The Romanian Riveter: From WITH AN UNOPENED UMBRELLA IN THE POURING RAIN by Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

A SLICE OF BREAD

Terrible cold, hunger. A persistent, nagging hunger. Like a relentless, evil spirit, which leaves you not a moment’s peace. It prevents you from thinking about anything else. It doesn’t prick you with a pin, it doesn’t cut you with a knife, it doesn’t hit you over the head. You’re merely hungry. Hungry. Hungry.

In the round hut, with the tapering walls and roof, made of thick green-painted cardboard, in the labour camp on the Wolfsberg, which is to say, Wolf’s Mountain. The camp is part of the Grossrosen cluster of concentration camps. The administration, the organisation, the execution of orders is flawless. Each inmate has received a striped uniform, like a pair of pyjamas made of stiff cloth, a cap made of the same material, grey with dark blue stripes, a tin plate and spoon, and a number. Which is to say, each has become a number.

And these numbers sleep in the round huts that form the perfect rows of the camp. Number 37013, curled up with the black blanket pulled over his head, cannot sleep. Hunger nags him. A dull, agonising hunger. And in the straw at the head of his bed is a bread ration. A dense slice of soya bread.

Every evening, after he comes back from his toil at the labour site where they are building a railway through the mountains, he receives a slice of soya bread and an extra, a cube of margarine substitute or marmalade. Every day, number 37013 eats all his bread and the zulag, the extra. And he sleeps like the dead. The next day, at the crack of dawn, when the prisoners receive their ‘coffee’ – water muddied with a kind of coffee substitute – he has not one crumb of bread left.

And so, he has made a firm decision. He will leave half his bread ration for the next day. And the slice of bread is beneath his head, in the straw, ten centimetres from his mouth. And the hunger torments him, nags him. He cannot fall asleep. Is it midnight? Maybe it is past midnight. An eternity. When will morning come? Not for an eternity will morning come … He stretches out his hand, rummages in head. Yes, it’s still there. He takes out the the straw beneath his bread and begins to gnaw it. He eats it. All of it. To the last crumb. And he sleeps like a log.

A few days after that, at the labour site, he saw that one of the prisoners had a pencil. Good God! A pencil! Actually, it was the stump of a thick carpenter’s pencil. But a pencil nonetheless, with which you could write. With which you could put down a thought on a piece of thick paper torn from the sacks of cement. The haggling began. A quarter of a bread ration for the pencil. The other number demanded the whole ration. Do you want to kill me? Should I go a day without bread? The other man agreed to receive payment in two instalments. No, half a ration, and that’s final. More than that would be impossible! He bought the pencil and the very same day, during the brief meal break, after the thin gruel, he wrote on a piece of paper from the cement sacks. What did he write? He doesn’t even know any more. Something very important, obviously.

And that evening, after he received his bread ration, he carefully cut half a slice of bread and paid for the pencil. And the other half he ate straight away, along with the cube of margarine substitute. And the whole night he slept like a log.

Line up! March! They go down into the valley, to Wustegiersdorf, to the bath. A long barrack. At one end, they get undressed. Stark naked, living skeletons, they pass under the shower. They come out at the other end of the long barrack. Here, each receives another striped uniform, reeking of disinfectant. The old uniforms are left behind. Along with his pencil and the scraps of paper from the cement on which he has scribbled. What was written on them? Who knows? Very important things, obviously.

By Ludovic Bruckstein

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

Extract from WITH AN UNOPENED UMBRELLA IN THE POURING RAIN

By Ludovic Bruckstein

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

Published by Istros Books (2021)

We are grateful to Istros Books for allowing us to publish this exclusive extract.

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.


Romanian writer Ludovic Bruckstein’s work was erased from the national literature catalogue when he moved to Israel, and remained undiscovered for many years. His writing centres on the multicultural Carpathian region during the years proceeding, and including, World War II.


Alistair Ian Blyth is one of the most active translators working from Romanian into English today. A native of Sunderland, England, Blyth has resided for many years in Bucharest. His many translations from Romanian include: Little Fingers by Filip Florian; Our Circus Presents by Lucian Dan Teodorovici; Coming from an Off-Key Time by Bogdan Suceavă; and Life Begins on Friday by Ioana Pârvulescu.

Category: September 2020 – The Romanian RiveterTranslations

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