There is no sleep.
When the wind takes over to set a rattle free and we hear the old man tell the story of a song.
Dogs roam the street filled with fat air. So hot and palpable this night, we seem to move inside a giant fish swimming in scalding waters. Pushing against its slippery sides, blinded by the stinking scales that cover us, ripping windows out of its flesh in the hope of seeing a world. Other.
Where an army of shadows stick to their guns. Dressed in uniforms that disciplined their beliefs, those boys played at living a dangerous religion. All countries were the same as their country. People were different. Other boys were.
Late August makes for melancholy, makes for Marie to come to me. While I lie in a haystack hiding weapons, I see the soldiers go by. Packed in trucks like I am packed in the grass that dried under me and mon amour Marie.
Then the road was beaten earth, now it is asphalt. A hard and unforgiving soundboard for the blown-about rattle. Will the old man. Tell. Strange man.
Of the bread that was baked for the traitor. They killed him off anyway. Once they had followed the path of betrayal past the boy in the haystack. Past Marie on the road. Past fathers and mothers. Past the owl and the eagle, the wild boar and the dancing of insects in the mountain scented air. Then to kill.
Twenty. Young with hope.
I had no glass in my window, but I scratched it all the same to see how they went by and did not notice me. Soldiers with bullets and I, loaded with guns for the boys. My friends of freedom.
The rattle never stops to rave. Will you tell my story? Old strange song man. Play.
Now a hard silence blows a hot horn. The hunt is done. The hunt is gone to other places.
When I was born, war did not touch me.
The screech of the eagle was innocent, as was his prey.
Rocks lay basking in the sun waiting to be carved into monuments to life.
For all I learned ,In Greek captivity,I had more than enough fingers
to count the happy years of my existence,
or spell out death correctly, according to their speak.
I was of the different tribe, and soon played at a child’s nostalgia .
Fed on stale food and legends , I grew a lonely ambition and fled
To find the perfect sleep
In this spot where Icarus fell.
For one night his broken wings were my pillow.
Nani – A Sephardic lullaby performed by Judith Mok
The Whetter of the Knife post-war
No shame would redden his days.
He should have, entirely, shown the eager
how much he enjoyed his circus with its tricks.
And coined spectators to watch what he did ,
turning me into this acrobat of pain.
But he preferred keeping me in the bulwark of his silence,
this pschyco’s place, where he tortured me.
This is how we do things in my country,
he said, a proud and fervent nationalist,
causing distress of a broader spectrum .
Seen through the narrow end of his binoculors,
It made me suffer the cutting shards of a kaleidoscopic feast.
And then, a horrid kiss. Not so, on my lips.
With it, he burned the earth under my feet,
the songs in my soul, the touch of real.
When he, finally, hit the ground, I wished for his blood to soak our gardens,
their putrid stench coming to me ,with music,
camellias, gardenias, a ragged tune.
Still: I loved.
Loved his screaming wounds, his sunken sores licked with my pickled tongue.
Blood or “le sang des autres”
The shots ricocheting against the flanks of the mountains so early in the morning that my sleepy subconscious has not even registered the chiming bells yet, yet……
We are in Sarajevo, suddenly. Le jour de chasse est. arrive, o glory, the Hunt ,la Casa , funny how the same word for hunt in Spanish means matrimony and hunt, a coincidence? Oh. I am supposed to organize a concert programme for next season in the lovely Roman Church, surrounded by shady trees. I am supposed to eat a rabbit tonight and the man told me two days ago with a macho smile on his ancient face “ je vais le tuer, I’m gonna kill it”. Am I still hungry? For rabbit? Shall I suck the raw head raw? Oh. How sad his eyes were, the old boar, sanglier, in his stinky little hut. The man had caught him as a baby and wanted to fatten him up. He did and then he loved his fat boar and kept it as a pet. Speaking of matrimony: do we like to fatten each other up and keep each other as sad pets? Oh. I talked to the traumatized wild animal , unbearable in his smell and even more in the way it looked at me, was I at least bringing it some food for solace ? This morning they’re shooting the furtive beasts that I saw yesterday on the path ,running around with shifty movements , the eagle circling with its eyes on a snake I couldn’t see, the stillness of the view and nature intact, the Pyrenees with wolves and bears , not far, the blue sea not far, humans were far, very far away, except for. Oh. Now I can imagine what it is like to hear shots in the morning and become completely unnerved by it, even though they are meant for the beasts, not me. What’s the difference in the afternoon I saw them hanging from the hooks in the Salle des fetes, the hall of feasts. The blast of blood and wild odors was out in the streets, the dogs had blood on their teeth and in their fur, drenched, and the men had aprons, hiding their male satisfaction by rubbing long killer knives clean on their bellies.
