Terebes (a story)


TEREBES

 

Bruce J. Berger

Ida sat uncomfortably on the hard wooden seat as her train sped eastward from Budapest, the magnificent city of her dreams, a place she was now forced to abandon, as far as she knew, for the rest of her life. Duty called her back to her family, one that had grown by yet another baby sister in the two years that she had been away. Her mother had apparently run out of conventional names or else, following what she promised was her last pregnancy, chose to name the infant Piroska in a flight of fancy. Little redhead indeed! There were already too many mouths to feed, and a new sister would only mean more child care work for Ida, even as she tried to begin her a career as a seamstress. She had been in Budapest for two years, apprenticed to a talented and fortunately patient mistress of that trade, living with an aunt only too happy to get rid of her.

Moving from Szighet to Budapest at the age of 13 had been an eye-opening experience. She could not remember ever having seen so many buildings, so many people, so many horse-drawn carriages, so much activity in one place. Quickly getting accustomed to the bustle of Hungary’s capital in 1908, Ida found time every day to study the traffic on the broad, busy boulevard that was Andrassy Street. On fine days, she would eat her meager bagged lunch there, perched on a park bench. Regardless of the weather, she would walk the two miles between her Aunt Buzhy’s apartment and Miss Kati’s shop, morning and night, six days a week. There was much work to be done on Sundays, as customers would often seek repairs to their dresses or blouses or come to have new clothes created. On Saturdays, the Sabbath, Ida rested and read books she had borrowed from the great Budapest Public Library. Kati came from a large Jewish family herself and would never open on the Sabbath. In the winter months, after dark, Ida would use the few pennies that Aunt Buzhy gave her to watch the silent movies at the neighborhood theater. She had never seen a movie until she moved to Budapest.

Now, her apprenticeship over, things had taken a decidedly bad turn. Ida’s family had just moved away from Szighet to a tiny town in Transylvania that no one had ever heard of before. Terebes? The first three maps of Hungary that Ida had studied at the library didn’t even show the town. Only in tiny print on the fourth consulted map could Ida make out the name, next to an even smaller dot. The reason for such a move had been explained to Ida in a long letter from her father, but Ida could read between the lines of Jacob Weisz’s neat handwriting. Ida’s grandfather, her mother’s father, had died and left to Laura a plot of land in Terebes big enough for a house and vegetable garden. They needed their own house, to be built on the land by Ida’s father, and Terebes did not have its own tailor, nor a seamstress. Jacob and Ida would work next to each other and provide for the rest of the family.

##

Tired and grumpy from the six-hour trip, Ida watched as the owner of the buggy service and his son, a tall but pencil thin boy of about 12 years of age, pushed her trunk into the back of the vehicle. “Goldmann’s Taxi” said the hand-painted sign on the side of the carriage, but they were apparently unrelated to the Goldmanns she had known in Szighet, a fact she quickly deduced with a couple of questions answered by father. The boy — she heard his father call him Karl — said nothing, but stared intently at her. He looked ridiculous in a black and white striped cap pulled low over his forehead, with ears protruding far from his head on either side. Ida grimaced at the boy and he quickly turned his gaze aside. The balance of the short trip to Terebes was uneventful.

The taxi pulled up alongside a drab-looking house on an unpaved street in a tiny town. Suddenly, Ida was immersed in a hubbub of excited, loving family members. She hugged her parents warmly, then proceeded to hug and exchange a word with each of her siblings. Herman, next in age younger than Ida, hugged her the hardest of all and from the tears welling in his eyes she could tell that he was most affected by the emotion of the reunion. Finally, her mother presented her with the wrapped-up Piroska, just waking up from a nap and starting to cry. Ida expected to feel a greater sense of bonding when the newest member of the Weisz family was being placed in her arms for the first time, but she could detect only the faintest stirrings of love inside of her. Her sister was just another cute baby, a constant chore for older siblings who would more likely than not disappear whenever the diaper had to be changed.

