LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 27, No.3 - Fall 1981
Editor of this issue: Saulius Sužiėdelis
Copyright © 1981 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Editor's note: The following selection is taken from the English edition of Lygiosios trunka akimirką. The novel concerns the fate of the Lipman family in the Vilnius ghetto during the German occupation
It was a hard shelter to find and get into. You had to go through one cellar, lift a large brick up from the floor, and then walk hunched over through a round cave, turn to the right, then go straight, open a door plastered with clay, and finally step into the shelter. It was a well-appointed room, but it had no windows. An electric light shone. A ventilator hummed continuously. A radio stood on the small table.
Two brothers had dug that shelter. In it they hid their paralyzed mother and the radio receiver, which each day broadcast the announcements of the Soviet Bureau of Information. The old woman's legs were paralyzed, but her hands could perform any sort of task. She lay on a mattress and wrote down the announcements from the Soviet Bureau of Information. The radio was always on and was always tuned to the same station.
They brought Liza to this shelter yesterday. She cried out that she didn't want to go, but they covered her mouth and brought her into the shelter. She had to live here with the old woman and with her write down the announcements broadcast by the Bureau of Information.
Of course, neither yesterday nor today did Liza pick up a piece of paper and a pencil. She didn't hear what the radio was saying and didn't see what was going on around her. She was often lost in thought like that, as if she had forgotten that she was not in there alone. In her eyes gleamed only one shining thing, the electric lamp, and in her ears echoed only the monotonous ventilator.
Liza was still very young. She was a girl, a child. But her breasts were not like those of a girl. Liza's breasts were large, tore her shirt, were swollen with milk and as ripe as mature fruit.
There, in the hospital, having pressed her whole body down on the pillow, Rachel had said to Liza, "You stare with your large eyes and understand nothing. Give me your child. Give him to me quickly."
And Liza gave Rachel that swaddled living lump.
"Now go," Rachel said. "Go around my bed and climb out the window. But do it quietly, so they don't see you. Then run to the house next door and they'll hide you. You have to hide."
Without thinking, Liza did what Rachel told her to do and did not think about what Rachel would do when she was alone.
She climbed out through the window and ran to the neighboring house. She told them something, she didn't remember now what it was, and then they took her to this shelter. They took her and covered her mouth so she wouldn't scream.
They made one more bed in the shelter.
On it Liza now sat and saw the monotonously shining electric lamp and heard the monotonously humming ventilator.
"I can't live like this," she said, grasping her breasts with her hands, breasts that were swollen and tore her shirt. "I can't live like this. All night I dreamed that he was sucking me. Now the milk dribbles and dribbles. My clothes are wet, and I'm all wet."
"Come closer," the old woman said, "and give me a towel. I'll bind you, and you'll feel better."
"No, no! I'm afraid," Liza said. "I'll still think that he's sucking me, and the milk will flow even faster and will never stop."
"Come here I'll help you," the old woman said.
But Liza did not go. She sat on her mattress and pressed her breasts with her hands.
The old woman was silent. Her legs were paralyzed, and there was nothing else she could do. She could only write down the announcements made by the Soviet Bureau of Information because her hands were free, and with her hands she could do whatever she wanted.
"I'll never be able to look at children, strangers' or ours," Liza said. "I find them disgusting, and I can't even think about them. If only my milk wouldn't run ... If only my breasts weren't so swollen . . ."
The old woman nodded but said nothing.
Meanwhile, in the city, there where there was no ghetto fence, in the large square, hung three people: two adults and one young girl. They were attorney Jonas Klimas, his wife, Ona, and Taibalė Lipman. Taibalė was Abraham Lipman's last daughter. She was the youngest in the family, only nine years old.
This was the second day they had hung there, but no one was allowed to cut them down. To the clothes of Jonas and Ona Klimas were attached large signs, and the poles from which they hung with those signs looked like Orthodox crosses. On the signs were written in Lithuanian and in German: THEY HARBORED A JEW.
