By BARBARA HONIGMANN
I cried for three days and three nights and didn’t say a
thing to anyone, but kept everything to myself. I sat in our bedroom the whole
day staring at the children’s empty beds and asking myself what had happened.
But then I told Frau Kahn everything. I met her in front of the elevator about
nine o’clock, just as I was about to take out my trash. She’s been my neighbor
for a long time and has been through a lot herself in those terrible camps, so
she’d be able to handle it, I thought. She tried to comfort me and came over to
my place. We sat down in the kitchen and she got me to take twenty of her drops
and said that things would soon be all right again. “We’ll get them back again
for sure, Frau Serfaty -- for sure!”
Simon had said we were going to take a trip, go on vacation. But we never went
on vacation, at least not together. Only the two bigger girls got to go to
summer camp last year, although they both protested at first, Zippora because
she was too big for such things, Elisheva because she was too little. The
congregation had offered two places free of charge at the summer camp run by
the B’nai Akivah -- they’re religious, you can trust them -- and I thought it
would be good for the girls to get away for a while, get a chance to breathe
the good, clean air in the Alps, and a little peace and quiet wouldn’t hurt me,
either. But when they were actually gone, time seemed to pass very slowly
without the two girls and every day I went running out to meet the mailman, to
ask if there was anything for me. Right here, above the kitchen table where we
eat, one of their postcards is still hanging; on it there are huge mountains of
gray rock, flat moss, and grass. You can see a little river as well, and
there’s snow up above on the mountains. I don’t think mountains are beautiful
-- they scare me. The sea is my landscape. In Oran, the sea was all there was.
I don’t know the mountains.
When the girls finally came back from summer camp, I stood on the platform with
the other parents, waiting for them, and as the train came into the station,
all the mothers and fathers started to run with the train, alongside the cars
from which the children were waving, and then the train finally stopped and the
screaming and yelling started: “Yoo-hoo, David! Yoo-hoo, Chaya! Here we are!
Here Ilan! Yoram, over here!”They were all pushing and shoving and running
toward each other and they were almost all crying as they threw their arms
around their children.
I was absolutely astonished when Simon said he wanted to take a trip with us.
For the past two years he’d hardly even been here, but, instead, was always
traveling around the world collecting money for the Jews in Russia, for the
Jews in Syria, and for the Yeshivas in Israel, for cemeteries, schools, and
Torah scrolls. He collected for every conceivable religious purpose, was
constantly on the move, on every continent, from one end to the other. He
collected money for everyone -- we were the only ones to whom he didn’t send a
thing. Nothing for me and nothing for the children. We live on the allowance
for children and the housing allotment, and health insurance for me and the
children is covered by the French government as well, thank God. One of the
children is always sick -- sore throats, earaches, they’re always falling down
-- at least once a week I have to call Dr. Schwab to come and see someone. He
knows I have worries about money and always writes out the receipt for the
health insurance ahead of time, so I don’t have to pay him until I’ve gotten
the refund money.
In the last few years, Simon would sometimes call and say he was passing
through, would be there for one or two hours -- he’d just arrived on the train,
in Kehl, I should bring the children to the station quickly so we could see each
other, as if he couldn’t risk crossing the border himself and had something to
fear on this side.
Once or twice a neighbor drove me over, but if I couldn’t find anyone, I had to
take a taxi, just leave everything right where it was and herd the children
together as if there were a fire alarm.
Then Simon would be standing in the waiting room beside the newspaper kiosk,
and we’d take our places around him and he’d hold court like the Sun King and
ask us all sorts of questions and lecture us about worldly things and
especially, of course, about religious ones, after which he’d go rushing off
again, without a word of explanation about where he’d come from, where he was
going, or about his perpetual absence and why he no longer came across the
border to visit us at home. We were never allowed to accompany him out onto the
platform. We just turned right around again and marched back across the Rhine
Bridge, where it’s always so windy that at least one of the children and
sometimes I, myself, would arrive on the opposite side thoroughly chilled.
Behind the little customs house, we’d walk down the steps and take the number 2
bus back home.