The Goldmanns carried her trunk into the house, and Jacob paid the man a few korona, with the boy, Karl, stealing another long glance at Ida. Getting back into the buggy, Ida heard the boy say something to his father and saw his father laugh. She could not make out the words, but her older brother, Jeno, had been standing nearby.

“Jeno, what did that boy say that made his father laugh?”

“Ida, you don’t want to know.” Jeno scratched his head, looked at the buggy travel down the street only a few houses, and park in front of what was apparently the Goldmanns’ house. Karl and his father unhitched the horses and led them around a corner towards the rear, where their stalls must have been.

“No, really, what did he say?”

“He announced to his dad … ‘This is the girl I am going to marry!'” Jeno’s eyes twinkled in merriment and he, too, started to laugh.

“God willing, never” responded Ida, turning quickly to enter her family’s new, tiny house, anger rising in her.

##

Ida had little time during the day to think about Budapest. Her days were filled with work and family, and on the Shabbat just family. The work was hard. Despite her apprenticeship with a skilled seamstress, Ida started her own career with difficulty, ruining a fair amount of cloth (for which she had to pay herself) and, when not ruining what she worked on, creating some unusual clothing. Gradually, however, she managed more carefully. When a year had gone by, she hardly ruined anything any more and began to make more money for her family. Every korona she earned she turned over dutifully to her father. There were a lot of mouths to feed.

Meanwhile, Jeno and Herman learned the tailor’s trade from Jacob; they were learning well, but Terebes could not support three tailors. It could barely support one. Jeno made the family sad by enlisting in Emperor Franz-Josef’s army at the age of 17. Sending off a child to learn a trade was one thing. Sending off the oldest child, a son, to join an army was beyond the comprehension of anyone in the family. They could not remember anyone else among their relatives wearing a uniform.

It was not that Jacob and Laura worried about Jeno being killed or wounded in battle. No one in Terebes thought about war in 1911. It was just that the army seemed like a lifetime sentence of deprivation, innumerable postings to distance places of the Empire, irrevocably giving up one’s freedom. Yet, they could not argue with Jeno’s logic. He would be fed and clothed by the government, and he would send home most of his stipend, he promised. He would set apart a small amount in the hope that, some day, he might find a wife and start his own family. The entire family lined up outside their house to say goodbye and give Jeno some small parting gifts when Goldmann’s taxi drove up on a cold Sunday in March. This time, Karl drove the two-horse team himself. His father had grown ill with consumption.

Karl smiled at Ida. “How are you today, my future wife? You know I love you, don’t you?” He had grown increasingly bold in the past year with his insinuations that he would marry her someday. His predictions had become the town joke, but Ida had given up getting angry. She had decided that expressing anger to him would just encourage him. Instead, she resolved to just ignore him.

The rest of Terebes did not think amiss of Karl’s brash behavior, quite unusual though it was. Ida’s younger sisters just fell apart in giggles whenever Karl would come into their house and stare at Ida as she worked at her bench. If Ida could have locked him out, she would have, but then she would be locking out all of their customers and their livelihood. The longer the joke continued, it seemed, the funnier it got to everyone but Ida and her parents. Although they did not particularly dislike Karl, they made it clear to Ida that he was not for marrying (not that she was tempted) and they told Ida frequently how sorry they were that she had to endure his comments.

However, Karl was never crude. He made an effort to be helpful to Ida, as much as she wished he would disappear. He constantly offered to move heavy bolts of cloth for her, a chore that he found almost as difficult as she did her herself. He made extra trips to Sut Mar to pick up supplies, trips for which she was not charged. After learning that her birthday was March 15, he would find some small present around town that he felt might please her and, every now and then, he would buy something useful for her, like the shears he purchased new for her in Hallne. There were other Jewish girls in town, many more buxom than Ida, who considered herself rather flat-chested and unattractive. But Karl never showed any interest towards any of them. To Ida, he was still just a boy. She celebrated her 20th birthday. Karl offered to take her for a ride into the countryside. She declined, but politely. It was not proper for men and women to be alone together when they were unmarried. She was a woman and Karl, well, he was just 17, a boy, but it would still not be proper.

