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Arja Salafranca

Arja Salafranca

Salafranca was born in Spain to a Spanish father and a South African mother. She has lived in South Africa since the age of five. She attended the University of the Witwatersrand. Her work has been published in anthologies like The Finishing Touch, Like a House on Fire, LyfSpel/BodyPlay, The Torn Veil, and in journals such as Green Dragon, Botsotso and New Contrast. Her first poetry collection, A Life stripped of illusions, won the 1994 Sanlam Award for poetry. Her story, ‘Couple on the Beach’ won the same award in 1999 for short fiction. Her second collection of poetry, The fire in which we burn, was published in 2000. An anthology of prose and poetry, Glass Jars Among Trees, which she co-edited with Alan Finlay, was published by Jacana in 2003. Salafranca has worked for various newspapers in Johannesburg and now edits the Sunday Life supplement in the Johannesburg-based national The Sunday Independent. Arja's debut collection of short fiction, The Thin Line, is published in April 2010 by Modjaji Books. She is currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at Wits University.




 In 1781, Emperor Josef II announced an Edict of Toleration for the Jews which established the requirement for hereditary family names. Jews were required to assume German-sounding surnames.



Shlomo comes in and says, “Here, you’re a Schmalz.”

Thrusts a piece of paper at me – not that I can read it – and says, “Look, says it there. You’re a Schmalz. So if you need to tell anyone, not that you will, you tell them Schmalz.”

Schmalz. Grease. Chicken fat. Schmalz! “That’s not what Dora and her family got!” I go outside, the piece of paper with the scribbles in my hand. “They’re Goldfarbers! How did they end up with gold in their name and we’re just grease?”

Shlomo looks up at me, scratches his chin, runs his hand meditatively around his greying beard. He’s scraping some kind of shit off his good leather shoes; he carries on scraping in the weak sunlight, and ignores me. He’s hoping I’ll shut up, go away; runs a stick through the shit.

I hold the piece of paper under his nose, “How did we become Schmalz and Dora is a Goldfarber and Rosa and her family are now Diamond?”

Shlomo sighs, as he does in these types of situations, and says I must look after this piece of paper, whatever I may think of it, or the name; we must keep it safe. He tells me to put it in the family Torah, so when the tax inspectors come we know where to find it.

Inside I find Sarah sitting at the window, sewing something as usual; it’s the only way we get any meat in this household, through Sarah’s sewing. What Shlomo and I can get for our small efforts only keeps the roof over our head. I deliver the babies when I am called, but I’m not popular, and Shlomo’s just a teacher, really. I get the book, fold the paper into four, tuck it into a pouch at the back. I stand behind Sarah, quick hands weaving in and out of the ivory fabric.

 “You’re a Schmalz,” I tell her, “You’re Sarah Schmalz. That piece of paper says so.”

But Sarah doesn’t stop, in out, in out, the needle flashes, quickly, a line of neat, quick stitches  ... how many handkerchiefs can she sew in a day? How many dresses a month? Her father comes in, hands holding the leather boots, now scraped clean. He sets them down by the stove, goes into the bedroom to change out of his good clothes. I wait, wait, wait, till I know he must be back in his day clothes, the good shirt hung up for the next time. I’m right, he’s sitting on the bed, rubbing at his feet, socks still good, no doubt because of Sarah’s darning. I pull the curtains dividing the room shut.

“I put it away,” I tell him. “With our marriage certificate.”

“Good, good,” he nods wearily, eyes still avoiding mine. “What does it matter Rivka? It’s not your real name? It’s not your Jewish name, it’s a name for the world, for the gentiles. What does it matter if you’re Schmalz or Gold-whatever. Hymie couldn’t pay either. You know what he is? He’s a Taschengreifer!”

We laugh, Shlomo could always make me laugh! Hymie and his no-good, money-grabbing wife, Hilda, now named pocket grabbers! This is good. No way can Hilda go past me in the street now with her haughty eyes. Looks down at me, even though she’s shorter than me by inches. A pocket grabber!

“What else?” I ask.

