Hat of Glass

This is not the whole truth. Just bits and pieces of it, sloughed off over the passing years. As I gather them up, they sometimes seem like crumbs stuck in a beard that's already turned moldy. Whenever I've tried to see it all at once, it felt as if I were walking backwards. I'm careful not to bump into the wall behind me. I've known this ache before.

"Clarissa!," I called after her in the street.

I think about her sometimes. I've never forgotten her.

I started running after her, but stopped. She'd become no more than a speck of gray that kept getting smaller and smaller.

Something turned inside me, then turned again, until it was back to the beginning.

The war would end three months later, but we didn't know it then. I had no recollection of my own face; I hardly remembered my age either. I had no way of knowing that the man I had married three years before and lived with in Hungary had been consumed in a cloud of smoke.

Nor could I conjure up the dead fetus I had carried inside me for two whole months - the soundless, motionless load that left no trace, save a hidden line curving its way across my stomach. I hadn't seen my body since the war began. Even my period, dependable as the seasons -- blood that might have assured me that the sun was still revolving on its axis and that the universe was following its usual course -- had been taken from me. Janine, the French girl, said they were adding some potion to the watery liquid they used to shove at us as "Soup!" Knowing that the bleeding had stopped was undeniable proof that time had frozen.

Those who had been consumed through the chimneys were the only ones to rise up, begging for mercy.

In the long line that shuffled through each morning, one thought alone kept flickering in my mind. I longed to spot bombers in the sky zeroing in on our cursed spot and wiping it away, like someone struck across the mouth wiping away the blood till only the hand bears its traces, and not even a sign of blood is left on the lips. But the wound kept oozing, and nobody rose up and cursed the place to make sure that nothing ever grew there again.

When my son went to see it just one generation later, he came home heavy-hearted. "Mother," he said, "the ground is all covered with grass."

What a short memory the Creator has, I thought to myself, to be so good to that soil. Planting seeds, no less, never destroying its grass. Maybe He'll even throw in some flowers just to please it. He didn't even wait until we who curse it are no longer around to watch.

It was my last Selection. Who knows, perhaps the face my parents unwittingly etched on me was keeping me alive. Even now, when I study the rounded lines of my children's faces, I wonder whether it was that roundness that made me look healthy enough, still fit.

Five hundred of us were chosen and taken to the sealed railway car. The doors were bolted. Outside we could hear the horror-stricken voices of those not chosen.

"Don't go near the door," the Capo said. "They're finishing off the ones left behind."

Then they hitched the sealed car to the back of the train. We traveled for four days, we chosen girls, our bodies deep in excrement and degradation. The stench polluted the earth like the detritus of giants. Just moments before the train pulled away, someone hoping to buy us a little more time tossed a few loaves of bread inside.

Between the slats in the sides I could glimpse the earth moving. Were we going around in circles, only to wind up back where we started? The jerking of our bodies packed together like worms marked the passing of time, along with the relentless churning of the wheels thrusting us forward along the overworked tracks.

Hours later the train stopped. Suddenly, its doors opened. It was already dusk. A rush of cool November air clashed with the stench. That was when it hit me full force, as palpably as when a cripple fingers his own deformity and is overcome by excruciating shame.

We stood trembling in the big station, the darkness cringing before the blade of light along the tracks. Exhausted from the trip, our rags clinging to our bodies, enveloped in our own stench, we had no idea what phantom world they had brought us to, and where they would hustle us next. The end was near, but we didn't know it. A tall man stepped out of the darkness and started in our direction. Five hundred pairs of eyes watched him in mute terror. His white hair glistened as it fell neatly over his forehead and temples. He was wearing an elegant Wehrmacht uniform without the skull and crossbones of the SS. I heard a sigh, but it may have been an illusion. His face was clearly visible in the light of the emerging moon.

At first incredulous, he soon turned away, repelled. Later I saw a spark of sorrow too; that he could not wipe away.

"Women," he muttered, his face cut tightly.. "You have arrived at a labor camp. You are in Germany and this is Zittau."

There was a wrenching moan of anguish. He came a step closer and the front line of women moved back, pushing the one behind. He held out his arm.

"Women, you have nothing to be afraid of. Nobody is going to harm you here. This is a labor camp."

