A SPIT IN THE FACE
Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
"יריקה בפרצוף" נדפס כפרק בספר "אפיזודה"
של אלישע פורת בהוצאת הקיבוץ המאוחד תל אביב
"a spit in the face" was written as part of Elisha Port book " Episode".
I first learned the story of Leopold Spitzer's escape from the Nazis and their Slovak collaborators in three closely-spaced pages sent me by a friend from the Czech immigrants' association. An unadorned account, concise and touching, written in an artless, even deliberately simplistic style. A boyhood friend of Spitzer from up in the Zionist youth movement before choosing a different path that eventually led to a high position in the Communist Party. His comments, initially recited as a eulogy at Spitzer's funeral, afterwards were published in an influential Bratislavan journal in the winter of 1968, shortly after Spitzer's death.
Yom Kippur, September 1942.
Sector C's turn at the labor camp came just as dusk was falling. We recognized the commend ant's private automobile leading the small convoy through the field. He had just returned from Bratislava and now fell on his aides, screaming, "Why isn't the list of transfers ready?" Terrified by his ranting, the clerks immediately drew up the list. The criteria for inclusion on the list for transport were simple: advanced age, illness, families with large children, and low productivity. Only the strong, the healthy young "slaves", could hope to remain in the labor camp.
Behind the commendant's auto crawled covered trucks, followed on foot by a large troop of Guardists, the Slovak Nazies. Their black uniforms portend evil tidings. In the solem, still twilight that Yom Kippur night, the sight of them was terrifying. It was the holy day of judgement, a day that should have been one of profound conciliation between God and man. The Guardists spread out around the camp gate, deployed along the fence and then broke into several barracks. There was no need to announce muster. The people themselves slowly began to leave the barracks, then stood on the parade ground before the camp's sector office.
I felt sure my name wouldn't appear on the list of transfers. Even if it did, I could flee into the nearby forests at any time. i was young and in good health; I feared nothing. Yet I at that time had no thought of fleeing. The truth is, the idea simply hadn't occurred to me. I felt bound by invisible fetters to the events on the parade ground. Running off would have required herculean strength, not only because of the danger of being caught and shot but because of a sense of shame. Flee? before all those large families, whose burden of children left them no choice but to submit? No, in that situation, I lacked the strength to flee.
They took Blanca, the young daughter of a poor Jewish tailor. Blanca, with her blue eyes and dark tresses, whom I often had borne on my shoulders. I'd even carved wooden toys and played the guitar for her. Now I saw her led off with a small, clinging group. Mute, I edged away from the tailor and his wife. "You'll follow us, right?" beseeched little Blanca. Her blue eyes cast a limpid glance at me.
I don't ask anyone to pity me. I have no need for pity today. That was a long time ago, way back in 1942. All that is now cold and forgotten. new misfortunes and tragedies have pushed aside the memory of that Yom Kippur. But at the time, I fled to an obscure corner of the camp, lay face down and wept. Instead of searching for a gap in the fence, a path to the forest, I beat the evil earth with my fists. the image of little Blanca tormented me.
By the events occurring on the parade ground outside the camp's headquarters, one could easily grasp what value life would hold in the death camps of Poland. Here on the clearing was the corridor leading to the camps. Here people lost their names for the first time. Their names, which they had borne all their lives, ceased to be a means of identification. They remained only as distinctive marks. Each person became merely one number among many, a part of the mass, a speck in the multitude. And the mass lost it character. Divided into barracks and train cars, it carried the first 50 names. Later, those names passed to the next 50 to arrive and then to those who came after them. After that, names became entirely superfluous and a person was just a number.
I returned to observe how those marked for transport took their leave. Arik Pulitzer's mother walked with them. So did his blind father, who had taught school in Trenchin before losing his sight. He saw nothing but heard everything. And that was enough for him to imagine what was happening in the barracks and beyond, on the melancholy plaza. With them walked Arik, a boy of 17 whom the barracks residents had hidden until then. Arik was ill with a heart condition. before bed each night, he would serenade his bunk mates, playing his harmonica and, at times, the violin. Fearing that his music would land him on a transport, his mother had asked him to stop playing. A boy who only made music and never worked? She was afraid they would seize him because he didn't work, just played his instruments. But he stayed in the camp to the end, even after his parents were taken. He was killed later on, during the partisan revolt.
Literally by force, I managed to prevent Spitzer from leaping unwittingly to his death. Spitzer's literary name later would be associated with the war, the subject of human degradation and the quest for fundamental answers to the terrible questions of life. Using a nom de plume, he gained fame writing of the peaks and depth of human acts. Some of that, perhaps most, he saw then, at the Novaki labor camp. Those memories later served in his work as the raw material for his artistic impulses. he continued to mine them until his death.
I first met him long before that, in his beloved Bratislava back in 1939. I was then a poor Jewish student wholly without means, working as a porter at the Schindler and Yadlin flour mill. Those were the best days of my life. The sacks were damn heavy but they paid us well. We unloaded grain from the river barges, then at the mill loaded blends of flour for the Third Reich. Leopold's mother was a delicate woman. His older brother, who was taking voice lessons, later made a career singing in the opera. His younger brother, whose vision was so poor that he had to drop out of school, seemed somewhat dull and backward to me. I would pass entire evenings with dear Leopold in his room on Wolonska Street. Surrounded by his books, we sat in the loft while he played Spanish, Italian and French songs, as well as Jewish and Serbian tunes, on his mandolin. He had learned the Hebrew melodies as I had, in the local Zionist youth branch. He drew, he wrote poetry and he knew how to combine his stories and art work into fascinating tales. I couldn't help loving such a talented lad. Leopold was my first Jewish friend. He was very well-educated, knew far more than I and already had traveled extensively. He had seen France, and, with his bohemian friend, the poet Yaroslav Teshko, had even visited Algiers. I admired him very much at the time.
