In the kitchen, Ziva peered through the oven window. Back when her mother made cookies, ovens didn’t have windows. Her mother would have to open the door and take a peek before her glasses steamed up. The cookies needed another minute, so Ziva went to the windowsill to pick leaves off the mint plant. Outside, a gibbous moon glowed over the cedars behind the dining hall. Unlike ovens and most everything else, the moon looked exactly as it did when she was young. Had people really walked on it since then? Those three months Dov was in Europe, trying to smuggle out fellow Jews, hoping to set up an underground railroad, she lay in bed at night staring out the window at the moon, watching it get larger and larger until it was so full she knew Dov must be noticing it wherever he was, if he was still alive. It comforted her to think their eyes were on the same thing. Then for the next two weeks she would watch it get smaller and smaller.
She had been close to losing hope of ever seeing him again when one lunch he came through the dining hall door. She didn’t notice the stranger beside him in the baggy beige suit. Only Dov. She sprung up and ran past a row of tables and into his arms. Breathing in his familiar smell, she squeezed him as tight as she could as if to prove he were real. “You’re home.”
“This is Ziva,” Dov told the man in the baggy suit. “My best friend. My wife. Ziva, this is Franz.”
Ziva let go of Dov. She would meet many camp survivors over the next few months, but this was her first. If he hadn’t been standing and giving her a rusty, rather grotesque smile, she might have thought this was a body that had been wasting in a coffin for some time, shrinking inside that beige suit. The whole dining hall — the kibbutz had fifty-some members now — had stopped eating to stare at the walking corpse.
“We’ll have to think of a Hebrew name for you,” she said in German, trying to give the man a welcoming smile. “How about Adam? I love that name. And we don’t have an Adam on the kibbutz.”
“What do you mean?” He had a Dresden accent, heavy on the v’s. “He just told you my name. It’s Franz.” Though his black eyes were sunken into his skeletal face, they were not the eyes of a corpse. They were black — irises almost as dark as the pupils — and somehow still bright.
Ziva canted her head, confused. “Franz is a German name.”
How could she pick a fight with a man barely able to stand? But then how could she let such a comment go? “Well, then,” she said, “you must be sad your country is losing the war.”
Dov snapped, “Ziva!”
Franz smiled, revealing once more his turmeric-colored teeth, the ligaments in his meatless cheeks. His black eyes shone with amusement. “It seems you and Hitler have something in common. He also thinks I can’t be German.”
Ziva blinked at Franz in disbelief. “Did you just compare me to Hitler?”
“All I’m saying is that the Nazis tried their damnedest to do away with Franz, and if it’s quite all right with you, I’d prefer to not lend them a helping hand.”
Dov squeezed Ziva’s shoulder before she had a chance to respond. “Franz, I’d have thought after all the stories I told you, you’d have known not to get on the wrong side of this woman.”
Franz nodded. “It’s true. I was warned.”
Dov kissed Ziva on the forehead. “Now I have to rush back to Haifa with the truck. Four others are waiting there. Would you please take Franz to his tent? Nicely? Without making him want to turn around and go back to Europe?”
Dov hurried off and Ziva tried to sound nice. “Where’s your bag?”
Franz shook his head. “No bag.”
“Not a problem. We have soap and some clean clothes for you.”
They hadn’t even made it out of the dining hall before Ziva regretted putting the refugees’ tents on the outskirts of the kibbutz. The man’s gait was slow, jerky. They had been afraid to build the tents too close because who knew what diseases the refugees might be bringing with them. Rumors described people dying of typhus in the ghettos too fast to be buried, their corpses rotting on the sidewalks. Ziva held the door open for Franz and he stepped out of the hall as if his hips might break. How had Dov ferried this man across Europe?
“That’s the children’s house.” She pointed at a white building, where the sound of children singing the Hebrew alphabet floated out of the windows. “Eight babies have been born on the kibbutz.”
She pointed out everything, in part to make their plodding seem more natural, in part because so few Jews from Europe had ever come to see what they had built. She pointed out the new water tower, the banana fields in the distance, the health clinic, the young eucalyptuses. A regrettable I-told-you-so feeling rose inside her. She didn’t want the feeling, but she had cautioned her fellow Jews that Europe could never be a real home, and they had laughed at her, called her a fanatic.
“Where’s the dance hall?”
“You know, where people do the jitterbug?” He smiled, the ligaments in his neck and cheeks popping again. “Loosen their bow ties?”
Ziva didn’t know what the jitterbug was, only that she didn’t like it. “We don’t have jitterbug here. Or bow ties.”
She didn’t talk to him the rest of the way. She had shown him where they had drained a swamp to build a health clinic, and he asked about bow ties? Ever since she first laid eyes on this frail man, she had been feeling ashamed, because the truth was she hadn’t just voted to put the tents far away: she had been the only one who voted for no tents. No refugees. She didn’t want them on the kibbutz. Not because of their physical diseases — she didn’t fear that — but their mental ones. This question about jitter-whatever dispelled that shame. She had been right. These refugees weren’t socialists. They might not even be Zionists. Dov, of course, had voted to house them, and as soon as he heard the Jewish Agency had asked the settlements to prepare for a million more, he would telegram to offer Sadot Hadar as a refuge. People, he argued, were more important than ideals. But how was that possible? How could the two be separated? People were their ideals, and ideals only existed in people.
