Sunday, October 12, 2008


Here and now, in this world
Ber Boris Kotlerman

We streaked through the dark, swallowing up the hundreds of kilometers between Göttingen and Trier in a few hours. The autobahn was empty, its cement walls on both sides of the road concealing lights that could have attested to the existence of points of human habitation in the murky universe. At times we felt ourselves in a nightmarish tunnel that promises no bright light at the end. It was the eve of September 11, 2001 the end of a particularly long day that began with a lively exchange of opinions about the presentiment of the Holocaust in Agnon’s writing, continued with a painful guided tour of sites related to the Nazi past in Göttingen, a tour that turned into a relentless argument over good and evil and everything in between, and ended in frantic reports of a plane that had split open the International Trade Center in the heart of Manhattan. At the end of that bizarre day, we sped towards a different but very familiar world that was again to reveal its true face as soon as the enormity of the catastrophe became known. The subject of our research, S.Y. Agnon, had arrived in Germany one year before the outbreak of World War I, which was to change the face of Europe. At that point we were inclined to see in almost all of our experiences in the land of Ashkenaz and its satellites portents of one kind or another of something awful and inescapable that could happen at any given moment. Each one of us – Hillel Weiss who grew up and was educated in the Land of Israel; Avraham Yosef, a native of Rumania whose populace knew how to laugh out loud even during periods of disaster, and I, a product of the Soviet Union which progressively went to pieces before my eyes – tried to make sense of the new situation on the basis of the life experience that he had accrued. Our conversation was constantly being interrupted by panicky phone calls from home: our frightened relatives demanded that we return immediately to Israel, although the airfields had all been closed down. We promised to make every effort, and meanwhile continued to make our way to Trier where another conference was scheduled for the following day on Yiddish culture, that is, the integration of the Jews into the calamity-ridden European landscape. We were tired and irritated, we alternately laughed and sank into momentary melancholy and during those hours managed to touch upon various and sundry topics that arose on the background of an implausible mélange of Agnon scholarship, our consequent tour of Europe in its tracks, and the Twin Towers catastrophe all at once. The notes scattered from heaven with their Divine edict “Po-lin”[1] mingled with the road signs pointing towards the “Gedenkstätte”[2], Dachau near Munich. The Strypa River of Agnon’s hometown, Buczacz, emptied directly into the majestic Rhine. The last Jewish lecturer to be fired from the University of Göttingen - only in 1938, since he had fought for Germany in Word War I - moved to Poland where he promised its rulers that he would pray for rain in due season. And the residents of the Bavarian village of Schopfloch who speak the secret language of Lachoudish all urged us “Stray not after your heart and after your eyes which you stray after”.
Towards midnight we collapsed onto our beds in a random hotel on the main road at the entrance to Trier, but the experiences of the day that had just come to an end, remaining forever in the memories of millions of people, refused to let go of us even in sleep. Each one of us dreamed his own dream, but these individual dreams met at some point in a malicious intent to heighten the nightmare of the reality.

The dream of Hillel Weiss, also known as ‘Professor’

Buczacz looks exactly as it did in the old picture from the early 20th century in the “Book of Buczacz”. You can make out the monastery wall on the road to the Fedor Forest, the headstones in the Jewish cemetery on the side of the mountain, the spire of the town hall building, and the market square. Everything was intact, as we came to realize on our visit there in that summer of 2001, including the house of Agnon’s parents, the gymnasia where the future writer attended school, and even the large forest that became the mass burial ground of the Jews of Buczacz following the Nazi invasion. The Strypa River meandered through the middle of the town, partially hidden by the weeping foliage. It was peaceful and quiet. Suddenly clouds burst forth out of nowhere and covered the blue sky. A heavy shadow fell over the market square, completely eclipsing the synagogue standing at its edge. Because of this we were forced to touch down and walk the entire exhausting climb from the bridge over the river to the marketplace. There were not many people there. A tall, husky old man in a red shirt belted with a simple rope started at us, taking in our kippot and our clothing until he understood something and ran off shouting “Rabin, Rabin”. The street cats also recognized us and lowered their gaze. We had not eaten since the previous day since it was Tisha B’av. On the way we made a calculation and it turned out that the Great Synagogue in Buczacz was to mark its 300th anniversary on that very day. This discovery gave the milieu a great cosmic significance. We longed already to see the monumental walls – do they still shed a tear on the day commemorating the Jewish national destruction, as Agnon recalled from his childhood? Does a ray of light from the Land of Israel still find its way into the interior through the round window above the Holy Ark? And perhaps the letters of the Hebrew alphabet still hover over the prayer hall?

