by Alexander Spiegelblatt, translated by Sean Sidky
Alexander Spiegelblatt was born in 1927 in Bukovina. In 1941, he was deported to concentration camps across Transnistria, where he would remain through 1944. In 1964, Spiegelblatt moved from Bucharest to Israel, where he would serve for over two decades as co-editor with Avrom Sutzkever of the Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt. He also published eight collections of poetry, a collection of short stories and a novel. Spiegelblatt died in November, 2013.
“Repairing Love,” comes from the 2003 collection Shadows Knock on the Window. All the stories in this collection follow the lives of individuals interrupted by war, death, and the Holocaust. In this case, Tanya’s life is defined by deaths: her father, her son during the Holocaust, and her estranged husband, whose death, announced in a letter, opens the story.
The story weaves through memory and the present day, rarely indicating clearly when these shifts occur, often leaving us lost as to whether we are with Tanya, now, in Tel Aviv, or somewhere in her memories of Eastern Europe. Like all memories, Tanya’s are not chronological, but meandering through time and space to paint a picture of a life steeped in tragedy, and joy.
Doctor Tanya Engelnest’s eyes passed over the letter she’d received from Iaşi telling her that her husband, Bartolomeo Branescu, had been killed in an accident while crossing the street near his home. Witnesses said, as the letter informed her, he’d been reading while walking, holding the book close to his face, and had not looked around at all.
Tanya glanced at the postmarks as she put the letter back in its envelope, suddenly realizing how little the news had affected her, as if she’d just read a story in the newspaper about someone she’d never met. She filled a can at the kitchen sink and watered the vases of wilting flowers that stood in every corner of the room—on low sideboards, bookshelves, benches, and stools—and the large jars of flowers that stood on the table, between scattered books, and the pages of the letter. Then, with a soft washcloth, she gently wiped the dust from two large, framed photographs hanging on the wall; one frame held a picture of a stately man with a long, Theodor Herzl beard, and the other—a twelve-year-old boy.
Later that evening she read through the letter again. This time, the words burst from the page, transforming into living figures that had been sleeping soundly in her memory until this moment. The letter had shocked them awake, and now here they were. As they moved in front of her, she couldn’t help but look at them. It all played like a film on an imaginary screen. She saw the scene in the Jewish hospital at night as they brought him in from the street, covered in blood. Some Romanian students had savagely beaten him, trampled his glasses into the cobblestones, and left him lying there battered, almost blind.
From that first moment, she had not let him out of her sight. She cared for him as if he were her own, far more than she did any of the other patients they brought in at night. In the morning, she bought him a new pair of glasses, and once his broken hand was set in plaster and his wounds dressed, she took him home herself. Later, she would ask herself repeatedly what she’d seen in him and why it was that she’d treated him like family from the very beginning. But she had no answers.
* * *
Now the letter transported Tanya back to the moment when she’d entered his home for the first time. Florika, his long-time servant, had been standing in the open doorway. When she saw him covered in bandages she crossed herself, invoking her saints.
He lived alone on a central street in the old city. Not a wall in the four spacious rooms was bare. There were bookcases everywhere reaching to the ceiling: some of the books were behind glass, some behind closed, wooden doors, and some packed into open shelves. No light penetrated the dark, heavy curtains. The stools and benches were piled high with books and magazines; even the enormous writing desk had hardly any clear space on it. In the corner of one of the rooms stood a narrow, unmade sofa bed. Florika had not been able to keep the rooms tidy, and a thick layer of untouched dust covered the furniture and books.
Recalling this, Tanya could suddenly feel, once again, the charged and stuffy air that had hit her nostrils as she’d stepped over the threshold. The rooms both intrigued and revolted her, filling her with respect and fear simultaneously. It was the same feeling she’d had as a student in Vienna, in her first anatomy class. At that time, she’d run away, but this time she could not, and so she stood paralyzed, speechless.
He, on the other hand, who hadn’t opened his mouth the entire time he was in the hospital, now could not keep it shut. For the first time Tanya heard his high-pitched voice: nearly a falsetto. He spoke in Romanian, with a slight Moldavian accent, as if he were a Gentile intellectual deliberately revealing his roots. His words were extravagant, as if he were making up for the hours he’d been silent. He spoke about the Romanian students and their anti-Semitic mentor, Professor A. K. Kuza; he spoke about Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities; and he quoted strange Latin phrases, lines from Pascal, verses from Heinrich Heine, and other French and Romanian poets. He peppered his lofty speech with prosaic phrases like, "you must understand," "as I’m sure you know," "you’ll recall," and "I’d remind you," his voice deepening slightly as he uttered them.
