A Door to the Past
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
And we will begin with the words of my late friend, F. Tsibulski: We have been weaving the silk fabric for many years on the inherited weaving stool, but I try to just spin a thin thread that I want to have to connect to the navel of a newly arrived heir.
And indeed what would our many thousand year life in the world have been worth without a continuation, without heirs? It was a concept: Jewish shtetlekh [towns]. The majority of the people are descended from our people in Eastern Europe. Our literature was also born in the shtetlekh, although it [the literature] was never small town-like. The shtetlekh remain; however, there are no longer any Jews. They are not like they were earlier. Those people were rooted with body and soul in the soil, with sap drawn from this soil, which was our home. The survivors were thrown to all corners of the world, widely scattered. However, the old sap remains with them, drawn from familiar soil and this is our distinctive line. Here, we are crumbs, splinters, grains of sand that carry with them memories of everything that begins as a little story, a this is how it was
Everyone loves his beginning. This is valid for individuals as well as for entire communities. We loved our childhood, our youth this is our golden time, from it we take our dreams in our later life; those years formed us, each as he is. In the old man and in the old woman we recognize the young boy and the young girl from their young years.
The male friends and the female friends carry their memories of that time with them when they meet and are nostalgic. The longing awakens, wrapped in a romantic veil, no matter how hard and poor our childhood home was, how bitter was the fruit that we tasted from the tree of life and from the tree of knowledge. And something else: Those who went with the smoke of the crematoria, they are still not completely gone as long as we, the survivors, the saved, live. They are here, engraved in our memory with their names and with their faces, with their gestures and customs, with their deeds and with their lives. We carry them still in ourselves and they will first only disappear with us. We therefore want, we very much want that they not completely disappear; something of them should remain in the thicket of the future, so that the few, the very few of the heirs in subsequent years, when they have the desire to search for their roots, can connect the thread or even connect a thread to a thread in a knot, if the thread was somewhere disconnected.
My sincere friends, your pleas to write something about our shtetl for the yizkor book that you intend to publish moved me. Yes, descendants from hundreds and thousands of Jewish cities and towns that became ruins started, without collaboration, to publish yizkor books dedicated to their birth places. They all felt a debt with their hearts, as a Chesed shel Emes [the truest act of kindness ritual of preparing the dead for burial]. But this is actually more this is a wandering matzeyvah [headstone] for they who were destined to have no place of rest under a stone, a headstone that vandals cannot overturn, as still happens today at Jewish cemeteries.
Naturally, your request moved me as one string in my heart, particularly, as you proposed an opportunity to me, the act of opening the door to such sacredness for us all, as is our past our shtetl, sanctified through all of the death. I confess that
there had long lived in me the desire to draw from my memory, faces, types, events that remain alive in it and they only need to be taken. Peruse the memory and it will revive more and more. But and this is the but of a moral character: Do we need to hear the introduction, or such, of the miraculously saved, witness testimony that saw the destruction with their own eyes, the roads to hell that those closest to us experienced until death? However, on the other side, then who is so important? The important thing is we should begin. I will be one of the most interested in this work.
I have not been in our shtetl for a long time; a fog of scores of years separates me from it. And here I am, alone, only one from our shtetl and from our region and there is no one to talk to about the old matter, revive facts long forgotten, bring in motion the visual centers of the market, receive impetus, thank yous, memories and also to control one's own memories, if it was really the way it was recorded in my head and not erased? In writing, through correspondence, such a task was not attained. We had the occasion to speak with Leibl Gasman. He remembers many facts, many curious things, characteristic of our shtetl. Leibl Faliewski also has things to say and many others of those who live with you and together would perhaps be successful in erecting a truthful picture of our past daily life that was in no way profane, and of it people, simple, toiling, for whom the concept of grey' is absolutely not fitting, as we are usually prone to use in relation to Jews during the year. And there is another reason that makes the task more difficult for me as for everyone else. I have in the past struggled with the evidence and because of this I myself cannot write; I must dictate to someone else so that he can record it and dictating and writing are very difficult things. In writing, one is eye to eye with a white sheet of paper. It creates a mysterious contact between the
virgin paper and the one who needs to pour out his feelings, form his thoughts. Visually, you see the errors, the mistakes, the clumsiness in sentence structure and you make them better right away. While editing, a third one finds himself in the middle, a stranger and in the end writing is such an intimate matter that a third one is not tolerated. I have the feeling that spoken words recorded by another are a pseudo-speech before a group and speeches are too fiery, usually too circular, there is too much emotion in them, for it to be possible to replace a recorded one that is equal to what a person himself says, man himself.