I had to think of the concentration camps, I had to, who was hung on hooks again? Blood is blood and mine surged and I threw up under the Southern Sun with the taste of raw meat in my mouth. Oh.
Vocalise Rachmaninov, Soprano Judith Mok accompanied by Dearbla Collins
Father. I was not aware that I danced in and out of your work, or that, when you pulled me along the snowed- under beach on our green sleigh, with nothing said between us and nothing heard but the raw screeching of the seagulls, I was there in a new poem. I am still here. I do not want to move away from where you placed me.
The proud Spanish that I heard you speak when you were in the company of Chilean refugees, poets and writers all, your colleagues on reading trips. But then, when you were old in Barcelona where you came to live with me for a while to be with me on a singing job , I went with you and mother, one day, to buy a woollen cardigan, you said you were cold and you could not remember any Spanish. All the way to the little shop you were quoting bits of poems by Machado and Lorca, Guillen but you did not know the words any more how to buy a jumper.
You, a descendant of Baruch Ben Ishac Ibn Daud, a Jew from Cordoba, disapeared behind a frayed curtain where a stove was burning, shivering and with your shoulders hunched, and I panicked. Where were they taking you, what was that tailor doing to you? You came out from behind that curtain soon enough, stroking the wool of a dull beige cardigan, smilling broadly. You said your father used to have one just like it. You liked the quality of the wool.
I wondered if Baruch Ibn Daud, known as Don Bartolome, had been wearing woollen cardigans in the 9th century in Andalusia on a cold day while staring out over the mountains of the Sierra Nevada? You said he probably did , the finest lambswool. There still was a thread that held us all together, through the centuries, then. We all laughed , even the little tailor , who suddenly seemed very comfortable around my parents and me. You forgot that you had forgotten your Spanish.
You forgot so much more after that.You lost the iron routine, the timelines of your dicsipline on which you wrote and translated philosophers, Adorno, Kant, Hegel, Sartre, all found their way into the Dutch language through your masterful translations. In the mornings between breakfast and lunch you worked on them. In the afternoon you wrote your own words and walked them every day along the pristine beach of Bergen aan Zee, along the stretch of blue sea and sky in Menton, or along the canals of Amsterdam and Delft. Sometimes I met you on these walks and for a moment you would hardly seem to recognise me. I never minded this. I saw you were behind your iron bars of discipline, inside the bastion that kept you safe from them, your demons.
There is no horizon, you always said. In the Dutch landscape there is a land and a sky that never end. You liked that. A mother land and another horizon might have existed, behind this one, when you watched the sun go down in your daughter’s garden, in a flat polder.
Your dreams were built on ashes, but you were grounded and you grew a new life for yourself, for your wife, for your children.
One summer day, back in Holland, I watched you potter around the garden, frail as a ghost, carrying your ethereal crown of silver hair. Bent towards the ground, hesitant to come across so much luscious fruit and greens, the earth abundant, within your reach, you paced backwards and forwards for an hour. Then you sat down and you looked at me with tenderness in your eyes. I looked up at the unforgiving sky and down at the powerless ground.
You were eighty years old and now you wanted to go there. Behind the horizon.
Where did they go you asked in so many of your poems. And then you asked me that same question, as I was sitting there, a woman in her early twenties dressed in a leopard print dress and pink spiky heels amongst the sprouting vegetables and the gooseberrie bushes. I, who had just uprooted myself out of a first marriage and had travelled back to my native country with nothing but my voice and a bundle of poems.
I could not help you, although you told me then, you had chosen me to do so.
You, my father Maurits Mok. You changed your name from Mozes to Maurits because you thought that Maurits, sounded better. Less of an obvious alliteration and, more modern maybe, you used to explain to me with that slight, nearly hesitant smile of yours.
You were once, long befor the Second World War, a young and successful poet, an autodidact.
At age fourteen your father took you out of school, much to the distress of your schoolmaster, and you had to work in an office for diamond traders. Write letters, business correspondence, you would call it. It sounded out of place when you mentioned it. I could not imagine you as a business person.
Mr Tabakspinner, your boss, couldn’t either. That man must have had some wisdom in him, when he wasn’t weighing his precious stones. With rabbinical insight he told young Maurits to go learn some languages. He paid leading professors, among them Professor Jonas van Praag, to teach the young boy German, French, Spanish and English, on the pretetx of encouraging him to write good letters for his business. Maurits got paid for a full time job and only worked in the mornings. In the afternoons he learned languages or went to libraries and read. What books he couldn’t take home with him, he learned by heart. His parents did not know about these goings- on.
After four or five years, the language lessons in the afternoon hours were replaced by Maurits ‘writing in a cafe’.
When his first works got published Mr. Tabakspinner smiled as Maurits told him that he wanted to be a man of letters. He laughed and told my father : “good luck”.
My father moved to Amsterdam together with his older sister Saar who taught in a school and worked as a classical pianist as well.
At that time, around 1935, a lot of German and Jewish artists had come to seek refuge from the Nazi regime in Holland. My father’s sister Saar moved in with the artist Leo Strauss who originated from Berlin, where he had been working with well-known people in the arts world including the daughter of the German author Thomas Mann, Erika.
Erika had founded a political cabaret group ‘die pfeffermuhle” a critical –avantgarde troupe, who when they ran into trouble with the Nazi regime on account of their fierce opposition, had to flee Germany. Just like her father the famous author, she left Germany for America and married the poet W.H. Auden to obtain American citizenship, while Leo Strauss and most of her co-workers moved to Holland. Leo and his two young sons met my aunt Saar at a concert where she performed music by Chopin.
Surrounded and encouraged by great authors and friends, amongst them the poets Marsman and Nijhoff, who were responsible for his first publications, my father continued his life as a serious single man in literature. Apart from reading and writing this meant sitting in cafes in the morning, afternoon or night and taking part in discussions and parties while drinking jenever, and maybe the occasional beer.
He had a brief fling with a German girl, another person who had been forced to flee her country. She became pregnant and gave birth to a girl, my sister Elsa.He recognised my sister, but never lived with her mother.
There must have been a great deal of flirting and passionate affairs going on in those terribly chaotic times before the war. Uprooted artists, with no money and often with no place where they could work, flung themselves into the bohemian life of Amsterdam.
The gentlemen Tuschinsky and Krasnapolsky offered their big Hotels and Theaters to those looking for distractions in a perfect”jugendstil” décor.
Maurits Mok met the Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth, who was to become world famous years after his death. He was miserable, a heavy drinker, and stranded in Amsterdam, penniless. My father was fascinated by his work and erudition and Roth became his mentor.
“You are a poet who drinks coffee!”, Joseph Roth laughed at my father when he ordered coffee for breakfast during a meeting with the famous alcoholic. I don’t know how many times my father told me this story, even when I was a little girl.
How Joseph Roth, the writer of ’Radezky March’ had large glasses of burgundy for breakfast while remaining perfectly sober. And my father got more and more wound up by the coffee and the excitement of discussing German literature and the very worrying political developments in Germany. Roth had been writing a column in Berlin and was getting increasingly depressed by the rise of the Nazi party.
In his recently published letters Roth describes how much warmth and support he encountered in Amsterdam among Dutch artists.
My father spoke the fluent and solid German of a well-schooled German intellectual. Whenever I would venture a sloppy sentence or make a grammatical mistake in the language he worshipped, a tortured frown would appear on his large brow.
How painful it must have been, that the clipped language of the murderers of his family was the same one he had learned to admire and love as a Dutch teenager.
