Street, in the room where her father worked until his death. His portrait, in the garb of a Sephardic rabbi, hangs behind the desk on which she writes. Daniela holds the post of second in command – secretary general — in the hierarchy of the Jewish community of Serbia. One has only to see her in order to get an impression of the conflict that rages within her. She is very thin; her wild gray hair, which no hairdresser has touched for twenty years, surrounds her head like a halo. She is the mother of Ivan and grandmother of Natan and Chana. The wedding of Ivan and Liora (Yasna) was the first chuppah in the synagogue in twenty years. Daniela is a poet, a graduate of the philosophy department of the University of Belgrade; she has translated from the English one book by Rabbi Riskin, four books by Aryeh Kaplan, and one book by Maimonides. This is one woman who does not pick flowers and hug trees out of gratitude for their beauty in the world. The question that haunts me throughout my visit is how it happened that Daniela, so beautiful, fragile, and poetic, has been stuck for all these years in the heart of the bureaucracy of the Shoah, stuck between the generation of the survivors and the second generation. Ever since the law was passed requiring the government to return Jewish property to Holocaust survivors, Daniela Danon has been the one responsible for the past and the future of the surviving remnant. She is involved in various research projects and investigations concerning the fate of individuals from the Jewish community of former Yugoslavia and the fate of the Jewish community as a whole. In recent years she has dealt mainly with the claims of Holocaust survivors against the Germans, with the aim of obtaining for them the pensions to which they are entitled. (Of course there is opposition, there is a significant group which demands that this large amount of money should go not to individuals but to the Jewish community collectively, without supervision of its actions.) Every person who comes to her tells her the story of his or her survival, brings documents, and she, as the intermediary between the survivor and the agencies to which claims must be made, has to submit the claims and see that the survivors get what they are entitled to. The past penetrates into the present and shapes it. I say to her: “When will you write the book of the stories you have heard here? When will you share the local story with us?" She looks deep into my eyes and says, “When I have finished my task.”
“I am the bureaucracy. I understand that, I am the bureaucracy.” And around her eyes are wrinkles of sleeplessness. Of inner torments that a stranger will never understand. “But I have made an agreement with God,” she says, and her eyes flash. She has a long, thin face and brown, burning eyes; her skin is thin and wrinkles have etched themselves on her forehead and under her eyes long before their time. It looks as if her body and her face are not holding up under the strain of the stories that are entrusted to her, face to face, in the hope that she will bring some salvation at the end of their lives. “What is your agreement?” I ask.
“I will do my work, and You, You will not disappoint me! Let me represent those who sent me with dignity and with success.” And she adds, “To this day all the claims I have submitted have gotten positive answers. That is, He is keeping his part of the bargain between us,” she says, smiling from the depths of her ascetic face. The anxiety that she may not be able to fulfill the expectations of the elderly Holocaust survivors accompanies the whole of my present visit. At home, I have a mother who is a Holocaust survivor from this region, and every time I have to stand before the representatives of the establishment to ask for what is due to her, I expect a failure which indeed occurs in most cases. We have supported several lawyers and intermediaries who take ten percent of the pension or the payment. Daniela receives no compensation; she is there for them. Now it is the month of Tishrei, and in the office of the community gift packages pile up, food for the needy, for the elderly members of the community.
In his book Alain Elkann writes: “What is the meaning of Yom Kippur for me? Its meaning is to feel Jewish. And what does ‘to feel Jewish’ mean? To be myself.”
Imre Kertesz writes in his book Kaddish for an Unborn Child that as a child he already understood that to be a Jew is to feel guilty. Elkann goes on to say, “To be a Jew is to be on the watch, to do everything possible to gain some security for oneself and others.” I go out of the Jewish community building onto the Knez Mihailova pedestrian mall; every step and every touch brings with it the rustle of fallen leaves; a dry gold is flying in the streets. The weather ranges from
oppressive heat and humidity to rain falling all night to a cold morning with mist on the river. The changes are sharp, and I am bothered about matters of clothing, as if all that mattered was whether I would manage to adjust to the time and the changes of the European autumn.
Sasha is a former journalist who now edits the Jewish community newspaper. His mother is a Holocaust survivor and a daughter of the Anaf family and the Alterz family; he identifies himself as a Serbian Jew. When he opens the trunk of pictures and begins his story and the names of his uncles and aunts, his grandfather and grandmother come up, hidden roots are exposed, like a bulb waiting in the earth for the first drops of rain to awaken it. From the pictures, little by little, I got to know his family. His mother who escaped by the skin of her teeth, her large black eyes, her black hair and her whole appearance like that of a Sephardic Jewish woman. Her brothers, her brother Joseph who appears to be dressed in a well-tailored suit, hands in his pockets, wearing a tie, hair parted at the side, in a doorway with an iron gate, smiling a youthful smile for the camera. That is the brother who was caught and murdered, shot over a pit.