And yet I am ready to surmount, though perhaps with difficulty, stumbling blocks and let it be as a private thing, as my letter to you, my sincere friend.
No one will ask: Is Ephraim my favorite son? We are a small dot on the map of our national disaster. We this is our shtetl. We mourn the shtetl. We cry for it, like orphans cry for a mother. There were millions of mothers, we mourn millions, but they are all embodied in one, in our mothers. For everyone, their mother is the dearest. And an entire life draws yet to the roof under which one was born, to their street and to the neighboring street because there lived a young girl for whom your heart shivered; to the street where the kheder [religious primary school] or the synagogue was located, where each stone was measured with your steps. Enumerating everything that is connected to those cobblestone pavements is the enumerating of every day of your life, before you left your shtetl and went out into the world. And it is always yours, as is your mother. Thousands and thousands of shtetlekh, but one is yours because it gave you the food for your trips on all of your paths, on all the long and wide paths of your wandering.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Our neighborhood: Kolki, Sofiyivka, Osova, Chartsriysk and other shtetlekh [towns] had their own details. It seemed to us that our area lived not only differently; I would call it, style, but also lived in another time that was already long past. It seemed to us that our Jews were also different from elsewhere. It may not be very far from us. The shtetlekh thrown among hundreds of smaller and larger Ukrainian villages were far from cities. Scores of viorst [a little more than a kilometer or .62 miles] from the nearest train station there were also such. They were like dark islands hidden in the deepness of the Woliner woods, among oaks, alders, pines, birches and other kinds of tall trees. The low parts of the city were covered as if with a golden mantle of mighty oaks that shone like copper during the sunsets, as if taking leave of the day before night came. The pines and also the birches let it feel like a competition of colors. I do not want to dwell upon the wonderful morning, fresh meadows and dewy fields my palette is too poor for it. Our eyes bathed in the color, in the green grass and we became sure that there is no more beautiful scenery in the entire globe. You will say: this sounds very naïve. But everything that is beloved is naïve and we were enamored with this, which while we were young, was for us our natural world.
And the Jews? The familiar Jews also appeared different and better in our eyes. Some sort of a trifle! Gather up as curiosities the wide-shouldered Jews of Trochenbrod [Trokhymbrid]. They consisted of pure muscle. It is enough to close my eyes and I see them alive as they tan leather near the tubs. Like in a game of fantasy, they stand before me in their garden, near their horses in the stalls and they labor in the fields that surround their houses and all of us as in a garland of green and yellow wheat. Simple Jews, Jews like of earth Moshe Kulbak, who delighted with his uncles from Raysin, would certainly call them.
Dear friend, you certainly remember the kind of respect they drew from the surrounding peasants. And there were still Jews peasants, who drew their livelihood from mother earth, just like the Ukrainian peasant, or Polish. Remember the Jewish peasants from Asawe, from Wiszcow. Those from the town and the peasants felt as if they were one family and often helped each other. Simple people, but sincere, with axes in their gartln [belt worn by pious Jewish men] on the road and with [axes] waving in the forests. And what were our blacksmiths worth, the cabinetmakers, the carpenters, the woodworkers and the others; the tailors of inexpensive clothing and those who were in the small shops and sat near the canteens? Were they then scarcely men proud of their ancestry; were they then thrown out like heaps of seeds, by a mysterious hand on the Woliner Plains between the forests, with a message: you should have children and make the children men; you should plant roots here and grow. What? Do we need to look in the books in order to find the Jewish beginning? How do the books concern us? Just look at the Jews well, the local ones; are they not the true seeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? How similar they are to the Patriarchs whom we made acquaintance with along with the Khumish [Five Books of Moses]. How grown old and familiar are the patriarchs here. They were if you want to know not sown but thrown in the damp, swampy plains with a thud. What does he babble, the Jew, from
longing for generations connected to one root?! Was there not the giant, steel bird [Translator's note: an allusion to an airplane] that each of them costs millions? No, there was no giant, steel bird however, there was the verse from a sacred book and it would fly over speedily like an electrical point from south to north and set down verses like landing troops. And they were dear, and endured through all time. And they could manage with any calamity.
