What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? by Noemi Jaffe
Translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches
A gypsy asked to read my palm. She said I would travel to a distant country and that I would have three daughters. I thought: this woman must be mad. I won’t even make it to tomorrow.
She survived. And four years after the war ended, she arrived in a distant country where she went on to have three daughters. She’s a bit of a gypsy herself, credulous, pure, and more Hungarian than Yugoslav. She doesn’t have complex dreams involving metaphors of displacement and condensation; her dreams are much simpler, and she interprets them with certainty and ease. She dreams of bags of wheat; someone is pregnant. She dreams of a red dress for her eldest daughter’s wedding; this daughter is later married in a red dress. And then there was the simplest yet most complex dream of all. Once, she dreamt she shoved her own feces down the toilet bowl with a broom. And she asked herself why she’d had this dream. She couldn’t interpret it.
And so the camp gypsy leads us once again to the possibility of confabulation, and to the differences between fate and coincidence. How can we ask her not to believe in fate after a story like hers? And who was this gypsy? Her name was Linka, and she was approximately twenty-eight years old, from a town called Debrecen, in the depths of Hungary. She had lived out of caravans her whole life, and had witnessed many horrors, but nothing compared to what she was living through then. She had lost her father and her five brothers, and seemed about to disappear herself, she was so skinny and subdued. Even so, she offered to read mother’s hands, as she did for many women when the war was nearing its end, when no one seemed to care what the future held for them. Hence the exactness of her prediction. From suffering and the lack of expectation comes the unique possibility to divine the future. The future is certain when it doesn’t exist, when words are the greatest thing we can count on. In this case, the word creates the world.This explains the magical relationship she has with words, in Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian, as well as in Portuguese. She doesn’t know these languages well, nor does she make much of an effort to master or to understand them. Her relationship with language belongs in part to a quasi-magical domain, as if words held power and a particular, autonomous existence she had yet to attain. She doesn’t feel she can rise to where words live; she simply says what comes out of her mouth, with the fear that it may not be right. Which is why she says kih instead of key, niddle when she means needle, and bootcher for butcher. The niddle, the tool she’s always worked with, was, amongst other things, what allowed her to make a living in Brazil. And in the same way that words hold a certain mystery to her, there is also a mystery in her relationship with cloth, with sewing and scissors, with marked up fabric, and with the women who worked at the factory and who all mastered their language without thought to the power of words. She continues to divine the future—more so than the past, which she has almost completely forgotten. She has herself turned into Linka, the gypsy from Debrecen. Her Jewishness is a mixture of faith and superstition; a religion she has partly invented herself. For example, it is a Jewish custom for people to wash their hands after leaving a cemetery.
She continues to divine the future—more so than the past, which she has almost completely forgotten. She has herself turned into Linka, the gypsy from Debrecen. Her Jewishness is a mixture of faith and superstition; a religion she has partly invented herself. For example, it is a Jewish custom for people to wash their hands after leaving a cemetery.
But she has decided that people must also wash their feet and so this has also become a family ritual. She has created another custom, too, which is to stop at a bakery on the way home from the cemetery, so as to dodge the angel of death who, according to her, has a habit of following people as they leave the cemetery. If she stops at a bakery, the angel of death will stay there and no one will die. In Pesach, during the telling of the story of the ten Egyptian plagues, the ritual requires that each person dab a drop of wine on their plate, one for each plague. She refuses to do this. She thinks this gesture, in its ostentatious declaration of hatred and vengeance toward Egyptians, is wrong. She refuses. In her world of superstitions, the cultivation of ill will or anger can only bring more future misfortune and, who knows, might even bring back the past misfortunes she has so efficiently managed to erase. This is why the gypsy was able to get it right. Because she was reading the palm of a fellow diviner whose relationship with future facts and with the words that create them is one of respect, not mistrust or incredulity. Explanations aren’t necessary, and perhaps not even belief or misbelief. It is enough just to know.
I don’t know how we could stand the cold. These days, when I feel cold, I won’t even leave the house. How could we live in such freezing temperatures and without any warm clothes? We can stand anything in life; I can hardly imagine how.
