As the war ends and she comes down from the mountains of Slovakia, a Jewish girl discovers that she can still be “moved by something other than the mere struggle for existence.”
Introduction: This story was included in a collection of my parents’ fiction titled Píseň pro Den smíření (“Song for the Day of Atonement”), published in Prague in 1971 and almost immediately confiscated by the Czech Communist government.
The book’s disappearance dealt a blow to my parents’ aspirations as writers. Having survived the Holocaust—my father in Bucharest, my mother in the mountains of Slovakia as depicted here—they were then plunged into the turbulent and dangerous atmosphere of postwar Czechoslovakia. As journalists for many years, they specialized in both reportage and impressionistic pieces combining fact and imaginative re-creation.
It was only natural, given their life experience, that my parents would put their best thoughts and feelings into storytelling. Their love for each other and their family, their appreciation of literature and music, and their Jewish values were what gave them the strength not only to persevere but to turn their hardship into art.
In 1976, my family left Prague for Toronto. Various factors, including the language barrier and encroaching age, conspired against my parents’ returning to their work as journalists and writers, but one of my mother’s fiercest wishes was to see their book of stories published and read in English. She died last month just shy of her eighty-ninth birthday. My father, also almost eighty-nine, survives.
“Concerto in G Major” was translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker, whose many renderings from that language include, most recently, Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street (Soho, 2015).
—Jaroslava Tausinger Halper
It was still winter where we were. But truly we had descended into the Promised Land—starving, gaunt, in filthy clothes, the landscape below us green like a blurry watercolor, the air soothing beneath a glassy sky.
That April, the last remnants of snow trickled down the hillsides. The smell in the air was indescribable, unique, the breath of spring awakening that so clearly sets those few days apart from the rest of the year.
Up until then we had been in the mountains. Ten disparate, estranged humans in an underground hole, animals scenting danger, bunched together in a shivering cluster. Men and women of varying temperaments, personalities, opinions—and all around us Death. I was going on seventeen (the year that old ladies most fondly remember: dance parties, the first love notes), and even if young people do endure hardship more easily, there were moments when all I’d wanted was for it to be over, I didn’t care how. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to live again. Had it ever really been possible? Or was it just a beguiling fiction?
And yet life was supposed to happen any day now. Everyone thought about it feverishly, but we were afraid to say it out loud, even in front of each other. And the Germans were still holding on, firmly dug in, eager to take us down with them in their death throes.
In the end they came over—literally, over our heads and bodies. They broke open our bunker with grenades just as the Partisans had warned and predicted.
We squatted in a nearby hollow overgrown with thorns and bushes. Saw their legs in tall boots, dashing about. Heard them calling, shouting, then the explosion and the smoke and smoldering flames shooting out.
How did we, helpless and intimidated as we were, make it out of there? How was it that fate spared us, the same fate that so cruelly afflicted so many millions? Why us of all people?
However it happened, the reality remains that we survived—all of us. The little children stayed quiet and didn’t scream; the pregnant woman whose husband prayed incessantly, silently moving his bloodless lips while his upper body rocked back and forth, didn’t go into labor. The whole time she sat in one spot, unmoving, face swollen, holding her husband’s hand, leaning on him as he leaned on his Lord. Once the fighting was over, she raised herself up, again without a word, and hanging heavily on his pious arm dragged herself out along with her burden.
We didn’t break down in tears when we saw the destruction, but it was obvious that there was no going back to the bunker. Extinguishing the fire and stomping out the embers, we called a meeting to decide what next.
Suddenly a man flashed by—actually, his shadow. Skinny, soft-bodied, almost boneless, long hair flying. Crazy Jakubovič. Nobody knew whether he had been like this before. The Partisans tolerated him as long as they were here, but when setting out on their arduous journey across the peak of Chabenec in the Low Tatras, they couldn’t be burdened. So they’d left him here with us.
Jakubovič walked with his odd, lurking, creeping gait; he appeared to be stepping sideways. Did he even see us? We almost didn’t see him . . . maybe it was just a rustling of dry leaves? This was no laughing matter. They may have been the last Germans, even the Partisans said so. But what if—what if they were still down there?
That was the dividing line between life and death, so thin it was imperceptible; and there was no one to give us so much as a hint where it lay.
We had always imagined that when we finally came down from the mountains, there would be no song beautiful enough, no laughter bright enough, no step light enough. Now everything looked different. Up there, we’d been sheltered in the womb and embrace of the mountains, dark but dependable, however cruel the cold and snow; the mountains, our stony, silent defenders with their murmuring forest cap, a hundred times more faithful and merciful than any human. Now we were supposed to break loose of their protection? Leave behind the trees’ shade, the hollows, steep slopes, and snowy hillsides and go down, alone, defenseless, and put ourselves at the mercy of men, good and evil? Especially evil.
So we sat there amid the smoldering wreckage of what had been our shelter. And that was when crazy Jakubovič passed by. Walking as if he were shoving himself, as if there were two men inside of him: one resisting, the other forcing him onward. He passed without a glance at anyone. But then, all of a sudden, he stopped, and wrapping his right arm around the slender trunk of a fir gazed at us for a while, his mouth twisted in a quiet, insane laugh.
“They’re here! They’re here!”
“Who?” asked old man Trostler, furrowing his thick, protruding brow.
The madman rocked back and forth so hard he almost fell down, then cried: “The Russians . . . the Ruuuussians. . . .”
We leaped to our feet. It was like a revelation. Or was it a delusion from hell? Trostler sprang up with an agility surprising for his age and threw himself at Jakubovič, shouting breathlessly, “How do you know that?”
The poor devil didn’t answer. He spun breakneck around the trunk, cawing something, then disappeared. Poor Jakubovič! That was the last we saw of him; we searched a long time that evening, calling his name in vain. Maybe he made it down from the mountains and lives there to this day; who knows?
We were stunned into silence. Then, unexpectedly and emphatically, carefully articulating every word, the devout husband of the pregnant woman spoke:
“From the mouth of a fool, the Lord has spoken to us. Tomorrow morning, with God’s help, we will come down from the mountain.”
Many of us in hiding had grinned in scorn at his constant worship; even most old folks who knew their prayers couldn’t keep up with him. He was something of a prophet among sinners, dwelling in his own world, as Eastern and ancient as our prehistoric prayers and rites, alone with his Maker. Yet no one now opposed him. Whatever he said, it was decisive, and decisiveness was what we most lacked. He had voiced what we all longed for but none had dared propose.
He had courage. He had God on his side—and with His aid, what is hard? On our side, we had no one. Up until now we had leaned on the shoulders and weapons of the Partisans, but they had gone off to fight their way to the front, leaving the old, infirm, and little children to await the arrival of freedom where they were. In any case, they wouldn’t have survived the terrible crossing of Chabenec, with its snowstorms and mist.
Few of us slept that night. As was our custom, we laid our blankets outside on the snow. It was one of the nicer nights, that last one; no longer a cold, sparkling sky or a hard, inhospitable coverlet of snow.
My mother prayed through the night while my father sat unmoving in the shadows—perhaps coming to terms with his life in case it should end tomorrow. Protected by ignorance and the optimism of youth, my sister and I slept—apart from a few brief interruptions when through the cracks of my eyelids I saw the silhouette of my father, heavy and still against the darkened background of the sky and the dim paleness of the snow.
In the morning it was all gone. The anxiety, too, had vanished, along with the dim light of hope, sparkling white as the snow among the dark tree trunks. All that mattered was that we were descending into lands inhabited by people. The forest, which had provided shelter, but in which we had also lived like animals in a den for seven cold winter months, remained behind us forever.
No, we would never go back there again.