Poetry and Rosh Hashanah
My journey fluctuates between my identity as a poet invited to an international literary festival in Belgrade and my identity as an Israeli Jew.
The festival has existed for 54 years, so that it presumably went through the years of post-World War II communism, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the period of Serbia’s new independence. Thus it is an encounter with an old established leadership, but also with younger generations that speak English and are seeking their place in the new era. The festival partly coincides with Rosh Hashanah: a problematic encounter between Jewish time and universal time. Two axes of time that I experience sharply whenever I am outside the country: the question is how I am to act within the axes of time and the parallel axes of space. I must explain that whenever I hear the sounds of the Serbian or Macedonian or Croatian or Bulgarian language, my personal unconscious and un-present wakes up and asks for its own place and time and language. And I, as a private person and a woman, write and find myself in a continual inner struggle. To see and to read what is open and visible and to experience and trace what is hidden, and the encounter between them. To live the schizophrenia but to put up a façade as if everything is in order. In appearance life is a continuous present. But my consciousness reads reality with a double face; there is no chance I could be just a tourist here, or just a poet. I walk in the streets or drive on the roads and my consciousness looks out through at least two pairs of glasses, one focused on the present while the other scans the forties and sometimes digs back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when you could hear Ladino spoken in the streets. Each place echoes itself in several voices and in relations between Jewish being and Jewish nonbeing and how did being disappear and where to. I know that these words will anger many of my friends, even family members. Forget, rest, they say. Enough. Elkann helps me get through the time: “As a lost Jew living in Rome, in the Christian world which honors and loves me and where no one asks me what it means to be a Jew, it sometimes helps me to go back from time to time to the Synagogue de la Victoire in Paris, to remember who I am and what I was. To remember where I need to search for my roots and to draw my strength. Who are the people who will be proud of me if I succeed in doing a good thing?” As for me, I have no synagogue to return to, I need to make my own synagogue. But at a certain moment in the Sunday morning prayer in the Sukkat Shalom synagogue at 19 Marshala Birjuzova Street (you go down the steps from street level next to the Majestic Hotel between lit-up coffee houses and stores with signs for tourists to the level of the alleyway and find the gate and go past security and into the closed-off courtyard) I heard, unbelievably, hymns sung in Ladino, and I wept from the place where you feel the place where your roots were cut off.
The Jewish Cemetery in Belgrade
The Jewish cemetery of Belgrade. There I found among the gravestones the metaphor for the Jewish condition in the twentieth century. To the right of the entrance an impressive monument in white marble, twenty meters long and five meters wide, a tablet between two lions, two torches burning in white marble. A monument dedicated to the Jewish soldiers who fell in the first World War. Soldiers who felt themselves to be part of Serbia and obligated to her and who sacrificed their lives wholeheartedly for their country. With Sasha as a guide I crossed the cemetery, looking at the gravestones that were standing, on all of which were Hebrew-Sephardic names in Hebrew letters, the Hebrew dates and the Gregorian dates. And even though I have no relatives buried in Belgrade, I felt close to the stones, to the people and the names. Then, at the very center, I cam to another monument, a structure of two wings with an iron menorah between them. This monument does not gleam; it is made of poorer materials, concrete and exposed iron. The concrete is discolored; the iron has left a trace of rust on the stone and the concrete. Sasha explained proudly that this is the monument to the victims of the Holocaust, designed by a famous artist by the name of Bogdan Bogdanovic. I was not impressed. The inscription on the memorial plaque reads: “In memory of the Jewish victims of Fascism and the fighters who fell in the People’s Republic of Serbia, 5701-5705.” Just like that, a laconic definition which takes no responsibility. I must admit that the phenomenon of inscriptions on statues and monuments throughout former Yugoslavia causes me anger and frustration. Never any precise facts or numbers, nothing about process and results. Here are some facts: Before World War II, 39,000 Serbian Jews and 1200 Jewish refugees from other European countries were living in Yugoslavia. Eighty-two percent of this Jewish population was wiped out. But the monuments that have been erected in various places all give the impression that the Jews, like everyone else, the Communists, the Serbs, the gypsies, were victims of Fascism and nothing more. The answer lies in the tension between the two monuments: in the First World War the Jews, in their own eyes and in the eyes of those around them, were Serbian citizens in every respect. They clung to their citizenship and their patriotism, and at the same time they were bound to the Jewish community and its common language. For them there was no contradiction. Two decades later the picture has changed; through a gradual process they have lost their Serbian identity in the eyes of the surrounding peoples, and their Jewish identity has made them a target. The monument to the dead of World War I treats them as heroes. They are part of the mythos of heroism, like the lions that flank the tablet. After the Holocaust they are nameless “victims of Fascism,” and the generalized anonymous enemy makes it possible for the Communist regime to avoid coming to grips with the question of guilt. No guilt attaches to the Serbs, the Croats or the other peoples of the “Yugoslav brotherhood” which has become the supreme value. Sasha tells me that there are plans to build three memorials on the site of the Sajmište camp, where they gathered over 7000 Jews in order to murder them. One memorial to the Jews, one to the Serbs, and one to others. Sasha accepts this as a solution; but Filip David, a Jewish writer whom I was to meet in the next few days, would express rage: the very thought of building three identical memorial sites is tantamount to Holocaust denial. In his mind he already sees foreign visitors laying wreaths, all kinds of empty ceremonies in front of the identical monuments. This is a place where Jews were murdered for being Jews, and there is no justification for connecting it with other victims.
