Else Feldmann, “Three People”

vienna_brick_streets_at_night-_vienna_austria_western_europe

This short story was written by Else Feldmann, an Austrian Jewish journalist and author who was banned by the Nazis during the Reich. Her ethnicity made her suspect, and her socialist activities sealed her fate. After burning her writings, they silenced her forever in Sobibór, where she was murdered in 1942. Very little exists today from Feldmann’s works, and what little that does exist has never been published in English. This story is indicative of Feldmann’s clear compassion for the economically disadvantaged, especially women. It was most likely written in the 1910s.

 

Miss N.N. had to provide for both herself and two others. She was not especially close to her relatives, and all of this came about through a particular series of events. –

One day, Miss N.N. moved to the big city from a small town. In her hometown, she had run a dry goods store, cared for children, cooked, washed, ironed – anything that needed taking care of in other people’s houses. She became superfluous one day and was set out on the street. After a short deliberation, she traveled to the big city and found lodging with a single woman, a piano and language teacher, who suffered from an eye malady. The women spent all day running around to her students, whose residences were scattered to the four winds. She returned home every evening, weary, lit a candle, and went to bed.

Miss N.N. occupied the small bedroom, and she eventually found a job as an assistant cook in a tavern. After a short illness, however, the previous cook returned, and Miss N.N. was fired. Eight days passed without another job. During that time, Miss N.N. suffered greatly from hunger.

One evening, the teacher called into her room.

“What are you doing in your room?”

“Nothing. I was about to go to sleep.”

“Eat a little supper with me first.” They had herring and bread.

By the third evening, Miss N.N. came to a decision.

“I cannot keep eating up your small suppers. Tomorrow I will see how I can earn some money.”

The next day, she walked down the streets, stepping into numerous shops. She peeked into several tavern kitchens, asking if they could use someone.

No one needed her.

That evening she rouged her face with pink paper, curled her hair, and pulled a disreputable lock across her forehead. Then she went for a stroll along an alley, up and down. And brought some money home.

Miss N.N. went through the necessary channels. She was registered, legalized, regulated. When the teacher returned from her lessons, she found a warm meal in the oven. The table had been neatly set. Miss N.N. returned by morning, just as the teacher was heading out.

After a year passed, the teacher’s son appeared, pale-cheeked, haggard, in a ripped, soiled shirt, shabby clothes and shoes. He explained that he had suffered enough deprivation in prison. He now wanted to rest and recover in his mother’s home. –

For the first few days, he put on a good face. He was useful around the house, painting the kitchen furniture gray, buying blue paint and painting the walls in the little bedroom. Once these were done, he said that he would clean the rust from the old sewing machine, oil it, and then relax after that.

And this is what he did. He spent the entire day stretched out on the couch, singing sad  prison ditties.

He coughed painfully throughout the long nights. His mother would slip into his room on bare feet and wrap him up like a small child in her wool blanket. She would whisper to him: “Shhh – sleep well, my child, you’re back with me.”

But then he would spend the whole day complaining, because he was not getting any beer. Without it, he would go to rack and ruin. A man had to have his daily bottle of beer. If not, what kind of man was he?

Ach, he was ugly to the point of being ridiculous. Nothing on his face was in its right place. Neither eyes nor nose nor mouth. Everything was in a crooked, inappropriate location. When he lost his temper, he looked more like a demon than a person.

And yet night after night, his mother, woken by his wicked coughing, would come and wrap him up.

Before Miss N.N. went out each evening, she would set out two plates on the table and a bottle of beer.

The teacher’s eye malady grew worse, and she finally could not go out any longer to work. Miss N.N. said: “Now we will live from what I earn.”

The teacher replied: “I am completely blind now, but I cannot kick him out. If I do, he will do something bad and land back in jail.”

“We will keep him here,” Miss N.N. reassured her

And that’s what happened, year after year.

One day, Miss N.N. came back in the middle of the night from the street.

The former teacher was sitting at her son’s bedside, his chest had pained him more than usual that day. He had just fallen asleep, drenched in sweat.

The two women whispered to each other.

“I won’t go out again today. It is cold and rainy, and nobody is coming.”

“Nobody is coming?” the blind woman inquired.

“No one. The laughing girls have been taken, and they have left me alone on my corner.”

“No, no – it’s better to not go out anymore today.”

“It is frightfully cold and rainy, and they left me back on my corner. They even took along the boys who can laugh easily. I would rather lie down in my room and starve, before I take another step on the damp pavement.”

Silence, the mute weeping from the blind eyes, the wheezing from a diseased chest. Candlelight flickered in the darkness.

A voice spoke: “We must fetch the doctor tomorrow. He has a fever. We have to buy medicine, cod liver oil. – Don’t worry, I’ll go back out.”

 

Translation by Rachel Hildebrandt. For more information about Feldmann and the possibility of publishing more of Feldmann’s stories in English, please contact me directly at rehildebrandt@gmail.com

 

IMAGE: By Mstyslav Chernov (Self-photographed, http://mstyslav-chernov.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


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