translated by Peter Petro
Reprinted with permission of the co-publishers of the English language edition, Mandel Vilar Press (www.mvpublishers.org) and Dryad Press (www.dryadpress.com).
Not long after sunrise, Tereza was already out picking pears. She wrapped her hand around the pear, extended her thumb and forefinger to the stem and gently broke it free from the branch. The pears had to be put in the basket with their stems still attached, or they would go bad sooner.
She loved this fruit, its taste and aroma. Kibbutz Masaryk had hundreds of pear trees, and she gazed at them as she rested against the trunk. After five weeks here, Mňačko’s children were reaching the end of their stay. While resisting more than others, Tereza had finally yielded to environmental pressure and had started dressing like everyone else in shorts, a stretched-out t-shirt, and a hat. A week ago she had put away the earrings worn in protest against the kibbutz uniform. She was playing a game in which she became an incognito observer who had penetrated this unknown territory to get to know it better before accepting it. For that reason, she didn’t want to stick out. Next to her worked Alena, her cabin roommate, and another couple was nearby.
Tereza yawned, still unaccustomed to getting up early. Alena was also not an early riser, and her eyes were swollen from interrupted sleep. They looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Well, the Israelis won’t get much fruit today.”
Only a few pears lay at the bottom of their basket. As someone approached on the path from the main building the girls began moving faster. It was Corky, alias Machinist. They waved at him.
Corky answered when he reached them. “Hi, Russian children.”
Alena didn’t understand at first, but Tereza blanched immediately. This was no joke, and Corky wasn’t smiling as he watched them through narrowed eyes. He had never looked so serious.
“All the radio stations are broadcasting it. The Russians are in Czechoslovakia.”
Alena screamed and slowly collapsed under the pear tree, her hands shaking. Sitting on the ground, Alena began eating dirt before Tereza could stop her. Grabbing fistfuls of clay, she shoved them into her mouth, smearing dirt all over her face and mingling her tears with dust. Tereza to this day doesn’t know where she found the strength, but she went to her friend and picked her up, then cleaned her face with a corner of her t-shirt and, with Corky helping from the other side, half-carried Alena back to the main building.
The usually orderly construction site was filled with noise as students helplessly milled about, some cursing, some threatening and others crying. The older settlers had already heard the news and were taking a break from their work. Tereza ran to her cabin and took the transistor radio out of her suitcase. Everyone gathered around her, but all she heard was static.
They ran to the showers and placed the radio on the water pipes, and Doris, the little radio high above their heads, became their only source of news. From fragments of sentences they learned no more than what they’d heard before, and what was repeated on stations throughout the world: that five armies had occupied Czechoslovakia, and that it was an invasion of socialist states against another socialist state; that it was probably the greatest treachery possible, when brothers attack their brother; that the streets were filled with unrest; that one could hear shots and even machine gun rounds; that Prague and Bratislava were filled with tanks and that people had been killed. They listened to the news again and again because it was so incredible that their hearts refused to accept it, even though their minds believed it.
“Is Bratislava burning? Are they bombing it? Is our house still standing? Are our relatives still alive?” Nobody knew.
Soon cars began arriving at the kibbutz—they were reporters, radio and television journalists. Standing before the cameras, their first time appearing in major newspapers, the young kibbutzim found it hard to express their feelings about this stunning turn of events. The journalists asked them the details of something thousands of kilometers away that they knew nothing about. They could only repeat that they were shocked and horrified, and they protested this barbaric act.
They had arrived here as Mňačko’s children, cheerful and carefree students, only a month ago, and now on a single summer’s day they had suddenly matured.
The brigade finished before its due date, and they all had to decide what to do next. Some wanted to get back to Czechoslovakia right away, and others wanted to go somewhere else in Europe, but the majority stayed in Israel. Those who packed their bags and flew home said their goodbyes with the feeling that they would never see each other again. Those who stayed received a typewriter from Mňačko’s wife. Tereza and a few other students formulated their group’s point of view and sent it to the newspapers. Tereza started pecking at the keys like a bird, but by the end she was tapping like a machine gun. As her typewriting skills improved, her position on the occupation hardened.
