Jewels and Ashes

Jewels and Ashes

by Arnold Zable


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Like Schindler's List, this is a haunting document for the next generation of Holocaust survivors. Zable travels from Australia to the Eastern European countryside of his parents' remembrance to understand the present-the inner lives of those who, like his parents, survived the hatred but lost every trace of family. Winner of top Australian literary awards.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780908011209
Publisher: Scribe Publications Party Limited
Publication date: 07/01/2001
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.65(d)

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Jewels and Ashes

By Arnold Zable, Henry Rosenbloom, Margot Rosenbloom

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

Copyright © 1991 Arnold Zable
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921753-86-2


IT BEGAN EARLY IN LIFE, his love of trees. He traces it to Zwierziniec, a forest on the outskirts of Bialystok — a city within the empire of Nicholas 11, Czar of Poland and Autocrat of all the Russias. It was a time of prosperity for the Zabludowski family. In summer they would retreat to the dachas, cottages that were hired for holidays within cool forests, well away from scorched and dry city streets. And in a forest called Zwierziniec my father made his first acquaintance with trees.

There was one in particular, many centuries old, a massive chestnut tree. While describing it father climbs onto a kitchen chair. 'Its trunk was solid and thick', he says, and lifts his hands from his stomach in an expansive gesture. He spreads his arms as if about to take flight; its canopy was so broad and high it exploded towards the heavens. Underneath, lovers sat on summer nights while bands played on stands in the clearing that surrounded the tree. Children ran about in circles, their excitement barely under control, and gathered chestnuts that had fallen to the ground. When prised from their husks, the nuts emerged as smooth as lacquered furniture and were used as marbles and currency. Three were worth one sweet, father recalls with accuracy over seventy years later. Boys stuffed their pockets with nuts, and their homes became so littered with them that people tripped over, and exasperated mothers would yell, 'Get those accursed chestnuts out of here'.

When father tells a story he enters into it and becomes the object he describes. There is a chestnut tree growing in the kitchen, sprouting from a chair, branches spreading, outstretched limbs reaching towards the ceiling. He is on his toes now, an eighty-year-old man trying to grow taller. 'Be careful', I warn him, 'or you'll topple over.' I don't fancy the prospect of an uprooted chestnut tree sprawling across the kitchen floor.

'I can see it now, as if it were in front of my eyes', mother tells me. She conjures images of childhood on a distant continent. Father draws maps of a city for me. Streets flow into a central square, and he recalls their names as if he still lived in them. It is almost half a century since he last walked them. 'I can see it now, as if it were in front of my eyes', mother says. She describes scenes at random. An epic unfolds in fragments: tales of flight through snow-laden fields at night; a wagon piled high with cucumbers drawn by a pair of horses plodding towards a village market in the pre-dawn darkness; an isolated town caught in the crossfire between rival kingdoms; a ragged band of paupers ransacking an abandoned palace; a boat they called the Wild Mama, rolling and swaying on stormy seas — countless images evoked at the kitchen table of a Melbourne house by two ageing parents for a son about to leave on a journey.

It is not often that I walk with mother nowadays through the streets of the neighbourhood she has lived in for forty years. She remains, most of the time, secluded at home. For hours on end she sits quietly by the kitchen table. The radio drones in the background tuned to talkback shows, classical music, and the proceedings of Parliament. The hours are punctuated by news bulletins. The days revolve around the meals she prepares slowly, as she summons her last reserves of energy, moving from sink to cupboard, fridge to stove, navigating her kingdom of bare necessities. Between chores she sits quietly again. When I come across her at such times I am soothed rather than saddened. The room is permeated with solitude. In mother there is a gentleness, a feeling that life's struggle is almost over, a sense of twilight and long nights that extend towards eternity.

We walk together through the familiar terrain of my childhood on a day of seamless blue skies. The sun hovers on the northern horizon; winter light in Melbourne radiates softly, with a clarity that reveals objects and people in transparent detail. I notice how much mother has aged, how slowly she walks, the streaks of grey that thread through her once pitch-black hair. Frailty is edging in at the limbs. She is, it seems, becoming smaller, succumbing with quiet resignation.

We enter the waiting room of a doctor's surgery. The afternoon sun filters through lace curtains, spreading uneven pools of light onto a coffee table stacked with magazines. Mother's hands tremble as she reaches for something to read. Several years earlier I had noticed this shaking for the first time. She was handing me a cup of tea: the cup rattled, tea spilled into the saucer, and I was shocked into the realisation that mother had crossed that imperceptible border which divides us from the realm of old age and fragility.

While we wait, an elderly woman enters the doctor's rooms. When she glances at mother a strong current of recognition passes between them, something far more powerful than a warm greeting between good friends. They are 'ship sisters', having met over fifty years ago in the port of Marseilles. Soon after, they had boarded the French boat the Ville d'Amien; after the first storm they began to call her the Wild Mama, because she bucked and rolled on wild seas.

Their bond is as strong as any ties of blood. They are on the threshold of the ninth decade of their lives, but in this moment of surprise encounter they stand outside time. They are ship sisters who left behind them a way of life, an indelible intimacy, family and friends they were never to see again. As they sailed from Marseilles in January 1933, the passengers heard the news that Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany. 'We knew enough to be disturbed', mother has told me. 'But how could we know what was going to happen and how immense it would be?'

The Wild Mama was steaming away from Europe, wrenched free from a continent that was beginning to seethe and boil. Cauldrons of ancient tribal hatreds were being fanned towards an explosion; and between the Old World and the New, the Wild Mama ploughed through a furious sea.

'Do you ever think about those you left behind?', I ask father. 'Not often', he says. 'Such memories are a luxury I can't afford.'

He guards himself, in his day-to-day existence, from sinking into reveries on the past. Many times, during the years since he retired, he has told me that each day of added life is a miracle. There are mornings he awakens as if paralysed; with sheer will he propels himself out of bed, shakes his limbs and, slowly, with increasing vigour and precision, he sets about his daily chores.

'Just put one foot in front of the other', he tells me: out to the bathroom to wash and shave; to the shops to buy food and newspapers; into the kitchen to make breakfast. In old age he has been able to make the kitchen a part of his domain, at least in the mornings, when mother usually sleeps. He chops onions, grates potatoes, shreds cabbage, and fries them with whipped eggs into thick cakes until they are blackened on the outsides. 'That is when you know they are ready on the insides', he claims, in defence of his method. He has developed his formulas and sticks to them. They are his recipes for survival. But he may also throw in a few raisins or almonds — 'to keep my imagination alive', he explains.

He has an explanation for everything. He reads newspapers, 'to keep myself alert'. He studies chosen articles, underlines sentences in red biro, and scrawls commentaries in the margins like a talmudic scholar interpreting a sacred text. He extracts philosophical comments from even the most mundane of news items, and copies them onto scraps of paper which he gathers eventually into notebooks.

'Just put one foot in front of the other, and don't stop moving until you have extracted your full measure of life from the day', he tells me, and moves into the backyard. He points proudly to this season's tomatoes, radishes, and silver beet, as he waters his patch of soil. It measures two metres by about ten, and is divided into segments marked off by primitive fences made of wire mesh. 'I love form', he says. 'This is why I garden: to experiment with form and to create symmetry.' He takes up a shovel and deepens the hole he is preparing for his next batch of compost; and I recall a time when I was coming into my first focussed view of the world, and milk was still delivered by horse-drawn cart. Father would go into the street to collect the fresh manure that had been left behind the previous night, and would spread it over the same backyard plot he is now tending for the fortieth year.

He guards himself from disturbing thoughts and memories, and has done so for many years; as he must, for he is the sole survivor of his once large family. 'There are not enough hours in the day for what I want to do', he has told me many times. 'Why waste them in recalling things that have long since gone?'

Yet there is one way, at least, in which father does maintain links with the past. He is a hoarder, especially of old documents, newspapers, magazines, letters. The newspapers pile up, and he spends many hours sorting and rearranging them. Occasionally he gets rid of some, but only after he has gone through them carefully again to make sure he is not losing something of great importance.

'Do you ever think of those you left behind?', I persist. Father responds by going into his bedroom and emerging with the yellowed pages of a Yiddish newspaper stained with brown pock-marks of decay. The disintegrating pages are held together with strips of transparent tape which track through headlines, news commentaries, features, radio timetables, advertisements, reviews of concerts and lectures, and notices of births, engagements, marriages, and deaths. The date is March 17, 1936. On the masthead is printed the proud claim that Unzer Lebn is the oldest and most widely-circulated Bialystok daily. Towards the lower right-hand corner on the front page, within a space four inches by two, framed in black, is printed the announcement:

To our beloved son, brother and brother-in-law Meier. On the occasion of his departure for New Zealand, we wish him a heartfelt bon voyage and a happy future in his new homeland.

In his customary red biro, father has reinforced the black frame to isolate this insert from those that surround it. Directly below is a notification of the drawing on this day of a lottery conducted by the orphans' welfare society. Above it is advertised a forthcoming series of lectures by the renowned pedagogue Sholem Broide of Warsaw: 'Be enthralled by his slide-illustrated talks about his recent journeys to ancient cities of the Mediterranean! A rare insight into other worlds for the people of Bialystok!'. To the left is the news that Celina Sandler, 'for many years a Professor at the Université de Beauté in Paris', no less, will be giving advice from her suite at the Hotel Ritz, for absolutely no cost. And to the right is a proclamation of a special unbeatable quality Passover matzos, now available from Messer Brothers Bakery.

Over the matzos advertisement is attached a note, on a scrap of paper which apparently father had inserted several years ago, indicating how the various signatories to the farewell notice were related to him. Yet again he had written in red, as if to alert any curious descendants who might stumble across the newspaper in years to come, and to provide them with a means of deciphering this clue to branches of the family tree.

On March 17, 1936 father bought Unzer Lebn for the final time. That night he boarded a train to begin a one-way journey to the other side of the globe, his newspaper tucked away in trunks crammed with books and journals. Decades later they were to become the decaying reminders of the world he had left behind.

December 26, 1932. Mother stands by the Warsaw express at the Bialystok station. Her closest friends are clustered around, conveying their final farewells; among them is Meierke, her husband of a day. The luggage has already been taken to her compartment; the train is warming up. At this moment, mother catches sight of Reb Aron Yankev in the distance, on the platform, running frantically towards her. The black caftan he is wearing trails down to his ankles and flutters by his side as he rushes beside the train.

When mother had left the family apartment several hours earlier, Reb Aron Yankev had, as usual, maintained his silence towards her. In his eyes, the daughter who was about to depart had long since strayed from the righteous path of Orthodoxy, lured by modernity and worldliness. He broke his silence for just a moment, as she was leaving, to remind her to kiss the mezuzah attached by the door. Chane Esther, the matriarch of the Probutski household, also decided not to accompany her daughter to the station. She was too ill and, I suspect, much too upset. What my mother recalls is that Chane Esther's last gesture was to insist on her drinking a glass of milk to fortify her for the journey. 'Five weeks at sea?', she had queried. 'You'll die of hunger.'

Mother tells stories in fragments. Over the years she has retold the same anecdotes many times. Her experiences flow through her, always liable to leap out unexpectedly in moments of unguarded reflection. The sight of Reb Aron Yankev dashing along the platform of the Bialystok station is one of these recurring images; as too is the glass of milk.

From such lean and Spartan clues I have reinvented her journey. On the Warsaw express she had wept incessantly. A pair of lovers sat in her compartment whispering to each other until they disembarked and disappeared into the night at a provincial station. Warsaw was a dream shaded with heartbreak at the loss of Bialystok. After staying overnight at her brother Joshua's, she arrived back at the Warsaw station to pandemonium and a sea of farewell tears as hundreds of immigrants resumed or began their journeys to the West. The train departed at midnight, and for the first time since leaving Bialystok she gave way to exhaustion and fell into a deep sleep.

She was woken at dawn by the voices of German border-police asking for passports and papers. She ate breakfast in Berlin, crossed the Belgian border at night, and waited for several hours at the Paris station, shivering in a hall crowded with passengers falling asleep against each other. Mother recalls a collective meal to which fellow immigrants contributed salami, sardines, and schnapps; and many times she has told me about her first-ever glimpse of the sea, as the train emerged from the night and rushed towards Marseilles. Wonderful pictures began to form before her eyes: green fields; a ring of mountains with their summits covered in snow; and then the glistening ocean, aflame in the morning sun. Over the water's surface there glided an aeroplane, and at the docks the Wild Mama was waiting.

The living quarters, when mother first saw them, seemed like crowded pigsties. In the first few days she was confined below deck, nauseated, as furious storms whipped up heavy seas. In Alexandria she disembarked and bought a gift — two black elephants carved in wood — for the sister who awaited her in Melbourne. And as she sailed through the Suez Canal she was riveted by what was to become the most indelible of memories: Bedouin boys diving for coins that flew from the decks of the boat.

Yet throughout that voyage, even as she succumbed to the adventure, to the breath of unlimited freedom that wafted across open seas, and to that special bond that develops between immigrants thrown together by chance to become ship brothers and sisters with a common destiny, my mother could not shake off her vision of Reb Aron Yankev, running frantically along the platform of the Bialystok station, desperate to make one last contact with his estranged daughter. He had paused for a moment when he reached her, to steady his voice, before he said, somewhat hesitantly, 'I wish you a safe journey and a successful future in your new home. And I forgive you'.

When she recalls this moment, mother invariably adds, 'And how could I have known that I would never see them again? Not only my father, but almost everyone who stood there on the Bialystok station farewelling me?'.


Excerpted from Jewels and Ashes by Arnold Zable, Henry Rosenbloom, Margot Rosenbloom. Copyright © 1991 Arnold Zable. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
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