Let’s Say His Name Was Daniel

Let me tell you a story about a colleague, a judge, a story about a friend, a peer, a Sarajevo Jew. You see, this fellow judge, let’s say his name was Daniel, was born to an impoverished family of former doctors and petty traders. His father turned to drinking after all his business and life failures caused by war, bad investments, and nervous crises, ultimately ending his life and leaving seven-year old Daniel and his mother, Rifka, to cope by themselves. His remains lay at the Jewish cemetery, from where—possibly even now as I tell you this story—the sniper picks his new victims. Rifka, a widow in debt, had to overcome her pride (which dated back to the heights of her dead husband’s successful career) in order to clean rich people’s houses, and work as a laundress and seamstress, all the while consoling herself that the good God had given her a good Jewish son, a future rabbi, doctor, or at least, a lawyer.

Rifka was a young and striking woman; not even three years had passed after his father’s death when Daniel first saw Mr. Kraus, a reputable trader, in their home. I may need to add that Mr. Kraus had a nose for the spirit of the times. He had married a Sarajevan Catholic woman in the period between the two world wars, leaving the unpopular religion of his Central European ancestors and blending harmoniously with the local Catholic population. Uncle Franjo, formerly Franz Kraus, used to come to Daniel and Rifka’s home for a few hours at a time, mostly on weekdays, bringing Daniel gifts—mainly books—and then withdrawing to the intimate quarters with his mother. Sometimes Daniel met him on his way back from school, sometimes they had lunch together, and sometimes uncle Franjo took off his suit and kicked the ball with the child in the yard. The poor child grew fond of this gentleman who had, from time to time, so to speak, haphazardly, occupied his late father’s place. Of course, Daniel understood that the presence of good uncle Franjo in their house was something that he shouldn’t share with others even if others knew about it—in our little town such things rarely went unnoticed—and that his future visits, and thus the important surrogate of fatherly love, depended on maintaining this secrecy. Daniel knew that Mr. Kraus lived with his family in a nice house on the other side of the river. At times, Daniel saw him in the street rushing to Sunday Mass at the cathedral with his wife and daughter. These good acquaintances didn’t greet each other on such occasions.

Daniel respected this unspoken agreement, no matter how much envy hurt his heart. He couldn’t complain. Wasn’t it Franjo who had bought him a beautiful suit for his bar-mitzvah and given him money with the sole condition that it be spent on books and dictionaries? This astute trader knew that learning foreign languages couldn’t hurt, and his famous nose had told him that among the foreign languages English was destined to take the lead. Wasn’t it Franjo who helped him solve difficult school assignments during his visits? Wasn’t he the one who happily tapped him on the shoulder when Daniel was successful, or tactfully criticized him when necessary? Daniel always wondered whether it was Mr. Franjo who discreetly handled their family debts? Hadn’t he, more than once, pulled Daniel out of some trouble, caused by his teenage rebellion, from the hands of the police who arrested him on a regular basis due to his youthful communist infatuation? Rifka had given up on her first dream of a rabbi son and began dreaming about a doctor son. Was it not he who finally made it possible for Daniel to enroll in college? Rifka had won here, with Franjo’s help, persuading her son to study law since he didn’t want to become a doctor, much to the regret of our Daniel, who was infatuated instead with novels and philosophical nonsense.

 

But the envy never disappeared from Daniel’s heart. Many times he sneaked into Kraus’s yard to observe from the darkness a truly idyllic family life, the harmonious marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, Christmas celebrations, his mother washing the floors of their home, and, above all, their beautiful daughter, say her name was Jelena, growing up in that unrivaled happiness, becoming a gorgeous young girl. And of course, it didn’t take long for Daniel, now a senior in high school, to shift his interest from the family idyll (that bourgeois illusion, as he would then surely have said)—and which perhaps was not so perfect, because in his long-standing practice of espionage Daniel had many times seen sharp quarrels between husband and wife, say her name was Anna, who cried uncontrollably behind locked doors—to Jelena’s intimate life that unrolled as if on a film screen while he was sitting on a walnut tree branch almost next to her window. Yet unlike the screenings of that time, this went without censorship.