She wasn’t ready to return home, but she had to do something; she had to make a living somehow. Israel offered them education and financial support so they could continue their university studies. The Czechoslovak university students were a boon for the country. They would receive a modest living allowance of 170 Israeli pounds per month. Transportation and housing were free.
Not everyone was happy with this. The older settlers from the kibbutz didn’t agree with the allowance. They hadn’t received anything from the government when they arrived in Israel after 1948, and they’d had to build their farms with their own hands, literally from nothing.
The money would not get them far, but fortunately all of the Czechoslovak students had a major resource that was of no interest to the banks, but that would help them survive: their youth.
Tereza continued to room with Alena. They were both lost and had no idea what to do next. Finally, with great difficulty, submerged in the noise and whistles of mysterious frequencies, Tereza managed to reach her parents in Bratislava by telephone.
“Hello, Papa, it’s me…”
“My little kitten!”
“Please, don’t cry.”
“I’m not. How are you?”
“I’m going to school here, they’re taking care of us. And how are you doing?”
“It’s uncertain here… very uncertain… I’ll write to you, okay?”
Tereza, schooled by years of living in Czechoslovakia, understood that not only her father was listening to their conversation, and that is why they started corresponding by mail. Ferdinand knew that a postcard was less suspicious than a sealed letter, even though anyone could read it. Most letters would not be delivered anyway; each would be opened, and in each would be found more than people actually wrote.
But who would suspect a postcard? That’s why Ferdinand wrote them in his own secret language.
It would make me very happy if you came home. But you’re an adult and must make your own decision. We received an announcement of your expulsion from the university here. The Kitten should go to Vienna to see Kalish. Marcus could visit her there. Kitten’s mother says that she can come back here if she wants to. Nothing happens to returnees. So many have returned. Write to us if you want us to send you something. See you at Kalish, if not elsewhere.
Kitten was Tereza. Marcus was her father’s nickname at home. Kalish was a Turkish businessman in Vienna who passed messages for people. Tereza had been expelled from her studies in Bratislava and if she returned, she would be on the list of undesirables. Mother had enquired about that, and Ferdinand communicated this in their secret language on other postcards.
She didn’t have the courage to write that she wasn’t coming back. She was afraid to return to a city filled with negative energy, even though people there loved her above all else. The only solution was Kalish. That was where Kitten could meet Marcus and they could tell each other everything. There are things you can’t write down on paper. Very well. She would travel to Vienna and find Kalish.
Before that, however, she had to attend a funeral.
At the very beginning—when they had been at the kibbutz for only a couple of days—Alena told Tereza about an event from her childhood. As a little girl she had woken up and found nobody at home. She was terribly scared, having no idea that her mother had gone out to do some shopping. She walked around the apartment looking for her mother. Then she opened a window, and the view so engaged her that she forgot how afraid she was. She sat on the windowsill on the second floor swinging her legs and enjoying it very much. People in the street stopped and pointed at her. Alena waved at them and smiled.
Her mother was still out shopping, but her father, a teacher in a nearby school, came home unexpectedly. He had put his books away in the staff room and asked to be excused for the rest of the day. He couldn’t explain why, but he sensed something, and when he approached his building he understood. He ran to the second floor and opened the door as quietly as he could, not wanting to startle her. Inch by inch he moved towards her, trying not to make the wooden floor creak as little Alena sat in the window, the wind playing in her hair. Finally he reached her, and with lightning speed he took her into his arms and pulled her into the room. Then both he and his frightened daughter broke down in tears.
This is what Tereza was thinking about, standing above the grave in a borrowed dress. No one had a black dress; why would anyone take a black dress on vacation? Nobody expected that one of them would die. So she had borrowed a dress from one of the Israeli girls.
Something had happened to Alena. She found it more and more difficult to make sense of things. She didn’t know whether to stay or return to Bratislava. She started to go to school in Haifa like Tereza, but one morning before class, she sat on the windowsill of an empty fifth floor lecture hall. And no one was there to silently embrace her.
That day Tereza walked by the pear orchard for the last time without even looking at it. She headed for the airport and bought a ticket to Vienna. For the next forty years she avoided eating pears. She couldn’t even stand their scent.