Ava Kadishson Schieber
roads leading misleading somewhere anywhere
crossing distressing moving opposite
on different levels
and as such will never touch
the approaching path distant winding turning
yearning to abandon the trail
that fails to alter life
from trotting the circle
scattered lines fading in twilight
leaving traces that glimmer dimmer
after the shine has gone
in darkness they might be drawn
to each other
in an instant time lock
I HAD TO GO TO NOVI SAD, to deal with family property, including the house that had been put in my name and my sister’s. It was early spring 1949, a transitional moment of the postwar era in Yugoslavia. Life was so different from everything that had seemed familiar just ten years earlier.
I went to my hometown to renounce ownership of all of those pieces of Yugoslavia that remained my inheritance and sign it over to the government. My sister’s part belonged to her husband. I had already helped him to claim and receive her share as compensation for what he had done to help us during the war.
The legal proceedings regarding our property took years. I had to recover land deeds and establish death certificates for my grandmother, father, and sister. It took countless hours waiting in municipal offices, often with no one willing to move the procedures along. Because I had to travel about sixty miles north from Belgrade to Novi Sad, I only came up during my vacations from work. Between finishing my studies and making a living, there was no other time to do it all. In addition to the pressure on my time, those trips were also a burdensome tax on my meager earnings. Nonetheless, if I wanted something done, I had to go there, always dreading the journey. This trip was to be the last time I would be in the place where I grew up. I felt as though I were visiting a cemetery where no one whom I cared for was buried.
Renouncing everything of value I owned was the price of my freedom. It was the only way I could legally leave a country that had become more and more alien. But giving up everything that represented security was no novelty for me. The war and four years of experiences since had prepared me well for an atmosphere that was veering on the very edge of hostility toward Jews. My alertness to that fact heightened as my understanding of the world matured.
Back in 1944, shortly after the liberation of Belgrade, I had asked for a special permit from the Partisan Armed Forces to travel with a Soviet medical convoy heading north. My goal was to find my father and grandmother, who I hoped were still alive in occupied Hungary. The war was not yet over.
I remember that journey well. I was sitting in an open truck with several Russian soldiers. We were passing battlefields where only recently there must have been military encounters and fierce fighting. Bodies of slain soldiers, dead horses, and demolished armor mingled in a terrible embrace. Still smoldering fires, the eerie sounds of distant guns, and the stench of war were around us. I didn’t know on which side the dead belonged. After battles, death unifies uniforms.
The soldiers beside me did not react at all. I had been forewarned that I should delay my journey, but I wanted to see if Father and Grandmother might be alive in Novi Sad, which at this point had reverted back from Hungary to a liberated Yugoslavia.
After a couple of hours driving through the horror and devastation on and off the completely demolished road, we came to a halt. Everyone went to find a place to relieve himself. I didn’t dare move away from the truck; I was afraid to be left behind, alone in the field of corpses.
The officer sitting with the driver in the cab approached me. To my surprise, he introduced himself as the doctor of the unit—and started to talk to me in Yiddish. From my documents he had seen the reason for my journey and that I was Jewish as well. He told me that no one in his unit knew that he was a Jew and then asked me not to say anything about my identity to the soldiers with whom I shared the space.
I was shivering from the cold and the sights, not to mention the stench of the past few hours. The doctor gave me his fur coat to wrap myself in. I felt very grateful. No one had been kind to me in many years.
We parted in Novi Sad with a handshake. And now I was left with puzzled thoughts about the Soviet doctor. He had been reluctant to reveal to his comrades in combat that he was a Jew. Something was very wrong.
Upon arriving in Novi Sad on this trip, I was also soon bewildered by my own existence. Maybe this was because of what had happened in this country since its liberation from Nazi occupation. I introduced myself at the headquarters of the local partisan command and asked if there was any evidence of my father’s and grandmother’s whereabouts. First, of course, I had gone to the house where we had all lived before the war. There, my worst fears became reality.
As the war moved from the Soviet Union, it burst with new force into neighboring countries like Hungary that had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. Jews who had escaped the earlier roundups were inevitably caught by the Germans and deported. Father and Grandmother were in those last trains to the camps. And then their property was confiscated by the German military. Our house, located in a nice part of town, consisted of two large apartments. I heard what had happened from the tenant who lived on the second floor. When Grandmother and Father were deported to the camps, the Nazis moved in and made an office out of the confiscated apartment. Then, when the partisans came into the city, they took whatever was left in the apartment and ransacked the place.
The tenant was a frightened Hungarian widow. She was allowed to stay in the maid’s quarters and had only moved back into her own apartment when the fighting armies were gone. Upon my arrival in Novi Sad, I went to see her, and she invited me to stay with her. Since there was no other place for me to go, I felt deeply grateful for her gesture. Not one person who had been a friend before the war had made such an offer. Even those people who had known me since childhood seemed afraid somehow to invite me. I made the assumption that I probably didn’t fit in to anyone’s home. It must have been that I looked in much worse shape than I believed myself to be.
