You Can't Go Home Again

When she traveled to Romania to reclaim her father's property, Suzane Adam found a destitute Gypsy family who begged her not to evict them - and an astonishing plot for her new novel.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

In a cafe in Neve Tzedek, writer Suzane Adam sips black coffee, lights a cigarette and talks about the journey she never thought she would take. "I never intended to go back," she says. "It was supposed to be a short visit, exclusively for business. I felt no nostalgia and had no roots there. When I immigrated to Israel in 1964, I felt that this was where I belonged. I had no desire to return to my childhood realms. I didn't feel that I had lost something there or that I had left something behind. There are people here who have a longing for Europe, but in our home we were never like that."

However, in an attempt to regain custody of her father's family property, which was nationalized after the Second World War by Romania's Communist regime, Adam returned to the place of her birth in remote Transylvania. She was surprised to find herself swept up into a whirlwind of nostalgia and emotions. "The return to my childhood haunts for the first time was like entering a photo album," she relates, and with a light touch straightens out the blue scarf she is wearing on this early summer day.

"We came to our city and followed our memories. We didn't ask, we just walked," she continues. "As we are walking, my brother, who is four years older than me, says: 'If we turn left, it's our school; if we turn right, it's our street.' The center of the city was like a reserve; everything was just as it had been. The school, the kindergarten, the fences, the trees - it was all the same. I felt like I was 10 years old again. Even the Lotto booth that I used to go to with my mother and pull numbers out of a bowl hadn't changed. I was stunned."

Adam's impressions from that encounter with her past form the underpinning of her new novel, "Stolen Property" (Keter publishers, in Hebrew). The book is about Pasha, a Gypsy boy who lives in stark poverty in Romania, which is recovering from the rigors of the Communist regime and awakening to new times in the European Union. But amid the welcome changes, Pasha learns that the house he and his family inhabit actually belongs to an elderly Jew from Israel, who has come to reclaim what was taken from him. Grieving and fearful, the Gypsy boy hears the tumult that erupts around him and grasps the frivolousness with which deals involving property, money and people are being made over his head.

Adam's new work of fiction is her first in five years, following the best-sellers "Janis's Mother" (Hebrew, 2004), "Mayamia" (Hebrew, 2002) and "Laundry" (2000; English translation, 2008). "But they were not quiet years, because there is never quiet," she says. "They were five years of terribly hard work: research, reading, study and collecting historical material. It was a complex process, particularly the attempt to digest all the material and work it into a story. During that time I made three trips to Transylvania. And throughout, I never stopped wondering why I was writing this book, why it was important to me."

Untold story

"It all started eight years ago," she relates, as a gust of wind dislodges dozens of dry leaves from the big tree beneath which the cafe is nestled. In February 2001, the Romanian parliament enacted legislation allowing former owners of property or their heirs to reclaim assets that had been nationalized by the Communists. "A process began that was shared by many people in Israel," she says, "involving an attempt to get back the assets that were left behind in the wake of the hurried emigration. We contacted people we knew in Transylvania. Information started to arrive. A local lawyer handled our affairs and at a certain stage my brother and I traveled to my father's home in Romania to examine the option of reclaiming it."

At the time, "there was something of an awakening in Israel with regard to Holocaust survivors," she continues, speaking at a rapid clip. "People started talking about their status and their troubles. Although the book has nothing to do with the Holocaust, while I was writing it and in the course of my trips there, I understood that there is a story that has not been told, and I wanted to tell it. I wanted to write about the Jews who survived the Holocaust and after the war returned to their homes in Europe and Eastern Europe. We always concentrated on the classic Holocaust stories, about the Nazis and the survivors who lived through the death camps. I was interested in talking about the fate of those who did not immigrate to Palestine or to the United States immediately after the war. Such as my parents, for example, who returned to their home. That, I think, was the genesis of the story."

Adam's parents, Paul and Aggi Fried, met after the war and carved out their new life under the Communist regime that was installed by the Russians, who had defeated the Germans who'd conquered the Transylvania region, which over the years had seesawed between Hungary and Romania. Her father's family, who was very wealthy, lived in northern Transylvania, near the town of Satu Mare, the home of the Satmar movement in Judaism, which was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.

"Dad had land, granaries and a flour mill that exists to this day, though it has now been converted into a power station. There were no cars in that period, but he had a car," Adam notes.

"His whole estate was nationalized in the period of Communist rule. In 1949, Dad was thrown into the street. The Communists kicked him out and took his home from him," says Adam, who lives in Gedera with her husband, who works in high-tech. "In return, he was given a small house in Satu Mare and never returned to his home. I was born in Satu Mare and lived there until I was 10. We lived under the Communist regime and waited to immigrate to Israel. As a girl, I knew I was a Jew and that our home was in Israel. From the first day I could think for myself, I knew that I was not living in my land or in my country; and that one day the Communists would let us go to Israel, that I would go home."

