When Yizhar was in the process of writing ‘By the Sea’, minute anecdotes kept creeping into his memory, and one day he brought me (his then editor at Zmora-Bitan Publishing house) the manuscript for Asides. Like all stories by Yizhar, “Gila” is a true story; it is one of the most touching stories in the collection, and one of the saddest and most reflective memories from Yizhar’s career as a young instructor in the Ben Shemen Youth Village, between the late 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s. It’s also one of the only stories that deals with the work of the instructors of that period with children who had immigrated to Israel as part of the Youth Aliyah, children who were forced to leave their homes and families in Europe, and in an accelerated process of “Sabrazation,” become Israelis overnight.
The educators, and even the boarding school’s headmaster, the legendary Dr. Lehmann, lacked the tools to treat these youths’ psychological problems. The word “Holocaust” hovered in the air at a slightly lataer stage, but the connection between most of the children and their families had been severed, and according to the consensus of that period (nowadays many have come to object this notion), they would be better off leaving the chapter of home behind them and starting anew. The educators, some out of awkwardness and others out of delicate sensibilities, chose to enshroud the painful subject in silence, and the children of Ben Shemen who had absorbed that message “overcame” it, or cried in secret, until fragments of the memories resurfaced, melodies like in the story ‘Gila’,bringing the home back to life and making the eyes well up again.
It is a delicate and moving story, which tells their stories, and above all—the painful sense of helplessness of their instructors.
Translated by: Leanne Raday
Gila was a lovely girl, a little plump, and when she laughed she’d laugh to tears, while Hansie was a lovely and slender girl whose smile was also slender. They would both shine on dance nights, Gila dancing with whoever made her laugh and Hansie, for all her beauty and despite the long queue of admirers, dancing with no one but her Hananya, who was also very jealous. The Sabbath clothes of both were carefully stitched and embroidered, their hair neatly combed, Gila fair and Hansie dark, both dancing with all their heart and singing with all their might in the shadow of the accordion, which enveloped everything with its excited rhythms, and without missing even one word of Yesh Lanu Tayish or Mi Anachnu Ve Mi Kulanu; but no one could surpass their beauty or dance more gracefully when it was time for the waltz, their movements then became those of a swan that had returned to water, with lightness, grace and beauty and that other nameless thing that makes all the difference between nice and sublime; the boy dancing with Gila had to strain his imagination and poetic power to dance like her, while the slim and limber Hananya seemed to have been born and destined for Hansie, lightly holding her hand in one hand and embracing her frame with the other, leading and twirling, releasing and gripping, Hansie’s trusting hand resting on his shoulder, he the exulted one; and with those little, whirling steps he would pace daintily, serious, without smiling, concentrated and gentle and attentive to her, until she really did look as if she was from Swan Lake, and as if all the Horas, Krakowiaks, Circassians and couple dances and hops were but a compulsory tax paid to the children of this place, while the waltz was home. Somewhere in Vienna, in Berlin or maybe Prague.
They too, like many of their friends who danced as one with the accustomed vigor of all their sixteen years of life, only the last three of which were here, after various winding paths had eventually led them to Ben Shemen, and after one day, three years ago, at the train station in Vienna, Berlin or Prague, they parted with their parents, families or just those who could still come, without daring to cry out loud, without knowing or hearing of them again and, after the fact, with the realization that it would be without knowing or hearing of them ever again. And here are Hannan and Hannan bouncing up and down while dancing, and they are Hans and Johannes; and there Batya and Bilhah swirling splendidly and they are Betty and Bella; and Gershon who is Gerhard with Ruti who is Matilda; and Shulamit with Ehud, no one can remember what they were before; and Edgar who became Gad and even a Moisheh who became Dan and soon after Dani.
