Two Jews, Three
In a small, grubby room at a cheap Parisian hotel, not far
from the Seine, three seated men are chatting. Two of them are Jews, but
all three are immigrants. It is early February of 1957; the day is cold
and cloudy. The ancient heating system in the room doesnt work most
of the day. Junk, the chambermaid calls towards the river. Long, flat
barges traverse the river from one bridge to the other. The old, dark
bridge bounds ones view to the right while the new span, whose steel
beams glint even on a winter day like this one, frames the view to the
Leopold Spitzer, a 39-year-old movie director, is the divorced
father of a young son. He left behind a small family when he emigrated
from Israel, abandoning the infant state after seven years. His last film,
"A Stone on Every Mile," was an abject failure trumpeted in every newspaper
in the country. Rotten luck befell the film at its first and, sad to say,
only showing. The day of its premier, a heavy, suffocating hamsin,the
desert wind, descended on the May Cinema in Haifas Hadar Hacarmel
quarter. How long ago was that? Its difficult to remember exactly,
but it was approximately three years ago, perhaps a little less. Offended
film critics were infuriated, shamefully lashing out at both him and the
movie. "This has been the most torrid May that Haifa has ever known."
The spools of film were slow to arrive from the studios in Herzliya, the
taxi was held up on the road, and the heat in the theater was unbearable.
Beside the small table, on which stands a bottle half-full
of cheap wine, several cups, an ashtray, packs of cigarettes, and matches,
sits the young Brazilian David Perloff. A true cinematic visionary who
grew up in the Zionist youth movement, he has decided to make a short
visit to Paris on his way to Israel from Brazil. He speaks Portuguese,
Yiddish and a little French. From the Jewish press and conversations with
friends, envoys and artists, he knows almost everything about the early
days of Israels Hebrew cinema. He even knows of the "Czech" Spitzer,
as he is known, and his work. Some in Israel, he has heard, consider him
an incorrigible poseur ambitiously seeking success, what they call a hochshtapler
in Yiddish. Theyre convinced that the charlatan inevitably will
meet his downfall. But even they never imagined that "A Stone on Every
Mile," whose appearance on the big screen was so eagerly awaited in theaters
around the country, would crash and shatter beyond repair at its very
Perloff took no pleasure in Spitzers misfortune. The
flop of a new Israeli film didnt please him, and although no expert
on the particulars, he felt a sense of closeness to the aspiring director.
Hed heard that some people called him "the man of a thousand talents,"
while others held a different opinion of this wonderkind. Hed heard,
too, that Spitzer spoke several languages, that he was a poet and writer,
an esteemed scriptwriter, and an indefatigable skirt-chaser. And hed
heard that Spitzer was a delightful raconteur.
The chance meeting with Spitzer greatly excited him. Since
discovering two or three days earlier that Spitzer also was lodging at
the hotel, he had stayed close by, soaking up his comments and hypnotizing
conversation, his charming gestures and winning manners. He skipped excursions
around the city to spend long hours in Spitzers room.
Across from them, leaning against the wall, in his hand
a glass that still contains wine, sits an ageless man. A thick lock of
hair dangles over his forehead. Dressed like the good-looking American
in the cigarette advertisements, he ceaselessly hums strains from a popular
French tune played endlessly on the hotel radio. This is Marek Helasko,
an expatriate Polish writer sojourning in Paris en route to London or
New York or the loveliest city in the world, the coastal town of Eilat.
Pictures of his well-known face often appear in the leading newspapers.
Relishing his role as a free intellectual who rejects the horrors of the
communist regime, he loves to be photographed and interviewed by famous
reporters. He has written and published several short stories which, translated
into various European languages, have gained him the reputation of a man
of great promise in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere. But he is addicted
when they call him "the Polish Hemingway."
He is an inveterate drunkard. Scenes of his intoxication
add much to his growing fame. He speaks Polish and a handful of words
in English and German. Although he doesnt care for the Jews, he
admires the Israelis. On hearing that a pair of Israeli film men were
in the hotel, he sought them out at once. He failed to find Spitzers
room and knew nothing of young David Perloff. And so, entirely by accident,
as happens in cheap hotels in vast cities, he encountered them at the
door to the old elevator. He hasnt left them since, and sits with
them now, between the young dreamer, who soon will leave for Israel seeking
to realize his cinematic hopes, and the fledgling producer, who not long
ago returned from Israel dejected, embittered, and frustrated.