Pictures of childhood

Her father's house, which she had never seen before, led her into a dizzying journey back to her roots and to personal encounters that fired her imagination. "Just as my father never returned to his house, I too had never seen it," Adam says. "I had only heard stories about it. When we went there to arrange our business affairs, we found ourselves being hurled into an amazing story of family roots. When we got a phone call saying there was a [buyer] for the house, we innocently boarded a plane. The trip started in Budapest. Everyone there spoke Hungarian, which I found marvelous. I was absolutely aglow with happiness. On the way to the Romanian border, words I had forgotten came back. Since my mother's death 15 years ago, I had no one to speak Hungarian with. I speak only Hebrew with my father, except when we are in the kitchen together, and then the Hebrew always switches into Hungarian."

The experience only became more intense in her home town. "When we got to our house in Satu Mare, we knocked on the door. It turned out that the family that was living there was the same family that moved in immediately after we left for Israel. The most amazing thing was that people recognized us on the street. Neighbors came out and called me Zoja and my brother Jori - our names back then. I remember that when I was in school there we spoke Hungarian on the street and in kindergarten. That is my childhood language. But when I went there for the first time, in 2001, not long after the fall of the Communist regime, people did not want to speak to me in Hungarian. That was odd. Everyone spoke in Romanian. But that also changed quickly. By the time of my last visit, in 2007, people were opening up to the world and speaking Hungarian, German, whatever language was useful in business. By then they were already speaking the language of the euro."

How did the sale of your father's house proceed?

"I think that because of the nostalgia and the amazement at being able to walk into our childhood milieu, we were not very mindful about what was going on around us. We were given something of a runaround. We were sent to sign things here and there, to obtain father's birth certificate, to prove that he was the sole heir. We went home after a week, not understanding exactly what was going on."

So it wasn't easy?

"The feeling we had during all the years we tried to sell the house was of unwillingness. The Romanian bureaucracy was very harsh. True, there is a law stipulating that the state has to return the property - that is its obligation - but the procedure was very difficult. It was a struggle to claim your right. The whole time was one big chase after more signatures, trying to understand who had sold to whom, who had registered where, to come up with all the documents. We had to find the way ourselves. Everyone tried to drag things out - entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, buyers. It was clear that one visit would not be enough, that we were only at the start of a process. The story ends in 2007, when the house was sold, and in the end we sold half a house for half the price."

Did you meet with the tenants?

"We were dumbstruck when we got to father's house. The tenants, hardscrabble, dirt-poor Gypsies, came out into the yard. It was such a grim feeling, so jolting and moving. Imagine yourself at your house and the tenants come and kiss your hands and beg you not to throw them out on the street."

You hadn't expected that? "We didn't know what to expect. We were caught up in a euphoria of memories - of where we used to play, where we went down to the creek, where we spent the summer. A completely different experience started in my father's house. Suddenly we were struck by the reality of today. You see in the street a reality that is hard to ignore: on the one hand, Mercedes cars, and on the other, an emaciated horse pulling a family dressed in rags. Over there, luxurious, well-maintained homes, and over here homes with no running water. Abruptly I understood that by getting my house back I would leave other people without a home, that I was wronging someone else. The jolt I got was associated with the children with flies in their eyes and with the beggars."

What happened to the Gypsies?

"We did not go back to the house after we sold it, but I know that the tenants can't be thrown out. The law protects them from eviction for at least four years."

Foreign eyes

For the novel, Adam decided to tell the Transylvania experience from the point of view of the Gypsy boy who had looked at her with frightened eyes. "I have seen all kinds of people in this business," she says, lighting another cigarette. "In the book, all the talk about money, which went on the whole time, is shunted into the background at a certain stage. The center is taken by a Gypsy boy whom I fell in love with as I wrote the book. While writing it, I learned a great deal about the history of Romania, but nothing thrilled me. I realized that my writing was a kind of summing up of the anger I felt at the wrong that was done to me. Until the figure of the protagonist, Pasha, appeared."

Something changed in her as she met with the occupants of the house. "The meetings in the house with one of the children made me understand that I was not interested in telling the story from my point of view. That did not give me any inspiration. In the house, as I stood opposite the boy, it suddenly came to me what he must be feeling amid all this. It was not an easy moment. I thought how all this must look to them; yes, they lived in poverty, but at least they had a roof over their heads - and that might now be taken from them. That's how it came about that a boy and his fate is at the forefront of the story - his ability to take his life into his hands and discover the potential of his existence in this world."