She says people pressed against each other at night to keep warm. Primo Levi also writes of how they collected paper, bits of old newspapers, and placards made of various materials, and put them underneath their uniforms to deaden the cold. The dictionary says that aguentar, to endure, bear, or withstand, in Portuguese is to grip a running rope; to hold the wind, like a sail. She always uses the word aguentar; it is part of her life repertoire. When someone says they have a problem and that nothing can be done about it, she always responds: aguenta sim; a gente aguenta tudo; é só querer: you can stand it; we can stand anything in life; all you have to do is want it. And, after all she’s been through, no one can or will even try to question her. For men and women, who are not like the sails on a boat, endurance comes with a price. In her case, the circumstances made it so that she had no other choice. In other cases, other than those involving cold, hunger, or thirst, maybe it isn’t necessary or even advisable to endure everything; maybe what we need is to resist less, to be a little weaker, so that the consequences of holding onto a running rope are not so severe. But not when it comes to the cold.
In the cold, you must hold on tight because the cold is a rope that runs mercilessly and those who live through it cannot but come out with souls that are drier, like when skin hardens and dries as it comes into contact with the cold air.
In the cold, you must hold on tight because the cold is a rope that runs mercilessly and those who live through it cannot but come out with souls that are drier, like when skin hardens and dries as it comes into contact with the cold air. But we forget about those freezing temperatures once winter has ended, and this is why she doesn’t know, now, how she was able to stand it. But the cold left its secret, indelible marks. Because a person who has gone through intense, shelterless cold is necessarily different to a person who has never done so.
It was a harsh winter in Auschwitz in 2009. The snow was up to our knees and there was no heating in the barracks. We were well prepared and yet, even so, the cold was unbearable. There was the sound of people’s labored breathing as they walked around, unable to stop and talk for even a couple of minutes without immediately shivering and shaking, words spoken with difficulty through teeth that clattered from the cold.They say that the winter of 1944 was one of the harshest on record in Europe. At times, it seemed as if nature itself were conspiring with the Nazis to ensure the most horrific of conditions.This, at least, must have been how they felt at the camp.That their extermination was orchestrated by divine, natural, and historic forces; that nothing could be counted on, because everything had turned against them. What could they hold onto? Only to the string of events, if anything at all.
We had blankets; we’d use hay straws to make needles and with a knife, we’d cut the blanket and then sew it into a dress. The German guard showed it off to everyone: “Look at what they did,” she’d say. There is ingenuity even in the cold; brutal survival conditions lead people to acquire and to discover creative and unimaginable possibilities; even a German guard admires her capacity, and that of her cousins, with whom she shared everything, to improvise in the cold. The Nazis take away the possibility of survival and then admire the survivors who can handle it. It’s like being surprised by a monkey who can do basic arithmetic. Except it’s far worse than that. That must have been where she learned to sew. Not only did her ingenuity get her the Nazi guard’s admiration, it also helped her survive in Brazil. She knew how to sew.
In the hallway of the small apartment they rented on rua José Paulino, where the rent was paid by father’s family, she and her mother-in-law would spread out a piece of fabric, cut it, and sew it into kids’ clothing. They would then pack it into a suitcase, which father would carry through the streets of Bom Retiro, Brás, and Mooca. Because he couldn’t speak Portuguese, he clapped his hands and gestured at the clothes to get the attention of the people who lived in the neighborhood. He’d take naps underneath the trees and snack on the food she’d prepared for him. One day, an officer stopped him and took all his merchandise. To him, this was just a small example of the kind of persecution they had suffered. Why confiscate a street vendor’s merchandise? Why the need to persecute, even in such benign circumstances? The German guard’s approval of her ingenuity is as absurd as the Brazilian officer’s decision to seize his merchandise. It is a form of revenge against the other’s ability to deal with the impossible.
And it was with this, with sewing, that they were able to make their way in Brazil. This is how they endured. By sewing clothes for children, skirts for grown women, and all other kinds of clothes, for stores like Marisa and Hella and for the Middle Eastern merchants on 25 de Março, with whom Father eventually became close. He would miss walking along those streets once they opened a factory in Bom Retiro. Sometimes, he’d go back to Brás and to Mooca just so he could chat with the people on the street or in front of the shops. He’d talk with the sales clerks of Hella and Marisa, with the seamstresses, the drivers, the beggars, with the children who walked by on their way to or back from school, and the custodians. Meanwhile, she would stay at the factory, cutting large swathes of fabric, which she would then extend over a large wooden table. She’d mark them up and then cut the many layers of fabric all at once with a big machine, stacking the dozens of rolled up pieces at the front of the shop, where the kids would use them to play hide and seek. She continued sewing for a long time after she made that dress with the blanket they gave her in Auschwitz. These days, when it’s cold out, she’ll call to ask: How are you handling the cold?
