Editor’s Note: The novel To Live in Sin (1996) is dedicated to the pogrom of the Romanian Jewish population in Jassy, June 29, 1941. This mass murder (over 10,000 victims), and the deportation of the Jewish population of the Bukovina region to Transnistria, in Ukraine, are the “contribution” of Romania under the pro-Nazi dictatorship of Marshal Antonescu to the Final Solution. These crimes were committed with terrible cruelty and they happened before the famous Wansee Conference.
The adolescent Daniel Nahmanson and all the other characters in Virgil Duda’s novel, as well as their complicated relationships, belong to fiction, of course, but the facts, places, and even some names (for instance, the policemen’s names at the Nicolina district) are real, based on documents. The chapter ends with a quote from Primo Levi about Auschwitz, placing the Jassy genocide in the context of the European holocaust.
When he paused to catch his breath on the abandoned lot bordered by shrubs, now all nearly shriveled by the heat, he felt overwhelmed by fatigue. If he could only find, in that city pillaged by crime and plundered by hatred, a place where he could rest his bones! It was perhaps his intention at first to start off toward Lia’s place in the Nicolina district, but on the way, overpowered by the sights, he forgot all about it. He didn’t know the name of the street, or the number, but recalled perfectly the place where the house was located; it was really only a trailer crammed between others like it, standing apart from them merely because of the flower garden Moni’s wife had planted on a narrow patch of earth, guarded by a paltry wattle fence, tall enough to protect the pansy and cornflower beds from the sweltering heat.
In the stealthy manner of a scout sent out to spy on the enemy trenches, he made his way toward the peripheries, toward the great railroad repair shops: he was someone whose mission was to snoop, to see without being seen and remember everything to the last detail. In contrast to the center of the city, the closer he got to the suburbs, the more infrequent the convoys of Jews became, while the elements of domestic existence and the leisurely ways of life peculiar to the Moldavian village became more predominant. Something sluggish and stuffy, like the languor of Sundays, cohabited here with a kind of inexplicable but all-the-same present tension, as though the murders at the core of the fortress conveyed their reverberations to the areas beyond the surrounding walls. He halted-a somewhat improper term, appropriated from the terminology of war-at the outskirts of the district where the faraway rattle of the bullets and the thunder of explosions blended with the silence of an abandoned village, with the somnolent hum of a deserted orchard.
Somewhere around the area the street he was looking for was supposed to begin-a tiny plaza at a crossroads at whose center stood a stone drinking fountain-he saw a crowd of people advancing at a crawling pace. It couldn’t have been anything other than one more convoy of victims being prepared for relocation, but the odd thing was that you couldn’t make out any screams or curses; there was no whistle of bullets, no protests, no threats. He slunk carefully down on a slope and, stretching out on his belly, began to scrutinize this enemy camp, located, it seemed, somewhere behind the front, the contents of a troop-carrying train, among the rags, the disinfection chambers and the cauldrons boiling the soldiers’ watery soup.
On the rural sidewalks, made of river rock, stood groups of German soldiers, with weapons slung around their necks and barrels pointing at the civilian huddle in the middle of the street. Despite the heat, this destitute population seemed to be getting ready for a Siberian expedition. The majority of the mass wore on their arms thick overcoats or even greatcoats, you could even see sheepskin coats or fur collars made of scrawny lamb, while their feet were shod in solid shoes, those you wore during the long period of the autumn rains. The women were few, as were the toddlers, which gave you the impression that despite the clear orders that had been given regarding the selection for the deportation-had there been different orders given here regarding the free passage permits that the adult males were obliged to carry?-some of the more frightened women and a few disobedient adolescents decided to accompany the heads of the family, while those in charge of giving those orders had been perhaps more lenient in regards to the proscriptions or had not actually succeeded in countering the screams of protest launched by the lowly offenders and decided that at the appropriate moment, perhaps at the time of the boarding of the trains, maybe even before, it would be easier to sift the wheat from the chaff.
