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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 5

I was upset by the way the butcher stared at me while he was weighing the meat. Each time I wished he would cut his finger because he was staring at me so. He would smile and I would assume a solemn expression, often leaving without even saying good-bye. He would, to be sure, give me a cut of the best meat, which was why my mother always sent me to buy it. "Let him look. If he upsets you in any way, just you tell me, and he'll get what's coming to him," my mother would say to comfort me.
.... Buying meat became harder and harder. The butcher's smiles grew scarce, and his stare became increasingly offensive. More and more often I would arrive at the butcher's only to find there was no meat in the shop. We decided to go to the country and buy a pig. Whenever we bought a pig, we would make home-made sausages and black pudding, bake lard cakes and cook stuffed sauerkraut leaves. Whoever once tasted my mother's stuffed sauerkraut leaves never forgot them, or her. She would take some minced meat seasoned with salt, pepper and ground red peppers, with some rice mixed in, and roll it up in a sauerkraut leaf. She would cover the bottom of the pot with shredded sauerkraut and arrange the stuffed leaves on top. She would then pour stock into the pot and stick some spare ribs and sausages in between the stuffed leaves. The dish would be especially tasty if we happened to have sausages cured over a fire made with pine branches. The pot would simmer slowly for two to three hours. We would invite our family and friends over for dinner and sit up long into the night over a glass of good wine.
.... The Partisans were seen with increasing frequency in the more remote villages. They would come at night when the soldiers had returned to the city. They would come down to the village through orchards and gardens, stop behind a barn and wait there for one of the local people to pass by.
.... The locals were already used to this daily switch: Ustasha and Domobrani, the home guardsmen, by day, Partisans by night. The Partisans could be recognized by the red five-pointed star they wore on their old hats or caps. They were frequently dressed in civilian clothes or in a medley of uniforms taken from enemy soldiers. Only yesterday the young men on both sides had been classmates or had ploughed the fields together. Not long ago they would have helped each other mend a broken cartwheel, they would have mowed the meadows and reaped the wheat side by side, and now each was on his own side, thrust apart by an invisible force, hating each other and shooting at each other, dying on the dusty Balkan plain, falling into the furrows they had ploughed together only yesterday. Even some brothers were separated like this. One was blown by the winds of war to one side, and the other happened to find himself on the other.
.... The train was creeping across the Slavonian plain. Each day the trains moved more slowly. It was rumoured that in Bosnia the Partisans had mined railway lines. We were afraid that the same fate might befall us. I looked out of the carriage window at the wide plain melting into the horizon on one side, and the hills of Bilo-gora* , plotted and patched with orchards, vineyards and woods, on the other. There was a line of poplars on each side of the road. The tall, slender trees had been there for decades. We overtook a column of soldiers who had set off from the city that morning. The vehicles moved slowly, small Italian tanks manned by Ustasha in front, followed by trucks full of soldiers armed to the teeth. A cloud of the everlasting Slavonian dust rose up behind the column as if to veil the whole scene.
.... ----------
.... *Amountain in the Pannonian plain, stretching northwest-southeast for 70 km. Its highest peak is Rijeka (307 m). It is mostly covered by woods, and is suitable for wine-growing.
.... ----------
.... In the middle of the courtyard there stood a copper cauldron. The smoke from the damp logs mingled with the steam rising from the cauldron. A little further off there was a large wooden trough, and the hook from which the slaughtered and scalded pig was to be hung had already been prepared.
.... Uncle Mato took a deep swig of plum brandy, handed the bottle to a neighbour standing next to him, took a long knife and a whetstone, and started sharpening the knife with an air of great self-importance, the butt of a home-made cigarette rolled in a piece of newspaper hanging from his lips. Aunt Maria was fussing around, looking for the big bowl to catch the blood in; there was the bowl, but where was the salt? For salt had to be put in the blood to prevent it from clotting. The neighbours were there, not choice young men as would have been the case before the war. Many of them were getting on in years, but that couldn't be helped, as the young men were all away at the war. That must have been why there were so many of them there to hold the pig while it was being slaughtered. The bottle of plum brandy was handed round. Each man took a swig, wiped the neck of the bottle with the palm of his hand, and passed it to his neighbour. They had to warm their old bones and gather new strength. It would be very awkward if, when the pig was stuck, it escaped and raced round the plum orchard bleeding to death.