We passed among the improvised stands offering their meager and unappealing wares – wilted cucumbers, radishes tortured into bundles, small, sour apples, and above all, potatoes. Peasant men and women followed us with their glance. From the direction of the synagogue burst a strange noise. We drew closer and saw two huge bulldozers demolishing walls. Fragments of glass and floor tiles, chunks of plaster and slabs of wood filled the plaza in front of the synagogue. No walls were left, and only a few pillars of varying heights still stood, extending their hands heavenward in mute prayer. We stood facing this picture of the End of Days, and the bulldozers continued their work. The locals began to gather around, and someone yelled something to the bulldozer operator. The workman didn’t hear because of the noise, and he cut the engine. One of the locals ran up to him and whispered something in his ear. The workman took his coat, clambered down off his high perch, looked at us in terror, and signaled to his comrade operating the second bulldozer. The two exchanged a few words, and suddenly vanished from the site. The crowd retreated, whispering “Zhidi, Zhidi”. I couldn’t move my feet which seemed to be made of cotton, as happens in dreams. I violently tore them from the ground, overcoming the sense of profound despair that gripped me, and walked into the wreckage. The inner partitions had been totally demolished, and you couldn’t tell what had been there before. In the middle lay a pile of red tiles that had apparently fallen off the roof. I lifted one tile and then another, and it was then that I noticed a handsome stone staircase that led to a basement. I went down the stairs and found myself facing an oak door. I pulled the handle but the door didn’t budge. I peered through the keyhole and could not believe what I saw: A spacious prayer hall lay there behind the door, its corners obscured in the darkness, four pillars in the middle, and between them a tall Ark, upon which was mounted an eternal light casting a circle of light around it. Here was the Great Synagogue - it had gone underground and hidden itself until our arrival! I yelled with the sheer joy of this astounding discovery, and my shout collided with another shout that was coming from directly opposite. I opened my eyes and saw Avraham Yosef jumping out of bed with a terrifying shout.

The dream of Yosef Abramovitz, also known as Avraham Yosef

The Alps were so lovely that it was impossible to describe them in ordinary words, almost like the Carpathian Mountains. Snowy hills and huge pines towered majestically. An infinite silence prevailed around. Only the growl of our car’s motor as it wended its way up the narrow mountain road interfered with this celebration of silence. A dybbuk of adventure which is in fact the evil inclination disguised in a Purim costume led us further onward towards Innsbruck. I decided not to get out of the car until the situation in the world became clearer. From fragments of reports over the radio in English and German we understood that World War III had begun, and it was only a matter of time before we would be caught here, far from our little country. I had no problem going up to Heaven and looking from above at ourselves and this mountainous land. I rose above the car and saw that for now, everything was quiet but I knew for certain that this was illusory. I only fortified my resolve not to leave the car under any terms and not to let the crazed world penetrate my private space. And that is what I did when my friends parked the car under one of the walls of the old city of Innsbruck. They left me there alone and went off to slake their thirst for new places before the war destroyed everything, as they put it.