When the Nazies invaded the Soviet Union, he was already a Communist sympathizer. Drafted into the Slovak army, he set to verse Moscow's stand against the Germans, to the effect that the city, which had given life to the Soviet people and now asked that the nation give its life for her, would never fall even if Germany destroyed her. Like one of those leaflets dropped from the air, his poem clandestinely passed among the Serbian troops. To this day, I remember its gripping lines. Leopold's mother and younger brother unexpectedly arrived at the camp when sector C opened. They raised rabbits at the camp for food, and only Leopold's mother could spin the angora pelts. A skilled artisan, she knew how to turn the spindle and make rabbit fur into strands of wool.
In the summer of 1942, Leopold sent me a letter that I still cherish. He was hiding from the roundups and the first transports in the mountains of eastern Slovakia. On learning that his mother and brother had been interned at the Novaki camp, he decided to become a camp resident with them. One had to pay a fee at the time for the "right" to become a prisoner at the Novaki camp. The price was paid in either cash or equipment. Leopold had nothing. Even so, I managed to smuggle him into Sector C. No one carefully checked the inventory or the list of prisoners. Leopold worked in the projects development office, drawing, painting signs, writing poems and strumming his mandolin. Although lacking his older brother's talent, he sang for the camp inmates, and very nicely. He also received permission to show his sketches in the camp dining hall and give lectures on his trips to Europe and Algeria.
Leopold was born in Urba, a small town in eastern Slovakia, but chose to live in Bratislava. As much as he loved the city, he never missed an opportunity to visit his birthplace. Whenever he went back, he would see his old school friend Jan Mordoch, the famous artist. According to Leopold, Mordoch drew only flow petals, apples and pitchers. Unlike many other artists, he never sold his soul to the fascist Slovak regime. When I met Mordoch years later, he was very surprised that I knew so much about him. He knew a great many artists, poets and authors whose names I had seen only in journals and the monthly magazines. Not all of them were Nazi collaborators, we realized that, but it was difficult to determine who had sold out and who hadn't. The anti-semites knew how to disguise themselves when it suited their purposes.
Art and poetry, and the bond among poets who hadn't engaged in betrayal, fortified us in those dark, hard times. How fervently we identified with these lines written by one well-known poet:
"If all we have loved should die
Like the darling we've just buried,
An unknown void with a first name,
Sorrow will spread its over us..."
That indeed was our sad reality.
The transport list included Leopold's younger brother, who had been working at a dismantled camp in another sector. He labored hard, endlessly dragging heavy planks and iron railway ties. A malevolent guard, spotting him nod off from exhaustion, added his name to the transport list. Since his mother also was in the camp, her name, too, went on the list. He skipped over Leopold, whose name didn't appear on the master roster. I shuddered when I saw their names on the list. It was the only time I asked a favor of the commandant. I sought nothing for myself. I pleaded on behalf of Spitzer, his mother and his younger brother. Spitzer was a gifted artist and a poetic genius, I told the commandant, a talented musician who must not be sent to Poland on the transport. I begged him to spare leopold and his family.
The commandant, half-drunk, fixed me with a hollow look. "Yes, of course," he said. "And why don't you take all the Jews? I don't need them. I'll give them all to you. Take them." He suddenly started raging at me, threatening to add my name to the transport list with all the others. "Why? God, Why have you punished me with the Jews?" When he'd finished ranting and cursing me, he sank into gloom. Then he sprang up. In an entirely business-like tone, he told me that Spitzer could stay in the camp.
But Leopold wouldn't hear of it. Was he to stay while his mother and brother left? He would join them at once. I implored him. He would be of no use going with them. They would be separated in any event, and he would then be of no help to his mother. This was an unfair argument; true, but unfair. We knew the Germans ignored family ties at the death camps. They divided men from women and tore children from their mothers' arms. If he accompanied his mother on her final journey, I told him, he would have to watch her die in a cattle car packed with hopeless people. And he would have no chance to help her. I remembered my parents, who had been killed with a pang of conscience. It was a comfort to me that I, compelled to stay alive, hadn't been with them in their last, awful moments. Leopold, however, ignored me and still wanted to join his family. It was only by chance that the convoy guards foiled his plan. I knew some of them. They were from my home province, some had gone to school with me. In secret, i asked them to keep Leopold off the transport, and they barred his way. The next day, after the transport had left, we met in the camp. Furious, he spat at me. Then, without a word, he turned on his heels and strode into his barrack.
Early in the morning, Novaki's deputy railway director rang up with an urgent call. The number of transfers on the transport was incomplete. Dozens Jews were needed to fill the quota. The dreaded Guardists again stalked the barracks. Again, they drove out the wretched tenants, assembled them on that terrible plaza and culled the required numbers. All the while, they beat the Jews, cursing, threatening, shoving. Yet the commandant, upon departure of the transport, lied in his cable regarding completion of the operation. During the final transports of late September, 1942, he saved close to 200 Jews. Instead of 400 Jews, only slightly more than 200 left Novaki for annihilation on September 22. Leopold's family, though, wasn't among those saved. For many years, I felt on my face the spray of his silent, wrathful spit.
Elisha's Poetry in http://artvilla.com/porat/