The Bath Novel Award 2016 Winner
Testament by Kim Sherwood (Opening chapters)
No.1.The number on your tattoo
No.2. The registered number
No.4. Date of birth (year, month, day)
No.5. Place of birth
No.7. Last address
No.8. Location of ghetto
No.9. The first stop en route your deportation
No.10. In what camps were you interned (from, to)
Shake loose the earth
This is the last conversation we will have.
Silk: ‘Where did it go?’
‘Where did what go?’
Silk: ‘It’ – jerking his head at me – ‘it, it.’
‘Me? I didn’t go anywhere. I’m right here.’
A half-smile (he is king of the half-smile), a patient grandfatherly smile that told me I was not interpreting him correctly – I was a poor translator – but that he saw the joke in it, some joke somewhere in his own reduction. The painter whose canvases were said to contain a private language finally cracked and believed his own reviews. Strangely, no one understood him.
‘I haven’t seen it for so long. You.’ A frown as memories shutter-collide. ‘Eva. My girl. Big brain, eh?’ A wink, always sharing a private joke with nine billion people. ‘Did it know I loved it?’
I wanted to peel my hand away from what could be our last touch. I wanted to squeeze so hard I left my mark on the tension cables of his knuckles.
‘I knew – we know you love us.’
A nod, job done. Is that what it comes down to?
Birds performed evensong in the horse chestnut outside his bedroom window. His smile stretched, a genuine smile – just as his love of landscape painting was genuine, even if no one recognised the cultivated ramble of Hampstead Heath refracted through his eyes. I looked over my shoulder at the tree. I thought of Van Gogh’s blossom painted from the window of his madness; I heard the trill of wood pigeons and remembered a line from a documentary. When the birds stop singing, that will be the sound of extinction.
Whistling pierced the bedroom, inside the walls, Van Gogh turning to Hitchcock, and my armpits flooded with sweat. But it was only Silk, his cracked lips pursed. He did it again, a brief wood warbler, a party trick for summer picnics that was so loud and so sustained by the silent house it was like the ringing of a crystal glass.
Silk plucked at my hand.
He whistled again, tugged again. I didn’t want to understand. It might be the last thing he ever teaches me, apart from how to manage death.
But after another nudge I inflated my lungs for an off-tune bastardisation of the roundelay outside. He laughed, did it himself, pitch-perfect. I copied, once, twice, three times, until finally I was good enough and he folded his lips together, shutting a suitcase. Job done. That is all it takes.
Then followed the procedure of medicine, blankets, covering cold toes, switching off the lamp, drawing curtains to shut out pockets of polluted dusk, pockets I released at his protest, before finally burrowing my hand into his ready fist: goodnight. A floorboard creaking told me I was walking away from him, and as with every time I left his presence, I thought: this could be it. Commit the last look, the last words, to memory.
Over my shoulder: ‘I love you.’
In the dark, he might have been winking.
The stage-management of loss. You think you will remember separate moments: the rasp of a final breath; gases released from a trembling gut; the weight of undisturbed morning light across his legs. But the immediacy is dulled. Loss does not keep to its moment. There is keenness about grief, a sharp greed to it, a penetration that endures, secreting itself inside you. The last moments become muddled. The script changes. I cannot remember if this really was our last conversation, our last touch, our last lesson, or whether when I went back to him that night – fearing death had seamed itself into the scars and sores of his body, old and new, which I had discovered in these last weeks’ intrusion into his privacy – whether we maybe exchanged a word, a groan, a joke before he left.
But I do remember this: the birds did not sing again in his lifetime.
Granny Rosemary had passed away in a hospital, and Silk dealt with the fall-out. I was only fifteen then: I made tea and held his hand; I watered her allotment; I cried. There was no time for crying now. There was his body, heavy on the bed. I phoned Dr Pinney, who said I should call the coroner because he hadn’t seen Silk for over two weeks. It counts as unexpected, he said. The coroner arrived with a kind of ambulance. I leant against the grand-daughter clock – called that because it stood under four feet, as I used to, tapping Silk’s knee in search of its wooden hinge – and the brass second hand thrummed against the small of my back, telling me you’ve-grown you’ve-grown he’s-gone he’s-gone, drowning out the coroner’s explanations, as three men heaved Silk from the bed. The sheets snagged on his wayward foot, his amputated toe a red stump. They took him too quickly, and I was left with a silent house, and the smell of panic.
The minute hand urged me to call John and tell him: your father is dead. To call the press and tell them: Silk is dead. But I couldn’t tell the world before I told John, and I couldn’t tell him at all. So I called Mum, waking her up in Melbourne:
‘I’ve got to tell you something he’s gone he’s gone he died in the night – can you call Dad I can’t.’
After long minutes Mum called back: she couldn’t get through to John’s mobile, and there was no answer at the house in Provence.
Then Silk’s phone buzzed: John ringing. I hung up with Mum, following the smudge-swipe of Silk’s thumb over answer.
John: ‘Joseph? Hello?’
‘No, it’s me, Dad. It’s Eva.’
‘Oh. I couldn’t get through on your phone. Your mother’s calling me – doesn’t she know how expensive it is to receive calls from Australia?’
‘Dad, John, we need to talk, I need to tell you something.’
‘Then tell me. Getting your mother to act as a go-between is fucking ridiculous. Melbourne is not between England and fucking France. It’s six in the morning here.’
‘I know it is. Listen. It’s happened. He’s gone. Silk is gone.’
‘Dad, I can’t hear… Are you still there?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, did it happen in the hospital? Or at home?’
‘Home. He was talking about how much he loved us all. He wasn’t in any pain.’
‘They said he’d recover.’
‘They weren’t sure after the second stroke. I told you that. I tried to tell you that. To come here.’
‘Then you should have tried harder.’
‘John… we’ve got to tell the press as soon as possible.’
‘What the fuck does it matter?’
‘It’s important, he was important, there’s going to be press wanting, I don’t know, interviews or something… hello? Are you still there?’
‘I’ve got to go.’
‘Wait, John, Dad…’
‘Bonjour, Eva?’ It was Liset. ‘John is very upset, what is happening now?’
‘His father is dead.’
I bumped through the house – knocking into the cabinet of Bristol blue glasses, tripping on the seablue carpet – to my flat upstairs. Sat down at my kitchen table. Looked out at Hampstead Heath, the second pond burnished by the sun, its golden circuit of pebbles looped by joggers and dogs. I fiddled with the canvas strap of my camera bag, teasing the frayed edge. When the phone rang I thought it was Mum, but it was BBC Radio. Silk’s agency had said I would talk to them – hadn’t they got in touch with me? No, they hadn’t… Would I talk? Yes, I would.
I accepted their sympathies and told them Silk had passed away quietly in the night. Below, two swans challenged each other on the pond, their great wings beating. I picked up the old binoculars on the windowsill as I agreed that, yes, Silk had enjoyed an unusual longevity in his career, popular since his late twenties. I told a story about Silk painting a derelict Lido where the loudspeakers still worked, how he filled the empty tank with The Blue Danube. The swans were thrashing each other. They might draw blood. I told them Silk was very proud to adopt Britain as his homeland.
‘It’s been said that you are making a documentary about your grandfather. Is that right? He’s shied away from personal narratives in the past.’
