Translated by Sidney Lightman
A. The shtetl (small town) up to the time of its destruction
In a Little Town
by Pinchas Sherlag
I first saw the light of day on 26 August , or to be more exact I first saw darkness on that date, because I was born in a small, cramped house, low-ceilinged and stifling, with a beaten mud floor, in a little town in Galicia Chorostkow. There was only one bed in our home for my parents a tiled stove and a few poor, miserable household utensils. The two windows were small, so that little sun penetrated, even at midday. Evidently because it was so dark in our house, no memories of my early childhood years remain, but this I do remember: One day, when I was four years old, I was sitting on a bench next to the stove. On the floor in front of me lay something wrapped in linen, and I observed it with half an eye, not knowing how precious a treasure it concealed. It was my dear mother. When my mother died, my father took a second wife. Only when I was six or seven did I come to realise that I was an orphan. I saw the difference between me and the other pupils at the cheder (religion classes). They used to bring all sorts of good things to eat to cheder, while I looked on, starving hungry. This was not because my father was poor and could not afford to give me what I wanted, but because all my stepmother used to give me was a scanty piece of bread, which was not enough to assuage my hunger.
She did not do this out of hard-heartedness or because she was cruel, but because she was secretly helping her sons by her first husband with money. They were already married, but were desperately poor. The money my father doled out to her was not enough so, instead of spending it all on food, she used to hold some of it back and give it to her sons. When there was a festive meal at the cheder, or an outing, everyone else used to bring hard-boiled eggs and other titbits, while I was the only one who had to go empty-handed.
My father was a tailor by trade, regarded as an inferior in the
little town. Nevertheless, he was a man of outstanding integrity, honesty and
good nature, was held in great affection and respect, and was very
popular. He was of pleasant appearance, with refined features and a
high, domed forehead, and his clothes were always impeccable never a
stain or grease spot in sight. He always looked like that and, with
his long-stemmed pipe in his mouth, he would really have passed as a very
distinguished wonder-rabbi. Indeed, many people used to call him that.
Since he was the epitome of a good, honest man, he loved his children,
especially me. He had one other son, who was handicapped and died
young. This son was very highly talented, and my father was
grief-stricken when he died. But my stepmother dominated him. His love
for her diverted all his feelings of affection for his children, and
he turned a blind eye to their wretchedness, suffering and poverty.
I remember something that happened when I was 10 or 11 years old. In the town, they used to bake challot (bread baked specially for the Sabbath and festivals) with fine white flour on Fridays, and bread with coarse rye flour for the rest of the week. I used to receive a slice of challah only on Friday evening and Saturday morning. On Saturday afternoon, I had to make do with black bread, because the white bread was reserved for my father. One Saturday afternoon, I asked my stepmother for some bread. She broke off a piece from the old loaf and offered it to me. I refused it, because I wanted fresh bread, and was immediately punished I did not get any bread at all, stale or fresh. When the hunger pangs became too strong for me, I went to the cupboard, cut myself a decent slice of bread and began to eat it. I shall never forget how my stepmother suddenly fell upon me, snatched the bread out of my hand and began hitting me. I was so upset that I blurted out a curse. When she told my father all about it, he gave her permission to beat me whenever she felt like it. She took full advantage of this permission.
It was the custom in Galicia in those days to eat only two meals a day, one at 9 o'clock in the morning, after prayers, and the second in the evening. The morning meal consisted of meat and soup, while the evening meal was bread or gruel. At midday, people used to make do with a piece of bread and butter or meatless gruel. The children who went to cheder after breakfast used to take bread and butter (together with a piece of salt herring in the winter, and a hard-boiled egg in the summer). All I ever had was a piece of dry bread. To give it a bit of flavour, I used to go to my uncle, who sold salt herrings, and ask for a little brine from one of his barrels. If my two married sisters had not helped me out, I would have died of starvation. They knew about my hunger pains, and used to bring me a slice of bread and butter and a cup of coffee from time to time.
I had four sisters, three of them married. Breine, my eldest sister, had a most unusual wedding. At the beginning of 1860, a rumour began to spread that the Austrian Government intended to prohibit marriages where the bridegroom was below the age of 24. In those days, it was the custom in Galicia to interpret very leniently the precept of our Sages that a man should marry at the age of 18, and it was common for boys of 15 and 16 to marry girls who were even younger. The rumour about the impending ban caused panic among the Jews, and parents rushed to marry off their 14-year-old sons before it came into effect. So intent were they on beating the ban, that all the distinctions between classes, which had previously been meticulously observed, went by the board. Parents did not worry so much about prestige or dowries. All they were interested in was getting their children under the wedding canopy before the "marriage decree" came into force. Breine married at that time. Both she and her new husband were only 14 years old, and it was only by chance that she did not ruin herself. At any rate, her luck held, and her husband grew up to be a highly competent businessman and became very wealthy. My second sister, Roizl, married a man who had a haberdashery shop, and my third sister, Ziessl, married a glazier. At night, I used to sleep on a bench next to the stove. I had a straw mattress and a small cushion for a pillow. The mattress was always put in a cold room during the winter and became covered with frost, and my whole body shivered with cold. I was a thin, sickly child, and my complexion had a greenish tinge. I frequently fell ill and ran a high temperature. I always had to warm myself in the sun, because I used to get attacks of malarial fever and had to have daily doses of quinine. I fell ill when I was six or seven, and people said that it was a miracle that I survived. The doctor had already given up hope, and I was dying.
My parents and sisters went out of the room, and members of the Chevrah Kadisha were standing by my bedside, waiting for me to draw my last breath. Suddenly, however, I regained consciousness, sat up and began feeling under my pillow for the apple my stepmother had given me. I was deeply disappointed when I could not find it. The members of the Chevrah Kadisha were astonished, and ran to call my father and sisters. Meanwhile, I grew stronger by the minute. In the morning, my elder sister went to the doctor. He thought she had come for a death certificate and asked what my name was. When my sister explained that I was better, he was flabbergasted. This was the hand of God, he declared.
I remember well my days in the cheder, where I studied Gemara. When I left the children's class and moved up to a higher one, I felt very good about it, because, here I was studying Talmud, which not every boy was able to do. I spent many enjoyable days there, days of carefree youthful happiness. Our teacher, Rabbi Yecheskel, had a number of occupations: he was a mohel, a marriage broker and, on market days, he used to help his wife on her haberdashery stall and then help her take the stock home at the end of the day. Market day, when the rabbi did not come to the cheder, was a particularly joyful occasion for us. We forgot all about our studies and the world and its worries, and played all day long. My father was not very religious and, like many others in our town, fairly liberal-minded. But there were also some strictly religious boys at the cheder, and they told me all sorts of terrible stories about evil spirits, demons and ghosts, which I had also heard old women talking about. These stories made such a deep impression on me, that I believed in evil spirits until I was well into my teens. One such story was about a man out walking in the town late at night, who was confronted by a demon dressed in a morning coat and top hat. The demon followed him everywhere until midnight, when it vanished. Another story concerned some men from our town who were returning home by wagon from market day in another town, when the horses suddenly stopped and reared up on their hind legs. The driver whipped them furiously, but to no avail. They refused to budge. After a time, flashes of light were seen in front of the horses, and ghostly laughter was heard all around.
Then the horses started moving again. There was a ruinous old house near the synagogue in Chorostkow, which was believed to be haunted. Many people claimed to have heard all sorts of sounds coming from it howling, whistling, twittering, the sound of a small child weeping. As soon as midnight chimed, these "witnesses" claimed, the ghosts and evil spirits vanished, and all was quiet once again. The people of our town used to avoid passing the house at night, and the story was told of a mother who awoke one night and found her baby lying dead beside her, strangled. Another woman immediately appeared and said that she had seen a black cat running across the roof of the house where the mother lived. The cat had been Lilith (the Queen of the Devils), the woman declared, and had snatched the baby's soul. Actually, Lilith is mentioned in many books, and it is said of her especially that she lies in wait for baby girls just before they are born and steals their souls. That is the reason for the superstitious custom of hanging a piece of paper with verses from Psalm 121 written on it ("I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep The Lord is thy keeper The Lord shall keep thee from all evil ") above the bed of a woman due to give birth, above panelling, on windows and above everywhere where there is a crevice or a hole. Underneath the verses, people used to draw a semi- circle for a boy and a square for a girl, and write the names of three kings in them. I did not, and still do not, know the significance of the names of the kings, but I did know that Lilith and her myrmidons trembled with fear at the mention of the kings' names and the sight of the semi-circle or the square. I also knew that the verse "A witch shall not live", even if the order of the words was changed, neutralised her power for harm. When I grew older, I wrote out Psalm 121 on pieces of paper countless times for neighbours and acquaintances.