“Well,” he says, “David and Leah are now Drachenblut (dragon’s breath), and Saul and Muriel are now Plotz, (to die), and Amos and Yenta are called Drek, (shit!)”

We howl with laughter, I hit the bed with both hands, scream to catch my breath. What must the neighbours think! Bang, bang goes the wall. It’s old man David, as usual, so deaf you have to have to shout at him a hundred times if you want him to hear you, and yet, make a tiny squeak in bed and he bangs on the shared wall. It’s a ploy, I always say. You have to repeat everything and so you end up staying longer with him, otherwise you’d yell your greetings and go.

I sit up, stare at Shlomo. “And why haven’t you told me what they’re called?” I gesture with a thumb toward the dirty grey wall that separates us. Shlomo sighs again. I know that sigh. “Rivka, Rivka, but these names don’t matter. You know that ... it’s only so the gentiles can keep track of us and make us pay our taxes. That’s all. It’s not who we are.”

I stand. “Schlomo? What are they?”

“They’re the Rosenblatts,” he sighs again, scratching his chin.

“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!” I storm out, Sarah is still sitting at the window in her chair, sewing as she has since she was a child. She looks up at me, startled. I roar, I know I am roaring and must stop and cannot. “They’re the Rosenblatts!” I bang the lid of a pot closed. The noise rings in the room.

“Mamma,” Sarah finally puts down her sewing, “But it doesn’t matter Mamma, you know that. It’s only a gentile thing, we’re not what they call us.”

Sarah tries to touch me and I shake her off. I stand by the stove, filling a pot with water and peeled vegetables. She knows I wanted to be a Rosenblatt, she knows it. I thought the name was so pretty, rose leaf, if you have to have a surname, why not make it pretty, special? I begged Shlomo, I begged him day and night and no, he wouldn’t cough up. “They’ll give me what they give me,” he said. “I’m not paying for a name I don’t even want and that the synagogue won’t even recognise. You’re mad, Rivka, mad. You want me to throw away good money on this, and then we don’t eat for a month? We’ll get what we get. Besides, if I had the money you think I would spend it on a name? ”

A few coins, and you had a good name, a nice name, a name you could be proud of. But I was the only one, the others didn’t care. They didn’t know why I cared either. Everyone said it: it’s not your real name Rivka, it’s a name for others, you think the Rabbi’s going to care what you’re called? You think anyone is even going to remember it? Ah, but they will, they will. You think the neighbours aren’t going to throw it in my face that they’re the Rosenblatts? Or that Tovah isn’t going to remind me that she is now named for a beautiful sparkling stone and I’m nothing but grease in a pan?

Shlomo slopes out, hunched shoulders, deep grooves on either side of his face. Shlomo, my Shlomo, the failure. Couldn’t even make it as a Talmud scholar, has to teach the Torah instead to spoiled Jews. And couldn’t even get me a decent name. That’s all, a decent name so I can finally hold my head up high. Can’t get me a decent place to live, so that we’re all squashed in here with the younger children sleeping by the stove to keep warm, and Sarah sewing all day. Already her eyes are ruined. You think I don’t see how she strains, holding the cloth so close, always near the window for light, and already nearly twenty! Twenty! At her age I was married and had a child already, Sarah it was who I had then.

And look at her, scrawny like a chicken in the cooking pot and screwing up her eyes and not caring she hasn’t got any meat on her bones so that she can get a husband and get out of here.





Shlomo walks. Walks to the lessons he’s giving. Summer’s coming, the light’s brighter, he’s even beginning to sweat. Rivka will have something to say about that, about having to air his clothes outside and washing them more regularly.

He lumbers. He knows he lumbers because he’s been told so, and he feels like he lumbers, like he’s heavy on his feet even though he’s not a heavy man. A bit more weight on his stomach than he used to, but not heavy, no. No longer skinny Shlomo, as he was as a youth, but still ... He lumbers, he thinks, because it’s hot, or it’s cold, or because when he gets home Rivka will have something to say, about the sweat staining his shirt in summer; or about the fact that Sarah is still home unmarried, a burden, about where the money is going to come from for this, or that.

The money.