‘I am – we were doing something together. A short film.’
‘Will you finish it?’
The swans were locked – they could not separate.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will.’
At some point the phone call ended, and I was left gripping the binoculars. Silence ticked and roamed about my chair. The swans fought mutely at 10×24, necks intertwined. I’d moved into Fitzroy Park house in the second year of my Film BA. Silk needed help; I needed somewhere affordable to live. Together, the swans looked like a man drowning in a white mortuary sheet, grasping for air. Silk gave me the top floor, but I spent most evenings downstairs, cooking, watching him paint, listening to music. He had slipped into a waking stasis after losing Granny Rosemary, and I learnt to decode the clatter of his nighttime language. Sometimes he moved about the house gently, barely drawing a groan from the Victorian floorboards. Other nights I heard him drop washing-up in the sink, a tumble of broken china, or pace restlessly between each room, shouldering into doors. Nightlights marked his route: Silk had a terror of the dark. A third swan drifted closer, and the dying man unravelled. I put the binoculars down, looking around at the wall of postcards, Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin, at the sagging bookshelves, the ragged teddybears arranged on the back of my sofa. I had kept Silk company, converting my time to his, until suddenly he came to life again. He presided over dinner parties with my friends, a new crowd to entertain, young people dancing in his living room. Four years later, as I began my Documentary MA, he suggested we collaborate. It was supposed to show more than his paintings, to show his life, but we disagreed on what that meant.
My laptop waited in front of me. With just a few keys I could summon Silk to life. I could watch the final footage, Silk sitting in front of his easel, silver hair brushed back in a thick wave, a smile waiting in the lines around his mouth. Course friends would fiddle with lighting and sound behind me, giving Silk the audience he needed.
I begin as if we had never met: ‘When and where were you born?’
Silk straightens, touching the extinguished Allies Club tie at his throat. ‘I was born in London in 1945, eighteen and already a man. I was born to the sound of Big Ben regaining his voice and the Thames regaining her lights, a thousand blackout blinds thrown down. That’s where I was born: to blue, cloudless skies, the signature of warplanes scrubbed free.’
‘Are you going to give me a real answer?’
He eases back on the stall, squinting at me. ‘What was the question?
‘When and where were you born?’
‘I suppose you’ll be wanting my middle name and astrology sign, too.’
‘Are you saying those details are incidental?’
‘You’re going to make this harder than promised, aren’t you?’
‘Then tell me, why London? Why did you choose London as your birthplace, or re-birthplace?’
I move around the camera. ‘You’re going to make this harder than promised, aren’t you?’
‘Ha. Why London? Someone once said – I don’t know who – that in times of crisis Londoners fly into a great calm. That’s why London. Because it is a city served and shaped by a tidal river: a city in which people are supposed to come and go. It’s the only way the city will stand. Because it is a place of great possibility and great potential. That’s why these clowns banging their drum about Britishness and immigration grieve me. To paint a portrait of London is to paint a portrait of the world. That river comes and goes. Look out. Feel the tide turn. Who will be on the next boat? Maybe you, Eva Butler, chasing the world. Maybe me, arriving into England one fine summer day, ill-prepared for tea with cold milk, and the many words I would need to talk about the weather.’
A small silence.
‘I guess some of that’s usable…’
The room laughs. Silk loosens his tie.
I kept the laptop closed; I kept my eyes closed. I was woken by my alarm, by my own voice on the radio – ‘Yes, he identified with the Abstract Expressionists, but I think he was always anxious to emphasise that his abstraction was physical – that abstraction is inherent, that a person’s constructed reality is just that, constructed…’ I rushed into my bedroom, slammed the antenna down. Next door my phone began to parrot, another kind of alarm, friend after friend, Silk-is-dead-Silk-is-dead-Silk-is-dead.
We turned the kitchen into The Joseph Silk Funeral Production Office. The long table he’d sliced illegally from a giant lime tree after the storm of 1987 almost disappeared under paper. At the head, I sat surrounded by the Last Will and Testament, form after form about the art estate, the house, the money. Silk’s lawyer Olivia and his agent Winston muttered and sighed over the changes Silk made to his will without telling anyone, addendums added in Caran d’Ache pencil, replacing John’s name with my own.
‘It’s what you deserve, you know,’ said Olivia. ‘But there’s a lot to get through. All of Silk’s scribbles, for one thing.’
Silk liked Olivia for her utter disdain of art. It didn’t make me smile – it barely penetrated. I was full up. A letter had been sent to John informing him of Silk’s decision. I waited for his call, his arrival, his swearing, his ice storm. And waited. I didn’t sleep. Mum would arrive in eight days. I made invitation lists and recycled sympathy cards. Somebody asked why Silk hadn’t kept a Life Book detailing what insurance to cancel and which bank accounts to close down, information his solicitors already had. What we didn’t know was where to find his birth certificate or marriage licence, and the government wanted them.
‘Tell them to watch This Is Your Life,’ I said.
Winston shook his head. ‘The number of times Silk asked me why that couldn’t be taken off YouTube…’
I first met Winston backstage at This Is Your Life; he was Lawrence’s assistant – Silk’s first agent – and held my hand as I waited to go on. He was also Lawrence’s partner, and when Lawrence died of HIV Winston seemed to inherit Silk, who helped him plan Lawrence’s memorial. Now Winston helped me do the same for Silk.
The death certificate was easily found: the coroner had given it to me briskly, like a voided receipt. The deceased’s full name, and any other name he once had, proved harder because I had to look up the accents. Joseph Silk and József Zyyad sat side by side, contained in their boxes.
Pension, tick, received from the Royal College of Art.
Spouse: Rosemary Silk. Deceased. Occupation: dance choreographer. I wanted to add manager, wrangler, confessor, stabilising wheels, patient muse. But that was hard to fit in a box.
Silk’s date of birth: 05/05/1926. Olivia said she’d call the Registrar to explain that there was no birth certificate. There were no records, no Life Book, no committed memory.
‘None of it can have survived…’ Olivia said, slowing down as she picked up her pen. The verb underwent a transformation on the page, becoming a proper noun, becoming: Survivor. She said, ‘I’ll call them and explain.’
In return for all of this, I was told I would receive a death certificate I had to pay for, and permission for burial or cremation. No cremations – his plot had been arranged already. Messages from the funeral director haunted my inbox: what would you like on the menu? What would you like on the gravestone? Post-it notes doodled with graves littered odd surfaces: the bathroom mirror, an antique ottoman. Some were inscribed, some blank; some buried Joseph Silk, others József Zyyad.
Silk’s body was gone, but he continued to watch me from family photographs and Polaroids of art crowds from the ‘50s – they went out and came back in the form of magazine articles and Sunday spreads, all pre-empted by Facebook and Twitter. There he was as a tanned sixty-five-year-old above The Times banner, and an emaciated twenty-eight-year-old framed on the front page of The Guardian. Footage of him painting took up the entire BBC Homepage, with a link to Arts & Entertainment.