I also heard other horror stories, about people who were condemned to wander forever in forests and wastelands, because the earth had refused to accept their bodies when they died. One such tale concerned a certain cattle dealer, who had died, but whom some people in our town claimed to have seen with their own eyes on market day in a neighbouring town. And everyone used to think that the crush in the synagogue on Kol Nidrei night was caused by the dead crowding in to pray. The rabbi used to stand up and tell the men in a loud voice to take off their talitot (prayer shawls) and, as soon as they did so, there was plenty of room in the synagogue. The explanation for this was that the dead were forbidden to show their faces and kept them hidden behind their talitot. Thus, when the rabbi ordered everyone to remove their talitot, the dead had no option but to leave the synagogue. The impression all these stories made on me can be judged by the fact that I was afraid to be left in the dark on my own, and when I went to bed at night, I was too scared to open my eyes after the light had been put out, in case I should see a corpse in its shroud or a demon. Once, when my step-brother was getting married, I went to a Christian shoemaker to see whether my new shoes were ready. When I walked into his workshop and saw fashion pictures cut out of newspapers on the walls, showing men wearing top hats and white gloves, I became frightened of evil spirits. The absence of a mezuzah on the doorpost, which would have afforded protection against harm, increased my fear, and I ran out of the place as if it were a den of thieves.
Between the ages of 10 and 12, I studied at an advanced cheder and also had a Jewish teacher who taught me to read and write. He used to make me write out the names of the months and men's and women's names in Hebrew, and the names of towns and animals in Hebrew and German. I had a certain talent for this, and could recite names in alphabetical order endlessly, for instance, Adolf, Bernard, Carl, etc., or Arnold, Bertolt, Curt, and so on. All my friends were very impressed, and my father, too, thought I was some kind of wonder-child. If the rabbi, Rabbi Isser, explained a chapter of the Bible or Talmud to me in the morning, I had mastered it by the afternoon, and was able to stand in for him when he was away for any reason. He was not ungrateful, and excused me from paying for these lessons. That was how I was able to learn something in my youth because, if my father had had to pay for the cheder, he would not have sent me to a teacher as well. For my father did not think it necessary for me to learn anything more than how to pray and how to read and write German. And what do you think my father paid the teacher for his pains? He gave him an old wall clock!
Those years were happy ones for me. My companions liked and respected me, and wanted to be with me. In Winter, when the days were short and we studied until a late hour, they all used to accompany me home, even those who lived some way away from me. One of them could play the violin, and he often used to play and sing to me as we walked home. They also used to defer to me and do what I told them. I realised this one Friday, when the rabbi's wife tidied up the cheder ready for the Sabbath and sent us upstairs to study. The rabbi was not there, as usual, and I was standing in for him. Looking around upstairs, we came upon a hidden treasure: a package full of Purim confectionery. It was forbidden to eat this, because it was chametz (leaven) which had not been sold to a non-Jew on the eve of Pesach in accordance with religious law and was therefore not allowed to be eaten afterwards, but my companions could hardly control themselves when they saw it. What did I think, they asked me, was it all right to eat it? I, having already begun to be something of a sceptic, said: "Yes, it's all right." The words were barely out of my mouth before they fell on the package like hungry wolves and finished the lot, down to the last crumb. But one of them told the rabbi about my "ruling" and, had it not been for the fact that he was fond of me, I would undoubtedly have been given a severe beating. But I was given a tongue-lashing. The rabbi called me all sorts of names: "Apostate", "heretic", "unbeliever" and, for a long time afterwards, people used to call out "Goy" when they saw me in the street.
Much as the rabbi liked me, he still demanded that I should pay 10
kreutzer for the use of the Gemara, just like the other boys. I did
not have the money, and my father was reluctant to give it to me. One
Friday, after the rabbi had demanded the 10 kreutzer, the rabbi's wife
sent me to buy some whitewash for the stove. On the way, I saw
something glinting in the road, and when I looked closer, I saw that
it was a 10-kreutzer piece. I would pay the rabbi with it, I thought to
myself at first, but then I changed my mind and decided to give the
coin to my father instead, to give him a little pleasure. My father
was pleased with me, and put the coin in his pocket. Meanwhile, the rabbi
continued to demand his 10 kreutzer. I was first encouraged to learn
Hebrew and German by a friend of my father's, Reb Yeshayah Amshel,
a weaver by trade. He was extremely learned and used to give a sermon
every Shabbat in the beit hamidrash, which was always crowded. One day,
he gave me the Book of Proverbs with [Moses] Mendelssohn's
commentary and a German translation, and
suggested that I should study it. I did so diligently, and quickly
learned all 31 chapters off by heart, both in Hebrew and in German.
Little by little, the two languages began to grow on me and I really
applied myself to learning them. It pleased me when I was able to work
out an explanation for a difficult verse in the Bible or a difficult
passage in the reading book for the first grade in elementary
school. I had no way of knowing whether the explanations were correct or not,
but it did not matter. I was still happy.
It was at this period of my life that an incident occurred involving one of the townspeople, a rich but simple man. He had no sons, and travelled to another town to see the Rebbe (Chassidic rabbi) there and ask him for a blessing for his wife to have a son. The Rebbe assured him that, this time, his wife would give birth to a son, and the rich man invited him to be a guest at his home as a mark of gratitude and esteem. The town was a buzz with the news, because this was the first time that a famous Rebbe had been invited to be the guest of someone who was not also a learned man. All the Jews living in the surrounding neighbourhood were invited to come to Chorostkow to welcome the Rebbe, and the town suddenly became full of visitors, men and women, old people and children, in long lines of carriages and wagons streaming into the town to see the honoured guest. There were people from out of town staying at every house in Chorostkow. The Rebbe was still at the rich man's house on the Sabbath, and everyone went to see him and receive a greeting. Even my father, who was not a Chassid, did not want to miss the opportunity to see him , and took me with him.
The Rebbe, a handsome man with a long beard, placed his soft, white hands on my head and blessed me. The entire town was greatly impressed by what the Rebbe did on Friday afternoon, when he returned to the rich man's home from the bath house. He gave the shirt he had been wearing before he went to the bath house to the rich man's wife, for her to make into napkins for the son she was going to have. The rich man and his wife kept the shirt as a memento until the day they died, even though they never had a son.
Years later, another famous Rebbe came to our town. There was a cholera epidemic in Galicia at the time, and people fled from places affected by the disease to other places where the epidemic had died down or not yet broken out, thus spreading the disease from district to district. Cholera broke out in Chorostkow, too, and it was by no means uncommon to see corpses lying in the street. These were people who had suddenly been struck by the disease and begun to display the symptoms nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and convulsions. In most cases it took only an hour for a victim to succumb. My father's house was turned into a kind of public health station. Bottles of wine, spirits, vinegar and that sort of thing were distributed as medication against cholera, and brave men who did not fear the disease and had fortified themselves with glasses of brandy gathered there ready to help anyone they could. But they managed to save only a few lives. The epidemic eventually died down in Chorostkow, but then broke out in nearby Husyatin. Among the crowds of people who fled Husyatin and came to Chorostkow was the Rebbe, together with his family and retinue. He rented the largest apartment in the town, in the wealthy Klahr's house, and held court there. Chassidim and admirers from every district poured into Chorostkow, making it as bustling and noisy as on market day. The Rebbe remained in our town for several weeks and, during that time, crowds of supplicants flocked to see him every day, "a petition in one hand and a gift in the other, to be messengers and champions of the right before God". The Rebbe did not change his routine during the time he was in Chorostkow. He held his "Tish" (literally, "table") every Sabbath after morning prayers.