Taibalė had been living with the Klimas family for a long time. The ghetto had not yet existed, had only been spoken of, when Klimas went to Lipman and said to him, "Listen, Abraham it's not clear what's going to happen. There's really no reason to expect anything good. Let Taibalė live with us. You have many children; it's not easy for you these days. She's the youngest, Taibalė. Let her live with us. Why should she walk around wearing yellow patches? We don't have any children of our own, and Taibalė will be like our own daughter, until the times change."
Lipman thought about it, and thought about it, and finally agreed.
Here in the ghetto, when times were really hard, Lipman was happy that his youngest child lived somewhere else, that she felt at home with the Klimas family. In that sense, Taibalė was his greatest comfort and delight.
Taibalė never went out of the house and served as an accomplished housekeeper. Each day after she came home from work, Ona Klimas gave Taibalė lessons, the same ones taught in the school. And sometimes, whenever the opportunity arose, Abraham Lipman visited his youngest daughter.
Taibalė was a mischievous girl. She always ate quite sparingly. The Klimases would sit near her, on either side, counting out how many spoonfuls she ate, and no matter how many spoonfuls they counted, they always told her to eat just one more, and after that one more, and no doubt there would never be an end to their counting. When this or that still remained in the soup bowl, Klimas pretended to be angry and raised his voice.
"And what about the solids? And what about the solids? Why are you eating only the watery parts? So it would be easier to swallow? And who's going to eat the solids? Well, tell me; Who? Tell me!"
Old Bronislava who was the second housekeeper and who had raised Ona Klimas with her own hands, at first only mumbled something under her breath. No one could understand what she mumbled, and probably she herself did not understand.
In the kitchen, when no one else was nearby, she muttered to herself, "You see, they coddle and pamper her. They've lived together for fifteen years; for fifteen years have not had a family of their own, so now they coddle and pamper her. I wonder if it's a good thing. I wonder . . ."
She was harsh with Taibalė.
The days passed, the weeks, the months. And one day Ona Klimas realized that one more person wanted to come into the world, that person for whom she and Jonas had waited for fifteen years.
She was surprised, frightened, and happy.
But most surprised was old Bronislava. She put on her finest clothes, covered her head with her holiday scarf, and for two days knelt and prayed in the church.
"I know why you've now sent such great comfort and consolation," Bronislava said to Christ. "This girl Taibalė has brought luck to our house. I've lived in the world for a long time, and now I've seen a miracle, and on my deathbed I'll remember your greatness."
Bronislava forgot that she didn't want to spoil Taibalė.
When the Klimases sat down near the girl, counting out her spoonfuls, of which she always failed to eat enough, old Bronislava would slink quietly near the rest of them and, looking on from the side, for no apparent reason, would shout, "And what about the solids? Have you left them for me?"
The time came, and Ona Klimas gave birth to a daughter.
And there were two girls in the house one already grown and the other as tiny as a living doll.
And seven days later the Germans came, along with some other men wearing white bands on their arms, and took away Jonas Klimas, Ona Klimas, and Taibalė.
Bronislava covered the cradle then with her large body and muttered to herself, staring with terrified eyes at the men who had come, "Keep away, mad spirits! . . . Keep away, you devils from the depths of hell! . . . The powerful hand of God will come down and strike you into dust! . . . Keep away, mad spirits! . . ."
And Bronislava remained alone with the infant in her arms. And that baby cried and wanted mother's milk, but her mother was hanging from a pole in the large square, there where there was no ghetto fence, where on her mother's breasts crookedly hung a sign with writing on it, where the pole and sign looked like an Orthodox cross.
Old Bronislava did not know what to do. She waited until evening, watched for Abraham Lipman on the narrow street as he came home from work with everyone else, and told him what had happened.
Lipman bowed his head.
When Lipman bowed his head, the brim of his old worn hat covered his eyes, and old Bronislava, who thought only of the newborn, completely forgot that this man, this father, was the father of the young Taibalė, who was such a comfort when life was hard. She thought only of the tiny Klimas girl who wept and cried for mother's milk.
"We'll come, Bronislava," Lipman said.