He was on TV too. The first evening news said Silk was one of the last of Britain’s twentieth century art giants. They described his peculiar eyesight, the derangement of colour that led to such extraordinary interpretations of reality. In all this, the initial authors of history identified Joseph Silk as British, before adding in the second paragraph that he was of Hungarian extraction, and in the third that he was Jewish. They laid their claim to him in the morning batches, but then began a slow shift, so that by day three ‘the Holocaust survivor and artist József Zyyad, better known as Joseph Silk,’ was to be buried in Highgate cemetery, sharing the ground with Karl Marx, that other un-Jewish-Jew.
Silk had always rejected being defined as a Survivor, but now the columnists and art editors realised: he isn’t here to roll out an ironic oi vey. They compared him to R.B Kitaj, another settler-artist, but one who pinned his Judaism to his sleeve, table-banging in his manifesto: I’ve got Jew on the Brain. Jews are my Tahiti, my Giverny, my Dada, my String Theory, my Lost Horizon. The Jewish Question is my limit-experience, my Romance, my neurosis, my war, my pleasure-principle, my death drive. Expert psychologists demolished Silk’s riposte to this insistence of identity with one sub-clause: ‘As a Survivor, Joseph Silk claimed his work did not stem from the Holocaust…’ The Jew doth protest too much.
Receiving comfort exhausted me: making cups of tea, making jokes. Solicitations of honesty exhausted me. After my friends left I retreated to the empty bathtub like someone seeking a hurricane-room. I drank port found in the back of a cupboard out of a china teacup – all the glasses were in the dishwasher and wine bottles in the recycling bin – and looked at my blank phone. People wanted to know when my father would arrive. John had been an orphan for four days and was yet to return to his childhood home and his daughter, with only the narrow sea to cross.
John never liked Fitzroy Park. He called the house an ice locker, always glaring. He hated growing up here, hated the Heath, the seven ponds, the elm avenues butting up against our garden gate. He hated Silk’s floor-to-ceiling windows, experiencing the constant white glow as cold embodiments of the studio in which his father hid. I saw the windows as a gift to Silk: the colour spectrum for his lonely vision. Light was Silk’s language, and, in that, John was mute.
Seeing myself in the phone’s black screen, I realised why I wanted to be alone, now, for this. No buffer zone.
Tapping call, I glued myself to the ring-ring at the other end of the phone, imagining John seeing my name and trying to decide: accept, decline, accept, decline…
Decline: the ringtone spooled out into the bathtub, circling the rings of dirt left by Silk’s experimentation with coloured pulp. I sat holding the phone even after it had gone to message, giving John eighteen seconds of my breathing, and beyond that the murmur of the bathroom. When I finally tapped end I felt like I was moving too slowly: phone down, a metallic thunk on enamel, my hands finding purchase, preparing to stand but still sitting here, thinking – so that’s that.
‘So that’s that,’ I told the conch shell on the bath rim, my voice loud and insulated all at once. John hadn’t answered, and wouldn’t answer – now that Silk was gone, the strange umbilical cord that connected us was cut, and I was free of it. No more practising final confrontations in the mirror, spitting vitriol onto my reflection.
‘So that’s that.’
I sat back. I loved bath times at Silk’s house, playing Batman and Robin figurines with Mum. At home – wherever home was then – the slosh of tidal waves was unacceptable, John studying town planning, and Mum didn’t have time to play, getting dinner ready. Here, Mum balanced a flannel on my forehead, keeping shampoo from my eyes. The flannel was cooler than the bath water, and sometimes I would bet which of two lukewarm drops would drip from my chin first, while Mum told stories of the desert, stories she didn’t normally tell, as if she had to pretend she didn’t miss Australia at all times but this, when I couldn’t see her expression.
Now I picked up a shell and put my ear to it. No ocean, just the suggestion of blood. I set it back on the edge, remembering the months we’d stayed with Silk while doing up a new flat, remembering one morning stepping into the bath – pulling the brass lever for the shower – and looking down at my stretch-marked thighs to see red. The illogical surprise of it made me release clenched muscles and more blood came. I shut the water off and stood, just looking.
Mum and Granny Rosemary weren’t in, just John – then still called Dad – and Silk. No one to call. Call for what? I switched the water back on and washed it away, then climbed out shivering and picked up my pyjama trousers. They were spotted red too. I couldn’t put them in Silk’s laundry basket for someone to find, or wash them with Rosemary’s linens. And I needed a tampon to stop more blood coming. The bathroom cupboards offered nothing, and I ended up perched on the closed toilet in my towel. I felt like crying, and did not know why.
I stayed in the bathroom for nearly an hour that day, until Silk came knocking on the door. The door was broken – we used a paintbrush to turn the mechanism – and he let himself in as I told him I was fine, I mean, something has, but really, I don’t… His eyes swept the room, me swamped in a towel, my pyjamas on the floor. He would not be able to see the red splotches of blood.
‘You’ve been in here a long time.’
‘Do you know when Mum’s coming home?’
‘No,’ he said, closing the door a little so that John – whose tread I could hear on the stairs – would not see into the room. ‘Did your father upset you?’
I said nothing.
‘You’ll get a cold like that. Get dressed and we’ll go out, just you and me.’
We went to Louis’ Deli, a Hungarian patisserie that serves devil’s puffs and floating islands and dobosh torte. I had my first ever coffee there, a double espresso with no milk or sugar, a drink fit, he said, for a young woman such as myself.
I remember blushing, something he called itchy or prickly, familiar with the sensation but not its colour. To him, it would have looked like I was paling, or maybe it looked like nothing at all, and he never realised I was embarrassed.
He realised enough, I suppose.
Did your father upset you?
Your father, not my son. A performance of separation he and John had already torn through, rabid and impatient; a performance I would now quietly finish.
He realised enough. And that was that.
Accept: ‘Eva, it’s late here.’
‘Here too. Don’t you think we should talk about this?’
‘You must have got the letter by now.’
‘You’re welcome to it.’
I set the cup between my legs: the whole room seemed to shrink to that clink of china, the wobble of port inside. ‘Is that it?’
‘That’s it. And while you’re at it, you can deliver the eulogy. I’m not coming.’
‘You can’t mean that.’
‘You can count the fucking ways in which I mean it.’
The line went quiet. I stared at the screen. Duration: twenty-three seconds. Breath stuttered up my chest and into my windpipe and come out as a laugh. One side of my lips stretched. How do I love thee? Let me count the fucking ways.
I stood up so fast I knocked the cup over and port sloshed down the pale surface, blood again, but not so dark. Don’t slip. No Mum to catch you, no Silk to close the door. I climbed out holding onto the edge.
I closed the door to the Blue Room behind me. An unfinished portrait of me waited on an easel in the corner. Or some version of me. At that moment, I didn’t know which of us was more real. Eva Butler, twenty-four, red hair and green eyes – the ambivalence, a boy once said, of changing traffic lights – with Australian freckles waiting to happen, the cheekbones of Eastern Europe, an unassuming nose, a chin ideal for the gentle grasp of Silk’s hand as he painted my face on my sixth birthday. Or Eva Butler, the canvas translation, aging me, hair a grey swathe, face indeterminate. This underdrawing of my eyes, a glimmer of laughter turned contemplative, this lurking pentimento: all this managed now to cast me as its poor reflection.
