Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 25 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
A young woman entered quietly. “Shoshana, are our cards ready?” she asked.
Shoshana shook her head in the negative and motioned for her to wait as she continued conversing with the technician on the phone.
“They’re urgent for Naomi. She asked for them right now,” the woman said, walking over to the lamination machine on a side table, near Adina’s chair.
“Hello,” she said pleasantly as she caught Adina’s eye. Adina smiled in response, trying to understand the Hebrew words flying over her head.
Shoshana finished her phone conversation and turned to the young woman. “It’s not such a big deal to take care of,” she said. “But yesterday, when I was peeling potatoes, I cut my finger and it’s hard for me to work the machine. So I guess you can do it yourself, if you know how and you have a few minutes, or Naomi will have to use the cards the way they are…”
“I…can do it…the lamination,” Adina said quickly, and even before the young woman had a chance to react, she switched on the machine.
“That would be a great help! Who are you?”
“Adina Baumel. I’m a…volunteer,” she stammered out, scrambling for the right word in Hebrew.
“Here in the office?”
Adina’s smile was a bit flustered. “Not in the office. My principal spoke on the phone with a principal here. He said to come. But I don’t think he told Shoshana what to tell me.” Somehow Adina managed the few sentences in her pidgin Hebrew.
“That’s right; the principal didn’t tell me where to send her yet!” Shoshana called from the other side of the desk. “He should be here any minute.”
“Oh, I see!” the young woman said, watching Adina’s hands as she fed the cards into the laminating machine’s mouth and then catching them as it spit them out of the other side coated in stiff plastic.
“I’m the only assistant in class today,” she said suddenly. “Goldy didn’t come and it’s really hard. Let her come with me.”
“An excellent idea!” Shoshana nodded as she logged off the computer with a few agitated clicks of her mouse. “When the principal comes I’ll ask him if it makes a difference to him.”
Adina stood facing them, her eyes flitting back and forth between the two. It was strange to feel so stupid wherever she went.
“Go with her,” Shoshana said and picked up the phone again.
Adina walked step in step with the young woman, taking in the many decorated, closed doors that lined the corridor.
“Where are we going, can I ask?” Oops, again she had mistakenly spoken her native English.
“To the classroom,” the woman replied, also in English. Adina surmised that the assistant’s brevity stemmed from her unease with the English language. That was fine. She, Adina, didn’t always have to be the one feeling like the fumbling tourist who couldn’t express herself or understand what was going on around her. It was fine for some others to also break their teeth in a foreign language.
Adina didn’t ask if there was an Ostfeld in the class she was going to. She hadn’t formulated her goal too clearly for herself yet, so there was no reason to generate any curiosity about her activities by asking unnecessary questions.
“We’re here,” the cheerful assistant said, stopping in front of a blue, colorfully decorated door. “Um…nice to meet you. My name is Bracha Schwartz.” Still in English.
Diana Molis leaned on a low fence and, and, lacking anything else to do, she studied a bush situated nearby. It was a large bush, in a dark purple color. She gazed at it, thoroughly bored, and wondered if this was what she would do here every day.
The past week had been interesting, of that there was no doubt. But the way it looked now, she wouldn’t last doing this much longer. It was fascinating to hook cows up to the pumping machines, but for how long could one do it without getting bored? Besides—and this was the crux of her frustration—was this the great volunteering enterprise she had been yearning for? For this she had come all the way to Israel? Didn’t this country have needier places than the Nof Carmel dairy? Were the cows the only creatures in the region that needed her clinical psychology qualifications?
She sighed and abandoned the fence, trudging along the gravel footpath. She had several free hours ahead of her, but nothing to fill them with. She had already visited the kibbutz library today and found a few English books that captured her interest; she had also been to the kibbutz museum and had seen a few black and white pictures of muscular pioneers carrying hoes, and the first plow on the kibbutz. And that was it, more or less.
What else could she do? She could read the books she had taken. That was a distinct possibility, but her stormy soul yearned for the expanses. She couldn’t closet herself in her room all day and stare at the printed page.
The people here were pleasant enough. They had welcomed her warmly and gratefully, but none of them had the time for any real conversation, and there weren’t any other volunteers.