Tables capable of seating hundreds of guests were set up in a long, wide
lean-to at the Klahr house, and curious Chorostkow residents who
wanted to see the Husyatin Rebbe lording it at the head of his table used to
crowd onto the steps, pushing and shoving and sometimes even hitting
out at each other to secure a place on a plank or bracket projecting
from the steps. One Sabbath, I managed to secure a place on the steps
and survey the Chassidim, each sitting in his place, the veterans and
the Rebbe's intimates near the head of the table, and the rest, lower
down. Then the Rebbe came in and took his seat at the head of the
table. Someone brought in the soup, and, before pushing the bowl away
from him. the Rebbe tasted it. All the Chassidim immediately got up
and swarmed over to the Rebbe's table, trying desperately for a taste of
his soup. This performance was repeated with the meat, the pudding and
the dessert. Between courses, everyone was silent, while the Rebbe,
his right thumb on his temple, waved his hand the whole time and hummed
Sabbath songs under his breath. At the end of the meal, the Rebbe
betook himself to his room, while the Chassidim continued to enjoy
When I was 13, a fire broke out in Chorostkow. Fanned by a strong gale, it spread rapidly, and the whole town went up in flames. Some people managed to save a few possessions, the first that came to hand, before their homes were burned to ashes. My stepmother, for instance, rescued one drawer of a chest of drawers, my sister, a chair, and I, another chair, before fleeing from the flames. My father stayed put, however, because he hoped that, once the roof had burned itself out, the flames would die down a little and he would be able to save some of our household belongings. Amid the roaring flames, and as choking clouds of smoke swirled around him, he waited for a chance to get back into the house. Then, suddenly, a tongue of flame licked at his face. His features blackened, and almost blinded, he ran out of the house grabbing the cover of the water barrel which stood in a corridor.
We kept the cover for many years. The fire raged all day and all night, making it impossible to enter the town, We sat out in the open for 24 hours, weeping and wailing, and worried because we did not know what had happened to some members of the family. The flames subsided at last and we went back into the town and saw what a disaster we had suffered. My father, almost blind, was sitting on the ground, surrounded by strangers who were putting bandages soaked in milk on his eyes and were trying to reassure him.
My sisters and stepmother also came, and they all embraced me, crying bitterly the while. The house had burned to the ground and, as we stood there despondently, our heads unprotected, without a shirt to our backs, without so much as a crust of bread to assuage our hunger, we were enveloped in a cloud of ashes. Shivering in the night cold, we sat down and cried. Then my eldest sister came over to us. Her house, too, had burned down, but she and her husband had had a kind of storehouse built of stone next to the house, and this had survived the flames. We all lay down on the storehouse floor, without mattresses or pillows, covering ourselves with rags. That was where we lived until my father put up a temporary wooden shack to protect us against the rain and the cold, and began rebuilding the house.
I had never been as sad as on the Friday after the fire, the eve of the Sabbath, for whose coming my soul had always longed. It had always been a day of supreme happiness for me. I could already feel the nearness of the Queen, the Sabbath, on Friday morning, and my heart exulted within me. Dressed in my Sabbath clothes and full of excitement, I used to go to synagogue with my father to welcome in the Sabbath with joy and gladness, to the accompaniment of the singing of the chazan. When my father and I returned home afterwards, the house was bathed in the light of the Sabbath candles burning on the table. The table was spread with a snow- white table-cloth, on which stood a bottle of red wine and two challot underneath a decorated cloth cover. Now, here I was on the eve of the Sabbath, standing in a dark and gloomy cellar, alone and forlorn. My father and brother-in-law had gone to synagogue without me, because the only item of clothing I now possessed was an overcoat someone had given me, which was at least three feet too long for me and dragged on the ground. Our table was a plank resting on the water barrel, and on it stood two candles pushed into two lumps of clay. There were no challot, no fish, no meat, no other Sabbath food. As for me, tears poured down my cheeks as I looked at the wretched table and my overlong coat, good quality though it was. Incidentally, the man who distributed the clothes to the victims of the fire, told me at the time that he had received the very same coat from a man called Hellmann.
Years later, I married Hellmann's daughter.
As my father regained his strength, he got back on his feet, and we
adapted to our new circumstances and learnt to accept our fate without
complaint. And I must say, that the good qualities of our fellow Jews
really came to the fore in our hour of trouble. Their generosity was
unbounded, and they gave money, clothes, food and household utensils
to their unfortunate coreligionists. The town baron, Levitsky, also
contributed a substantial sum of money, grain, potatoes and pulses, as
well as providing everyone who wished to rebuild his home with stones,
timber and sand. My father took advantage of this generous offer, and
we were able to rebuild our house. We boys and girls helped the
labourers, and I did my share of carrying bricks and other building
materials from dawn till dusk throughout the long, hot summer. Because
of this, I became quite adept, and was able to build the heating stove
and the cooking range by myself. I even painted pictures of birds and
animals on the heating stove and walls, and the wealthy residents of
Chorostkow used to come and look at them and then ask me to decorate
their houses as well, offering substantial sums if I would agree. I
refused them all, except the rich tenant of the estate. I could not
say "No" to him, and decorated his little toilet.
I gained a reputation in the town as a jack-of-all-trades, and people used to ask me to do all sorts of things. One day, the estate tenant's venerable bookkeeper asked me to draw columns in a ledger for him. I took it home with me and, by the time I had finished, it looked as if it had been printed. I was well paid and highly praised, and was allowed to enter the estate tenant's office whenever I wanted to.
Seeing what a quiet and peaceful life the bookkeeper led and how much everybody liked him, I decided that I, too, would like to be a bookkeeper. In the meantime, part of our new house had been completed, so I was released from my building work and, since I no longer attended cheder or had a private teacher, I began studying on my own. From time to time, I used to set myself tasks to do, such as cutting out paper lilies for sticking on the windows at Shavuot (Pentecost). I painted Mizrachs (signs showing the direction of East) in townspeople’s homes, and signs bearing the phrase: "I keep God’s image always before my eyes" to go above the Ark (where the scrolls of the law are kept) in the synagogue.
It was at this time that I began to develop a closer relationship with my stepmother's brother, Isser, whom I had known for a long time. He lived in Husyatin, which was about two miles from Chorostkow. He was a year older than I was and very talented. He had studied Hebrew, German and French by himself and knew them perfectly. He died young, in his twenties, through over-devotion to his studies. It was Isser who set me on the path towards acquiring an education, giving me a whole list of books, including a German dictionary and a Bible, to obtain and study. I earned the money to buy them by repairing clocks and watches, and applied myself diligently to my studies. Isser and I used to write to each other in Hebrew, and I used to ask him for help with literary words and phrases. Within a short time, I had made such good progress in Hebrew, that all the Hebraists in the district considered my writing style to be of a high standard. I worked hard at reading and writing but, at the same time, did not neglect the handwork that brought me in the money that enabled me to study, so I was regarded not only as scholarly, but also as a watchmaker, a mechanic and an artist-craftsman. I used to read the portion of the week from the Torah in the synagogue every Sabbath, the Scroll of Esther at Purim, and the Book of Lamentations on the Ninth of Av (the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple). My father had his own Torah scroll, and used to have services at home on Sabbaths and festivals. On Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law at the end of Succot the Feast of Tabernacles), we used to dance round with the Torah scroll, and everybody used to be amazed at the youth in a tallit (prayer shawl) reading so clearly from the scroll.
So strong was my thirst for learning, that I used to visit the beit
hamedrash regularly and join the group that studied Torah there. That
was how I became friendly with a young fellow of my own age, Sholom
Reitmann, the son of an honourable and upright man, albeit a poor one.