I closed my eyes and remembered my last class reunion in the city of Iaşi, Romania. My classmates, today respectable people with families and paunches, carried on like small children. We wandered the streets of the city, singing, and telling jokes without a let-up. Some of the passersby smiled at us, some turned reproachful gazes on us and one priest decided that it was time to give us a taste of his sermonizing to bring us back to the straight and narrow. He looked me straight in the eyes, but before he managed to arrive at any conclusion about me, I was already far away. Had I been insolent to him in some way? I have no recollection. I opened my eyes and suddenly saw him through the car’s front window. His face was contorted with rage and he was apparently cursing me although I couldn’t hear him because of the closed windows. His lips moved rapidly. In one hand he held a large cross and in the other was a picture of a bearded Jew. In contrast to the raging priest, the face of the Jew conveyed serenity, somewhat sad. I looked through the window and saw other pictures of this Jew which were staring at me from the tall steeples behind the wall of Innsbruck. On one of the pictures was written in Latin “Jerusalem”. I understood the hint. “We have to get home as quickly as possible!” I wanted to get out of the car and run, but I couldn’t open the door. My hands refused to obey me. I became very weak. The priest went on muttering through the window, I went on struggling helplessly with the door, until I let loose a shout that made the universe quake. In response the priest shouted back and then immediately disappeared and in his place I saw Hillel Weiss in that stifling hotel room.

The dream of Ber Boris Kotlerman, also known as Dov-Ber

From a distance the red-roofed city of Rottenburg looked as though it were in flames. As we drew closer, the fiery red subsided and we began to notice the small details that made up its architectural ensemble – towers, small windows, rain gutters, and the like. A thick serrated wall surrounded the city. A wooden bridge suspended by rusty chains led to the arched doorway. We left the car and went on foot towards the door. It was early morning but crowds of people were already entering and leaving through the gates of Rottenburg. They were dressed according to the best tradition of the Middle Ages, and some were dragging woven baskets. We were not surprised since we had seen a notice on the entrance to the city announcing a fancy dress carnival. A monk in black with a tonsure and a bucket of water lightly climbed the steps on the city wall and disappeared between its notched teeth. The gatekeeper was dressed in a strange helmet made of cloth. He signaled us with his sword and we entered the city. We sought out a synagogue or a quiet corner where we could recite morning prayers. The city was teeming with people. Right in the middle of the street something was cooking in enormous frying pans. At every step beer was being sold from the keg. We went over to a public bench, turned toward the rising sun, and took out our prayer shawls. No one paid us any attention, as though we were not even there. They must have thought that we, too, were in costume. Suddenly we noticed around us other Jews who were draped in white cloth. They were praying silently and only sporadically we heard the words “Leolam ulolmei olmaya…”[3] This, too, did not arouse any particular interest among the crowd which was busy preparing for a long market day at the fair. We had almost finished our prayers when from the clock tower opposite came the deep, heavy sound of a large bell. I looked up and saw a small door open in the clock itself. Out of the door came a small figure with a moustache. The figure was holding a large bottle of wine. He pressed the bottle to his lips and in one long "Meistertrunk"[4], downed the beverage. I dragged my gaze away from this entertaining little man and noticed that the Jews around me had disappeared. My friends had also vanished with them. In fact they had not really vanished but had become very tiny and distant, and I myself was standing on the edge of the clock, near the mustached Mayor of Rottenburg holding a bottle of wine. The Mayor held out the bottle to me and I saw that it was full again. I was apparently participating in some stupid competition. I wanted to put my hands into my pockets, I stepped backwards and lost my balance. For a moment I swayed above the abyss, and then with a great scream, I began with terrifying slowness to fall off the tower. The crowd down below screamed back at me…

For a while we all screamed together, Hillel Weiss, Avraham Yosef, and I. It was about two in the morning and the hotel was in state of deep slumber, and with it, this whole part of the world up to the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly everything began to move, doors slammed, telephones rang. We couldn’t get to sleep any more. We turned on the television. All of the channels showed the two planes that destroyed the Twin Towers in the middle of New York. Again and again the planes pierced the soft body of the towers which stood just a little longer and then collapsed like a house of cards. There were reports of thousands killed, of the fall of a third plane near the Pentagon, of the closing of air space almost everywhere. It was not another planet and it did not happen a thousand years ago. Not even 60 years ago. This was here and now. In this world.


[1] Hebrew for ‘Poland’, and a pun on the phrase “stay here’.
[2] City of Memory (Germ).
[3] from the Kaddish, prayer recited for the dead.
[4] swallow (Germ)


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