“The volunteer spirit has really faded these days,” Arnon, the kibbutz secretary had told her. “Even among our own young generation.” He himself wasn’t exactly old, but he did belong to the generation of the sons of the kibbutz founders. Diana guessed that his age ranged somewhere between forty and fifty. “My daughters left to study a profession. Both the older one and the younger one claim that they can’t even look at these paths and fields anymore. You know, when you look at it day after day, year after year, you get sick of it eventually.”
Diana understood every word; his English was excellent. Still, she begged to differ on what Arnon was saying. She loved Antwerp, despite having lived there since her birth—and wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving if not for the circumstances. But perhaps it was different here? She had hardly been here a week, and it was already clear to her that this wasn’t her place. So what could she say about someone who had been on this kibbutz for eighteen years? Twenty? Twenty-five?
But at least they belonged here. She did not. Did their belonging influence their bond with the place?
The gravel seemed to groan under her footsteps as she headed for the office. She could walk there almost with her eyes closed. She didn’t have to stay here for the empty hours; she just had to find out about the time schedule of the public transportation to and from the kibbutz. She climbed the stone stairs. But where would she go?Jerusalemseemed to call to her. She could travel there; she already had experience on the Israeli buses. She would tour the Western part of the city and pay it more attention than her tour guides had done on her previous trip.
Arnon wasn’t in the office. A gray-haired woman sat at the desk. “You’re a volunteer; so am I,” she said in a hoarse voice.
Diana did not understand her Hebrew. “Excuse me; I don’t understand,” Diana said.
The woman gaped at her and then asked slowly, “Where are you from?”
The woman’s eyes opened wide. “I’m from Belgium, too,” she said, switching to fluent Flemish. “I was born inAntwerp, fourteen years before the war. At age fourteen I came toAuschwitz. Have you heard ofAuschwitz?”
“Sure,” Diana replied.
“Did you have relatives there?”
Diana’s forehead creased for a moment. “Oh, no. Not me. I mean, I had no relatives there. I’m not Jewish.”
The woman gave her a strange look, as though she had never heard of someone non-Jewish living inBelgium. “So your grandparents weren’t in Auschwitz,” she said and then sighed. “Well, whatever. They don’t like me to talk about it.”
Now it was Diana’s turn to gape. “Don’t like it? Who doesn’t like it?”
“My people. My children. The memories are difficult for anyone, and I have almost no one left with whom to share them. Nu…” She shook herself as she rose. “You’re waiting for Arnon? He should be here any minute.” She glanced at the door. “Sit down, sit. He should be here soon.”
“Maybe you can help me,” Diana said. She preferred to speak to this older woman than to the secretary himself. The whole kibbutz didn’t have to discover almost immediately that she wanted to leave for a bit. “I wanted to find out when there are buses toHaifa.”
“Only every four hours. You understand, most people here have cars.”
“Do you have any idea how often a bus goes fromHaifatoJerusalem?”
The woman raised her eyes for a moment and then lowered them to the desk quickly. “Jerusalem? I don’t know. Maybe every two hours, perhaps more often. But you can also travel to Tel Aviv and take a bus from there toJerusalem. That’s also an option.” She sighed. “But you know, the trip from the north to Jerusalem is very long…”
“About how long?” Diana asked interestedly. She had forgotten to take the time factor into consideration.
“With all the buses you’ll have to change, I think it will take you at least three hours.”
Diana was crestfallen. If that was the case, she couldn’t go today. She’d have to take a day off to go toJerusalem. What a shame. She had felt a sudden urge to visit the Western Wall again, and to travel within the city…
Menuchi Feder! Diana had forgotten about her completely! Perhaps she lived near here, closer thanJerusalem? Wait, she had probably gotten married already. Diana had to find out where she lived now.
“The bus toHaifaleaves in another half an hour,” the older woman said quietly.
“Oh. Thanks. But I see that I won’t be able to go today anymore. I’ll have to push it off to another day…”
Arnon entered the office, accompanied by another man. “Hello, Diana. Hello, Ima.”
The woman rose heavily from her chair. “Good afternoon, Arnon.”
“Did you want something, Diana?”
“Yes. Can I please get a telephone book for the central region of Israel?”
