Esty G. Hayim, one of Israel’s most talented writers, dives into the depths of pain with sensitivity, and also with humor, in her novel Corner People (published in Hebrew by Kineret Zmora Bitan in 2013).
Corner People shuttles back and forth in time. In the novel’s present, Dvori is a fifty-year-old substitute teacher with an alcohol problem who lives alone in the Haifa apartment where she grew up, writing her family’s story on an old Olivetti typewriter.
In the novel’s past, Dvori is the eight-year-old daughter of struggling Holocaust survivors from Hungary and an aspiring writer. Late one night she hears a knock on the door. Though at first she fears that it is the Nazis, instead she finds her great-aunt, Esther-nayne, who has managed to escape Soviet-controlled Hungary and has arrived in Israel with only the clothes on her back. Elegant, wild, and full of laughter, Esther-nayne carries with her the spirit of the great European cities and the secrets of the past. It is Esther-nanye who gives young Dvori the Olivetti that sets her to writing.
Dvori tells her family’s story to give voice to the “corner people,” but also to finally be free of them and their anguished past. The novel is both an escape from the story and, paradoxically, an escape back into it.
This is a tale of displacement, about Holocaust survivorsirreparably wounded in their souls, living at the edge of the abyss, struggling to find normal lives. It is more than the story of one family; it is about what it is to be a refugee, then and now. Hayim takes these wounded, forgotten people out from the “corner” and puts them in the spotlight of literature.
Esther-nayni arrived at our house at night, at one in the morning to be precise, the night of 12 Iyyar, Wednesday, April 30, 1969. People went to bed early in Haifa. One in the morning was the hour of the jackals. And mine. No one but I knew what that hour looked like. Father would get home from work at seven in the evening. At ten he’d go to sleep. Then he’d get up for work at five. His ride left from the corner of Trumpeldor by the bank at a quarter to six.
Mother slept most of her life. Sleeping Beauty. She never really woke except for attacks of rage or joy.
Grandmother got up when Father did, made his non-coffee coffee with milk, took her light-blue shopping bag and went off to the Talpiot market to find the freshest produce.
Grandfather wasn’t really awake to the world. Though his eyes seemed to be looking at us, his gaze was on the past.
My brother would fall asleep the minute his head hit the pillow, exhausted from slamming his silent ball of rage against the wall, and I was awakened every night by the jackals in the wadi. Covers pulled up to my chin, I listened to their wailing chorus. Sometimes they’d come right under the window. How dangerous it would be to go outside into the dark now, I thought, as I heard their hungry howls.
Scary. I could also hear my mother crying out in her sleep, I’m dead, I’m dead. Scary inside too. The bed became a snare. The bats of my fright flapped over it, night snakes slithered inside it. I pushed the covers aside with hasty hands, clasping Bobochi tightly, and fled to the hall. I had escaped the terrors of my bed in the nick of time.
One time I woke Grandmother, but, stricken by a nightmare of her own she looked at me strangely and muttered menj vissza aludni, go back to sleep. Since then I’ve left the sleeping members of my family to their nightmares. I’d pass my mother’s bed in the corner of the bedroom, and my father’s in the opposite corner, then my grandmother’s bed on the enclosed porch; past my grandfather who slept in the hall, lying tensely on a fold-out bed that doubled as a narrow couch during the day, his head thrown back like a soldier who’d just been shot. I’d slip by my brother as he muttered in his sleep and finally collapse in a heap in my corner in the hall. I’d stare at the darkened square of window. In moments of silence, when the jackals paused their howling, I listened to the ticking of the clock, each second echoing in the night. Drops falling from the leaky bathroom faucet. Every night, Grandmother scolded my father for not fixing it. Plumpf followed by another plumpf, tiny water bombs bursting on the porcelain sink. Snore-bubbles issued from Grandmother and Grandfather’s open mouths, Father sighed in his sleep, and Mother shouted again that she was dead. I wanted to sleep so badly, just sleep, sleep, like Varka the governess in Chekhov’s story, just sleep, but the bed seethed, it was impossible to stay in it.
The hands of the old clock that still serves me, a loyal object from the predigital generation, glowed phosphorescent green. I shrank into the alcove in the hall, Bobochi clasped in my arms. The doll is always awake, her painted eyes always open wide.
A knock at the door.
