Michael—a young man in his thirties, a concentration camp survivor—makes the difficult trip behind the Iron Curtain to the town of his birth in Hungary. He returns to find and confront “the face in the window”—the real and symbolic faces of all those who stood by and never interfered when the Jews of his town were deported. In an ironic turn of events, he is arrested and imprisoned by secret police as a foreign agent. Here he must confront his own links to humanity in a world still resistant to the lessons of the Holocaust.
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ELIE WIESEL was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The author of more than fifty internationally acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, he was Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor at Boston University for forty years. Wiesel died in 2016.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Outside, twilight swooped down on the city like a vandal’s hand: suddenly, without warning. On the red and gray roofs of the squat houses on the living wall of ants surrounding the cemetery, on the nervous, watchful dogs. No light anywhere. Every window blind. The streets almost empty. In the square near the Municipal Theater only Old Martha, the official town drunk, exuberates. She has the whole city to herself, and her performance unfolds in a kind of demoniac ecstasy. She dances, flaps her voluminous skirt, displays her naked, scabrous belly, gestures obscenely, shrieks insults, flings her curses to the four winds. Joyfully she prances before the universe as if before an audience, her mirror.
“What did you say?”
Michael opened his eyes. The voice was the voice of a man who was not of the city. It brought him no memories, no richness.
“Nothing,” he said. “I didn’t say anything.”
He returned to his pictures. The butcher removes his blood-blotched apron: there will be no more customers today. In the grocery across from the church a peasant girl crosses herself and murmurs a prayer. In the main square the horse harnessed to the baker’s green cart whinnies nervously. He too is tense, alert. Above, the fist squeezes tighter, tighter. The city seems to want to shrink. The houses contract; the trees narrow. Another danger suddenly become apparent: the mountains that surround the city. It might be the end of the world.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Michael answered. “I said nothing,”
“I heard you mutter something.”
“I said it was the end of the world.”
“It’ll be the end of you, if you don’t make up your mind to spit it up.”
Behind him the officer’s voice was calm, fresh, barren of any hint of impatience or even interest.
“You’re a bloody fool,” the officer went on. “You think you can take it. You think you’re tough. Others have thought so before you. A day, two days, three . . . in the end, they talk. And you will too. You want to wait? All right with me; we’ll wait. I have plenty of time. You want to play games? We’ll play games. But I warn you: the game’s rigged. You lose. You’ve already lost. In this room you get talkative in spite of yourself. Soon—maybe in an hour, maybe in three days—you’ll start screaming and shouting. You’ll be begging for the change to make a long speech, to get rid of it all. Every minute makes the load heavier. You’ll feel it in your legs. Here it’s the legs that turn talkative.”
The storm broke suddenly. Bolts of lightning zigzagged across the sky. The wind screamed like countless raging beasts. The officer stopped talking, and Michael went back to his city. He didn’t care for slow rain, but storms fascinated him. He loved to watch nature let herself go. At sea he always wished he could be alone on the bridge, alone to contemplate the unleashed waves. On land a storm brought him out into the streets or fields. Even now he saw himself walking down the main square, listening to the groans of trees whipped by the wind. Old Martha is there. She dances, she sings, she shouts, she pirouettes as if she wanted to be one of the elements, part of the chaos. Suddenly she seems to be aware of this very fact and stops abruptly, dumbstruck. For the space of a second the beast holds its breath. The storm stills upon her lips. Then, as if at the old drunkard’s command, the thunder revives and the night again spews its fire and flame.
“Who are you?” Martha shouts.
Michael remains silent. She frightens him. Ugly, her body ravaged and faded, she is so old that in the city they take her for her own great-grandmother.
“What’s your name, little boy?”
Michael is entranced by the desiccated face. He has never seen her this way. Children liked to run along behind her and throw stones at her, but as soon as she turned they fled, an exhilarating terror pricking their heels. She chased them hotly, shouting, “You’ll burn in hell. Your children will die young. Your tongues will fall in the mud. And your eyes with them . . .”
“Don’t you want to tell me?”
“Why not? Are you afraid of me?”