We'd heard about those by now. We had already been in another camp. I couldn't believe it. The old man did not conceal the compassion surging through him at the sight of the tortured creatures he faced. He took another step and touched one of the women standing near him, then fingered the frayed edge of her dress.

"It's a disgrace," he said. "Das ist eine grosse Schande." He brought his palms together. "Women," he said again. "I was an officer in the First World War. You were brought into the Reich in order to work in our factories." With a flourish, he motioned towards the large barracks whose silhouettes stood out against the darkness.

"So long as I am here, nobody will harm you. I give you my word - the word of an officer who fought in the First World War." Then he turned on his heel and hurried off, disappearing in the darkness.

"It's a disgrace," he had said.

We were nothing more than a criss-crossing shadow, a huddle of humanity with a flimsy breath of life still flickering inside us. But the old officer was not with us long. Some SS women assigned to guard us let it be known that he was too soft, and that the compassion had been his downfall. I don't know what they did with him. A solitary ray of light had touched the darkness, only to be extinguished. We were still no more than prey, I told myself, not members of the human race.

We rose at four-thirty, with the morning still reluctant to unfold. Treading gingerly, we made our way to the washroom at the end of the corridor. Shaven scalps bent over the basins. Every time I brought water to my mouth, it worked its way into the spaces where I once had the shiny, white teeth of a young girl. The Nazis struck me when they took me from home, and during those first few hours, fragments of teeth kept rolling about inside my mouth. I could neither spit them out nor swallow. All I drank was my blood, and its taste was peculiar.

At five, the kitchen workers hauled in a large pot, holding it by both handles and dragging it along the floor. One at a time, we filled our dishes and sipped the murky liquid in short gulps. It had neither smell nor taste, and only the heat of it reached our bodies. We would stand there, in rows of five, in the doorway, pressed up against each other, huddling tightly to keep warm. The prisoners' uniforms hung loosely on our bodies, and the stripes outlined our emaciated forms. Over our shriveled breasts, there was a gray stripe with our badge, the yellow Star of David, on it, and a number. Even in the darkness, it lost none of its shine. Two, nine, six, three, four.

Who are you? I don't know. I don't remember.

I would recite my number over and over again, like a dybbuk slipping out of its bottle.

We would stand there tensely, side by side, in frozen anticipation. At a quarter to six we would hear the sound of footsteps - the women's commander. What an icy expression God gave him. Nothing ever fluttered, or glinted. Never a twitch. He would flash a look in our direction as though seeing the scum of the earth. His bevy of women officers marched behind him like a chorus, their uniforms spotless, their boots shining. They took count. Day after day, the same count. Then one of them would tour the rooms, inspect the pallets, and leave. The commander would move on. Sometimes he'd crack his whip; he'd never use his open palm because the very touch of us might infect him.

The overseer's entourage included one golden-haired officer, Brünhilde of the Black Forest. Utterly untarnished, without so much as a furrow near her eyes or cheeks. Only the slightest rosiness, as if to say How healthy I am, Oh noble beauty!

The rows extended as far as the eye could see in either direction and the only sound was that of plodding footsteps. The women's arms dropped like two extra stripes, like flaccid worms.

In the large workshops, along the workbenches, were the airplane parts for us to polish with whetstones and wheels and assorted implements whose exact nature baffled me. Nor did I know just how to fit them together. In my dreams I still find myself holding a shiny metallic object, struggling to fit it back where it belonged, but it resists. I try to force it but it keep refusing until, suddenly, it dissolves and the molten steel slithers across my fingers and up my stripes. It reaches the back of my neck, where it settles and tries to strangle me.

One woman spoke only the barest essentials.

Mingling among us and watching, she was a broad-framed woman who wore a prisoner's uniform just like the rest of us, but she was different. Imprisonment had not clung to her.

Janine the Frenchwoman, whose pallet was next to mine, said: "This Clarissa was a Fronthüre."

I explain to my children that she was a whore sent to the front more than three years earlier as a diversion for the soldiers.

Other women like her had already thrown themselves against the fence to burn out the frenzied memories. Some had turned into wild dogs, directing their humiliation and disgrace at women like us, as yet unafflicted. But not Clarissa. The way I remember it, the torment never took hold of her.

