Hatred: A Story

A Holocaust survivor returns to his Slovakian hometown after the war only to discover, one day in the market, a woman wearing his mother’s dress.

A view of the outdoor market in a Czechoslovakian town around 1944. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Sam Smilovic.
A view of the outdoor market in a Czechoslovakian town around 1944. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Sam Smilovic.

Introduction: Like “Concerto in G Major,” another story by my parents published earlier in Mosaic, the story appearing below was included in a collection, Píseň pro Den smíření (“Song for the Day of Atonement”), published in Czechoslovakia in 1971 before being confiscated by the Czech Communist government. The events described here were experienced by my mother upon her return home from hiding in the mountains of Slovakia, whose wartime fascist government had been headed by Joszef Tiso, a Catholic priest, and was allied with Hitler. The story’s Czech original is peppered with brief Latin tags taken largely from religious and legal texts and meant to indict the behavior of Slovakia’s Church and legal system. They have been omitted in this English version, which is published here in honor of Yom Hashoah.

—Jaroslava Tausinger Halper


I call to the living, lament the dead, shatter the lightning
“Song of the Bell,” Friedrich von Schiller

Treuhuber would never forget the day he returned. Not because of the heat that had sliced him away piece by piece throughout his journey—in random vehicles, on foot, any way he could—until over the course of several weeks he’d been reduced to the thickness of a sheet of thinly rolled metal. (He even rattled like one.) In the end, this wouldn’t have mattered so much, for wasn’t the journey as such practically a sign of his race? Not because of the dust that eclipsed the sun and sky like a cloud of locusts—although, unlike in Egypt, this particular plague befell not the enemy but the chosen ones themselves, with locusts swarming, in reverse, from the roads into the air and back down again. What was that traveling along the roads and byways?

His first impression was one of dissonance. He wouldn’t have been able to say what he was expecting: certainly not the whole town gathering to welcome him home, nor a solemn silence hanging over the streets and squares, interrupted only by a choked sob here and there. No, he would have adamantly denied that he’d pictured an emotional throng dabbing at their eyes with white handkerchiefs.

But neither did he expect what he actually found.

The gray, the everyday, the matter-of-fact . . . Why must we always expect something, anyway? To have lived through something like that—and find your little town exactly as you left it. . . . Paradoxical though it may seem, this very sameness was the change. Had he really been born here? Was this truly the place where he had enjoyed so many moments that sustained him in life when he should have succumbed? How was it that it all was still in him, but not a trace of it here? Not a hint. He found nothing in the faces of the strangers rushing about, eyes fixed soberly on their own mundane affairs; and when one of them did happen to settle his gaze on him, the memories evoked only made things worse.

And it wasn’t only that. He knew better than anyone that he hardly smelled like a parfumerie, that he was so thin it was frightening. He’d never been a looker, but he’d taken pride in making the most of what little he had been given. For the time being, however, he had no choice but to walk around in the shabby, ill-fitting clothing that had been issued him there. He consoled himself with the thought that he would soon obtain some new clothes, he just hadn’t managed to yet; he didn’t have the means.

Then, as he was thinking all this, he ran into one of his friends, one of the privileged ones. Ages ago, in peaceful times, the two had been thick as thieves. They’d been through quite a lot together. Even as all about them the general disorder of brains and character rose to epidemic proportions, his friend hadn’t behaved so badly: cautiously, perhaps, and prudently, but still not so badly as he could have. Yet even this friend couldn’t now suppress a twitch of revulsion upon encountering him—just a flash across the face, nothing blatant, most likely involuntary, unintentional, a purely internal response of the autonomic nervous system.

Treuhuber returned home and stood numbly in his near-empty flat, plundered of its valuables. After some time, he walked over to the wardrobe and pulled out those smelly, old, accursed striped rags, soiled with feces, number still sewn on the left-hand breast for all to see. He found himself recalling how, on the day the army of liberation arrived, the others had torn off all they were wearing and hurled it into the fire, cheering as it turned to smoke—a different smoke from the one to which they’d grown accustomed. For reasons not entirely clear to him, he hadn’t joined in.

He clearly remembered, too, the feeling of melancholy that constricted his chest upon seeing his fellow prisoners, gaunt skeletons of their former selves, dancing and hugging each other. Vanity of vanities. He couldn’t help thinking of a painting that had fascinated him since childhood: the people dancing around a golden calf while up above, in the clouds, Moses, amid thunder and lightning bolts, and his brother Aaron the high priest confer with God as they carve into clay tablets the sacred script of the Ten Commandments. For the unworthy souls below.

The tablets that Moses himself was the first to break in a fit of holy rage.


From that moment on, Treuhuber went out dressed in his camp uniform—until the day he received a visit from the secretary of the local National Committee, a new body established mainly for those like himself though he’d been unaware of its existence. The secretary warned and begged him not to provoke the public by dressing indecently. He’d also come bearing the gift of a suit, almost as good as new, surplus from American aid to the poor and needy; tactfully, he “forgot” it on the table in Treuhuber’s flat.

