"GERTA THE WITCH" - story by Amnon Werner

GRETA THE WITCH*

 

You may not believe it but in a kibbutz one can find dragons… and demons and, mainly, witches.

Here, in our kibbutz, Greta, a real witch, is alive and kicking in full force.

Greta, as witches usually do, lives alone, without a husband or children but she has uncanny skills.

Greta managed everything to do with clothes in the kibbutz. Members would bring her their dirty clothes and, after washing, drying and ironing them, she would distribute the garments into the personal lockers in the clothes warehouse called "the commune" until these very days. This is a relic from those days when no clothes were private and all the garments collectively belonged to all the members, regardless of religion, age or gender.

 

True, her nose was not as long as befitting witches and instead of riding a broom she rode a black scooter, a rather enjoyable sight, deserving a story of its own. Greta was colossally thick (we don't use the word fat with reference to kibbutz female members, definitely not to Greta). Seeing her on her scooter… you could die laughing… Her hat was also not black and pointed but rather a simple large tembel  hat[1], size XXXL. This is a huge advantage in our kibbutz… When members are mobilized to pick apples, at the end of the fruit picking, every member is allowed to take home a hatful of apples… That's why the size of the hat is valuable…

 

Usually, Greta engaged in her witchcraft in the "commune" or the laundry room. She used to stand near the huge washing boiler, from which emanated foggy vapor and sharp and strange smells... standing and stirring with an immense wooden ladle. Her black eyes glittered, her eyelids were rapidly moving and her wide nostrils quivered accordingly. People with a very good sense of hearing could notice her whispering to herself spells interwoven with numbers... incomprehensible to strangers.

 


Greta the Witch identified all the members by their numbers, since every kibbutz member has a number marked on the clothes. Members would place, until Saturday, all their dirty clothes in the laundry and receive them clean and ironed on the coming Friday.

Greta loved to run the laundry affairs in public and, thus, she could be heard yelling from one end of the dining room to the other:

"217, if you keep on putting your flowered pillowcases into the white linen washing basket, I will see to it that they are washed with the work clothes… Did you hear me?"

Not only Regina heard, the entire kibbutz heard too!

 

The gentle-spirited, softly-spoken Yoel addressed her once on Friday night in the club. Quietly and politely he said: "I sent a new large shirt to be washed and I received back a very small shirt, like a children's shirt".

Yoel was severely reprimanded out loud:

"You dare talking 85… do you want me to tell everybody what kind of underwear you are putting in the wash? What do you use them for?... eh?..."

Ashamed and offended Yoel ran from the place at the speed of light.

 

In this way Greta tyrannized the members and it's no wonder she was called  "the Witch" by one and all.

The kibbutz secretariat attempted to talk with her but to no avail and she immediately started attacking the secretariat members. She knew exactly what everyone was putting in the wash and which shameful signs of this or that type she found on them. Amiram, the kibbutz secretary, was a bachelor and respected by all. He won the first prize in the National Sport Quiz, being the only one who knew that "Hapoel" Sport Association was founded in Afula. He wanted to open the discussion by presenting the problem. However, she refused to let him do that and right away emitted a loud cry:

"Listen to me well, 59, don't force me to speak, otherwise you will have to explain why your number – 59 - appears on a black, new bra!!"...

This brought the discussion to an end.

 

She mainly intimidated the young people. Whenever one of them walked by, she would beckon with her long, fattish finger, always having some disrespectful remark. To Mishka, the cowman, she explained in her loudest voice, so that it could be heard in the cowshed:

"Listen 225, you are still new here but I am in charge of order and cleanliness… How come you are walking around with a torn and stained undershirt? A kibbutz is not a refugee camp! If I see you once more dressed like that, I am going to stop washing your clothes. Let your mother do your washing... understand?"

What she said in a kibbutz talk about the young new recruits regarding their underwear, had better not be mentioned, except for saying the Maya was deeply offended and left the kibbutz the following day.

Greta herself, by the way, had no number; every unmarked garment was hers.

 

Woe to those who forgot taking some item out of their pants pocket before putting them in the wash… Once every fortnight, on Friday eve celebration, a display of such items 'welcomed' members coming to the dining room. An exhaustive explanation about the members and their family was attached to each such item…

For example, one could watch Avramke's tooth brush with a note, "have you stopped brushing your teeth?" or a 50-shekel note, without a name but with a comment, "thank you for contributing to the socks mending machine fund". A condom came with the following words: "Aliza, beware Dudu, he loses everything"...

Thus, these displays have become part of the local ambiance; some even say that they increased the number of diners on Friday.

In any case, the 'dirty linen was washed in public' in our kibbutz and no one dared to protest or object.