We never spoke about it.
I read the beautiful German books bound in leather, up in our little, black and gold painted library and the smile on his face when he discovered how much I liked the classics , poets and philosophers was earnest. I loved those books with their strange Gothic print. I loved the joy in my father’s face as well. I loved to feed that joy.
Joseph Roth encouraged my father to write more poetry as well as prose and by the mid-thirties his name was well –established. Well established enough for him to write the first pamphlet to the nation warning people about the rise of anti-Semitism and the threat of a war with Germany.
I was back living in Amsterdam in the late 1990s when I received a phone call from a close friend. ”We have bought a house, come and see it”. I go, her wish is my command.
We drive up a hill, we go up a number of steps and she opens the door to the large house. Her new home.
I stand in the hallway and, as if driven by a dream, I go down the stairs. The door to a room is open. The room is empty. There is one large window filled with summer green. And one large cupboard built into the wall, that turns out to be a safe. I feel warm and sheltered in the embrace of this room, but I want to close the safe shut, with whatever threat I feel locked away.
My friend’s mother comes in brandishing a booklet. It is a short history of the house, which as it turns out used to be owned by Henriette Roland –Holst, a formidable aristocrat and poet in her own right, who was a respected patron of the arts. She took my father under her wing when he was just nineteen and encouraged him in his work. Years later at the end of the 1930s, he moved into this room downstairs.
The one I am now standing in. I must have felt a remainder of his presence. I move around the room hoping for more, a shadow, a scratch of a pencil. Nothing . It moves me that my friends have bought this house and that I will be able to stay with them in the room where my father lived and in 1939, sat down at his desk in this window and wrote his pamphlet about the situation in Europe and Germany in particular. How Jews were already being murdered, and would be exterminated in the coming years. A prophetic pamphlet.
How many people read it, I wonder? And I know how few believed him.
I stay in the room and try to be my own father, held between the walls of this quiet place. A nervous fear must have driven him to write quickly, against time , against a shattering wave of dark news that he could not ignore. Against his hope that none of this would come to pass and he would, for long years to come, be able to take the short train ride to his parents, like on that beautiful evening .
He would often tell me to look up : cloud formations hiding the fire of the sun , spreading , pink, purple , orange clashes in his evening sky.
It must have been such an evening when he went to see his parents who , by then, lived on the seashore in Zandvoort. They, together with his sister Saar and her companion Leo would break bread at table and try to behave as if the familiar rituals of their meal would continue till the end of a peaceful life.
Maurits , looking at them, watching their hands move, holding his breath as if to freeze their movements. And then, a few months later when the soldiers’ boots were already echoing along their street, spilling it all out by telling them to go hide, flee. And his father joking, looking at his artistic children in happy dismay and uncomfortable disbelief.
And still Maurits devoted himself to poetry and Saar to her piano. They laughed with their poet, painter , musician friends and played at bohemian life for long and late nights. No yellow star ever shone on their clothes when they left at the end of a party into a menacing night occupied by Germans. Until all doors closed for them and they were forced to go into hiding or obey the German orders to board the trains to the camps.
It became hiding . Hiding from daylight and spying eyes. Hiding from books, while still writing for underground papers, and music. Hiding away from your family, at the mercy of mostly well meaning, dedicated people, whom they had nothing in common with but fear.
I sat with him in the livingroom of his last home, back in Bergen where I was born . We sat, both reading. When I looked up from my book I saw the sweat on his face. It was not warm in the room and I was worried about the old man.
It had been a memory that made him sweat with angst, he said. That pair of women who were hiding him in their attic, he said. I knew one of them had offered to marry him. A mixed marriage would make him less vulnerable to the Nazi regime for a short period. He accepted her offer and married her. Grateful to her, he wanted to do as much as he could for her and her girlfriend.
It was in 1944 , when he had lost contact with his daughter , and knew that his parents and sister had been put on a transport to the camps , that the two women started to demand that he go out into the world and buy drugs for them.They were heavely addicted to opiates and Maurits knew doctors in the resistance .
