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Day After Night, Page 1

Anita Diamant




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  Day After Night

  A Novel

  ANITA DIAMANT

  Scribner

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  This book is a work of fiction. Although based on historical events, names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  Copyright © 2009 by Anita Diamant

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  First Scribner hardcover edition September 2009

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  Manufactured in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2009025883

  ISBN: 978-0-7432-9984-8

  eISBN 13: 978-1-4391-6624-6

  Correction to jacket copy: Atlit is off the coast of the Mediterranean, south of Haifa.

  In memory of my grandfather Abe Mordechai Ejbuszyc and my uncle Henri Roger Ejbuszyc, victims of the Holocaust

  Know that every human being must cross a very narrow bridge. What is most important is not to be overcome by fear.

  REBBE NACHMAN OF BRATSLAV, 1772–1810

  Prologue 1945, August

  The nightmares made their rounds hours ago. The tossing and whimpering are over. Even the insomniacs have settled down. The twenty restless bodies rest, and faces aged by hunger, grief, and doubt relax to reveal the beauty and the pity of their youth. Not one of the women in Barrack C is twenty-one, but all of them are orphans.

  Their cheeks press against small, military-issue pillows that smell of disinfectant. Lumpy and flat from long service under heavier heads, they bear no resemblance to the goose-down clouds that many of them enjoyed in childhood. And yet, the girls burrow into them with perfect contentment, embracing them like teddy bears. There were no pillows for them in the other barracks. No one gives a pillow to an animal.

  The British built Atlit in 1938 to house their own troops. It was one in a group of bases, garages, and storage units set up on the coastal plains a few miles south of Haifa. But at the end of the world war, as European Jews began making their way to the ancestral homeland in violation of international political agreements, the mandate in Palestine became ever messier. Which is how it came to pass that Atlit was turned into a prison or, in the language of command, a “detention center” for refugees without permissory papers. The English arrested thousands as illegal immigrants, sent most of them to Atlit, but quickly set them free, like fish too small to fry.

  It was a perfectly forgettable compound of wooden barracks and buildings set out in rows on a scant square acre surrounded by weeds and potato fields. But the place offered a grim welcome to the exhausted remnant of the Final Solution, who could barely see past its barbwire fences, three of them, in fact, concentric lines that scrawled a crabbed and painful hieroglyphic across the sky.

  Not half a mile to the west of Atlit, the Mediterranean breaks against a rocky shore. When the surf is high, you can hear the stones hiss and sigh in the tidal wash. On the eastern horizon, the foothills of the Carmel reach heavenward, in keeping with their name, kerem-el, “the vineyard of God.” Sometimes, the candles of a village are visible in the high distance, but not at this hour. The night is too old for that now.

  It is cool in the mountains but hot and damp in Atlit. The overhead lights throb and buzz in the moist air, heavy as a blanket. Nothing moves. Even the sentries in the guard towers are snoring, lulled by the stillness and sapped, like their prisoners, by the cumulative weight of the heat.

  There are no politics in this waning hour of the night, no regret, no delay, no waiting. All of that will return with the sun. The waiting is worse than the heat. Everyone who is locked up in Atlit waits for an answer to the same questions: When will I get out of here? When will the past be over?

  There are only 170 prisoners in Atlit tonight, and fewer than seventy women in all. It is the same lopsided ratio on the chaotic roads of Poland and Germany, France and Italy; the same in the train stations and the Displaced Persons camps, in queues for water, identification cards, shoes, information. The same quotient, too, in the creaking, leaky boats that secretly ferry survivors into Palestine.

  There is no mystery to this arithmetic. According to Nazi calculation, males produced more value alive than dead—if only marginally, if only temporarily. So they killed the women faster.

  In Barrack C, the corrugated roof releases the last degrees of yesterday’s sun, warming the blouses and skirts that hang like ghosts from the rafters. There are burlap sacks suspended there as well, lumpy with random, rescued treasures: photograph albums, books, candlesticks, wooden bowls, broken toys, tablecloths, precious debris.

  The narrow cots are lined up unevenly against the naked wood walls. The floor is littered with thin wool blankets kicked aside in the heat. A baby crib stands empty in the corner.

  In Haifa, the lights are burning in the bakeries where the bread rises, and the workers pour coffee and light cigarettes. On the kibbutz among the pine trees high in the Carmel, dairymen are rubbing their eyes and pulling on their boots.

  In Atlit, the women sleep. Nothing disturbs them. No one notices the soft stirring of a breeze, the blessing of the last, gentlest chapter of the day.

  It would be a kindness to prolong this peace and let them rest a bit longer. But the darkness is already heavy with the gathering light. The birds have no choice but to announce the dawn. Eyes begin to open.

