The Sweetheart of King George Street

by Markéta Mališová

1. 10. 2015

It was one of the most beautiful nights of my life.

Arnošt Lustig said that man was a territorial animal, and he himself had three territories – the Czech Republic, Israel and America. He loved all of these countries; they inspired him creatively and he had a personal relationship with each of them.

The Czech Republic, with its lovely countryside, was his existential home, while Israel was the courageous land of his ancestors and a way station on his journey to America, which was to become his second home.

He enjoyed returning to Israel, and it was there that he began to write. In 1948 the newspaper Lidové noviny sent him to Israel as a war correspondent during the Arab-Israeli war. At that time he met Ludvík Aškenazy, who was to become his role model and mentor, in Jerusalem. At one point they found themselves alone on King George Street and under Arab fire, so they quickly took cover with two women soldiers who were originally from Hungary. They remained with them until the morning. Lustig said that it was one of the most beautiful and unforgettable nights of his life. There was shooting outside, we had a roof over our heads, half a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and a record player, so we danced the night away. One of the women, Magda, later became the inspiration for his novel Miláček (Sweetheart).

Lustig began writing this novel in the spring of 1968. In August he went on holiday to Italy with his family and never returned. They went on to Israel and settled in the Hatrochim kibbutz. He had his manuscript with him and continued work on the novel. He discovered that Magda was still living in Jerusalem and had a small shop selling silver trinkets on Ben Jehuda Street. He went to see her, and when he walked into the shop and tried to embrace her, Magda stared at him blankly. She was as beautiful as ever. Meanwhile, in the corner stood an older, rather chubby, grey-haired woman, who was smiling. It was her daughter who had confused him, and his friends had been right when they had said that Magda wasn’t what she used to be, but Arnošt didn’t care. He embraced her as warmly as he had done before.

When, a year later, the Israeli president Schasar asked Lustig why he wanted to leave Israel, he answered that he would get 100 dollars for the book he was writing, which wasn’t enough to provide for his wife and two children, and that he didn’t know how to do anything else. “You don’t have it easy,” the president replied, “a book was written here 2,000 years ago, and since then nobody here reads any other one.” And so Lustig left with his family for America via Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, Miláček was published in Czechoslovakia in 1969, but most of the copies were pulped. Lustig had been put on a blacklist.

We were together in Israel twice. For several years Arnošt had been set on the idea of introducing me to Magda – perhaps partly because I wanted to publish Miláček. We did not manage to see her the first time round and so the second time we set aside a whole day. A red-letter day. Arnošt had shaved carefully and was wearing a white shirt with gold buttons and small zipped pockets, dark-blue trousers and his best shoes. I tried to look my best too. We looked as though we were going to a party at the White House. We walked along Ben Jehuda Street. Arnošt was looking forward to picking out a silver trinket for me from Magda’s shop. He was looking forward to seeing her and talked about Magda the whole way there. He was in a festive mood. We arrived at the building where the shop should have been on the first floor. It wasn’t there. Not even next door. Arnošt sat in a bistro while I went to have a look around, but I couldn’t find the shop. Finally I asked at a grocer’s how long they had been there. They said they had been there twenty years but didn’t know of any shop selling silver. Arnošt didn’t have Magda’s address or telephone number. And then it occurred to me to ask him how old Magda had been that night. He replied that she was about four years older than him. And you think that a woman of about ninety is going to have a shop in the centre of Jerusalem? Perhaps she’s no longer alive. Arnošt turned pale. He hadn’t been expecting that. Time had stopped forty years ago. He hadn’t counted on that. And the possibility that she was dead? He couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t have sensed it. After a while he stood up sadly, picked up his bag and went to King George Street to at least show me the house where he and Aškenazy had hidden with Magda. And so we walked and walked in the baking sun, and the houses started to thin out and there was still no sign of the house, until evening approached and we sat down exhausted on a bench on the outskirts of Jerusalem. I wanted to phone a taxi for the long journey back, but the operator said there was no point as we were one hundred metres from our hotel.

And so the pilgrimage to find Magda came to an end and I suppose I never will meet her. Despite that, it was quite an experience.

Love knows no age.

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Markéta Mališová is a publisher, journalist and author. Since 2002, she has been the director of the Franz Kafka Center and Publishing House. Her work has been published in a variety of magazines and she is the author of a number of articles on Franz Kafka and Arnošt Lustig.