Excerpt: Smell of Burning
Note: this is part of a chapter from my completed manuscript, ‘Capriccio’, a fictional biography of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the woman who came between the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
Smell of Burning
Tel Aviv 1935 – 1946
You wore the sign of lightning to
ward off lightning
– Ted Hughes, Smell of Burning
Assia’s memories refuse to leave her in peace that night. In her mind, she is a child again, back in Berlin, re-living the time when all her safeties had been stripped away.
She remembers how, late one cold night, she and her parents and little sister board a train out of Berlin. Vati is carrying two huge suitcases with their most precious possessions. Assia and Celia each clutch their one permitted plaything: Assia a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, Celia a white fluffy rabbit. There’d been a tantrum when Celia’s first choice, an almost life-size teddy bear, was decreed too large to take with her. Assia feels the fear in the air, and hides under the carriage seat whenever she hears heavy-booted footsteps in the corridor.
Assia now knows that the only way the Gutmanns managed to escape Nazi Germany was by paying huge bribes to some corrupt officials, who’d been Dr Gutmann’s patients before 1933. Under the Nazi regime, Lonya is struck off the medical register, like all Jewish doctors.
The family’s first stop is Italy, where the Gutmanns await visas, along with other exiles hoping to find a permanent home. In Pisa, seven-year old Assia learns to revel in her differences. At her new school she is instantly popular; the other children find her foreign ways exotic, although with her dark hair and pale olive skin she could easily pass for Italian. She makes a special friend, Aurora, who delights in teaching her Italian.
‘Pane,’ Aurora says, pointing at the white roll Liesa has packed for Assia’s school lunch. Assia quickly learns to speak the language. She feels at home in this sunny southern land. Everything in Pisa delights her: the houses with their window boxes full of colourful flowers, the narrow cobbled streets, even the food. When the Gutmanns’ visas for Palestine come through, she is devastated to leave Italy.
In Tel Aviv, Assia doesn’t fit in straight away. Here she is known at school by her middle name, Esther; it is more suitably Jewish. Yet she doesn’t feel Jewish, any more than she did back in Berlin. After all, according to the orthodoxy, she is not of the faith, because her mother is a Gentile. The fact that Assia’s father is a Russian Jew counts for nothing. Yet in Palestine, where the family settles, it seems being Jewish means acceptance, whereas in Germany it had meant a death sentence.
The family lives in Balfour Street, Tel Aviv, which is named after a progressive British politician. Liesa likes the sound of the street’s name, its clean English consonants, and its un-Jewishness. Because Palestine is under British rule, the children learn English for three hours a week, although the language of instruction is Hebrew. Assia Esther soon adds English to her German, Italian and Hebrew. Liesa continues to feel an outcast in Palestine, and starts dreaming of escape.
Everywhere in this strange new land, there are people of all races; Arabs live peacefully side by side with the Russian, Polish, or German refugees. Liesa and her daughters are entranced by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of this city.
‘Come, girls, we’ll go for ice-cream at the beach,’ Liesa says to Assia and Celia, one hot sumer morning. Celia is given the Hebrew name Hanna, but at home Assia still calls her Cillik. ‘The sun is shining, so perhaps we’ll go for a dip on the ocean.’
The two girls scream with excitement, and run to get their swimming costumes from their still unpacked suitcases. ‘Mutti, can I wear that new skirt over my costume?’ says Assia, preening herself in front of the wardrobe mirror in their little flat.
Liesa laughs. ‘You’re much too young to be worrying about your looks, child; after all, you’ve only just turned eight. Wait another ten years, and we’ll see. Now be a good girl and put on your beach dress, like Hanna’s doing.’
‘No, I won’t! I want to wear the new skirt!’ Assia stamps her foot, threatening a tantrum. Liesa sighs, and gives in, this time. Her elder daughter is proving a challenge, and such disobedience must be checked. Still, she reflects, she’s turning into a beauty, so perhaps she’ll get away with her wild nature.
Liesa, Assia and Celia set off for the beachfront, where cafés of every nationality are starting to spring up. ‘Look, Mutti, this one has gelato, like in Pisa,’ cries the prettily dressed Assia. Having got her own way with the frilly skirt, she expects to do the same in the choice of café.
But Liesa is already guiding the children to a Kaffeehaus, which proclaims in big German letters that it serves coffee, kugeloff, and other German or Viennese cakes all day. A touch of home is what Liesa craves. She never loses an opportunity to remind her girls of their rich German culture, and does her best to maintain it in this primitive land.
Assia decides to give in this time; her eyes go to the cake counter with its strudel and cheesecake, and the gelato is forgotten.
Apart from the beach, the streets of Tel Aviv are full of sand, even in the cracks of the newly laid concrete footpaths. There’s a feeling of the desert encroaching on the edge of this bourgeoning city, where the Arab markets flourish next to European restaurants.