Day followed day in confusion. There was no keeping track. One morning I awoke on my pallet, but it felt like smoldering stones. There I was in a vast desert, the furnace overhead sapping whatever precious fluids still flowed inside me.

Janine dragged herself off the cot. "Get up!," she screamed. I didn't budge. I wanted the benevolence of the desert. She kept prodding me, but I couldn't move my legs. They were sinking into the desert sands. Janine beat me with her fists.

"On your feet," she said, "or you'll be missed in the roll-call. You mustn't be sick!" she shouted. "Mon dieu, you just can't take that kind of risk"

"Leave me alone," I begged her. She persisted, forcing my feet towards her, tying my shoes on.

"Leave her alone!" came another voice out of the fiery skies.

Janine pounced on her.

"Monster!." she yelled. "She'll die if she doesn't get up!"

The vast desert drifted away. I opened my eyes, which felt like tiny flames. Clarissa's voice lacked the parched sound that comes from unremitting hunger and a wilting mind.

"You fool,." she said to Janine. "You know I wouldn't let her die." Bowing to Clarissa's authority, Janine loosened her stubborn grip.

"Now leave," she ordered.

Clarissa knelt and took off my shoes. She lifted my spindly legs back onto the cot.

"I'll be back soon," she whispered.

I didn't know where she went, but she did come back and in the hollow of the palm were some tablets, gleaming. Perhaps she's out to poison me, to scar me with her shame, I thought. But I kept still. Like an obedient child, I opened my mouth and swallowed. I sunk into another desert, feeling a breeze brush by me with its precious sands, stirring up pillars of dust.

She came for three days, putting medication in my mouth, disappearing. Later, Janine told me that on the fourth day, during the first roll-call, Clarissa stood at the end of the corridor and waited. When the golden-haired officer arrived, Clarissa stopped her and whispered in her ear. The officer approached the commander and he took the roll-call. Not a single woman was missing.

I was not the only one who Clarissa took charge of at the moment of collapse. I did not forget how she brought solace to the dying. How, until the end, she wet their foreheads with a soothing hand.

How she brought fruits and vegetables to Sara Mendelssohn, who came down with scurvy.

On those rare days when the factory owners came to see the prisoners, we saw an island of potatoes floating in the lake of soup. That was how we found out about the order to make us more productive by giving us more and better food. Otherwise, the SS ignored the order, fishing out any morsels of vegetable and shreds of meat from the soup, emptying it of all nourishment, leaving us nothing but greasy water.

When I tried to thank her, haltingly, Clarissa brushed me aside with a flick of her hand, and turned away, as though it was more than she could bear.

Late one night, the door opened quietly. Clarissa got up and walked towards it, treading very carefully, as though on sizzling embers. She made her way to the pale slit of light, and as the door opened wider, I could make out the shadow of the golden-haired officer. She was standing there blocking the light.

As soon as Clarissa crossed the threshold, the officer turned on her heel, and Clarissa followed. The door closed silently, as though it had never moved. I fastened my head to the hardness of the pallet, and as I turned back, I found Janine's eyes, like a cat's, slicing through me in the darkness. I turned away. The silence hung so heavy that I could almost hear the Frenchwoman's eyelids batting, and the sound of my own breathing rumbled in my ears.

Other times, she would be gone all night. We knew well enough where she slept. Nestling in the embrace of the woman officer, her gateway to the world. Sometimes, she would be allowed to hear a Chopin Polonaise or a Wagner symphony, resting her back against the delicate sheets. And the Brünhilde would offer her soft clothes, wash her body in a tub, shampoo her hair. Clarissa would lie there with her legs curled up, her mind closed within itself. At the morning parade, a telltale nerve would twitch in the officer's cheek as she passed by Clarissa.

Clarissa never said much during working hours. But once she started singing in a deep, low voice, like a husky gurgle. She fought back the strange sound, but it kept pouring out of her, unchecked, spilling on to our workbenches.

Unable to continue joining the airplane parts with that terrible sound, we stopped. It was like a mute straining to use her voice, the tremor of her vocal cords making her listeners shudder.

One night I awoke and found that Clarissa had returned to her cot from the hidden room. But instead of stretching out, she was sitting there like a statue in whom life had frozen, staring out into the darkness.

I could not stop myself from going over to her.

"Clarissa,"' I spoke softly, "What does she do to you?"

