Love Thy Neighbor

excerpts ...Chaplin. Einstein, Rubinstein, Chagall, Spinoza. I summon these exalted spirits above all because their proximity feels good; their genius, both innocent and supple, has a wholesome quality about it, and their absence from any intellectual banquet worthy of the name… would be impossible to excuse. On the other hand, aberrantly enough, or – conversely – insensitively enough, the Jewish problem is again brought to attention. To whose attention, you might ask. In my opinion, "the insoluble Jewish question" is, primarily, a thesis of the extremes. It is indeed subject to circumstances, yet it is symptomatic nonetheless. Consequently, blowing it out of all proportion is just as bad as pretending it doesn't exist, or even ignoring it altogether. Today, a significant part of the world owes its spiritual existence, if nothing else, to Judaeo-Christian ideas. How is one to make sense of the New Testament without a proper understanding of the Old Testament? My parents, who were as middle of the road as could be, never told me the world was divided into Romanians and "other nationalities". I had Jewish friends before I even knew that some of my friends were Jewish. They were our neighbours, friends or acquaintances, grown ups and children alike. Vasile, Iorgu, Nelu, Tănase, Varci, Nathan, Liviu, Stere, Rudi, Victor, Hero, Lia, Irina, Olga, Maria, Dia, Roberta, Dumitru, Haim, Carola, Virgil, Marta, occasionally a peculiar-sounding name – Ohazia – Ziuha, we'd call him: it did sound like a girl's name, but he was a boy all right. And again, random shadows from my childhood are creeping in… the doctor, the salesman, the retired major, the insurance agent, the gas works attendant, the French teacher, the grocer, the piano man at the Black Cat, the headmistress of the home economics school, the butcher, the administrator of the two movie theatres, the post master. Take them – one by one – out of their hall of fame, oh honest reader, clothe them in your own likeness, and then make an educated guess as to which one's the Jew, and which one – the German, the Armenian, the Romanian, the American, the Eskimo… I remember being six years old. The war had just broken out. Father was late in coming home. It was already past midnight. That night is more accurately recorded in my memory than the whole of the nondescript day preceding it. Mother's growing concern. The town shuddered with the complacent smirks of some, with the mounting terror of others. Mother's subdued crying. She was a woman born in the mountains, from a long line of shepherds and tree fellers. The oil lamp on the table; its silver stand the only remotely valuable possession in our much too poor home. The ticking clock… Father walked unexpectedly into the room. I hadn't heard his steps outside as I always did. He was accompanied by his friend Oscar, Iudita's father. No one was to know they'd be staying with us. The German headquarters were only a short distance down the road from our house… still, an elaborate plan had to be worked out. We were suddenly encompassed by perils. Father was acquiring the aura of Captain Nemo. Yet I wouldn't reveal a thing. I kept it all to myself. When they could be finally evacuated, Iudita was supposed to leave last. After lengthy deliberation, they dressed her as a boy, with some of my things – it didn't turn out to be the best option, yet thank God, it all ended well. Iudita made a very funny boy indeed. The two men even managed to joke about it, and laughed as they were sipping at their rum-laced tea. Just look at her – in that outfit, Iudita is no longer a little Jewish girl. Otherwise are you absolutely certain she's Jewish? Iudita's father asked. Her mother laughed. Iudita started crying, and then laughed. Why was Iudita supposed to be first Jewish, then not to be Jewish, then to be Jewish again? I asked later on. I'm still asking today. Father was restlessly pacing the room, Mother was darning a sock next to the window, the light was fading as evening closed in. Why, oh why has Pascal got to wear David's star? Father was whispering. 'T'would suit you, too, Mother smiled. Exactly! They used to tell a story of how, not long before, under the right radical government, Father, wearing a soft felt hat, a white scarf and a "raglan beige" like Jan Kiepura in one of his films, was walking along the street. He was young and very pleased with the way he looked. He was accosted by two fellows. One of them addressed him with the right radical party slogan. He was supposed to reply along similar lines. Instead, Father answered: And a good day to you. Dam' Jew, the other one snapped and brought down over his head a short club which he'd been keeping inside his sleeve. The hat did a good job – the skull did crack, yet it didn't split. As the young man walking down the Main Street, Bacău, with the intention of looking like Kiepura in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, collapsed to the ground, the wind blew away his smashing new hat, crashed as it was, and rolled it into the dirty water in the gutter. I'm still missing that hat to this very day, the old man would reminisce. I was travelling by train… I had just turned five. I was on my way back home, in the company of a young lady, friend of our family, whom I was hopelessly in love with for evermore… Three young men walked into the carriage. They were wearing golf trousers and longish hair carefully combed backwards into shiny coifs, the way I'd seen in the Cinema magazine (the aunt I'd been visiting was in possession of the entire collection – I'd even managed to nick a copy). I'd rather not tell what happened next, but the memory is much too accurate. One of the three young men was carrying a large cylindrical box tied with pink ribbons, another one kept his hands in his pockets, he had a nice pullover on, patterned with coloured lozenges, and the third one had a large revolver tucked in full view into his broad belt, above his navel. The three stopped halfway down the aisle. They'd picked a scent. Their eyes moved expertly from one passenger to another. Joking in a good-natured tone, without a trace of malice, I'm tempted to say, the three urged the little man appearing to be asleep behind the curtain billowing in the breeze… compelled him, yet without getting rough in any way, to pull his pants down for all to see whether he was a Jew or not. Then they helped him gently to his feet, and supporting his limp, corpse-like frame from all sides, dragged him, trousers still round his ankles, to the open platform at the end of the carriage and dropped him onto the embankment… the little suitcase in the rack was his, wasn't it? they asked before throwing it through the open window. One of them had previously suggested it would be a good idea snapping its clasps open. Over forty years later I was, together with a fellow writer, in a North African city. We were staying in a hotel built in the grand colonial style of the 30's, true, a bit worse for wear and tear. The large glass doors opened onto a terrace with huge exotic potted plants hanging above the Mediterranean. My colleague lived in the adjoining room, so we could have easily communicated through the permanently opened terrace doors… yet neither of us ever resorted to that access way – we'd rather go out into the corridor and knock on each other's doors. It was sweltering. I was going naked through my room. Without warning, my colleague emerged from the silvery lace of the waving curtain in full dress. Aren't we supposed to leave?, he said, it's about time, you know, and this lot are the type pretending to be punctual, so we'd better beat them at their own game. Oh, how he smiled. His eyes, however, kept darting (he was no homosexual, far from it) to the place that reveals beyond the shadow of a doubt whether a man is Jewish or not. I was marked, to be sure, by my father's reputation – I was a friend of the Jews, yet was that all there was to it? Could it be that I, too… no. I didn't throw the man off the terrace… Some seven years ago, a certain person of repute whose name I'm not going to reveal asked me unawares – smiling, of course, he was a man of the world – "My friend, people are talking that you're pro-Semitic. Is that truly so?" I replied, with a smile of my own: I've never asked myself that question. I'm not in the habit of classifying humans according to racial and ethnic criteria. Yet if I were to pronounce myself unambiguously on the topic, Colonel, Sir, I'd have to admit I'm pro-Semitic by birth, since my mother gave birth with a Jewish doctor… Gulliver in No Man's LandCartea Românească, 1994

by George Balăiţă (b. 1935)