He sat in a train full of soldiers, he said. On a sunny day . He was wearing a hat and reading a newspaper, blanking out all thoughts of danger. He went to Amsterdam from Hilversum and met up with his writer and resistance friends, and together they founded the underground publishing house the ‘Bezige Bij’, that later, after the war, became one of the most outstanding publishing houses in Holland. He handed in his critical stories and poems to be published under his fake name of Hector Mantinga and went on his way to find drugs for the women who sheltered him and tortured him as well.
This, I only learned very recently, when I received a message on the internet from an unknown person , who had been a neighbour of my father’s ”war wife” and her partner. It turned out that she and her girlfriend were jailed after the war for extortion and blackmail of the Jewish people they seemed to help. It turned out that they threatened to denounce my father to the Gestapo if he did not provide them with drugs .
He managed to escape these women’s house and found shelter at a fellow writer’s place till the end of the war.
But he never mentioned this blackmail to us.Too much pressure and fear take on a life of their own, he said. Let this memory loose, let it wander …..Until it came back to visit him and me and darkened the soft light of an afternoon in Bergen where he still did not tell me about it.We sat together with angst, to be relived again .
When the war was over he was given coupons to survive on, and to put clothes on his back. He bought the shiny green fabric that later so horrified my mother, and had a suit made from it. Like a fresh apple he bounced back into life, he often joked .
Life, yes, all went back to normal, the clockwork of Holland had been reset. It was as if the history of Occupation and liquidation of hundreds of thousands needed to be framed and put away. The postman cycled around and brought envelopes full of news.
The Red Cross regretted the death of his sister Saar Mok in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, but could not tell him anything about his parents. The Dutch queen Wilhelmina invited him for tea
He went in his shiny green suit and she told him how she admired his work and how reading his poems had given her strength during these dreadful past years. On her writing desk there was a framed poem of his.
After that visit the yearly envelope would arrive from the Royals with an ‘honorary’ financial contribution. Friends and admirers wrote to him . He read the letters in the garage where he was living and working and felt the growing urge to know what exactly happened to his parents. He had nothing to hold on to, not even an envelope containing devastating news.
Although I knew him as a person who was clinging to the meanings of mysticism in the real world that he inhabited, he seemed to have reached out to the world of spirits back then and called the famous clairvoyant Croiset to get closure about his loved ones .
He told me that the moment he set foot in the office, Croiset said that they were dead . He refused to give my father details of what he described as their ‘horrendous’ suffering.
With this information my father stepped out into the afternoon, walked through the city of Amsterdam to the Central Station and took the train back home. Home, his garage, where he sat down and started writing about the ghosts that were now his family.
Two years later he met my mother and they married.
My mother was suffering from tubercolosis and was forced to rest at home. It took some planning to get her over to the registrry office in Laren where they were to be married. A select crowd of friends and their witnesses were waiting for them in the hall. As the Mayor opened the register so my parents could sign in their union, it turned out that my father was still married to the woman who had offered him protection during the war and later blackmailed him. There was some laughter and the marriage was postponed for a couple of months.
When they finally got married my mother was still ill. There is only one photograph of my parents’ wedding. My mother is lying on her bed in a pre-war designer dress, with my father and four friends sitting beside her on the bed. All of them are holding glasses. I hope they drank champagne. Nobody ever told me. Although my parents were middle- aged and close to middle age they seem like young people with a strong look in their eyes.
Once my mother was allowed up from her sick bed, she became pregnant and my sister Marianne was born in the Hospital in Laren. They still lived in the refurbished garage , but the poet and patron of my father, Adriaan Roland Holst, nephew of my father’s former patron Henriette, who also lived in Laren suggested that my father to take a trip to the village of Bergen, where he intended to live. He brought more or less the entire Laren community of artists with him and meant that my parents should move there as well.
Together they travelled to Bergen in his car, had lunch at the Cafe de Pilaren with the artists Charlie Toorop and David Kouwenaar and looked around the village for possible houses to live in. My father wanted to be near the sea, so they drove the 6 kilometers through the woods and dunes to Bergen aan Zee, which was part of the municipality of Bergen. The closer they came to the seashore , the more my father seemed enchanted by the light around them. He later called it ‘sealight’ in his poems and it became a new word in the Dutch vocabulary. Maybe he felt that more words would come to him in this tiny village on the sea when he stood on a sand dune overlooking a small patch of woodland and a long stretch of dunes. He told his friend Adriaan (Jani) that he was going to build a house across the road. His pockets were empty, but he was determined. Back in Bergen they met up with more artists and drank to the new inhabitants of Bergen.
