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       Noah's Child, p.1

           Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
 
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Noah's Child


  For my friend Pierre Perelmuter,

  whose story, partly,

  inspired this book

  In memory of Abbé André,

  curate of the parish of Saint-Jean-Baptiste

  in Namur,

  and of all the Righteous among the Nations

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  One

  When I was ten years old I was among a group of children put up for auction every Sunday.

  We weren’t sold: we were asked to file across a stage in the hopes of finding a taker. Our own parents, finally back from war, could have been in the audience, or perhaps a couple who wanted to adopt us.

  Every Sunday I stepped on to the boards, hoping I would be recognized or, failing that, chosen.

  Every Sunday, in that covered courtyard at the Villa Jaune, I had ten paces in which to show myself, ten paces in which to secure a family, ten paces to stop being an orphan. The first few steps were no trouble, I was propelled on to that stage by my impatience, but I flagged halfway across, and my calves laboured painfully to cover the last metre. The far end was like the edge of a diving board, with only emptiness beyond. An abyss of silence. Somewhere in those rows of heads, those hats and partings and chignons, a voice was meant to cry ‘My son!’ or ‘He’s the one! He’s the one I want! I’ll adopt him!’ Clenching my toes and straining my whole body in anticipation of this cry which would save me from abandonment, I double-checked that I looked my best.

  I had been up since dawn, leaping from the dormitory to the cold basins where I scoured my skin with a bar of rock-hard green soap that was slow to soften and miserly with its lather. I had already straightened my hair a dozen times to ensure it did as it was told. My Sunday-best blue suit was now too narrow at the shoulders and too short in the arm and the leg so I huddled inside the rough fabric to disguise the fact that I had grown.

  We found it hard to tell whether the waiting beforehand was a pleasure or torture; preparing ourselves to make a leap without knowing what sort of landing lay ahead. Maybe we would die a death? Maybe we would be cheered?

  Of course, my shoes didn’t help. Two bits of mushy cardboard, with more holes than substance. Great gaps tied over with raffia. A well-ventilated design, open to the cold and the wind and even to my own toes, these boots only resisted the rain now that they were encrusted with several layers of filth; I couldn’t take the risk of cleaning them for fear they would fall apart. The only indication that my shoes actually were shoes was the fact I wore them on my feet. If I had held them in my hand I can guarantee people would have kindly shown me to the bin. Perhaps I should have stuck to the clogs I wore during the week? Mind you, the visitors to the Villa Jaune wouldn’t be able to see them from down below the stage. And even if they could, surely I wasn’t going to be turned down for a pair of shoes! Hadn’t Léonard the carrot-top found his parents even though he filed past barefoot?

  ‘You can go back to the refectory, my little Joseph.’

  Every Sunday my hopes died with those words. Father Pons gently implied that, yet again, today wasn’t the day, and I had to leave the stage.

  About turn. Ten paces and you disappear. Ten paces and you’re back to the pain. Ten paces and you’re an orphan again. The next child was already hovering at the other end of the stage. My ribs crushed in on my heart.

  ‘Do you think I can do it, Father?’

  ‘Do what, my boy?’

  ‘Find some parents.’

  ‘Some parents! I hope your parents have escaped danger and will turn up soon.’

  I exhibited myself without success so often I ended up feeling it was my fault. Actually, they were the ones taking too long to come. To come back. But could they really help it? Were they still alive?

  The war had now been over for some weeks, and the time for any hopes and illusions had come to an end along with it. Those of us left, the hidden children, had to face reality and find out − with a brutality that felt like a blow to the head − whether we were still part of a family or were alone in the world.

  I was ten years old. Three years earlier my parents had entrusted me to strangers.

  Two

  It all started in a tram.

  Maman and I were travelling across Brussels, sitting at the back of a yellow carriage that spat sparks as the tram trundled on with its metallic roar. I thought it was the sparks from the roof that made us go faster. I was on my mother’s lap, wrapped in her sweet smell, snuggled against her fox-fur collar, speeding through that grey city. I was only seven years old but I was king of the world. Step aside! Make way! Cars parted, horses panicked, pedestrians fled as the driver transported my mother and me like royalty.

  Don’t ask me what my mother looked like: how do you describe the sun? Maman radiated warmth, strength and joy. I remember the effect she had rather than her features. When I was with her I could laugh, and nothing terrible could ever happen to me.

  So when some German soldiers got on I wasn’t worried. I just pretended to have lost my tongue because I had an agreement with my parents: they were afraid Yiddish would give me away so, as soon as a grey-green uniform or a leather coat came near, I didn’t speak a word. By then, in 1942, we were supposed to wear yellow stars but my father, skilled tailor that he was, had found a way of making our coats so we could tuck away the star and produce it when necessary. My mother called them our ‘shooting stars’: there one moment, gone the next.

  While the men chatted, paying no attention to us, I could feel my mother tensing and shaking. Was it instinctive? Did she hear some telltale sentence?

  She stood up, put her hand to my mouth and, at the next stop, bundled me down the steps.

  Out on the pavement, I asked, ‘But we’re not home yet! Why’ve we stopped here?’

  ‘We’re going for a bit of a stroll, Joseph. All right?’

  Well, I wanted whatever my mother wanted, even though I struggled to keep up with her on my seven-year-old legs, because she was suddenly walking so much more quickly and sharply than usual.

  On the way she suggested, ‘We’re going to go and see a really big lady, would you like that?’

  ‘Yes. Who?’

  ‘The Comtesse de Sully.’

  ‘Is she as fat as the butcher’s wife?’

  ‘What ever made you say that, Joseph?’ she scolded.

  ‘Well, you said she was really big . . .’

  ‘Oh,’ she smiled, ‘I meant she was a noblewoman.’

  ‘A what?’

  While she explained that somebody noble was of high birth, descended from a very old family and commanded a great deal of respect simply because of their nobility, she led me to a magnificent private residence and took me into the hall where we were greeted by servants.

  I was disappointed, however, because the woman who came over to us wasn’t at all what I had imagined; although she came from an ‘old’ family, the Comtesse de Sully looked very young, and despite being a ‘big’ lady of ‘high’ birth, she was hardly taller than I was.

  They spoke quickly and quietly, then my mother kissed me and asked me to wait there until she came back.

  The small, young, disappointing Comtesse took me to her drawing room where she offered me tea and cakes, and played the piano for me. Given the height of the ceilings, the generosity of the tea and the sheer beauty of the music, I was prepared to reconsider my assessment and, sinking comfortably into a luxurious armchair, I conceded that she was after all a ‘big lady’.

  She stopped playing, looked at the clock with a sigh and came over to me, her forehead furrowed by some concern.

  ‘Joseph, I don
t know whether you’ll understand what I’m going to tell you but, by family tradition, I cannot hide the truth from a child.’

  This might be a custom for the nobility, but why was she making me a part of it? Did she think that I was noble? Was I, actually? Me, noble? Maybe . . . Why not? If, like her, it meant not being big or old, then I was in with a chance.

  ‘Joseph, you and your parents are in serious danger. Your mother heard some people saying there were going to be arrests in your neighbourhood. She’s gone to warn your father and as many friends as she can. She’s left you here with me, so that you’re safe. I hope she’ll come back. Yes, I really hope she comes back.’

  Well, I would rather not be noble every day: the truth hurt.

  ‘Maman always comes back. Why wouldn’t she?’

  ‘She might be arrested by the police.’

  ‘What’s she done?’

  ‘She hasn’t done anything. She’s . . .’ The Comtesse heaved a long plaintive sigh that made her pearls clink softly. Her eyes filled with tears.

  ‘She’s what?’ I asked.

  ‘She’s a Jew.’

  ‘’Course she is. We’re all Jews in my family. Me too, you know.’

  And because I was right she kissed me on both cheeks.

