Perfect Family Tales And Other Trivia

The art of the short-story writer is that of the cartoonist. It is the magical craft of creating entire worlds with a few simple strokes of a pen. Tales told by an idiot? Maybe! But my tales are also a mix of reality and fantasy; truth and lies; some based on my own family; others, not. Readers must guess which characters are real; who are inventions - and who are an amalgam of both. Please draw the boundaries for yourself.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

‘All The Black Years’

Yahrzeit.LightLast night  we kindled a memorial light and recited a prayer. Then Aunt Leila drove us  into the Galilee hills to meet a woman who had spent her life collecting pictures. Aunty said she was quite mad.

When we arrived we stumbled over thousands upon thousands of photographs, pen-and-ink drawings, pencil sketches and cheap reproductions of oil  and water-colour works which lay in huge scattered heaps about a  cavernous room barely lit by old-fashioned tapers. All pertained somehow to a genocide; to the many attempted annihilations of one people by another.

Curiously, many of the  incidents they recorded did not happen during the Nazi Holocaust. At first glance they appeared to have no direct connection to  the Jewish experience. 

Into the gloom walked Adina Foreman, a woman who wore a vague, distracted air like a badge of honour. “Welcome to the Viktor Hartmann Gallery,” she said with a lilting accent  as I squinted, attempting  to  see her face among the flickering shadows.

“I hope you’ve been told that I’m distantly related to Hartmann, the Russian architect and painter, through descendants of his French relatives. They were my mother’s family.  Since arriving in Israel in the early years of the State, I’ve made it my business to memorialise him, just like his composer friend, Modest Mussorgsky, via his piano work, Pictures At An Exhibition.

“But my show is quite different from that which triggered Mussorgsky’s music. Hartmann was barely ‘Jewish’ and Mussorgsky was often openly anti-Jewish despite their personal friendship. So my aim here is to recall the numberless, often nameless atrocities which are perpetrated  by powerful people against those they perceive as weak.”

“Why else have you done this – and in such an unusual way?”, I asked Adina. “Surely your faint link to Hartmann is not the only  reason?”

“Before I answer you, I want you to shut your eyes. Tight. Yes, like that,” she added, as I squeezed my lids together firmly.

“Now, you’re in solitary confinement.  A wasteland. The deepest well. The back-side of the moon. Whatever your personal horror. A place sometimes named in quaint  Yiddish as alles schwarz jahren’ - ‘all the black years’. A dot so distant  – imperceptible - as to remain unmarked on any map.

“During the late 1890s, my grandfather, Sol Saltzman’s family trudged from such a place in Latvia on the Baltic coast to begin  new lives in England. Like other Jewish émigrés, they  were shocked when they discovered they had not landed in the USA! But they stayed, settling on the coast again -  at Grimsby, in the northeast. Most married; had large families and established successful businesses. Others did not fare well, pining for the tiny coastal hamlet where they had once eked out an existence making amber jewellery.

“Finally, Sol’s niece, Beila Saltzman bore England no  longer. She packed her belongings, gathering her four children to return to the village she recalled as overlooking a beach against a sparkling sea. We believe all was well until the Nazis came to power and latent anti-Jewish feelings surged with them.”

“What happened?”, I asked.

“No-one is absolutely sure; not even Dad, who was a professional historian.  But he discovered during some brief research post-war  that Beila and her brood had been among those rounded up for execution on the beach during the summer of 1941.

“’My darling girl,’ he said, ‘suddenly I teetered on the edge of a depthless pit. Yad.Vashem.Hall.Of.NamesI glimpsed over the brink to witness our cousins being mown down on a Baltic beach just as I - in another universe - would have  been striding through the Cumbrian Fells,  contemplating nothing graver than the pleasures of a lunchtime drink.’ 

“His terrible words resounded in my fragile teenage soul, making me determined to emigrate here to Israel once I had completed school. The rest, your aunt must have told you. But there’s one more detail.

“Do you recognise this face?”, Adina demanded, snatching at an image from the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, The Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem.

“She looks like you.”

“This is Gillie, my cousin – Beila’s daughter. Thank God, my father’s version of events was not wholly true.   Beila and her three boys were murdered. But somehow Gillie, the youngest, managed to evade arrest.

“Luck stayed with her as she was found and then kept safe by one of the few local families who helped Jews. They were quite marvellous, passed her off as their daughter and later helped her to get here after the war.” 

“What’s next?”

Adina smiled faintly.

“You and your aunt are our only visitors tonight. So I’d like you to kindle a memorial light marking International Holocaust Day. This is a custom not observed widely in Israel as our own Yom Hashoa is such an important day in the national calendar.”

How could I decline? Tell her we’d performed the ceremony at home? She would tell me that the ‘black years’ had not returned. They’d never gone away.


Pianist Lazar Berman with Viktor Hartmann's pictures

Natalie Wood

(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 27 January 2013)

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