Shlomo feels he’d be a younger man if there wasn’t always the money to think about, the food, the clothes, the lessons.  Always the lessons, giving extra classes to boys who won’t make it through their schooling if he doesn’t arrive, clutching his books, twisting his beard, ready to show these boys with parents who have more than he has, why this happened in the scriptures and what it means, and what prayers do you say if the food is milk or wheat or just a mixture of both?

Shlomo can tell them in his sleep, he’s been doing it for twenty years, teaching boys, telling different boys the same thing, over and over. His own sons suffer of course, at night; he’s tired, half-hearted, wonders why his boys don’t already know the answers, why they haven’t absorbed them .

Another few streets .... Shlomo wipes sweat off his brow, stares up at the sky, high and bright and blue. It was that business this morning with the emperor’s inspectors that has made him so tired. All morning they waited, lined up, the sun getting higher and hotter. Some men paid. They were prepared to do that. It wasn’t official, and it would be denied if anyone came asking questions, but they all knew, had known for months, the rumours spreading. First the decree: the emperor had decided all Jews were to have surnames, German surnames. 

For years they had been able to get away with it, even as the gentiles had acquired surnames. But the emperor had decided.

It will make it easier to take our taxes off us, had been old man Isaac’s assessment. A cousin of Rivka’s, Isaac was fifty-five now, stooped, white-haired, his rheumy blue eyes overflowing with tears. Isaac had shrugged. It didn’t matter what the gentiles had called them, in the end, he said. They were labels; you used them as you used a hat, to shield yourself from the elements, the sun or the snow. It didn’t matter.

When Isaac was called up, he swayed back and forth, wailing, saying he didn’t know he didn’t know.... again and again. He walked away with the name of Eselskopf, donkey’s head, of all names. The clerks could be malicious.

Shlomo stepped up. 

“What have you got?” asked the official, a short, fat man, his face already perspiring, eyes crinkling up in the folds of his face. His cheeks streaked with veins.

“Nothing,” Shlomo had replied.

“Nothing!” The man wrote across a piece of paper, “You want me to call you nothing?”

Shlomo had been silent.

“Here,” said the man, “Shmalz. Now, whenever you spread some fat on your bread, you’ll remember me, this day, this name. For ever afterwards, Schmalz!”

The man was cackling, chins wobbling, he could hardly contain himself.

Nothing. Schmalz. It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, and Shlomo wasn’t going to waste valuable coins on acquiring a name like rose petals or mountain dew, or some of the names the others were getting for greasing a man’s palm.

But, he knew, as he set off for home, with the piece of paper in Christian writing, that Rivka wouldn’t let this go. It would be one more lance, one more failing, one more reason for her to thrust in deeper, ram it in, that he was a failure. She’d never said it – a good Jewish woman wouldn’t – but he knew that she wished she had never married him, that she had found someone else, with more money, more guts and courage, more more more ...

Shlomo stops, takes off his black hat, sweats dripping into his eyes, the sun is getting hotter. An early summer they’ll have. He’s at the house, goes in, gives lessons. The afternoon passes quickly. He’s not really there, yet doesn’t need to be. Recites the lessons, the boys recite back. The time passes, dusk will become darkness and Shlomo will trudge home, as he has a thousand times before. How many days does twenty years of marriage hold? How many nights?





We had a holiday once. Took a cart, took a whole morning, and we were at the lake. It was the start of summer, just like now, hot, so hot. Shlomo had some extra money, he’d worked harder, paid more and he came in one day and surprised me. Just like that, no warning, I would have preferred a bit of warning. But no, comes in, one Sunday morning, he’s hired a cart, picks up the children, shows them what’s outside, and I pack some bread and chicken, and we go. The children pick berries off the trees as we go, the cart is slow, the mares old.

The children whine and fight with irritation and excitement. A whole morning away! They have never been this far from the village! I went once, as a young girl, Shlomo took me then too. Eighteen, I was. We were just married.

My younger sister, Mashka, she was married at sixteen already, and there I had been an old maid, a disgrace. I was unmarried, my younger sister already pregnant with her second child. I couldn’t show my head in the street.