In the beginning, we couldn’t eat the bread because it tasted like sawdust. But later, when we were really hungry, we would hide the bread under our pillows so that no one could steal it. There were four of us and Gisie would split the bread in four so that we could eat one portion and leave the other three for later, because we were only given bread once a day. Gisie was the eldest and she was like the boss to the four of us: Alice, Helena, Gisie, and me.
For the hungry, it would seem that the need to eat is even stronger than the need to live. Yet there were few suicide cases in the concentration camps, even though this wouldn’t have been difficult to accomplish. They would have had to do no more than throw themselves against the electric fence. But almost no one did. Living reduced itself to eating; or more accurately, eating was worth more than living.
After the war had ended, when she was on her way to Sweden with the Red Cross, everyone offered her food. Chocolate, bread, candy. People threw food onto the train, happy to be able to feed those who had gone hungry. And even in the camp, the main topic of conversation was food, and many probably survived so they could remember food, talk about food, and eat food. They didn’t eat to live; they lived to eat. Even in a situation of almost complete food deprivation, prisoners would constantly talk about it. Sometimes I’d smile.We’d talk about food, and then we’d start remembering things: like how the dish was made, how we ate, you know that potato cake I used to make? And we’d go like this with our hands, do you remember?
Knowing how to manage food—how to split it into portions, keep it, and bargain with it—turning bread into a currency, could guarantee you one more day, one more day to find one more piece of bread. This paltry maintenance of the body and of what was left of their minds allowed prisoners to talk at night, during work hours, or simply in conversation, about other, more sophisticated foods, to gesticulate about it and make believe it existed.
Dreams, it seems, were also filled with food. The body and the soul of a person who starves are full of the constant demand for food. (What soul? What is the soul of a starved prisoner, of any starved person? Hunger can make a person feel like the soul is an invention of the body, by and for those who are well-fed and do not have to think about food.) As if humans had become parasites, crazed bacteria, spinning unnecessarily in a void, desperately seeking crumbs—not in order to live, but to eat. Eating to eat.
This process of animalization reinforced the Nazis’ perception that the prisoners were indeed animals, which in turn reinforced their hatred of them and justified their persecution. Wouldn’t it have been more dignified, then, to commit suicide? Why suffer such humiliation for a piece of old, hardened bread? People would steal bread from each other, from corpses. But why? Many Israelis resent the prisoner for not resisting more, for submitting with such mildness, like animals, and for only a ration of soup and a piece of bread. There is both an inversion and perversion in these ideas. No one who is not now starving or has once starved can understand what it means to do so, or the effects it has on a person’s behavior, no matter how ethical that person may be. No one knows whether life, or, even more absurdly, a person’s values, can be more important than eating when there is no food. The Nazis’ strategy was to transform the effects of complete deprivation—hunger, thirst, filth—into their cause. What was happening to the Jews was happening because they had always been animals, not because they’d been turned into animals.This is the basis of any process of alienation: to switch cause and effect. And the other people, those who were not Nazis and who criticize the prisoners, make the same mistake. They take pleasure in judging and in asking questions, which is something only someone who has food can do. Few recognize the strength needed to endure humiliation, to search for ways to manage one’s hunger, to become an insect, with a small voice deep within the little life there is left that insists that the human within you lives on. Dignity is not inflexible.
In the pages of her diary, as it is in the diaries of many other survivors, there is a lot about food. A turnip, an apple, potato peels, half a ration of frozen and contaminated soup, a bit of butter. Each one of these is a reason to live another day; life, under these conditions, is no more than one day at a time.