That the recipient of this gift made no use of the suit even once is another matter, and entirely his own fault. Meanwhile, an incident took place that would play an important role in the overall course of events recounted here.

Treuhuber couldn’t sleep. After his first days in freedom, which, exhausted, he’d simply slept away, he’d become practically overwhelmed by phobia. Even in slumber, he could barely hold himself together. Not only himself but his dreams were beyond his control. What if he were to close his eyes and fall fast asleep, only to find himself back on the wooden planks of the barrack bunks? What if he were to be awakened from a pleasant dream by a kick in the ribs?!

So he slept only out of extreme bodily necessity, briefly and uneasily, until, torn out of his feverish state, which was closer to dozing than to sleeping, he would leap from the bed, throw on his clothes, and nervously putter around the flat or dash out into the town’s streets (was anyone else besides him walking around?), driven by the urgent sense that if only he could find what he so doggedly sought (even though he couldn’t have identified what it was), everything would be all right again.

Thus it happened that early one morning, after another unsettled night’s slumber, he found himself on the street. It was six o’clock; insufficiently dressed as he was, he was numb with cold. He dashed aimlessly about the square, in the center of which stood the gilded statue of the Mother of God, pausing every few moments to stand and stare, lost in thought, at the towering peaks that surrounded the town, rays of sunlight slicing across them to form bizarre shadows. The mountaintops were beautiful. All his life Treuhuber had loved them. He couldn’t imagine how anyone could live in a town not ringed with mountains. In fact, why not take a little trip? He had yet to find employment; the doctor had recommended against it in light of his weakened physical condition.

Treuhuber pensively ran his finger along the ridge of his nose, and then, suddenly making up his mind, set off toward the market, following the voices and footsteps, the shouts and laughter and other sounds that accompany the human transactions of trade and exchange. At the edge of the market he came to a halt. The same old lady was sitting there as when he was just a little boy, toddling at his mother’s side with a basket in his hand—more shriveled, more wrinkled, drier and shorter, but definitely the same. Reaching into his pocket he jingled his change, and without a word the old woman picked out two braided strings of smoked cheese—“little whips,” they called them, longed for by every child despite the rumor that the old ladies made them by winding the cheese in their spit-soaked palms—and handed them over as is, without any wrapping on account of the paper shortage. And all the while she rocked her head reflectively, as if she had it in mind to say:

“You sure look something awful, boy. They really did a job on you.”

Treuhuber squinted down at the filthy, tattered strips of cloth covering his thin shins and shuddered. Quickly pulling the change from his pocket, he counted out the coins and bit into the tough strands, chewing the woven cheese as he mingled with the crowd of shoppers.

It must have been the smell of the “whips,” but Treuhuber felt himself getting smaller and smaller. Look over there: they’re selling mushrooms and strawberries and blueberries; doesn’t that smell delicious? As if a cyclone hadn’t ripped through the fragrant woods, trampling the underbrush, shattering the rocks, stripping the hazelnut shrubs, polluting and contaminating the mountain springs! And look at that: apricots and huge tomatoes and butter beans and . . . honest to goodness . . . peas, sweet as can be. . . . Mama must have bought some.

Mama! With both hands Treuhuber forced his way through the crowd, bounding over the goods laid out on sheets of paper on the ground. Mama! Mama! . . . Then his heart stopped cold as there she was, standing with her back to him, in that light green dress with little red circles that he had loved so much . . . his, his. . . . And who was so bold as to claim that she had gone as black smoke up the chimney for all eternity, straight to heaven, into the realm of eternal justice and peace, drawing mene tekel on the sky?


But she shrank back as he touched her hand, and he for his part was startled by the rough, unfamiliar skin. Above the finely ruffled collar (and the brooch—always the same, it went so well with the pattern) was some other woman’s face . . . the face of a woman who, for as far back as Treuhuber could remember, had lived two houses down from them. In ancient times of peace she had always been quite respectful, but as people changed character, flipping all of a sudden, her face had become . . . yes, hateful, clench-lipped. . . . Even so, the old, uncomprehending question leapt to mind: “But why, though? Why?!”

The woman’s face was pale, but in her eyes was an ominous spark. Despite his agitation, deep within him Treuhuber still felt the question burning: “But why, why?” . . . Grasping her hand, he was unaware he was still crying out the name of the one he had come chasing after, the one whom he was never to set eyes on again.

As a crowd gathered around them, the woman blurted out, “Help, good people! Save me!” Treuhuber clutched hold of her sleeve. The familiar feel of the fabric instantly sobered him. As the woman gave him a shove, he collapsed to his weakened knees, still clinging to her skirt, whispering, “My dress . . . My . . . mama. . . .”

A patrolman appeared on the scene. “What is it?” he brusquely inquired. “What’s going on here?”

The woman was silent now, white in the face, eyes wide with fear, lips still clenched, and Treuhuber said, “This dress . . . belongs to my mother. It’s my mother’s!”

“Is that true?” asked the policeman.

