One spring evening in 1890, from his vantage point up on the Primorsky Boulevard, a young man was watching the movement of ships in the port of Odessa.
Decked out in his Sunday finest, he contrasted as much with the everyday casualness of most of the passersby as with the exoticism of others. The fact is, the young man was dressed to set out on a great adventure: his mother had given him his varnished leather shoes; his uncle, a tailor by trade, had completed his made-to-measure suit the day before his departure; and finally, the hat he was wearing had first been donned by his father on his wedding day twenty-two years earlier, since when he had only had occasion to wear it another five or six times.
At that moment the young man still had three days before his big adventure really got underway, but to him the four hundred versts from Kiev to Odessa, and this first sight of a port and of the Black Sea (which would flow into the Mediterranean, which in turn flowed into the Atlantic Ocean), were part and parcel of the crossing that would make a new man of him.
Yet a veil of sadness clouded the enthusiasm with which he devoured all the sights of the big city and its port. Completely lacking any sentimental education, his one experience of love had troubled him so much it prevented him from enjoying the imminent realization of his most daring project. In order to ward off this nagging feeling of loss, he stared intently at everybody who went by. There was something about each and every one of them that caught his attention: a nanny in starched uniform reluctantly pushing a pram, out of whose lacy frills poked a baby's ill-tempered head; two men whose bulging stomachs were signed with the flourish of the gold chains of invisible watches, as they strolled along discussing the prices of wheat and sunflowers on European markets; a black sailor, the first person he had seen of that color, observing everything around him as curiously as he did himself; another sailor, who looked more like an actor dressed up to play the part, with a gold earring and a parrot on his shoulder that he was trying unsuccessfully to sell.
A few yards beneath him on the pink granite Potemkin Steps, he spied a young girl staring at the landscape with a gaze every bit as melancholy as his own. She was sitting on one of the steps and had set down beside her two large round boxes, one on top of the other. Each one of them was done up with a blue satin ribbon, and they were held together with a simple piece of string. Written in Latin characters on the boxes were the words: “Madame Yvonne. Paris-Vienna-Odessa.”
A pleasant breeze cooled the air, and far out to sea the fleeting forms of clouds shaped like dragons and archangels drifting from east to west seemed somehow to presage a happy encounter. The young man, whom we shall call Daniel Aisenson, did not know what words or gestures might allow him to introduce himself to an unknown woman. When she grew tired of pretending she had not noticed his presence, she cast him a stern glance, almost at once softened to a smile: something about him spoke of his innocence, a quality she had never encountered in any of the uncouth, or more refined, seducers she had learned to recognize in the big city.
We will never know what the first words they exchanged were, nor who uttered them, but it could well be she was the one who overcame the young man's shyness. Daniel was born in a shtetl; when he was five, his parents had moved to a suburb in the holiest of all cities, Kiev, of which he knew little more than what was known as the Bessarabian market, and inside that, the family passementerie shop. As an adolescent, he had often paused to admire St. Sophia Cathedral's gold, spiraling columns, the five gleaming domes of the collegiate church of St. Andrew, and taller still, the bell tower of Petchersk monastery.
He could not help comparing the splendor of these monuments to the modest synagogue his parents attended without great conviction, and where he was obliged to accompany them. The comparison made him feel guilty. A divine injustice—he felt—had robbed him of an opulent, sheltering religion, and condemned him to an austere and cruel one, the natural corollary of which appeared to be the constant threat of pogrom: Cossacks had sliced his grandfather's legs off with a saber slash when he had come forward to beg for mercy from the hetman; almost all his uncles had seen their houses burn, singled out by the six-pointed star which, despite being a sacred symbol, had marked them out for massacre rather than offering protection.
The young woman, whose name we shall never know, was by contrast a daughter of Odessa, where Greeks, Armenians, Turks, and Jews were as common as Russians. She did not speak Ukrainian, but a rudimentary Russian, laced with a few words of Yiddish: despite not being Jewish herself, she lived and worked among Jews. Or rather, among Jewish women: the fearsome Madame Yvonne, whose real name was Rubi Guinzburg, and the three assistants who worked under her to create hats in a workshop on Deribassovska Street. They all came from the Moldavanka, but after years of strenuous effort, they had succeeded in distancing themselves in their imagination from this neighborhood, although it was situated a mere ten streets from their workshop. Whenever there were no clients or suppliers in the shop, Yiddish rang out, used by Madame Yvonne to reproach or insult her girls, or by the latter to berate those ladies who tried on a dozen hats and left without buying a single one.
In this workshop, the young woman on the steps was the shiksa, a ghastly word signifying both the servant and the non-Jew, the goy. The shiksa had to clean the shop, prepare tea, take the hats to purchasers' houses, and carry out other errands and menial jobs. Her reward was a bed in the kitchen, a frugal meal, and the occasional tip at the tradesmen's entrance of a client.
The next evening saw the two of them sitting together on a bench under the acacias in Tchevchenko Park. The noise of the city was reduced to a murmur, and in the distance they could glimpse the sea and ships, a nebulous promise each of them interpreted as they saw fit.