Suddenly her face contorted with a pain so intense that I recoiled. She turned her head slowly, as if a key had been inserted in her back, and said dryly:

"She doesn't do me any harm." Then she touched my head.

"You're young," she said.

"Young?," I said, "I almost had a child, and my youth is gone."

"You'll have other children." She touched my forehead. "I never will."

Wherever a body goes once its fate is sealed, its fate goes first. People shy away as they would from someone with a dreaded disease, but the body has its own truth to tell. It follows its course, spinning and stumbling. Once Clarissa was branded, the stigma could never be wiped away. If we ever got out, we would be free to love again. The bruises and emaciation, the disease and the wounds, had gnawed away at the racked bodies, but the bodies would be given another chance. Like a forest that goes on growing after a fire. The soft murmur of the sea at high tide and the waves of the moon would bring other loves and children into those torn wombs. Under the dome of this horror, we would love. There we would give birth and raise our children.

Though this scarred soul of mine opened up to Clarissa, longing to support her, she had already been branded. For the rest of her life she would wander though the Land of Nod. With no brave hunter to follow her. Nothing but her seared spirit.

Softly I asked, "Will we ever get out of here?"

"The Russians are getting closer," she said. "It won't be long before the echoes of the explosions reach us."

She bent over me and shared her secret. "I'll be going to Palestine. I have an uncle there. We used to make fun of him. We said he was crazy going to such a godforsaken place. But here I am now, without any God. I will join him in Palestine." She uttered the word gently, splitting the name of the country, syllable by euphonious syllable, before her voice became eerie and remote.

Clarissa rocked herself as though in a lullaby. She was far away from me.

We were like moles in a tunnel, except that we hadn't had the welcome sleep those wise animals have. We could only crawl down into the deepest holes, where the abomination flowed submissively, begging to pour out to sea. But the sea was thousands of miles away. The roots of the burning trees trembled and cowered under the weight of the abomination, demanding to know where the water came from. Every last one of the bridges had been bombed that winter, and yet the trains had not stopped crossing the rivers. People had become roots, and roots, people. The wise animals listened to the sound of the flowing abomination and wondered when it would let up.

I couldn't go any closer to her. I returned to my cot, as she went on rocking herself, consoling her flesh and her spirit, no longer taking any notice of me.

Winter was digging in around us and we were forgotten. Heavy rains began to fall. It seemed to me that every drop was also carrying a grain of ashes from those consumed in the smoke. The camp was not bombed, but the approach roads were covered in marshy mud. The trudging of sticky feet kept beating, like the room of a watchmaker gone berserk. Whenever I turned to look beyond the fences, I saw the treetops swaying in the forest. The leaves would fill up with drops of water and the early winter winds loosened off rows of foliage. Some of the leaves blew over the fence and even drifted down into the barracks. They were left untouched, except by the wind.

New airplane parts were piled high on the workbenches, and we fitted them together. The door opened and Clarissa came in, wearing a pair of men's boots. Water dripped off them onto the floor, leaving tracks from her hurried entrance.

She took a kerchief out of the coat wrapped around her, unfolded it, and revealed shiny red forest berries. She opened her mouth and in went one berry, then another. The juice oozed down her chin like a festering wound. The meisters, the German mechanics appointed to watch over us during working hours, stopped what they were doing and watched. We all huddled around her as she began stuffing our hands and our mouths with red ripe berries. I could see my mother's jars filling with red jam, as she lined them up, one by one, on the pantry shelves for all the seasons to come until next summer.

"Where did you get them?" one woman asked.

"It's a present," said Clarissa, breaking into a raucous laugh and swaying from side to side. "I'm a kept woman, didn't you know?"

Then she pressed her head into the empty kerchief and breathed in the lingering fragrance of the fruit. The kerchief covered her, but we could still see the shivers running down her spine. We went back to our workbenches and clung to them. Even the meisters left her alone, until the door opened again. In the doorway was the Nazi officer, some loose strands of golden hair dangling under her hat and falling damply along her neck. She went over to Clarissa, took her by the shoulders and shook her with one powerful jolt. The kerchief dropped to the ground. The red spots had stained it. Then she bent over and picked it up. It was the first time I had seen her bend over. Her spine jutted out under the blouse of her uniform and her breathing came in waves. The sight of her stunned me. A tremendous revelation. Even she, proud as she was, knew how to kneel. The taut cord that had learned how to stretch, never allowing itself to slacken, had loosened ever so briefly. So she was human too.

