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Peretz in Exile

In his seventies, Peretz’s most tangible attachments—to Harvard, to The New Republic, to Anne—have frayed, and so his primal loyalties have resettled a bit, back toward Israel, a familiar abstraction. He distrusts some of the stories his father told him, but there is one he believes in every detail. In the late fifties, when his father, Julius, was just about the age Peretz is now, the elder Peretz had an apartment in Tel Aviv. “He used to walk a lot,” Peretz says. One day, while sitting in a park, he found himself in conversation with another old man who also spoke Yiddish. The man invited Julius Peretz back to his apartment. His wife, he said, would make tei und lekach—cake and tea. So he went.

Julius Peretz had eight siblings, but all of them had died in Poland. He had emigrated to New York in 1922. On this stranger’s piano, he saw a class photo. “So there’s a picture on the piano of a group of girls,” says Peretz. “And he recognizes someone—second row, third from the left. It looks like his sister. But it couldn’t be, because the generation is a generation of younger people.” The stranger’s daughter is in the class photo, too, and they phone her. The name of the girl Marty’s father thought he recognized is Anja, and she lives—the daughter says—in a kibbutz on Israel’s edge, right up against the Jordan River.

Julius Peretz takes a taxi there—three hours, winding roads—and asks the guard to summon Anja. He does; she looks nothing like his sister. “She says, ‘There’s another Anja,’ ” says Peretz. “He brings Anja who looks like his sister, and there is the one survivor of his family.” She was Julius’s niece. She left Poland in the summer of 1939, with two friends from a socialist youth group, and they made it to Palestine a few months later—she was 15—as their families were being annihilated. Peretz now has Israeli cousins.

In Israel, says Anne, the acts of ordinary life have a special meaning for Peretz: He will watch families playing in the park and marvel. He takes an interest in waiters, in kids on the street whom at home he might ignore. “Israel,” he says, “has been very welcoming to me.”