Yes, this lasted for a while. Our Daniel tried several times to approach beautiful Jelena, but because of his bashful nature and lack of experience he didn’t succeed. Not until the girl herself took matters into her own hands and opened a window one cold night—when one bad year, 1940, was turning to an even worse, 1941—and invited her admirer, the son of their maid, to finally move from the branch crackling from his persistent climbing and to come inside to a warm place. It need not be added that Mr. Franjo Kraus didn’t know anything about what was happening in the room of his only daughter, whom Daniel visited in the same way Mr. Kraus had visited his house for years. It should also be said that there were occasions when Franjo was in Daniel’s house and Daniel in Franjo’s which brought such joy to our Daniel. Jelena, of course, had no illusions about what her father would think about the night gatherings of these young people whose minds were capable of generating lots of ideas and, by God, of putting these ideas into effect, or how he would react if he found a boy in her room or, God forbid, in her bed. She was not wrong. What she didn’t know was that Daniel and Franjo were in a special kind of relationship, so to speak, as stepfather and son—here we should pay tribute to Mr. Kraus’s successfully conducted double life, though there is a sense that Mrs. Kraus’s bitter tears flowed just because of that. Since Jelena didn’t know any of this her father’s eventual reaction would seem even crueler.

One night Franjo heard a vase fall in Jelena’s room and ran in a panic toward her locked door. Daniel wasn’t even dressed and Jelena had already opened the window. Since Jelena didn’t say a word, panic-stricken Franjo decided to break down the door. When he finally did, he saw a half-dressed Daniel ready to jump out the window and became pale and petrified on the spot. He composed himself the very next moment and without a word—every father would in this situation yell and swear—grabbed the intruder, and while slapping and striking him, dragged him out of the house while threatening to knock him to the ground if he ever came close to their home or Jelena again. Daniel brazenly responded with the same threat, adding that he would pay him back doubly for the slapping. Amazed at his threat, Franjo let him go. They parted ways, both of them bitter.

Daniel decided to honor only the first of Franjo’s two warnings. After that night Jelena started coming to him. Sometimes Daniel saw Franjo hanging around the house, trying to find out whether Daniel was around before he knocked on the door. Daniel rejoiced in the fact that he caused fear in Kraus, yet he didn’t want to stand between him and his mother. In short, they avoided each other. On the street they passed one another without saying a word, but Daniel’s satisfaction came from Jelena’s visits. Until one day when father and daughter happened to come at the same time to the door of their house, after which Franjo locked his daughter at home.

Whether Mr. Kraus intended to continue visiting Rifka, we’ll never know. During those days German troops marched into the city, bringing with them an Ustasha government and Mr. Kraus couldn’t be seen in the vicinity of this Jewish home. Soon afterward Rifka had sewn a yellow star and a big capital Ž for Židov, following the new regulations. Daniel joined the comrades in the city’s underground movement, and later, the partisans. He spent the war in Bosnia and Croatia and in 1945 he finally returned to Sarajevo, where, in the rank of demobilized captain, he continued his studies. Rifka was taken to the camp in 1942. The last word on her dates from 1943; after this she was taken to the place from which neither she nor anyone who could tell of her fate ever returned.

Daniel also learned that through the war years Franjo Kraus faithfully served the government with his trading talents, and had paid in gold the priests and the Ustasha officials who confirmed his religious and national purity, securing the protection of his family. Daniel wondered why the government hadn’t already arrested him, but he was told that a good portion of his gold went to the benefit of the National Liberation War thus securing himself on that side as well even during the war years, at the time when it was not easy to predict who will ultimately drew the short straw. His nose didn’t let him down this time either.