In the end, she says, "What is important to me is the individual human being and the life he can lead, or has the right to lead, in this world. Thanks to Pasha, I wrote without anger, even though I dealt with upsetting and frustrating issues in the book. Maybe that is why it took so long to write, because one can never write from inside the subject at hand, while it is still immediate. The distance allowed me to fashion his character with such great love. Of all the books I have written, Pasha is the character I most enjoyed writing. It was an adventure for me. I knew the whole story I wanted to write, but until he appeared I couldn't get it out. When he started to tell the story, all I needed to do was to live his life. And I did so, in a big way."

"A singular accomplishment," says the book's editor, Dror Mishani. "Israeli literature, particularly its mainstream, generally shows a narcissistic tendency, a tendency to go back and look at itself 'in the mirror.' Suzane made a fascinating and courageous choice in literary, linguistic and moral terms, I believe, when she decided to try to observe Israeli society - actually to observe herself - without a mirror. She does so through foreign eyes and with a different language, and even through the eyes of a person whose very existence she is threatening. After all, the novel sprang from a real-life experience - and what would have been easier than to write a 'return to roots' novel in which the narrator is a kind of alter-ego of Suzane herself? All about the Israeli who returns to the house he was born in, or whose protagonist is the Israeli who is trying to regain the property his family left behind in Europe. But Suzane made a different choice. She chose to imagine the story precisely from the viewpoint of the Gypsy boy whose roots she is threatening to cut by her own return to her roots."

Despite this, Mishani admits that when he first began to work with Adam, he tried "to ask gently if she didn't want to make the book more 'Israeli,'" as he puts it. "She did not want to do that and she was right. It was only during our joint work on the book that I grasped how closely intertwined 'Stolen Property' is, in literary and linguistic terms, with the corpus of Jewish literature. You know, you can't read Pasha's monologue without bringing to mind the monologues of another poor youngster from Eastern Europe - I am talking about Mottel the cantor's son, written by Sholem Aleichem. There are a great many ways in which the book is related precisely to that literature, rather than to Israeli literature: in the choice of the monologue form, the sensitivity to economic questions, the way it deals with poverty and distress, in the description of the individual's attempt to survive the earthquakes of history."

Writing in Hungarian

Last year, Adam's novel "Laundry," which was a huge success in Israel in 2000 and abruptly lifted Adam out of her anonymity, was published in the United States. Autumn Hill Books of the University of Iowa (and translator Becka Mara McKay) thus brought this writer, who did not start to publish until she was 40, to another peak.

"I learned Hebrew by myself within a few months," relates Adam offhandedly and with rollicking laughter. "Because at the time I came to Israel there was no ulpan [intensive Hebrew-language course for new immigrants]. The first thing I did here was training in the new language, trying to roll my tongue in order to speak Hebrew without an accent. So during my book tour in the United States - at the University of Iowa, in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York - I was so thrilled to discover that the book was part of the curriculum of the comparative literature department."

The renewed interest in "Laundry" reminded her of the book's initial reception in Israel. "I think I was received here as though I had parachuted out of the sky - no one knew where I had come from," says Adam, who before becoming a writer was a painter and taught art in high schools. "But I think I arrived ready in terms of the importance of what I wanted to talk about. It is related to my mother's death, which was a turning point in my life. When my mother died, I understood that we will all die, including me, and that there is no time. That in the time allotted to me I have to allow myself to do what I had always wanted to do, namely to write."

Why did it actually take so long?

"I was afraid to express myself in a language in which I was a guest. So I preferred to paint, where I did not need words. Painting is a universal language, and no one can correct me. The fact that I was a painter my whole life is due, I think, to the fact that as a new immigrant I did not dare to use language as a means of expression, even though I very much liked to play with words, and as a girl I used to arrange my dolls and tell them stories."

This book, in contrast to your previous books, contains a monologue written in Hebrew but is actually spoken by a boy whose language is Hungarian. Did that situation affect your work?

"When my mother died, part of my missing her had to do with the language. I had no one left to speak Hungarian with, and the most wonderful and fun conversations with my mother were in Hungarian," Adam says, visibly moved by the memory. "While I was writing the book I was constantly calling my father to ask how to write all kinds of words in Hungarian. And then, about halfway through the book, I stopped and asked myself why I was asking dad how to write things in Hungarian if I was writing in Hebrew. I understood then that I spoke his language completely and was living the life of the Gypsy boy. I suddenly realized that I was actually writing in Hungarian and simultaneously translating into Hebrew."

Is it that way in life, too?

"Absolutely not. I do not feel that I dream in Hungarian. With me everything is in Hebrew, and very Israeli. I experience our localness very intensely. In that sense, the feeling of writing the book in Hungarian and 'translating' it into Hebrew was like a swan song, my parting from my mother tongue, from that childhood. It sealed the 'there' thing for me. Actually, I can say that this is it, I have closed off that segment and I am now truly an Israeli. Nothing remains from 'there.'"