Sholom became very fond of me and offered to teach me Tenach (the Five
Books of Moses) and Talmud for nothing. Even in the depth of winter,
he used to get up before dawn and come all the way from his house to
mine, where we studied Talmud by candlelight until sunrise. He, like me,
also wished to acquire knowledge, and began learning German. He made such
rapid progress, that he was appointed the town's Hebrew and German
teacher. He saved his wages until he had enough money to go to
Czernowitz and enroll in the Commercial Academy, and he finished up as
a certified accountant.
One resident of our town, Reb David Leib Harnish, was a very scholarly man, well-versed in the Talmud and Hebrew, and also a man of great secular knowledge and inclined to freedom of thought. One day, my father showed Reb David Leib a letter I had written to Isser. He was impressed by my Hebrew style and asked to see all the other letters I had written, and even threw open his house to me. Reb David Leib had a son called Chaim Yisroel, who was three years older than I was, and was very knowledgeable about the Tenach and Talmud. In the course of time, we grew very close to each other, and not a day passed without our meeting several times. The Harnish house, incidentally, was where the town's few enlightened intellectuals used to foregather. They used to discuss all kinds of topics: the meaning of difficult passages in the Tenach, modern Hebrew, and Goethe and Schiller, even though our knowledge of German literature was rather scanty. Those who came to the house were all friends, and the atmosphere there was one of freedom.
Chaim Yisroel had two sisters, one of my age and one two years younger, and perhaps it was because of them that I was made so welcome in the house. I gave the girls German lessons and read books like Schiller's "The Robbers" and "Conflict and Love" with them. The lessons used to last from early evening until late at night, and it goes without saying that they were free.
My relationship with Chaim Yisroel became even closer. We both
used to write poetry and show it to each other and correct each other's
mistakes. He was as irascible as he was stubborn, and this led him,
years later, to sue his father and seize all his furniture. His first
wife was the only daughter of a rich man, but the marriage was
anything but peaceful. In the end, he broke the lock of their wedding chest,
took out all his clothes and several hundred florins, and left. A few
days later, the couple were reconciled, but quarrels soon broke out
between them again. This time, all efforts at mediation failed, so he
gave her a Get (bill of divorcement) for a substantial sum and went to
live with his uncle in Jakobini. There, he fell in love with his
cousin, a beautiful and highly intelligent girl, and married her. But
it did not take long for the young couple to fall out with each other.
He, self-righteous and self-regarding man that he was, blamed his new
wife, accusing her of taking his father-in-law's side against him. On
one occasion, he became so infuriated about this alleged partisanship,
that he lost control of himself and hit his wife in the street, in
front of numerous witnesses. Afterwards he left the town and went back
to his parents' home. However, he did not always live in harmony with
them either and, one day, either because he missed his wife or because
he regretted what he had done, he wrote to her and her father asking
for forgiveness. They did not reply. Chaim Yisroel then came to me and
asked me to help him compose a letter in Hebrew to his father-in-law,
who was an enlightened man and a Hebrew writer. The letter we composed
was full of lofty phrases and literary expressions, and had the
desired effect. His father-in-law wrote back forgiving him and asking him to
return to Jakobini. He did so and lived in peace and harmony with his
wife and father-in-law but not for long, because discord developed
between the two men, and Chaim Yisroel felt that he could no longer
live under the same roof with his father-in-law. Taking his by now
pregnant wife with him, he moved to a farm rented by his uncle near a
village, gave him his money on interest, and began earning a living by
giving Hebrew lessons to the village children. As usual, he did not
bother with his wife, whose confinement was drawing near, and used to
leave her on her own while he went off to give his lessons, returning
home only for his midday and evening meals. After the birth of the
baby, his aunt took over and prepared his meals. One day, however, his
aunt felt unwell and was unable to do any cooking, so his wife got out
of bed and prepared some gruel for herself. When her husband came home
to eat at midday and saw her standing by the stove, he asked her if
she had prepared something for him as well. When she told him that she had
not, he flew into a rage, stormed out of the house and took the first
coach home to his parents. His wretched wife, left alone with her
small baby, subsisted on fruit which she picked from trees round about for a
few days, until she felt strong enough to travel. Then, she hired a
carriage and came over to me as a friend of her husband's and asked me
to mediate between them. I was already married by that time, so I took
her and her baby in, made a bed for them by putting a board between
two chairs, and my wife and I shared our miserable meal with them. I could
not see any way of mediating between her and her husband, but I did
manage to persuade him to give her some money, so that she could
return to her parents' home. I hired a carriage for her , and she went back
to Jakobini with her baby. Soon afterwards, the baby died, breaking the
last link between husband and wife, and they divorced. This story has
come into my mind many times since then, and I have regretted that
I albeit unwittingly caused the poor woman so much
But, to get back to the days of my youth. When I was 16 or 17, reports reached our isolated town that someone had invented a machine to sew clothes, shoes, and so on. The man who told us about the machine said he had seen it with his own eyes in the big city of Tarnopol, which was not far from Chorostkow. A machine like that could provide a man with a good living, he said. He suggested that we should buy one, but it cost so much, that we could not raise the money for it on our own, so we formed a four-man syndicate consisting of my father, my brother-in-law and two of my uncles. They wanted me to operate the machine, so that my father would obtain a bigger share of the profits. My brother-in-law was deputed to go to Tarnopol, buy the machine and obtain the operating instructions. When the great day arrived, and my brother-in-law returned to Chorostkow with the machine, everybody in the town came to look at it. My brother-in-law taught me how to use it and, before long, I was sewing dresses and other garments, as well as all kinds of shoes. All the tailors and shoemakers in the town brought me work, and the business flourished. All the takings were kept in a locked box and, once a week, the four partners came in, unlocked the box and divided the money among themselves. I sometimes worked at the machine for 12 or 13 hours at a stretch, especially when there was a lot to do, such as before Pesach or Rosh Hashanah. It was very hard work, from early in the morning until late at night, without a break. I did not receive any regular wages for all this, and whenever the partners did give me a few kreutzer, I used to give half to my stepmother for her married son, so that he would treat me decently, and buy books by Mapu, Smolenskin, Spinoza, Mendelssohn and Schiller, with what was left.
Working at the machine did not excuse me from household chores. At Pesach time, for example, I had to go down to the river and fetch two buckets of water for beetroot-pickling solution, and polish the hanging brass candleholders late at night, when everyone else was fast asleep in bed. Everything had to be cleaned so thoroughly in advance of the festival, that I had no regular bedtime and could not get the sleep I needed to replenish my strength for the following day. Despite this, I was always happy and sang at my work Hebrew and Yiddish songs that I composed myself singing in time with the machine. When the festival arrived, all the hard work and time-consuming preparations were forgotten. I put on my new clothes and felt like a prince. On the Seder nights, when we recited the Haggadah with enthusiasm and exaltation, I became so full of joy that, if a prince had appeared before me and offered to change places, I would not have agreed.
My lessons now became a great problem. Tied to the machine day after day as I was, the only time I had to study was after the Sabbath had gone out, and I used to sit and read in my bedroom until midnight by the light of a small oil lamp. But my father used to complain and, every time he woke up and saw the light in my room, he used to tell me off. In the end, I made a small hole in the cover of the machine, which stood beside my bed, fixed a small piece of glass in it, bought a small night light, and put it under the machine cover. When everyone else was asleep, I lit the lamp, lay down on my bed, and read by the scanty light which came through the hole until one or two o'clock in the morning.
After two years, the syndicate disbanded, and the machine became my
father's property. But the work fell off, because sewing machines had
become much cheaper, and every tailor and shoemaker in the town had
acquired one of his own.