If they had not been one family, would they have endured, the Jews with straight backs, with open faces, with gray and white beards and without a beard. Do not look in the books, look at Chaim Kubel, how he goes with a scythe in his hand, onward and onward and cuts, and under his hand fall stalk heads. He goes as if in battle in his fields between the bridges and what and? And Pinye Kashkele's [son of Kashkele] (Reznik), does he not sit as if on a racehorse on a thick beam and chops with the wide axe and chips fall. Like the, the how? let it rest, I do not know how, but a strong person outside in a long talis-katan [undergarment with fringes at each of four corners worn by pious men] with a large axe, thrusts with such certainty and calm as if he alone would rule a house on the earth. And at least one peasant got the idea to puncture the Jew with an axe and talis-katan?! Boe Matsiwer, Boe Kowal [My dear God, headstone engraver, my dear God, blacksmith] a body spilled out of the stall. Holding my breath I would look into the dark smithy at twilight, on his brown face, the radiance of fire, on his hands, which lift rhythmically and bang, pat the iron, here strong and here with fantasy: - you see, you are doomed in my hands, so concede. What, do you want to go farther into gehenim [hell]? and the iron would become pliable. Bend. Seeing me, the blacksmith would smile and say the clever words: See my child, when the iron is not heated, the hammer would remain a fool. Understand?
And when thoughts of the shtetl forefathers come to me, I remember Mendl the apothecary Mendl Fajersztajn. Who does not know that an apothecary
was the grammatician? What is to be said he even knew Latin, and not only how to write a letter. But I am indebted to him with commonsense, he taught his son Tone, and at the same time, me, various chapters of Tanakh. Have you seen such an apothecary? And my sister, Rozke, took the melody from him with which she taught Hebrew to her students and with the melody and with Bialek's help, she would quietly and slowly, draw her students into Hebrew conjugation.
They fly at me from all sides, as if from an open hive and try, they say to arrange themselves in a row, not hastily. The images creep toward me, all at once, naturally, first all of Kolki. They insist, they want no one to miss them. Why am I different from anyone else?
Hello, Ayzyk Werberg! See how he is the first to appear and I do not even remember the color of his beard. I only remember that it was wide and diffused. I remember his thick eyebrows. But I remember him in his daily surroundings, surrounded by tables, closets, chairs and a range of utensils and planks and boards of various sizes. And everything gleamed and reflected the other as in a mirror. And, word of honor, no painter got the idea to paint such an interesting and original work of nature! And pure forms, geometrical, a Cubist piece of work. Although, I do not have the basis on which to presume that in general he did not know about such a school. He rocked back and forth and a long, wooden spiral turned out from his plane. Why not paint a composition with a cunning name, especially because all of the smells from the woods, with galipot [crude turpentine from pine trees] and pine were here. True, some kind of mixture was present that did not belong to the colors of the woods oil, I once felt this mixture; now, when he comes to me as a guest for a second, I still smell the luster and the smells of the forest, and each mixture. I try to look at him longer,
it torments me, I must remind myself what color his beard was. This torments me; I strain my eyes as if he were standing before me and I am in the position in which I am now, and see only a silhouette, but no color. I ask him, solicit: What color is your beard? And he disappears.
I stood with my back towards the exiled, spoke and spoke and did not hear that someone was knocking at the door. Opened it an acquaintance, entirely not sad. I cannot say anything. I wake up as from a dream. I was in the past I was awakened.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
I came together with my note-taker again. He sat with his pen in his hand and I did not know with whom to begin, where to begin. He waited patiently and I stared in a corner as if I wanted to draw out the strand of my memories from that small point. A white image unexpectedly appeared to me, but really completely white: an old man with a white beard, white eyebrows, white hair, wearing a white apron. So, yes, this was the Zeydenyu [word of endearment meaning grandfather], the old baker, Liplewski. He stood in the pit near the oven, as if he had grown from the earth, his head bent to the small doors of the blazing oven. A guest in my thoughts his smile began to live again in me. I remember that I am sitting on a small porch.