“And what is it about me that scares you?”
There is only a brief space between them. Michael promises himself: if she takes one step toward me I’ll run. “They say things about you.”
He lowers his gaze, uneasy. “That you’re a witch, That you’re Satan’s wife. Lilith, wife of the king of devils.”
“And you believe it?”
“No, not all of it. Lilith is beautiful and young and seductive. I know. It says so in books.:
The drunken woman did not seem to appreciate the highly moral compliment. She sparkles with fury, shakes a fist at the little boy, her voice grows sharper, scratchier: “You little fool! I am beautiful and young and seductive. Come, make love with me, see how my body is beautiful, how my blood is young. Come! We’ll make love right here, in the street, in the gutter. You’ll be the center of the universe, the heart of the storm! Well? What do you say?”
Michael’s breath comes harder. Legs wide apart, the old woman glares at him, mocking. “Well?”
“I don’t understand,” he answers.
“What don’t you understand?”
“Nobody understands it. You define it by what it isn’t Love is nether this nor that, but something else. Always something else.”
“And make love? What does that mean?”
“To make love, little boy, means to pretend to love. Even that’s a lot.”
The old woman takes a step toward him. Fear fastens upon him. He is about to flee. She notices. Her eyes become glowing coals: “Leaving me, are you? You don’t want to stay here with me? Then listen to what I have to tell you, listen well. Yes, I sleep with Satan, yes, I’m his wife and his lover. Yes, I carry his child in my belly. But I’m not like other women. It takes me more than nine months: my child is the whole world—you, your friends. And I keep my child with me, in me, in my belly, a hundred years, a thousand! You’re in my belly, all of you. You stink of my blood, you’re tangled in my guts. And you think you’re pure? You call yourselves clean? You disgust me! So much that you make me laugh!”
With that she spits in the mud, and Michael, only eight, nine, ten years old, spins away and runs. He is soaked to the bone. Luckily he lives not far off. Four blocks. In the house on the corner of Kigyo Street and Kamar Street. His parents are doubtless waiting for him, worried; he should have been home from the cheder a long time before. Michael wonders how he’ll explain the delay to them. He would like to think it over, and prepare an answer, but Martha is pounding along behind him, fury on her lips: I’ll get you! You won’t get away! I’ll be despair on your tongue and drought in your heart! At night I’ll live in your miseries and by day I’ll freeze your sun! You’ll be damned, turned away everywhere, I promise you!”
Quickly, luckily, Michael remembers a prayer that gives men power over the messenders of Ashmodai, King of the Shadows; he repeats it again and again, Shadai yishmeremi vehatzileni mikol ra. The Almighty will protect me from all evil. Suddenly he can no longer hear the drunker woman’s steps behind him. And anyway here is the house. Panting, he kisses the mezuzah and opens the door. Instead of his father, a voice welcomes him: “Haven’t you had enough of praying?” It’s not his father’s voice. Michael is astounded. Who is it, then? And why does that man speak to him in Hungarian and not in Yiddish?
“Not finished praying yet?”
The dream burst into a thousand pieces. The cell, the wall, the officer’s monotone voice. How many hours have passed? These jumps from one world to another had killed all sense of time. No more landmarks. It could as easily have been one hour as seven. Not eight, anyway. That he deduced from the fact that the first officer was still there. He knew that after eight hours another officer would relieve him.
So this is The Prayer, the famous prayer, Michael thought. The torture, named by an erudite torturer, consisted of breaking the prisoner’s resistance by keeping him on his feet until he passed out. The torture bore the name of prayer because the Jews pray standing. The prisoner is stood face to a wall; he stands there day and night. Forbidden to move, to lean. The prisoner may close his eyes and even sleep—if he can manage it without touching the wall. Forbidden to cross the legs. Every eight hours they escort him to the bathroom, and when he is brought back he finds a new officer on duty. Most prisoners break within twenty-four hours.
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Book Description Schocken, 1987. Paperback. Book Condition: New. New edition. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0805206973
Book Description Schocken, 1987. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0805206973
Book Description Schocken, 1987. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110805206973