I can feel a very kindly eye on me. To my right there's a very wrinkled, shrivelled old woman watching me infinitely tenderly.
'You remind me of someone,' she tells me, 'a good person.'
'So do you. You have my grandmother's eyes...and she was a very good person.'
I feel like we're said everything; what could you add after confiding in someone like that? But she goes on.
'You're a good girl and I'm sure you're a good soldier. I'd like to have had a daughter like you, but I didn't have any children. I was born in Vilna. Do you know where that is?'
My history lessons quickly resurface: Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, the new Jerusalem as it was known, the city of a thousand wise rabbis, before the Nazis got there. I nod my head, my stomach's in knots.
'The Germans came. They shot some of the Jews and herded the others into a ghetto. Why shoot one person and not another? I was twenty-two, I had a father, a mother, a younger brother and a younger sister. And a sweetheart, we were going to be married. He wanted to wait till the end of the war, he said you can't have the best day of your life surrounded by death. His name was Yatsek.
'They killed my father on the first day. My mother fell ill and she died soon afterwards. We were hungry, and cold. I was frightened again, like when I was little and I was afraid of the wolf at night. But now I was twenty-two and there was a whole pack of wolves prowling round us day and night, howling. Yatsek tried to run away from the ghetto and was taken. No one ever saw him again.'
I'm crying silently. She goes on, with her hand on my arm.
'One day my sister and I went out to look for something to eat. A German looked at us, burst out laughing, then pointed his gun at me, at my sister, at me, at my sister, at me, at my sister. In the end, she was the one he shot.
'Now there were just two of us. Shloimele, my younger brother, and myself. We managed to escape from the ghetto and we went into hiding with our old neighbours. We stayed in their cellar for two years. At the end of the war they asked if we would like to go on living with them, but we couldn't, we had to leave that country which was gorged with the blood of our people.
'In 1948, we set sail on a boat heading here. We arrived on the first day of the war of independence. They took my brother as he stepped off the boat, gave him a gun and told him: "Go and fight with the others to defend your country." He'd never held a gun. He was killed on the second day of fighting.'
I don't even know if I'm still breathing. She finishes her story calmly.
'Why did I live when they all died? There's no answer to that. You remind me of Yatsek's sister--that's why I've told you all this.' She pauses for a moment, then she adds, 'You mustn't cry, you mustn't cry. Now there are girls like you, with beautiful smiles, who can defend this country if need be. I never married, I didn't want to make someone unhappy all their life. But every child in this country is my child, and I feel so happy when I see you...'
I heave a very deep sigh. In a few minutes I'll have to get off [the bus], I have a mission to accomplish. A new blood is flowing in my veins, as if I were going to fight for this old woman with her gentle eyes, this woman whose hand shook as it held my arm.
Friday, March 26, 2010
From When I Was a Soldier by Valerie Zenatti on pages 223-225: