Way Stations

An excerpt

Vladimir Vertlib

Artwork by Hidetoshi Yamada

That evening I stood on the balcony of our room, gazing down for hours at the main square of Ostia, which all of the Russian émigrés referred to simply as piazza. In the middle was a concrete pool and fountain, surrounded by palms and cypress trees. Teenagers circled the square on loud, rattling mopeds. Screams, laughs, and whistles were audible. A gentle breeze carried the smell of the sea in my direction. The atmosphere was redolent of Israel, and for a few moments I cherished the illusion of never having left it, that country that could have been my own. I saw myself in the distant future as a member of a task force, storming a target in the attempt to conquer it, saw the grateful eyes of women whose savior was none other than me . . .

Suddenly I heard the sentence: "Argentina is maybe not such a bad idea after all." I turned around and saw my father, who had stepped out onto the balcony holding the brochures from Zaitseva and started telling me about beef, pampas, and the Jews of Buenos Aires. Then I remembered that I wasn't in Israel anymore and was therefore a yored—a renegade and apostate, a despicable traitor who had turned his back on the homeland.

I thought back to the day when my Israeli elementary-school teacher had explained what a yored is. It was three weeks ago. "You'll become a yored if you leave the country. Why would your parents do such a thing to you? You would have made a good Israeli. Perhaps an important person in our country. Don't you know that it's shameful and cowardly to run away when others are building up and defending our Jewish homeland? Your life does not belong to you alone."

My teacher was still very young. She spoke with a conviction that precluded contradiction. I stared at the floor and felt my cheeks and the tips of my ears turn red. I felt like sinking my teeth into the teacher's dainty little hand with its shiny silver ring. After weighing the pros and cons, however, I decided not to bite. I hastened instead to repeat everything my father had been discoursing about on a daily basis.

"Your parents obviously think that fate owes them something," my teacher said once I had finished explaining. "It's not Israel's fault that you suffered from anti-Semitism and poverty in Russia. Others have suffered too, have had it even harder. My parents lived in tents in the pioneer days of our state and still they never lost their optimism."

I pictured life in a tent as highly unpleasant, especially considering that tents for the most part don't have indoor plumbing.


Mother's voice tore me away from my reminiscences. "Your father is a moron," I heard her say. "And sometimes I think you're not much different. A lot of times, when you talk nonsense and do things like today at the Tolstoy Fund, I throw up my hands in despair and ask myself if you're really my son or if there wasn't some kind of mix-up at the hospital and they foisted someone else's baby on me. But it's not your fault and, anyway, you're just a child. Your father, though, is a full-grown man, so it can't be a mix-up there. Now all of a sudden he wants to go to Argentina, where the political situation is unstable, a military junta has been in power for a couple of months, and poverty is rampant!"

"It's not that poor," Father said by way of self-defense, "and a right-wing dictatorship is still more innocuous than a communist regime. Juntas come and go. But the Soviet Union has been around for over half a century and will surely be around for another hundred years, while Argentina will likely revert to democracy in a few years time."

"You don't even know if Argentina is taking any immigrants. I won't be going to their embassy, that's for sure. You're on your own. Besides, Spanish is such a hideous language. I once heard a Spaniard talking. It sounds like a machine gun with a lisp."

"It's the language of Cervantes."

"I don't give a damn about Cervantes."

I didn't want to listen anymore, so I went back in the room, closed the balcony door behind me and opened my "suitcase of books." The suitcase, small, dark-blue, and with protective iron corners, stood next to my bed.

It was little short of a miracle that the suitcase was allowed to make the trip to Italy at all. "Your father and I are taking only the bare necessities," Mother raised her voice at me, "and you can't even part with your books, even though you've read them all already." The children's books that my grandmother had sent to Vienna and, later, to Israel, described an ideal world of young pioneers, of ocean adventures, sleigh-rides through the taiga or the heroic exploits of revolutionaries. I knew well enough even back then that it was an invented world, lies, in fact. Yet by no means was I willing to give up the pleasure of abandoning myself to it over and over. The partisan boy who captured an entire German division almost single-handedly was my role model in spite of it all.

"Alright then," said my mother, eventually admitting defeat, "pack your most important books in this little suitcase. You can keep them till we get to Rome."


In the daytime, I was given over to the care of Zinayida Borisovna, a good-natured older lady from the western Ukrainian city of Lvov who had been residing in Ostia for several months now. Every evening she would bake pirogies with jam filling in her landlady's kitchen which she then sold for 200 lire a piece on the piazza, in order to pay the bills. The police turned not one but two blind eyes at this illegal business. In exchange, the men in uniform were treated daily to what for them were exotic Russian delicacies.

Early in the morning I would help Zinayida Borisovna push the little table on wheels, which served as her stand, out of the courtyard of her building and onto the lawn of the piazza. We sat down on folding chairs, "Signora Piroga" and her "bambino."

"On good days," Zinayida Borisovna explained to me proudly at the beginning, "I'll take in up to fifty milyas."

Russian émigrés had a hard time with the Italian currency's many zeroes. So among themselves they introduced the "milya," a corruption of the Italian word mille, and hence the equivalent of 1,000 lire.

A large Italian family, two parents and their five children, surrounded the stand.

"Sette pirogi, per favore," the paterfamilias requested. He received what he ordered and was suddenly confronted with a price of "one milya, forty kopecks." But the Italian wasn't fazed by the peculiar price, paying the 1,400 lire she'd asked for. The price of her pirogies was known throughout town.

Sometimes Zinayida Borisovna was relieved by her husband, a lean and taciturn man with a grizzled beard and bags under his eyes. He hardly ever said a word to me, just smoked one cigarette after another in silence.

Zinayida Borisovna, on the other hand, talked virtually nonstop, her head held high, as if she were looking for an invisible audience in the attic apartments of the buildings around us: "Be happy, my child, that you have your parents. No matter where you are, at the gates of Hell, on the Moon, or on a desert island, you will always find a warm nest in your parental home."

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered, biting into a pirogi. "My parents had another fight yesterday evening."

"Let them fight. Fighting is a way of acknowledging each other. If you stop fighting, you've given up on yourself, you're no longer alive. My parents were always quarreling. In the end they just sat there, didn't say a word, waiting to die of starvation. That was in 1941, in the ghetto."

Cringing, I laid the pirogi aside and inquired softly: "Did they starve to death?"

"Yes. First my father, then my mother three days later. But maybe I shouldn't tell you these kinds of things . . . Eat your pirogi. It's bad for business when something half-eaten is lying around on the table."

"I'm not hungry anymore."

"Then I'll finish it off myself, if you don't mind."

She ate my pirogi and wiped the grease off her lips with the back of her hand. "My daughter's been in America for two years now, in Philadelphia. She writes to me regularly, sometimes she sends money. When we talk on the phone she says, 'Hang in there, mama!' She's a good girl alright, that daughter of mine. Her husband, too, is a very nice man."

"Why aren't you allowed to go to America, Zinayida Borisovna?"

"Because my husband and I were members of the Communist Party, that's why. My husband was a teacher, even taught Marxism-Leninism for a while. Not the best ticket for getting into the land of liberty. An official at the U.S. Consulate suggested we write that they forced us to join the Party, that they threatened to take reprisals otherwise. Nonsense! We both became communists at a very young age, back in the nineteen-thirties. Lvov was part of Poland back then, and in Poland between the wars the Communist Party was outlawed. Who would have forced us to join an illegal group?"

Zinayida Borisovna took care of a customer, "Gratzye, arrividerchy," and took a sip from her bottle of mineral water. "What do they know about things like that, these Americans. They have no idea what it was like in Poland back then. Terrible poverty! Oppression! Communism seemed like the only alternative. We didn't realize how our ideals were being betrayed and perverted in the Soviet Union. Those Pharisees and hypocrites! We didn't find out till after 1945."

"Why don't you go to Israel?"

"What for? Our daughter is in America and promised to take up our cause at the authorities. Besides, I never did get anything out of the idea of Zionism. Too many Jews in one place. To me, the Jews are the salt of the earth. But salt alone is unpalatable."


One day I arrived in the courtyard of Zinayida Borisovna's building and noticed right away that something was amiss. Normally she greeted me with a chirpy "Good morning, young man. Did you sleep well? Did you have nice dreams?" This time, however, she simply nodded at me, put the crate with the pirogies on the table without a word and, wiping the sweat off her brow with a handkerchief, set off. She looked unusually pale, and often had to stop and rest.

She was suffering from an upset stomach, she explained to me once we reached our customary vending location. She'd spent half the night on the toilet, was tired, dizzy, and could tell that she had a fever. "My husband and I will take turns today."

"Why doesn't your husband just sell the pirogies today?"

"Because you men are no good when it comes to practical things," she answered gruffly.

I decided to leave Zinayida Borisovna alone, opened a book, and began to read.

Zinayida Borisovna's husband had come about five times by the afternoon. Around four o'clock he announced that he was going to take his daily nap and that he'd stop by again around six. At four-thirty, Zinayida Borisovna clutched her stomach, let out a loud groan, and mumbled: "What on earth is wrong with me?" She looked me over with a critical eye. "Do you think you could take over for about fifteen minutes? You're a bright boy."

"Of course!" I said, glad to have a little variety, and honored by the trust she showed me.

"Just keep an eye out!"

"You can count on me. I'm not a little kid anymore."

A faint smile flitted across her fatigued and feverish face. "Well, in that case, see you in a few. Be good," she said, slipping me five hundred lire.

No sooner was I alone than several customers showed up at "my" stand. An elderly man in a white suit and a straw hat with a fox-red boxer on a leash, a woman, two children about my age, three young men, twentyish with shoulder-length hair, and an émigré from Bukhara I knew by sight. I doled out the pirogies, was soon wrapping them skillfully in the pretty brown packing paper, took their money, gave them change, added up sums which I proudly announced: quattrocento, duecento, seicento . . . I had learned the numbers in Italian because my parents had always dismissed the "milya" method of counting as boorish and vulgar. I assumed a relaxed posture, sat in the folding chair with my right leg drawn up, moistened my fingers when counting the banknotes, casually tossed the coins into the wooden coffer Zinayida Borisovna used as a cashbox. The bills and coins piled up with a cheerful rustle and clink. I felt like a famous merchant. It was the start of a promising business career and the spotlight was on me, the man of the hour. The elderly gentleman thanked me politely, the young men gobbled up their pirogies on a bench not far from the fountain, the émigré slapped me on the back and called me his friend. It occurred to me that Rothschild must have started out like this too, in a small way, as a street vendor.

Suddenly everybody was gone. I leaned back complacently, peered into the cashbox and . . . wanted to scream or, even better, to die on the spot. The coins were still there, but all the bills had disappeared. I looked around despairingly, as if seeking aid and solace from the passersby. Yet no one even noticed my shaking, or the tears welling up in my eyes. No one stopped, not even for a second to buy a pirogi. I was alone, forlorn, a miserable and foolish boy who let himself get robbed. I would never become a businessman and would wind up a beggar—that is, if Zinayida Borisovna didn't kill me first.

The young men I had sold the pirogies to a moment ago were still sitting on the bench next to the fountain, laughing and chatting. They occasionally looked over at me, grinning brazenly as if they were mocking me. Was it they who stole the money? Of course it was. Who could it have been otherwise? The Russian émigré? I couldn't imagine that. One Russian wouldn't steal from another. The old man with the dog? Such an old, respectable-looking gentleman could never be a criminal. And the woman and two children I never let out of my sight? I would have noticed if one of them had reached into the cashbox.

What could I do? Go over to the young people and say, in Russian, German, or Hebrew: "Excuse me, please, but could you give me back the money you stole from me so Zinayida Borisovna doesn't yell at me?"

All of a sudden I was terrified. All these strangers around me, in whose faces I now detected malicious and menacing grimaces, would soon pounce on me and tear the watch off my wrist; they would steal the loose change, the pirogies, table and chairs, and drag me off or drown me straightaway in the fountain. Trembling, I circled the table, longing for Zinayida Borisovna to return.

Finally I saw her crossing the street. She smiled at me, waving from afar. Her step seemed more assured and steady. Her face darkened immediately as soon as she saw my tears. "What happened?" she asked acerbically. I pointed toward the cashbox and stammered something about dozens of Italians, about dangerous-looking thieves and the mafia, I could hardly utter a word.

"Ach, you stupid, good-for-nothing child!" screamed Zinayida Borisovna, raising her arm and smacking me.

"Call the police!" I said, covering my face with both my hands to screen myself from further blows.

"What police, you numbskull?! My pirogi business is illegal. We can't report a damn thing. I stand around sick in the heat for hours on end to earn this money, and you let them steal it. Give me back the half milya this instant!" I gave her the money. She put it in the cashbox and flopped into her chair. I saw how a slight tremble took hold of her entire body, how she heaved a deep sigh then began to sob. "Hitler and Stalin I survived," she blubbered. "Everyone's always walking all over me. My comrades in the Party spit in my face when I applied for an exit visa. The Americans won't give me a visa. My husband is absolutely useless. And now, in my old age, these spaghetti-eaters go and steal the last of my money because some stupid boy can't keep an eye on it. Who knows, maybe you stole it yourself? I wouldn't put it past you!"

I emptied my pockets at once for Zinayida Borisovna, laying three marbles, a hundert-lira note and a handkerchief on the table. She put the hundred lire into the cashbox and went on crying. "I just want to die! Die and be done with it all!"

I tugged at her sleeve, begged for forgiveness, and would have felt a whole lot better if she had hit me again or pushed me away. But she only said: "Get out of my sight. I don't ever want to see you again!"

A knot of people formed around the stand. I heard concerned and curious voices, Russian and Italian. A woman, likewise an émigré, stood up for me: "He's only ten, eleven years old at most." All of this was more than I could handle. I ran away and strayed around town till I finally gathered the courage to go home.


"What was she thinking in the first place, the old crow, putting my child to work for her!" said Father, getting all worked up. "If she's sick she should stay home. And then she goes and smacks him. Talk about impertinence! Nobody hits my kid but me!"

My parents, Signor Coreanu, his wife, and I sat in the living room discussing my little "mishap." I tried to be as still as possible, nibbling on a piece of cake Carmen had given me.

"How much did they steal from her anyway?" Coreanu inquired.

"I dunno," I answered.

Carmen said something in Italian.

"My wife says that things used to be a lot safer in Ostia," Coreanu translated. "They would have been ashamed back then to rob a poor immigrant or a child. Italy isn't what it used to be."

"That kind of thing would have never happened to me," Father explained after a pause. "Nothing's ever been stolen from me! But this son of ours . . . "

"Leave him alone, he's gone through enough today already," Coreanu interrupted. "He needs some time to come to his senses."

Carmen placed another piece of cake on my plate and said something friendly, possibly a term of endearment.

"It can't go on like this," Mother determined when we got back to our room. "Today it's petty theft, tomorrow something else. We're defenseless here, with no real rights to speak of, practically outlawed. Our child is gallivanting around town. In the fall he'll have to go back to school. What then?"

"What do you suggest?"

"Let's go back to Israel. What's the point of staying here?"

"What?" yelled Father. "After giving up everything? After deciding to leave, you want to go back just like that, empty-handed? You quit your job. We don't have the apartment anymore either."

"Well then," Mother proposed after thinking it over a while, "we could try Austria again."

"What good is that? I want to live in a country where my son is not a stranger, where he has a future. In Austria, he'll always be the Yid. And Israel's a mess. Not only will he have to put up with all the crap there, he'll have to take up arms and defend it too. Say what you will, I'm not going back to Israel."

"It's always you, you, you!" screeched Mother in an almost hysterical tone. "If you're really so concerned about your son, then let him decide."

And suddenly both of them looked at me, and I became afraid, not quite understanding what they wanted from me. Father got up, put both hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. "You decide, son," he said. "Should we go back to Israel, should we go to Austria, or should we stick it out here? What do you think? When you get right down to it, it's your future we're talking about here."

I sought my mother's gaze. But her face seemed serious and concentrated.

"I don't know," I mumbled. "I feel like reading. I'm hungry."

"You just ate two pieces of cake," she said sternly, "and your books aren't going to be around much longer anyway."

"Where would you like to live in the near future?" Father pressured me. "In Israel, in Austria, here in Italy, or should we give it a shot in Latin America after all?"

"No! no!" Even I was surprised how faint and fearful my voice sounded. "Not Latin America!!!"

"Fine, we'll drop that option. Do you want to stay here in Italy?"

I thought about the stolen money and shook my head.

"Okay then, Israel or Austria?"

I started crying. I didn't want to go back to Israel, but didn't have fond memories of Austria either, thinking back about our dismal apartments and all the people who called me names like Tschusch and foreign boy. I burst into sobs. "I don't want to go anywhere," was all I could say.

"That means you'd like to stay in Ostia," Father concluded.

Again I shook my head.

"That's not logical," Mother deduced. "If you don't want to go anywhere else, then you want to stay here. You're old enough now to make connections like that."

I could make connections alright, but even so didn't give my parents an answer. I paced back and forth in the room, still crying.

"We should leave him alone," said Mother.

My eye fell on the suitcase with my books. On a whim I grabbed the suitcase and ran out of the room, past a baffled Carmen, my gaze fixed to the floor.

I raced down the stairs and crossed the piazza. Zinayida Borisovna's pirogi stand was not where it normally was. She'll miss out on her evening customers, I thought, and it's all because of me. Thinking this made me cry again. A couple of women asked me something in Italian I didn't understand. I kept going, towards the sea, out of breath, my arm was aching—I was positive it had become longer. Another hour of lugging this suitcase and my fingertips would be touching my toes.

I descended the stone steps from the street to the beach, took off my sandals, which I held in my left hand while dragging the suitcase across the sand with my right.

The sun had set already. In the twilight the sea seemed virtually black. There was no one left on the beach. I rolled up my pant legs, held the suitcase firmly in both hands and stalked out into the ocean. After a hot summer afternoon it seemed warmer than normal at this time of day. I swung the suitcase around with both arms and tossed it into the sea. It splashed, went under, then bobbed up to the surface again for a second before disappearing for good into the breaking, foaming waves. I felt like I'd lost my dearest possession. I imagined the books absorbing water, becoming indefinable lumps, the letters getting eaten away by salt, the very letters which throughout my childhood had been my faithful companions. And while I stood there filled with self-pity, I had to cry again and sit on the beach, I thought of what my mother had said: that I was all grown-up now. And it was then that I realized that I didn't really want to be grown-up, that life was supposed to be pleasant and beautiful, the way it had never been, and the way it would never be.

translated from the German by David Burnett

Aus: Vladimir Vertlib: Zwischenstationen.

© Deuticke im Paul Zsolnay Verlag Wien 1999.