Displaced Persons

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Authors: Ghita Schwarz
    The woman counselor stared at him. He had said something odd and shameful, and wished he could take back his words and swallow them. He wanted to say, I was only joking, but already she was answering him.
    Yes, I suppose you could say that.
    The British authorities gave him a new identity card when he changed jobs. Chaim Traum. He looked at his name in its clean typedletters and thought: new, new. He rolled the English words around his tongue. “Displaced Person,” he said. “Di Pi. D P.”
    The camp had changed since he and Pavel had first received their documents and food cards. The barracks were new, rebuilt, each with a clean entrance, and some had gardens in the back where refugees tended vegetables and trimmed mint weeds. Inside, Chaim knew, the bodies were still crowded in and stifled, the latrine buildings spilling with overuse. But some of the more settled refugees had their own apartments inside the camp, their own new families. When they stamped his new card, a man and a woman stood behind him with a newborn. He had turned to look at it, and reached out to touch it in its gray blanket, but the mother had pulled her arms back and drawn the child in closer to her chest, then murmured something softly at Chaim.
    He did not hear her words. More than once a man in the print shop had shouted at him, What is wrong with you? You hear like an old man! It was true. Often he got up to leave his workstation because the thickness in his hearing so distracted him; he felt his head to be muffled, wrapped in a blanket that blocked out the noise but also warmed him. It was true; he heard like an old man, in fits, the result, he feared, of a long-ago blow to the side of the head that even now on occasion made him sense a ribbon of pain, the ghost of a bruise, moving through his skull just before he fell asleep. He should be brave and go to the camp doctor. He should be brave.
    Eventually he did make his way into the line of sick people and new arrivals at the clinic. The nurses and doctors themselves were clean and quick. He whispered his complaint in his rehearsed English to a broad redheaded woman.
    “I do not hear,” he whispered. The words seemed loud inside his mouth, but he knew he spoke softly. “Hitted in head.”
    The nurse narrowed her eyes, then pulled him toward her and looked inside one ear, then the other. Then she laughed.
    “Nothing a good cleaning won’t fix, my dear!” She grabbed a bright metal instrument and tilted his head toward her breast, the better to scoop out the wax and dirt.
    He walked out of the clinic with a soreness at his ears and temples, but within a day he heard more clearly. The world did more than become louder; it changed. Fine noises were easier to pick up, and ordinary speech seemed suddenly sharp and blared, as if the background buzzing had been cleared from a wartime radio broadcast. In the house he could hear the soft rasping under Fela’s words; he could make out the clucks Pavel made under his breath as he played cards. In the last week of his work at the print shop the noises of the ink machines chugged in an even rhythm, a low drumbeat to the tune his workmate hummed to himself.
    He came to the school with a songbook of freshly printed Yiddish tunes.
    H E WATCHED HIMSELF AND his reactions around the children when they played roughly or became upset. A child’s cry could scratch at him, a table knife scraping a half-closed wound. But he pushed his discomfort down. It was possible, he thought, that the infirmary had taken too much out of him. Had they removed a barrier that had helped him to walk around in some sort of peace? But nothing showed. Sala, the classroom teacher, patted his shoulder. You have a way, she said.
    It was true, the children liked him. They spoke to him in Polish when they did not want the teachers from Germany and Palestine to understand and in Yiddish when they did not want the soldiers from Britain and America to understand. Others in the

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