A quiet, friendly, and level-headed man, Yaakov Fein decided—despite a few misgivings—to leave his family and thriving business for a while and venture to the village where his parents were born. He did so in a responsible manner, promising to return to his home and work in ten day—two weeks at most—and that everything would again be as it was.
His wife, Rivka, couldn’t accept his decision. She contended that such a trip should not be undertaken in haste. One must consult family and friends, and only after deliberation does one decide to go. And not alone, for a person does not travel alone to an unknown place. Yaakov, for his part, claimed that he had longed to go there for years but postponed the trip because of the shop and the children. Now he felt he could put it off no longer.
Yaakov Fein was not considered stubborn, which is why his wife believed she would succeed, with the help of their children and friends, in dissuading him. She was, of course, mistaken. Behind his affable serenity lurked an obstinate man. True, his stubbornness was deeply buried, rarely revealed, but when it came out of hiding, he would not be moved.
The pressure she applied daily did not affect Yaakov’s plans one bit. His resolve only grew, and he acted accordingly: an airline ticket to Warsaw, a train ticket from Warsaw to Krakow, and then a taxi to the village of Szydowce. In recent weeks, he had been searching for any survivors from the village, even one, who could tell him about the place and what happened there during the war. His efforts led nowhere.
When he was a boy in Tel Aviv, living on leafy Melchett Street, a few people from the village would come to the apartment. They seemed different from other people: short, stocky, closed. His parents were happy to see them. They would sit for two or three hours, talk about merchants and merchandise, reminisce, but mostly keep silent. They didn’t make a pleasant impression, but because they came to the house every month, they inevitably infiltrated Yaakov’s dreams—or, more precisely, his nightmares.
Yaakov’s parents were also uncommunicative, although not with him. He was an only child, living in his world and keeping his distance from theirs. His parents were always strangers to him. The strangeness pervaded everything: the house, the shop, the synagogue, not to mention the annual memorial service they held at home on the twenty-sixth of Kislev. The memorial was very intimate, barely a minyan of ten men, and it would begin with the afternoon mincha prayer, after which they would sit around the big table in the living room.
The modest get-together would immediately transform the house. The winds of their distant village would chase away the usual smells and would spread throughout all the rooms. These were cold winds mixed with the smell of steaming soup. Sometimes also with the smell of women’s cheap perfume. This invasion gave Yaakov the feeling that at any minute his parents would begin packing their belongings, and then they would all take off together on a long voyage to the village where his parents were born, where their parents were killed, and where part of their identity remained.
When his parents passed away, Yaakov immediately sold the apartment and the furniture. He donated household items, Passover dishes, clothes, and religious books to a charitable institution. He did this speedily and efficiently, without keeping a single thing for himself. He knew in his heart that a clean break was necessary, with no second thoughts.
But the shop that he inherited, a successful business, reminded Yaakov at every turn of his parents. Longtime customers never failed to remark that it was not he who founded the shop. Moreover, charities that his parents had supported would send him reminders, as did synagogues. These people remembered his father fondly, often remarking that he had been such an honorable, big-hearted man, devoted to ancestral tradition and loyal to his community. Most of the renovations done at the synagogue came from his pocket.
Yes, Yaakov was more of an Israeli than his parents. He graduated from high school, finished his army service as a captain, and studied for a year at university. Still, something was missing. He hadn’t felt this lack, if that’s what it was, in his youth. After his parents died, he set out to expand the business and bring in new merchandise. And so the successful textile shop became a shop for women’s fashions. He put a premium on space, elegance, and charm, and soon did away with his parents’ homey atmosphere. Were his parents to come back to life, they wouldn’t recognize the place. “It’s much more beautiful,” he would boast. Those were his desires, and he achieved them with great skill.
A different person would surely have been happy, but the inheritance from his parents did not make Yaakov happy. He thought he had obtained it fraudulently. Had he acted honestly, he would have donated his inheritance to charity, as he had the household goods, the clothes, and holy books, and started everything anew. This feeling, which came and went, took root and penetrated deeply in his soul.
To alleviate this unease, Yaakov would sometimes, after closing the shop, drive along the seashore, taking in the view, and then return to the city streets. He loved the mix of old-timers and new immigrants, the Middle Eastern aromas of falafel and shawarma, and the cheap carbonated drinks. When he got home, Rivka would ask, “Where were you?”
“At the beach.”
“You always say ‘at the beach.’ ”
She suspected him needlessly. In those years he did not escape to other women. True, from time to time a woman would lure him to her room, or he would take a woman for a night. But those amounted to fleeting and trivial recreation. His soul was tormented by things beyond his ken, whispering in long, nightmarish dreams.
Sometimes Yaakov thought that he needed to change his life—to move to the countryside and live away from other people for a while. That idea would last for about an hour. To be with Rivka in a place without other people seemed to him like a prison where he’d be flogged day and night. To leave everything he had built was inconceivable. His daughters made sure over the years to preserve and cultivate the family stronghold. They knew, with the practical wisdom they inherited from their mother, that their father might one day rise up and tear off his handcuffs. They stood on guard like jailers: We will not allow you to abandon what you’ve built with your own hands.
Yaakov did try now and then, but each time he was thwarted by their determination. They stood as firm as a stone wall.
After the girls got married and left home, Yaakov felt more suffocated than ever. At first he thought of going to London but realized at once that his heart wasn’t in it. One night he woke up and said to himself, I’m going to Szydowce,
as if he had finally found the way out.
For a few days he kept it secret. He finally told Rivka, “I’m going to my parents’ village.”
“Where?” She tried to keep calm.
“My parents’ village,” he repeated.
“What on earth for?”
Yaakov was assaulted with pleas and warnings. Even customers in the shop saw a need to weigh in and warn him against his hasty decision. This strategy did not faze him. From day to day he grew more certain that he must make the trip, come what may.
When logic and pleading got nowhere, Rivka shouted, “It’s madness!”
“Where’s the logic? What will you find there?”
“Everything.” He could not resist using the word.
Rivka had always been more practical than Yaakov, but in recent years her practicality grew stronger and was evident in her every move. Yaakov’s practicality was inconsistent. He was often prone to excess, slashing prices at the wrong time, donating generous sums to a person in need, and, in the past year, sleeping for an entire day. Rivka dubbed his behavior “my husband’s craziness.” Now and then she would rebuke him, or explode, or merely insult him. He didn’t let it get to him.
That life now came to a halt. Yaakov packed his suitcase and his backpack. The girls came to say goodbye. They asked him again to postpone the trip. It was easier with them. He was willing to admit that the trip had no clear purpose, but sometimes one must succumb to the madness of the heart.
Copyright © 2023 by Aharon Appelfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.