Translated by Yardenne Greenspan
from Issue 20: Landmarks
November 4, 2007
It’s the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination today. Even I can remember this date. Last night there was a big ceremony in the square. Mom texted me to ask if I went. I told her I was playing La donna è mobile on the piano. She asked, At the neighbor’s? I wrote, No, at my place, I rented a piano. She probably felt weird that I did it without telling her, because we were kind of fighting this week, but she was nice about it and told me I was a talented girl. So much for rebelling against the parents – I’m 34 years old and I rent a piano without telling them.
When I took Nina for a walk last night I saw on the sidewalk the remains of someone’s life. Probably someone old who died – there were letters from HMO and old newspapers and even a cover of a book this old person once wrote. Eventually you die and all your life scatters on the sidewalk and ends up in the garbage. What’s going to happen to the millions of words I’ve written throughout my life? I wouldn’t want them to end up on the sidewalk. Everyone is posting everything online. But an obscure online domain is also like a kind of sidewalk. Nobody’s going to need me to learn about life in Israel in the beginning of the millennium. Everything is documented to an incredible extent.
If in the old days people documented for eternity, or for future generations. Nowadays writing should only be intended for creating the Now. That’s how I live – in my own private written world. Every morning or evening I create this invented narrated universe, processing my life into stories. I think about how I’m going to write things even as they’re happening. Then life starts to arrange itself according to these written pages. Events become emphasized or obscured according to how I set them up in words and narrative. Naturally, there are surprises, but eventually they also find their place within the story. It’s a world in which matter and mind are almost the same thing.
Saturday, January 12th, 2008
These are not good days for writing. I’m barely ever home. Grandma is going to die. About to die. Dying. I don’t know the right way to say this. She’s in the hospital. They actually stopped treating her. They’re just giving her morphine and oxygen, and these are her last days. Yesterday we were sure it was a matter of hours, and she thought so too, and we all came to say goodbye. We sat around her bed in the private room they – thank god – gave her, and everyone was crying. When Naama and I got there everyone had already arrived – Tova, Moti, Michal, Hila and Mom. They were all crying and Grandma was hardly breathing. Then I sat next to her and talked to her and held her hand, and she said that all things must pass and there’s nothing to do about it, and gave instructions for the funeral. And then for two or three hours she spoke and we spoke, me especially, and I told her we’ll miss her stories and always remember them and pass them on to our children, and that Naama’s daughter’s middle name will be Chaya. So she said there’s no need to pass that name on… Even in moments like this she’s funny. It’s impossible to write about this without using clichés. I told her we were blessed, I told this to everybody, that we were blessed to have known her, and that we were the first generation in our family to have grandparents. And we got to be with her in her old age and hear her life stories and really get to know her. And she said we were her treasure and that grandchildren have a special bond with their grandmother, and that this was her life treasure. She said that life goes by fast, like the Yiddish saying goes: from winter to summer is like a cat’s leap.
Von vinter tzu zummer is a katz es shpringen.
Grandma asked us to take care of Grandpa and not to bring him to the funeral. She’s right – what does he need it for. Is a katz es shpringen. A cat’s leap. We’ll keep learning Yiddish until we’re fluent, that’s for sure. I told her we’ll speak Yiddish with our children too, and she said it’s a pity that she’ll never meet her great-grandchildren. I told her she had a long life, and she said again that she never thought she would even reach this age, she was always sickly. I told her that even the life I’ve lived till now seems long to me, and I’m only 34. It’s really hard to imagine living to the age of 86. It’s hard to imagine being old and sick and about to die, lying in a hospital bed and saying goodbye.
It’s eleven o’clock at night and I just got home from my parents’ house. She died this morning, around eleven thirty. When Dad and I got to her unit she was near the end, just a few more electrical pulses of breath to go. Her face towards the end is something I’ll never forget.