  ‘What about you, are you a Jew?’ I asked.

  ‘No. I’m Belgian.’

  ‘Like me.’

  ‘Yes, like you. And I’m a Christian,’ she added.

  ‘Is Christian the opposite of Jew?’

  ‘The opposite of Jew is Nazi.’

  ‘Don’t they arrest Christians?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘So is it better to be Christian?’

  ‘It depends. Come on, Joseph, I’ll show you round the house while we wait for your mother to come back.’

  ‘There! You see, she will come back!’

  The Comtesse de Sully took my hand and led me up the staircases that soared up through the floors, and I gazed at vases and paintings and suits of armour. In her bedroom I found an entire wall filled with dresses on hangers. We were surrounded by clothes and thread and fabric at home in Schaerbeek too.

  ‘Are you a tailor like Papa?’

  She laughed.

  ‘No. I buy the clothes that people like your daddy make. They have to work for someone, don’t they?’

  I nodded but didn’t tell the Comtesse that she can’t have chosen her clothes from us because I had never seen such beautiful things in Papa’s workshop, the embroidered velvets and lustrous silks, the lace cuffs and buttons that glittered like jewels.

  The Comte came home and, when the Comtesse had explained the situation to him, he took a good look at me.

  Now, he was much more how I pictured a nobleman: tall, thin, old − at least, his moustache made him look venerable. He eyed me from such a great height that I realized the ceilings must have been raised for his sake.

  ‘Come and have supper with us, my child.’

  He had a nobleman’s voice, I was sure of that! A thick, solid, deep voice, the same colour as the candlelit bronze statues around us.

  During the meal I politely carried on with the obligatory conversation even though I was still consumed by the whole question of class. Was I noble, or not? If the de Sullys were prepared to help me and take me into their home, was it because I was in some way related to them? And therefore noble?

  When we moved through to the drawing room to drink orange-blossom tea, I could have voiced my questions out loud but, for fear of a negative answer, I felt happier living with the flattering possibility a little longer . . .

  I must have fallen asleep before the doorbell rang. Stiff from lying in an armchair, I looked up to see my parents appearing on the landing from the hall, and that was when I first understood that they were different. Their shoulders were bowed beneath their drab clothes, they were carrying cardboard suitcases, and spoke hesitantly, anxiously, as if they feared the dazzling hosts now facing them as much as the darkness they had just left behind. I wondered whether my parents were poor.

  ‘It’s a round-up! They’re arresting everyone. Even women and children. The Rosenbergs. The Meyers. The Laegers. The Perelmuters. Everyone . . .’

  My father was in tears. Given that he never cried, I was embarrassed to see him break down in front of people like the de Sullys. What could this over-familiarity mean? That we were noble? I didn’t move from my chair because they thought I was asleep, but I watched and listened to everything.

  ‘Leave? But where would we go? To reach Spain we’d have to cut across France and that’s no safer than here. And, without false papers, we’ll . . .’

  ‘You see, Mischke,’ my mother said, ‘we should have gone to Brazil with Aunt Rita.’

  ‘When my father was already ill? Never!’

  ‘He’s dead now, God rest his soul.’

  ‘Yes, it’s too late.’

  Comte Sully brought a note of calm into the conversation.

  ‘I’ll take care of you,’ he said.

  ‘No, Monsieur le Comte, it doesn’t matter what happens to us. It’s Joseph who needs saving. Him first. And him alone, that’s the way it has to be.’

  ‘Yes,’ agreed my mother, ‘Joseph’s the one who needs to go somewhere safe.’

  If you asked me, being singled out like this confirmed my hunch: I was definitely noble. At least in my family’s eyes.

  The Comte reassured them again.

  ‘Of course I’ll take care of Joseph. And I’ll take care of you too. However, you’ll have to agree to being temporarily separated from him.’

  ‘My Josephshi . . .’

  My mother collapsed into the arms of the little Comtesse who patted her shoulders soothingly. My father’s tears may have embarrassed me, but my mother’s devastated me.