At last they reached the four tents halfway down the hill from the rest of the kibbutz. Beside the tents shimmered two twisted old olive trees. At the bottom of the dusty hill a streamlet babbled over white rocks. Ziva tied open a flap. “Welcome home.”
Franz bowed into the white tent and considered the four military-style cots waiting on a dirt floor. “This isn’t my home.” He sat on a cot like an old man, hands on his knees. “Though before you start up again, don’t worry, I’m not insane enough to see Germany as my home anymore. I have no home.”
“Palestine can be your home.”
Franz gazed at her, standing in the tent’s entryway. She felt increasingly uncomfortable as his focus travelled from her unruly hair to her face, chest, tanned thighs. She pulled down on the hem of her shorts.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a healthy Jewish woman. It’s beautiful.”
Ziva’s face warmed. She had to think quickly: Was there anything wrong with what he’d said? He hadn’t called her beautiful. He said “It’s beautiful,” and it was, wasn’t it? A healthy Jew — that was the whole point of the kibbutz.
She crossed the tent. “We have some books here on the table.” Having no idea where the refugees would be coming from, they had collected books and pamphlets in Polish, Hungarian, Greek, French, Dutch. She handed Franz a German copy of The Old New Land. “Have you read it? This book can help you understand some of what we’re trying to do here.”
With a small smile, Franz rested his hand on the book.
Ziva narrowed her eyes on him. “Why are you smiling like that?”
Franz shook his head with the smile still on his face.
She grabbed the book back and hugged it against her chest. “This isn’t funny. I should think that would be apparent
He shook his head again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. I guess I don’t know what to make of your…type anymore.”
“Yes, ideologues. Before the war, to be honest, I merely found you people funny with your sashes and slogans. As long as you didn’t try to censor my swing songs…But now, of course, you’re right, it isn’t funny anymore, and…I’m confused. I think it makes sense, after the Nazis, that I would have a…distaste for any sort of…movement. And yet, I know, don’t think I don’t know that if it weren’t for people like you and Dov, I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t be alive.”
“I can’t understand what’s so confusing. Not all ideologues are the same because — obviously — not all ideologies are the same. And you know what? I don’t care if you think I’m funny, if I’m a fanatic with my Altneuland. Everything truly great has happened because somebody was a fanatic, because somebody was brave and obsessive enough to fight for their beliefs.”
Franz rubbed his knees. “I would take up this conversation, but I think I’m too tired.”
“Of course.” Ziva realized she should have waited until he felt better, that she should let the refugees discover the books, discover everything, on their own. The place would speak for itself. She placed the book back on the table. “You need to rest. Here’s a jug of boiled water. I’ll have someone bring you something to eat. Do you want me to leave the flap open?”
“Yes, I like the light. And the view of those ugly trees.”
“Ugly? Those are two-hundred-year-old olive trees.”
As Ziva was ducking out of the tent, she heard: “Wait. Before you go, can I ask you a question?”
She held open the flap, stuck her head back in. “Yes?”
“What was your name in Germany? Surely it wasn’t Ziva.”
Was he trying to belittle her? Make it seem like she was someone other than who she was? Ziva debated saying nothing at all, just turning and walking away.
Her voice came out low, threatening. “Don’t ever ask me that again.”
That night she and Dov lay on the bed in the bungalow they had been sharing for four years. She was sad to find that after three months of living in fear that Dov was dead, she still didn’t want to make love to him and was relieved when he never crawled on top of her. Sitting against the headboard, chain-smoking, he told her the rumors weren’t true. It was much worse. The three of them had rented a room in Bergen, and all day ashes fell like snow flurries, dusting the streets, while the people went about their business amid the stink of burning bodies. He had no problem passing for an Aryan because no Jew could be as healthy as he anymore.
“One night, in a bar — we would go to pick up information — I ended up talking to a doctor’s assistant from the camp. At first I thought, stupid me, that he was there to treat the sick. With his hand on my shoulder — I can still feel his hand there, Ziva, I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling it on my shoulder — he told me about this experiment, how they were sewing the legs of Jewish men onto Jewish women and vice versa. I know; it takes a second to sink in. And I had to keep a straight face, keep a charmed face and drink my beer. I even smiled at him. Oh God, I feel sick. But I got something for that smile. He told us ‘Jewish cockroaches’ were hiding in the rubble of Dresden.”
“Is something burning?”
Ziva turned to see her son entering the kitchen.
“Oh!” She rushed to the oven. “The cookies!”
Eyal stood next to her, looking down at the smoking tray. “They look all right. Just the edges are black.”
Here again was her middle-aged son. And this apartment in the old people’s building. Was she losing her mind? It was disorienting enough, feeling these last few weeks as if events from sixty years ago had happened yesterday, but tonight was worse. Tonight it felt as if there was no such thing as today and yesterday. It felt as if the past were happening right now, and right now had been there in the past, that this moment with her fifty-year-old son and the burned cookies was already there with her on the boat to Palestine, when she and Dov leaned on the railing and gazed out at the waves.
Jessamyn Hope’s fiction and memoirs have appeared in many literary magazines. This is excerpted from her new novel Safekeeping (Fig Tree Books, 2015). jessamynhope.com.