In the pages of her diary, as it is in the diaries of many other survivors, there is a lot about food. A turnip, an apple, potato peels, half a ration of frozen and contaminated soup, a bit of butter. Each one of these is a reason to live another day; life, under these conditions, is no more than one day at a time. She talks about eating rotten potatoes, and laughs. We´d eat rotten potatoes like they were made of gold! I’d never eaten something so delicious. You know, when you’re starving, everything tastes good! Maybe this is why she often made a game out of food when her children were young. She diced sausages into squares and put them on little circles of black bread, which were held in place with tooth picks. These, she would call “little soldiers.” She would make chicken and set it in the center of the plate, surround it with rice, and drizzle white sauce around the edges. She would call this “the island.”
There was the leftover dough from the jelly-filled potato cakes, which she’d cut into strips and call “little snakes.” There was spinach and eggs, peach soup with egg whites whipped to a peak, and coffee ice cream cannoli. Then there was the goulash and cholent that she’d spend all night preparing, waking up twice in the night to stir it; a mixture of meat, eggs, potato, and white beans. Food for those who had nothing to eat and who, by mixing everything together, had come up with a dish that went on to become part of the national cuisine. Sirloin steak on the grill, fried only in butter. And Friday night dinners with grandma and her brother, Uncle Artur. Elaborate dinners, with a starter, a main, and dessert. She was never extravagant in the kitchen, and she didn’t know many recipes, but the ones she did know, she had mastered. And then there were the Yom Kippur cakes, chocolate cake rolls, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce, walnut cake rolls, and spaghetti kugel. Mother seems to enjoy watching others eat more than she herself enjoys eating. She eats so little, and has never liked restaurants, where she always insists on sharing, and refuses to order individual dishes. The daughter thinks it is strange that the smaller the dish, the more expensive it is. Odd that it is elegant to eat little and that skeletal thinness is a sign of beauty, that eating too much is for the poor. To what extent is this steady emaciation, and the individualization of food connected to the horror of the Holocaust? Why are the economically affluent attracted to minimalism? Perhaps it’s a way of directly challenging the uncontainable desire to have more by those who are materially deprived. In any case, baroque abundance is also offensive, though more sincere and less refined. In order to eat well, must men always remember those who eat little and poorly? Do those who starved have more of a right to ritualize food than those who didn’t? No. The memory of hunger should not deprive those who can eat. The ethical relationship between past and present hunger should not be mathematical, direct—that would be ridiculous—as if one’s eating less would make another eat more. No, this is just another way of avoiding the issue. Our respect for those who did not eat should not be demonstrated by not eating. Eating well and ritualizing the practice of food is a way of engaging with the earth and the other.
Beyond the use of direct assassinations, the Nazis’ strategy of annihilation and radical extermination consisted entirely in producing hunger. Hunger is the worst kind of privation, the most beastly of them all, and it is hunger that sustained this paranoid extermination of the prisoners’ cultural and human identities. It wasn’t only that it was materially and logistically difficult to send people to the gas chambers, hunger was also a necessary step in the process of diminishing man’s humanity. Concentration camps are hunger, and hunger is, more than anything, the determining factor of all other occurrences.
Noemi Jaffe is an award-winning Brazilian writer whose literary career has exploded in the last five years, gaining critical acclaim and momentum worldwide, with her works being translated into nearly a dozen languages. After working as a teacher of Brazilian Literature for more than 20 years and concluding her academic career with a PhD on the poetry of Antonio Cicero, in 2005 Jaffe published a poetry volume—her first publication—at the age of 43. Presently, Noemi Jaffe also contributes with a monthly column for the newspaper Valor Econômico and for the magazine Harper’s Bazaar. She teaches a regular course on Creative Writing at Casa do Saber, and her work is now published by the prestigious Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s largest publishing house. She lives in São Paulo, Brazil.
Julia Sanches is Brazilian by birth but has lived in New York, Mexico City, Lausanne, Edinburgh, and Barcelona. She is a graduate of Comparative Literature and Literary Translation at UPF in Barcelona, and she completed her M.A. in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2010. Her most recent translation is Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira.
This excerpt from What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? is published by permission of Deep Vellum Publishing. Copyright © 2013 Noemi Jaffe. Translation copyright © 2016 Julia Sanches.
Photo: Noemi Jaffe, Private
Photo: Julia Sanches, Private
Published on December 1, 2016.