"Das ist meine Clarissa," she said in a stiff voice. "Sie ist Mein."

Mine, mine.

As she straightened up, the kerchief dropped again and she stepped on it. We turned around. Janine, the Catholic who had coupled her fate with a Jew and wound up with us, was the only one who dared. She who had followed her lover eastward now took one step forward, shooting out a piercing look.

The Nazi officer stopped directly across from her. For a split second their eyes met, a moment that froze in space. The officer turned, let go of Clarissa, and Clarissa stumbled. Where is my friend Janine now? Perhaps in some wine grower's village, not far from the Spanish border, where the grapes are especially juicy, where one can get drunk on a single bunch of them.

Before my sixtieth birthday, I took my granddaughter Hagar to the house from which they dragged me away.

I could not tell the ten-year old that this was where I had loved another man. There had been a fetus inside me who might have become her father. I told her:

"This is where I once lived. This is where they banged on my door."

Hagar looked wistfully at the house we had not entered and asked: "Why don't you knock on the door, Grandmother?"

I said to myself: That door has been slammed shut for good. It cannot be reopened. Deep in the recesses of my memory I buried the man who was the first to come to me. I don't dream about him anymore. When Hagar's grandfather took me, I cast that chapter of my life aside into a sealed box and threw the key into the depths of the sea. Still, it is beyond me how these things seep through and gather in other parts of me, seeping into my children.

The dammed up waters seek new outlets. When I heard them forcing their way, I clasped my head with both hands and commanded them to stop. But they disobeyed. Outsmarting me, they worked their way in between the cracks.

I clasped my granddaughter's hand and felt its fervor. She was standing next to me, so stirred and pure. I said to myself: I'm not trying to get even. I'll be sixty next year. After all, I've brought along my son's daughter, to show the intruders who broke the door down - those masters of the stripes and the whip - that they have not outdone me.

The fetus died, but here is the child.

Winter was coming and the sun had almost vanished. The rumble of distant explosions mixed with the sound of thunder. Nothing but the lightning, slashing the clouds, could keep them away.

A few weeks before liberation, the meisters began shooting indiscriminately. The factory emptied and the owners vanished. A day before the liberation, we remained all alone in the camp.

We woke up in the chilly dawn and stood in formation waiting, but there were no footsteps to be heard. We ventured out into the gateways of the barracks. Everything was in place. The fences were bolted. In the distance, the treetops were swaying as though nothing in the forest had changed. It had always been utterly indifferent to us, never turning a receptive ear. By noon, the gate had been uprooted. Two dogs still posted to watch over it were shot on the spot, and their carcasses rotted in the alleys.

A Russian division arrived in the camp and our fears gave way to new ones. Fresh from the battles of Stalingrad, they were overcome by lust. But as soon as they saw us, they turned away. Our emaciated bodies could not arouse any passion.

We lined up for the last time, facing the row of Russian officers who provided us with the first piece of paper we would need to begin life anew. They gave us our names back. I saw mine but we were strangers to one another.

Janine said it amounted to a baptism, and kept crossing herself. Three Russian officers sat at a desk taken from the camp headquarters. I remembered the fifth chapter in the book of Genesis. God takes the finest rib, the one that has suffered nightmares, and releases it in the Garden.

Clarissa's icy hand was tugging at mine, the way it did when she handed me the medicine.

I turned towards her and she pointed wordlessly at a woman who was working her way into the waiting line. She had taken on our appearance, turned into one of us. Got hold of a striped shirt, hoping to find refuge in our fold as if among Jacob's lot. Gone was Brünhilde's golden hair. She had shaved it all off and her skull bones were showing. The color was gone from her cheeks, and her anxiety was seeping out, as if through a faulty stopper. I saw her push her way into the hush of the women and even from as far away as I was standing, I could see the roundness of her breasts between the stripes. Cut off like us. Now she was hoping for the final Judgment Day.

"Oh, Merciful Christ," said Janine, stretching out an arm in her direction. Then she spit on the ground and made the sign of the cross.