The architect Rietveld was contacted by my father’s friends and a pupil of this famous man designed a house for our family.
When the house was finished, my father and Adriaan Roland- Holst drove over to the village again and were shown around the modern and bright house that was going to be my place of birth. When asked how he was hoping to pay for the house, my father shrugged, laughed and turned out the torn pockets of his trousers. He found ten cents which he gave to the architect. But the man gave them back to him. The house was already paid for. Mr Isaac, owner of a chain of stores called ‘De Bijenkorf’ and an admirer of my father’s work, had looked after him. And would continue doing so by sending him a cheque on every birthday. The German state’s war reparations were not yet in operation and surviving Jews were often left completly bereft.
On a late summer night two men , standing on that same sand dune in Bergen aan Zee, overlooking the North Sea, lifted their jenever-filled glasses to the moon, and smiled at each other.
My mother, for she was my mother now that she had given birth to me, heard the men laugh across the street. A warm wind blew through the marram grass into the open bedroom window and my mother said my name for the first time. She chose my name, my father chose my older sister Marianne’s name. Our doctor had assisted at my birth at home in our house built on another sand dune , and even before my mother held me, our doctor took me in his arms. My little bald head rested against the tattooed number on his arm. The men were laughing because a new life, it just happened to be mine, had started and there were so many other reasons to laugh at life in general.
My mother, who had been told after the war by people in the medical business that she would never be able to give birth and survive , was lying in her bed with a second curly- headed girl in her arms. My father and our doctor laughed because they were alive on this balmy night where death had no place in their thoughts for a few hours at least, and the gin made them happy enough to brandish their glasses and sing a little.
They sounded like Like mad hasidim my mother told me later. The story of my birth did not fascinate me that much. By the time I was able to understand it , I prefered the bits in it about the laughing and the drinking and the regained happiness of my parents. How they had filled in some gaps in their family. I always liked the silver box and beaker with my name on it: presents for my mother because she had given birth, that are now in my house, sometimes with a bit of a black shadow on them because they are rarely polished.
And so I started to live with them, early years in which they rented out their new house to foreign tourists and swapped the storms and the cold light, the thorns of the dune roses and the arid marram grass, for the azure coast of France.
Every morning they carried us down the lush mountains to the Mediterrean Sea and every noon the old bus drove us back up. Or so my father told me, because I was too small to remember, though I am sure that my love for the south had already crept under my young skin.
But I still remember the scent of the dune roses in Bergen aan Zee once we had moved back there. As I remember the honeysuckle and all the nature that surrounded me when I ran out of my class room, aged five.
The other children had told me I was weird because I didn’t celebrate some feast day with my grandparents. I said I had none, and they called me a liar. I ran away, and then walked all the way home. Past houses and then through the woods where there was nobody alive but me and the trees. My mother and father were outside the house, white with worry after they had received a phonecall from my kindergarten. I was tired and slept through the afternoon in clean white sheets, to wake up to the living scent of the dune roses.
Years later I am back for a visit in this village of Bergen aan Zee, with my daughter playing in the park. Her grandmother is playing with her, turning and turning the little toy horse around, while I stand at the top of some wooden stairs overgrown with dune roses and their scent reminds me of waking up to the fact that I had told the truth about my grandparents. I take in the smell of the roses and with it comes a new kind of awakening; my daughter has a grandmother.
When my father was reading from his work or being inteviewed on the radio, we had to be very quiet and sit still, showing respect for his work. I did not understand his work at all, but I did not mind listening to the sound of his deep voice. Often there were visitors who listened in with us.
