Log Cabin Chronicles

The Double

ELISHA PORAT

Each year I meet a friend the night before Memorial day. He is exactly my age with identical facial features. I call him my double.

I was a boy the first time I saw him. The Workman's Hall in Kibbutz Givat-Hayim held an exhibition of photographs from "over there", from the death camps in Europe. The pictures were large, as high as a boy, and as we say now, "side by side". Black and white with a lot of gray. That's how they appeared to my astonished child's eyes. To this day, I remember the huge canvasses hanging among Swedish ladders folded against the walls.

I surveyed the pictures unsure what to do. Clench my hands? A boy's fists? What good were these little hands now, how could my fists help? Tears? Tears of shock and pain? What use are tears? My tears indeed, for I proudly held them to a trickle. Swear revenge? Oaths sworn and vows made as I walked the hall? What good had swearing revenge been when it was so desperately needed?

I remember suddenly shedding my indecision. I stood before a photograph of a Jewish family being moved from one train car to another at some small station whose name didn't appear on the work. The subjects' frightened faces are turned as though hypnotized towards a German soldier. Only one boy, my age and very similar to me in appearance, faces the camera. His pensive expression is forever captured for the observer.

Behind his bewildered parents, his younger brothers stumble in glance, for a brief moment spared himself the fate awaiting his family. Standing before the picture, I couldn't shift my gaze from the boy's eyes. Exactly my age and so much like me, if I were to exchange my shorts and sandals for his heavy clothing.

I've been attached to that boy ever since. I think of him as my double. It's only by chance that I wasn't photographed back there, that my parents poured their sweat into Palestine instead of hurrying behind the German soldier. Only a mischievous trick of Jewish history decreed that my double would be transported to the camp in my place and that I would stand here inspecting the final picture. He could have stood barefoot and excited in Givat-Hayim's Workman's Hall in the early 1940s, looking at the flip side of Jewish experience.

I've carried on a constant dialogue with him since then. My double and I are already familiar with one another. He says nothing and I must always guess how his face would age. But I can do this, by peering at the mirror or with photographs of myself showing the passage of time.

I impose my life on his. Like me, he went off to war and came back. Like me, he started a family, with Jewish sons and daughters who never knew a German soldier's rebuke. Like me, he wondered where everything has come from and where it's all going. And like me, he carries on a constant conversation with his double in the land of Israel. For contrary to the laws of nature, it may well be that he, for his part, saw an excited boy standing before his picture at that very moment and understood, as I do, that our converse lives would be entwined.

I once naively told some friends the story of my alter ego. To my surprise, one of them sighed and said, "You can't even imagine how many of these doubles we have in Israel." I suddenly realized that I wasn't the only boy who had acquired a double. Many Israelis go about with the sense that they've been fortunate because a double bore the misfortune meant for them. They've succeeded wholly by chance while their doubles suffered. The doubles who went in their place never returned.

By now he is a mature, cynical man, just as I am. He too is beginning to ask questions about the "other side" of his life. Just like me, he no longer is impressed by images of the body. Once or twice each year, as on the night before Memorial Day, he peeks into my memory, directly into that old photo.

How wise he was in his unbridled curiosity: to escape his life by glancing into the camera lens, to soar above the flames of Europe, fly over the Mediterranean Sea and land in the fragrant groves of the Heffer Valley. So astute was his glance that I sometimes struggle with the question, did he mislead me? Was he no wiser than I? And which of us made the other his double?

Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks.

Elisha Porat writes on a kibbutz in Israel.

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