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Snapshots

The award-winning Israeli novelist re-visions Jerusalem.

When the call came from Alain, it took me a while to make out who was talking. The strained voice (as if he hadn’t stopped running since that night) obscured the reserve I remembered. “Ilana was killed in an accident on the Strasbourg-Munich autobahn. Yes, she was driving alone, at night, to lecture at an architects’ convention… I went with the boys to the funeral in Haifa…,” He managed to say before his voice cracked.

I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, through the screen of shock. He called me. The first one he thought of. Because of the language, of course.

“Personal notes… were in her handbag… everything in Hebrew. It will take me years to decipher. You know, our personal abyss… Yes, the sooner the better, Tir-sa… tomorrow, if you can… ”

And then, the next afternoon: the apartment at the top of the tower, among the other buildings of the construction site on the Seine. And the distant gleam of Pont Mirabeau capering at the bottom of the glass wall, behind Alain’s back outlined in the armchair. He practically didn’t budge the whole time. Becoming a black negative etched on my pupils.

Alain Greenenberg. Ilana’s husband. Historian. Scholar of the Holocaust. As I remembered him from our single, fleeting encounter. Fair hair slewed to the side, his look pensive. Coming out of the café as I came in to meet Ilana. Apologizing politely, departing with a quick handshake.

He greeted me at the door with the same tweed jacket and the same remote courtesy. Drops his hands, doesn’t seem to know what to add beyond the few bits of information. (Less than half an hour. Almost no word of the accident, or the sons, or their plans now. And I, facing him, imprisoned in the inanity of routine words.) “About one in the morning, according to the police. In the Black Forest. Killed instantly. The ambulance took her to Paris. We buried her, as she would surely have wanted, in Haifa.”

Then he placed a bundle in my hands, “Here, Tir-sa.”
The only time he looked straight at me, and for a moment pain gaped from his pallid face. “Lana’s notes. You’ll know what to do with them.”

May 21, 1991. Sitting across the living room table. And only the scrunch of Alain’s eyebrows hints at what wasn’t said explicitly.

Then we stood up, Lana’s file of notes in my hands, the gleam darting from the bend of the river erasing the dusk of Alain’s face. Next to the stereo was the CD of Don Giovanni. Alain dropped the Frankfurter Allgemeine on top of it, pointing to the door. We passed the open door of his study. Cartons of documents, piles of paper, photographs I couldn’t identify upside-down. We walked in silence, first me, then his mute steps.

The little I knew of him came from Ilana. “Born in Czernovitz. A child in the war… ” That’s how she summed up the components of his life, the story of their complicated marriage (the presence of absence, all that was silenced), his double life in that international group of historians, attorneys, prosecutors — mostly Jews, taciturn, survivors like him, always on the move, tracking down aging war criminals with fake identities, budding neo-Nazi organizations. Fascist cells, assemblies, publications, websites. Revisionism, denial, obliteration of history. Money laundering, cooperation with the international terror network, the disease fomenting under the roots of Europe, spreading to America, the Third World. They gather evidence, catalogue.

And then we were standing at the door. He held his hand out to me and said, “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to help, Tir-sa… but if you have any questions, you can get in touch, of course… ” His look still gaping, as if he were about to add something.

Then he quickly lowered his eyes, “Goodbye Tir-sa,” he brushed aside the hair that had dropped, and retreated to the door with an embarrassed bow, before I turned to the elevator.

In the sinking elevator Ilana’s profile hovered before me, flickering through the mane of black curls, looking into the distance. As then, the last time we met, when she landed in Paris in late December, before the Gulf War, on her way back from America, before she went with her sons to Jerusalem. We sat on the glass terrace of the café near the Centre Pompidou. Her hair caught the winter light, surrounding her with a halo that enhanced the sculpted beauty of her face. The full lower lip, the wide, doe-like, almost haunted look that lent her a new softness. She said a few words about her parting from Alain, “I think this time it’s the end,” and fell silent. Gazing at something with empty eyes.

As the elevator door opened, it occurred to me that in fact this was the first time I had been in her apartment. And all trace of her seemed already obliterated. As if somebody had seen to that.

Outside, in the shrill light on the marble plaza between the towers, the note that had gone on buzzing since Alain called, died down a little. I meandered back to the Metro between the pits and cranes of the construction site, over Pont Mirabeau and the gray rippling rustle of the Seine, gripping her papers, Ilana’s — Lana’s — the object of my pounding heart all these years, under the casual disguise of our relationship. The two adolescent girlfriends from Haifa, brought together again, by fate, in Paris.

I never really dared to hope for a relation with her. Not even during the twenty years we both spent in the City of Light. She certainly didn’t know that I had emigrated, and I kept my distance, keeping track of her through rumors — outstanding student of architecture at the Technion in Haifa (“That’s an inheritance, to build and be rebuilt by it… ”), leaving Israel because of her radical leftist involvement, studies at the Beaux Arts. Then opening an office in Paris, the innovative plans, communes in Marseille, “Lodgings of Life,” “Feminine Architecture,” international renown, and a trail of gossip about her stormy life before and after her marriage to Alain. And her two sons, six-year-old David, and Jonathan born after we reconnected three summers ago. For a whole hour, I hesitated in a store in Montparnasse about what gift to buy, standing intoxicated among the baby clothes and the toys: I, a skinny, childless woman whose only structure in life was a position as professor of narratology in the literature department of the Sorbonne, the appointment I paid for with many hours of bending over manuscripts, and honing the sting of my style.