My father’s close friend, the painter and sculptor Geertjan van Meurs came walking along the beach from the next village with his dog and stayed to talk about philosophy or literature while drinking jenever. They were regularly joined by Roland Holst, Gerrit Acherberg, and Maurits Dekker, all outstanding authors and drinkers. These men could swear and shout about subjects that went completly over our heads. We snatched olives and pickles from the table, while they were drinking. My mother liked to throw in a quote from Schiller or Nietzsche, always raising her voice as she did so, as if to secure her position on an intellectual footing in this competetive family.
The long hours in which we climbed trees, got our socks wet during cold winter months when we still ventured in the sea, hopped from one bale of hay to the next until the stable owner came after us, went skating from wind mill to hot chocolate stands on the ice, trained in our ballet or music classes, fell in and out of love with insufferable boys, ripped our knees open, stood in front of the long hall mirror dressed up in velvet , lace and hats, shouted at each other in Russian, pretending to be politicians , in these long hours he worked. He wrote poems about us , and poems about them as well .We were and had been his entire family.
His and my mother’s friends who came to share food , songs, talk and summer evenings bathing in the calm sea, were living with the heavy trauma of their past. But , somehow my father managed to make me see them for what they represented themselves. Lydia de Boer, a protegee of Roland Holst, who later moved into his house and who took me to fashion shows where she worked as a model. Lydia who always wore long sleeved garments so as not to show the number on her arm. This young woman who , together with her sister,had been experimented on by doctor Mengele in a camp and came back to Holland alone. To me this oman to me was just a shining beauty, who went through life with a light step, well-dressed. She gave me a Siamese kitten. She had lots of cats instead of children. For children you needed a womb, and her womb was buried in a camp. Nobody mentioned this to us of course.
We watched Meneer Brent on his bicycle, ride by, erect with his bushy hair blowing about, looking like a true Spanish Grandee, as my father commented. A Sephardic Jew, the eminent scholar Brent was alone, always alone with the wind blowing through him , blowing through his hair. To us he was a wise and clever Spanish nobleman who told us fascinating stories . To others he was a lonely man striving to live his ruined life.
Men and women at the house of our early youth: we only knew them for their paintings, or books or other outstanding talents. My father managed to make them leave their ghosts at the front door and live with us children for a while.
Father sings when he shaves himself. Little bits of classical stuff, Bach is probably his favourite. One day he tells us that he wrote an essay about Bach for a prominent literary magazine, and he insists that we read it. And then he talks about Bach on the radio. He turns it on after dinner , the plates are still on the table. In a kind of religious silence we listen to father talking about Bach on a clear Spring evening. I sit there thinking there seems to be a neccesity to use a lot of complicated words in order to express your thoughts about Bach , and also, when will I be allowed to go outside and do the double skipping rope, jumping with my neighbour friend. I decide I prefer Bach when Father sings it to himself in the morning.When the piece is over , both our parents come outside and Father turns the ropes for us and even attempts to jump. I forgive him the difficult minutes of Bach.
Every year he takes us to listen to Bach’s Matthew Passion , the Concertgebouw performance. I get to wear my favourite dress and shoes and I succumb to the music without being bored for a second. I wanted to do my father a favour by being attentive, but I soon realise he has done me a favour by bringing me. I can hear the expression of pain in the music, that I can relate to as my father’s.
On the way home from Amsterdam back to our seaside village we always stopped to buy some croketten. While my sister and I devour these dubious delicacies my parents, secretly enjoying their croketten too, talk about the performance and about the people they met at the concert. I think it perfectly normal that the conductor Bernard Haitink asked Father to sign one of his books. We went to the artists’ foyer and talked to people who seemed to respect my parents. It makes me feel proud of them .
Often, down through the years , waking up in different countries that I find to be my home for the time being, I think I can hear father’s deep voice coming from the bathroom. Mache dich mein herze rein, make my heart pure. A bass aria accompanied by the buzz of an electric shaver.
Sometimes I think of his serious wish to see me on the stage of that Concertgebouw, once I had announced, with the aplomb of a precocious teenager, that I was going to be a singer. I made it. Step by step I came down those long stairs for the first time when father was still alive, and I stood in front of the orchestra in an opulent dress and sang . Afterwards his eyes shone.