A few sweaty and ostentatious policemen, more than likely annoyed at being burdened with this mission on the holy day of Sunday-a humiliating mission for a man in uniform, drilling old crones and toddlers rather than confronting the usual parade of hardened criminals and violent delinquents-were striving to organize the convoy in proper rows and files. Because they were not out on a walk, they were to be led all the way to the Police Station #2, the meeting place for the entire district. That’s what Police Chief Suvei had decided: they were not to leave the police station-where the crowd had huddled by the thousands, whether they had been called or not-in a helter-skelter fashion; as a matter of fact he had received an alarming telephone call from a colleague at the station who told him about the indescribable mayhem incited by some hoodlums and legionnaires, joined later by a brute in a gendarme uniform and then by other policemen and German and Romanian soldiers; the killer instinct was on the loose. It was wise therefore not to let the convoy go there, where chaos seemed to rule, but to wait for the tempers to cool through the intervention of the garrison’s commanders. They would stay in touch with the station on Vasile Alecsandri Street and at the opportune moment they would make the attempt to get to the train station directly, without making the detour through the center of the city, and thus waste a lot of time.
The convoy was ready to take off but continued to swell as late arrivals were rushing to join their neighbors, relatives or acquaintances, who might help with the carrying of the loads; some had brought with them heavy suitcases, eiderdowns tied together with thick ropes, and you could even spot baby carriages, loaded all the way to the top and crowned by some cast-iron kettle or tin-lined cauldron for making plum jam. Daniel was losing his patience and, contaminated perhaps by the domestic aspect of this tragedy, sat down in the cross-legged Turkish fashion on the mound behind which he had originally hidden himself. To see them finally leave so he could go and find Lia, to comfort her and tell her that they needed to thank Heaven for the incredible decency they were treated with here, while murder and robbery were the order of the day everywhere else! But perhaps it wasn’t right to tell her about the death, so horrific, of her friend Clara, whom he knew she had loved so much; how could he make her understand the appalling revelation of her relationship with his father, so shameful and humiliating for all of them?
Finally, the refugee convoy started off. Daniel retreated behind the mound, watching impatiently that stream of people, so grieved and frightened, so disheartened, crawling through the assemblage of bayonets. An image of hopelessness and solidarity. At the same time an arresting image through its intensely dramatic tranquility and decency, if he was to weigh it against-in his memory now burning with the shared pain, with shame and especially with the paradoxical guilt-the animalistically unleashed primitive hatred, with the children’s bloody corpses, with the ax and the knife blows, the rifle butt blows, the boot kicks, with the bodies fallen in the dust, with screams of horror and useless imploring. A tranquil and dignified suffering, like the one that accompanies the funeral processions for young men who had committed suicide. Something you could actually look at, even though your heart felt gripped by a claw.
He spotted her with a shock: the woman he had gone to find was almost in the last row; a truck carrying a few soldiers and two military motorcycles with their lights on accompanied that funereal huddle, like in a ceremony of death. She was holding the arm of an invalid old man with a corpselike face and disheveled hair, dressed only in striped pajamas, an angry or perhaps just hopeless individual who was trying to wrench himself away from her protection and advance alone by means of his yellowed crutch that glittered like ivory under the rays of the sun. Lia walked with a slight forward stoop and her back was half turned toward the place where he, her admirer who had barely left his adolescence behind, was hiding; he had no doubt regarding her identity, and not only because he was now in the vicinity of her place. Daniel was startled at the sight of her crown of golden hair, short and dense, of her turquoise alpaca suit with a thin collar of chocolate velvet, and especially of the delicate tendons of her neck, almost as white and glimmering as the old man’s crutch. The boy couldn’t control his desire to rush to her and he would have done so had it not been for the three or four railroad workers with their oil-stained overalls and their lunch knapsacks on their back, who, sidestepping the truck and the motorcycles, charged at the last rows of the convoy of Jews and began to punch and kick blindly. “Legionnaire beasts,” shouted the old man before he tripped and tumbled, striking his forehead against a rock. Moni’s widow, for whom this scene was not new, tried her best to hold onto his arm but, shouting in fright, ended up falling on top of him. The soldiers jumped off the truck and charged at the aggressors, attempting to keep them at bay while Daniel, goaded by the explosion of violence-so discordant with the scene’s previous idyllic aspect of calm sadness (but which he witnessed so often during his long junket through the city marked by the pogrom, by the unleashing of primitive instincts and barbarous plunder)-rushed to the defense of the victims.