I directed the spotlight away from my portrait. The room glimmered and winked at me. The collection began in the ‘50s when Silk went to work for the British Colour Council. This was not a joke at the expense of his vision, at least not a conscious one. A friend got him the job. On the studio shelves, the concertina British Colour Council Dictionary flashed its silk scales like rainbow trout. It was in this specific world that Silk discovered the true extent of the damage to his eyes, and was sent politely to the broom cupboard as a cleaner. There, in the illicit lamplight of night shifts, Silk carried out his own eye-tests. Medici crimson and Kenya red were lost to him, replaced by grey. But cerulean, firmament, heavenly blue, zenith, azure – they consumed him until he could smell clear sky and hear glass being pulverized and coloured with cobalt. The Blue Room was born.
Now, journalists and art historians wanted to force meaning onto the Blue Room, an archive, a way to un-mix the miscellany, a word Silk – who wrapped his tongue around his chosen language with the fervour of a first kiss – would tell them came not only from Latin for mixed, but Middle English for mischief, itself from Old French meschief – a bad result – comparable with Spanish menos-cabo: diminution, loss. So what was the Blue Room, a great solid mountain of goods, or a hollow mine, whose very size reflected loss on un-categorisable scale? What mattered here, the glorious pile of looted furniture, or the dust it would leave behind after removal men carted it out?
Olivia and Winston were already planning what to do with the Blue Room. Sotheby’s had hosted a ten-day auction for Andy Warhol’s thrift-shop collection. The Centre Pompidou had reconstructed Brancusi’s studio, dust and all. Winston asked me to come up with a catalogue. Silk always said a catalogue would translate the Blue Room for other people, but this was a language of one: nobody could see what he saw, a blue that overtook everything.
I sat down at Silk’s desk, looking up at the wild shelves. How to begin counting the milk caps and postcards of seas and rivers and ice fields, the cloth picked from British Rail train seats and Chelsea FC shirts – spit on their name – and toothpaste tubes and torn Levi’s and pipes of steel that caught the light in a certain way, the Milk of Magnesia bottles I found in Camden market, the minerals and dried-up ink and pressed forget-me-nots and sapphires and peacock and honey bird feathers and glasses and jugs and vases and Fortnum and Mason tea tins, the mess china from nineteenth-century naval ships and my childhood figurine of Captain Planet, pages torn from books about the Blue Group and a Kandsinsky most people thought was a copy but I knew better and a Hasselblad photo of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon in 1969 and food cartons from companies that no longer exist.
All this he experienced as a miracle.
I didn’t know what to do with it. Put it in storage, throw it away, make a permanent installation? Let it stay here and patina with dust? Keep earning that pocket money. Keep dusting. Take their lives apart like an archaeologist packing up a find: shake loose the earth. Pack it up and ask John what he wants – pack the whole house up and ask John what he wants: the cuff links, books, walking sticks, records, the giant impractical lime table pulled from its roots.
What shall we do with us, John? Now that our melodrama is done and I didn’t even tell you what I think of you, just a pathetic You can’t mean that, and I am maddeningly still left with room for doubt. What do you want from me? What do I want from you? Let me count the fucking ways.
No. Dig for something else. I moved shaking hands across Silk’s desk, a diviner searching for lost property. But what I had lost would not be found here, would not be found at all. What else might? A note, perhaps: My Eva, I am sorry to have left you like this, without warning about my Will, and a father with the paternal instincts of a twelve-year-old… I am sorry to have left you like this, I am sorry to have left you, I am sorry to have left, I am sorry, I am, I – my hand froze on a thick envelope. A stiff weave, the kind he used for birthday cards. Maybe there was such a note. I turned it over. My shoulders dropped with relief, or disappointment. The name on the back, next to ‘If lost’, was Dr Felix Gerschel.
The letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I’d brought it to Silk months ago. He was cleaning palettes, and, giving the envelope a glance, combining ‘Jewish’ and ‘Berlin’, told me to put it with the recycling.
‘It could be something interesting,’ I said, and opened it. The muscles in his jaw grew denser as I read aloud, too late to close the gate: ‘It says that the National Relief Committee for Deportees in Hungary interviewed you in 1945 about your… experience. They asked you seventy-six questions. The Jewish Museum in Berlin has found your testament in their collection and wants to use it for an exhibition they are putting together about Survivors who went on to be artists, and artists who didn’t, um, survive. This researcher, Felix Gerschel, wants you to come and see the testament, and then to interview you. Or he can come here…’
‘Seventy-six questions? Never in my entire life have I been so interesting. Put it in the bin. I can’t go to Berlin. Not now. Don’t they know how busy I am?’
The plastic brush knocked against the lip of the palette as he scrubbed at the hardened acrylic. I slipped the letter back into the envelope and left it on top of a Eurostar offer to senior citizens, one-way for just £39.99.
Now the glue was matted with dust and hair. How many times had he read it?
Silk never discussed the war. The little I did know of his experience came from newspapers and art books and memories of Great Uncle László. I sat down, turning the letter this way and that, skating it over my knees, listening to the rasp of thick paper on the stubble of my unshaven legs. You can deliver the eulogy. You can have the house, the canvases, this Gordian knot in your stomach, the grief that forces your eyeballs to the back of your skull to watch the world continue without him; this in medias res fucked-up entrance to the history of your grandfather: his disputed legacy and the father that legacy stunted and these questions, so many questions that the first has to be, How do I stand up without you?
I picked up my phone. Entered the area code, and listened to the strange ringtone.
‘Gerschel. Hallo? Ist jemand da?’
‘Is that – I’m looking for Dr Felix Gerschel.’
‘You have found him. Me. This is my home number, though, and I am out of office hours -’
‘You put your home number at the bottom of the letter. You said he – we – could ring anytime?’
‘Who is this?’
‘I’m sorry, my name is Eva, Eva Butler. I’m Joseph Silk’s granddaughter.’
‘Jesses. Excuse me, I say… I am surprised to… I mean, I am so sorry. I was a huge admirer of his work, I did my PhD…’
‘It made the news out there, I guess.’
A pause, then a small laugh, one of sympathy. ‘All over the world, I imagine.’
‘Right.’ I clamped my spare hand under my armpit, the damp patch warming my fingers. ‘I’m calling because I wondered if Silk – if Mr Silk – ever got back to you?’
‘What did he say?’
‘You say you are the granddaughter of Joseph Silk?’
‘And your full name was, please?’
‘Eva Butler. It’s my mother’s surname. Silk is my paternal grandfather.’
‘I see. I am sorry to – it would be a great honour to be speaking with Joseph Silk’s granddaughter, but without any proof that you are who you say I cannot give that sort of information.’
‘But what are you going to do with his testament?’
‘I am very sorry, I cannot discuss…’
‘Do you still have it?’
A rustle, and then the sound of typing. I imagined him Googling me. Would I share pages with Silk? ‘Frau Butler, I really …’ The voice was obscured now, as if the phone was pinched between shoulder and ear. Two hands: one typing, one moving the mouse. Perhaps he’d found my blog, Picture Show, my reviews of films Silk and I watched together. Maybe he was scanning over my write-up of The Lion in Winter. After his first stroke, Silk reassured me: I’m not scared, darling. Smile, darling. There’s no need to be scared. I gave him the smile he wanted, asking, What kind of courage have you got? and he delivered his favourite line lightly: My courage is the tidal kind. It comes and goes.