What do girls do when one of them is far more beautiful? Perhaps they say it is not the body but the spirit that counts, perhaps they say yes, but one of her eyes is smaller than the other, and there might be those who say she is so beautiful that it makes your heart ache (and they also get to see the whole of her in the showers while others are only singed by the imagination), but so beautiful it hurts is what the boys also said and more often, and this is from firsthand knowledge, especially the poets in the group, while others who didn’t speak poetry only commented that it was not a good idea to pick a fight with Hanaya, who was like a panther; look at him on the sports ground or the swimming pool. And even if you do think about what this Hansie would look like if she hadn’t had to flee at the very last minute and tear herself away from her father who embraced her and wouldn’t let go, his unshaven wet cheeks on the train platform, unable to utter a word before finally finding his stifled voice and quickly offering wet advice on how to endure in life, and hadn’t had to let go of her mother who had not a word and was out of strength and silent not crying and wanting nothing but to fall then and there and be done with it; if, for example, this Hansie had stayed, like this, sixteen years old, there in Vienna, and everything that had happened there had not happened, but with all the dresses and ballrooms and all that music which is called Viennese music and especially the waltzes, with all the sweet diminutive forms they have, with their music that makes your head spin, far more soft, caressing and flattering when addressing an especially beautiful girl, and it was only a wonder that she had never talked or mentioned, not among everyone in the dining room, not at school and not during the heart to heart talks with the youth guide, and never, neither father nor mother nor Vienna nor the platform, perhaps only in the room late at night, sobbing under the pillow, but even Gila, who had the kindest heart in the world, and whose heart was what added to her beauty and the light in her eyes, which became teary when she laughed, never said a word about Hansie’s tears; beds joined together, and how neat these beds were, compare it with the boys’ beds, or about herself either, never, not out loud at any rate, not walking around with a sullen tormented expression. Not in front of people at any rate, or in front of friends, not even while crying, because everyone has tearful moments, and who doesn’t.
As if everyone here had taken a vow, not to speak. Not to tell, not to wail, and the teachers didn’t ask and the children didn’t tell and didn’t want to tell and even if they had wanted and couldn’t find whom to tell, because they talked and talked about everything, what didn’t they tell, for example about Hananya and Hansie, what hadn’t they whispered about them almost from the very first day or first evening, and some swear that it was also on the edge of the swimming pool, the same edge where everything happened in all hours of the day and night and even at times when it was explicitly forbidden to go to the pool for all sorts of inane whys and wherefores, that they had used pesticides or cleaned or dried, and God help those whose violation was made known to Jaba, the proletariat sports man, because Jaba had principles even when he smiled, so nimble and straight, a man of firm values, didn’t allow playing football for instance because that belonged to the degenerate bourgeois while handball belonged to the victorious proletariat, and of course no tennis, which was the real symbol of decadence, not sure exactly what that is, and the edge of the pool, no more than eight or nine feet wide under the hefty, lofty palm trees in the rustling shade, patched with blotches of light and shade, where the bathers would dry themselves and rub themselves and sunbathe, and on which, when they thought no one noticed, they would grope each other with tenderness and wildness all at once, wearing only very little, and when they were certain no one was looking even less than very little, but if it was a clear moonlit night, they would whisper the next day about exactly how much less than very little could be seen in the full moonlight and how she looked with nothing on, especially she who had nothing to show only less than a year ago, as concluded behind the supposedly secret peepholes made in the girls’ showers, and the girls too always knew to whisper among themselves, who knows on what basis, which poor girl had fallen and suddenly already needed a female guide, and plenty of tears, and then Dr. Klivenskah, and then disappearing for a few days and later she struggled to show her face, everything was known to whoever cared to know, and the edge of the pool always told tales itself, with sticky or other stains, and towels that had fallen to the ground and miniscule articles of clothing, and with all sorts of giggles, at first, that turned into strange moans heard by those lurking in the shade, and all sorts of doings that the palm leaves whispered and rustled to each other about and because of their loftiness immediately spread; it was impossible to hide or conceal anything, not even who the guide was especially fond of, especially if you keep in mind that the guide was ten whole years older than the sixteen year olds, whose youth was reason enough for everything – but never the story of their parting or the still painful rapture or what was before this time or where were mother and father.