How do they conduct their discussion? In what language do
they speak? At a remove, it would seem that they cannot possibly converse.
They are separated by age and place of origin and, even more, by their
destinations. Nearer, however, as in a large close-up shot, everything
is different and all is possible. Spitzer, of course, is the center of
conversation. With Perloff he chatters in colloquial German while David
replies in his household Yiddish. Each rejoices whenever a stray word
of Hebrew crops up, as though they suddenly have found the key to a secret,
With Helasko, he speaks in his native Slovak, which is very
similar to Polish. Flustered, Helasko answers in "new" Polish. A word
of German occasionally chances to enter their conversation, and each rejoices
at this as though they loathe the Slavic tongues they must speak. Perloff
apologizes that he doesnt yet know Hebrew and is utterly inept in
French. Helasko complains that his English is simply awful. He was quite
a dolt as a child, he laments. Instead of studying English seriously,
he preferred to chase foxes in the forest near his home. Spitzer joins
in their tipsy commiseration, griping about his failure to learn Arabic
during his years in Israel. As a boy, hed fallen in love with Arabic
on a dreary trip to Algeria.
In all this melange of languages--which Perloff will soon
discover, if he goes through with his foolish decision to move to Israel,
is the wretched state of the Jews--what he will miss the most, says Spitzer,
is Arabic. A peculiar atmosphere momentarily settles over the small room.
Three artists drinking together: two movie directors, a pair of writers,
two Jews, one gentile, three immigrants, and seven languages.
Helasko breaks out into a Polish folk song that was popular
with the right-wing underground in Poland after the war. He is still in
shock, he explains to Spitzer, from the brutal suppression of the Hungarian
uprising and the terrible slaughter the Russians carried out in Budapest.
Tomorrow, he feels certain, this will occur in Warsaw as well. A ghastly
carnage broadcast live before the television cameras of Western European
stations, he rages. Let the idiots die, he says, for he wont be
there when a river of blood again flows through Warsaw. Now he must decide
only where to roam. He asks if Spitzer watched as French television broadcast
the message in Hungary live. No, Spitzer didnt see the innocent
dead littering the burning streets of Budapest. He had still been in the
Middle East, packing up his life for a new migration. There, too, war
had occurred, and he hadnt wanted to abandon his young son before
it ended. He reminds the youthful Perloff and the ageless Helasko that
he has a young son in Tel Aviv. If he had momentarily hesitated to leave
the country, it was only because of his boy, for one simply doesnt
forsake children alone in time of war. Perloff wants to ask still another
question but holds back. A bottle in his hand, Helasko nods his head in
agreement. "True, very true. One cannot leave young children alone in
time of war." He eventually will find the right moment and place to tell
them, his two Jewish companions, what it means to abandon children in
time of war.
Perloff announces that he regrets having been a young boy
during the War of Independence. Hes sorry he couldnt volunteer
to aid the kibbutz settlements under siege in the Negev. He does know
several older boys from his youth movement branch in Brazil who went to
Israel during the fighting. He intends to visit them, theyll be
among the first he will see. Perhaps, if he is lucky enough, hell
make a major picture, a movie unlike any made before in the country, about
the desperate struggle waged by a small group of Jews in the Negev against
so many Arabs.
The conversation drags a bit, and its natural rhythm is
constantly interrupted, because Spitzer must translate everything. From
German into Yiddish, as well as from Polish into Slovak, the rendering
is plain and simple. But he also must translate in the other direction
and back again, and that is becoming ever more of a strain. The talk becomes
disjointed, murky, and, most of all, wearing. And he has felt very tired
lately, too. Although not yet forty years old, he sometimes feels like
fifty, even more. At times he feels hell never reach the age of
fifty. Life is exhausting, the frequent travel wears on him, the women
he must forever cast aside also tire him. If his friend the poet, the
one killed in the partisan revolt, were to ask him now in the unique,
personal language of their own making, he would answer in an honest, quavering
statement, "Jerzy, please listen. I dont think Ill make it
He glances at Perloffs young, clever head. And there
is Helasko with his fine face and thick curls. Later on, he peeks at the
window pane, which shines his advancing baldness back at him. This reflected
self-portrait, a hostile image in glass, doesnt upset him. He carries
within himself at all times a picture of himself. Once, at a directors
convention, he had remarked that every director and filmmaker should keep
such a picture of himself, a self-image updated daily that burns as an
eternal flame within ones soul. That had been a long time ago, when
he still believed he possessed a rare talent for direction. He confidently
had expected to make a provocative film, perhaps even one or two more.
