Sign of Lightning

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An Excerpt from an early draft of Capriccio.

You wore the sign of lightning to

 ward off lightning

                       -Ted Hughes, Smell of Burning

Esther’s memories refuse to leave her in peace that night. In her mind, she is a child again, back in Berlin, re-living the time when all her safeties had been stripped away.

She remembers how, late one cold night, she and her parents and little sister board a train out of Berlin. Her Vati, the girls’ father, is carrying two huge suitcases with their most precious possessions. Esther and Hannah each clutch their one permitted plaything: Esther a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, Hannah a white fluffy rabbit. There’d been a tantrum when Hannah’s first choice, an almost life-size teddy bear, was decreed too large to take with her. Esther feels the fear in the air, and hides under the carriage seat whenever she hears heavy-booted footsteps in the corridor.

Esther now knows that the only way the Gutmanns managed to escape Nazi Germany was by paying huge bribes to some corrupt officials, who’d been Dr Gutmann’s patients before 1933. Under the Nazi regime, Lonya Gutmann is struck off the medical register, as were all Jewish doctors.

The family’s first stop is Italy, where the Gutmanns await visas, along with other exiles hoping to find a permanent home. In Pisa, seven-year old Esther learns to revel in her differences. At her new school she is instantly popular; the other children find her foreign ways exotic, although with her dark hair and pale olive skin she could easily pass for Italian. She makes a special friend, Aurora, who delights in teaching her Italian.

‘Pane, ‘Aurora says, pointing at the white roll Trudi has packed for Esther’s school lunch. Esther quickly learns to speak the language. She feels at home in this sunny southern land. Everything in Pisa delights her: the houses with their window boxes full of colourful flowers, the narrow cobbled streets, even the food. When the Gutmanns’ visas for Palestine come through, she is devastated to leave Italy.

In Tel Aviv, Esther doesn’t fit in straight away. Here she is known at school by her middle name, Aviva; it is more suitably Jewish. Hannah is given the Hebrew name Chaya, but at home Esther still calls her Hannie. Esther doesn’t feel Jewish, any more than she did back in Berlin. After all, according to the orthodoxy, she is not of the faith, because her mother is a Gentile. The fact that Esther’s father is a Russian Jew counts for nothing. Yet in Palestine, where the family settles, it seems being Jewish means acceptance, whereas in Germany it had meant a death sentence.

The family lives in Balfour Street, Tel Aviv, which is named after a progressive British politician. Trudi likes the sound of the street’s name, its clean English consonants, and its un-Jewishness. Because Palestine is under British rule, the children learn English for three hours a week, although the language of instruction is Hebrew. Esther soon adds English to her German, Italian and Hebrew. Trudi continues to feel an outcast in Palestine, and starts dreaming of escape.

Everywhere in this strange new land, there are people of all races; Arabs live peacefully side by side with the Russian, Polish, or German refugees. Trudi and her daughters are entranced by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of this city.

‘Come, girls, we’ll go for ice-cream at the beach,’ Trudi says to Esther and Hannah, one hot summer morning. ‘The sun is shining, so perhaps we’ll go for a dip on the ocean.’

The two girls scream with excitement, and run to get their swimming costumes from their suitcases. ‘Mutti, can I wear that new skirt over my costume?’ says Esther, preening herself in front of the wardrobe mirror in their little flat.

Trudi laughs. ‘You’re much too young to be worrying about your looks, child; after all, you’ve only just turned eight. Wait another ten years, and we’ll see. Now be a good girl and put on your beach dress, like Hannah’s doing.’

‘No, I won’t! I want to wear the new skirt!’ Esther stamps her foot, threatening a tantrum. Trudi sighs, and gives in, this time. Her elder daughter is proving a challenge, and such disobedience must be checked. Still, she reflects, she’s turning into a beauty, so perhaps she’ll get away with her wild nature.

Trudi, Esther and Hannah set off for the beachfront, where cafés of every nationality are starting to spring up. ‘Look, Mutti, this one has gelato, like in Pisa,’ cries the prettily dressed Esther. Having got her own way with the frilly skirt, she expects to do the same in the choice of café.

But Trudi is already guiding the children to a kaffeehaus, which proclaims in big German letters that it serves coffee, kügelhopf, and other German or Viennese cakes all day. Esther decides to give in this time; her eyes go to the cake counter with its strudel and cheesecake, and the gelato is forgotten. A touch of home is what Trudi craves. She never loses an opportunity to remind her girls of their rich German culture, and does her best to maintain it in this primitive land.

The streets of Tel Aviv are full of sand, even in the cracks of the newly laid concrete footpaths. There’s a feeling of the desert encroaching on the edge of this bourgeoning city, where the Arab markets flourish next to European restaurants.

***

 

Were you a German burning tree

Trying to flee from burning

Germany or

From the burning German tree the victim

Condemned to hang on it?

 

from Collected Poems of Ted Hughes, Capriccio. ed. Paul Keegan

Faber and Faber 2003

 

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