.... The neighbours grabbed the pig, two men holding each leg. Aunt Maria pushed the big bowl forward to catch as much blood as she could, for you could never have too much black pudding, and some would have to be given to the neighbours to take away with them. The pig's squeals grew fainter, then only the death rattle could be heard, and finally the pig stopped struggling and lay still. It was hard to tell whether it had been killed by my uncle's knife or whether it had been smothered by the heap of men pressing down on it and crowding round it until it was completely hidden from view.
.... They hung the pig in chains over the cauldron and poured boiling water over it, first adding some cold water to prevent the skin from being singed.
.... When they hung the pig on the hook, uncle Mato skillfully sliced the bacon and the meat, and then halved the carcass with an axe.
.... We passed a small wooden house thatched with a roof of ancient blackened straw. In front of the house there was a fence made of rotting planks, some of which had fallen into the mud.
.... "Is blind Kata still alive?" my mother asked my aunt.
.... "Not only is she alive," my aunt replied, "but her business is booming. Although she can't see, she tells the soldiers' fortunes by feeling the palms of their hands with her fingertips."
.... Soldiers in uniforms of different colours went in and out, passing each other and stepping carefully to avoid the puddles in the courtyard.
.... "And how is Marishka?" my mother asked my aunt.
.... Marishka was my age and we had known each other since we were children. When we were little girls we would often play together in my aunt's big courtyard or in the garden behind the barn.
.... While she was still a young girl, Marishka had taught boys how to do "it". Whoever paid her one dinar could go into the barn with her. She would use the dinar to buy a large bread roll or two smaller ones, and then she would run and take them to her mother.
.... Marishka's father had worked for a foreign company, felling timber in the ancient Slavonian forests. He would always have a bottle of plum brandy leaning against the tree he was felling.
.... One day a cart drawn by the old nag belonging to Kata's next-door neighbour arrived in her yard. In the cart, on the hay, lay the dead body of her husband, Franyo. He had chopped down a tree and was about to move away from it when he stumbled and fell. The tree crashed down on top of him. Next to his body they found the splinters of a shattered green glass bottle. There was a smell of brandy in the air.
.... No-one really knew how Marishka's mother had gone blind. It was said that some woman had thrown lye in her face because she had caught her with her husband. They both kept quiet about it, and so the truth never came out.
.... "I'm telling you this in the strictest confidence," aunt Maria whispered to my mother, "so please keep it to yourself. They say that these soldiers who come to have their fortunes told also go to Marishka's room. One night the village boys peeped in through her window. On the table they saw tins of food and biscuits like the soldiers eat. Marishka was lying on the bed, stark naked, and the soldiers were going in and out. While they were groaning and writhing on top of her, she was looking away with an absentminded look in her eyes. 'Hurry up, get it over with,' they heard her say to a hefty lad who had covered her completely, so that only her hand could be seen sticking out, impatiently crumpling up the sheet. Saturday afternoon is reserved for "officer" Yura, as Marishka calls him; she calls all soldiers with any sort of rank "officers". This Yura of hers brings the most tins, and sometimes he brings her flowers. The boys at the window stared, their eyes popping, and they squirmed, but they took good care to be quiet, because they would be in for it if Yura caught them. His belt with the big Parabellum pistol was slung over the chair. Marishka and Yura were writhing and groaning in passion, and the old bed creaked. Marishka had wrapped her legs around Yura, her hips were arching upwards, and she was moaning softly, when her mother's voice was heard from the kitchen, saying, 'Be quiet, you two, an officer has just turned up.'"
.... Marishka's face was not really beautiful, but her whole appearance was provocative. She had long, shapely legs, rounded hips, a rounded belly, and rather large breasts, and she never wore a brassiere. She would toss back her long chestnut hair, which always fell over her face, half-concealing her prominent cheekbones and large brown eyes, enhancing thus the effect of her full lips, which were always smiling provocatively as if to say, "Come here!"