  I Waiting

  Tedi

  Tedi woke to the smell of brine. It reached her from beyond the dunes and past the latrines, confounding the stale breath and sour bodies of the other nineteen girls in her barrack. She sat up on her cot, inhaled the sharp salt fragrance, and smiled.

  Tedi Pastore had lost her sense of smell during the war. With too little to eat, she had lost her period,
too. Her heavy blonde hair had grown dull, her fingernails brittle and broken. But everything was coming back to her in Palestine.

  In the two weeks since she’d been in Atlit, Tedi’s nose had become as keen as a dog’s. She could identify people with her eyes closed, not only who they were but also what they had been up to and sometimes even what they were feeling. She caught the overwhelming scent of sex on a girl she passed in the compound, and gagged on the strange choking tang of burning hair that rose from Zorah Weitz, who slept on the far side of her barrack—an angry little Pole with flashing brown eyes and a crooked front tooth.

  At first, Tedi thought she was going crazy, but once she realized that no one suspected her secret, she stopped worrying about it and fixed her attention on the future.

  Her plan was to live on a kibbutz where everyone smelled of oranges and milk and to forget everything that had come before. For Tedi, memory was the enemy of happiness. She had already forgotten the name of the ship that had brought her to Palestine and of the stocky Greek boy who had held her shoulders while she retched, seasick, into a bucket. She wondered if she could fill her head with enough Hebrew to crowd out her native Dutch.

  Tedi promised herself that the moment she walked away from Atlit, she would forget everything about it as well: the ugly, parched-dirt compound, the long days, the heat, and the girls from all over Europe—the nice ones as well as the obnoxious ones. She would forget the cool blue mirage of mountains in the distance, too, and the eccentric volunteers from the Yishuv, which is what they called the Jewish settlement here.

  She would start all over, like a baby, and she toyed with the idea of putting a new name—a Hebrew name—on her next identity card. She would become like the pioneer boys and girls—the ones who had grown up in Poland and Romania singing about the land of Israel and dreaming of a life filled with farmwork and folk dancing. Sons and daughters of shopkeepers and teachers, their Zionist summer camps had given them a taste for physical labor. All they talked about was how they wanted to plow and dig and fight and build a state. They seemed to face the future without a single backward glance. She thought they were wonderful.

  The Zionist kids liked her, too, though she knew it was mostly because of her blonde hair and her height. They could be arrogant and rude; one boy called Tedi “a fine specimen” to her face. And while she knew they said such things without malice, she was self-conscious among them. In Amsterdam, she had been one of many Jewish girls with blue eyes, narrow hips, and broad shoulders. Like her, most of Tedi’s friends had had at least one Lutheran parent or grandparent, and it was considered bad taste to take note of anyone’s mixed parentage until 1940, when non-Jewish relatives became assets.

  Tedi yawned and stretched. She was the barrack’s champion sleeper, out like a light as soon as her head touched the pillow, and so slow to wake that she sometimes missed breakfast. When she finally put her feet on the cool cement floor, she realized that she was alone and quickly pulled on the washed-out blue dress that showed a bit too much thigh, though it was not as revealing as the short pants some of the girls wore.

  On her way out, Tedi noticed Zorah curled in a tight ball on her cot near the door, which Tedi closed as quietly as she could. Then she ran toward the latrine, telling herself not to worry; there really was no danger of going hungry in Atlit. Even when the kitchen ran out of tea or sugar, there was always plenty of bread and the cucumber and tomato salad the locals seemed to think was a fit dish for breakfast. Sitting on the toilet, she tried to remember the word for tomato.

  “Agvaniya!” she said.

  “What?” came a voice from behind the partition.

  “I didn’t know anyone was here,” said Tedi.

  “If you want agvaniya, you’d better get to the mess in a hurry. They’re going to close the door.”

  Tedi decided she would ask Nurit, one of the Hebrew teachers, to tell her the word for cucumber, but then she remembered that there was no class that morning. One of the political parties had called a strike against the British, and the teachers would be taking part in the demonstration. No Hebrew, no calisthenics, nothing to break the monotony.

  Suddenly, the day loomed before her, long and empty, with nothing to do among people to whom she could barely speak. Unlike most everyone else in Atlit, Yiddish was not Tedi’s mother tongue. “That uncouth jargon” had been forbidden in her mother’s house, although she had heard her grandfather speak it and learned some in the Displaced Persons camps and on the journey to Palestine. She understood more Hebrew every day, but it was still hard getting her mouth around the words, which often seemed like anagrams to her, random groups of letters that needed to be puzzled together before making sense.