All those years in Paris, I didn’t try to wipe out the distance between us. I hid behind the embarrassment left over from the camaraderie we believed existed once, “in the Youth Movement.” Now and then I’d come across a picture of a field trip to Mount Arbel: Lana at the top of the cliff, against a backdrop of the valley of the Sea of Galilee and the mountains of Bashan, legs slightly straddled, with her bold beauty, laughing hugged in the arms of the counselor, her boyfriend for the last two days, who looks at her confused by the realization of his dream of hugging her. And on the bottom step of the rock, smiling with eyeglasses, me, a backward little girl, on my first field trip with the Movement, not really understanding my role in the relationship above me, just grateful to Ilana for inviting me to be in the picture. I’m completely lost in the dry landscape I was thrown into from the “Gomulka Aliyah” from Poland in the ‘60s — the temporary apartment downtown, the unpacked cartons, Father trying to fit in as an engineer at the shipyards at the port, talking about Gdansk, and Mother who went to the market in the lower city, and fled home from the “Levantine coarseness” to the fine china from Poland.

And then our meeting by chance five years ago at the opening of an exhibition in the Musée Galiera. Her dazzling beauty that had deepened with the years, sailing toward me through the crowd of guests: “Tirtsa? Tirtsa Weintraub? I don’t believe it!” she wound her arms around me, holding me to her tiny, perfect body, flooding me with the ring of her laughter.

And the bursts of joy ever since. Something of that distant youthful intoxication, or the nameless joy after we got back in touch, the tremor at hearing Ilana’s voice declaring in the receiver, once or twice a year, at the end of one of her trips,
“Tirtsa! My second phone call in Paris!”
Summoning me, “I’m dying to see you, Tirtsa… ”

And I become addicted to waiting. Gulping the days, the hours until we meet. And the meetings, ending not long after the joy of hugging and shouting in Hebrew, and the taste of family she seemed to need enough to keep making dates. And after a little quick chatter, she’d jump up from her chair, cascades of black hair and a dazzling smile, and announce she had to run. Gathers up her handbag (the one she had with her on her last journey), hugs me and leaves me alone, facing the cup imprinted with her lipstick.

Ilana’s father, Aaron Tsuriel, I remembered from my few visits to their apartment back in high school, when he’d linger next to me and declare with a soft smile: “Tirtsa, the dreamer, Tirtsa, as Herzl says, if you want it it is no dream.” In my eyes he became the exemplar of the “Pioneers” — those tough old people, with burned faces, bony gestures, hewn Hebrew. The generation of Titans.

Her mother I almost didn’t remember, except for a later meeting in the Carmel post office. I was on leave from the army, surviving with foggy senses the months of complete obliteration at the base in the Negev. And suddenly, Ilana’s mother, in a flowery summer dress and a cloth hat,
“Where in Poland does your family come from?”

“Gdansk. Originally Warsaw. During the war my parents escaped to the Urals. My brother and I were born there… ” The words burst out of me through a crust of silence.

“I’m from Warsaw, too,” she said excitedly. “I left home at twenty-one. With the Youth Movement. Father and Mother were ultra-Orthodox. They wept, but they gave me their blessing… Father had a butcher shop, in the market of Warsaw. Katz. The Katz family. All of them were killed… ” She thrusts her face covered with age spots and freckles. And then it was her turn at the counter.

How could I imagine what would burst out of Lana’s pages. The little bit about her mother. And all that had been hidden, all the years, between her and her father.

I found out about Sayyid only from reading. I should have guessed. Her great excitement this last year about the binational performance at the cornerstone-laying ceremony on the site of “Mount Sabbatical.”

I probably refused to listen. As when she’d casually mention others, in one sequence with her stories about the trips, and the projects, and the prizes, and mischievous descriptions of her sons. I protected myself, apparently. Kept my own Ilana, one who didn’t disturb the sediment of my yearning too much.

Now a few words about the notes: the fragmentary nature of Lana’s legacy (“snapshots,” as she put it) made it very hard to decipher (even though that’s clearly not the only reason for my continued long involvement with the material). With the limited means of my old Hebrew computer program, I tried to find a fragmentary layout, smiling at myself for the tension between form and content — “my professional expertise.”

I have also prepared for publication, as an appendix, some preliminary drafts for “The Settlement of Huts” and “Mount Sabbatical,” the last monument (or “anti-monument,” as she put it) she worked on. Everything that was in the file of “snapshots.”

On the CD Don Giovanni plays. “Lana’s music.” I’m changing the movements of the opera back and forth. And someday I’ll have to talk about my life, too. But not here. The expression that comes to mind: “Sincere charity” may fit. Only Lana’s “snapshots” here, as she herself prepared them for delivering. She still had time for that.

Excerpt from the new novel Snapshots by Michal Govrin, by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2002 byMichalGovrin. Translation copyright © 2007 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.