.... There was still half an hour to go before the train arrived, so we sat down on a bench in the corner of the almost empty waiting room. My mother and aunt Maria continued their whispered conversation.
.... "Not long ago, just after the grape harvest, Marishka was in hot water, to say the least. It could have cost her her life. The police came from the city. They say that it was her officer Yura who helped her out... One evening, old Lazo, our neighbour, you know him, came to Marishka's. His wife, old Maria, had been bedridden for years. So Lazo came to Marishka's mother to have his fortune told. Afterwards he said good-bye and pretended he was leaving, but he slipped into Marishka's room instead. The old woman can't see, and they say she's growing hard of hearing, so she never noticed. The old man offered Marishka money and begged her to let him get into bed with her. 'What's the matter with you, Uncle Lazo, you could be my grandfather,' she said. 'Please, Marishka, here's five hundred, I can't stand it any longer. I've been watching you for a while now, and I'm mad with desire. I sold the horses today, here's all I've got, let me get into bed with you, just for a moment.' It was a lot of money, a small fortune, so Marishka agreed, partly for the money, and partly out of pity for the old man. First she hid the money well, and then the old man pounced on her. 'He acquitted himself well,' Marishka said later, 'better than many a young man.' Suddenly he raised himself up on his arms, his eyes staring, and you could hear a kind of rattle in his lungs. He turned grey, and then he fell down as if struck by lightning. Marishka shook him, she had a hard time getting him off her. He turned over like a sack of potatoes, and his eyes were staring lifelessly at the ceiling. He had had a stroke. That same evening Marishka went to see Lazo's wife. 'Here, this fell out of his pocket when he dropped down dead while mother was telling his fortune,' said Marishka, put all that money on the corner of the table and ran out of the house."
.... I gazed out of the window as people went this way and that, some in a hurry, others strolling along in a leisurely fashion. How many different impulses were driving them along?! When a file of young schoolchildren went by, I looked round to see the teacher. There she was, standing in the middle of the road, with her back turned towards me, so I could see only her profile now and then. She was waiting for the children to pass. How young she was! This was probably her first job. Goodness, how like my own primary school teacher she looked!
.... I remembered my first day at school, when I was sitting at my desk, full of curiosity and a little jittery, while the teacher asked each of us questions.
.... "And what's your name?"
.... "Elisabeta Muller"
.... "Oh, so you're a little Hun?"
.... "Yes, my mummy and daddy are ethnic Germans."
.... "Sit down, Elisabeta."
.... "Everyone calls me Lisa."
.... "All right, then I'll call you Lisa, too."
.... Then someone pulled my pigtail from behind, and I was upset and turned round to give Yozha and Peritsa an angry look.
.... It was her first post. She was only just nineteen when she came to our school. In church on Sundays, during Mass, her pleasant soprano would ring out from the choir, accompanied by the organ. More people started coming to church, the parish priest celebrated Mass with greater enthusiasm, and his sermons were better.
.... At about noon, when our lessons were over for the day, we would leave the classroom and pass through the school garden. In the garden there were fruit trees, currant bushes, a trellised arch overgrown with a grafted grapevine, and a well-kept lawn. In the shade of the cherry tree there was a table with two benches, all made of laths painted white. One day I saw the parish priest sitting at the table, and in front of him there was a glass of lemonade with pieces of ice floating in it. A little girl was playing in the grass. There was also a pram there, with a baby sleeping in it. Our teacher was walking towards the priest and putting out her hand for him to shake; she always had a smile on her face, but now she was glowing, and her voice sounded like the twittering of a nightingale. The priest always used to wear a dark suit, even when it was hot, with just his collar showing white at the neck. I stopped to watch, especially to look at the glass of iced lemonade. It was hot, I was thirsty, and the ice sparkled on the surface of the lemonade; oh, if only I could have just a tiny piece of that ice! Then I came out of my reverie and ran out of the schoolyard.
.... As soon as I crossed the threshold I called out to my mother, "Mummy, I'd like a bit of ice!"
.... My mother looked at me in surprise.