‘Mr Gerschel,’ I said. ‘Did he ask you to destroy it?’
The typing stopped. ‘Yes.’
I stood up. The letter slid to the floor. ‘Did you?’
A long silence. ‘No.’
I paced to the window. My bedsheet-white reflection stared back. ‘Why not?’
‘Herr Silk called again. He asked me to bring it to London.’
‘Why? To destroy it himself?’
‘I think he wanted to read it.’
‘Perhaps he had forgotten its contents, I do not know how his memory was, but really -’
‘No, I mean, what makes you think he wanted to read it?’
‘I do not know. Something in his voice.’
‘Why didn’t you come?’
‘I was going to. I had a flight booked. Then I saw on the news, he had a stroke. I called his agent but no one got back to me. Listen, I really should not have told you this…’
‘He had two strokes.’
‘Yes. I read this also. I am very sorry -’
‘Can I look at it?’
‘If I got on a plane tonight, tomorrow, could I read it? I can bring my passport, his passport, everything. If you’d just meet me.’
A long silence. I rocked up onto my toes and stayed there.
‘Of course, Frau Silk, this would be the museum’s pleasure.’
I lowered to the floor, inch by inch.
Buy a plane ticket, wiping out more than half your bank account (both graduate and savers), and book a cab to Luton airport for £95. Do not call your mother or text your father. Do take two wallets and two passports.
I was following stage directions written in somebody else’s hand, somebody who could close the door on Fitzroy Park and follow the Thames out. Fitzroy Park had felt like home all my life – we moved constantly before the divorce, chasing New Town developments orbiting London. Fitzroy Park remained fixed. The lane ran behind the bathing ponds, and was once the driveway to a farm. Some of the houses were cottages that looked like they still possessed their original cob and thatch, others 1920s art nouveau. Our house was somewhere in between, first Georgian, then Victorian, then Bauhaus, Silk would claim, its curved sides somebody’s vision of a future that never arrived. Silk and Rosemary reconstructed its ruined face with giant windowpanes, inheriting the house through what amounted to diligent squatters’ rights.
When I stepped out that night, the lane was quiet, as it always was. You could convince yourself that you were in the countryside, standing here. You could convince yourself that nothing had changed.
I heard Silk ask: Do I have the keys, Eva?
No, Silk, I do.
anything but what I am
Possessions first. Books and spoons and wallets on the floor. József has nothing left to give this new flea market. A soldier at the train station already took his money, claiming it in exchange for the pea soup that made everyone in the locked freight cars shit the length of the motherland. Cooked with laxative, the others said, forty or fifty men whose skin he feels he has climbed into. German and Magyar soldiers shout at him now, at all of them, for the stink of it. This is the first time he has gone beyond the borders of his birth. He thinks he might shit himself once more from fear alone. A rifle butt pushes him further into the darkness of the shed.
Armbands. He wears a yellow scarf, sewed by his mother, around the arm of his father’s second best coat. These are the rules of labour service. Despite being attached to the German army, no military dress is permitted. Change of rules, a soldier says. No civilian dress either. He drags József’s coat off, jerking the armband loose and tossing it back into József’s hands. Shirts off. The replacement is thin cotton, too big for him, with a giant yellow star stamped front and back. The paint is stiff. He buttons the star up, uniting its angles, and wonders if it will resist the rain beating the metal roof. He binds the yellow scarf around his arm again, carefully.
Line up. This way. That. Stand up straight. Are you looking at me? A Magyar soldier swings his rifle at a man’s head.
It is as if the other soldiers have been waiting for this sudden surge of violence. The servicemen crowd together, crushing József, and he goes down under the force of it, skull hitting the concrete. A boot finds his ribs. He stays down, trying to curl around the boot, which shakes him off and stamps even harder, again and again, flashes bursting in József’s vision, the man screaming in Magyar with such fury it is a shock when it stops. József stares up at the soldier, who is no longer looking at him, but the crabbed form of an old man.
Close your eyes.
Thud-smack, the soldier’s rifle coming down, the old man crying, so close his pain pours directly into József’s ear, noise that bites and blares and brawls. No. Stop. A howl, the old man trying to crawl away. The soldier’s knee is suddenly in József’s back, using him to get closer to the old man. The point of contact is enough to feel the pullback of muscle, the swing, the follow through, once, twice, three times.
The rifle clatters to the floor. The noise stops. The wet disintegration of the old man’s silence touches his fingers. Blood, bone, hair. He thinks he is next and keeps his face pressed to the concrete, but the soldier pays him no attention, just sinks down onto József’s body, tired.
László, I remember how I coaxed you from childhood fears, but cannot stop myself crying now.
Breakfast is a half empty tin of sugary coffee and a slice of stale bread. The men around him take two bites that last for long minutes and pocket the rest, but József feels too faint to copy them. As he balloons one swollen cheek with the last of the coffee, a man opposite with teeth like mud-clogged cobbles gives a heavy sigh. Another man sitting to his left, wiry hair sprouting in the grooves of his face, asks in Magyar, ‘You arrived yesterday?’
He swallows. ‘Last night.’
‘Has the city been emptied?’
‘Evacuated? No. The bombing isn’t that bad yet.’
‘No – why?’
Another long sigh.
‘How old are you?’ the man asks, tugging the curls at his chin.
‘Eighteen last week.’
This man with the bad teeth lifts a grey eyebrow at József and says: ‘Mazel tov.’
József tries not to blink under the man’s withering look, but to return it, suddenly angry that this broken-down horse assumes he is green from the city, angry that the man maybe heard him crying last night and that is why he looks at him now with such contempt. József has seen more than enough to make him a man before now. He has seen his father return from labour service so undone Alma mistook him for a beggar at the door. Until he realises the man’s gaze is not contemptuous, but empty.
He asks them both, ‘What are we doing here?’
A one-shouldered shrug. ‘Mines. Copper. Train tracks.’
‘Are they – what happened last night, does it happen a lot?’
József wants them to look at his face and offer sympathy. But neither says anything. It is another man who leans in and tells him, ‘All the time, since Marányi.’ The name draws the talk of those around them, whispers only, comparing the command of Lieutenant Colonel Balogh with Lieutenant Colonel Marányi, telling him that though Balogh said he hated Jews, when he was in charge no corporals took food from our rations, and when it rained he took blankets from the guards and gave them to us. You think he was so angelic, tell me why did he let them destroy our mail? This argument is knocked aside by the word Marányi and with it everything Marányi has done, stealing money and sending it home to his wife, truss-ups every Sunday, ignoring the doctor, who tells him the weaker ones will die hanging above the ground, spinning, but Marányi doesn’t care if they do, there are executions too, disappearances, starvations: stopping the local Serbs giving us eggs and milk – we would have died by now without the Serbs, and we’ll die now they are kept out.
The man with the teeth leans across the table, bringing his smell. ‘You know how Marányi began? Gathered us all together in the square, told us, I am not pro-Jewish. I hate them. And he hasn’t let us down. Whatever kind of torture he can come up with, he’ll make us suffer.’