Also, no pedagogic council had ever convened to decide not to touch on the pain, as it had never decided that it would be better to let them turn a new leaf, and even Doctor Lehman, the experienced master of the children’s house and a disciple of Freud, didn’t think it would actually be advisable to give the uprooted children who had turned dumb a chance to speak, or if he had thought so he didn’t say it. Even the National Committee’s educational department didn’t discuss the matter or ‘pass down instructions’; even one guide to another, while taking their cigarette break on a bench, resting a little, advising each other, gossiping a little, never did. We had one Hanan who was Hannes, a self-appointed explorer of nature’s marvels who adhered to a method he had painstakingly formulated and with a transportable lab he carried around in his two shirt pockets, he would walk into the classroom and look at his watch and give some crumbs once to the lizard who lived in one pocket and, after a measured time, to the lizard who lived in the other pocket, and then he would button up the pockets of the portable lab and an elusive susurrating murmur became audible inside them, and he apparently came from Berlin when he was a boy of thirteen, without Hebrew without a past and without walking hunched over, his inquisitive mind and exploratory curiosity didn’t brood or seek an attentive heart, his record mentioned who his father and mother were along with other details, but from the day Henrietta Szold took him in along with the other children and brought a whole group over to us in Ben Shemen, it was as if they had all started their lives there and then, having no before.
And even the sweet rounded Gila who laughed to tears, when one of her friends would transgress by doing something that made the guide deviate from the pedagogic principles and ask to punish the transgressor, the moment his inspiring pedagogic speech came to a close and everyone was willing to lead the transgressor to the gallows, Gila would raise her hand and say, but maybe we shouldn’t, maybe we should leave him, after all, everyone does something silly once in a while (God knows that Gila didn’t, she never did) and the guide was lost for words and the whole crowd, witnesses, judges and jury, would start smiling and then laughing – Gila too had no past and no before and no stories of once when I was still at home, and maybe just Hansie, late at night when they were in bed and darkness and the heart shrank, heard something and maybe even wept with her or climbed into each other’s beds to cling to another living person, weep together and relate something in the heart of the encumbering night – nothing made its way to us. Day would come and the whole place would be filled with work overalls and laughter and walking with huge slices of jammed bread, that same jam our ‘Jam King’ knew how to make from everything he came across, including carobs, radishes and mallow, dispersing to the cow shed, the pen, the warehouses, the laundry room, kitchen, lawn-mowing and all the rest, handsome boys and marvelous girls who would one day build this country, besides those who would fall in battle, as if they had always been here and had no Vienna or Berlin or Prague behind them and never were and never had a house from which a mother poked her head out as evening descended, calling in her sweet voice, Trude home time, or Hanseleen it’s getting dark, or come children, come, come.
Turning over a new leaf. That was the idea. Imagine a large stage and at its far end a large picture with a field and path and ridge and a boy with a hoe on his shoulder and a girl with a braid and a basket on her arm walking towards the rising sun. It was more or less like that and everyone believed and prepared besides a few strays who always were deviant, Esther for example (what was she called in Prague?) who would pursue music, and Tamar with the dimples (what was her name in Prague?) who chose London of all places, or that Hanan (Hannes) who would go to the lab in Abu Kabir even before the university was established, or Uri who would deliberate with Borochov and his pyramid and his butterfingers and the kibbutz, until he would come upon Jewish History and flourish, like a wilted plant that had caught a whiff of water. And maybe here and there other single stalks that would scatter and blow through the open doors of God, while all the rest would work together dance together study together and go together, and come and see how they answer the enduring question at the Friday night dances Mi anachnu mi kulanu leaan anachnu (Who are we who are we all, where do we all go) and with mincing steps and great drumming stomps to Hakhshara, the kibbutz and the Hagana, and hey ho, and ho hey, and ho ho.
