03. 24. 2013. 17:17

Hanele (excerpt)

"If this was her fate, why rebel? It couldn’t get any better, only worse" – an excerpt from Hanele, a short novel about an ugly, miserable Jewish orphan girl in a pre-World War II shtetl. The book, rich in ethnographic detail and betraying strong empathy for the outcast, was written by the polymath writer and composer György Láng.

"I do not want to flaunt my wounds. I just want to show them"—this was the motto of György Láng, the author of Hanele, a short novel about an ugly, miserable Jewish orphan girl living in a shtetl in the area that is now Ukraine. The book, rich in ethnographic detail and betraying strong empathy for the outcast, ends with Hanele being transported to Auschwitz. The author, György Láng (19081976) was an extremely versatile artist, a true polymath: composer, conductor, novelist, playwright, music critic, bar pianist and graphic artist. His most important musical work, a violin concerto entitled Concerto ebraico was inspired by the prayers that he heard some Chasidic Jews sing in the cattle train on the way to Mauthausen. Láng remained creative even at Mauthausen where he edited a journal. In the decades after the war he wrote biographies of artists including Bartók, Haydn, Botticelli and Beethoven, and his most popular one, The Cantor of St Thomas's Church, a biography of Bach. Besides these, he is the author of an autobiographical novel about his experiences as a bar pianist in the Communist Hungary of the 1950s, and the posthumous Hanele (1980), illustrated with the author's own drawings.

Haneleh never knew, because she couldn’t rightly remember, when she lost her virginity. She might have been fourteen or fifteen years old at the time, possibly even sixteen. She had forgotten to number her years and didn’t ever pause to think that she, too, had a birthday. It all must have happened shortly before the First World War broke out.

Bazil Lopojda, the Romanian bocskor-maker,[1] was a well-to-do man. He did better than the Jewish shoemaker or the Christian bootmaker. Not only did he put together a large number of bocskors, but he also repaired old shoes, reinforced worn heels and nailed horseshoes onto boots. He had many customers because he took up all sorts of odd jobs repairing footwear, and in that part of the world, the bocskor was the most popular type of footwear.

One time, Lopojda told Hani to walk down to Borszék and bring back a bundle of grass for his goat. And Hani went, because she always obeyed everyone like a submissive dog. She never stopped to ask whether they would toss her a few coins after the job was done. Lopojda usually fixed her shoes for free or gave her a mug or two of fresh goat’s milk, especially if Hani did the milking. And more often than not, she’d get a slice of brown bread to go with the milk. So she rolled up an old horse-blanket and was on her way.

The Jewish street ended at the bridge. The dirt road descended between steep slopes and ran perpendicular to another road cutting across it and the hillsides. Beyond a few small fields and loamy, thin-soiled gardens, a new street began. Ruthenians, Romanians and Hungarians lived there, and in the broader, middle part of the street, there was a tiny, shabby Orthodox chapel, seemingly thrown together out of wooden tiles that had grown a somber gray with age. Across from the chapel stood the modest bodega where you could drink your brandy leaning against a stained, rough-hewn stand. The bodega belonged to a Hungarian Christian.

Where this length of street petered out and past the uncultivated fields lay the town of Borszék. It was only as far as two rooster-hops from Liget. On the left side of the road leading into Borszék was the famous mineral-water spring. Although the water was known as “sour water” in the surrounding countryside, it wasn’t really sour but deliciously flavorful, bubbling with carbon-dioxide, hissing and fizzing from the ground. People would come from far away to taste it and to carry it home in bottles. There is no ice cold soda water in the world to match this water that comes out of the ground naturally carbonated. A small wooden structure stood over the water where it bubbled up from the ground. It was in the form of a well with a pointed roof. The water source was paved with cement and look like a large nest. There was a long trough with a beaklike ending that stuck out of the wooden boards on one side of the structure and, chained to the wall, was an old tin cup. The minerals in the water had stained the cement trough, the chain, the cup, the wooden boards, the pebbles on the ground and even the dry grass around the well a rusty brown.

Hani loved this water, because it made her throat prickle when she drank it. Sometimes, she would even get tears in her eyes from the strong taste. She would drink from the spring on her way to Borszék and on her way back, even when she wasn’t thirsty. She drank for the sake of drinking. A bit further down the road, away from the spring, she took out her rusty scythe that had lost its handle and cut a large bundle of the lush grass that had grown waist-high for Mr. Lopojda’s goat, Fani. She rolled up the bundle in the old blanket she had brought, stuck the scythe in it and started back, balancing the lot on her shoulder. At the well, she threw the bundle to the ground and gorged herself on the tangy water, guzzling so quickly that the cold liquid flowed down the side of the cup, onto her neck and between her fully grown breasts. As she drank, she felt her stomach go hard and heavy, as if she had filled it with large stones which were pulling her to the ground. Lowering her bundle to the ground not far from the well, she lay down and rested her head on it as on a pillow.