And now he’d told me we were going on a vacation trip. I was to pack things for
the children and myself and come over to Kehl again, to the Europa Hotel, not
to the railroad station -- we’d spend the night there and be on our way the
following day, on the train. I asked him where we were going and why we
couldn’t just spend the night in our apartment, but he got nasty right away and
told me not to ask such stupid questions and just do what he told me. So I got
everything together, a pile of underwear, socks, sweaters, pants, and shoes,
and each of the children added something more that just had to be taken along
-- toys and books and whatnot. They were so thrilled to be going on vacation.
Then we took the bus across the Rhein to Kehl; he was actually waiting for us
at the Europa Hotel, and we spent the night at the hotel, in rooms across the
hall from one another, he in one room with the boys and I in the other with the
The following morning, however, I noticed that in all the confusion of getting
ready, I’d left the first aid kit at home -- a bag full of suppositories,
drops, pills, cough medicine, and band-aids, anything that might be needed. Dr.
Schwab got it all together for us “just in case.”I said to Simon, “I have to
get that bag, because we can’t go anywhere without it -- I’ll take the bus
right away and be back again in half an hour and then we can be on our way.”I
hurried as fast as I could, took the 10:02 bus from the bridge, managed to
catch the 10:26 from our corner, and at eleven on the dot I was back in the
hotel again. By then it had happened. They weren’t in the lobby, not in the
rooms, not in the breakfast room, either -- they weren’t anywhere. It was as if
they’d never been there at all. I asked the woman at the registration desk.
“No,”she said, “the man left nothing behind. Yes, he asked me to tell you that
you can go home.”And that’s what he -- who can’t speak German -- was supposed
to have said to this woman who doesn’t understand French? How? What’s that
supposed to mean? What kind of craziness is this? I screamed and cursed,
probably in Arabic. Arabic curses are about all that’s left from our time living
among the Arabs. The woman got upset and started to make telephone calls --
maybe she wanted to get the police, maybe I’d screamed too loudly, maybe she
was afraid I was going crazy, right there in front of her in the Europa Hotel.
An Arab woman going crazy, that’s all she needed. So I bit my tongue and clawed
the arm of the easy chair. Then my things fell, the pouch with the pills and
drops plopped out, the cough medicine bottle skittered across the floor and
broke and the syrup ran onto the carpet in a sluggish stream. I had to crawl
around on my knees to scrape it all together, pick up the glass slivers and
wipe up the syrup -- my hands got sticky, everything stuck together, and then I
really felt like cursing. Cursing and howling.
The woman behind the registration desk stopped paying attention to me. So much
the better! I went on sitting in the chair in the hotel lobby until evening.
Now and then I ran over to the station to at least give myself something to do.
As if they might suddenly come back after all, on some train or other, from
somewhere. Trains did arrive, from places I don’t know, and left in one
direction or another for places I don’t know either. People got in, said
goodbye, yelled things to each other through the windows -- the kinds of things
people say when they part, trivial things: say hello to, be careful of,
remember... Other people got out of the trains and hurried over to the buses or
taxis; some were being met -- women by their husbands or children by their
parents -- but they all went off quickly in their own directions and I stood
there, inundated, then cast aside again by the meetings taking place around me.
Then I went back to the hotel and sat down again in the easy chair opposite the
door. I thought maybe he’d call. People came and went, and some even sat down
for a while in one of the chairs beside me and smoked and waited and then left
again and no one asked me a thing and no one said anything to me and no one saw
what was going on within me. After eight hours of waiting -- it was exactly
seven in the evening -- Simon actually did call. The woman at the registration
desk showed me to the phone and I started screaming right away -- what was
going on, where was he, what was he thinking of and what was going to happen
now, why did he just leave with the children at exactly the right moment, had
he arranged it that way ahead of time, there was absolutely no point to it,
what good was it going to do him, it was just plain crazy, more of his damned
theatrics. He growled like a dog, then barked -- I should stop speaking to him
in that tone, what would the people in the hotel think when they heard me
screaming on and on like that, didn’t I have any respect for him. “I am
traveling on with the children now. Go home!”is what he said, then hung up.
Then I probably fainted. The woman at the registration desk managed to put on a
sympathetic expression afterward, as if she wanted to ask, “What are you going
to do now?” I told her not to worry, I was really leaving, I was going home.
But go home where? Without my children I no longer had a home.
ZOHARA’S JOUNREY by Barbara Honigmann. Copyright 2003. Published by David R.
Godine, Publisher. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of
this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from