And then the great, rotund director Otto Preminger would see them and
immediately summon him to California. These fine words, evidently spoken
aloud to unexpected applause, he had declared in flawed, halting Hebrew
in his heavy Slovak accent. They have no idea what is in my heart, he
thought on hearing his colleagues, enraptured by his comments, praise
his work. No one could fathom what was in his heart because no one had
been there with him at the Novaki forced labor camp late that accursed
summer of 1942. No one knew that he by chance had escaped incineration
with his mother and brother. His heart since then had been an empty vessel.
Helasko suddenly rises from his chair, ceases humming the
hit French tune, walks to the window and blocks their view of the river.
The room, already dim, becomes even darker. On the gray river long, black
barges slip untouched beneath the bridges. Waving his hands, Helasko says
that he yearns for the sun and light of the Middle East. Sometimes, he
even loves the Jews, too. He mocks Spitzer, who left the sun and warmth
of the east to return, beaten and wounded, to the gray cold of Europe.
"Youre not even fifty. Have you already given up?" He vehemently
questions Spitzer without awaiting an answer. He turns to Perloff, takes
his hand, and vows never to leave him. Wait, hell finish his business
at the Parisian hotel and leave with Perloff for Israel. "You Jews have
a wonderful country," he tells them. "Too bad Im such a Pole. If
only Id been a Jew."
"Youre not even hearing what youre saying,"
says Spitzer with a dismissive wave of his hands. "You dont understand
what nonsense youre spouting. Youre just drunk." Turning to
Perloff, he says in Yiddish, "Hes a decent guy, and talented, too,
but a drunk. A dear Goy and a drunk." Perloff stands up and politely helps
the famous Polish writer sink back into his seat and lean against the
wall. He takes the glass and the bottle and puts them on the table. This
for him is just a brief stop on his way to Israel. As a boy, he dreamed
of Paris as he did of Lisbon and Madrid and he is a great admirer of the
French film directors. The mere mention of the great artists names
sends a shiver through him. The day before, friends had introduced him
to a group of respected writers sitting at a cafe on the boulevard. He
had written himself a few words about the meeting. Anyone who wants to
make an honest movie must constantly document his life: every day, every
hour, even every second. The truth of life is so elusive it can escape
even that strict a record.
He occasionally encountered what he craved, a film that
so meticulously documented and captured the ephemeral moment that he became
as excited as a maiden watching a romance. He suddenly starts to sweat,
becomes restless, changes seats, taps his feet on the floor of the theater,
and unwittingly kicks the bottles of beer rolling beneath the seats. He
even grunts as he breathes. The right images in the precise flow, the
truth projected on the screen--it all goes past his mind like inspired
flashes. And what maddens him is that he cannot at that moment make an
accurate record of the powerful emotions seizing him during the film.
Spitzer returns to his gloomy thoughts and the oppressive
ache in his heart. He wont reach fifty, he is certain of that. Besides,
what does he care?Why is it so important to live to fifty? He has already
seen much in his short life. The tense decades of his youth provide plenty
of material for full-length films. And he hasnt even begun to make
them. The painful adventure in Israel has cost him seven years. Seven
precious years of his life. Seven full years gone for nothing. The insult
and humiliation he endured in his final years there hurt so much, he thought
his heart would fill again. His "empty heart," from which everything had
suddenly drained that bitter moment on the train platform at the Slovak
forced-labor camp. For that was when his friends told him that the Nazis
had sent his mother to the crematory several hours earlier.
--translated by Alan Sacks
won Israels Prime Ministers Prize for Literature in 1996.
Originally published in the Summer 2000
issue of Boston Review