Café Jazz and Preparations for Rosh Hashanah
On the last day, two days before Rosh Hashanah, I was again sitting in the Café Jazz near the steps that go down to the “Sukkat Shalom” synagogue, trying to put the experience of the last days in order for myself: experience that was mainly private and not understandable to those around me, neither to my Jewish friends nor my writer friends. The solitude was suffocating me. Nothing could be taken for granted. Not the hour of prayer and not whether the gate would be open, whether I would even find the synagogue. Would they accept me into their congregation? Would I succeed in getting into the atmosphere of prayer even though I had not prepared for the holiday, had not cooked nor bought the simanim, the symbolic foods for the Rosh Hashanah table? I didn’t know. Not until the moment when I entered the space of the illuminated synagogue and heard the Rosh Hashanah evening prayer and the melody of the hymns filled the space, did I feel relief. I was afraid that my face would reflect the terrible tension I was under even while surrounded by a whole congregation dressed for the holiday.
For the last three days of the conference, after being photographed beside the statute of Ivo Andrić, I had gone north with the other festival participants. (Ivo Andrić’s book The Bridge on the Drina accompanies me on my travels. Andrić grasped the beauty and the harshness of the Balkans under Ottoman rule. In the midst of the human mosaic, Muslim and Christian, he planted the family of Lotte, owner of the hotel beside the bridge, a beautiful and courageous Jewish woman in a man’s world. His book is a document of the hard but shared life of the Balkan peoples.) The last three days of the conference were held in the Bačka district in the Vojvodina province of northern Serbia. The central city is Novi Sad, but the poetry festival was held in Indija, a smaller provincial city. On the factual level I was there, I got up on the platform and read and even received a prestigious prize. But from the standpoint of my bipolar soul, I saw with double vision the square, the pedestrian mall, the stores, the cafes—a central-European city on the banks of the Danube, very beautiful. I took pictures and had my picture taken in the wide square in front of the church, but my eyes went in search of the central boulevard, which used to be the street of the Jews, and the great synagogue that was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the confidence that it was established forever. Beside it the Jewish school and the beit midrash, buildings that have changed their function. All these things looked to me like empty vessels, great hollows holding memory. On the 21st of January, 1942, when the temperature was twenty degrees below zero Centigrade, at four o’clock in the morning, the Hungarian police dragged eight hundred Jews out of their homes and murdered them by drowning them in the frozen Danube, or at a moment of mercy by shooting them over a pit. An event I did not learn about in school and did not know about until I came to the city four years ago. Nor did I know the name of the event in Serbian – “Rača.” I know that I am deeply lacerated if I tell about this event, which does not cease to haunt me and trouble the waters of the romantic Danube, the beautiful blue Danube on whose banks I love to sit with a cup of coffee, counting the swans, on which I love to go boating, whose landscape I love to photograph. So what. Forget, I say to myself, go and meet people, the ones who have got over the twentieth century, who are looking to the future and perhaps do not know what their parents did in their name. Forget.
I left the poets on the banks of the Danube and returned to “Sukkat Shalom,” hurrying to change my clothes and not be late. “Late for what?” they asked me. How was I to explain to them the prayer “Unetaneh tokef.” I passed through the city blazing with secular lights to the synagogue, hidden and illuminated with a different light. Once I asked Daniela how it happened that the “Sukkat Shalom” synagogue remained standing undamaged. The answer was simple: the Germans turned the synagogue into a brothel, and thus it survived.