She told him she was an orphan, and that thanks to studying the magazines from which Madame Yvonne copied her creations, she had learned that life is the same in Paris, Vienna, or Odessa, that without money all one can aspire to is a servant's life, and that the world is divided into haves and have-nots. He explained to her that this was true in Europe but that on the other side of the ocean there was a land of infinite possibilities, a young country where a Jew like him could hope to own a piece of land. Stumbling over his words, he told her about Baron Hirsch, about colonization, Santa Fe, Entre Rios. For the first time ever, she heard things she had never dreamed could exist: that a Jew could want to farm the soil, that he could fear Christians in the same way she feared the Jewish girls at the workshop, that he could talk to her about something other than the present he would give her if she agreed to spend the night with him in a cheap hotel on Privakzalnaia Square.
Can it have been during this second meeting that he revealed the apparently inexplicable reason for feeling such overwhelming sadness on the eve of his departure across the Atlantic in search of a new life? That reason had a name: Rifka Bronfman.
Their families had introduced them at the age of fourteen, having already betrothed them long before they met, and had married them five days before he left Kiev. Prior to their wedding, they had been alone together no more than ten times, always with parents or brothers and sisters in the adjoining room or spying at the window that looked out on the meager garden that separated house from street.
Daniel had begun toying with the idea of emigrating a year earlier. On a visit to Kiev, the delegation of Jewish Colonization for Argentina had organized evening meetings in the Israeli Mutual Association. With the help of a magic lantern and a dozen glass plates, an eloquent speaker had shown them the endless fertile plains of Argentina that awaited them. He had indicated where these lands were, and their distance from the main cities: Buenos Aires and Rosario, which they had seen in other plates. He had also waved a slender publication bound in sky-blue and white in which—he explained—were printed the words (in Spanish, and therefore in Latin characters) “Constitution of the Argentine Republic.” From this tome he had read, translating himself instantaneously into Yiddish, those articles which promised equality before the law and freedom of worship for all those willing to work in this “land of peace.”
Daniel had repeated these words to Rifka; he described the images in great detail. His fiancée did not share his enthusiasm. In accordance with the precept that a woman's place is by her husband's side, she agreed to follow him, but this new world did not haunt her dreams. When he filled out the necessary papers, she made no specific objection, but when they came back duly approved and stamped by the Argentine consulate, and she read there her name, date of birth, the color of her hair and eyes, she burst into violent sobs which, just as it seemed they must give way to exhaustion, broke out afresh. The two families decided it must be a nervous condition brought on by the proximity of her wedding; a cousin who had vaguely studied medicine informed them it was a very fashionable complaint known as neurasthenia. Pleased with this diagnosis, Rifka endured the service in the synagogue with great dignity, beneath the ritual wig that covered her freshly shaven head.
That night, Daniel had to overcome his inexperience, and Rifka her fear. Amid the bleeding, he found pleasure; she discovered pain. The next morning he woke up alone in bloody sheets; in the distance he could hear shouts, tears, reproaches, complaints. He saw Rifka in the arms of his mother-in-law, refusing to be comforted. While the older woman tried to drown out the young bride's protests by repeating over and over “She'll get over it, shell get over it,” Rifka succeeded in making heard what she was shouting with ever greater insistence: “I'm not going, I'm not going, I'm not going.” When she had calmed down a little, she was able to string a few words together and explain: “I'm afraid, very afraid. I know everyone here, this is where my family is from, and your family, and my girlfriends; this is where the synagogue is, the market, everything I know. What are we going to find over there? Snakes? Indians? Carnivorous plants?”
Daniel tried to tell her that she now had a husband who could protect her, but Rifka seemed deaf to all argument. When she finally managed to dry her tears, she accepted, together with a glass of tea and more sugar than lemon, the barely optimistic, almost despairing suggestion her mother made: that she should travel a year, or perhaps only six months after her husband, once he had written to confirm she would be safe from all the perils the novels of Emilio Salgari had conjured up for her.
During the remaining nights before he set out, Daniel refrained from touching her. Perhaps secretly relieved, Rifka did not hold it against him.
* * *
The young woman has been listening to him in silence. They have walked from the park to the scene of their first encounter. The pink evening sky has gradually given way to an increasingly deep blue. Night has fallen by the time he finishes his rushed, jumbled story, which the preceding paragraphs have attempted to summarize.
They walk past cafés and patisseries with French and Italian names they cannot permit themselves to enter. Behind the lace curtain of one of the windows, she recognizes the linen flowers, the embalmed and stitched bird, and the silk ribbons of a hat she saw being created piece by piece, and which now crowns an invisible head. They reach the statue of a French duke whose name means nothing to them; it is lit by the feeble, fitful glow from the windows of the London Hotel. In the distance, the ships anchored in the harbor also cast random reflections across the black, whispering waters.
When she speaks at last, it is not to comment on the tale she has listened to so attentively.
“When do you embark?”
“Tomorrow. The ship leaves at six in the evening, but the third-class passengers have to be on board by noon.”