Daniel finally decided to visit the Kraus family, encouraged by his age and experience, in hopes that the ravages of war hadn’t obliterated Jelena’s memory of their prewar romance. Of course, Daniel expected much more and was bitterly surprised when he encountered, in Kraus’s home, a tall officer of the National Liberation Army—say his name was ... well, his name was not important ...—who then held an important political office in liberated Sarajevo. Daniel was surprised to hear that the wedding was to take place soon. He reminded Jelena about her love promises but she looked away and her fiancé, invoking his rank, ordered Daniel to leave. Daniel asked Mr. Kraus why he didn’t help his mother, who had not enough gold to pay for her life and who was a loyal lover to him all those years. This was the last straw and Mrs. Ana burst into tears. Jelena gave her dad a piercing look and Franjo couldn’t say whether her look revealed surprise or contempt. The large officer of the National Army threw Daniel out shouting that he shouldn’t return to this address if he cared about his life.

He would never come to their house again, even when they begged him. Jelena married the man who climbed the ladder of the new political hierarchy with dizzying speed. A high position in the party and executive authority in Bosnia and Herzegovina brought him power and prestige. Encouraged by alcohol once at a party, Daniel approached Jelena again and asked her if she still remembered his room, because he certainly remembered hers, or something equally inappropriate. Jelena again turned her head, and a few hands grabbed him, broke his nose, beat his ribs, and threw him on the sidewalk. The officer said to him that the next time he’d smash his pretty face if he caught him near his wife. After that night Daniel gave up on Jelena and devoted himself to his studies and to a few casual love interests. He tried to lead the new post-war life, avoiding the officer and his wife when he met them on the street and following the officer’s political career only in the newspapers. Daniel pretended not to see the already hunched Mr. Kraus whenever he passed him. Even though Mr. Kraus always stopped when he saw Daniel, as if trying to say something, Daniel had no intention of listening to his excuses. Daniel successfully finished his studies and was employed at the Sarajevo court, where he soon became one of its youngest and most promising judges.

 

Daniel thought that this whole story was behind him; he had overcome the humiliation, hatred, love, and the temptation of revenge. And then, on June 28th, 1948, the Cominform Resolution came out, as a result of the Tito-Stalin Split. At that time in Sarajevo numerous so-called cominformers were arrested and many heads rolled. Daniel, as a young and loyal employee, had started climbing fairly quickly up the emptied out stairs of the inner Court’s hierarchy, committed to carrying out his assigned mission at a time when they severely dealt with any conspiracy from Moscow. He was so preoccupied with piled up cases, ready to deal out punishment, or mercy, according to the presented evidence (set up or actual)—one couldn’t deny his objectivity and loyalty to the rules of law—that he didn’t think about his former humiliation. As I said, he was convinced that he had matured. It was all behind him. And it would have stayed this way, far behind him, had he not been appointed to preside over the fate of a high party officer, a war veteran, and a prominent politician. The same man who had threatened to smash his face if he came close to his wife ever again now lay in a Sarajevo prison on charges that, by accepting the Cominform Resolution, he participated in a Stalinist conspiracy against the people’s government.

 

From the moment this despised man’s fate fell into his hands, Daniel knew that his desire for revenge still lingered; if he forgot it, it didn’t forget him, faithful to the ancient principle that a caused harm can’t go unpunished, that the pain over a lost eye can only be alleviated by the enemy’s eye, and the same went for the lost tooth. That’s why he was patient, even serene. He visited the defendant in jail. Jelena’s husband was already pretty beaten up and it seemed that the last glimmer of hope had disappeared from his face when he saw Daniel in front of him as his judge. Daniel questioned him according to the rules. The man swore his innocence, his loyalty to Tito, he spoke about a bureaucratic error, betrayal, conspiracy, which was the song that the investigators had already heard so many times that it couldn’t protect him from further beatings. In many other cases, the judges and investigators would have already received a signed confession, and people would, experiencing torture, easily confess about the conspirators and about those they had never heard of. After he was presented with all this—let’s call it evidence—Daniel sent them on behalf of the people to Goli Otok, the Naked Island, or to some other prison camp of the new government. To everyone’s surprise, Daniel demanded preferential treatment for the accused, putting a stop to his torture and taking the role of interrogator. He asked that the fallen comrade be placed in a special cell, and for the investigation to be extended because of some important information he intended to extract from him.