.... "Ice in the middle of summer?"
.... There were no refrigerators then. Some people had special cupboards for storing food, especially meat, in which they would put pieces of ice which they bought from the butcher.
.... "Mummy, why don't you buy some ice? We can keep it and use just a little at a time."
.... But my mother wanted to know what had kept me so long. I told her about the ice in the priest's lemonade, about the baby in the pram, about the priest smiling and talking cheerfully, and about the little girl he sometimes patted on the head.
.... "I was leaning against the wall behind the corner of the school. They looked so nice. Why do you and Daddy never smile at each other like that?"
.... My mother gave me an ill-tempered look, dismissed my question with a wave of her hand and started asking me about school.
.... Even before the war there had been Party cells in the village, where Communists gathered to read subversive books and newspapers. Some of these people had been prisoners of war in Russia after the First World War, and they returned bringing with them ideas of Communism. They invited our teacher to join them, but she refused, saying she did not want to get mixed up in politics in any way, she was only interested in doing her job. "You're too fond of the Church, aren't you?" the young men would tease her.
.... In his sermons, the priest would sometimes attack young people who had gone astray, who went to shady meetings, consorted with enemies of the Holy Mother Church and spoke of revolution and the downfall of all that was sacred, and who would therefore be punished by God. The young men were angry with the priest and said he should be more careful about what he said and did.
.... One day some leaflets appeared in the village. People read them furtively, whispering to each other. I knew how to read by then, so I secretly took down one of the leaflets, which my mother had put on the top of the kitchen dresser, and read it. I did not understand everything it said, but I gathered that it was about our schoolteacher and the parish priest and that the teacher's two children were mentioned.
.... After the appearance of the leaflet in which the priest was accused of being the father of her two children, the teacher was in despair.
.... I remembered a group of women standing behind the fence, whispering. They were saying that the teacher's neighbours had entered her flat and had seen a terrible sight: the teacher was lying on the bed and her two little girls were lying beside her. All three were dressed in their best. They lay there quietly, as if asleep, but with their eyes wide open. They were like dolls.
.... The parish priest was taken to a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life.
.... We were having a dinner party. The guests were greeted in the corridor by the smell of roast meat and stuffed sauerkraut leaves. Sausages and black pudding were sizzling in the frying pan, and the smell of mother's pumpkin pie mingled with the other cooking smells. Our lodgers, the German officers, were among the guests. The party grew merry and the food gradually disappeared from the platters. Now only a few pieces of roast meat were left.
.... The Colonel tapped his knife on the rim of his glass and stood up. Silence fell. In his toast he mentioned the injustice that had been done to the German people by the Treaty of Versailles, he spoke of the Communist threat to Europe and the whole world, and then he went on in an excited voice:
.... "I remember seeing a terrible sight; it still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it. It was late February in thirty-three. There was a crowd of reporters in the press centre where the new government's plan for a rebirth of our country was being explained to them. Then someone burst into the room shouting, 'The Reichstag is on fire !' We all rushed out and ran across the Tiergarten park. We were petrified when we saw the terrible sight of the Reichstag in flames. The fire rose high into the sky, lighting up the entire area. The Fuhrer arrived in front of the Reichstag and was met by Herr Goering, who reported to him that the Communists had tried to destroy the Reichstag building and that he had evidence proving that they had planned to start fires all over the Reich. We thronged round the Fuhrer, stiff and silent, like stone pillars, not daring even to breathe audibly. We gazed at the Fuhrer and waited to hear what he would say. A few of us discreetly wiped away a tear. The Fuhrer put his hands on his belt and frowned, gazing over our heads into the distance. Instead of tears, I saw a flame flickering in his eyes. What I could see was the reflection of the fire."
.... "There are others who think differently," Boris said to me in a low voice. "Some people think that they set the Reichstag on fire themselves in order to accuse the Communists and so carry out their plans more easily."
.... "What are the young people talking about? Speak up so that we can all hear you."