She stares at him, expecting words that do not come. After a moment's pause, she insists.
“Are you intending to travel alone?”
He stares back at her, catching her meaning but scarcely daring to believe he has properly understood.
“Alone. . . . Why, what other choice do I have . . . ?”
She seizes him by the arms, blocking his path. Daniel can sense that these small hands can grip and perhaps even hit out, that they are not made simply to wield a needle.
“Take me with you! I could pass for blonde, I have light eyes even if they are not blue, I am just under a meter sixty-five, and I am eighteen! Is there a photograph in that safe-conduct of yours?”
“But . . .” he manages to stammer out, “we're not married …”
Her peal of laughter rings out across the deserted square, seems to roll down the steps and echo out over the harbor.
“How could we be married if I'm an Orthodox Russian and you're a Jew! It would take months before a rabbi accepted my conversion . . . and anyway, didn't you say that in this new country of yours, nothing of what keeps us slaves here has any importance? Let's go together!”
As Daniel looks on dumbfounded, she starts spinning round, arms outstretched, like an Anatolian dervish. Laughing all the while, she repeats like an incantation the names she has heard mentioned only a few moments before.
“Buenos Aires! Rosario! Entre Rios! Santa Fe! Argentina!” She laughs louder and louder, and spins on and on. “I am Rifka Bronfman!”
* * *
One hundred and ten years after this scene, while he is convalescing in a Paris hospital, this couple's great-grandson receives a letter from his Aunt Draifa in Buenos Aires. In it, “feeling the moment of departure drawing closer every day,” the old lady tells him this story, a secret passed down by the women of the family, the eldest in each generation revealing it only to the eldest of the next. The aunt has chosen him because geographical distance seems to guarantee the secret will be kept, while allowing her to keep the promise of passing it on.
While he waits for the results of a second biopsy on his spine, he lets his memory drift back to the snippets he had heard as a boy about the great-grandfather he had never known, and of the mother of ten children born in Argentina who was that young woman, who one spring evening in 1890 sat staring sadly at the ships leaving the port of Odessa.
He had inherited a picturesque image of his great-grand-father as a womanizer, a bit of a wastrel: an image derived, he now understands, from the episode his Aunt Draifa has revealed to him in her letter. But on the other hand, could it not be said to have been simply common sense to forget a woman who was too frightened to cross the Atlantic, and replace her with someone else whose courage and daring he was sure to have need of?
He knew that this great-grandmother Rifka, whose real name no one ever knew, was both courageous and daring. In 1902, on the farm, two well-aimed bullets from her pistol had accounted for a pair of gypsy prowlers, known as child snatchers throughout the region of Gualeguay. In 1904, after having borne a child every year, she endured a tenth pregnancy against the advice of Doctor Averbuch, who had attended all her births. She gave birth to a girl as blonde as she was, with the same light-colored eyes, only to die a few hours later of puerperal fever.
All at once her great-grandson understands why instead of feeling proud of this ancestor of theirs, the women of the family, or at least those charged with transmitting the secret, had passed down the information as if it were a piece of dangerous, perhaps forbidden, knowledge. It was not that they were worried by any absurd ideas of illegitimacy or fraud; but, according to the Talmudic law, Jewishness passes down through the mother's line, and therefore the ten children of that marriage were not Jewish . . .
The hospital patient, who forty-eight hours later is to learn how long he has left to live, thinks about his father and mother. Just where had their belonging to the “chosen” race ended and begun again? (That word “chosen” seems more than ever to him to be surrounded by a dark, sinister halo.) Brought up without religion, for him that continuity had not been expressed by any mystical tie or consoling tradition, but only through occasional gastronomic outings. And of course, by the “shitty Russian” heard at primary school, as well as by the frequency of guard and latrine duties he had endured during his military service.
But he is too weary to feel sorry for himself. His thoughts turn instead to a faceless person, to the real Rifka Bronfman, the one who preferred the illusion of safety with family and friends. If she was twenty in 1890, she must have been around sixty in 1941 . . . Did she die at Babi Yar? If she was still alive at the time of the German invasion, which most Ukrainians welcomed as liberation from the Soviet yoke, she might have been dispatched by a Wehrmacht Einsatzgruppe, or by the SS, or by a gang of nationalists, possibly even her neighbors; people who had always been so smiling and friendly, but who suddenly now were enemies, zealous seekers of justice intent on uprooting the Semitic weed from the garden of the fatherland.
He also reflects that he has no children, does not even know the distant offspring of so many cousins scattered throughout the world by fresh winds of want and fear. He realizes no one is going to call him to account for not passing on this piece of family history. But two days later, on an impulse he would be hard put to explain, he starts to write it as a story.
Excerpted from the collection The Bride from Odessa by Edgardo Cozarinsky, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor. To be published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, L.L.C. Originally published in 2001 by Emecé Editores S.A., Buenos Aires, as La Novia de Odessa. Copyright © 2001 by Edgardo Cozarinsky, © 2001 by Emecé Editores S.A., translation copyright © 2004 by Nick Caistor. All rights reserved.