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The Origin Of The Double

by Elisha Porat

Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

Several days after the television crew's filming, I decided to write my story, The Double. Some things I'd told the producer and others that I'd dreamed impelled me to write them down. I refused at first to get swept away. I still fear sudden passions. I don't know how my heart will do in the wake of my illness. And the usual hurdles deterred me. Why should I get carried away?

Concerning this painful subject -- my recollections of the Holocaust in Europe -- others would make better witnesses. After all, I wasn't there. Who am I to make up stories and give ancient testimony? True, I know that the last eyewitnesses haven't long to live. When this generation passes with its memories, the Holocaust will be seen differently, through books, recordings, and the reconstructions of producers and photographers. The accounts may be drawn from life but not from the lives of those still living. It will depict the lives of the dead: of those who died during those terrible years and of those who died later, claimed one after another by disease, malnutrition and neglect.

I initially planned, at least, to start the short story with the words: "Please don't tell me what Europe is. For we have seen what the Europeans know how to do. We are the Jews, who are led like sheep on package tours of the other Europe." And then I want to play dumb and ask, did they burn us in ovens an Asia? Did the Asians, billions of people filling a vast continent, burn the Jews? Did the Africans or the Americans? I have the urge to continue ad absurdum, asking, did the Australians? The mind utterly rejects this. The Australians? Have my questions gone this far?

There is something pleasurable in these pointed questions. You, oh wise you, listen to me while I feign innocence in my questions, and the two of us know that the questions are inherently ridiculous. You can't even pose them. But I derive a certain vindictive satisfaction when I say it again: We've already seen what the Europeans know how to do so well. Nowhere else in the world has anyone done this so well. And don't tell us that only the Germans carried out this annihilation. That's too easy. That is a political response that enables us to conduct ordinary political affairs with other nations. It allows us, each summer, to rush there in droves. On the contrary, the more evidence we have, the more we realize: the Germans were never alone for even a moment.

When my story appeared in the newspaper around Memorial Day, an old member came to me with a bitter complaint. That I wrote from boyhood memories, he had no quarrel with. Each of us has the right to draw from the memories of our youth. But the question was, was this a proper use of that material? What sort of Jew was I, what sort of smart, sassy student, if I didn't even know that the idea of a double was entirely foreign to Judaism?

How could someone like me, eager to print newspaper stories about so grave a subject as the extermination of the Jews in Europe, have failed to learn his lessons? Hadn't I read the works of our sages? Hadn't I sufficiently learned from them that the idea of a double had entered ancient Christian tradition in Europe from pagan origins? How had I conceived such a heretical thought? And to shame me further in my ignorance, he added that the concept of a double, who accompanies one from childhood through all the joys and sorrows of life, sprang from the ancient Germans, back when their tribes were gathering in dense European forests.

Here is the refutation, he said. You claim you were born with a double, a Jewish boy in Poland who bore your misfortune and went to the ovens in your place. Now look, you cub reporter, not only did you make sentimental and indecent use of this pagan concept, but you ignorantly and unwittingly introduced a Christian, German incarnation of it. Shame on you. If I were in your place, I wouldn't dare send another story to the paper until I sat down to study. Please take care never to display your ignorance in public again. Don't humiliate yourself before the whole world.

I didn't say a word to him. What could I have said? That many people had contacted me, some by letter, some by telephone and some in short notes, to tell me how deeply they identified with it? That some even had said that the short story perfectly expressed what they had felt for many years but had been afraid to reveal? That some readers had even photocopied the story and stored it among their private papers? There was even one woman from a town up north who told me that she would never let the story be forgotten and intended to reprint it in a special leaflet that she publishes in her village each Memorial Day.

Yet our old, learned friend's criticism stung me. I realized again how dangerous it is to enter the public domain, where you're exposed to every threat. Anyone who wants to ridicule you does so without checking. Anyone who wants to curse you does it mercilessly. Anyone who wants to insult you insults you, anyone who wants to preach preaches, and anyone who wants to prove your ignorance doesn't hold back.

I sent the television producer my story, adding several choice comments from my critic. "I imagine," I wrote her, "It was taken in exactly the opposite way I'd intended." The Germans invented the idea of a man and his double, and they also murdered the young Jewish boy whom I described as my double, the one who in his death bore the fate that I miraculously had escaped. She thanked me for the note and wrote that I shouldn't be concerned by any of the censure. The popular approval of my story would prove that. She herself had liked the story twice: first in the shade beneath the custard apple tree in my garden during the filming and again when she read it in the newspaper's literary section.

As usual, I went out for a short walk in the afternoon. It was a fine time of the year, the brief weeks between the rainy season and the first hamsin. Back when I was strong and healthy, I would leisurely stroll through the groves. I knew every dirt path and every short-cut, even the hidden gaps in the fences. I arranged my walk so that I never left the orchard. Whenever I reached the boundary, which afforded a view of the open fields and the blue-tinted hills of Samaria in the distance, I would have the feeling of standing right at the edge of a virgin forest--a dark tangle of trees over which the intoxicating scent of citrus hung in a heavy cloud.

In a neglected section of the groves, the field hands were burning pruned limbs, from which dark smoke billowed into the clear spring sky. Had the chimney smoke risen like this over the death camp ovens? And then an unexpected moment of revelation struck me, as though I'd been yanked from the sandy ground among the groves and thrust into the snowy fields beyond the electric fences. Around me, chimneys towered above incinerator roofs. Smoke covered the low sky, pressing and thickening until it filled the air. No place was free of it. I felt myself choking, my eyes stinging, the smoke enveloping me. As a terrible pressure suddenly crushed me, I looked up into the mass of smoke hovering over the fences. The smoke grew ever thicker, as though drawn from a gigantic pump beyond the cloud cover. The stench was awful, rank and cloying like the odor I'd had to smell in the city across from us, in the blue hills of Samaria, when it fell during the war.

And then, while I was all ruddy and my shirt drenched by a sudden heavy sweat, I felt relieved. In the sky above me spread a hole through which the smoke left with a piercing whistle. From all points of the sky the smoke was drawn, disappearing through the hole. The odor of incineration faded, replaced by a fresh scent on the breeze. I raised my eyes to see the hole bored in the heavens directly overhead. Why do environmentalists make a crazy dash to the South Pole, I thought. And there are those doomsday reports of a hole in the earth's ozone layer. Meanwhile, right here over my head during my daily walk on a spring day, all of the world's filth has been sucked through a small hole in the sky. For me, there is nothing new in the perforation of the ozone layer. The black sky over the crematoriums was punctured years ago. How else can you explain where all the scorched smoke went? Where did the stench of all that ghastly burning go? And where did the ashes from the incinerated fall? On the pure drifts of snow at the South Pole?

The cinders of my double were also pulled through that celestial corridor, so far that I couldn't change places with him when my time comes, even if I wanted to. Then, when all this became clear to me with the certainty of revelation, I suddenly was able to finish my daily walk, which I diligently take on the recommendation of my doctors.

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