Here are some things Grandma told me:
Before the war they had a bakery in Vilna. There was a student from some shtetl who was the kids’ teacher and stayed with them. A governess of some sort. Next to the bakery was a store, a sort of café, with a few tables. Her Dad was born in Kovna but moved to Vilna when he was young. Her Mom died when she was about ten, while giving birth to her little brother. Her other brother died at his Bar Mitzvah, of ink poisoning from a fountain pen. She had an older sister, Yehudit, Yudes, who also survived the war. And a sister named Rachel, I think, younger, who died in the war. She was shot in Ponar along with her father and his new wife and another brother whose name was Aharon, if I’m not mistaken. Actually, maybe Aharon was the brother who died on his Bar Mitzvah. I need to ask Mom about these things. Her Dad was named Yosef. She was Chaya Bat Yosef. Daughter of Yosef. They said that at the funeral, too. Chaya Koval. Then Fishbain. Grandpa’s father was called Moshe. Nathan Ben Moshe. Grandpa had six brothers. They were seven children. He and another brother escaped from Warsaw during the war and crossed the border to Russia, but the brother died on the way. Grandpa was in Siberia. Then he smuggled people across borders and that’s how he met Grandma, when he smuggled her to the West after the war.
Grandma was eighteen when the war broke. She ran away from home a while before. She had a lover, tall and hansom, which her father forbade her from being with. Maybe he wasn’t Jewish. She was upset and ran away, but came back home after a short while. Then she left with Yudes and her husband, who escaped towards Russia to save themselves, but she fought with Yudes, because Yudes wouldn’t let Grandma take a suitcase of dresses with her, and so she went back again to her parents’ house because of that suitcase. She spent the war in a labor camp because of that quarrel with her sister. After a short while they were moved to the ghetto, and things really deteriorated from there. Then she was in a small labor camp in Lithuania or Latvia, and she told the Kapo she knew how to sew, and that’s how she survived. She sewed bras for her – no one sold bras during the war, and the Kapo gave her a little extra food.
After the war all the teenagers ended up in one city. There was dancing. They would go dancing at night. There was a band made up of a few musicians. They were all hungry and exhausted. On their way there they ate nothing but onions and garlic they found in the fields, root vegetables that survived the cold somehow. She had a boyfriend there, some guy she knew and danced with. His father was a gynecologist. He examined all the women to see what the Nazis did to them. He examined Grandma too, and she thought he wanted to make sure she didn’t have any diseases she could pass on to his son. He didn’t allow his son to be with her anyway. People were afraid of camp survivors. Grandma didn’t contract any VDs in the camps, but she did come out of there sick. Some bacteria ruined her heart and her artery, turning them into a branched web of veins, and that’s why you could never feel her pulse. You could say that her heart stopped beating or that her blood stopped pulsing through her body after the war.
Whenever she fainted in public places – which happened a lot because of her disease – people would think she was dead because they couldn’t find her pulse. Nobody thought she would be able to go through labor, but she gave birth to two daughters. When my grandparents and my mom, who was just a baby, first came to Israel they lived in Jaffa, in an "abandoned" Arab house. Grandma would take the bus to Tel Aviv. She worked as a seamstress. Before that they lived in the Fritzlar refugee camp in Germany for a few years. They came to Israel in ’49. She married Grandpa in Fritzlar. The Jewish Joint got some wedding dress for her. She met Yudes again after the war. I think they were together at Fritzlar, but I’m not sure. That’s where she also met Inja, her best friend forever. Inja had a husband and children before the war, but they were killed in their hiding place one day when she was out, searching for food. Then she became a partisan. After the war she lived with her husband’s brother, Bumek, out of wedlock. She didn’t want to have any more children.
Sometimes grandma dreamt that she was in their house in Vilna and that there was a wall at the end of the street, blocking them in. It would turn her dream into a nightmare.
Sometimes she heard high-pitched sounds. It must have been the blood in her ears that caused it. Whatever it was, she heard high-pitched voices mumbling to her. That also happened to me when I was a kid and I sat alone in a quiet room.
Before the war she went to an old fortuneteller, a gypsy, who told her she would leave her home and her family and her city, never to return. Grandma told the woman that would never happen, and told her friends not to go see that fortuneteller’s, that she was a thief. But she was right. She also told her she would die drowning in water. She was right about that too. My Grandma, Chaya Koval Fishbain, died of water in her lungs. Maybe she wasn’t in pain anymore, because of the morphine, but the truth is she suffocated and drowned inside her own body.