Filip David, tireless revolutionary
I hid in the café amid the cigarette-smoke cloud which is legal here in any enclosed place and went back to the interview I did with Filip David, a favorite author. Dina Katan Ben Tzion translated several of his books, among them The House of Remembering and Forgetting, which has gotten under my skin and gives me no peace. That book read me and my fears. In that book there is no mercy, and he knows that everything is double. Thus his hero, Albert, whose life includes the tragedy of a violent parting on a speeding train from his parents and his younger brother, retains his double vision into adulthood, even in New York: “The vacation tour turned into a nightmare. The Pullman carriage became a cattle car.” We met several times over the last decade. The first time was in 2007, in the framework of the first “Kissufim” conference, where he was one of the invitees, a surprise for the writers from Western Europe. In the closing dialogue, Filip David got up and in his characteristic independent, oppositional manner called for the founding of an international organization of Jewish writers, on the assumption that in this way we could express solidarity and fight together the same war in different languages. His words were met with applause, but no action was taken in that direction. The call is still heard, and we are at our third or fourth meeting. His blue eyes still flash a white yet smiling fire. We met in the building of the Jewish community in Belgrade in the meeting hall which had known days of splendor. I made him a cup of tea, and he sat down on the other side of the large table, behind him a picture of Danilo Kiš as a young man, smiling, with a lit cigarette between the fingers of his right hand. Before I could open with a question or an explanation of why I was there, he was already deep into a monolog about his worries over what is happening in the surrounding world, and the surrounding world is circles, the first is Belgrade, after that Serbia and after that the world of former Yugoslavia, and after that the Jewish world. He declares that the language spoken in Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina is Serbo-Croation and it is only nationalism that is making people crazy and driving them to linguistic separation. From that moment on “nationalism” is the central theme of the conversation. It is the mother of all evil. Nationalism changes the historical narrative. Nationalism, he states, stabbing the table with stiff fingers for emphasis, comes from an emotional place which rejects historical facts. The day I edited the essay was the day the head of a rightist, nationalist party was elected chancellor of Austria. Filip David is absorbed in a political-literary monologue, formulating reality as he sees it: “The problem is always the past,” he says. “The new generation tries to change the past, to revise it. Suddenly the Jewish victims in Serbia are not the victims but the criminals. People don’t know the facts, they don’t know that in Topovske S'upe in 1941 5000 Jews were murdered, and after that in Sajmište, which was an international exposition park beside the Danube, 7000 Jews were rounded up, some of them were sent to their deaths in gas trucks and most of them were sent to concentration camps in Poland.” Without pausing he continues, “The struggle of the partisans against the conquest is almost forgotten. They’re trying to say that the partisans were controlled by the Jews.”
6:30 on almost the last morning. We are having breakfast in the kitchen, a first cup of tea for me and coffee and a cigarette for them. Outside the window, beyond the balcony, autumn clouds with a promise of rain. Daniela looks as though she has not slept all night. I ask her what happened. “I’m afraid that I won’t succeed in my claim on behalf of several old people. Their story sounds completely plausible. I know the routes, the dates on which things happened to them during the war years, everything matches up. I know who fell and who survived. But they’re missing a document or two. I’m afraid that the claim will be rejected. The claims committee doesn’t recognize everything, they’re callous bureaucrats.”
An outsider wouldn’t understand. I can perhaps begin to understand because of my mother, a Holocaust survivor from another part of the Balkans, from Bulgaria, whose Jews were saved in the nick of time. Perhaps thanks to Danilo Kiš, David Albahari, Filip David and other excellent writers. Perhaps because the history and the big words like: Holocaust, Communism, Fascism, concentration camps, Rača, Sajmište, Banitza, Monopol are a betrayal of the truth, a way of wrapping people up in costumes that make everyone look alike. Only the story of the individual, expressed in literature or in unique figures like Daniela who take responsibility for the past for the sake of the human image, only with the individual, his uniqueness and place in the chaos of history, is there a future for memory.
I left Belgrade before Yom Kippur. Rain was falling on the city. I carried with me a sentence from the confession of Alain Elkann: “In my opinion, confession is very important for the sake of a tranquil life. The priest tells us what to do in order to be forgiven. On Yom Kippur, in contrast, we have to interpret forgiveness for ourselves… It’s strange how the Jews are western and at the same time eastern. Jews need to be people of the East, to live in the region of the desert. I would like to spend one day with Rosie in the desert, and on Yom Kippur give myself entirely to the Creator. In an attempt to listen to Him and to love Him, but never to understand Him.” So I returned to my place which I shall never be able to understand, but there is in it a desert from which God speaks to us.
translated by Esther Cameron