 

Daniel had studied the case well and soon realized that this man was telling the truth: he really had nothing to do with the Cominform. His fidelity to the regime could hardly be questioned. The case was a set up, this was clear to Daniel, as was his role in all this—to conduct a quick trial that would end this man’s political career and possibly his life. Daniel visited his victim’s cell whenever he felt like it. He required new information, names, and threatened the convict with torture and camps. He occasionally whispered his wife’s name and the difficult fate that awaited her, patiently turning initial resistance to despair, and the pride of this mighty man to the loss of all dignity. On the one hand, Daniel knew that he would send an innocent man to the camp or to death. Despite the charms of revenge, he had difficulty getting used to this idea, wondering how many people he had assigned this unenviable fate just because he never checked the information or allowed the accused to prove his innocence. He was reluctant to take the next step, to drop this man from his hands, where he was still in some kind of security—that’s how Daniel consoled his troubled conscience. On the other hand, he looked forward to the moment when Jelena would knock on his door to ask for help.

 

And so it came to pass. She found out who was in charge of her husband’s case and came to Daniel’s office with humble concern. All the pride and contempt with which she once turned away from him were gone. She was now just a woman asking for help. She must have swallowed a lot coming here, thought Daniel, but she was convinced that he was the only person who could help her.

It’s a curious thing to be deciding about somebody’s life as if it were your property. Jelena’s life was at his mercy, and her honor too. Daniel had initially explained the gravity of the situation, that his hands were tied, the danger she was in as the wife of a traitor, leaving only a small window of hope that the investigative process might eventually lead to his release. Needless to say, the desired result depended entirely on her behavior. Jelena was obviously prepared for something like that. When she started undressing, Daniel felt all the joy, but also all the misery of revenge. For the first time, after so many years, he enjoyed her body on the office floor. She gave him full freedom to do with her whatever he wanted. Yet her silence hurt him. She didn’t let one sigh out during that first time.

The investigation process continued; Jelena regularly visited him or, more often, he came to her home, demanding and obtaining whatever came to his mind. However, Daniel’s revenge couldn’t be seen through, for the simple fact that revenge no longer satisfied him. Soon Daniel realized that all the hatred and contempt over his humiliation—and it seemed sometimes that he wanted revenge for the first time he saw Mr. Kraus in his house, for all Rifka’s washed floors, for the fact that Franjo lived and she didn’t—was quickly withdrawing and making room for the love he felt for the woman who was now his slave. And yes, he made another mistake: he wished that he could be paid back the same way.

 

A day wouldn’t pass without seeing Jelena, without wanting her. He brought her news of her husband, kept hope alive, and the hours they spent together finally created a certain intimacy. It seemed that the resistance disappeared, that the disgust was lost, that her body responded more and more, and that her sighs and laughter were not fake, that the former passion flared up again despite the degrading position she was in. Or, maybe it wasn’t so? During all that time, Daniel regularly visited the detainee and their relationship began to change with time. Investigative procedures and humiliation turned into long conversations. Daniel was increasingly interested in the prisoner’s story. Her husband disclosed the mechanisms of power and the injustice he suffered. Daniel began to sympathize with the man and a great, intolerable suspicion began to nest in him. He secured him the best conditions, he couldn’t do anything more. After all, the prolonged detention of this man allowed Daniel access to his wife’s body and a promise of her love. Yet, as I said, doubt began to grow in him, doubt in ideology, in the system, justice, personal integrity, in all. The revenge began eating away at him and it became difficult to tolerate it. He made a whore out of a woman he loved, who sold herself for her husband’s life. He kept an innocent man imprisoned to exercise the will of a system he no longer believed in.