After a short while, against a sky filled with a watermelon-colored sunset, she saw the tall figure of a Romanian man descend from the hill. He was singing in a guttural voice reminiscent of a dog barking. His moustache was generously sprinkled with gray and so was his long hair tied up behind his head and shining with the bacon fat he had used to slick it back. He might have been a prince for the rich embroidery covering his wide, fancy belt. His satchel was stuffed to overflowing, and he drew a number of semicircles on the ground with the hazel wood staff he used to keep his balance. He had come from working at the timber-slide in the high mountains beyond the Tisza River. It was there that the woodcutters felled Scots pine and larch trees up to twenty meters long and just right for construction work. They would send the trees crashing down the steep, barren hillsides. The mighty, slender logs bumped against each other, leapt and somersaulted as they descended into the Tisza. By the time the woodcutters waiting at the river drew the trees out of the water with their grappling hooks sorted them and loaded them on barges, the logs were white and bereft of their bark. The woodcutters working at the timber-slide were hired by the week or by the fortnight and received good money. Their work was difficult and dangerous. Those who used too much force to push a log from the side of the mountain could find themselves falling after it from sheer inertia. Some simply grew dizzy at the edge of the precipice and tumbled to their deaths. Those who fell were mangled beyond recognition. It was therefore strictly forbidden for workers to take so much as a sip of pálinka[2] or any other spirits while on duty. Workers who broke this rule were immediately dismissed, usually following a hearty beating by the foreman. But nobody cared, for after the work was done, the men received ample wages and were free to drink twice as much to make up for lost time. They never missed a single inn or tavern as they wound their way home.

The long-haired Romanian had a belt stuffed full of coins, a stomach sloshing with pálinka, and a satchel bursting with sweets for his young family. He knelt next to the well to keep his balance, filled the cup with the fizzing water and swilled it greedily. He quenched his fiery insides with the cool water and let its bubbly flow wash away the hot fog that filled his brain.

As he stood, wiping his moustache of the water, his gaze hazy with alcohol lighted on the girl. She was ugly, yes, and pockmarked, and just as dirty as he and his people... but she was young! The man walked over to her and sat down. He took out his short-stemmed clay pipe and, stuffing it with cheap tobacco mixed with dry potato leaves, lit it. With noisy, sucking sounds he puffed away at his pipe, spitting out the tiny grains that got stuck between his teeth. He’d not smoked his pipe halfway when he got the girl. He had an easy time because she put up no resistance. Hani gave herself cheap.

People in those parts were always hungry for sweets. Even the Jews, although they did on occasion drink sugared milky coffee or milk sweetened with honey, and—very rarely—they would bake sweet pastries on the more significant holidays. People ate sweet apples in the fall and plums, too, because apple and plum trees grew well even in the poor soil of the region. But they hardly ever ate cakes or other sweets. Sometimes, they might boil milk and pour it over the corn flour, which would sweeten it slightly when the milk had cooled so that less sugar or honey were needed for making mamaliga, prósza or puliszka.[3] The human body can turn many things, especially sugar, into fat, but it’s unable to produce sugar. And the local poor would have sold their souls for a little sugar. The unfortunate, pockmarked girl who belonged to nobody was especially hungry for sweets, for nobody lived worse than she did, she who sometimes went a whole day without so much as a bite to eat.

The Romanian opened his satchel and took out two packages of honey-cakes. This was a treasure indeed for Hani, a divine banquet! When Hani hesitated to reach for the cakes and simply stared at them instead, the man opened his satchel again and took out a bag of sour candy. He put the lot in her hands. As the girl remained shy and motionless, he concluded that she was still deliberating on his offer, so he added a bag of colorful taffy. When finally he grabbed her shoulder, Hani didn’t utter a word of protest. The two got up and went behind a clump of bushes. She didn’t feel much pain and was completely apathetic while she let him do as he pleased. The only reason she was impatient for the man’s heavy panting, reeking of pálinka and tobacco, to cease was so that she could finally taste the sweets. For her, the sweets were a royal banquet, unlike anything she had ever experienced. They were worth this little “inconvenience” after all. The man continued his journey downhill, back to his family, his children and grandchildren, and she started back uphill carrying the bundle of grass. A thin rivulet of blood ran down one of her thighs and her calf. It was soon covered by the dust of the road. And who cared, after all? Nobody had seen what happened.