Tanya leaned against the wall, letting the words cascade over her, not even trying to grasp at their meaning. The words weren’t coming from his mouth, she’d thought then, but pouring from the packed bookshelves. She waited for some sign from him that they were going to stop.
At first, Tanya wanted to tear up and throw away the letter that had brought her the news of Bartolomeo’s death, but she soon regretted the thought and tucked it away somewhere she wouldn’t find it. But the next day she unwittingly found it and read through it once more. The news pressed even harder on her heart; again and again, she took the letter from its “hiding” place.
After everything Tanya had experienced over the long years, Bartolomeo’s death was not a major shock to her. She’d established a kind of scale inside herself, and though the needle would tilt, it quickly regained balance. Bartolomeo sat on one side of the scale, and he did not skew it. But now that his death had pulled him away from there, the needle felt troublingly unsettled.
Iaşi was unfamiliar to Tanya, Romanian was a foreign language to her, and the Jews there were strange. She’d grown up in Czernowitz, her mother tongue was German, and her parents had come from Galicia. Her grandfather on her father’s side was a maskil, a scholar, and a wealthy man. Her mother’s father was the rabbi of a small town, and poor. The people in Galicia used to joke that it was a marriage of contradictions: the dowry came from the husband, the lineage from the wife.
As the eldest son, Tanya’s father was sent to study in Vienna, and when he returned he brought back with him two degrees: doctor of medicine and doctor of philosophy. Not long after getting married, Doctor Rafael Engelnest moved his family to Czernowitz. He chose not to open his own clinic, working instead in a Jewish hospital. He wanted free time to write commentaries on Spinoza. The war broke out soon after Tanya came into the world, and the young Doctor Engelnest was sent to the front to serve in Emperor Franz-Joseph’s army. When he returned from the war, crushed under the weight of all he’d lived through, Romanian flags were already flying in Czernowitz.
* * *
From childhood Tanya adored her father. She called him “Papachen” or, shorter, “Papchen.” Later, when she was a little older, she would call him “my prince.” He was a stately looking man. With his dark beard and deep, dreamy eyes he looked just like that famous picture of Theodor Herzl, standing with his arms crossed and gazing into the distance. While he sat engrossed in his writing, Tanya would find a place in a corner of the room and gaze, lovingly, at his movements. Her happiest hours were spent next to her father on the sofa as he told her stories or read her the works of famous poets. She understood little of their meaning, but her father’s voice flowed like music into her soul, and she would be filled, suddenly, with the knowledge that she knew the poems by heart.
Rafael Engelnest loved speaking with his daughter and her endless questions, though at times they were hard for him to answer. She wanted to get to the heart of individual words, particularly in the poems he read to her. She wanted to break open the hard shells that enveloped them. Even the words “poems” and “poets” that her father continually threw into their conversations were a puzzle for her. She asked, “Where do the poets come from? Where do they live? Do they look like normal people? Like you, Papachen?”
Her father was lost in thought. In truth, he often asked himself the same questions as he read these poems. When he answered, he spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. “Of course they look like people, but people who are more like God . . .”
“What does God look like?” Tanya asked.
Neither Spinoza nor Kant stood by him in that moment. He had no good answers for his ten-year-old daughter. His only help came from poetry. After a long time, he finally answered: “I don’t know what God looks like, my child. But let me tell you a story. It comes from a book called Stories of God, and its author, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, called it ‘The Tale of the Hands of God.’ In fact, he wrote it for a young girl like you who also wanted to know what our ‘beloved God’ looks like.
“The story starts at the very beginning,” he recounted, “when God was creating the world. His hands were kneading the clay with which he would create Man. Suddenly, the barely formed Man slipped out of God’s hands before He could see what he looked like, and the unfinished creation fell to the Earth. God was furious with His hands: how could they have left half the work undone without His knowledge? God’s hands tried to answer: they were innocent, they argued; Man was simply too impatient. Man had escaped them, they claimed, in order to be on Earth sooner. But God would not forgive His hands. He looked upon the Earth and saw that in only a single moment, one Godly moment that lasted millennia, the Earth had already been filled by unformed Man. Wrapped in all their clothing, they looked truly hideous to God. He had no idea how Man looked underneath. And do you know who revealed to God what Man truly looked like? Poets and children. Young girls like you, my dear.”
He was silent for a long time, looking at the blue of the evening washing over the windows, and finally, loud enough for Tanya to hear, he said to himself: “It seems God knows as little about people as people know about God.”