  If I was noble I couldn’t go on pretending to sleep! I leaped chivalrously from my chair to comfort her. Only, I don’t know what came over me once I reached her because the exact opposite happened: I clung to her legs and started sobbing even more loudly than she. In just one evening the de Sullys had seen the whole family cry! After a display like that, it would be tough getting anyone to believe we were nobility.

  My father then provided a diversion by opening his suitcases. ‘Here, Monsieur le Comte. I’ll never be able to pay you so I’ll give you everything I have. These are my last suits.’ And he picked up a succession of hangers with the jackets, trousers and waistcoats he had made. He smoothed each piece with the back of his hand, a gesture he often made in his shop, a swift stroking action that showed off the merchandise by emphasizing the supple drape of the fabric.

  I was relieved my father hadn’t been into the Comtesse’s bedroom with me and had been spared the sight of her beautiful clothes, otherwise he would have dropped dead on the spot, racked with shame for daring to present such everyday things to such refined people.

  ‘I don’t want any kind of payment, my friend,’ said the Comte.

  ‘I insist . . .’

  ‘Don’t humiliate me. I’m not doing this for personal gain. Please, keep your precious treasures, you might need them.’

  The Comte had called my father’s suits ‘treasures’! I was missing something. Could I have been wrong?

  We were taken up to the top floor of the house and given a room under the eaves.

  I was fascinated by the field of stars revealed by the window cut out of the roof. Until then I had never had the chance to watch the sky because all I could see through the small window of our basement apartment were shoes, dogs and shopping bags. To me, the vaulted universe, that deep dark velvet dotted with stars, seemed the logical conclusion to a nobleman’s home where beauty leaped out on every floor. It made sense that the de Sullys didn’t have six households and all their offspring overhead, but the sky and the stars which weigh nothing. I liked being noble.

  ‘Joseph, you see that star there?’ my mother said. ‘That’s our star. Yours and mine.’

  ‘What’s it called?’

&nb
sp; ‘People call it the evening star; but we’ll call it “Joseph and Maman’s star”.’

  My mother had a way of renaming stars.

  She put her hands over my eyes, twirled me round then pointed at the sky.

  ‘Where is it? Can you point it out to me?’

  I learned to recognize ‘Joseph and Maman’s star’ without fail in all that vastness.

  My mother hugged me to her and sung a Yiddish lullaby. As soon as she finished the song she asked me to point to our star. Then she sang again. I fought off the urge to slide into sleep, eager to live this shared moment in all its intensity.

  My father was at the far end of the room, bent over his suitcases, folding and re-folding his suits and grumbling to himself. In between two murmured couplets from my mother I managed to ask him, ‘Daddy, will you teach me to sew?’

  Slightly thrown, he didn’t answer straight away.

  ‘Please,’ I insisted. ‘I’d like to make treasures, like you.’

  He came over to me, and this man who was frequently so stiff and withdrawn held me to him and kissed me.

  ‘I’ll teach you everything I know, Joseph. And even what I don’t know.’

  His coarse, prickly black beard must usually have hurt him because he often rubbed his cheeks, and wouldn’t let anyone touch it. That evening it can’t have been troubling him and he allowed me to finger it inquisitively.

  ‘It’s soft, isn’t it?’ whispered my mother, blushing, as if confiding in me.

  ‘Come on, don’t talk nonsense,’ he scolded.

  Even though there were two beds, one double and one single, Maman insisted I slept with them in the double bed. My father didn’t object for long. He had really changed now that we were noble.

  And there, gazing at the stars that sang in Yiddish, I fell asleep in my mother’s arms for the last time.

  Three

  We never said goodbye to each other. Perhaps it was because everything happened in such a muddle. Or maybe it was deliberate on their part. They probably couldn’t face such a scene, much less subject me to it . . . the thread was broken without my even realizing it: they went out the following afternoon and never came back.

 
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