The knot of men comes loose as a guard approaches, a German by his uniform, though not strict army, József’s bunkmate had explained, but Todt, paramilitary men charged with running Bor for the SS. The German grips the shoulders of the man opposite, easing him back into his seat, all the time studying József, his bruises. He says something József does not understand.
The man in his hold whispers, ‘He asks, how did you like your food?’
József nods, trying to smile.
The German laughs, claps the man on the back, and moves onto the next table where men with different armbands bend over tin cups – all except one who has turned around, watching the Magyar Jews. A solid man, squat and hunched, a man who would be difficult to knock from his chair.
‘Are all the Germans so…?’ József trails off, unnerved by the flicker of a smile from the man watching. It is not a friendly smile.
It takes a full minute for the man to drop words onto the table with the weight of loosened rocks. ‘Marányi is Magyar. The guards are German. What the fuck does it matter?’
The man at the next table has returned to his coffee, showing József the hillside of his back.
László, I am not brave like you think I am. Are you in Budapest still? Are you with mama, and Alma? You thought I could protect you, but now I see you guarding the door, keeping watch with the other boys on the street, pretending you are Emil and the detectives. Remember your German, László. Do not stand in doorways. Do not listen to mama cry. I cannot protect you.
Registration is an hour standing in the early heat of morning. József does not spend long looking at the blocks or the barbed wire or the gate: his gaze is fixed on the wooden scaffold. He has never stood stiller, or straighter, despite the too-small wooden shoes. The ropes move in the breeze, a series of loops, puppet strings waiting for puppets. There is no noose for the neck; instead there are braces to hang men by their hands and leave them dangling. How long could you last like that, muscles burning? Did they hang you with your hands in front of your chest, or behind your back?
By the time they set off up the mountain his body has swollen and seized. The surrounding foothills are dense with fir trees, thick like the hair on his father’s forearm, as if he is in his father’s arms, except, when did he last receive a touch from his father? József wipes sweat from his face. God, he needs to eat something. Drink something. Ferns border the road, and József tries to stay in their shade but the column won’t let him. Birdsong is constant, instruments falling from the sky, cymbals playing each other. The wooden shoes are crushing his toes. He watches the guard ahead, deciding finally that the man won’t turn around, and tries to get one shoe off while still walking, hopping and pulling, but the first hop on the spasming muscle is enough to make him double over. The man behind swears at him, and somebody else snatches his elbow. József jerks away but the grip is too strong, propelling him on.
‘Arrive without shoes they’ll put you on report.’
József just stares at the man, willingly pulled along. He remembers the steady gaze from the next table at breakfast, the man not wearing a yellow armband, and no yellow star glares now from his shirtfront, but he is speaking Yiddish. Before József can show he understands, the man releases him and shoulders through the column, gone.
József limps on, staring at the ground. His breath is a metal ball in his throat. The army health check in Budapest cleared him. He is even robust next to some of the men around him, but feels he might collapse on the road, and they are not even there yet, wherever ‘there’ is. He obeyed the call-up signs posted in the streets only after his mother’s pleading turned to red-faced screams, telling him that if he didn’t go they would come for him, and it would end badly, badly. He reported to the Palace of Invalids, as his friends called it – Invalid House to the army, barracks built for veterans of the many back-and-forths with the Ottomans. After the health check József was given his pay book. It contained his company, a photograph ringed in stamps, and the date, 1944.VI.I. On the front was a large black ‘Zs’ in permanent pen. Zsidó. Jew. The registration certificate was folded neatly into the tin rectangle of his dog tag, which swings away from his body with every forward step, returning with the resistance of the mountain.
The hills open up to a plateau, and the column finally stops. József swallows thin air. There are hundreds of men up here, thousands, filing in from different directions, some flashing yellow stars, others wearing better clothes but similarly broken bodies. Below, the steppes drop to poppy-covered plains unravelling like rolls of wallpaper to the Carpathian Mountains. At the heart of the plateau, mineshafts burst from the red soil like black sores.
More shouting. More lines. More numbers.
József is assigned to the ‘Durchlass’ – German, he knows, but can’t remember what it means. As he queues for the entrance to the mine his fear becomes unswallowable.
What if they are fed down the throat of the mountain and never let out? Explosives litter the plateau, coils of wire he doesn’t understand. He is given a pick-axe.
A few steps and he is in the dark. The ground drops, steep and burrowing deeper. He fumbles for purchase. The walls are wet soil and rock with a metal rail, rusty to the touch. The earth beneath his feet is so sheer he thinks he will fall, tipped into a long and endless tunnel, and he scrabbles at the rocks, struggling to remain upright. It evens out eventually, but still tips him unstoppably down, unstoppably black, and panic makes him gulp the air, but there isn’t any, just the hot choke of gunpowder. Echoes of wooden shoes on rock tumble down before him. Madness, this is complete madness, he can’t see anything, the man behind won’t let him out. Breathe. Whatever is in the air, breathe. Sink deeper, earthworm. There is a spot of light. Gas-lamps throb in József’s vision like spots of solar flare on a photograph. They draw him on, through the rising water that is now around his knees, so cold he can feel nothing beneath the surface of floating debris. The tunnel branches and he follows the man before him – dead end.
Eleven hours with only the water they stand in to cup and drink. Eleven hours with no sun or oxygen. Eleven hours with no food. Eleven hours without stop. An old Magyar whispers to him, be careful how you strike the ore, the gases in the air are explosive. One strike and… But the Todt foremen venturing into the dark shout, Schnell, schnell. József passes through hunger and muscle-burn and tiredness and disbelief into something like numbness, but it is only a thin wall shaken by hunger’s fists, and the shanty-town of his numbness blows down, leaving his lungs exposed to the raw gas, and his disbelief becomes rage until that too exhausts itself, returning to something like numbness. He thinks about swimming with László and Alma on Margit Island. He thinks about standing in the doorway to the kitchen of their Yellow Star apartment, watching his mother, who sits at the table. Tallow candles paint her reflection over the waves of the windowpane, whose illusive solidity gives way under intense study, study his mother gives it, not breaking eye-contact with the night, not moving, hardly even breathing. He thinks about his father, imagining him in Ukraine, imagining him thinking about his children, wondering if they’ve been taken and where. He thinks about Margrit Island again. He thinks about nothing at all, left with something like numbness.
‘Do you understand me?’
The question pulls József out gradually, like a knotted towel tugged through a fist, each passing knot bringing a little more back: he is watching his feet pick their way down the mountainside, his clawed hobbled feet wet and bleeding inside the wooden shoes, and is holding his arms by the elbows, a support-system for muscles and bones shocked by the vibrations of the pick, holding them with hands that are wet with burst blisters. He lifts his head, demanding power from his spine and muscles that simply isn’t there. The man who warned him about the shoes is next to him. The sun is a red emergency flare sinking behind the mountains, enough light to see the man’s face. József tells him, ‘Yes,’ in Magyar, then replays the man’s question and remembers he isn’t speaking in József’s first language but in the language of his grandparents, and tells him, ‘Yes,’ again, this time in Yiddish.
József nods, a single fall of the head.
‘And it was Magyars who kicked you around last night?’
The man smiles. ‘Now you know how we’ve felt for the last four hundred years.’
From the man’s accent József guesses he’s Yugoslav, and says nothing. They walk on, the man’s mouth shut but the muscles in his jaw moving, looking to József like marbles sifted in a trickster’s palm.