Although my former clients had diminished in numbers, there was no shortage of girls asking me to sew all sorts of garments for them. Virtually all the young women in the town, including those from wealthy homes, suddenly became dressmakers. This one cut out a skirt for herself, that one, a dress, and they all wanted me to do the sewing for them on my machine. Among the girls who used to come to our house was one called Yonah (Dove), the daughter of a coachman. She was like her name: innocent, pure in heart and beautiful. Her black eyes and dimpled cheeks only added to her charm. She was engaged to the son of a rich blacksmith and had already had her wedding dress made, but she still found excuses to come and see me every day. She was in love with me and I with her, but she never said a word about it, because she had been spoken for by the blacksmith's son. As her wedding day approached, she stopped coming to see me, and all contact between us ceased. Soon afterwards, I became attracted to another girl, called Shoshanah, the daughter of an affluent merchant who lived in our district. Shoshanah was a pretty, fresh-complexioned girl. She ran a fish business very well and had money in her pocket. We used to meet every night, and she always used to bring along some cooked fish.
But, even though I used to spend several hours a day with girls, I still managed to find time to continue with my Hebrew and German studies, read books, write poetry, and translate from German into Hebrew and vice versa. I corresponded with numerous young people in other towns and cities in Galicia and Rumania who had heard about me from people in our town. As for our town itself, I had become someone that everybody turned to, and I used to intercede by letter between merchants and merchants, husbands and wives, sons- in-law and fathers-in-law. My writing style really did have an effect on people. For instance, there was a hunchbacked shoemaker called Zalman, who had written to a rich relative in Bucharest several times, asking for help and had not received any reply. Whenever I wrote on his behalf, however, he almost invariably received a substantial sum of money from his relative. Then there was a pregnant woman in our district, who was hoping for help from a relative of hers, a rich merchant in Lvov. She wrote to him more than once, but he simply ignored her letters. Whenever I wrote to him for her, though, he always sent money. A particularly interesting case concerns letters I wrote for a young man to his fiancée. The young man's brother owned a bar and tobacconist's shop and, in appreciation of the letters I had written on his brother's behalf, he saw to it that I always had plenty of cigarettes and tobacco, as well as allowing me to bring friends along to his bar for free drinks. The tobacco merchant had a crippled daughter, who used to look at me longingly every time I came into the bar. Every time I got up to leave, she would hurry to the shop and thrust packets of cigarettes and tobacco into my hands. As she never spoke to me on these occasions, I used to remain silent also, and just stuff what she had given to me into my pockets. In the whole time I knew her, we never addressed a single word to each other. I also used to write all the letters for Shloime Fuerst, the marriage broker, in connection with the matches he arranged, none of which involved a dowry of less than ten thousand florins and, to show his gratitude, he wanted to arrange a rich match for me. He used to suggest a different girl every day, but my father was not interested.
It goes without saying that I did not charge a penny for writing all these letters, but I did charge for repairing clocks and watches, and machines. As the number of sewing machines in use in our town grew, so did my earnings and my experience. Before long, I was dismantling new types of machine I had never seen before, finding out what had gone wrong, repairing them and then reassembling them. At the same time, my Hebrew articles and poetry began to be published, and I established a reputation as a member of the town's intelligentsia. I had the entree to the most important houses in the town and was acquainted with the elders of the congregation. When the rich men of the town wanted a Hebrew and secular education for their sons, they called on me and, of course, I never refused them. One man, who lived in a town some considerable distance away, even sent his 15-year-old son to stay with a relative in Chorostkow, so that he could study with me. The best elements of the town's youth used to come to my home, some of them for intellectual conversation, and others because they wanted a chance to meet the attractive girls who used to frequent my home. A number of ultra-Orthodox young men also used to come, in secret, to borrow a book or ask the meaning of some difficult Biblical or Talmudic passage. As for me, I added chess to the list of my accomplishments. My teacher was Mr Shimshon Ziessermann, the rich and respected intellectual father and father-in-law of men of property, a granter of loans against interest, who made a hobby of compiling a register of births. He also represented an insurance company. After I had got to know him, he invited me to his house and taught me the rules of chess, so that he could have someone to play against. He was an enthusiast, and usually played one of his sons-in-law, but when the man in question could no longer afford the time, Mr Ziessermann turned to me. I was an attentive pupil and, after a short while, was even able to beat him sometimes.
Mr Ziessermann was an enormous help to me. He enabled me to
become the agent of a fire insurance company, but the competition was so great,
that I could not earn anything and gave up the agency after a very
short time. However, although I gained nothing in that respect from my
visits to the Ziessermann home, I did gain something else a
strengthening of my resolve to go out into the world and achieve
something. But I did not have the means to do so at the time, and I
also had the responsibility of my aged father, as I was his only son,
so I had to stay put. Nevertheless, there was something I could do,
and I did it I cut off my long side curls. It took a great deal of effort
to arrive at the decision but, once I had decided, off they came
although, on my way home from school, I covered the sides of my head
with my hands every time I saw someone I knew. It took several days
for me to pluck up enough courage to go out and walk about normally. And
my father did not say a word about what I had done.
As soon as I reached my seventeenth birthday, my father set about finding a wife for me. He was not satisfied with any of the girls suggested to him, decent and respectable though they were, and I was hardly consulted at all, as if the matter did not concern me. When my stepmother proposed a match between me and the daughter of a rich relative of hers, I objected violently, despite her prettiness and attractive appearance. I cannot explain why I lost my self-control on that particular occasion. Perhaps the reason was the resentment I had always harboured against my stepmother. A short while later, whose name should be put forward to my father, but Adela Hillmann's! She was the daughter of the man whose long coat I had been given after the fire. The match was suggested not by a marriage broker, but by one of Adela's uncles and his sister- in-law. They did not broach the subject directly, but asked my father if I would be willing to visit the family. Since they were both moneyed and respected, I agreed. Yosef Hillmann was regarded as a rich man who was well aware of his own importance. His brother and brothers-in-law were among the most respected members of the community, which often sought their advice.
They were also wealthy and active in public life. Adela herself was well-known for her beauty, modesty and guilelessness. I can still see the scene when the young girl, 14 years old, made her appearance at the formal betrothal her innocent face, her green silk dress, her shoes. During the betrothal meal, we did not say a word to each other, as was the custom at the time. There were two-and-a-half years between that evening and our wedding day. During that period, I matured and my knowledge increased. I began to find the circle in which I moved narrow and restricted, and my yearning for the wide, outside world burgeoned.
So much so, in fact, that I would have been happy if our betrothal, which I saw as constituting an obstacle in my path to freedom, had come to nothing. In the meantime, my fiancee's mother died, and her father began to look for another wife. Adela, pampered and cosseted, used to dressing in silks and velvets, now had to look after her younger brothers and sisters. Her father married again, and I was reminded of my own childhood. My heart filled with pity for my gentle young fiancee and, abandoning all my plans to go out into the wide world, I decided to get married. Then the blow fell I was summoned for military service. My father and the rest of the family were very worried, both because military service was considered as something suitable only for the lower classes, but also, and mainly, because it was impossible to observe kashrut in the Army. When I went to Husyatin to appear before the commission which would decide whether I was fit enough to serve, my father and my brother-in-law went with me. My brother-in-law, who was extremely religiously observant, was a Chassid and a fervent follower of the Rabbi of Husyatin, and he urged my father to take me to the rabbi for his blessing before I appeared before the commission. When the commission found me unfit to serve, my brother-in-law said this was because of the rabbi's prayer, not because of my puny body and poor physique.
That same year, all the craftsmen in the town set up an association called "Yad Charutzim", and its members resolved that they would buy everything they needed only from someone willing to pay the association a yearly fee for the privilege of being its members’ sole supplier. My father succeeded in gaining the concession, and set up a shop for me in his house, stocking it with all sorts of cloth and other supplies. It was as a shopkeeper that I married in March, 1877, when I was 21, and brought my 17-year-old wife home.
It goes without saying that the wedding was a magnificent affair.
They made me a long silk kapotte; a silk cloak with a beaver collar;
light-coloured, fine woollen trousers, and a pair of boots hand-sewn
by Leibele, a master bootmaker. You cannot imagine how proud I was, for
not every young bridegroom in Chorostkow was able to go under the
wedding canopy wearing a pair of boots made by Leibele. He was a
short, almost dwarfish, man with a long, blond beard. He and his wife were
childless, and lived in one small room containing only a small,
rickety table, a chair and a longer, wider wooden table, which served as
Leibele's workbench during the day and the couple's bed at night. As
they had no children, they lavished all their love and attention on a
cat. They sometimes had to go hungry, but there was always milk for
the cat twice or three times a day. Leibele could have been well-to-do if
he had wanted to work, but he only picked up his tools when there was
no more food left at home and he felt the pangs of hunger. He much
preferred to saunter about the streets with a cigarette dangling from
his mouth, and joke and banter with passers-by. If you saw a group of
people in the street, you knew that Leibele the bootmaker was giving
one of his "performances". He was the first to know everything that
happened in the town, and he knew how to tell people about it in an
entertaining and amusing manner. He was our neighbour and also one of
my customers, since I sewed his boots and shoes on my machine, which
was why he went out of his way to ensure that my wedding boots were
the envy of all who saw them. In accordance with custom, my wedding
actually began the Saturday before the week of my wedding, when my
relatives gathered at my home and escorted me to the synagogue,
dressed in a shtreiml (round fur hat)and a silk cloak. I headed the
procession, with my father and stepmother and the bride's parents beside me. In
the synagogue, there was a great to-do when I was called to the reading of
the law. As was customary, the women all crowded into the doorway of
their section of the synagogue, and when I recited the blessings, they
threw rice and chopped straw. After the service, the entire
congregation escorted me home, where brandy, honey-cake and boiled
chick-peas awaited them. The festive atmosphere lasted until the
Friday after the wedding, which took place in traditional fashion on the
Sunday of the week following the procession to the synagogue and the
reception at my parents' home afterwards. Every evening from Sunday to
Thursday of that week, our house resounded with music, and people came
and danced and ate and drank. There were no musicians in Chorostkow,
so musicians were brought in from another town. One evening, there was a
fierce storm, which flattened gardens and toppled chimneys, but the
festivities continued unchecked. It was part of the marriage tradition
in those days that, at the height of the festivities on the evening of
the wedding day, the bridegroom's friends would seize hold of him and
his bride, take them off to a room somewhere where a bed had been
prepared, and lock them in, so that they could fulfil the first
Mitzvah in the Torah. My wedding was no exception. Adela and I were taken to a
cold, dark corner of the cellar and locked in. Remember, this was the
beginning of March, and the temperature was 20 below. There was, of
course, no heating in the cellar. My girl bride, her teeth chattering,
wrapped herself in blankets and sat on the edge of the bed. I did the
same and sat down beside her, and there we stayed until our
"kidnappers" came and released us in the morning.
The music ended, the tumult of the wedding festivities died away, and the round of daily life began. Adela and I lived with my father-in-law, but my shop was in my father's house on the other side of the town. Whatever the weather, rain, frost or snow, I had to make my way there every day. However, since the income was barely enough to live on, I decided to sell the business to someone else, which I was able to do without difficulty, because all the transactions were for cash and I gave credit only on very rare occasions. After I had disposed of the stock, I took a partner and went over to selling eggs, flax and grain, but my partner defrauded me and I lost money, so I dissolved the partnership.
At that time, there was a great demand for processed Russian sheepskins, so businessmen who lived near the border built tanneries and did a roaring trade. I set up a tannery, too, in partnership with a relative, in my father-in-law's cellar, which was also Adela's and my home. We brought a master tanner from Russia, hired workers, went out and bought skins, and started processing them. I worked alongside the tanner in order to learn the trade and, once I had done so, which did not take long, I dismissed him. The business could perhaps have become profitable, but turnover was small, because we were able to sell in quantity only twice a year at the big fairs in Blashkowitz, near Butchatch, and Einyuv, near Lodz and we did very little in the way of retail trade. As a result, our cash reserve was slender and did not allow us to build up big stocks. I began thinking about winding up this business, too. In the meantime, my wife gave birth to our eldest son, Mordechai, at the beginning of July, the time of the big Blashkowitz fair. I went off to the fair with the tanned sheepskins, intending to return in time for the Brit (ritual circumcision). However, I had great difficulty in finding a coach, because none of the drivers wanted to leave while the fair was still on. I did find one eventually, but he only took me to within 8 kilometres of home, and I had to walk the rest of the way. It was late at night when I arrived home, weary and depressed, but at least I had not missed the Brit, which was due to take place in a few hours' time in the small Chassidic synagogue, whose rabbi had accorded me the signal honour of agreeing to act as sandek (the man who holds the child on his lap during the actual circumcision). The festive meal which followed was a joyful occasion. The next day, I went back to the fair.
The tannery was causing me more grief than happiness, so I cut down the time I spent there and resumed my studies. I obtained a Latin grammar and the rest of the books required for the first few years of secondary school and, as usual, got down to studying in earnest. One of my friends, who was a year younger than I was, who was taking private lessons following the syllabus for the seventh year of secondary school, helped me a great deal. I was a tanner by day and a student by night. I began my studies as soon as my wife and child had fallen asleep, immersing myself in Latin grammar. However, I did not make as good progress as I had anticipated, so I abandoned this, too. In the meantime, my wife gave birth to a second son. The children grew our first-born was already four years old and I still could not stifle my desire to leave Chorostkow, and the more difficult it became to make ends meet, the more I wanted to learn a trade that would guarantee me a decent living, so that I could bring up my family properly. One day, I told my father, my wife and my relatives that I had decided to leave Chorostkow and go to Vienna to learn bookkeeping. I went to a fair, sold all the stock and divided the proceeds between my partner and myself. I sent half of my share to my wife, kept the other half and set off for Vienna. I had already arranged with my young friend, Bernhard (Sholom) Reitmann, who was studying in Vienna and was due to return at the end of the holidays, that I would meet him in Tarnopol and go to Vienna with him.
Bernhard owed me a favour. He had at one time been a pupil of mine, and such a good one that I had spoken about him to a number of benefactors, who had agreed to make him a monthly payment, so that he could continue his studies, because he was over 16 and too old to enrol in the Government secondary school. He did not have a graduation certificate from elementary school, so he went to Tarnopol and joined a course covering elementary school and the first few years of secondary school.
Now it so happened that his landlord had a daughter of his own age, and the two fell in love. The girl's parents had taken a fancy to Bernhard and, although they were not rich, decided to help him and sent him to the Commercial High School in Vienna. So the two of us set off from Tarnopol, one a student at the Vienna High School, and the other a shopkeeper and tanner. Neither of us had much money so, when we arrived in Vienna, we began looking for lodgings in the poor district near the railway station. We found a modest room for eight florins a month, and lived there in hardship and deprivation.
I enrolled in two Commercial High School departments commercial and railways. The principal took pity on me when he realised how short of money I was, and fixed the fee for my studies at less than a florin a month. Since I was studying for two professions, I had to really apply myself to my studies. I was soon the fastest of all the telegraphists, and did well in my other subjects, too. Despite my good progress, however, I came to realise that my money would not last out and that I would therefore not be able to complete my studies without help. I told my self that, either my father would help me in my hour of need, or I would find some kind- hearted benefactors in Vienna who would be willing to help support a young man striving to gain knowledge and practical qualifications. But I knew in my heart that I could expect nothing from the rich of Vienna, and that the best I could hope for was to find someone who would be able to put some light work or lessons in my way. I decided to get in touch with the famous preacher, Rabbi Dr Jellinek. I sat down and wrote a letter in my most polished style, and then went to Dr Jellinek's summer resort to deliver it. When I arrived, I gave the letter to his servant and was immediately invited in. Dr Jellinek was an old man by then and a little deaf. He mumbled a few words about how good my Hebrew was and reached into his pocket to give me a florin. I refused to accept it and left the room bitterly disappointed.
After this fiasco, I went through some hard times. I used to buy my midday meal at Levy's kosher soup kitchen for five kreutzers a few scraps of meat and a glass of tea which I used to heat up in my room and my supper of sprats for three kreutzers. I used to become very depressed, especially on Friday evenings, when I remembered how things used to be at home. It is not to be wondered at that I sometimes used to burst into bitter sobbing which shook my whole body. And all the time, my meagre resources continued to dwindle at an alarming rate.
Then, one day, the situation eased somewhat, when I found someone
who wanted private lessons. The pittance I earned from this helped me to
get through the winter and, after six months, I finished the railways
course. I needed another six months to finish the business course and
obtain a full diploma, but I could not afford to stay in Vienna any
longer, so I asked for the certificates for the two courses and
I had hardly stepped over the threshold, when news of my arrival spread through the town, and crowds of people appeared within moments, all eager to see this fellow townsman of theirs who had turned into a Central European Jew. As it was a Friday, everyone came over after prayers in the beit hamidrash to enquire how I was and to wonder. Men, women and servants with children thronged my father's house and stayed until very late at night. The next day, there was a reception there in my honour, and my relatives and friends brought along bottles of drink and confectionery. But that beautiful Shabbat was no sooner over, than I began worrying again. I did not know what to do. Suddenly, I had an idea I would go and see Mr Moritz Buber and ask him to help me find a job. Mr Buber was an important and well-known Lvov personality in those days, whose poetry I had translated into Hebrew. He had reacted kindly towards me and had wished me well, although we had never actually met face to face. Taking my certificates and two letters of recommendation, one from Chorostkow's chess expert, Mr Ziessermann, and one from Rabbi Yeshayahu Kahana-Shapira of Tchortkov, a great wonder-rabbi and a doughty fighter for enlightenment and knowledge, I set out for Lvov.
Mr Buber, whom I had not met before, received me kindly. He asked me why I had gone to Vienna without getting in touch with him first, because, with his many connections, he would have been able to find me a job more easily there than in Lvov. He invited me to be his guest and introduced me to his son, Raphael, instructing him to ensure that I made the acquaintance of the Hebrew writer, Netta Samueli, and also to show me the sights of the city. A few days later, Mr Buber told me that he had found a suitable job for me secretary in Mr B Ch's discount office. Meanwhile, I had gone to stay with an acquaintance of mine called Rubin, a sewing machine agent whom I had helped in his business when he lived in Chorostkow. He said that Mr B Ch had been a rich man.
His tastefully appointed house would testify to that. However, he had a spendthrift wife, who had reduced him to poverty. Whenever her husband attempted to remonstrate with her, she would collapse onto the floor in hysterics, whether genuine or simulated he did not know, and he would sometimes have to call the doctor to her. Like Mr Buber, Rubin and his wife had also been very friendly and had invited me to board with them for nothing, which was fine, except that Mrs Rubin kept coming and asking me for a loan. I realised that the situation was a shaky one, but reckoned that the loans were an indirect way of paying for my board and lodging. But, limited though my means might be, there was no limit to Mrs Rubin's demands. She knew how to get round me, and the moment she learned that I had received some money from home, she would come in and ask me to lend it to her. She also got into the habit of asking me out to a cafe, ordering wine, liqueurs, sandwiches, and so on, and leaving me to foot the bill. On one occasion, she saw a beautiful lamp in a shop we happened to be passing and asked me to buy it for her.
But this time, I lost my temper and refused. As far as food was concerned, I was always hungry, because there was either no one at home when I arrived for a meal, or the meal was not ready, and I had to go out to a restaurant. On top of that, I never had any money, and had to sell some of the ornaments on my watch chain to pay for my lunch. Eventually, I hired a porter to take my trunk to another flat but, as Mr Rubin was away, Mrs Rubin did not want to let me take it, in case I owed him money. I pushed her aside, the porter picked up my trunk, and I left.
When Mr Rubin returned to Lvov, he came to see me, apologised and asked me to come back as his guest. I absolutely refused, and never entered his home or saw his wife again.
My job with Mr B Ch was a good one and eminently suitable,
because it did not require a very wide knowledge of bookkeeping for the one
transaction a day or every other day, and I spent most of my time
reading the newspaper to him or rolling cigarettes for him which I was
sometimes also allowed to smoke. When the office closed at five pm, Mr
B Ch used to go for a walk and I used to have to accompany him and
discuss scientific matters. But, despite his liking for me and his
friendly attitude, he refused to increase my salary by more than five
florins, even after I had been with him for a long time. My situation
was a difficult one. I had to keep Adela and our sons, so I used to
send Adela twelve florins and try to live on the rest, an impossible
task. Then I had a stroke of luck. Mrs B Ch recommended me to a poor,
childless woman, who made a living from a servants' employment agency
and home catering, and from then onwards, I used to get my midday and
evening meals for eight florins a month, together with poor students,
clerks, and so on. The portion of meat was not large, but we used to
soak up the gravy with bread and were satisfied. Just how difficult my
situation was, was borne in on me when I began preparing to go home
for Pesach. I had to save for months to get the money together for the
fare. I travelled as far as Tarnopol by train, and then rushed about
trying to find a cart for the rest of the journey. I finally found a
Chorostkow shopkeeper who had hired a cart, and he agreed to take me
with him, but the driver objected, because his cart was heavily laden
with boxes and sacks, and the heavy sleet that was falling was making
the roads even muddier and more difficult to traverse. However,
after I had pleaded with him and promised to get down from the cart and walk
on the uphill stretches, he relented, and we set off. We drove or,
rather, walked in the driving sleet as far as Grzimalow, some ten
kilometres from Chorostkow, and then came to a complete halt. The cart
was up to its axles in mud, and the horses simply could not move it. I
decided to continue on foot. I arrived home hungry and exhausted, fell
into bed and stayed there for several days. When I got up, I found
that my wife was ill and my sons depressed, because my poor, miserable face
took all the joy out of the festival. They had awaited my arrival with
such eagerness and had been so happy preparing for the Four Questions,
and now there was no Seder, no questions, and both their parents were
ill. They were even sadder when the end of Pesach came and I had to
leave them and return to Lvov.
I was in despair, when my friend, Moritz Buber's bookkeeper, suggested I apply for a job as a bookkeeper with a French firm which was very big in the timber trade. The salary was forty-five florins a month. I was very doubtful, because, first of all, I had completed only half the bookkeeping course and, secondly, during my time with Mr B Ch, I had forgotten a great deal of what I had learnt on the course. He advised me against taking on something which would, he thought, be too much for me. But sheer necessity assuaged my doubts. I applied for the job, got it, and journeyed to Chavah Rodniki (Leaseholder Rodniki and Partner), near Podheitz. The inn where I lived was at the edge of the forest. In addition to bookkeeping, my duties included acting as cashier and despatching goods. The business was not a large one and, for the first time in my life, I had time to take things easy.
Something new that I learnt in this job was how to ride a horse, because the working site was three kilometres away from the office. The horse did not take kindly to its new rider at first, but I soon got the hang of things and became good enough to ride in a circus. My general situation was good. I ate my meals with the woman who owned the inn, an excellent cook. In the mornings, she used to give me a cup of coffee with cream in bed; lunch consisted of meat soup, a cooked main course and a glass or two of beer, and supper was more than adequate as well. The good food, fresh forest air and the opportunity to have some time to myself worked wonders for my health and appearance. I put on weight and became strong and well set up. But temptation lurked in this paradise, and I put my wife, waiting for me at home, out of my mind.
This is what happened: My partner, the owner of the business and tenant of the estate, had three grown-up daughters with a modern education. I was attracted to the middle one, who was good looking and pleasant in her ways. At first, my contact with the girls was limited to the exchange of a few pleasantries, because that was as far as their father would let them go but, when he was away, we used to meet, either in my office or at his house, where their mother used to take part in our conversations. As time went on, we became more daring, and the middle daughter and I began meeting in secret in the nearby forest, even when her father was at home. And so we gradually became closer and closer to each other.
My wife must have felt that something was going on, because she suddenly appeared in my office one day and insisted that I return home.
