Authors: Joseph Skibell
A Blessing on the Moon
“An unlikely page-turner … Confirmation that no subject lies beyond the grasp of a gifted, committed imagination.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Brilliant … Astonishing … [Skibell] has turned the full light of his extraordinary talent on one of history’s darkest moments and taught us to see it again.”
—The Boston Globe
“Luminous … Startlingly original … Recalls the dark, hallucinatory world of Jerzy Kosinski’s
The Painted Bird
while at the same time surpassing it.”
The Washington Post
“A story that blends horror with mad humor and heart-stirring pathos. A work of striking originality.”
—J. M. C
“As magical as it is macabre.”
“Dignified, elegant and inventive.”
—Time Out New York
“As mesmerizing as a folk tale, as rich as gold itself.”
—The Denver Post
“A hugely enjoyable read … A compelling tour de force, a surreal but thoroughly accessible page-turner.”
“Its extraordinary vision elevates us for a glimpse of something holy: hope out of the ashes of history.”
—The Sunday Oregonian
“Incandescent … Ambitious, accomplished and haunting.”
—The Indianapolis Star
“A tale of great spiritual healing and holiness … Reverent, funny, and wise.”
“Oh, what a magical book. I finished it moved, enchanted, saddened, and exhilarated.”
“A jewel of a book.”
—The Raleigh News and Observer
“You’ve never read a book like this before—part Holocaust memoir, part ghost story, part Hebrew folklore, part surrealistic road epic … the scope of this singular work will haunt you long after you’ve put the book down.”
—The Bloomsbury Review
“Magical … Transform[s] horror and suffering into mystery and enchantment, in ways that mark [Skibell] as a writer of consequence.”
—St. Petersburg Times
“A major talent is revealed in this debut novel … A story that beguiles even as it breaks your heart.”
“A fine debut, manifestly infused with deep familial and cultural feeling, and a significant contribution to the ongoing literature of the Holocaust.”
“Utterly different and surreal, this first novel takes an original approach to the Holocaust and leaves a lasting impression.”
A BLESSING ON THE MOON
Also by Joseph Skibell
The English Disease
A Curable Romantic
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Post Office Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225
a division of
225 Varick Street
New York, New York 10014
©1997 by Joseph Skibell.
All rights reserved.
First paperback edition, Berkley Books, 1999. First Algonquin paperback, September
2010. Originally published in hardcover by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1997.
Printed in the United States of America.
Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.
Design by Bonnie Campbell.
This is a work of fiction. While, as in all fiction, the literary perceptions and insights are based on experience, all names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. No reference to any real person is intended or should be inferred.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION-DATA
A blessing on the moon : a novel / by Joseph Skibell.
ISBN 978-1-56512-179-9 (HC)
1. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Poland—Fiction. 2. Jews—Poland—History—20th century—Fiction. 3. World War, 1939–1945—Poland—Fiction.
ISBN 978-1-61620-018-3 (PB)
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
My work on this novel was generously supported by a James A. Michener Fellowship from the Texas Center for Writers at the University of Texas/Austin, and the Jay C. and Ruth Hall Fellowship in Fiction from the Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin/Madison. The first chapter appeared in a slightly different form in
Heartfelt thanks to Basha v’Ari and the Freer-Skibell-Winston mish-pokheh; the faculty, staff, and my colleagues and friends in Austin and in Madison; los hombres de la junta (it sounds more dangerous than it is); the exquisite Elisabeth Scharlatt and the amazing folks at Algonquin Books; the redoubtable Wendy Weil and her staff; and the novelist James Magnuson—friend, mentor, Dutch uncle, mensh.
For my great-grandparents
Sarah and Abe Balk
Goldie and Lipman Baruch Lezanski
Gitl and Michael Mintz
Ester and Chaim Skibelski
and their children
And now they do not see light, it is brilliant in the skies.
For there existed suspicion that at first something that looked to them like the moon had appeared in the gathering clouds, but that the clouds subsequently disappeared and that they had seen nothing.
, Sanctification of the New Moon 2:6
It all happened so quickly. They rounded us up, took us out to the forests. We stood there, shivering, like trees in uneven rows, and one by one we fell. No one was brave enough to turn and look. Guns kept cracking in the air. Something pushed into my head. It was hard, like a rock. I fell. But I was secretly giddy. I thought they had missed me. When they put me in the ground, I didn’t understand. I was still strong and healthy. But it was useless to protest. No one seemed to hear the sounds I made or see my thrashings, and anyway, I
didn’t want to draw attention to myself, because then they would have shot me.