‘Don’t listen to what those fools told you this morning.’
‘It wasn’t true?’
‘It was. What I understood anyway, your bat-shit language.’ The man shrugs. ‘Still. Don’t listen to it.’
József drinks sweat from his upper-lip. ‘You don’t wear a yellow star.’
‘Why should I?’
József tries to think of the reason but the words won’t come out right. He closes his eyes, and when he jolts awake he finds he hasn’t fallen because the man’s hand is back at his elbow.
‘Yiddish,’ he says, failing to pick up the rest of the question.
‘I could tell you to keep out of what doesn’t concern you in German, Italian, maybe even Magyar. Doesn’t make me anything but what I am.’
József says nothing. The Serb’s hand stays at his elbow. Below, town squares map themselves by tiny flags, redbrick and terracotta roofs punctuating dirt pebble roads, and amongst it all he sees a bronze flash of Danube, walled in by mountains. It is only a glimpse, but it is enough. He feels the river’s stirring bulk, its slow surety, whittling the land to its shape, leading back home.
you are here
I jumped, finding a woman in a ragged parka at my elbow. ‘No, I – yes.’
I took a step back. ‘Yes.’
I didn’t like being identified as Jewish here. It was the first time I’d ever thought that, looking so Irish. But maybe Silk was Jewish at a glance, and so was I.
The woman pointed, further into western Berlin.
Blushing, I said, ‘Thank you,’ and hurried down the street.
It was 10.30am. I wasn’t meeting the curator until three. I followed a road mostly taken up by a housing block and some shops, whose owners watched me from their doorsteps. A red signpost pointed down the alleyway, and I was turning the corner as I stepped over a bronze plaque that looked like it had melted into the cobbles.
I knew that ermordet had something to do with death. I knew the meaning of 1942. I took my iPhone out and swiped up for camera, capturing the tips of my toes and the winking sun on the bronze. I walked on slowly. A playground ran down one side of the alley, and I was jolted by the smack of a ball against the fence. The children were mostly Turkish or black, which surprised me, stupidly. I wasn’t thinking right. Max Laske, 1942.
I didn’t want to know what the museum held. Didn’t want any extra details. Outside of Great Uncle László there was no engine for remembrance in my family, no drive to articulate history. I knew the facts, knew place names and numbers like anyone. But I was suddenly very afraid of knowing more. I’d just see where the building was, get my bearings, then head off into the city until three o’clock. I slowed, watching the back-and-forth of the ball. If you so don’t want to know, what are you doing here? Why see the testament at all?
Because he’s in it. Because he’s here. Because he wanted to destroy it or save it. Because he would not leave the decision to strangers. Because I didn’t know what to put on his gravestone. Those forcibly neat words given to Max Laske – I did not know what those words were for Silk, and the engraver kept calling for an answer. Because he’d left me too soon.
The alleyway opened onto a wide street with two giant buildings. One was baroque and certain, colonnades and scrolls, a palace implacable to post-war concrete. It had a coat of arms over the door and two figures, one holding a sword, one scales. A courthouse. The building beside it was a massive bulk of blue steel – oxidising zinc, I realised – scarred by slit windows and contorted edges, twisting back on itself. I knew from yesterday’s glance at the website that both buildings made up the Jewish Museum, but could not tell how they connected. I crossed the road, thinking there was no traffic and feeling the breeze of a car brushing my calves. Watch out, little Eva. I walked up the ramp to the entrance of the older building.
The security was like an airport. I opened my overnight bag before the men could ask: they hardly glanced into its contents. If you offer yourself up, people will leave you alone. That’s one theory, anyway. Collecting my belongings from the conveyor belt, I joined the queue for tickets. When I got to the front, I told the lady who I was here to meet. She checked the computer.
‘Dr Gerschel has put your name on a list.’
I raised my eyebrows and waited for a flicker of shared irony, but received a smile so wide I wondered what I’d done right.
‘Enjoy the museum.’
The entrance hall hummed. I picked an audio guide, scrolling through the options: Chinese, English, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Yiddish… Silk had never taught me the languages of his homeland or abandoned religion. Once, some Orthodox friends took Silk and I to a Yiddish cabaret, where a stand-up comedian delivered a twenty-minute routine without a word of English. Every minute or so the whole hall laughed. I hated sitting there blushing and silent – ‘What an English rose you have for a granddaughter, Silk’ – so I laughed with them. Later, I asked Silk what the jokes were about.
‘Bagels,’ he said, expressionless. ‘And the end of the world.’
I replaced the guide and chose a map, unfolding its pages. Three words leapt from the centre:
you are here
Unlike other museums, where floors divided history – genesis in the basement, the future pressing against the roof – the Jewish Museum stretched across the old and new buildings I’d seen outside, the timeline jumping from the Holocaust to the world of Ashkenazim. Something called The Void cut through it all, binding and separating both buildings. On the map, it looked like a tunnel extracted from the twisting architecture, traversed by underground passageways that gave birth to staircases climbing from the building’s bowels to beyond the top floor, gasping for clean air.
I felt lost before beginning. I was never good with maps. In the diagram a red arrow slipped through the ground I stood on as if by trapdoor, bumping down the stairs and bashing itself against the sharp corners of the New Building. I looked at the black mouth of the staircase, the gullet of the Void, and then back at the map’s labels – Axis of the Holocaust, Axis of Exile…
My eyes were closing. I felt like I was falling forward, the map growing around me.
I really needed to sleep.
I could go to a café, even find a hotel for the day. I had money now. Silk’s money.
But I didn’t. I felt the thrust of that red arrow, grasped it like a bannister, and descended, Silk reading me Alice in Wonderland, ‘never once considering how in the world she was to get out again’.
The New Building was hermetically sealed apart from these zig-zag steps, bolstered by concrete slabs and solder lines. Gleaming walls snatched and scattered my reflection, tumbling down the stairs. The temperature dropped as I reached the bottom, hit by light and the murmur of a dozen languages.
I faced a long passage of black floors and white walls. At the far end another dark staircase led the way out, but two more pathways intersected the way there. The axes. I caught a glimpse of letters on the walls ahead, and thought I knew what they added up to. I focused on the far staircase. Like a school race. Get to the end quick. But the ground seemed to rise, fighting me, and those letters were insistent, saxe blue capitals spelling Exile, Holocaust, Continuity, and I took the axis that made the most chronological sense to me, thinking that in Silk’s story this came before exile, this thing summed up in one sentence marching across the wall: Flossenbűrg, Mauthausen, Ravensbrűck, Buchenwald, Chelmno, Belzec, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Lublin-Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen. Had Silk been taken to one of them, even more than one? There were no records. There was no shared memory. I would find out at three o’clock.
János Zyyad died in Auschwitz. Silk’s father. Now I thought about it, I realised I’d never heard Silk himself say it, not directly, or in interviews. But still it existed as a fact, in books and PhD theses and Wikipedia, reduced to gossip, footnotes citing ‘General Sources’. Anything, I realised, that Silk couldn’t edit – and neither, now, could I, when and if I wanted to.