Bobochi and I froze. I couldn’t even run to bed and pull the covers over my head. Here he was now, the one I had been expecting all along. The drunk we saw that time, Father and I, in the Ziv neighborhood where we’d gone to buy sunflower seeds at old Sarfatti’s. The first drunk I’d ever seen, reeling and shouting, brandishing an empty bottle. People ignored him, skirted around him, averted their eyes. But I couldn’t take my own fascinated eyes off him. Here is a dangerous man who dares to display his defects to the world. Someone who’s not scared of being scary. Crazy.
That night I gave in and called out for Father. He took my hand in his and then embraced me, cradling me in his arms in his narrow iron bed under the window.
Something in that narrow bed wouldn’t let me close my eyes, more dangerous even than the drunk on the main street in Ziv.
Two knocks at the door.
I wasn’t dreaming; this was for real. Maybe it was the Nazis. I knew that had been a long time ago and that the good guys had killed them and rescued my father and mother and grandmother, but maybe there were one or two left who had come looking for my father and mother and grandmother and my brother and me. My thoughts came fast. There were two possibilities for survival. First, I didn’t have a Jewish nose. Completely Aryan. Fine blonde hair and a turned-up nose. I didn’t look like I even belonged to Mother, with her dark hair. No resemblance whatsoever. The second possibility, which I adopted after some hesitation, was to disappear. Reduce my presence to a mere crumb, and then to nothing at all. I’m not here, not here. You don’t see me because I don’t exist. Disappearing. Disappeared.
The echo of the hesitant knock faded away as I was extinguished, like loveless Tinker Bell.
My thoughts were in turmoil. Only frightful words surfaced at first. Murky words with a pungent smell. Grandmother once said that anything sour, sweet, salty or bitter, with color and texture – exists. Words for me always had color, taste, and smell. I could sense them, so they were real.
Mother slept most of her life. Sleeping Beauty. She never really woke except for attacks of rage or joy.
The next knock tarries, and might not come at all, but I disappear anyway, just in case. Erzsebet-tante talked about the danger of complacency. You should always think of the worst eventuality, she said, it’s reassuring.
There are degrees of danger, too. Gradually, nice words came as well, with a buttery texture, wafting the scent of cologne. I told myself stories to calm down, transported myself to another life, still curled up in my inner hiding place.
Best of all was remembering Purim. Purim stories were my favorites.
And there I was, in the Queen Esther costume that had been placed back on the top shelf of the wardrobe in Mother and Father’s bedroom only a month before.
The bad guys standing outside, on the other side of the door, in the dark, were absorbed into stories about my costume and the tantes-aunts.
On Purim there was only ever one costume: Queen Esther.
The dress would be taken down every year in anticipation of Purim. I had to try it on so that Grandmother could let out the hem or patch on a lace border when there was no hem left to let out, depending on how much I’d grown. Every year we’d go to the Hungarian on the main street who sold stationery and cheap toys, to shop for new accessories: a gilded cardboard crown that looked almost real until I saw the magnificent crowns of the other girls in kindergarten, then in grade school, and a scepter tipped with a glistening ball. Most thrilling of all was being allowed to wear Mary Janes instead of my high-tops with the orthopedic insoles. I got the dress from Yulishko-tante, Yoshko-bacsi’s mother; he was married to Erszebet-tante, Grandmother’s sister. She lived with them in the house in Halissa. Yulishko-tante was an elderly fairy godmother with a halo of white hair, her face wrinkled into dry riverbeds. She wore dresses of tulle and sunflower-yellow lace, and a sheer pink wrap draped over her shoulders. I never saw any other old lady who dressed like a belle out of Gone with the Wind, half of which I’d seen at Ziv Cinema with Olga-tante, Grandmother and Mother. Mother cried until the lights came on and the word “Intermission” appeared on the screen, at which point she insisted that we go home.
Her crying had resounded throughout the movie theater. People in nearby seats glared at us, shushing us irately. Grandmother and Olga-tante pleaded with Mother, to no avail: Let’s stay, let’s watch the end, only another hour and a half, think of the child…
We left the cinema as the lights dimmed again and the film came back on. I craned my neck as far as possible to see Scarlett O’Hara as long as I could, as she tore through masses of wounded soldiers in the railway station. Then the theater doors closed behind us.
When I was four years old, the tantes, Grandmother’s sisters, took me by the hand, one on each side. Grandmother stayed to watch over Mother, who couldn’t be left alone after what she had done. The three of us ascended the metal steps of the number nineteen bus. Olga-tante raised a varicose leg, then the other, pulling me after her. Erzsebet-tante heaved her heavy rear up the steps, panting, and asked the driver for “please three tickets to Hadar.”