I was viewed with suspicion. When I asked, no one knew what had happened to my folks or was willing to give me information. On the other hand, complete strangers were generous in their attitude toward me. One of them was this neighbor, a woman we hardly knew, who not only gave me shelter but had taken responsibility for putting some of my father’s suits and valuables into safekeeping. Before the deportation, Grandmother had also left our Persian carpets and fine china with her.
During the war, a changeover in Hungary’s administration produced threats even for non-Jewish residents. The German army, which took over from the Hungarian administration, drove many young Hungarians to join the resistance forces. This was the case with the son of the woman who invited me to stay with her. She feared the partisans, even though her son was part of a unit fighting the Nazi soldiers. The war was not over yet.
The tenant also told me that Grandmother’s furniture and everything else from the apartment had been taken to a warehouse by the partisan forces. She suggested that I might identify some of the items, and in that way I might be able to get them back and perhaps sell them. As it turned out, I didn’t reclaim any of our family’s furniture. All I found was what that nice Hungarian woman had taken care of and now offered me.
I left her most of what she had been entrusted with, taking just the photographs and small mementos I could carry. She also gave me information that I took to the partisan general command. Maybe they had more data about my family in their files. I have never forgotten the officer who looked first at my papers, then at me, and said, “Interesting—the Jews are already returning.”
Instantly, with rising hope, I asked: “Who is back?”
The man’s face flushed and he slowly responded, “You are the first.”
I knew then the liberation was not meant for me.
I did not want to move back to Novi Sad. Father and Grandmother were gone. Our family house was now just brick walls.
IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED, a cumulative process of events made my home country intolerable for me. All my hopes of rebuilding a shattered part of my life became more and more unrealistic. There was no one I could go to for any help. I had to take care of my mother because for her, this had been one war too many. She never got over losing her child and husband.
For me the most important point of my future was to finish the studies that had been interrupted by the war. I graduated from the Academy of Art and, after finding a job, succeeded at my work. Not the least of it was that I managed to make a life for myself and my mother. My industry and dedication were appreciated by those in charge, and as my position developed into one of more responsibility and recognition, I was asked to join the Communist Party. While this was considered an honor, in this evolving political moment the invitation was also a minefield. I was very careful in the way I expressed my appreciation for the nomination, claiming not to be ready for the honor. This strategy bought me some time, but I knew I was being watched from then on. I was not forgiven for turning down the nomination.
Then, slowly, I found myself isolated at my office, given a room alone and no real project to work on. It was obvious that I didn’t belong. I knew I never would. There was no one to be with or share opinions with, no one to confide in about how to structure my life or even to exchange views of artistic concepts and expressions. In the postwar Communist domain, the art field was archaic. I kept that opinion to myself.
I had my dreams but kept those a secret as well. I couldn’t even trust the person I was in love with; he had no clue about where my mind was. When I visited his home, some of his relatives would call out to him: “Your Jew is here.” They didn’t mean to be derogatory; they were just very simple people. When I went to say good-bye to his parents just before my mother and I left for Israel, his mother cried and asked me to reconsider the move. His father couldn’t understand why I was leaving a good position at work in order to go to a desert country, and one, moreover, that was at war with all its surrounding neighbors.
My lover didn’t believe I was going to leave him and the country. He didn’t really know me. I was in love, but we were never honestly intimate as human beings. I could never trust him. This was my state of mind during my last trip to Novi Sad. I was there with one single purpose: to sign legal papers. There was no one to say good-bye to.
After a day of traipsing up and down so many staircases in municipal buildings and after signing a multitude of documents, I was drained. At that moment, what I looked forward to was the luxury of staying overnight in a hotel instead of traveling back to Belgrade in the dark. Ordinarily, I would have had my dinner in the room, eating out of a paper bag in my improvised way. But at the end of that day I gave myself the additional luxury of a meal in the hotel restaurant. I wanted to sit at a table, as though that would endow me with some dignity. While in the dining room, indulging myself in an unfamiliar way, I noticed someone standing across from my table; it was a man I knew only as Little Brother. I remembered that the nickname had seemed funny to me when we were first introduced at work in Belgrade a year or two ago. He was very tall and serene and his image didn’t fit his being addressed as “Buddy.” And yet everybody called him that. He asked if he could join me—it would be nice to have dinner together. I was surprised when he approached me; it was the first time we had ever talked to each other. In fact, we had not even seen each other for a couple of months.
At work, if we met in the corridors we would only occasionally have exchanged hellos. We both worked at a large government enterprise. He was in the weekly news department, mostly writing. My work consisted of building architectural models or details of theatrical sets that would substitute for the larger ones in the film studios. With these different assignments, Buddy and I didn’t really have any contact at work or anyplace else.