.... The Colonel had turned towards us, his face had become grave, he was looking at us in silence. Boris grew pale and I, too, was scared. What if the Colonel had heard what Boris had said? He would probably not do anything right away. My mother was the first to pull herself together. She put her hand on the Colonel's and said something to him. The accordion player struck up a tune and started singing:
.... Vor der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor
.... stand eine Lanterne, und steht sie noch davor...*
.... The sound of the accordion mingled with the sonorous tenor of a soldier named Hans filled the room. I felt the warmth of the lieutenant's hand on my waist, I felt myself floating, seeing nothing, hearing nothing but the beautiful song and the melody, and, as the song came to a close, the lieutenant's voice joining in:
.... Aus dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund
.... hebt mich wie im Traume dein verliebter Mund...
.... ----------
.... *Down by the barracks, before the barracks gate
.... There is the lamplight you used to stand and wait
.... From silent depths your loving lilips it seems
.... Have raised me up and haunt me still in dreams.
.... Translated by William Yuill
.... I danced the next dance with Boris. He looked at me without speaking.
.... "You're very thoughtful this evening. Don't you like this little party?" I asked.
.... Instead of replying to my question Boris said, "You're very happy today." I sensed that he was in a bad temper.
.... "What's the matter, Boris? You seem so glum."
.... "I'm always sad when I've had a drink or two. But that will help me to tell you something I've never told you before, because I thought it was obvious. I've been saying it for years in my own way, believing that I could say more like that than with a few words. Today I'm scared for the first time and I feel a kind of foreboding, so I'd like to tell you in words, too."
.... "What do you mean? What kind of foreboding are you talking about?" I asked, even though I knew what he meant.
.... "I must tell you. I can't keep quiet any longer. I love you, Lisa, and I couldn't bear to lose you."
.... The music stopped and we moved towards our places. The lieutenant was talking with the Colonel, and Boris sat down beside me. I felt the need to say something, but I was unable to utter a word.
.... "You haven't said anything, Lisa. Say something, anything."
.... "I don't know what to say, Boris. I'm a little surprised, because we've never talked like this before; what you've said about our past is true, but I saw it differently. I was always glad to see you, I liked the games we played as children, I was proud when you carried my bag home from school, and when you brought me that piece of cake, I knew it was the last piece and that you were lying when you said you had eaten yours at home. I liked it when you squeezed my hand when we were playing, and I've kept my autograph album from the 4th form because you wrote on the last page, 'Let him who loves you more than I do turn to the next page'; and somewhere near the beginning of the album you wrote, 'Roses are red my love, violets are blue, sugar is sweet my love, but not as sweet as you.' But you've never done anything like that since. We were only children then. Regardless of everything, I want things to stay the same, I want us to remain good friends; I'll tell you what I feel: I'm fond of you Boris, I really love you, but I love you in the way a sister probably loves her brother. I'd like it to stay that way."
.... "I've always been attentive to all your wishes and tried to do what you wanted. I promise I'll do the same now, even though now it's much harder. I won't stand in your way, I want you to be happy. I can see I'm too late, events have caught up with me. I've lost all I loved most dearly: they have enslaved my homeland, they're taking away my girl. I won't give up, Lisa, I'm not one of those who take things lying down. They say there's always a way."
.... "Please don't make so much of it. What has anyone taken away from you? Was your homeland free before? Didn't they want to exterminate the Croats? Didn't they... But why am I saying this, when you know all this? And your story about your girl being taken away, what are you trying to say? No one has taken me away, here I am, sitting beside you and talking to you."
.... "With one little difference: I am to remain just a good friend, but... Well, let's not argue, we've never done that before, so we won't start now. Let it be the way you want. I'm going now, my parents are getting ready to leave. Farewell, Lisa. I hope you'll be happy."
.... "Good-bye Boris, and good night!" I replied and turned away to hide my tears.
.... I ran to my room to have a good cry. I don't know how long I had been lying there when I heard my mother's voice saying, "She's here somewhere, probably in her room. Lisa, are you there?"
.... "Here I am, Mummy, I'm coming!"
.... "Come on, our guests are leaving and they want to say good-bye to you."
.... I wiped away my tears, straightened my hair and my dress and tried to arrange my face into a smile. Boris and his parents had left earlier, now Daddy's friends were leaving, and after them the officers. The lieutenant squeezed my hand and wished me good night. "Sweet dreams, Lisa." he said.