Tanya remembered these words and the mystery of these stories. She tried to imagine how Man truly looked to God, and in her eyes, he looked exactly like Papachen.
By the time she was in school, Tanya had already decided to study medicine. She dreamed of opening a clinic she could run together with her father. She believed poetry might be better at curing people of their disease than any powders, pills, or drops. Doctors should prescribe poems, and young girls wearing flower dresses would read to the sick three times a day. She also insisted on studying in Vienna, like her father. She intended to return, just like he did, with two doctoral degrees.
Tanya came home from university during her first summer bursting with new ideas. She spent hour after hour with her father analyzing every detail of the wonders she had collected. Doctor talk brought them even closer: it was their shared secret, one that no outsider could divine. As they spoke, her father made sure to adopt a collegial tone. Tanya noticed this happily, though she knew it was just a kind of game.
When her final summer approached, she was ready to spend her vacation at home and then return to Vienna in the fall to finish her degree. Then, without warning, she received a letter from her father telling her to spend the summer in the Alps, in Austria or Switzerland, and go straight back for her final year. Once she was practicing medicine, he wrote, it would be many years before she’d have a chance for a vacation like this. He even sent her the money to cover her travel costs.
She was shocked by the advice: her father had always looked forward to summer, to spending time with her! Dark thoughts filled her mind; she thought she could sense a cloaked unease in her father’s letter. But soon she drove such thoughts from her mind: Papachen was always right when it came to important matters like this, she told herself. So Tanya bought travel clothes, a rucksack, and walking stick and set out by train. She traveled from place to place and from station to station, camping next to lakes and rivers, climbing mountains, and spending her nights in hotel rooms and at forest inns.
Her most moving experience occurred in Switzerland as she traveled from Brig to Raron, where the Rôhne flowed through the valleys of Valais, winding down to the great Genfersee. She knew that somewhere there, near the walls of an old church, lay the grave of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ever since her father had told her the story of God’s hands all those years ago she’d been captivated by his poems. She’d brought his Book of Hours with her and, lying in bed every night, she read several lines out loud to herself, like a prayer.
On the road, she imagined she was traveling to meet with the poet himself, who was dwelling in the old church so he could speak with God. Then, from a bridge over the river, she caught a glimpse, on the mountainside high above, of a white church someone had built into the green landscape hundreds of years before. Leaning for a moment on the railing of the bridge, she let her mind wander into the wide valleys between the mountains, stretching out as far as the eye could see. Tanya remembered sunlit silence, the only sound the rushing of the river far below.
A voice had called out in greeting, waking her suddenly from her daydreams. A thin, middle-aged Swiss woman was peering at her as if asking Tanya what she was doing there. When Tanya asked her how to get to the church on the mountain, the woman said nothing, gesturing for Tanya to follow her. On the narrow path that led to the church the woman became very talkative, and Tanya had to concentrate hard in order to understand her Swiss German. The woman told her of a cold day in 1927, early January, when they had driven a coffin on a sled up the snow-covered road to the church. No, the locals hadn’t known whom they were taking to be buried, but the bells had tolled in every church.
At the time, Tanya hadn’t understood the lines that were carved on a marble stone built into the wall over the grave:
Rose, O pure contradiction, desire to be no one’s sleep under so many lids.
Still, the words embraced her like a song, filling her with strange, confusing ideas. She thought she could hear in them the shimmer of bad tidings.
One evening, at the inn, Tanya wrote a long letter home. She made no attempt to hide her longing, writing of the disquiet that had consumed her ever since the visit to Raron and the poet’s grave. The thoughts that came to her then remained a mystery through all the years to come, connected to the mystery of poetry. After that, for her entire life, she believed there was a secret bond between people who loved each other and that nothing in the world could sunder it.
When she finally completed her studies and returned home with her doctoral diplomas, her father had been struggling with death for some time, waiting until he could set his eyes upon his daughter one last time. He’d done everything he could to make sure Tanya did not discover his illness before she finished her studies, knowing she would have insisted on staying at home with him. It was for this reason he’d suggested she spend her summer abroad while he, in the meantime, struggled in secret with death, bargaining for a few more hours and days.
The letter that had come to her in Tel Aviv, where she now lived, called forth those long-past days when, for the first time, her life had been shattered completely. After her father’s death, she could no longer remain in Czernowitz. She’d never been as close to her mother as her father, and there had often been hostility between them.