 

Daniel would never forget the joy on Jelena’s face when she opened the door to him at the appointed hour. Dressed to welcome her lover, she was excited by what his visit would bring. He also wouldn’t forget her surprise when she saw her husband standing beside Daniel, thin, with a gaunt face, ‘free of all charges,’ as Daniel, who was accompanied by two other officers, had declaimed. Jelena hugged her husband, sending one last look over her shoulder to Daniel, a message whose meaning he couldn’t decipher. Daniel wished them all the best and added that justice is slow but attainable. He turned around and immediately went back to the courthouse, where he asked for a long sick leave.

In the next few weeks Daniel closed himself off in the house with the intent to stifle his love. He wanted to confront the injustice he caused, which he only partially corrected by freeing the man, by preserving his life. It was difficult for Daniel to tolerate this burden and sickness finally overcame him. He lay thinking that he was dying in this old house, with no one to help him, and that everything had come to an end.

When he began to recover, he received her telegram: I’m pregnant. I’ll tell him everything. No signature. Daniel didn’t answer that day, or the next. Did she expect him to do so? To act?  He’d never know. Instead, he opened the gate, unlocked the front door and waited. He expected his punishment.

Sometime in the evening of the third day he heard a knock at the gate. Then he heard the door open, footsteps in the yard, someone entering the house and carefully climbing up to the spot where Daniel was waiting for him. This expected, though uninvited guest, obviously very determined and with clear intention, immediately jumped on him and started beating him with whatever he could get his hands on. Daniel momentarily escaped but the man always caught up with him. When he finally cornered him he pulled out a knife and the only words Daniel heard from him that night would ring out in his head all his life. The man said “nobody likes monsters,” and he cut his face. He repeated the cut three or four times until finally Daniel threw him off and they began wrestling. Broken glass and furniture were everywhere, mixing with the blood flowing from Daniel’s wounded face, but also from the wounds of his attacker. It was a rolling struggle, winning positions were quickly lost, and who knows what the final result would have been, who would have put an end to whom, if it weren’t for the shot.

Daniel felt the power of his opponent diminishing and after the dead man had sprawled on the floor he saw Jelena at the door with a gun in her hand. He’d never forget her terrified stare at her husband’s dead body and his bloody, forever scarred face. He’d never forget those minutes of silence while he wondered—as he did for the rest of his life—which of them she had meant to shoot.



“Let’s Say His Name Was Daniel,” an excerpt from Igor Štiks’s second novel Elijah’s Chair, first appeared in English translation in Absinthe 20: Spotlight on Bosnia.

Contributor

Igor Stiks, translated by Natasa Milas

IGOR STIKS was born in 1977 in Sarajevo. His fiction, academic work, poetry and essays have appeared widely in journals and reviews of the former Yugoslavia and abroad. His novel A Castle in Romagna received the Award “Slavic” for Best First Book in 2000. His second novel Elijah’s Chair (2006) received both the Award “Gjalski” and the Award of “Kiklop” for the Best Fiction Book of the Year in Croatia and it has been translated into a dozen European languages. The theater play based on this novel won the Grand Prix of the 2011 Belgrade International Theatre Festival. His first collection of poems History of a Flood was published in 2008. Recently in collaboration with Srecko Horvat he wrote a political essay "The Right to Rebellion - An Introduction to the Anatomy of Civic Resistance" (2010). Igor Stiks is a senior research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. NATASA MILAS is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She works on Russian and Balkan literature and film and translates from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian literature. Most recently Natasa co-edited a special issue of the film journal Kino Kultura 14, and guest edited Absinthe 20: Spotlight on Bosnia. Her essays and translations appeared in Slavic and East European Journal, Absinthe, InTranslation, and In Contrast: Croatian Film Today.

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