We got off at Halissa, first Erzsebet and her derrière; I followed next, skipping like a frisky lamb; and then Olga-tante. The bus driver gunned the engine, startling Olga-tante, who called out: Driver, wait!, mispronouncing the Hebrew letter het, like all Hungarians.
We headed straight to the Hungarian patisserie on the main street, on the way to the checkpost. For the girl who is “like a stick, she needs some flesh on her,” the tantes bought a dobos torte, thin layers of flaky pastry with rich chocolate cream filling, topped with an amber caramel glaze. Grandmother wouldn’t let me have too many cream cakes because they “ruin the character, spoil you,” but Erzsebet-tante and Olga-tante bent over me, their pointy breasts nearly jabbing my cheeks, and they whispered to me this was our secret, no need to tell Grandmother: what you don’t know can’t hurt you. I nodded as if they had just revealed a deep truth and licked at the chocolate cream. Then we climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of an old building overlooking the main street. There, in Erzsebet-tante and Yoshko-bacsi’s apartment, its walls covered with needlepoints of princes and horse-drawn carriages, lay Yulishko-tante in her room, surrounded by scraps of lace and gauze, a white-haired slumberer shaking her head no, over and over. Instead of firm, pointy breasts she had two deflated beach balls under a lacy white dress. Extending a trembling hand, she asked me in toothless Hungarian if I was a good girl. I stared at the old woman, half fairy, half witch, at the piles of lace and gauze scattered on the floor, on the chairs, on the low bed where Yulishko was lying. The stifling smell of dust and unwashed bodies made me gag so that I couldn’t answer. Not breathing well again, sighed Erzsebet-tante, wiping the last of the chocolate cream from my face with a saliva moistened thumb, and answered for me: Of course she’s a good girl. A very good girl!
She spread out moth-eaten evening gowns and yellowing lace blouses, piling them all on the table in the corner. I watched the fluttering gossamer wings as she folded, but I didn’t dare get up and rummage through the piles.
I choked on a grateful cough, looking at Erzsebet-tante, who wasn’t telling Yulishko what kind of girl I really was. Yulishko-tante mumbled: Take anything you want from my clothes, I kept them all. Do you have any idea how beautiful I used to be? I had no idea, but I tried to be well-behaved, replying in fluent, formal Hungarian: You are still beautiful, tante. Yulishko-tante laughed with her empty mouth. Yes, a wonderful girl; she chewed over the words and then suddenly fell asleep again, head lolling on her chest. Olga-tante, who lived alone next door, was the pedantic sister who disliked mess. She spread out moth-eaten evening gowns and yellowing lace blouses, piling them all on the table in the corner. I watched the fluttering gossamer wings as she folded, but I didn’t dare get up and rummage through the piles. Erzsebet-tante was summoning Olga-tante to the kitchen for milky chicory and makos, lovely poppy-seed cake she baked herself because Yoshko didn’t like store-bought cake. Nothing like home-made makos. They went out. I was left standing there in a corner. She has to be a fairy or at least a queen from some story that ran away without her. How else to explain all these dresses for fairies and queens?
The cavern of Yulishko-tante’s mouth gaped, the ruins of her bosom sagging onto her stomach, rising and falling with her ragged breathing. I hesitated a moment.
Was this allowed? Would she find out the truth about me?
Esty G. Hayim is the author of four novels, a short story collection, and a play. Her sixth novel, Sid (Hebrew Achuzat Bait), was published in March 2020. She studied theater at Tel Aviv University and teaches creative writing at Kibbutzim College. Her latest novel, Corner People, was published to wide critical acclaim and awarded the 2014 Brenner Prize and the prime Minister Levi Eshkol Prize in 2015. She also received the Israeli Prime Minister’s Award in 2003 for her novel Our Second Lives (Hakibbutz Hamuhad-Hasifriya Hahadasha). Hayim, whose short stories have appeared in anthologies worldwide, has acted with the Cameri, a leading Israeli repertory theater. Her novel Corner People was published in Italy and was one of two finalists for the Adei-WIZO literary prize in 1918.
Sara Friedman is a literary and academic translator of English and Hebrew. Her translation Glikl: Memoirs 1691 – 1719, annotated and with an introduction by Chava Turniansky, was published by Brandeis University Press in 2019. Friedman holds a PhD in Translation Studies from Tel Aviv University and has taught translation and translation theory at Bar Ilan University. Born in the United States, she grew up there and in Israel, where she lives.