.... "Thank you, and sweet dreams to you, too," I replied in a low voice.
.... "My dreams can't be anything but sweet. I'll be dreaming even before I fall asleep. Lisa, you're a very sweet girl."
.... He squeezed my hand and I trembled.
.... My head was full of thoughts, impressions and images. One moment I felt like singing, and the next I felt sad and wanted to cry. So much had happened in a single day. Then I remembered that Boris had said, "Farewell, Lisa," and that I had replied, "Good-bye," as usual. What did he mean by saying farewell? He had never said that before. Alfred's words were still ringing in my ears, too: "I'll be dreaming even before I fall asleep. Lisa, you're a very sweet girl." I could still feel him squeezing my hand and the pleasant warmth pervading my entire being. I could still hear the tune of "Lili Marleen", the pure tenor of Hans the accordion player and Alfred's deep baritone. I closed my eyes and felt myself swaying to the music in his arms, I felt his hand holding me firmly by the waist. Sleep was closing my eyes and I could still feel that touch, hear that music, as I fell into a quiet sleep like a traveller returning cold and exhausted from a journey and sinking into a bath of warm water.
.... I stopped for a moment and looked down the main street, hoping to see Boris. This is where we would wait for each other and go on to school together. There was no Boris that day.
.... On my return from school I wandered absent-mindedly from room to room. My mother watched me out of the corner of her eye. I could see she wanted to say something, but didn't want to upset me.
.... "Boris wasn't at school today," I said.
.... "That's funny, he's not often absent. He seemed to be a bit depressed yesterday. Could he be ill? Why don't you go to his house and see?"
.... I was full of anxiety as I knocked on the door of Boris's house. The door was opened by his mother. Her eyes were red with crying, but she tried to conceal it with a forced smile. She said Boris had had to visit his ailing grandmother, who lived in the country. He might stay there several days.
.... Alfred put away the cards and caught me by the hand. We looked at each other for a moment and then I said, "Do you know anything about palmistry?"
.... I longed to hear his voice, I longed for every touch of his hand. I stretched out my right hand with the palm upwards.
.... "I need to look at the palm of your left hand, because it is closer to the heart, so the lines on it are closer to the truth," he said.
.... He held my hand in his left hand, tracing the lines on my palm with his forefinger.
.... "These lines along the wrist, when they are deep, signify wealth and social status. This line running along the base of the thumb means that the wealth will be gained by marriage; and when that line is connected to these lines here, they mean fertility in a woman, lots of children, and happiness and prosperity in old age. When there are lots of tiny interlaced lines running along the base of the thumb, they signify bad luck in marriage and in life."
.... "But these tiny lines are interwoven on my palm. Does that mean I have bad luck lying ahead?"
.... "We'll put that right in a moment. Look, we'll stretch the hand out a little more, and the lines will disappear."
.... The tiny lines had upset and saddened me. Alfred noticed that and told me that everyone had them, showing me the same kind of lines on the palm of his hand. Then he put his hand over mine and, to cheer me up, started talking about something else.
.... "I'm sorry I can't say everything I'd like to. When I first knocked on the door of your house that morning and saw you so sleepy, a kind of sweet restlessness stole into my soul. Every day I wait expectantly for you to say a single word which might give me some hope. I look at you, trying to catch your eye, hoping for a response. Your gaze is always so charming that at first it makes me glad, but then I realize that your gaze can't be any different. It's always charming, even when you're angry. Say something, because it will be hard for me to leave without any hope."
.... "What can I say? How can I say it? When I'm alone, I think about everything; I enjoy your company, but who knows what may happen tomorrow, and then my common sense comes along like a policeman and warns me not to get involved."
.... "Thank you, Lisa, for what you've just said. Wherever the war takes me, I'll be thinking of you, and wherever I end up, I'll come back to you. I'll look for you, Lisa, until I find you. Lisa, may I kiss you?"
.... I remember that evening by the sweet mist that shrouded me as I received my first kiss.

Further to the Chapter 06