I was so enmeshed in my desire, that I did not look at her very closely. It was as if my sight had grown dim and I could no longer see how beautiful she looked. And in any case, I was trying to think of a way to rid myself of her. Knowing that she would not agree to accept a Get (bill of divorcement) of her own free will, I was trying to work out some way of forcing her to do so, in other words, how to get round the difficulty with the aid of a third party. In the meantime, Pesach was approaching. I wanted to spend it in Chorostkow, although not with my wife, so I stayed with my father and stepmother for the whole eight days of the festival. However, I did go to visit my wife's uncle, a rich merchant called Shimon Keller, who had always treated me kindly, and my wife sent my two sons to see me there. They were like two elegantly dressed dolls. She thought that this would soften my heart, but her plan did not work, and I did not react, although pity stirred in me for the boys. Afterwards, I regretted this irresponsible behaviour for a very long time and, even today, writing about what happened, I feel deep remorse for what I did. At the same time, I must confess that I do not judge myself as harshly now, because, it seems to me, it was not physical desire alone that turned me suddenly towards another, but also the fact that I considered my wife to be a simple, uneducated person whom I could not introduce to educated, German-speaking society. And another thing: true, we were man and wife, but we were not in love with each other. At Chavah Rodniki, I fell in with a group of people who welcomed me into their circle, offering me love and warm-heartedness, as well as wealth and education, things which, up till then, I had only dreamed about. A spirit of intoxication filled my heart and mind. Sometimes I would be enslaved by it and, at other times, I would try to free myself from it. Then came a series of events which helped me to resolve my emotional and mental struggle.
girl's father died, and the timber business was wound up. The Managing
Director ordered me to report to the firm's head office in Lvov and,
once I had left Rodniki, the emotional storm in my heart gradually
subsided, my bonds with the place were cut, and I began to have a
feeling of love for my wife and sons.
The Managing Director treated me very nicely, giving instructions that I was to be paid up to the end of the year as compensation for losing my job, and advising me to stay in Lvov. Very soon after this, I bumped into Sholom Reitmann, the friend of my youth.
He had graduated from Czernowitz Commercial College and was looking for a job. My pockets were bulging with my severance pay, as it were, and when he told me that he had no money, I told him that he could stay with me. From then on, we were together the whole time. We ate together and we waited together to see what each day would bring. Well, one day brought good news. The Managing Director had spoken favourably about me to the owner of a timber firm in Strie, and he wanted me to go and see him. When I told my friend, he said that he had to go to Strie as well, because he had heard that there was a job vacancy at a big cloth merchant's there. When we arrived in Strie, we booked in at the Black Eagle Hotel, had a meal, and then went off to our respective interviews. We had set out in great hope, and we returned in great disappointment. I was told that the business had not been set up yet, although there would be a job for me when it was. In Sholom's case, a vacancy did exist, but the pay was very poor. We decided to have a meal in the hotel restaurant before taking the next train back to Lvov. As is well- known, all kinds of agents and middlemen frequent hotels in small towns, looking over all the guests. We, too, were looked over by one such agent. When we told him our story, he said that there was an enormous steam sawmill in Strie, and he was sure that it needed young men who knew something about the timber trade. First of all, though, said the agent, we had to see a man called Mondschein, who had a great deal of influence with the management of the sawmill. We asked for his address and set off to see him straightaway. His flat was in Railway Street, a broad, tree-lined thoroughfare. We had not met a soul on the way, but when we reached Railway Street, we saw a bent old man coming towards us, with a short pipe in his mouth and a walking stick in his hand. We went up to him and asked him where Mondschein's house was.
The following conversation ensued:
Old man: "Mondschein, what do you want with Mondschein?"
We: "What's it to you what we want with Mondschein?"
Old man: "You can tell me."
We: "Why do you want to know?"
Old man: "Here are two young men asking for Mondschein, so you are probably looking for a job, aren't you?"
We: "Even supposing we are, why do you need to know?"
Old man: "If you are looking for jobs, you can tell me."
We: "Yes, we are looking for jobs and have been sent to Nr Mondschein."
Old Man: "Leave him be. Why are you so intent on seeing him? He can't give you jobs and he won't. It's a pity you wasted your time coming all this way. Two young men like yourselves would be better off going to Vigoda. Baron Popper has a big steam sawmill there. Mr Krizer is also there. There is bound to be a need for young men like you, and you will both get jobs, without a doubt."
Neither of us had heard of Vigoda, Popper or Krizer, so we started asking the old man where Vigoda was and how to get there. He gave us all the details we wanted, but when we asked him for his name, he refused to give it to us. When we pressed him to tell us, so that we could thank him afterwards for all his help, he replied: "Why do you need to know my name? Go in peace; you will find jobs there. There is absolutely no need for you to know my name." Then he went his way and we went ours. When I told my father and friends about the old man some time later, everyone was convinced that he had been the Prophet Elijah, who appears to people in time of trouble in the guise of an old man, giving them good advice and setting them on the right path. Meanwhile, we both followed the old man's instructions and took a train to Vigoda.
On the way, my companion said to me that, since I had some money and was therefore not in dire need, while he could not afford any delay, he would go and see Baron Popper, who probably had plenty of jobs to offer, and I should go to Krizer. I agreed to this. When we reached Vigoda, we had to take an attic room, because that was the only accommodation available. Shloime went off to see Baron Popper, and I went to see Mr Krizer. After he had read my references and looked at my certificates, he agreed to give me a job. But Shloime did not manage to see the Baron. The next day, I went off to Mr Krizer's office, while Shloime tried again to see the Baron. When the Baron did eventually see him, he put him off, so Shloime asked around and managed to find a part-time job. He later became betrothed to a girl from a family I had known in Rodniki, got a job with her uncle, a rich estate-owner, and ended up as manager of a brandy distillery in Lvov. My job in Vigoda was a temporary one, and the work I did was low- level but, by studying the books closely and reading all the correspondence, I gained a good grasp of the business and learned all its secrets. The bookkeeper, who did not want me to get the job, refused to train me, and I had to rely on my own understanding and experience. Not that these were much use because, when I entered the credits and debits from the main ledger in the subsidiary ledger, they did not tally. I had no alternative but to audit the main ledger and the cash book from when the business started. This was arduous in the extreme, because no trial balance had been struck or balance sheet drawn up for three years. I toiled at this task from morning till night without a break.
Then, one day, a strange thing happened. Somebody in the office put the wrong address on a letter and it came back. It was delivered to the owner of the firm at breakfast time, and he immediately sent a messenger to the office to summon a member of the staff. Since I was the only one there at that time of the morning, I went back with the messenger. The owner asked me who had written the letter and, when I said I did not know, he shouted at me and insulted me, ending with: "There is no room in my office for people who don't know anything!" I immediately went to the office manager and gave in my notice. The office manager tried to mollify me by saying that, although the owner was quick to lose his temper, he was also quick to regret doing so and was always filled with contrition afterwards. But I was adamant and would not withdraw my notice. However, the owner clearly did not really want me to leave. Calling me into his office, he acted very friendly, gave me a cigar, asked me if I would be able to finish the books and how long it would take me, and then raised my salary to 60 florins. Some time later, he asked me if I knew how to draw up a balance sheet. I did not, but not wishing to admit it to him, said that I did. I managed it eventually and, one fine day, I presented him with the balance sheet, complete with notes and observations. He was very surprised indeed, because this was the first time that anyone had ever drawn up a balance sheet for his business. He was also very pleased and put up my salary to 1,000 florins a year.
Now I was in a position to support my wife and sons properly, and I suddenly began to miss them very much. My wife was staying with a relative in Rumania at the time, having left my sons with my father, and I asked my good friend, Reitmann, to persuade her to join me and bring the boys with her. When my wife agreed, I was faced with a new problem telling the owner that I was married. I had not done so when he first took me on, because he did not like employing married men, partly on principle and partly because of a shortage of living accommodation. Anyhow, when I did tell him, he was not at all put out. On the contrary, he gave me a very respectable advance on my salary, so that I could make the necessary arrangements for my wife and sons to join me. I was wildly excited as I set out for the railway station to meet them and, as we all started on our way to the village, my heart was filled with joy. (From "Records" an anthology of memoirs, ethnography and folklore in Israel, New Series, Volume III. Editors: Yomtov Levinsky, Dov Shtock. Publisher: Dvir, Tel Aviv 1947.)
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