Only once she was holding the thick book, which had been given to her with a questioning glance, did she realize that she couldn’t even read the language. “Actually, no, I’ll manage.”
She descended the three stairs and turned onto the gravel path. In actuality, she could just go toHaifawithout any further destination. It looked like a nice city, based on the few minutes she had spent there on her way to the kibbutz the first time.
But suddenly, her desire to take a trip dimmed. To tour by herself? It would be so boring! She had to find some company. Who could possibly come with her? Menuchi? Perhaps. Menuchi was the only person she knew in Israel. Perhaps she’d agree to tour the country with her.
She passed a circular grassy lawn, and noticed that the older woman from the office was sitting on a bench on the edge of it. Arnon’s mother. They smiled at each other. “I didn’t know you were Arnon’s mother,” Diana said.
The woman nodded. “You can sit. There’s another half an hour until lunch.”
Diana sat. She hadn’t spoken in her mother tongue for so long! Perhaps she didn’t have much common language with this woman as far as content was concerned, but she so longed to hear her native Flemish that the literal common language was enough for her right now.
“Are you really one of the founders of the kibbutz?” she asked in a friendly tone.
“No, I came here two years after the war, and the kibbutz had already been founded. But we were from the first families, you could say.”
Diana nodded in understanding. “Did you work hard?”
“Very,” the woman said, nodding heavily. “We literally built everything. Everything inEuropehad been destroyed. We had to rebuild our lives from scratch.”
“As long as you succeeded. The kibbutz seems to be very successful, and now I’m sure you are reaping the rewards.”
A strange look crossed the gray eyes. “Yes…” The older woman pursed her lips. “And I hope that my parents are, too…”
Diana didn’t understand. “Your parents?” If this woman was fourteen when the war broke out, as she had said, she had to be at least seventy-five plus now. Did she still have parents? Even after the war?
Again the woman nodded. “Yes, my parents. They raised me in a totally different fashion than the way I raised my own children. My father was a Torah-observant Jew in Antwerp, but when the war was over and I came here, it was very hard to keep everything. Anyway, it probably doesn’t interest you.”
“Why?” Diana protested politely. “If I came here, then that’s a sign that Jews interest me greatly. I’m sorry about all the horrors that were carried out against your nation during the war. You don’t have to be afraid to speak to me.”
Why had she come here? Because Jews interested her? Not exactly. They did interest her, but not especially. It was true that she was deeply against the Nazi crimes, but that was not her reason for coming here. What could she do about the past? She folded her arms and fixed her gaze on the perfectly manicured lawn. Pipes that dripped water snaked around the flowerbeds.
Why had she come here?
She sighed. You could run away from the whole world, but not from yourself. Especially not when you are so stubborn. So rigid. So demanding. Why did you come? Why? Why?
I don’t know myself why I came, alright? she answered herself silently; angrily.
“If you’re really interested, I could tell you,” the woman said pensively, and Diana was ready to promise that she heard a happy note in Arnon’s mother’s voice. Diana leaned back and listened with interest. She had nothing better to do right now in any case.
“Children?” Adina’s rolling accent caused the children to burst into laughter. She had been wandering the school’s halls for barely four days, and already, dozens of children were able to imitate the exact way she spoke.
“Children! The buses are here!”
It was late afternoon, almost four o’clock. Adina was in the third classroom for the first time. “Children! Gloves! Scarves!” she called as she carefully covered a small, fragile hand with a woolly glove.
“Adina, who are you taking out?” one of the assistants asked.
Adina preferred not to answer directly. She just proffered one hand to Tzippy and another hand to Yehudis Ostfeld, making sure that they hadn’t forgotten anything, and walked them outside.
“Is someone coming to get them?” she asked Bracha Schwartz in English.
“They go by bus.”
“To which area?”
“Ben Zakkai, Rabi Akiva, Yerushalayim, Rambam Streets. That area.”
Adina was really happy now. “Would it be okay if I went with them on the bus? My dormitory isn’t too far from there.” Not too far. Just a bit.
“Excellent!” Bracha replied. “So can I tell Sari she’s free to go?”
“She always goes along?”
“Yes. And it’s not in the direction of her house at all.”