I only need to remember a name and a guest comes to me.Sholem Aleichem [hello], Manes Eizenberg! A strange person! He loved everyone and everyone loved him. Delicate, genteel and yet life did not spare him from his youngest years on. He was still truly a child when he became an orphan without a father and without a mother, but with a heavy responsibility. It is usually said: the man dies and she remains with very small children to raise. Here he, himself a child, remained with very small children. The emaciated, thin young boy had to be a father and a mother to his three very small sisters and to his young brother the unpredictable Meirl.
The house in which they lived could be called a room. It was like a small shed made of haphazardly hammered together green boards with a shingle roof over them; a roof remembered by the great grandmother.
The small room possessed a nice, small porch that stuck out like a young noise from an old, wrinkled face.
The neighbors came together on the small porch and wrinkled their brows. What can we do with the poor orphans? They need to be given to the orphan house in Lutsk. You, Manes, they told him, are yourself a child. How can you take upon yourself such a family, keyn eyn-hora [no evil eye may you be spared from an evil eye]?
However, Manes had his own answer: as I live, they will live.
Easier said than done what do you mean, even the small house was not yet theirs; it was rented.But Manes was stubborn: he would not give his children anywhere or to anyone.
If there was work, he toiled from dawn until night fell and yet was always smiling. Why did he smile? Perhaps because of the thought that one should not be tested as to what one can get accustomed to?! A person can bear everything he was seen pulling the heavy yoke and everyone had more respect for him and with respect human love, because how can one not have love for such a person? In time he built his own house and nourished and raised three beautiful sisters, and the small Meirl grew to be a sensible person who moved among the adults and with me who would visit them and he became a buddy.
All of them perished, only Meir Eizenberg survived. Several dozen years later I met him, my former sympathetic friend, in Wroclaw, and long reminisced with him about what was and what disappeared. Recently I received a greeting from him he lives in Israel.
And Srolik, the wagon driver? A simple man of the people, but not a coarse youth. Proverbs and witticisms bubbled up in him at anytime and in every circumstance. A bit of Tevye the Milkman, or a verse. He gave each
the honor they deserved, but he did not bow to anyone. The truth itself was his dearest friend. I remember: He took us, a friend, a teacher, and me, from Rozyszcze to Lutsk with his wagon to a conference. Srolik spoke to his horses the entire time and my friend noticed that the wagon driver did not even look at, did not notice what my friend did. He talked to them both good and bad: - when we need to pull the wagon out of sand, you are lazy, but if you have a flat road, an easier bit of work, you fly, so I no longer have any strength to hold you back, horse that you are. And you really cost me; you peel my skin from me. You do not want to know anything. Damn your father's father; a boil has grown on my neck. An autobus goes from Kiwerce [Kivertsi] to Kolki and it takes away my rides. So, a little cheerful! We will appear on time for the train, for which you have God to thank that he gave you a smart boss. Now that there is an autobus, I call out earlier, so the crowd will know, so that they are more certain with me. Four horse hooves go slower than the wheels of the autobus, which keeps rumbling in its iron stomach and it stops, it is stubborn, it does not want to move from its spot. And you, my jewel, if Srolik asked, you went quickly. I have a whip and you a hide, but you say yourself, my noble steed, when have I ever cut your hide. I whistle with the whip so that you will know what I mean and like a kheder boy [religious school student], you act as if you were afraid.
He told them, his breadwinners, everything in a haze, that they would know how expensive bread is and how cheap death.
Several years later I read a large notice in a YIVO publication: A Conversation with Horses this actually was my comrade's correspondence about Srolik the wagon driver's sermons to his noble steeds.
Sholem Aleichem, guest, guest from the other world, guest from my childhood in the world, on our bloody ground!