Before he was transferred to Novi Sad he had heard that I had resigned from my job. We both knew that being transferred to a small town was a kind of exile—a demotion for him. He didn’t mind, he said; in fact, he welcomed the isolation. It would give him more opportunity to write. He wanted to know why I had left. I completely lacked the skill of small talk, but after almost eight years of my own silent existence, I had developed a keen ear. Just as musicians can detect a false ringing sound, I could distinguish lies from truth. Little Brother did not try to get information from me. Everything he said and did told me he was sincere. Here was someone who was an isolated island—just like me. The difference was that I had made a decision to abandon isolation—I wanted to move away from being disconnected. And so I was leaving for Israel, where no one was going to call me Jew. As long as I had the chance, I would no longer stay in a place that didn’t want me.
Making this break meant that I had given away any and all symbols of security. I’d abandoned a career in my profession. I’d let go of the man I had fallen in love with two years before and was still emotionally involved with; and just a couple of hours ago, I’d signed away all the real estate I owned, relinquishing it to the government I opposed.
Strangely, I felt happy to have thrown all of these things away. They had become burdens; they were hindering my freedom. I couldn’t stay in a place that was trying to change the core of my being. Years of starvation, hard work, and fear had left me with a determination not to yield to any force that was out to break my mind.
Despite the enormously destructive effort of the Nazi doctrine to strip me of my dignity and free thinking, they were left almost unimpaired. I wasn’t going to let the Communists destroy my will either.
Maybe it was my ignorance that led me not to consider life’s oppressive forces. I had discarded everything I had. It never entered my mind that I had thrown away everything in exchange for taking a serious risk. I was going to an unknown place and building a new life, with no one to ask for advice about what and how to do it. When the war started, I had made a bold move, but now my life was not really endangered. In peril was my choice of how to live.
There was a long silence when I told Buddy about my leaving for Israel. His reaction surprised me. He reached across the table and took both my hands in his. The way he looked at me that first moment startled me—making me think he was going to kiss my hands in the middle of the restaurant. In postwar Yugoslavia something like that would have been unthinkable. As if reading my mind, he smiled, and then became sad. He held my hands a long time and said: “We’re both outcasts, only you have a place to go to. I do not.”
As the evening advanced he talked with more ease. He originally came from rural Serbia, and had been with the partisans throughout the entire war. I tried to imagine the soft-spoken Buddy as a fighter all during those very difficult years. It was one of the faces he kept hidden. Of all those who had joined at the beginning of that extensive struggle, there were so few survivors. If not the enemy, then the epidemics took countless lives.
Buddy’s whole attitude was so different from that of the few other war veterans I knew. I was bewildered by his statement that he was an outcast like me. Why wouldn’t he be accepted? After all, he had fought for the political power now ruling the country.
It was getting late and the dining room was almost empty when Buddy quietly told me why he didn’t fit into Yugoslav society and had no place to go. He was homosexual. This time it was I who reached across the table and held his hands. It had taken a great deal of trust for him to reveal that. Even the slightest suspicion was dangerous. Homosexuality was not talked about, and if rumors started, people were jailed or just disappeared. Before the war the attitude was unforgiving; after the war homosexuality became totally unacceptable. I felt honored by his trust, and it occurred to me that I was being more intimate with this man I was talking to for the first time in my life than I ever was with my lover of two years.
The dining room emptied, and it was time for us to get up and leave. Buddy walked me to my room and I was not surprised when he asked me if he could just stay with me for the rest of the night. I knew that if he spent the night in my room it could help him silence any possible rumors. That he had dined with and stayed overnight with a woman would have been noticed and probably registered. Our connection could silence suspicion and give him some time.
I didn’t mind. We shared loneliness and his life-threatening secret. It was part of a relationship that existed only for a couple of hours but with trust for a lifetime.
It must have been early morning when he left the room. I didn’t wake up. It was still dark when the alarm rang and I had to hurry to catch my bus. I had paid for my room the day before, but there was no time for coffee. I was glad that Buddy had left; there was nothing more for us to say to each other. It was only respect for the trust and understanding of isolation and alienation, of not belonging, that had created the closeness between us.
He was going to be my one cherished memory of Novi Sad: falling asleep and being hugged by someone who was as isolated from society as I was, a human being with an overwhelming need to share an extremely dangerous secret. It felt good to have had the opportunity to reciprocate his trust.
The bus station was close by and I took a seat. Then, as I lowered the window, I saw Buddy hurrying toward the bus. He handed me some rolled-up newspapers. Unshaven, he looked drawn and old. I was moved that he had brought the papers—it was so thoughtful of him to provide me with reading material for the ride. When I saw the flowers—still bright with morning dew in the damp paper—I was overwhelmed. The way they looked and were wrapped, I knew that Buddy must have taken them from somebody’s garden.
We were both smiling—as we must have both forgotten how to cry—when he kissed my hand.
Soundless Roar: Stories, Poems, and Drawings is available here.
Text and drawings copyright © 2002 by Ava Kadishson Schieber.
Published 2002 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.