Starting that day, she gave herself to anyone for next to nothing, for a ridiculous, miserable price. She’d sell herself for a handful of sugar cubes, for a shot of Ruthenian schnaps[4] or twenty Fillér,[5] for which she could buy two mugs of hot milky coffee at the Friedmanns’ bodega. Sometimes she would sell herself on credit. Sometimes she got paid, more often, not. She was surely infertile, otherwise, she would have become pregnant from time to time. And she was as insensible as a block of stone. Hani never knew a moment of sexual pleasure. She was cold, completely frigid. Perhaps this is why she had so little trouble forgetting Juon Vavrik and his delicate, black moustache and wide pants. She never thought of him again.

News that scabby Hani had become a hante, a whore, spread fast. Who could keep a secret in such a tiny place? It was widely known that she would sell herself to the lowest Ruthenian woodcutter, Romanian day laborer, Slovak ferryman or Hungarian peasant for a bit of food. In the Jewish street, there were some who were scandalized, others spat out when they heard her name, still others shrugged their shoulders in disgust, but most proved completely apathetic. They simply had no time to care. It was only the old and wise Reb Joel Kahn, who was nearly as knowledgeable as a real rebbe, who tried to find an excuse, who tried to pasken or explain away the girl’s behavior. He referred to the Talmud, which says that not all instances of fornication are to be judged or to be punished in the same way. For it is different if a man and a woman are found together in the wheat field when neither of them is married, just as it is a different case if one of them is married. And of course, one would judge quite differently if they were both married. It is also an important factor whether they happened on each other by chance and couldn’t resist the sudden and unexpected temptation or if one of them was lying in wait, preparing to seduce the other when the unsuspecting party came along. And it is of course a different case altogether if the two agreed in advance that they would sin and appointed a time and a place to commit their lascivious act.

In the case of poor Hani, one must be mindful that she was an orphan, an outcast, virtually homeless. She was in a perpetual state of hunger, cold and misery. She’d done what she had out of an effort to keep herself alive, to be able to fill her mouth with food or her pockets with a few coins. And she did work hard, after all, at other jobs. She worked for many around the village, but her wages just weren’t enough to keep body and soul together. So she had strayed. Do not judge, lest you be judged, and forgive, so that you may be forgiven, Reb Cohen said. So in the end, the villagers grew accustomed to Hani’s fallenness. They accepted her for who she was, gave her work and alms when they could, and otherwise didn’t speak much about her.

Not so Leah, who simply could not accept the fact that the girl she had “so generously” taken in should have become such trash. When she first learned of the scandal, she grabbed Hani by the hair and started banging her head against the wall. She hit Hani’s back with her stony fists and kicked her in the buttocks. And she screeched and howled, “Du oysvurf der menshheit, du oysgemarglte hante! Zolstu dich sheymen fun aygn bis e kapero!” “You spittle of mankind, you dirty whore! You should be ashamed of yourself from your eyes to the top of your head!”

And the girl remained silent and apathetic, insensible both to physical abuse and to Leah’s poisonous words. She allowed herself to be hit, kicked, yanked, and her head to be banged against the wall without making so much as a sound. She was as insensible to Leah’s beatings as she was to the sexual advances of the stinky, aging men she had dealings with. If this was her fate, why rebel? It couldn’t get any better, only worse.

Leah kept screeching for days that she would kick Hani out of her house. Hani didn’t care. There had been many long days, even weeks, when she had been locked out of the house in the dead of winter just because Leah had gone on one of her peddling rounds. In the end, Leah kept her. She needed the labor. Why should she pay someone else for dirty work, for doing her wash, scrubbing her floors and hoeing her garden? Why should she spend her hard-earned money to hire someone to dig up her garden, hoe it or to cart the dung and dress her fields? And so she kept “the abomination of the village,” the amhoretz hante[6] and worked her harder than ever before. She treated her with more cruelty, beat her often and gave her even less to eat. Hani no longer received any meat, not even a skinny chicken wing. Leah would suck all the meat from the tiniest bone and then crunch the bones between her teeth. But the girl ate the hazer[7] meat, bacon and pork, that she got from the men who used her.

 

 


[1] Bocskor (pr. Bochkor) is a type of moccasin with a leather sole and straps, usually worn by the peasantry.

[2] Pálinka: a strong alcoholic beverage made of various kinds of fruit.

[3] Mamaliga, prósza, puliszka: simple peasant dishes made of corn flour and milk, and either baked (prósza) or served as dumplings (Mamaliga, puliszka).

[4] Schnaps: a strong alcoholic drink like brandy.

[5] Fillér: a small coin, the equivalent of a penny.

[6] Amhoretz hante: a simpleton (one unschooled in religious matters/unobservant) and a prostitute.

[7] Hazer: pork.

Translated by: Noémi Najbauer

Tags: György Láng