That Foreign Face
- By Erri De Luca
WHO IS THE FOREIGNER? In principle, everyone—according to the scriptures—beginning with Abraham, caught and held by a voice that orders him to take leave of his land, of the home of his father, and head off for an unidentified destination. Abraham must become a foreigner so he will continue to hear the voice that has sent him. One night the words arrive, inviting him into the open air; under a densely crowded caravan of stars, they anticipate his countless descendants, as many as tower in the shimmering sky above.
One has to have been a foreigner for at least some time in order to catch a corner of Abraham’s enthusiasm on that night, laden with limitlessness. One needs to feel in one’s blood that instinct in order to light out for the territory and breathe with Abraham the dust that rained from the stars. The master builder of monotheism was a foreigner who blazed a trail for everyone who ever went on a journey. After him, to say that one must first lose oneself to find oneself became a platitude. After him, exile became a program.
Every person that sets out on an uncertain road for an unknown destination follows the trail of the foreigner Abraham, begun by the order he received: “Go forth from your country.”
The divinity, it is written, loves the foreigner. In him we must recognize, not our brother, but rather the one we have long awaited. I learn this from a wretched story—something that happened once and therefore has never stopped happening.
IT WAS SEPTEMBER, 1941, during the days of the Jewish New Year, and four thousand Jews from a small Lithuanian city had been brought to the cemetery, to be shot to death beside mass graves. The massacre was well-planned, efficient: in groups of twenty, they had to strip naked before receiving a volley of gunshots. One of them, a sixteen-year-old boy, undressed next to his father. Before it was his turn he listened carefully to the cadence of the shooting. It had a regular repetition; he measured it in his mind. When he was next he threw himself into the pit, an instant before the gunshots. He fell living on the pile of naked bodies, all dead or dying. Over him fell others of the slain. It was dark when everything finished. He stood up, disentangling himself from the corpses; he was covered in excrement and blood. He went up to the well-lit houses of some non-Jews. He knocked at their doors, and, wherever he went, he was told to return to the grave he had left. Finally, he came to a doorstep apart from the others, where an elderly woman lived alone. She welcomed him with a firebrand, used to ward off ghosts, meant to drive him away. Then the boy said to her, “Woman, do you not recognize me? I am your savior, come down from the cross.” The woman fell to her knees, and she brought him inside, washed him, dressed him, and fed him. He did not deceive her—it is precisely him, the guest of this world, the foreigner risen from the shipwreck.
After three days, the boy takes his leave, commanding her to say nothing of his arrival. Then he ventures into the woods, joins up with the first of the rebels, fights, and survives.
No parable, this is a tale from history. It happened to a man named Zvi Michalowsky. This story teaches me that he is the foreigner knocking at our door, that the foreigner should be welcomed as one long awaited. Because in him our story is renewed, as is the figure of the foreigner—bearer of the latest news.
Translated by Jim Hicks