The Iron Tracks

From Rondhof I continue north to Upper Rondhof. Here the leaves are already falling, and one feels the frost. The frost, I must admit, suits my body better than a moderate temperature. In the frost a somnolent part of my being comes to life. Wrapped in a coat and wearing boots, I feel more grounded.

In Upper Rondhof a Jew named Max Rauch opened a haberdashery right after the war. It has flourished and grown over the years, and now it includes six large stores, a coffee house, a restaurant, and a fine hotel. We've been friends for thirty years now. Max buys a considerable portion of my acquisitions from me. I'm glad to sell to him, because he pays a decent price and preserves the treasures with great care. Like me, he is fond of Hebrew letters, and he is proud to show me, whenever I happen to arrive, that everything he bought from me remains in good condition. Years ago I brought him a valise full of Yiddish books that I had found in a cellar in remote Schaumwasser. God knows how they made their way into that cellar. He was pleased with them, and since then I have also collected Yiddish books.

Upper Rondhof lies on a barren, remote plateau. But since Max established the center, the place has been bustling with peasants and tourists. People stream here from all the villages. Starting in early evening, they drink and dance in the coffee house until late at night. Soon Max will also open a movie house to attract more tourists.

With Max I feel safe and calm. Maybe it's because of the large, well-protected room on the ground floor. The room has two exits, one of them secret. All of his rooms have secret exits, he once told me. Our people must not sleep in a room without a secret exit, he said. I agree with him with all my heart. Hotel rooms make me uneasy. In them I wake up at three in the morning and struggle with insomnia until dawn. One of our kind has to sleep in a large room, with more than one door, so that he will know, even in a nightmare, that there's an escape exit.

As soon as I enter my room, I close the shutters and sink into deep sleep. Max lets me sleep as my soul desires. Sleep in his fortress is a quiet sleep, without threats, and I lose myself in it.

Sometimes it seems that my life is interred in Max's rooms. Every year he adds a shelf. If it wasn't for Max, it's doubtful that I would have persisted in this collecting. The thought that someone is expecting you, and that when you arrive he'll settle you in a large, comfortable room and arrange for the restaurant manager to serve you a good meal, that thought makes my wandering easier to bear. This time I arrive in Rondhof exhausted. The next day I recover, sit in the coffee house, and my body fills once again with the will to live.

Later Max leads me from room to room, showing me the latest changes and innovations. Again, I find that everything is in its place, arranged for a long stay. But last year an unexplained dread fell over me. For some reason the collection seemed in danger. Max sensed my anxiety and reassured me that everything was well guarded and insured, and that when the time came, he would transfer all the treasures, in iron chests, to Jerusalem.

A week with Max restores me to some of the hidden realms of my life. Max himself doesn't ask a lot of questions, nor does he offer advice. His appearance is surprising. Unlike most of us, he's tall, and moderation is woven into his movements. Between the counters in his shop he looks like a northerner, restrained and quiet, as if he was born not in Sadgora but in this province, where the late autumn is serene, and the colors exhilarate the soul. But at night, when I sit with him in the salon, his face changes. His forehead darkens and his gestures become agitated. He speaks simple, clear Yiddish, and an old tremor runs through it. He promises once again that everything he has purchased from me will be carefully preserved, and when the time comes, he will send it all to Jerusalem.

Sometimes, when he is in good spirits, after two or three drinks, he tells me about his ancestors, the sages of Rydzyna, about the Haggers and the Friedmans and their descendants scattered all over the world, even as far as Argentina. When he talks about his ancestors, I sense that he is connected to them by a hidden bond, though not to each of them equally. About Stark and Rollman, for example, who were also descended from Rydzyna, he hardly speaks. They grieved their forefathers too much, he once told me. Strange, this man, who is steeped in the world of action, and who looks like a local, this man becomes bent and sad when he returns to his apartment at night. You see clearly that he isn't alone. His ancestors accompany him. It's hard to know what they urge him to do. Perhaps he has become used to their reprimands and no longer responds. Once he told me that an evil worm had penetrated the renowned dynasty of Rydzyna, and that it had been gnawing at its descendants for generations. I wanted to know more, but Max wouldn't explain.