##

August 1914. The Crown Prince had been assassinated in Serbia, and the Empire was at war with Russia. Within a week, all the 17-year-old boys were drafted, Karl Goldmann and Herman Weisz among them. Karl’s younger brother Zhigger now used the Goldmann taxi to take Karl, Herman, and another friend to the staging area outside Sat Mar. Before they left, family members cried and hugged their sons and brothers, pleading with them to write and silently dreading their unknown fate. The boys looked young and scared, and none had any desire to fight. Desertion — defined to include failing to report for duty — meant immediate death by firing squad.

Ida crushed forward to give Herman one last hug for good luck, and as she leaned in towards her brother, Karl, who had been standing next to Herman, grabbed hold of her arm and squeezed. “I love you, Ida. Please wait for me to come back.”

Ida pulled her arm away quickly and declined to respond. The utter gall of that boy! To touch her in public, no less, and to act as if she cared a whit about him! She turned around to see whether any of her family members had seen this insult, but all she could detect was a faint smirk on the face of four-year-old Piroska, whom everyone now called Peszi. “Let’s go back in the house, Peszi.” She turned and, with her littlest sister following close behind, shut Karl out of her life. For good, she hoped.

##

Ida carried a secret deep within her, one that she would not share, even with her closest girlfriends. She loved Jeno Friedman, son of the rabbi, and the oldest of 12 children in the poorest family in Terebes. He was her age, but exempt from military service because of poor eyesight. He spent his hours studying to become a rabbi himself, under his father’s tutelage.

She did not know when or how she had fallen in love. One day, it seemed, Jeno was just another person who frequented her father’s store from time to time, bringing in some of his father’s clothes for major repair or asking her father to sew together a couple of boys’ shirts for his brothers. The next day — or perhaps it was the next week or the next month — Jeno was always stopping by to make pleasant conversation with her. On a late December afternoon, when her father had stepped out to use the privy and no one else was in the room where they worked, Jeno walked over boldly to Ida, took her hands in his, and leaned over to kiss her politely on the cheek. The move so stunned Ida that she had nothing to say, but could only smile. He smiled back, and she felt that a deal had been struck wordlessly; they would marry.

They never talked about their one and only kiss, or what it implied, and years had passed, but Ida did not doubt her intuition that a wedding was in store for them. He was waiting until he was ready; he needed to obtain smicha first — ordination — and then to find a town that needed a rabbi and could support a rabbi’s family. She knew that he would ask her some day.

Her feelings for Jeno and her utter conviction that she and Jeno would emerge as a couple made the situation with Karl even more ridiculous. That is, until the war — now being called the Great War — took Karl away. With Karl gone, Ida felt more comfortable in going over to his house to visit with his sister, Ethel. Ida became almost a household fixture there. She helped nurse Karl’s father as he lay dying in 1915. She helped nurse Karl’s mother as she lay dying in 1917. During the entire war, as far as she knew, Karl never appeared in Terebes nor did he even deign to write her a letter. Ida waited, but Jeno said nothing and took no steps to confirm Ida’s fervent wish that he ask for her hand.

In March 1918, Ida turned 23, about to become an old maid. Karl finally came back from the army, wounded by poison gas and weakened by typhoid. He found his family’s house — three doors down from Ida — virtually empty. As soon as the war ended, Karl’s two older brothers quickly emigrated to the victorious United States, and he was left trying to run the taxi service himself, care for his siblings, and learn the shoemaker trade all at once. He seemed at first to take no notice of Ida, which suited her just fine, but gradually his old boyish habits returned, almost hidden under the heavy visage of the man who had somehow lived through the horrors of the Great War and whose family had all but disappeared.

Occasionally, Ida dreamed of Budapest, a place she had last seen only two years earlier, when she and the rest of her family had rushed there to evade the approaching Russian army. She dreamed, not of the Budapest of the war, but of the Budapest of 1910, the happy, energetic, sophisticated place of what she now thought of as her distant youth.

