Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Romance in the Kovno Woods, 1942

A Romance in the Kovno Woods, 1942

By David Hartley Mark

            I call him my Buchmendel, after his most famous story. He is short, with longish black hair, and wire-rimmed spectacles that fog in the snow. He is helpless in these woods—the same woods I grew up in, all of my life. He is the most brilliant man I have ever met. I am his forest wildflower, as he calls me. I am his protectress.

We will move to Palestine soon. I have seen this in a dream. We will live on a kibbutz. I will bring him an earthenware pitcher of warm, fresh milk from the dairy, and stir it into the Earl Grey tea he tells me he liked, before the War. I will knock gently on the door of his study; he will look up from his typewriter, and smile at me. I will come in, rumple his hair, and give him a kiss. There, in the halfdarkness, surrounded by the brown leather of books. His library. Our home, together, safe.

            He will smile at me, “Nu, Liebchen?” he will ask. I will perch on the arm of his chair. He will read me his verses. They are beautiful, like his eyes. The warm Palestine sunlight reflects off the yellow flowers on the tan-colored pitcher. We kiss there, slowly, among the books and papers. His face smells of pipe tobacco and bay rum.

The cold wind blows through the treetops. Will the Enemy come today?

We will have a small apartment in Tel-Aviv, near the seashore, designed by the same architect who built the Bauhaus. We stroll after sunset on the beach. He takes off his heavy German tweed jacket, rolls up his slacks, and I run back-and-forth, back-and-forth, into the water, splashing him, while he laughs and tries to stay dry. Our pet dachshund is named Rollo. He barks. We laugh.

Later, we drink brandy at a small bar on Allenby Street. He smokes Gauloises and tells me stories of Berlin, in the old days, before the War.

            We will live in Jerusalem. Together, we find treasures in the Arab shuk. I buy him scented pomegranates, a Turkish ottoman of fresh-smelling leather, a packet of cinnamon. We sit together in a café and drink Turkish coffee. We will explore the alleyways of the Old City. He whispers Heine’s “Lorelei” into my ear.

            He kisses me, in the dark. He is my lover, so patient and tender.

            I will defend him; he is helpless. I have my Shpagin submachine gun; I am very good with it. I have killed five Nazis, so far; one was an SS officer who would not surrender. If he had surrendered, I would have killed him anyway. Why not? They show us no mercy; we will do the same to them. They are scum. He—

            “Hesia,” says Stefan to me, “I’m cold. Hold me closer.”

            Our tiny campfire is dying down, and the snow is falling harder. I hug my Stefan closer. He is helpless—so helpless! He puts the book of Kant’s Philosophy down, and I kiss his cheek. It is rough with the beard he cannot grow in well, but tries. He thinks that it will keep his face warm. It won’t.

We whisper in the dark, until Big Zelig comes by, and says, “Hesia, I’m tired. Here is the machine gun, locked and loaded. You and your intellectual boyfriend, go now, and kill some subhumans.”

            Big Zelig laughs.

“What time is it?” I ask him.

“About three am,” he says, and spits into the fire. It crackles.

“Good night, Hesia Strom, Comrade Curly-Head,” Big Zelig says, “I’m going to sleep for two hours. Wake me when the bastards are here, just before you run out of bullets. I will bring you some more. Perhaps I will shoot, also, or just fart on them.”

He laughs.

“Good night, Comrade Zelig Grossbaum,” I answer, “Try not to snore too loudly. The Nazis are complaining.”

We both laugh. I get up and stretch my cramped legs and arms. I catch a little of the snow on my tongue, just as I did as a little girl.

I nudge Stefan; he has fallen asleep. The snow covers his head like a blanket, over the fedora that he has jammed over his head, over the blanket he wears like an Arab. He is cold, when I wake him; he is always cold.

            The stars are very bright. “’When it is darkest, the stars are brighter,’” he once quoted to me, “Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher—that is who said that. He was a Transcendentalist.”

            “What is a Transcendental—what?” I ask.

I did not have the same education Stefan had. He teaches me a lot. In the night, in the dark, on the hill watching the road, guarding our partisans’ camp from the Germans and Lithuanians, there is time to whisper, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, remembering that we come from a world of books, of learning, of philosophy, and so many other things I have forgotten—forgotten while we try to just survive, day to day, like animals in the forest.

I sniff my armpit, there inside my quilted Soviet Army uniform. I took it off a dead woman soldier. She didn’t need it anymore—Phew! I don’t believe I will ever be clean, really clean, again. I wish I could have a bath, just once. With scented bubbles….

            “Transcendentalism?” Stefan repeats, but I know that he is not talking to me; not now, not any longer—he is talking to himself, inside, yes, deep inside his mind, far far away from the snow and the forest and the dirt and the partisans and yes, especially the death and the Nazis—he is remembering. He is thinking of a time and place where there were books and learning.

He can do that. He can escape, that way. Yes. It is a good thing. But it is bad, as well; all at the same time, because it means that he will be thinking Transcendentalists, about this man, this American philosopher—what was his name?—Emmerstein?—when he should be thinking practical things, like I do, like,

            Where is my next meal coming from?
            Am I safe in this place? I may be safe now, but will I be, any longer?
            Can the Enemy find me here?
            Perhaps it’s time to move—is that a plane I hear? They are searching, and will certainly find me, from the air—it is time to look for cover….
            When will we attack next? We must be always attacking. It is better to attack than to wait and to die here, like rats in a cage….

            “…And that is Transcendentalism,” Stefan finishes, and smiles, like a schoolboy ready for a pat on the head. And that is why I love him; he is so wise, and so tender. I will protect him, my Stefan Zweig, my Buchmendel, my dear little professor, my lover.

            The stars look down.