I squeezed through the crowds, peering over shoulders and iPhone screens at glazed bowls and postcards and family photos. It was a stream of lost objects rising from a flood. The Jacobson family, who lived outside the town of Delitzch for 450 years, prior to Lodz, 1941; Philipp Kozower, his wife and three-month son Uri arriving in Thereseienstadt in 1943, ‘trying to settle in’, prior to Auschwitz, 1944; Norbert managing to write in the train, ‘The heat, the stench and the crying of the men, women and children crowded into the train defy all description… Escape is impossible,’ prior to Auschwitz, date unknown.
I was not retaining it. One step and the names and dates were gone, I who was now the family’s storage system. I returned to the Kozower family photographs. Children at the dinner table. They looked back at me with such strong gazes they seemed safe in this sepia stillness, inextinguishable. I had not found any pictures of Silk’s family or his childhood in Budapest, going through filing cabinets and pine boxes and envelopes in the sleepless hours of the last week. Maybe nothing survived. Maybe he destroyed it all, or gave it to a museum anonymously. I had found instead a file of every postcard I ever sent him when I was away, every birthday card I made him as a child, every nonsense poem.
Autumn-coloured paper preserved a smuggled letter:
‘There are no longer any children. And no men older than fifty-five or women older than forty-five. Gas. Can you imagine what it’s like to live this way, plagued every single day, every single hour, by the question of when your turn will come? Jews are still arriving from Germany, Holland, France, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Yugoslavia. They’re all being systematically terminated – and no one can help. Yours, Walter Windműller.’
The letter had been sent to Julius Riese in 1943, but Riese had already been deported.
Raised voices made me duck my head. A Spanish family arguing. I kept my head down, finding relief in the weightlessness of my fallen head. Legs, shorts, trainers, flip-flops, bare feet, sandals, a teenage girl loosely holding a grey-haired woman’s hand, four fingers looped around her bent thumb.
Did I comfort you in that way? Or, in your last years of ripening honesty, did I rush to muffle your words, insisting you had only ever been a good man, seeing your honesty as a threat?
Close your eyes. None of the languages make sense, not even English. They are soft echoes. A baby cries: no, no, no.
One of the cases protected an ink drawing. Clandestine art, the caption read. Friedrich Taussig worked as a graphic artist in Prague under the pseudonym Bedrich Fritta. In 1941 he was deported to Theresienstadt, a ‘model camp’. Cafés and shops created the illusion of normality for the Red Cross. Together with other artists, Fritta was forced to work in the studio, first as a draughtsman for the walls that would keep him, and then as a graphic artist for international propaganda. At night the men documented what they really saw, sketching impossibly crowded rooms, prisoners wailing and dying and waiting in black ink. Some of the pictures survived, hidden in walls, smuggled out, rolled tightly in tin. Bedrich Fritta was discovered and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. On permanent loan from Thomas Fritta-Haas.
I leant into the sketch, my breath glossing the glass. A demonic film camera shone its light on an old Jewish man; the wall behind hid a skeleton. Film and Reality.
Would you be brave enough to pick up whatever tool was available and tell the outside world, a future world without you in it, what was happening, knowing what would come if you did?
I’d like to think I would be. I wouldn’t be.
I couldn’t do anything else. I could do everything else.
We’d all like to be brave enough. And we’ll never know. Hope to God you’ll never know.
A museum guide – a host, they were called – watched me, checking perhaps that I was okay. I am not okay. The hair on my arms stood up; one of the letters described body lice standing stiff as hairs. I looked at Fritta’s urgent strokes.
I want to save Silk from walking through this.
Leave now and you’ll never have to know.
Did the museum plan to put Silk’s work next to Fritta’s? Did Silk ever use his art to protest, to exercise that kind of will? I wasn’t sure when he began painting – his answers were always contradictory. He described his mother as an artist. But it was something he came to later – and never utilised for this.
The last caption spoke of gas chambers and the words Holocaust Tower hovered in the glass, reflected from a door behind, leading to something described as a ‘voided void’. I moved towards it. The door was a slab of metal so heavy it shut itself behind me, collapsing my arm at the elbow. I was inside a moon-grey shaft lit by a drop of natural light at the top. I moved into the silence, following the common gravitation to the edges, hands trailing along cold concrete. I thought of other rooms made of bare concrete. A girl sat near my feet, fingers clasping her lips shut. A strange silence, as if we were joining together at a cathedral or a terminus.
People around me paced, sat down, took photographs, flashes swallowing the light at the apex of the tower, an Aussie asking: ‘Maybe it’d work better without the flash?’ I watched them and thought that in this room I was part of them just as I was part of János Zyyad who died and József Zyyad who lived, who went on to rename himself Silk, because together we were the human factor in the equation. Impossible to tell if they would have been victims or perpetrators or participators, impossible perhaps to maintain such clear lines, only possible to say that human beings really did this, every bit of it.
There was an earnestness to these thoughts that would usually be embarrassing, reserved for philosophical chats with girlfriends or 3am mumblings in a boy’s bed. But I didn’t feel embarrassed here. I felt dumped by a wave. Outside, a siren played two notes. I wanted to talk to someone. A little girl walked face-first into the corner of the tower and buried herself there. A boy approached her slowly. The girl followed him after a few soft words, and a man with his arms pinned around his chest took up the corner. As if they’d decided on a vigil.
Vigil. Silk took me to a performance of Rachmaninoff at St Pancras Old Church when I was eighteen. It was my first experience of classical music, and though I did not understand the words those vowels trapped and beating in the roof pulled something from me. In the interval Silk span the story of Rachmaninoff composing ‘All-Night Vigil’ in two weeks, taking Russian orthodoxy and turning it into something groundbreaking. The vigil was first performed in 1915 to raise money for soldiers on the Russian Front. It was so successful they performed five more times within the first month. Two years later, the Russian Revolution put a full stop next to all religious music. Rachmaninoff considered it one of his favourite pieces, but it would not be heard again for another seven decades. The Soviets, Silk told me, were good at full stops. ‘They put an end to so many things in Russia, in the satellites – Hungary… though I never went back, I was only told…’ I asked why he never returned. He considered me, tongue caught on his front teeth for long seconds. ‘You know what vigil means? French, Latin. Watch, alert, awake. Stay alive to something – or against something. No, I never went back. I stayed vigilant.’
As I watched this man bristling now in his vigil I thought he was alert to the necessity of doing so. It was maybe the only gesture of resistance in a place such as this, the resistance of being alive.
At least, that’s what Silk would say, if he had come here with me. But he stayed away from history. Was that a kind of vigilance too?
I sat down and forced breath into my chest. It did not help. Tears gathered in my throat, and something else, breathlessness, stuckness. People could sit here for hours, I sensed, and no one would wonder at it. People could come apart here. Feet shuffled and Babel voices muttered and I let it in, a faint chanting, the squeak of hinges, I let it in until it felt like silence. Shapes moved through the beam above, the outline of trees, infiltrating the hermetic seal. The tower was a pinhole camera. I swayed with the ghost branches as if the silence could catch me, embrace me. Light seeped through my eyelids, a lacuna expanding the more my eyes welcomed it. White on black. Silk never worked that way. I opened myself – aching eyes and throat, locked muscles and bones – and was dismantled, breaking free, fumbling for nothingness, with Silk’s voice calling me on.