Schlomo wasn’t born here. Lost his parents in a famine in Russia, wandered around with his brothers. I didn’t need details, didn’t need to know why or how. He came, an orphan, pale and skinny, with his face sunken in.  There has been no one, no one. He came, he made friends with my father. I was married within six months.

I knew.

I knew what the others said. I knew the pity. But now I could hold my head high, I could walk down the street with a scarf over my head as a married woman. I had respect. Three years I later I birthed Sarah. She was ripped from me by force after days of labouring. We nearly died. She was too long and skinny; I blamed Shlomo for whatever lurked in his family.

Our sons at intervals after.

Then nothing. He turned away. Mamma died, Papa soon after. My younger sister, plump from all her years of bearing children, seven by then. Face as rosy as a peach, happy, laughing, smiling. And now she was round with her eighth child. I attended her, as I did with all the others.

We had a marvellous time at the lake in the beginning. Never had the children seen such a big body of water, shimmery blue. Cold as ice in early summer – why couldn’t Shlomo pick a time when the water would be warmer? They dipped toes in. We ate. Half the village had come with it seemed, carts laden with food, with children. It had been planned for months, but Shlomo hadn’t told me. All I had to offer was bread and chicken, some eggs. I felt so ashamed. My sister, big and round, throwing her good fortune in my face like a dirty rag. So pleased with her husband and children. A big bustling family.

And the questions! The questions people ask when you’re on holiday at a lake! “Why aren’t there more Rivka?”

“Don’t know how to do it anymore?”

“Does your man need a lesson?”

Sly. Winking at each other. Three children! Three! That’s all we had managed and I was becoming an old woman, thirty, thirty-five, the years reached for me.

“We have to clear your cobwebs!”

These hysterical women shrieked like geese going overhead. And my sister, Mashke, laughing too, her belly grotesque. All my life I have heard this shrieking, this laughter like birds dying.

She ruined the day, as she ruined so many before. Do you know what it’s like to be the older unmarried sister? Do you know what people say and how they look at you? Like you have horns sprouting from your face. Like you’re contaminated, and you’re only eighteen years old.

I took Shlomo when I was eighteen, as one takes old dry meat. I took him. You boil the meat, you boil it and boil it till it falls off the bone, till the string separates from the muscle, till you can eat it.

But it’s not the same. I knew it from the time I was six, seven, eight years old. The knowledge was sour in my mouth. At the age of ten I knew. Mashke was eight by then, with curly red hair. A cute girl. I was no ugly duckling, with my long dark hair and my perfectly shaped eyes, but that didn’t help. Beauty or no beauty, they avoided me, avoided me they way you do a dog with a frothing mouth.

I tried. How I tried. I gave them my sweets. It didn’t help. I took food from home. They took it all, then ran away. Leaving me hungry, alone. All through the years, helping my mother at home in the afternoons while Mashke was out with her friends.

“Take Rivka with you,” my mother would implore her younger daughter. But Mashke couldn’t: “Then they won’t be friends with me!”

Later on, it was just ‘no’, a shaking of her head; and then Mamma stopped asking.

Children know. They smell these things as an animal smells fear. They pick it up, a scent. I never smelled it. Just knew. Just knew there was something wrong with me. Occasionally I would pick someone, someone who couldn’t smell that there was something wrong, although they always drifted away. The anger boiling up like in a pot, water frothing with potatoes.

“Don’t be so mean!” Mamma said, “How are you ever going to find a husband with such a sour face!” Pinching my cheek, two hard bony fingers, pinching, “perhaps the red in your cheeks will make you sweeter!”

Only once she was married would Mashke let the others see us together. The sister with a smell that you could sense a mile away. Something wrong with that one. I looked out of the windows at children playing, trying to learn how to play their games by watching.




She calls me.

Summer has begun, and the days are hot. You sweat through the long daylight hours, your hair clinging to your face, dripping. Why do people say they enjoy this? This unbearable lack of dignity, no way of getting cool. You wipe a cloth over your face, around your neck. That’s it. How can you stay cool?

I know immediately. She’s uncomfortable, sweating, wanting this pregnancy to be over.

 I’m alone.