That night Abraham Lipman went out into the city, and with him went one fighting unit of three. They went out along their own routes, through cellars and tunnels, through sewer pipes in which it was difficult to walk against the flowing current of water that pushed them back. They felt they couldn't take a step forward because the current always pushed them back, but that's how it would always be, even if they walked on and on for months, for years, for many years.
Bronislava waited for them and gave them the Klimases' daughter.
The tiny living doll was swaddled and wound, and old Bronislava blessed her three times with the sign of the cross and blessed the four men who had come to get her. But the girl still wept, wanting to eat, crying for mother's milk.
Abraham Lipman pressed her to his chest, but he was afraid to press too hard even though the infant's loud weeping echoed in the narrow street. The four men had barely managed to get to the hole that led down to the sewer pipes, when a policeman appeared. The leader of the trio told the rest to climb down while he began to shoot. And later, when his friends and Lipman and the girl had already reached the bottom, when it was easy for them to walk because they walked with the current, the leader of the trio fell back, dead, and covered the sewer hole.
Of the four men who had left only three came back to the ghetto, but there were four still, because in Lipman's arms lay the baby who was crying in hunger. And all four of them went to the best and most secure shelter in the ghetto, where the old paralyzed woman lay, where the radio broadcast the announcements of the Soviet Bureau of Information, and where Liza tormented herself as she saw the monotonous shining of the lamp and heard the monotonous humming of the ventilator.
Liza screamed, seized with terror.
She saw Lipman staring at her and drawing near with the weeping lump in his arms. But old man Lipman paid no attention to that. He still walked toward her with the baby, and Liza stretched out her arms to keep them all away. The other two men had nothing to do there. But they had left their leader fighting for the tiny weeping girl, and they wanted to see with their own eyes how that tiny girl would stop weeping once her lips tasted mother's milk.
Liza jumped up and said, "Get him out of here! I can't stand the sight of children!"
She looked at the swaddling clothes and saw the wrinkled face and the light hair.
"Get him out of here!" Liza screamed. " I'm afraid! I'll die if I touch him!"
Then Lipman called the men. They sat Liza down and held her, embracing her gently. Lipman unbuttoned Liza's shirt and put the child down on her lap. She shuddered and moaned.
"Close your eyes, Liza. I'll tell you a story," Lipman said. "I'll speak; you listen, and then you won't want to cry, and you won't be afraid anymore."
Liza closed her eyes and was silent.
The baby greedily grasped the breast, swollen, large, ripe as fruit. It chewed with its toothless mouth; it hurried; it smacked its lips loudly, and the others there sat quietly listening to the way a tiny newborn human sucks mother's milk.
And Abraham Lipman told Liza a story.
He told her that there once lived a father who had a daughter named Taibalė and that Taibalė was the youngest of all her father's children. And two people, a childless couple, took her into their home and wanted Taibalė to eat more spoonfuls of soup and to eat all the solids. As the days, weeks, and months passed, God created a miracle, and those two childless people gave birth to another person. And now that new person wanted to eat, and she must get mother's milk, because for all people mother's milk was like the juice of the earth that nurtured trees. And she must be protected, that tiny person, pressed to our hearts and caressed, because her mother did not exist, because her father did not exist, and because Taibalė did not exist.
Liza slowly freed her arms.
She was still afraid to look and just barely, barely opened her eyes.
She touched the infant with her hands and again trembled. At first she tightly closed, but then later opened, her large black eyes. She slowly turned those swaddling clothes, in which life fluttered, and gave the baby her other breast.
Then Liza began to weep.
She wept quietly, very quietly. She could again hear how the tiny girl hurried to eat. Tears rolled from her eyes and fell without a sound on the swaddling clothes. There were many tears, as large as heavy drops of dew.
The men, seeing the tears, sighed. They sat listening to the way a tiny newborn human sucks mother's milk and were happy that Liza was weeping.
It is good when a woman weeps. She has many reasons to shed her tears.
It is bad when a woman cannot weep.
Translated from the Lithuanian by
Copyright © 1978 by Icchokas Meras. Published by arrangement with Lyle Stuart.