But everything lasted no more than a few moments; by the time he got there, the column regrouped itself and resumed its melancholy march-the invalid had been shoved somewhere inside the convoy while the railroad men were content merely to jeer and curse-so that all that was left for the boy to do was take Lia’s arm and help her with her cloth traveling bag.
“You’re not in mourning anymore,” Daniel noted with satisfaction; the satisfaction did not come, most certainly, because of the content of his realization, but of the happiness he felt to be, finally, next to “his favorite woman”-without any clear attempt on his part to discern his intentions-as he had desired at the time he left his house.
She embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks; the surprise she felt at his youthful appearance cheered her up visibly, it made her look younger.
“I didn’t feel right walking around in black,” she explained smiling. “Who knows where they will take us through all this dust!”
“But the women don’t have to go, that’s what we were told!”
“That’s true, but I was afraid to be left behind all alone. When I saw Broscaru with his crutch passing in front of my window and cursing furiously, I quickly gathered a few things, put on these clothes . . .”
“They look very becoming on you!”
“I thought maybe I could help and then wouldn’t feel so abandoned. Kind of like a nurse. My sister, who was staying with me after Moni died, also disappeared the other day, without telling me where she was going. But it’s not so surprising with her,” Lia added, transforming Daniel’s eloquent gesture into words. “I can’t take it anymore, I feel like I’m about to explode!” she said and was indeed shaking as though in the grips of a fever. “Is everything all right with your family?”
“It’s the end of the world,” he said gloomily.
It happens at times that a handful of people cross each others’ paths in this world run amok with hatred and destruction, or at best with hostility and indifference, a handful of people who prove to be immune to the siege of demonic impulses, to the waves of bestiality and cruelty that spread like a contamination and penetrate the entire social strata. A holy spirit of normality, laying claim to more wisdom and more courageous intelligence than a pure act of heroism, descends upon that cluster of individuals and whispers to them emphatically that the moment has come for them to manifest, without a trace of vanity-be it even with clenched heart-the quality of true human beings, the solidarity and honesty, the refusal to assist in the slaughter which all the others give themselves to. Through the auspices of that concentration of positive energy a kind of miracle occurs. What is even more amazing is that we are not talking about a group of priests who, through their existential choice are sworn to devote themselves to goodness and light, but about people of action, or even the members of a professional guild, situated by its nature at the border of the confrontation with those who violate the moral laws and the social order.
That’s exactly what happened at the Nicolina district police station. Not only the police chief, but Mr. Mircescu and Mr. Cosnita as well, all those responsible there, perhaps at the goading or the suggestion of someone they were in contact with at the central police station via the telephone, decided that the Jews who had received the deportation orders must not end up at that full-throttle abattoir of insanity. They felt responsible for the fate of that miserable and innocent people and thought it their duty to shelter them from the devastating curse. Why would they aid this people’s passage to hell, why-ultimately-would they burden their own conscience with such a sin, the most vicious of them all, to become accomplice to reckless slaughter? Thus, they placed them in the basement of the station but as there was not enough room for everyone in that subterranean shelter, they assigned some of them to the basement of a building ruined by the bombardment, while hastening the rest to the haystacks of the neighboring field. It’s best they wait there for a while, let’s see how things evolve, there is no hurry, that’s what Chief Suvei decided. The Jews protested. They wanted to receive their own free passage permits, which their relatives had already received earlier that morning. It wouldn’t be a good thing to wait too long: the authorities, especially during a war, change their minds constantly and proceed in an arbitrary, even chaotic manner all the time.
Chief Mircescu lost his temper. “Gentlemen, I think we told you loud and clear that this is not the marketplace where you can bargain, or the rabbi who decides who’s right and wrong. Here we give the orders, here we are the responsible ones. This is a situation where the national interest is at stake and which has to take its course according to the laws of this country and not according to your personal likes and dislikes-and I don’t care which side you’re on. The police are responsible for public order; I order you to cease any and all comments or protests or we will find necessary to reestablish discipline by means of force.”