I was lying in a pit with all my neighbors, true, but I was ecstatic. I felt lighter than ever before in my life. It was all I could do not to giggle.
And later, as dusk gathered, I climbed out of the grave, it was so shallow, and I ran through the forests. Nobody saw me. I ran with the dirt still in my mouth. I had to spit it out as I ran.
When I got to our village, everything was gone. A dozen workmen were lifting all the memories into carts and driving off. “Hey! Hey!” I shouted after them. “Where are you going with those?” But they wouldn’t stop. In front of every house were piles of vows and promises, all in broken pieces. How I could see such things, I cannot tell you.
A villager and his family were moving into our house on Noniewicza Street. Crouching behind a low wall, I watched them, a man and his sons, sweating through their vests. They packed and unpacked their crates, their shirtsleeves rolled up high, carting furniture in and out of our courtyard. Now and then, one would leave off to smoke, only to be derided by the others for his idleness.
I was afraid if they saw me, they would come after me. Still, I couldn’t stand to see what they were doing. I called to them, my voice escaping on its own. I was shouting. I shouted their names. I couldn’t help it. But they said nothing, merely continued with their hauling and their crates.
So I touched them. I grabbed onto their shoulders, I pleaded with
them. At that, they crossed themselves and shuddered. They muttered their oaths. They were peasants. Superstitious. But otherwise, there was no response. And I realized I was dead. I was dead. But why was I not in the World to Come?
“Perhaps this is the World to Come.”
The words came from a black crow sitting in an empty tree.
“Rebbe,” I said. I recognized the voice as belonging to our beloved Rabbi. “How can that be?” I said. “Strangers are moving into my house. You yourself are a crow. How is it possible this is the World to Come?”
“Be grateful,” he squawked. “Rejoice in your portion.”
And he flew away.
I felt worse than before. I had nowhere to go. Still, nobody could see me, what would it matter if I went home, if I entered my own house? Why not sleep in my own bed? So back to our court on Noniewicza Street I go. In through the front door. They didn’t even bother to lock it. I stand in the foyer, peering into the various rooms. I clear my throat to announce myself, but there’s no doubting I’m as invisible as air.
The family is sitting around the dining-room table. They are people I know, people I have traded with. Eggs sometimes, bread, linens, goods of this sort. “Look how nice everything is,” the Mama says to her sons, clapping her hands in delight. “So beautiful, Mamuśku, so beautiful,” a daughter says, but she is the one they never pay attention to, and the eldest son says over her, “A toast! To our home and to our table!” The father’s face beams with pride.
Upstairs are three more sons, big snoring lummoxes, asleep in Ester’s and my bed. Fully clothed they are, with even their boots on.
It’s like a fairy tale from the Mayseh Book!
The rooms are filling up. And where can I sleep? They’ve invited all their relatives to come and settle in. No one is in the nursery and so I sleep in Sabina’s little bed with my feet sticking over the edges. The bed we’ve kept from when her own mama, our daughter Edzia, was little and slept in the nursery as well.
Outside the window, the Rebbe pecks on the shutters to be let in. I open the sill as quietly as possible. “What was that?” a groggy voice from Lepke’s old room echoes down the hall. “Mamuśku, the bed is so big, I’m swimming in it,” one daughter cries. “Everyone to bed, to bed!” the Mama calls out, cross. The Rebbe circles the room, walking from side to side, his wings behind his back. “Chaim,” he says. “Your legs, they stick out over the edges.” I sigh. He settles onto a pillow near me. He tucks his head into his breast.
I wake up and the sun is black beneath a reddened sky. My head is pounding and my eyes hurt against the light.
Downstairs, the Serafinskis are exchanging gifts over breakfast, various things they have found in their rooms during the night. The table is festive with ribbons and all the colored packages. “Papa, oh Papa, thank you so much,” the plump daughter says, leaning over the table to kiss her father. The shift she has slept in opens and her small breasts are momentarily revealed. “Don’t disturb your father while he eats!” her Mama scolds. But she herself is made so gay by Ester’s
pearls, which gleam around her neck, that she cannot stay mad for long.
There are pigs now in the shul, and goats. They mill about, discussing methods of underground resistance. I’m amazed I can understand their language. “Can we rely on the villagers for protection?” one of the pigs says, his voice quavering with rage. “Think again, my friends,” a goat warns, shaking his grey beard, although none of them seems convinced.