Before she died, when we parted, she said her grandchildren were her treasure. She said that all things must pass, that she didn’t believe she would survive the war, but she did; that she didn’t think that she’d reach such an old age with all of her diseases, but she did. She said she wasn’t scared. She said life goes by fast and that the time from winter to summer was like a cat’s leap. She said she had no more energy to hold on, and that maybe now she’d get to see her mother.
My grandma and I will meet again. One day. Someday. When we meet, she’ll tell me all the stories I forgot and will forget, and those she never told before. I hope she’s resting easily now. And I hope something happens after death. And that she’s not worried, or suffering. May she rest in peace. Yehi Zichra Baruch.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
Grandma Fania was buried today. She died yesterday.
Fania Werbin of the Taube Family. Gone.
Someone said today that except for having children she did nothing of value in her life. Her art was mediocre, she had no talent. A simple woman, and disturbed. When I heard him say it I didn’t think he was wrong, or cruel. Only now do I think he was. Only now do I remember that she read classic literature in English and French, for her own pleasure. She also spoke Polish and Hebrew, of course, and maybe some Yiddish and Ukrainian and Russian. She was an artist and studied with the painter Avigdor Stematsky, who was a friend of hers, as much as she – a bourgeois woman, Frau Doctor, with two young children, all alone in the world except for her husband and his family – could allow herself to befriend Stematsky and his bohemian circle. When did she ever have time to herself? Between cooking for the children and receiving Grandpa’s patients? The fact that she even studied art is unusual. And brave. She was a certified nurse and worked until she married. She was the first woman in Tel Aviv to have a driving license. She did what she could, considering the times.
What a poor, poor woman.
It’s almost Victorian to say she was mad. But that was the family legend about her. We could have just locked her in the attic and be done with it. In a way we did. I did too. She was our madwoman in the attic. Jealous. Obsessive. Depressed. Vicious.
She really was mean. Or maybe cold is a better word. She said mean things. She was really just expressing her frustration, and it sounded mean to us. When she told me before I went to study acting in New York, What do you need all this for, you’ll end up a secretary – she didn’t say it to be mean. She said it because she knew the frustrations of life. A woman who didn’t have the strength to rebel against circumstances. She kept crashing into these walls again and again, all her life. Miserable. From her bitter heart she shared her experience of the world with us. Her view of the world. She didn’t realize things could be different.
And now the obvious question is, can things actually be different?
She probably really was crazy. She lost her mind. She felt her life withering away without being able to change it. And when she finally did change it and broke up with Grandpa, what did she get? Nothing but loneliness. Ten years went by in loneliness, and then she became demented.
The dementia is at least more convenient. You can forget everything. Forget you’re a heavy smoker and quit smoking in one night. Show love for your children. Be impressed by your grandkids. Love Grandpa again.
At the funeral today, I spoke about the gap between what’s inside and what’s outside. Her need, a woman of her generation, to do things that were considered abnormal. Her standing by the window, all her life, looking out. She was a woman with a room of her own. Eventually she was an old woman with a whole house of her own. And a monthly allowance from Grandpa. And that was her attic. She chose to live in it and shut the world out. It was her choice. She stood there most of the day, in her house, and looked out the window.
I’m also a woman with a house of my own. But my house is actually signed to my name. That’s one difference between us. And I make my own living, with no allowances from anybody. That’s another difference. And I’m not married and I don’t have children. A third difference.
I realize now that my life’s fear was to become Grandma Fania. I didn’t even recognize how tragic her situation really was, but still I tried to get as far away from her destiny as possible.
I’ll never let myself reach her state.
I need to examine the ways in which I’m already in her state, and see how I can change them.
These are the walls I crash into:
I feel like I need to show my family results, meaning – I feel like I need to be successful. If I want to be free to do what I want, I can’t let myself be mediocre. I need to excel. Otherwise I’ll become Grandma Fania. This division isn’t a family thing, it’s a social thing. It’s the century I live in. If you’re not somebody’s wife, you’d better excel. If you are somebody’s wife, you can let go a little, not a lot.
And here’s the second catch: it’s hard to survive for long without being somebody’s “plus one”. If you stretch the time limit on being single a little too much, people feel sorry for you and you’re placed in an inferior category. Too old. Maybe too complicated. In short, you start making your way towards the attic.
I think I pay a lower price than she did, but I’m still paying.
Thursday, May 21st, 2009
Nina, my dog, died today.
Suddenly, out of the blue, in one day.
I didn’t think she would die at age 12. I thought she’d have a long life. I planned to have her for five more years, at least. I thought my Nina Years wouldn’t end till I was at least forty.
Nina. Ninuchka. Niknuk.
I don’t need to save plastic bags anymore. She won’t have to suffer, waiting outside the store for me. She won’t walk me to the grocer’s. She won’t wait for me when I get home from work. She won’t lie next to me in my bed at night. She won’t be an inseparable part of my life. She won’t look at me with those Jewish eyes of hers. She won’t be happy to see Dad or Amnon or any of my friends. She won’t push her head against me to be petted. She won’t sit between my knees in taxis. She won’t sit by my side at work. She won’t stop during our walks and force me to change direction according to where she wants to go. This sidewalk and not that one. And all the times I walked alone at night and said her name out loud, Nina, just to relax, to feel that I can speak her, that she’s with me.
I didn’t talk to her a lot. Sometimes. But that wasn’t really our thing. I didn’t pour my heart out to her. We lived in parallel, each one of us living her own life. It was very clear that I had my life and she had hers. She was a very independent dog, with strong character. Great character. Such a lovely and sweet and easy dog. No more giving her a piece of everything I eat. No more telling her off when she insists on eating shawarma from the floor next to the stall. She won’t wait for me outside of dressing rooms when I try on clothes. Everyone was always so impressed by her. By how good and pretty and smart she was. You could ask her to do things and she did them.
A chapter in my life is over. The Nina Years are gone. 12 years. That’s a lot. I’m really connected to her. I really loved her. I went through so much with her. First living with my roommate, then with men. Spending time with all my friends. And especially with the family, all the time. She was always there with me. Everyone loved her. I even brought her to therapy twice. My therapist didn’t like it, but she was so good, she sat there quietly. My life will be a little emptier without her. I can’t even know how empty yet. She was a true partner. No more dog hair everywhere. I won’t take her to get her hair cut anymore. She was always so cheerful after a haircut, running around proudly. She felt beautiful and light.
How am I going to go to bed now? It’s already three thirty in the morning. I can’t. It was just so surprising. In one day. I’m thinking, if I’d only known. Yesterday I came back from a date and me and the guy I went out with took her for a walk together, and I hardly paid her any attention, because I was talking to him. Then we just went to sleep, me and her. And in the morning I ignored her suffering. But then I was with her all day long. I didn’t go to school. I was with her. I just couldn’t help. I think she already knew. She felt that something wasn’t right. I did too.
She’s just a dog. But she’s not. She’s my Ninuchka. And I love her so much.
It’s been so long since we danced in the living room. She was old. It was apparent, even though I tried to ignore it. You could tell she was slower, heavier.
On Sunday I’ll go to work without Nina, after years of always bringing her with me. Every Sunday and Wednesday. Now I can stay out of the house for whole days and no one will care. No Nina.
Yardenne Greenspan holds an MFA degree in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University. She is a fiction writer, a translator and an English-language manuscript reader for the Israeli publishing house Kinneret Zmora Bitan. Her current translation projects are Life Is Good, The Sequoia Children, a fantastical-historical novel by Gon Ben Ari, Eating, a play by renowned playwright and author Yaakov Shabtai, and Some Day, a novel by Shemi Zarhin, forthcoming from New Vessel Press.
Rana Werbin is an Israeli writer, editor, actor, and translator. Her Hebrew translation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was published in 2012 by Yedioth Books, one of Israel’s most renowned publishers in which Werbin has also served as an editor of Hebrew literature in the years 2005-2011. She is a panelist on the weekly cultural talk show Yanshoofim (Owls). Published in Israel in 2011, Life Is Good is her first book, a collection of excerpts from the author’s real-life journal, which she disassembled and reorganized to create a narrative of her choice, a genre which she defines as an “auto-reality.”
Original text: Rana Werbin, Life Is Good. Tel Aviv: Yedioth Books, 2011.