From the hidden depths within her, she heard her father’s voice commanding her to continue living. To do that, she had to leave the city, where there was a painful memory on every corner. She moved to Iaşi, the Moldovan capital, where she happened upon a welcome opportunity: to work in a Jewish hospital, like her father.
Tanya avoided other young people, who often tried to get close to her. In truth, she was no great beauty, nor was she young anymore, but people were taken by her foreignness and exotic manner and, more than anything, by her large almond eyes that flashed a different color every moment, always somewhere between laughter and mockery. She kept her long, dark-brown hair combed up, twisted in a complicated topknot that kept clear her brow, on which a mole grew.
She secluded herself on purpose, because every contact she had with a stranger felt like a betrayal of her father’s memory. She modeled herself on the nuns she’d met in the Viennese hospitals, noble creatures who dedicated themselves entirely to Jesus, their one and only love. At that time, when she was still celebrating life, the nuns stirred her to pity. Now, after her father’s death, she was jealous of their seclusion. Once she had even considered entering a convent, but the thought of converting filled her with terror. In the meantime, she tried to build a monastery inside herself where none could invade, and where she could remain alone with the memory of her father.
* * *
When she was better acquainted with the strange man, the young lawyer with the odd name, Bartolomeo Branescu, she wondered if her father had sent him to help her in her seclusion and if that meant she could allow the man into the hidden places in her mind.
When they brought him to the hospital, Tanya had seen the milky white skin of his injured body. It was almost hairless but for a few small, pale patches here and there. Only later, at his home, when he began to speak in his thin voice, did she truly look at his face. It was round, like a child’s, barely showing the thirty years or so of his life. His serious glasses with their thick lenses did not suit his face. Perched on his broad nose they made him look like a caricature, as if he were a child pretending to be a doctor. His curly hair had also changed little throughout his life, keeping the pale, flaxen color of a young girl’s braids. Later, in his forties, when his hair had paled even more and the color had left it entirely, people passing by in the street almost never noticed; it had barely changed at all.
Tanya felt a special obligation toward this strange man with the mysterious name, as if he were her own family. She made no excuses when she accompanied him home after the wounds from his beating had healed and his broken hand was freed from its cast. Their roles had changed: she was not going to him as a doctor but as a patient in need of help, in need of a remedy for the loneliness she had imposed upon herself.
She would have laughed at the idea that she could be in love with him, as if someone had suggested she were in love with a wall clock. She had convinced herself that Bartolomeo was nothing more than an abstract form, a philosophical idea, and a way out of those feelings of betrayal.
The ban that Tanya had placed upon herself did not last long. Before she realized, it had shifted into a curiosity that drove her to try and understand Bartolomeo’s strangeness and how different he was from the Czernowitz Jews, for whom Jewish consciousness had quickly become a matter for the subconscious. Tanya’s curiosity began, for example, with the name “Bartolomeo”: “How did you get such an odd name?” she asked him.
“You’re mistaken!” he replied, his falsetto rising even higher. “It’s not strange at all! You must know that ‘Bartolomeo’ is an old Jewish name from Aramaic. It means ‘the son of Talmai.’ You should also know that in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter ten, it clearly states that one of Jesus’s twelve apostles, who were all Jews, was named Bartholomew. There’s a legend among the Armenians that he was tortured to death, and so later the church proclaimed him a saint, protector of butchers and fishermen. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, you know, during the Italian Renaissance, a lot of artists and scholars were called ‘Bartolo,’ such as Bartolo Gilberti, Taddeo di Bartolo, Bartolo da Sassoferrato . . .”
Tanya hardly knew how to stop him; he seemed to play with words like a magician pulling colored ribbons out of his mouth. When she finally managed to stop the encyclopedic stream, she asked: “And where does a name like ‘Branescu,’ so Romanian, come from?”
“You’re mistaken once again.” His voice suddenly dropped from its high pitch. “My name only carries a Romanian suffix, like many Jewish names in Romania, such as Segalescu, Moisescu, or Usilescu. But I’ll tell you a secret: the Romanian suffix was attached to my mother’s name. It comes from the Branes family. Apparently one of her great-grandmothers in Ukraine was called Brane, and so her children were called Branes. That name later attached itself to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as a family name.”
Tanya never liked the name “Branescu,” and after their wedding she still insisted that people call her “Engelnest.” She had never felt any connection to the name, even when she read it in the letter that carried the bad news. Now it was like a magic spell that pulled open the curtain revealing the next part of her life, conjuring sights, sounds, and smells she had long since forgotten.
Sean Sidky is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. He was a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2017, and this excerpt comes from his fellowship project.