Sometimes there were group evening gatherings, and sitting together to tell stories, sing and play, especially stories made up without flinching by that guide, who knows the hearts of his listeners and loses track of himself and gets carried away into worlds that had never existed, some from what he had read and some from what he had heard and some from his vivid imagination, and then there is a break and you go get a drink and jammed bread and in a moment the duty announcer will sing the chant, go to sleep, lights out in a moment, as if he was all but one word, and all that. And once the man brought a record he had found and placed it on the old gramophone, and after offering introductory words about Schubert and his poverty and the romanticism and the phrase on his gravestone here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes, which he had found in some book or something he had stumbled upon or in an excerpt from an article he didn’t quite remember, what can you do, precision wasn’t one of his strongest traits, and before you could stop him he would fly above the rooftops and trees and clouds as if he was, in actuality, a painting of Marc Chagall. Sitting in a circle, some together others left to their own devices, listening absentmindedly, and it is a good time for absentmindedness, and some attentive and others also drumming the rhythm quietly with their bare feet, and others their eyes roaming – perhaps something will come to pass and this will transform into a more active gathering, and suddenly the song the singer is singing on the gramophone sounds familiar and someone starts following him voicelessly and another one also realizes and it dawns on him, or on her, but very quietly, beginning to hum the familiar melody whose words some knew in actual German which had not passed their lips in a while, and became deeply rapt, and whoever sang quietly shook his head, because the secretiveness was suddenly true and exactly right.
And Hansie sits there and listens, both hands on her cheeks and behind her stands Hananya silently, his hands in his pockets, and Gila sits there with her hands resting in her lap, and standing with his hands folded is that Gavriel who is as straight as a stem, a great sportsman, nimble-fingered at work and a heart of gold the best there ever was or is, and his sister Elisheva (and it is astounding that they are brother and sister and how he grew into a young man though as shy as a spider web and how his sister had grown too and become a perfect girl, he this way and she that way, terribly astounding and hard to believe) and there is another Gavriel but he is from Prague and a sturdy broad-shouldered fellow, and here a few girls reclining and next to the table someone supports his head between his hands, and one even dares and wraps his arm around another girl’s shoulder, singing quietly, and some with the words because it is a well-known song, and singing with the gramophone so quietly, and now it catches on, really catches on now, bringing a lump to the throat, and Hansie halts inside herself, but the tears quietly, and Gila has covered her face with her hands, Hananya is upright and his eyes turned up, but Gavriel is seemingly just rearranging the curtains that had supposedly moved and his shoulders are shaking, the fellow, everyone singing quietly; there is probably something about the German that, for those who understand it, it makes their heart sink, lips quietly saying the words of the song, familiar with it not from here not from now but from other days, and just singing quietly, not weeping not mom and not mommy and not daddy and not ohh and not aah, and not saying things but it is coming out now quietly, very, from a faraway shut-off silenced forgotten place that will never end, Hananya places his hand on Hansie’s hair and she is already sobbing and halting, as though giving permission to all sorts of other obstructions to open up a little, that one over there is no longer hiding, crying and stopping and blowing and singing quietly, and the one beside her can’t take it anymore and wraps herself around the shoulders of her friend, and suddenly you know that there is this hole in the middle, and that it is forbidden, a very black hole, and that you cannot, and that in the middle it is nothing but a black hole. And that is all. And there is nothing you can do. And then it is over, the record, and no one moves. And you cannot and it is quiet and impossible. Even while knowing that yes, and really, and also that it is more than you can bear. And then someone turns the light on. And all very embarrassed. And maybe they shouldn’t have. But that Gavriel now steps up with the big kettle and as many thick white mugs as he can carry, comes and also says, Gavriel, there is tea if anyone wants.
Like a line of light under the door at the end of the night, when everything is still dark and black but under the door, here, there is already a line –.
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