“No apprentices?” she asks, grunting slightly. It’s tradition that a daughter follows her mother into midwifery, but Sarah had no talent for it. Fainted at the sight of blood. Had to get apprentices instead.

“No, they’ll come later.” I’m gruff. “They’re celebrating.”

“Celebrating what?”

“Celebrating their Christian names.”

“Oh that. I’d forgotten. Joseph’s not back yet. I have no idea what name he chose, or we were given.”

“That no-good Shlomo of mine got us called Schmalz! Schmalz! Can you imagine?”

But Mashke is gripped already, not hearing me, pain tears through her.

It takes hours. Night comes. Mashke’s husband comes, goes, leaves the labouring woman. I need help. I take Mashke’s older daughter, she’s the one training to be a midwife. She’s attended a few births, not much, not enough to really know.

By daylight she’s still struggling, calling  names. The child is nearly ready to be born, then it’s time, she’s ready. She wants to push, I lean in, close, we smell each other’s sweat, breath, her fear.

She has had seven children. It should be easier every time, but not this time.

The baby comes, as I knew she would eventually, covered in the fluids of her birth.

It takes only a few minutes, a few long minutes as I hold her, covering the baby’s mouth and nose. It’s just enough.

Mashke is already crying out: “Where’s my baby? Why isn’t the baby crying?”

I let go.

The cry is like a trickle of blood.





She died nine months later, my Mamma. She didn’t know her own name, or where she had come from, soiling the sheets, eating, and then forgetting how to eat. They called me a saint, a daughter of light, God’s angel. They said I had sacrificed so much, that I deserved better. They said this to make me feel better.

Then they brought little Hannah over, Mashke’s soft, drooling child from that terrible night, a sweeter child you could not imagine.  Hannah is smaller than the other children, and with her almond-shaped face and small mouth she could almost be pretty, except for the dull eyes. Mashke needed rest, with all the children growing up, there was no space to look after Hannah, and we had the room now.

I had watched my parents grow old. They say that when you live with people you don’t see how time steals them, ruins them, but that’s wrong. I saw. I saw from the time I was a girl. I saw my mother harden, like stubborn old fat. I saw her become old. I saw the grey threads in her hair and I saw how one day they threaded through the black like cotton, and then the next time I looked, the grey had taken over. I saw how her jaw creased and dropped. She became old that day, the day Hannah was born. She was always hard, but then she was old and hard, we blamed it on what had gone wrong that day.

I never did marry. Sometimes I blame myself, sometimes not, who could come close enough? Who would want to? She sent out evil, ringing the house like a web, a noose. And then, when she was gone, who would take me. Eyes weak, eyes glued to the material, scrawny. I ate and ate and ate, swallowing lumps of fat and bread, gristle and meat. It made no difference.

And my father, old by then. Silent and old. He never aged though, he was just newly old by the time of the summer of Hannah’s birth, and then that was it – a strip of white through his brown hair, that’s all, he never grew older. There were deep lines in his face, the grooves never became deeper. He became ageless. He just became more and more tired, more and more silent. I looked after him, my brothers moving out of home, till it was him and me, and always Hannah in a corner, sweetly smiling.

He didn’t speak much toward the end. Then, one night, clutching his chest, he died.

My mother died at the end of the winter.

She lingered for months, clutching me at night, her once plump hands now bony and scrawny. She said, once: “You’ll take Hannah.” Just once. 

What was she talking about? But her mind had gone.

So urgent, again and again, at night, “You’ll take Hannah.”

Then one night, near the end. It was like she was suddenly clear, the cobwebs dusted away, like she was back from wherever she has been that night. It’s as though she had been pretending, and now she was back. She sat up in bed, her eyes cold and clear. Heavy-lidded, hazel eyes that looked at me from a bony, cold sunken- in face: “Look at me Sarah. Listen to me.”

I looked. I felt that same cold fear that had encircled me since that night and my mother started losing her mind. There was no running away.  “I did what I had to do. You don’t do that to a person, make them small and frightened. You don’t do that to a person.”

 “What do you mean Mamma?”

But her eyes are closed. She stiffened in the night, and the next day she was gone, and later they brought Hannah.

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