  “Ag-va-ni-ya,” she whispered, as she splashed water on her face. A pretty word, it would make a nice name for a cat. She had always longed for a calico cat. Were there any calicos in Palestina? she wondered. I will have to ask someone about cats, Tedi thought. And cucumbers.

  The sound of a train whistle in the distance shook Tedi out of her reverie and lifted her spirits. The arrival of new immigrants meant the day would pass quickly now, and she would be spared the problem of having too much time to think.

  She joined the crowd that was moving toward the southwestern corner of the camp, close to where the train would arrive. A few of the other girls said hello to her, and a couple of the boys tried to catch her eye. Hannah, a cheerful, moon-faced girl who seemed to know everyone’s name, rushed over and handed her an apple. “I saw that you weren’t at breakfast,” she said.

  “Thank you very much,” Tedi answered carefully.

  “Your Hebrew gets better every day,” said Hannah. She already dressed like a kibbutznik, in shorts and a camp shirt with her hair in pigtails. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she said, gazing at the train. “We need more settlers. More and more.”

  Tedi nodded furiously, ashamed at having thought of their arrival as a diversion. She followed Hannah, who pushed her way through until they were in front, looking out through the strands of barbwire.

  There was no station or even a wooden platform at the end of the track; the rails just came to an end in an empty field surrounded by tall grass and wildflowers. Thousands of feet had trampled the weeds and packed the earth into a clearing and then a path that ran parallel to the Atlit fence and down to the road that fronted the camp. It was a long five-minute walk to the gate for the tired, frightened people who arrived carrying battered valises and the last of their hopes.

  As the engine chuffed to a halt, British soldiers opened the doors to the three boxcars. Someone behind Tedi gasped. “How can they do that? They brought me here on a bus with the windows painted black and that was awful. But this?” Tedi turned and caught the faint but unsettling odor of camphor on the woman who had spoken. She was very pale, a sign that she was a recent arrival. “Surely these people know what it means for Jews to be forced into cattle cars. I do not understand the English. They fought Hitler. Why do they do this?”

  “It’s a terror tactic,” said a stern Bulgarian girl who wore a black neck scarf, which signaled membership in one of the many political movements Tedi couldn’t keep straight. “They put us in trains to frighten us and keep us weak, but it won’t work.” The new arrivals squinted as they staggered into the blazing sunlight, clutching at their belongings.

  “Shalom, friends, shalom,” the Bulgarian girl cried, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Shalom. Welcome.” Others joined her, calling out greetings in Hebrew and Yiddish, German, Romanian, French, Polish, Italian, and Greek.

  As the newcomers began to make their way down the path, the inmates inside the fence kept up with them, trading rumors. Someone said that their boat had been fired upon in Haifa. Someone else said they heard this group was mostly Auschwitz survivors.

  “Did you see the man who was carried off the train? Was he dead?”

  “No, it was a woman who fainted in the heat.”

  “These people are all legals with papers. They’ll b
e out of here in a day or two.”

  “How do you know that?”

  By now, Tedi knew better than to pay too much attention to this kind of speculation; they’d get the real story soon enough.

  As soon as the new inmates reached the front gate, a different kind of chorus rose from inside the camp.

  “Vienna? Is someone from Vienna? Do you know the Gross-feld family? The furriers?”

  “Lodz? Here is a neighbor if you are from Lodz.”

  “Budapest? Avigdor Cohen family, near the High Street?”

  “Slowinsky? Do you know anyone with the name of Slowinsky?”

  Tedi hated this. She crossed her arms and stared at the mountains, trying to imagine what it was like up there, if it was cooler.

  Her father claimed that the name Pastore was a souvenir from the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews fled to Holland. He said his ancestors had produced so many more daughters than sons that by 1940, there were only eight Pastores in all of the Netherlands. Tedi was the only one left.

  If she were to see a classmate or an Amsterdam neighbor, she would be forced to remember everything: faces, flowers, shops, markets, bridges, canals, bicycles, windows with curtains blowing out, and windows shuttered for the night. And that would poke a dangerous hole into the dike of forgetting that she was building, day by day.

  So she kept her head turned away from the group gathered at the gate and tried to ignore the plaintive clamor of names until the earsplitting scream of an ambulance siren made her look. Later, other people would compare the shrill, keening screech to the sound of a cat caught under a car wheel, to an air raid alarm, to a factory whistle. Tedi put her fingers in her ears but it didn’t block the volume or the pain that poured out of a frail woman who stood a few yards outside the now open gate.

  She held herself oddly, with her feet turned out and her arms close to her sides. Her hands jerked like gloves blowing on a clothesline. Her head tipped back and her anguish ascended, filling the air with fear. It was hard to breathe. The sun grew hotter. A child wailed.