 

Greta was also the buyer of the clothes. She knew what was good, suitable and necessary for every member, more than the members themselves. The clothes were bought, obviously, according to her taste and kibbutz vision.

Those days the clothes were bought in three sizes: large, medium and small.

For all the young new recruits who came to the kibbutz she bought t-shirts in the same color – blue. Fifty "blues" were walking at that time around the kibbutz. "Like the color of sea which is seen from far away", she claimed although no sea could be seen from our kibbutz, even if you climbed the highest watch tower.

To all those willing to listen she would, in her loud voice, add and explain her guiding lines: "The kibbutz has embraced the value of equality and everybody will be equal here. It is important that the young new recruits internalize from the very beginning the principles of cooperation and equality... all blue and all medium size!" Consequently, for Yankle, whom we called "the kilometer man" because he weighed a kilo and he was one meter tall, the shirt was like a maxi-length dress… or it might be more appropriate to say that it looked like a sharwal (a loose-fitting cloth trousers), many years before travelers to India brought it with them to the kibbutz. Dalia, the "Queen of Bashan", wore a belly-exposing tank top, perhaps the first one in agricultural settlements.

 

Friday evenings, during the reception of the Shabbat ceremony, all members, with the exception of "Joseph undershirt", came to the dining room wearing clothes unsurprisingly called 'Shabbat garments'. The women wore pleated skirts and white mother-Russia style embroidered blouses and the men came with long khaki pants and embroidered father-Russia style black shirts.

When asked: "Why did you buy black shirts?", Greta loudly explained that she was simply concerned about the cleanliness of the clothes. "You know these young men… they eat like pigs… by the end of the meal the shirts will anyhow be black… and food stains are not easily removed in the wash…"

 

"Joseph undershirt" is a whole different story. Yossinyu, which was his real name, was a man of principles. Even with all the might of her spells  Greta could not subdue him and, for that, he won great appreciation.

All his life Yossinyu wore 'Sheeber'[2]  pants – short trousers folded up high (like the span of the hand), so unfortunately the pockets hanged, exposed, under the folds. On Friday, through, he came with a clean white undershirt.

 

Like in every fairytale, the day of the Witch has also come.

Once a month Greta the Witch would organize a "spring cleaning day" in the laundry. Not just a cleaning day but real mopping up operations before a very special occasion.

She would scrub and polish the big washing boiler and the dirty laundry lockers, the sorting tables and even the wire ropes used for hanging the garments to dry.

On one of these days, the Witch attacked the washing boiler with double energy, put a stool next to it, cleaned and scrubbed, bent down again and again until, in a moment of inattention, she slipped and fell into the washing boiler.

She did not give up even at this moment, using the opportunity to properly clean the bottom and the corners of the corners. She rubbed and polished until the washing boiler became sparkling and spotless. When she wanted to climb out, she failed to do so. As mentioned before, she was rather thick and the stainless steel washing boiler was polished and smooth. Greta tried again and again but each time she slipped back and was unable to climb out. She looked through the window, hoping that someone might come to her rescue.

 

The kibbutz gardener, No. 114, passed by. Greta immediately started yelling:

"114, 114… 114"

He, however, did not hear or, perhaps, chose not to hear.

No. 121 walked by and Greta shouted with all her power, 121… 121. Only the echo from inside the washing boiler reverberated.

No. 213 passed running by and Greta not only screamed but rather implored, "help"…

But it was like a voice in the wilderness, a vain plea. 213 continued on his way…

And thus, the hours passed…

No. 55 went by but Greta's voice became weaker and weaker and she could hardly whisper... 55... 55... 55...

No. 74, Gershon the maintenance man, rode his bicycles quite near by and she thought he even glanced at her; however, he did not hear the whispers…

Greta lost her voice and… there was no one to save her.

 

No one in the kibbutz knew exactly how or who helped her but when Greta finally came out of the washing boiler, yet her voice remained inside. She lost her voice as well as some of her witchcraft skills.

Since then, whenever she had something to say, she would murmur: "277, if you are going to put in the wash your cowshed-smelly socks, before rinsing them properly, I am going to hang them on a rope in the middle of the dining room... understood?"

However, she was no longer Greta the Witch, she was... Greta the laundrywoman.

Years have gone by. An electric washing machine replaced the washing boiler, which was thrown to the junkyard.

Yet, if you ever go there, you will most certainly find the washing boiler. Come nearer and listen. One can sometimes hear Greta's murmurs emanating from it... 14... 14...



[1] A khaki-colored hat usually worn by kibbutz members

[2] Measurement of the palm from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger when the hand is fully extended.


 

* The story "GERTA THE WITCH" was translated from the book "KIBBUTZ TIME" by Amnon Werner from kibbutz Carmia. The book was published in Hebrew and includes 27 kibbutz stories