All the happy songs in his life , I cherish.
The times in the south of France when my mother was danced off her feet by some local Beau and my father and his artist friends, the British painter Graham Sutherland, Charles Roelofzs, the publisher Polak , who brought us money, and New Yorker author Maeve Gallant and many others, sat and talked philosophy to a wide range of wine bottles . Philosophy that ended in them singing some Kurt Weill song, Mackie Messe, along the road down the mountain. A song interrupted by laughter and donkeys braying and perhaps a moment of sobering up, only to start again, arm in arm with friends , booming to the rising southern sun , the wild flowers we waded through , the festive butterflies , until the Haifish lost its teeth and we all fell asleep in a house full of open windows. We were children, late at night and early in the morning, we were there , allowed to share the merriment of the Big Children.
Those Bertholt Brecht lyrics were often dug up again . Much later in Amsterdam in the company of visiting German poets like Enzensberger or Nelly Sachs, the Vondel park would resonate with their alcohol-fuelled song. Or after dinner, Father could take up his impersonation of Marlene Dietrich, a great favourite of his. With his slender posture, crowned by an unlikely mass of grey hair, clad in his tweed jacket , his pronounced features focused into a perfomer’s pout, he would proclaim in a half –sung manner that he was ready for Love from head to toe, accompanied by deafening laughter.
In the last six months of his life, he refused to go into his study, claiming that “they” were waiting for him. Time and again he asked me if I could not see them. They were telling him something, he said. He was so frail , I did not want to offend him, so I asked what he thought they were telling him. He sat in his modern living room, on his Swedish designer chair surrounded by light, and started to cry.
I had rarely heard him cry and tried to take his hand that was resting on an open book by the poet Paul Celan. I wondered briefly about his choice of rereading this great poet’s work and the fact that we had recently met his friend and fellow poet the French author Edmond Jabes , who told father and me about the last terryfying years of Celan’s existence.
He started to hum a song, a Yiddish song , only to stop abruptly . It was his sister’s Saar’s birthday he said, she liked this song , they used to sing it together. Mit raisinken und mandeln…he started it up again . Now I was crying. He had never mentioned this fact before and I had never heard him sing a song in Yiddish. It was for her, he said, and he started this haunting tune again.Then he got up and opened the door to his study, but he didn’t go inside. Instead he turned around and asked me if it was too late to go? Where, I asked through my tears. All those years of unbroken silence waiting for this song to come back. Where , I asked again. To Auschwitz , to erect a monument for his sister Saar. Auschwitz , the place where she was murdered, her and her music. He sang again, shaking. He seemed to hope that I , his child, could make this happen. There was nothing I could do except share his suffering. He had never had the courage to sing this song after her death. It had been replaced by the songs of his new life. I gathered half a century of unsung pain to myself.
Today , he said, she had asked for it. His voice was so weak when he asked me if I thought that “they”, the ones who were waiting for him in his study, could hear him?
After that day, you spoke less, you did not write or read anymore and you confused all the worlds that you lived in. A week later your body went quietly. We, your children and your wife, were not allowed to see you dead. According to the Jewish tradition. Your soul had left your body.You were gone.
Judith Mok y Federico García Lorca en el Instituto Cervantes de Dublín
Judith Mok was born in Bergen in the Netherlands. She first published with Meulenhoff two novels and three books of poetry in Dutch to go on, when she moved to Dublin, to publish a novel Gael with Telegram London and a book of poetry Gods of Babel with Salmon press, written in English.
She has written many pieces for radio and the nnewspapers, which have appeared in the Sunday Miscellany books edited by Marie Heaney. Her short stories have been short listed twice for the Francis Mc Manus award and her first novel The innocents at the Circus for the Prix de l’Académie Française. Her work has appeared in Anthologies and nationally and internationally in numerous literary Dutch, Irish, French, British and American magazines .Her translated erotic poems by Verlaine and Rimbaud appeared in the book Obscene poems by Verlaine and Rimbaud with Vasalucci.Her next book The State of Dark will appear in 2017.
Judith who is a lyrical soprano has travelled the world for years as a classical music soloist and a vocal coach teaching master classes.