During this short speech, uttered with firm severity, the chief pointed to a rabbi from Botosani who happened to come for a visit to his niece, newly wedded to an accountant from the textile factory; it was fortunate however that the young couple lived in that district, far from the factory as well as from the center of the city where Daniel-in his endless activities as a reporter-had been a witness to the shooting of Iosif Sofran, the chief rabbi of the big city, right on the steps of his own building; Daniel could have told them the rabbi had been gravely wounded in the leg simply because he had protested a baseless accusation.
During that moment of tension the invalid Broscaru intervened opportunely; without getting mixed up in the conflict of interests, but evidently and implicitly tipping the scales toward the official point of view, he asked for bandages from the police station’s emergency kit, because his arm and his face had been injured and his body was bruised all over. The guards had protected the Jews on the road, the guards had continued to take care of them-that was his message. He received all the care possible under those unfortunate conditions, due to a young medical assistant from the convoy; the people, appeased, resigned themselves to wherever location they had been directed to.
In order to prove once again that he knew how to control a complex and unique situation, Mircescu asked the future refugees to contribute a sum of money and sent two of the guards to buy food, something basic-everything at the market was now horribly expensive-in order for everyone to receive a little portion. With the aid of buckets for putting out fires, water was brought in abundance, for drinking, even for washing hands or moistening cheeks. In that horrible heat, especially after the march on that dusty road, lack of water was a serious problem.
Left behind, being the last in the convoy’s line, Lia and her young companion crawled inside a heavily scented haystack. In fact, the assistant chief Cosnita had warned them, along with all the others, that once the march was resumed, it was more than likely she would not be able to continue; the orders that had come down were clear: only men of eighteen and up.
Daniel was dead tired and his nerves were shattered. It had been by far the most difficult day of his life. He was turning and twisting in the heat-dry hay, trying to settle in a comfortable position, figuring that after getting his bearings he would go to the police station in search of his father in order to get him some help: maybe the entire community would go there, as they had initially established, or maybe he would go alone on his own account, taking advantage of the fact that no one would force him to remain with the convoy. Finally, Lia, mastering her shyness, suggested that he stretched there at his ease and, using the straw as a pillow, prop his head on her lap. The boy accepted. It was pleasant and relaxing for both, lying there next to each other almost made them forget the misfortune that surrounded them. Daniel dozed off for a few minutes. When he awakened, he felt the blazing and humid heat of the woman’s thighs-which she had held tensely together, afraid not to disturb his sleep-on his nape; his hair had sweated abundantly during sleep, from her heat as well as from the emotion. He was embarrassed and excited and didn’t dare move. She discerned instantly he was awake and began to caress him reassuringly, to wipe his sweat with her delicate handkerchief and finally, to straighten her sleeping legs. All the fidgeting and motion put the boy in a tumultuous state. He recalled that when ran toward the convoy and began walking next to Lia, he wanted to tell her how he had found out about the forbidden relationship between Clara and his father. But now he had lost the courage to confide about his inner turbulence: the sensation of sensual pleasure had become so frantic that he found it impossible to speak.
With difficulty, he gathered his strength, composed himself and withdrew from the zone of attraction of that femininity; she herself was alarmed by the experience-strained despite the attraction-of that contact on the knife’s edge. He kissed Lia on both cheeks, attempting to impose a neutral tone on his gestures, after which he announced, whispering alluringly, that he had to go. “I don’t know anything about Father. And, it’s better I don’t stay,” he said. When he was about to take off an agent saw him and informed Chief Mircescu. The chief was about to run after him and give him a beating, but Lia stood in his way and said: “He’s underage.”
“Perhaps I found courage because of my interest-always abiding in the human being-and in the desire not simply to survive, but hope that I would be able to recount the things I saw and was forced to endure. Perhaps my desire played an important role-the desire I tenaciously preserved, even in the most terrible hours-to see in those who surrounded me, and in myself as well, people rather than objects, and to avoid thus that humiliation, that complete demoralization that leads most people to destruction.”