Fragments of Memories

Salty Coffee

©Vera Meisels


A long time ago, when I was still married to the Israeli-born father of my two wonderful children, we lived in a warm and pleasant home. We could relax and talk about many things, among which the plastic arts and music were prominent. Music lovers came to us to listen to records played on the sophisticated sound system that had been my husband’s lifelong dream, a dream I had been able to fulfill when I received reparations for my persecution by the Nazis.

We met at the Avni art school and I fell truly in love with him. His charm was enhanced by the uniform of the Israeli Air Force, in which he was a career officer. In addition, he was a gifted sculptor and could whistle Bach suites without a false note.

Subsequently, a psychologist explained to me that my enthusiasm over his talents and my admiration for his potential were unfounded. “Unrealized potential is impotence!” said she. I paid for the session, but regretted that the information had come twenty years too late.

When we had guests, I was in charge of cakes and biscuits, while my husband was master of ceremonies and in charge of liquid refreshments, mainly tea and coffee. Since I was born in Czechoslovakia, the cakes were naturally central European in flavour. My mother imparted an important secret to me: “Remember, what goes in is what comes out. If you use margarine instead of butter, it’s a fake!” To this day, our guests remember the fragrance and taste of those plum and apricot cakes. One summer evening, when the children were in bed, we were serving coffee and cake to two couples we had invited. I was in the kitchen, attending to the apricot cake and my husband was in the sitting room amusing the guests. When I came in with the cake, he asked them who wanted tea and who wanted coffee; he knew that I always had strong instant coffee with a drop of milk.

I chatted with our guests until my husband entered with the laden tray. I took a sip from my cup, only to discover that my coffee was extremely salty. However, I drank it without saying anything. Our guests watched me in amazement. Finally, one of them gathered the courage to ask, “Wasn’t your coffee salty?”

“And how! But to tell the truth,” I said, “ it had its advantages and I enjoyed it.”

“How’s that possible? Why didn’t you tell him?” she persisted.

I wasn’t sure how to phrase my answer, After all, they were all proud sabras, whereas I had only earned the right to be defined by the term that was my husband’s original invention -- “Holocaustnik”. (My computer program for correct spelling does not recognize the word! In fact, most people do not know how to interpret this nickname and I must admit that it also took me a long time to lift my head and feet and get myself all the way to the divorce court.)

I was not sure whether to give my guests an honest explanation for my enjoyment of the coffee, or simply change the subject. In the end, I decided that having been asked, I may as well reply. Particularly since my listeners seemed to be attentive and empathetic. I didn’t know that my husband had planned to entertain them at my expense, nor that he had bet them that I would drink the coffee with salt, because I wasn’t choosy about food, or anything else, and could eat whatever came my way. They did not believe him and lost the bet. He crowed in triumph, one word led to another and the incident took an unexpected turn.

“Listen, my friends,” I said, “I’ve never told you about the hunger I experienced in the trench. We lay there in the mountains like mummies, dug into a pit that was only deep enough to take us lying down, with an army canvas pressing on us because of the weight of the snow that was also good camouflage. For the first few days, we had some food, a bit of bread, a bit of sausage and cubes of sugar our parents managed to stuff into the knapsacks when we escaped from the ‘aktions’ that were supposed to wipe us out. We lay like that throughout the days and crawled out only at night to stretch our limbs and eat, if you could call it that, when the Germans and their dogs stopped patrolling the forest in search of Jews and partisans. At first, we ate the food we brought with us. Later, Mother melted snow over a candle and added leaves and pine cones to make a warm drink for us.

“I honestly don’t want to burden you with stories my husband calls the product of my sick imagination as a Holocaustnik. He claims that the real hunger and horror took place in Jerusalem, during the siege, when the suffering was seven times worse. The grocery stores were shut for days on end! The supply of milk products was irregular. His family had to eat halva and all sorts of things they had in the larder! At times the taps stopped running and they had to carry it in buckets from the distribution points!”

I felt a little sorry for the guests and wondered why I washing our dirty linen in public. But, to be frank, I felt I could lean on them. They were stunned, they wanted to hear more and more, while my husband sat as silent as a fish. When he did try to put in a word, or change the subject, they almost crudely silenced him.

“Yes, go on,” they urged me, “and how does the salty coffee come into it?”

“It comes in, I assure you!” I said. “You see, first of all, I enjoyed the coffee because my husband made it for me, which is in itself a treat. It may also be seen in a positive light, we could decide that he made a mistake and used salt instead of sugar. And why shame him in front of you? Anyway, where’s it written that coffee must be sweet and not salty? It was hot and strong. Believe me, even as a child I’d have been happy to get such coffee instead of melted snow! Things must be kept in proportion! This applies to food as well. Take it from me, I’m not a bin that accepts any rubbish, but I’m also not in a hurry to throw something out just because the date has expired, as long as it still smells fresh. And it’s true that I don’t feel the need to eat in fancy restaurants.

“Whenever I buy meat for the hamburgers the children and I love, I have to face an interrogation from him: ‘Did you insist that they wash the mince-machine? Have you heard of salmonella?’”

At this point he started to lecture the guests on the dangers of germs and the rate at which they multiply, but one of the men shouted at him, “Enough! Let her talk, we’ve heard enough from you!”

The coffee incident took place in the ‘seventies, meaning that those friends had known me for almost twenty years. Until that day, I had never told them about myself, because, in fact, I never had a chance. My husband always controlled the conversation. That evening, he, the director of the salty coffee joke, ended up shamed and even rejected. When I saw our guests to the door, he remained sitting in the living room. I was warmed by the hugs from my friends as they left. “Be strong!”, they said.

I was living in a bubble of illusions when I built myself a model of successful partnership. To me, the integration between a new immigrant and a native Israeli seemed to be the recipe for us to have children who would grow up without the ‘second generation’ syndrome. Children healthy in spirit and proud of Israel.

My friends must have known that divorce lay ahead of me, but I waited for a number of years after that evening, until the children were older, before I again dared to liberate myself.


©Translation from Hebrew: Riva Rubin

Published here with the permission of Vera Meisels. 
Please visit the "poetry" and "personal reflections"  pages to read Vera Meisels' poetry and personal story.