First Night with Satan

Erwin Schenkelbach
First Night with Satan
  • Austeria
    Kraków 2005
    104 pages
    ISBN 83-89129-24-8

Erwin Schenkelbach is an eminent art photographer from Jerusalem, but originally comes from Drohobych (now in Ukraine), where his father was a friend of Bruno Schulz. The first story in this book is a very strange, phantasmagoric vision of the Holocaust in his home town; the second is about a Jewish boy who has miraculously escaped death, travels to Warsaw and wanders about the city, passing through various people’s hands; and the third is about a man of advanced age returning after several decades to the town of his childhood, where he tries to rediscover the atmosphere and scenery of his early years. The language of these dream-like tales, especially in the first story, is influenced by Schulz’s prose, full of metaphors and symbolic images, as well as being mid-way between autobiography and literary fiction.
The central story makes the strongest impression, telling the tale of a Jewish boy who, to escape being killed, is sent on a journey to Warsaw. The image of the city from the viewpoint of a lost child, followed by the description of his expedition one evening to a shop to get vodka for his new guardian and his encounter with two Jewish undertakers who work in the ghetto is an unusual testament of war. With his photographer’s eye, Schenkelbach captures the tiniest details of how places and people look, and paints it all with the sharp focus of something being seen for the first time in life. The sense of alienation and danger, and alongside them the banality of the occupation era are ideally described through the eyes of a Jewish child constantly at risk of death, because he never tries to judge anything or compare it with his earlier experiences; he simply sees, bringing mundanity and nightmare onto a single plane.

- Jerzy Jarzębski

I’ve had the flight, several hours’ journey by car, all the formalities and the previous, disturbed night. I put my suitcase on the table and just as I am, in shoes and clothing, collapse on the bed and sink into bottomless non-existence. On waking I don’t know where I am. I blindly feel my way to the bathroom, turn on the tap and put my head under the stream of cold water. I dry myself and open the window wide. A wave of warm air floods into the room, and with it an insane melody of fragrances of trees and flowers in bloom. The day is already departing. Just the final rays of sunlight are still lighting the windows of the nearest houses with flames of bloody crimson. I take a thorough look around. In front of the hotel there’s an immense bronze statue, maybe two-storeys high, of a man holding a book. Further on there’s a network of streets with houses built before the war. There are only a few vehicles on the roads. I decide to take a walk about town. I cross the small square in front of the hotel and walk towards a wide street nearby. On the far side of it a small, narrow lane winds up hill. The chasm of its dark vista draws me inside with a magnetic force. On either side of it are two-storey houses, in front of which are neglected little gardens with neat, freshly dug flower beds. The newly overturned soil is rich and black. All around apple, cherry and prunus trees are in bloom. As I walk up the lane, heady with the May-time eruption of fragrance and colour, there comes a moment when I have the disturbing feeling that I know this street from somewhere, that I’ve been here before.
A few steps further on I suddenly find myself outside a house where one morning, intuitively hidden by my mother in a cubbyhole under the stairs full of old journals and papers, I was a witness as people in uniforms took my parents away on their final journey to nowhere.
Slowly, scale after scale, the layers of time fall away. As if in a trance I touch the blistered wall of the house and stroke the handrail on the steps leading to our then apartment.
The world around me starts to spin… the hands of my watch are going backwards at lightning speed… I come to a standstill on the borders of waking and dreaming… now I’m walking along the streets of my childhood… its box contains the transparencies of recollections… on the screen of my memory ever changing images are appearing from those departed days… a tall, athletic man with a wonderful, neatly trimmed, black Assyrian beard, and a small boy with blonde hair next to him … it’s my father and me… moments later we’re on skis, dashing down the steep slope of one of the Carpathian peaks… a violet mist is swirling in the valley … that was during my endless chemical experiments when a crucible full of various reagents exploded… the materials for all those dangerous experiments are hidden in a cabinet that closes with a wooden shutter, where my father keeps countless numbers of little jars, bottles and retorts full of multi-coloured substances and liquids necessary for his work in his photographic darkroom… my parents are not at home… I open the cabinet… one of the big jars is shining with a mysterious glow… fascinated by this unusual sight I stare into the beam of greenish light that’s looming out of the darkness… I’m running round ears of wheat with a little girl whose name is Ania… Ania overtakes me… her thick plait of blond hair swings in front of me like a pendulum… a gust of wind brings a scent of fresh, only just harvested honey… the door bell rings… it’s my father’s friend come to see him, our next-door neighbour with the weird, slantwise vaulted face that looks like a bird gearing up for take-off… as usual my father has prepared a cardboard box for him full of used plates of glass… on the exposed negatives’ blackened layers of emulsion the bird man will use a steel needle to etch illustrations for his phantasmagorical stories… the memories are turning the hands of the clock further forwards… now our neighbour is handing my mother a book… a timid smile plays on his sunken cheeks … my mother opens the cover… on the first page there’s an inscription: Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, and a dedication added in dark-green ink… my mother smiles, says thank you and holds out her hand, which with a deep bow he kisses…
It’s already late at night when I return to the hotel. Next day I go to the nearby market. On the stalls there are piles of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, triangular blocks of butter coloured with carrot juice and metal milk-cans. I have a little cream poured from one of these cans into the glass I’ve brought with me, and then use a few of the light brown notes with the strange name of “coupons” to pay for a loaf of black bread, from which I cut off a thick slice in my hotel room. The bread and cream have the flavour of my childhood.
Noon is already approaching. I walk along a broad avenue teeming with elegantly dressed young people. Here, on the so-called corso, the small town’s smart set meet up every day. Stylish hats worn at an angle, proud, provocative glances cast from under dropped eyelids, smiles and knowing gestures. In among them a small boy flits past, longing to fathom all the adults’ secrets. But suddenly the corso empties. All that’s left is a parade of white marble vases standing along its pavements, once full of flowers, and the same, but now higher trees. Pushing through the stained-glass mosaic of leaves sunbeams brush the pavements with trails of the colour gold. I reach my childhood home. I recognise it from afar – it hasn’t changed at all. Through the dark hallway I enter the back courtyard, and pace it to and fro. I gather young leaves from the vegetables planted in neat rows, push aside objects scattered here and there, peep into every nook and cranny and promise myself I’ll come here every day.
But the torpedo of time is already changing direction.
Once again we’re flying across the black line of the boundary river.
Now I’ll never find my mossy green stone again.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones