Stamp of Israel, Port of Haifa, 19 Feb­ru­ary 1969

Esty G. Hay­im, one of Israel’s most tal­ent­ed writ­ers, dives into the depths of pain with sen­si­tiv­i­ty, and also with humor, in her nov­el Cor­ner Peo­ple (pub­lished in Hebrew by Kineret Zmo­ra Bitan in 2013).

Cor­ner Peo­ple shut­tles back and forth in time. In the nov­el­’s present, Dvori is a fifty-year-old sub­sti­tute teacher with an alco­hol prob­lem who lives alone in the Haifa apart­ment where she grew up, writ­ing her fam­i­ly’s sto­ry on an old Olivet­ti typewriter.

In the nov­el­’s past, Dvori is the eight-year-old daugh­ter of strug­gling Holo­caust sur­vivors from Hun­gary and an aspir­ing writer. Late one night she hears a knock on the door. Though at first she fears that it is the Nazis, instead she finds her great-aunt, Esther-nayne, who has man­aged to escape Sovi­et-con­trolled Hun­gary and has arrived in Israel with only the clothes on her back. Ele­gant, wild, and full of laugh­ter, Esther-nayne car­ries with her the spir­it of the great Euro­pean cities and the secrets of the past. It is Esther-nanye who gives young Dvori the Olivet­ti that sets her to writing.

Dvori tells her fam­i­ly’s sto­ry to give voice to the cor­ner peo­ple,” but also to final­ly be free of them and their anguished past. The nov­el is both an escape from the sto­ry and, para­dox­i­cal­ly, an escape back into it.

This is a tale of dis­place­ment, about Holo­caust survivors​irreparably wound­ed in their souls, liv­ing at the edge of the abyss, strug­gling to find nor­mal lives. It is more than the sto­ry of one fam­i­ly; it is about what it is to be a refugee, then and now. Hay­im takes these wound­ed, for­got­ten peo­ple out from the cor­ner” and puts them in the spot­light of literature.

-The Deb­o­rah Har­ris Agency

Esther-nayni arrived at our house at night, at one in the morn­ing to be pre­cise, the night of 12 Iyyar, Wednes­day, April 30, 1969. Peo­ple went to bed ear­ly in Haifa. One in the morn­ing was the hour of the jack­als. And mine. No one but I knew what that hour looked like. Father would get home from work at sev­en in the evening. At ten he’d go to sleep. Then he’d get up for work at five. His ride left from the cor­ner of Trumpel­dor by the bank at a quar­ter to six.

Moth­er slept most of her life. Sleep­ing Beau­ty. She nev­er real­ly woke except for attacks of rage or joy.

Grand­moth­er got up when Father did, made his non-cof­fee cof­fee with milk, took her light-blue shop­ping bag and went off to the Tal­pi­ot mar­ket to find the fresh­est produce.

Grand­fa­ther was­n’t real­ly awake to the world. Though his eyes seemed to be look­ing at us, his gaze was on the past.

My broth­er would fall asleep the minute his head hit the pil­low, exhaust­ed from slam­ming his silent ball of rage against the wall, and I was awak­ened every night by the jack­als in the wadi. Cov­ers pulled up to my chin, I lis­tened to their wail­ing cho­rus. Some­times they’d come right under the win­dow. How dan­ger­ous it would be to go out­side into the dark now, I thought, as I heard their hun­gry howls.

Scary. I could also hear my moth­er cry­ing out in her sleep, I’m dead, I’m dead. Scary inside too. The bed became a snare. The bats of my fright flapped over it, night snakes slith­ered inside it. I pushed the cov­ers aside with hasty hands, clasp­ing Bobochi tight­ly, and fled to the hall. I had escaped the ter­rors of my bed in the nick of time.


One time I woke Grand­moth­er, but, strick­en by a night­mare of her own she looked at me strange­ly and mut­tered menj vis­sza alud­ni, go back to sleep. Since then I’ve left the sleep­ing mem­bers of my fam­i­ly to their night­mares. I’d pass my moth­er’s bed in the cor­ner of the bed­room, and my father’s in the oppo­site cor­ner, then my grand­moth­er’s bed on the enclosed porch; past my grand­fa­ther who slept in the hall, lying tense­ly on a fold-out bed that dou­bled as a nar­row couch dur­ing the day, his head thrown back like a sol­dier who’d just been shot. I’d slip by my broth­er as he mut­tered in his sleep and final­ly col­lapse in a heap in my cor­ner in the hall. I’d stare at the dark­ened square of win­dow. In moments of silence, when the jack­als paused their howl­ing, I lis­tened to the tick­ing of the clock, each sec­ond echo­ing in the night. Drops falling from the leaky bath­room faucet. Every night, Grand­moth­er scold­ed my father for not fix­ing it. Plumpf fol­lowed by anoth­er plumpf, tiny water bombs burst­ing on the porce­lain sink. Snore-bub­bles issued from Grand­moth­er and Grand­fa­ther’s open mouths, Father sighed in his sleep, and Moth­er shout­ed again that she was dead. I want­ed to sleep so bad­ly, just sleep, sleep, like Var­ka the gov­erness in Chekhov’s sto­ry, just sleep, but the bed seethed, it was impos­si­ble to stay in it.

The hands of the old clock that still serves me, a loy­al object from the predig­i­tal gen­er­a­tion, glowed phos­pho­res­cent green. I shrank into the alcove in the hall, Bobochi clasped in my arms. The doll is always awake, her paint­ed eyes always open wide.

A knock at the door.

Bobochi and I froze. I could­n’t even run to bed and pull the cov­ers over my head. Here he was now, the one I had been expect­ing all along. The drunk we saw that time, Father and I, in the Ziv neigh­bor­hood where we’d gone to buy sun­flower seeds at old Sar­fat­ti’s. The first drunk I’d ever seen, reel­ing and shout­ing, bran­dish­ing an emp­ty bot­tle. Peo­ple ignored him, skirt­ed around him, avert­ed their eyes. But I could­n’t take my own fas­ci­nat­ed eyes off him. Here is a dan­ger­ous man who dares to dis­play his defects to the world. Some­one who’s not scared of being scary. Crazy.

That night I gave in and called out for Father. He took my hand in his and then embraced me, cradling me in his arms in his nar­row iron bed under the window.

Some­thing in that nar­row bed would­n’t let me close my eyes, more dan­ger­ous even than the drunk on the main street in Ziv.

Two knocks at the door.

I was­n’t dream­ing; this was for real. Maybe it was the Nazis. I knew that had been a long time ago and that the good guys had killed them and res­cued my father and moth­er and grand­moth­er, but maybe there were one or two left who had come look­ing for my father and moth­er and grand­moth­er and my broth­er and me. My thoughts came fast. There were two pos­si­bil­i­ties for sur­vival. First, I did­n’t have a Jew­ish nose. Com­plete­ly Aryan. Fine blonde hair and a turned-up nose. I did­n’t look like I even belonged to Moth­er, with her dark hair. No resem­blance what­so­ev­er. The sec­ond pos­si­bil­i­ty, which I adopt­ed after some hes­i­ta­tion, was to dis­ap­pear. Reduce my pres­ence to a mere crumb, and then to noth­ing at all. I’m not here, not here. You don’t see me because I don’t exist. Dis­ap­pear­ing. Disappeared.

The echo of the hes­i­tant knock fad­ed away as I was extin­guished, like love­less Tin­ker Bell.

My thoughts were in tur­moil. Only fright­ful words sur­faced at first. Murky words with a pun­gent smell. Grand­moth­er once said that any­thing sour, sweet, salty or bit­ter, with col­or and tex­ture – exists. Words for me always had col­or, taste, and smell. I could sense them, so they were real.

Moth­er slept most of her life. Sleep­ing Beau­ty. She nev­er real­ly woke except for attacks of rage or joy.


The next knock tar­ries, and might not come at all, but I dis­ap­pear any­way, just in case. Erzse­bet-tante talked about the dan­ger of com­pla­cen­cy. You should always think of the worst even­tu­al­i­ty, she said, it’s reassuring.

There are degrees of dan­ger, too. Grad­u­al­ly, nice words came as well, with a but­tery tex­ture, waft­ing the scent of cologne. I told myself sto­ries to calm down, trans­port­ed myself to anoth­er life, still curled up in my inner hid­ing place.

Best of all was remem­ber­ing Purim. Purim sto­ries were my favorites.

And there I was, in the Queen Esther cos­tume that had been placed back on the top shelf of the wardrobe in Moth­er and Father’s bed­room only a month before.

The bad guys stand­ing out­side, on the oth­er side of the door, in the dark, were absorbed into sto­ries about my cos­tume and the tantes-aunts.

On Purim there was only ever one cos­tume: Queen Esther.

The dress would be tak­en down every year in antic­i­pa­tion of Purim. I had to try it on so that Grand­moth­er could let out the hem or patch on a lace bor­der when there was no hem left to let out, depend­ing on how much I’d grown. Every year we’d go to the Hun­gar­i­an on the main street who sold sta­tionery and cheap toys, to shop for new acces­sories: a gild­ed card­board crown that looked almost real until I saw the mag­nif­i­cent crowns of the oth­er girls in kinder­garten, then in grade school, and a scepter tipped with a glis­ten­ing ball. Most thrilling of all was being allowed to wear Mary Janes instead of my high-tops with the ortho­pe­dic insoles. I got the dress from Yul­ishko-tante, Yoshko-bac­si’s moth­er; he was mar­ried to Ersze­bet-tante, Grand­moth­er’s sis­ter. She lived with them in the house in Halis­sa. Yul­ishko-tante was an elder­ly fairy god­moth­er with a halo of white hair, her face wrin­kled into dry riverbeds. She wore dress­es of tulle and sun­flower-yel­low lace, and a sheer pink wrap draped over her shoul­ders. I nev­er saw any oth­er old lady who dressed like a belle out of Gone with the Wind, half of which I’d seen at Ziv Cin­e­ma with Olga-tante, Grand­moth­er and Moth­er. Moth­er cried until the lights came on and the word Inter­mis­sion” appeared on the screen, at which point she insist­ed that we go home.

Her cry­ing had resound­ed through­out the movie the­ater. Peo­ple in near­by seats glared at us, shush­ing us irate­ly. Grand­moth­er and Olga-tante plead­ed with Moth­er, to no avail: Let’s stay, let’s watch the end, only anoth­er hour and a half, think of the child…

We left the cin­e­ma as the lights dimmed again and the film came back on. I craned my neck as far as pos­si­ble to see Scar­lett O’Hara as long as I could, as she tore through mass­es of wound­ed sol­diers in the rail­way sta­tion. Then the the­ater doors closed behind us.

When I was four years old, the tantes, Grand­moth­er’s sis­ters, took me by the hand, one on each side. Grand­moth­er stayed to watch over Moth­er, who could­n’t be left alone after what she had done. The three of us ascend­ed the met­al steps of the num­ber nine­teen bus. Olga-tante raised a vari­cose leg, then the oth­er, pulling me after her. Erzse­bet-tante heaved her heavy rear up the steps, pant­i­ng, and asked the dri­ver for please three tick­ets to Hadar.”

We got off at Halis­sa, first Erzse­bet and her der­rière; I fol­lowed next, skip­ping like a frisky lamb; and then Olga-tante. The bus dri­ver gunned the engine, star­tling Olga-tante, who called out: Dri­ver, wait!, mis­pro­nounc­ing the Hebrew let­ter het, like all Hungarians.

We head­ed straight to the Hun­gar­i­an patis­serie on the main street, on the way to the check­post. For the girl who is like a stick, she needs some flesh on her,” the tantes bought a dobos torte, thin lay­ers of flaky pas­try with rich choco­late cream fill­ing, topped with an amber caramel glaze. Grand­moth­er would­n’t let me have too many cream cakes because they ruin the char­ac­ter, spoil you,” but Erzse­bet-tante and Olga-tante bent over me, their pointy breasts near­ly jab­bing my cheeks, and they whis­pered to me this was our secret, no need to tell Grand­moth­er: what you don’t know can’t hurt you. I nod­ded as if they had just revealed a deep truth and licked at the choco­late cream. Then we climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of an old build­ing over­look­ing the main street. There, in Erzse­bet-tante and Yoshko-bac­si’s apart­ment, its walls cov­ered with needle­points of princes and horse-drawn car­riages, lay Yul­ishko-tante in her room, sur­round­ed by scraps of lace and gauze, a white-haired slum­ber­er shak­ing her head no, over and over. Instead of firm, pointy breasts she had two deflat­ed beach balls under a lacy white dress. Extend­ing a trem­bling hand, she asked me in tooth­less Hun­gar­i­an if I was a good girl. I stared at the old woman, half fairy, half witch, at the piles of lace and gauze scat­tered on the floor, on the chairs, on the low bed where Yul­ishko was lying. The sti­fling smell of dust and unwashed bod­ies made me gag so that I could­n’t answer. Not breath­ing well again, sighed Erzse­bet-tante, wip­ing the last of the choco­late cream from my face with a sali­va moist­ened thumb, and answered for me: Of course she’s a good girl. A very good girl!

She spread out moth-eat­en evening gowns and yel­low­ing lace blous­es, pil­ing them all on the table in the cor­ner. I watched the flut­ter­ing gos­samer wings as she fold­ed, but I did­n’t dare get up and rum­mage through the piles.

I choked on a grate­ful cough, look­ing at Erzse­bet-tante, who was­n’t telling Yul­ishko what kind of girl I real­ly was. Yul­ishko-tante mum­bled: Take any­thing you want from my clothes, I kept them all. Do you have any idea how beau­ti­ful I used to be? I had no idea, but I tried to be well-behaved, reply­ing in flu­ent, for­mal Hun­gar­i­an: You are still beau­ti­ful, tante. Yul­ishko-tante laughed with her emp­ty mouth. Yes, a won­der­ful girl; she chewed over the words and then sud­den­ly fell asleep again, head lolling on her chest. Olga-tante, who lived alone next door, was the pedan­tic sis­ter who dis­liked mess. She spread out moth-eat­en evening gowns and yel­low­ing lace blous­es, pil­ing them all on the table in the cor­ner. I watched the flut­ter­ing gos­samer wings as she fold­ed, but I did­n’t dare get up and rum­mage through the piles. Erzse­bet-tante was sum­mon­ing Olga-tante to the kitchen for milky chico­ry and makos, love­ly pop­py-seed cake she baked her­self because Yoshko did­n’t like store-bought cake. Noth­ing like home-made makos. They went out. I was left stand­ing there in a cor­ner. She has to be a fairy or at least a queen from some sto­ry that ran away with­out her. How else to explain all these dress­es for fairies and queens?

The cav­ern of Yul­ishko-tan­te’s mouth gaped, the ruins of her bosom sag­ging onto her stom­ach, ris­ing and falling with her ragged breath­ing. I hes­i­tat­ed a moment.

Was this allowed? Would she find out the truth about me?

Esty G. Hay­im is the author of four nov­els, a short sto­ry col­lec­tion, and a play. Her sixth nov­el, Sid (Hebrew Achuzat Bait), was pub­lished in March 2020. She stud­ied the­ater at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Kib­butz­im Col­lege. Her lat­est nov­el, Cor­ner Peo­ple, was pub­lished to wide crit­i­cal acclaim and award­ed the 2014 Bren­ner Prize and the prime Min­is­ter Levi Eshkol Prize in 2015. She also received the Israeli Prime Minister’s Award in 2003 for her nov­el Our Sec­ond Lives (Hak­ib­butz Hamuhad-Hasifriya Hahadasha). Hay­im, whose short sto­ries have appeared in antholo­gies world­wide, has act­ed with the Cameri, a lead­ing Israeli reper­to­ry the­ater. Her nov­el Cor­ner Peo­ple was pub­lished in Italy and was one of two final­ists for the Adei-WIZO lit­er­ary prize in 1918.

Sara Fried­man is a lit­er­ary and aca­d­e­m­ic trans­la­tor of Eng­lish and Hebrew. Her trans­la­tion Glikl: Mem­oirs 1691 – 1719, anno­tat­ed and with an intro­duc­tion by Cha­va Tur­ni­an­sky, was pub­lished by Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty Press in 2019. Fried­man holds a PhD in Trans­la­tion Stud­ies from Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty and has taught trans­la­tion and trans­la­tion the­o­ry at Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty. Born in the Unit­ed States, she grew up there and in Israel, where she lives.