The end of the war brought hardships to Terebes that Ida and her family could never have imagined. All of Transylvania was conceded to and became part of Romania, where the natives spoke a language few Hungarians understood. Terebes was renamed by the victors as Turulung. Strict policemen in new uniforms began to patrol the streets. Worse than the realization that the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had lost the war and no longer existed was the dire economic situation. The forints that Ida had been saving towards her marriage were worthless. Under the new currency, everything that Ida used to buy became way too expensive to afford. Everyone grew hungrier.

In the midst of this poverty, Karl entered Ida’s shop one freezing afternoon in January to talk, once again, of marriage.

“Ida, I love you. Will you marry me if I take you to America?” Karl’s eyes were downcast; he avoided looking directly at Ida, who laughed heartily.

“Karl Goldmann! How many times do I need to tell you that I don’t love you? What do you want with a wife who isn’t in love with you?”

“America, Ida, think about it. My brothers are there, and they tell me they’re doing well. Food is cheap. There are jobs everywhere. We can live in New York City. It’s even bigger than Budapest, it’s got theaters and movie houses. Money is all around. So, if I can afford to take you there, will you marry me?”

Ida had heard the stories and had read about America. She was tired of living like a peasant and wished only to be more comfortable than she was in a crowded house, now the eldest child given that her brother Jeno had not returned from the war. She felt like a drudge. She felt like an old maid, now that her sister Shari was engaged to be married that spring. Yet, she could not see herself married to Karl. He was skinny! He had these awfully big ears! And to desert Jeno Friedman?

As she silently debated her options, the thought crossed her mind that Karl would never be able to afford passage to America himself, but his brothers might send money for them. She didn’t know if they would. And, well, if they did, maybe that would be a sign from God that she was meant to go with Karl. Jeno Friedman had no brothers in America and would never afford to take himself there, let alone take a wife with him.

“OK, Karl. I’ll marry you if you take me to America, but only if I see the tickets first.”

“Do you swear?”

“I don’t swear. It’s not very Jewish of you to ask me to swear. But, if I say something, I mean it.”

Without so much as a nod or a smile or a thank you, Karl dashed out of Ida’s house. She shook her head in disbelief and started to pick up the shirt she had been working on when, instantly it seemed, Karl ran back in panting, holding an envelope in his hands, and pulling out two tickets for the train to Hamburg.

“They’re here! I told them that we had already married, and they want us to come live with them! Here is your passage to America, Ida, my love!”

Ida felt as if her blood had drained to her feet and sat down quickly on the nearby chair so that she wouldn’t fall over. Karl approached, knelt down, and brushed her long brown hair face from her face to see if she was alright. He stared at her for a second, then awkwardly bent forward to kiss her on the mouth. Ida, too shocked to pull back, shared the kiss for an instant.

##

The train rumbled westward through the night. Karl and Ida sat together in a crowded coach car. He held her hand lightly. She did not resist, but did little to reciprocate the gesture of affection. Karl had been endearing right up to the point of the quickly-arranged wedding. Following the wedding, when Ida moved into Karl’s house while he spent some months tying up the family’s affairs, Karl became distant, irritable, and insanely jealous, all at once. Ida tried as hard as she could to be a devoted wife, but her efforts never managed to elicit the love that Karl claimed he felt for her. She wondered about how Jeno Friedman would have treated her if she had married him instead.

Karl and Ida had been married now for nine months, and she had been pregnant for eight of them. If the child in her turned out to be a boy, she had decided to name him Artur. It was a popular name in Hungary, but no one knew what it meant. It made her think of King Artur of the Round Table, the myth she had read about in school. She hoped that America would be a Camelot for herself and the children she might bear. Artur sounded strong. He would be strong, she promised herself.

 

 

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About brucejberger

Bruce J. Berger has published his short fiction in a variety of print and on-line literary journals, including Prole, Jersey Devil Press Anthology, The Awakenings Review, Raphael's Village, Eastown Fiction, Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and others. He also publishes shorts stories for Amazon's Kindle. He is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at American University beginning in August 2015.
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