“Why, yes,” the woman said. “I mean . . . she gave it to me . . . for safekeeping, . . . but why all the fuss? How does he know?”

“Give it back.”

“Why, of course . . . of course I will . . . I don’t need anyone else’s . . . but not here! This man is trying to strip me naked. . . .”

Treuhuber felt them lifting him up off the ground. The patrolman led him away, admonishing in a soft but stern voice: “There’s no need to make a disturbance, sir. No need to act like that. It’s not as if you need the clothes anyway, you’re hardly going to wear a woman’s dress. . . . You shouldn’t be so attached to property. I’m sure she’ll give it back. . . .”

Meanwhile the crowd slowly and reluctantly dispersed as the woman, still drained of color, jabbered on: “Just look at that crazy man, would you? Why, more of them came back than they took away. . . .”

The clothes were never returned.


Who is that playing first violin, there, right by the railing, in the seat that offers such a fine view of the whole funeral hall? Who is that there with the stony face, wheedling out such sad melodies, day after day, month after month? Indeed, it is Treuhuber. How did he end up here, in the capital, such a long way from the mountains? No longer in stripes, he is dressed now in a soft black suit with a black necktie and a crisp, clean white shirt smelling of cologne; once again he is taking care of himself.

His face is fuller, though oddly rigid; there is something perplexing about him. Ah, yes—his eyes, those eyes, ever watching yet unmoving; and those eyelids, puffy and red, a mournful sight.

But apart from this, Treuhuber is a dapper man now. No one who used to know him would recognize him—whereas he, on the other hand, recognizes every one of them. And as he walks home along the lively evening streets (he would never board the overcrowded tram voluntarily, it reminds him too much of another journey he once took, pressed against the bodies of his fellow passengers), he is a man at peace, preferring to walk with his hat in his hand so as to enjoy the cool breeze. But beware if you chance, or dare, to greet him: the look in his eyes is so vacant and so distant that it will send a chill down your spine.

Before he turns into his street, Treuhuber stops without fail at the small florist’s shop. With one or two bouquets in hand, he strides, precise and punctual as the wrath of God, through the door of his apartment, filled with the aromas of a Middle Eastern dinner, and silently lays the fistful of greenery and color on the kitchen table in front of his wife. It’s his daily ritual, a ceremony. Treuhuber bows deeply to her every time, because Mrs. Treuhuber has a number tattooed on her left forearm—and also because she used to have a small child, whose brief journey through life came to an end there, under indescribable yet all too well-known circumstances. They never speak of the child aloud, but in some mysterious way it still lives with them, and they don’t leave it alone for even a moment.

Treuhuber sits silently at the table, enjoying his dinner. Every now and then he looks at his wife and she at him. They don’t do much talking. Sometimes they still go for walks, sometimes they read. Treuhuber puts off going to bed for as long as he can. He is afraid. As soon as he closes his eyes, it will start all over again: the smoke, thick, sticky, pitch black; the deep-shadowed eye sockets, incapable of shedding a tear even at the most horrific sight; the cries, the lash of the whip, the crack of bones, the barking dogs, the death rattle. . . .

Treuhuber weeps often at night, his wife wordlessly taking him into her arms; but in the morning, when he rises, she pretends to be asleep.

Mornings, Treuhuber is in a hurry. As he nears his daily place of activity, his facial features flatten, harden, turning to stone. And look: there is a chimney here, too, pouring out smoke all day long. Once Treuhuber grasps hold of his violin, he won’t let go of it for hours. He plays melodies sad and then still sadder, yet his eyes do not go soft. Now the memorial rites are beginning and Treuhuber plays from memory, leaning far over the railing. And below, people stand all day long, people of all sorts and yet always the same, dressed in black, weeping. And passing before them, one after the next, in uninterrupted succession, each one the same black with flowers and a wreath on top, and yet each one different: coffin after coffin.

A crematorium! Ovens! Treuhuber leans out farther so as not to miss a single gesture. Glory be to you, Lord! Not just us, no longer just us! Before you, dear God, we are all equal. Who said the flames blazed for us alone, that we alone were to be burned, that we alone were to be carbonized, that we alone were to be turned to ash?!

Weep . . . go ahead and weep . . . you weep only for yourselves anyway. Who ever bothered to weep for us?

”The sorrows of death encompassed me, yea they compassed me about. . . .” And Treuhuber plays, and his violin moans and weeps, trembling over and above any other instrument. And the grief pours past and beneath him all day long, toward the dark side of the moon, which we think of so unwillingly, which we would rather pretend did not exist, and Treuhuber plays, stony-faced, looking on at the tears, at the fire that consumes everyone now. Everyone, without distinction.

I wonder if he plays there still.

(A moving ending could be here attached, featuring the tears of a golden-haired orphan curing the cancer within the afflicted heart of the crematorium’s first violinist: surely this would stir emotion in many a tender eye.

But I wonder whether it would; I truly wonder.)

More about: Czechoslovakia, Fiction, Holocaust, Holocaust Memorial Day