Thus in the haze of my illness she re-emerges out of the ground in her striped uniform. Her golden mane falls on her shoulders and the SS insignia is etched in blood on her forehead. Even in my nightmares she bears that same deathly pallor. She leans over me, opens her fist, and shows me some yellow tablets.

In my dream I scream: "I'm not to blame!" But she grabs me and forces them into my mouth. I purse my lips, seal them tight, and cry: "Clarissa, come, help me!"

But it's my husband who shakes me by the shoulder and asks: "What's wrong? You've been screaming all night."

One morning he asked me: "Who is the Clarissa you keep dreaming about?"

She keeps surfacing. Weaving in and out of the corridors of my memory. Pulling behind the dignity of man and his degradation, an image of anguish, and the powers of resistance. I still see the eyes of Janine of Gaul harden, making sure that she never forgets.

"I can't be the one to turn her in. You go," Clarissa said to me. "Tell the Russians that a Nazi is hiding among us." I froze. I was unable to shout. I remembered the outstretched palm and the tablets. But Janine had already stepped out of the line and her legs were carrying her unhaltingly, overcome by some secret power. She approached the Russian officers, whispering something. Two of them followed her back. Ever so slowly, they approached the line.

Janine stood opposite the Nazi woman and pointed her out with an arched hand. "That's the one!" The officers dragged her away and the Brünhilde started screaming and jerking convulsively. But the Russian had a firm grip on her. He made her stand up, as he struck her on her bald pate. Thus is how I picture her skull, lying on the ground after the worms had gnawed at it. The Russian wasted no time, pulling at her shirt, ripping it right off. She began screaming and covered her nakedness with her hands. But those breasts were not like ours. They were full and fleshy through the torn material.

The Russian slapped her once across the face and she stopped. Her arms fell to her sides. He raised her arm for all to see. Under her armpit was the Nazi mark, carefully etched, as though on a sheet of paper. Furiously he struck her again. She lifted her head and searched over the entire row of women until her eyes rested on Clarissa.

Clarissa turned away. Like a madwoman the Brünhilde screeched, her cries rising and falling over our frozen silence.

"Clarissa, help me!"

The Russian waited another minute, then dragged her away. She stopped screaming and he pulled her behind him like a tattered sack, behind the first barracks. A single gunshot, and he was back from the corner. As he stuck his pistol back in its holster as if nothing had happened, he returned to his seat by the desk. I turned to look into the row of women, but no longer saw Clarissa. She had vanished.

I shut my eyes. The entire row turned into one long strip, and at the tip of the worm, one after the other, we undressed and put on the clothes provided by the Russians.

The light for me will be flawed forever since those evil days. When I returned home, I found my parents alive. For three days, my aging father sat with me. Then he packed a small bag. I asked him: "Why are you leaving, now that I've been saved?"

For two months he traveled all over Europe to collect proof that I was a widow and could remarry under Jewish law.

"The only way to find two witnesses," he explained, "is to start the search right away. If we wait, they will scatter all over the world."

My children are grown, and the dead one who dropped out of my womb is long buried, covered over by the beauty and brightness of the ones who came later.

I once took out a picture of my dead husband to show my oldest son, but he didn't believe me. The truth, after all, is a great mosaic, with motley pieces forever falling into place. When one piece is missing, I sometimes look for it, and often I stop.

Whenever I pass by road signs in my country, I think about her. Maybe Clarissa is living here, maybe there. Perhaps her face is sealed, revealing nothing, except for the wet and oozing sap of berries.

Whenever I dare to lift the stone, I turn it over and over, and things are not the way they were before, but rather, the way one sees them in a crooked mirror or through a window on a foggy day. I'm not going to breathe warm mist onto the pane, because I don't really want to see. Clarissa in a golden embrace, and Janine with the wine growers of Gaul, and myself in Tel-Aviv. Only rarely does my soul wander and turn over, and it no longer reaches back to the beginning.

They say time adds layers of its own and you cannot reach back to the day of Creation without first climbing down a great canyon. After passing all seven layers of the earth, one moves back a million years, to the Day of Chaos, when Creation and Disintegration were one, nesting in a single womb, like Rebecca's irreconcilable twins.

A great darkness had emerged. They say it will heal. They say: I shall be healed. I am grateful for the sun and for the new light, but the anguish and torment will rest on the heads of the children like a hat of glass.


Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger

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