As I remember Srolik the wagon driver, Meir the soldier comes to me as a guest. I knew him as an old man. However, I remember a true story that my father told. My father told me that when the First World War broke out, the mood of the shtetl Jews became very gloomy. They did not yet understand the size of the misfortune, but a dark cloud covered the sky. This alone, that our shtetl lay near the Styr River, threw a fear - they would say: We lie in the very middle of the road, just to be killed and to be slaughtered. The front came nearer to us; the central alleys where Jews lived immediately were burned.
In short, and it came to pass that they sat on the outside earthen bench as before: peacefully; a large horde of Cossacks invaded from Raznicz, a village that was near our shtetl, through the first and second bridges, where the Styr would divide into two separate streams. They did not stop in the shtetl, but went in the direction of Kiwerce and Lutsk. A Cossack broke off from the last group and went to Meir the soldier's shtibl [one room synagogue], nothing special, a simple thing, but it remained in the memories of the residents of the shtetl. However, before anything, I must tell a story within a story.
I, as I have already said, knew Meir the soldier as an old man. He would knock on the closed shutters in the morning and wake up those who had to go to the train with a wagon driver. He also would wait for every wagon that arrived in the shtetl and recognize who was a broker, who was a merchant and found the language with which to receive several groshn from them. I remember him as a tall, thin Jew with a small beard, like a broom resting on a thick stick that held up his light body, heavy with age. He would sit for the entire day at the small bridge in the middle of the shtetl, near Shlomo Szlajener's house,
surrounded with young boys and he told them stories. He knew everything, what had happened in the shetl, and, perhaps if he did not know, he would invent. He was a born storyteller and each of his stories seemed completely true. Leibele Stawker and I also were avid listeners to the old man's stories. Speaking and telling stories visibly gave great pleasure to Meir. If he had few stories, he would quote his father, grandfather and even his great grandfather, as if a witness. Among his stories were histories about tenant farmers, leaseholders and other village Jews. These village Jews would come to the synagogue for the holidays and bring all kinds of good things and treat everyone with meat and butter, little cakes and cakes. Meir would smack his tongue as if he still smelled the [aroma] of the [gifted foods]: of the whiskey, geese, grievin [chicken skin cracklings], that he would taste that we do not even see today.
He would tell stories about demons and ghosts with just the same realism as the town stories about deserted wives, the baptized, about a virtuous girl who suddenly gave birth to a bastard.
The ghosts had their place. They would come together at midnight at the large synagogue. Meir would call the people by name, that is, those he saw with his own eyes. It is true that those who saw the demons with their own eyes were very tipsy, but what does that matter?
The old man would melt when he would tell about the trickery of the einuntswantsik-yorike or the einuntswantsiker, as they usually called the recruits.
Every year the same thing was repeated. Several dozen young men received notifications for the draft.
Weeks before presenting themselves before the medical commission that needed to judge: godyen or nye godyen, many endeavored to be nye godyen they would not sleep, not eat and do even worse things. This is known. Jewish young men did not want to serve the emperor with his pogroms against the Jews (and who did want to?). The recruits would have a good time let the good times roll, live it up! Poslednyy noneshnyy denyochek gulyayu s vami, druzya, a zavtra rano, chut svetochek, zaplachet vsya moya rodnya so sang the Russian recruits. The last free day, the last free night the Jewish conscripts also would go through the shtetl, singing, laughing, not letting people sleep and doing dirty tricks. Namely, they would remove all of the signs from the shops and workshops and exchange them.
On a shoemaker's workshop a sign from a tailor and the reverse; from a furrier's workshop to a butcher and the reverse and so on. In the morning each one ran to look for his sign. The signs of those against whom they held a grudge were cast away and try to find the wind in the field.
Day turned to night and during the night the same wedding was repeated. Many laughed, others cried, a number screamed that one could get apoplexy from the young rascals.
It was a custom that every wealthy resident had to contribute several coins for the recruits. And be a hero, and not be a benefactor such a hero would then have a terrible time they tied the doors with string from outside so that they could not leave the house, kerosene was poured on a rag and ignited, a shout was started: it is burning!!!...It is burning! and the heroes, the offenders, could not leave the blocked houses they began to throw the bedding, the household possessions, out through the windows Today the shouting, the lamentations!...
And if they decided not to give; they did not bribe the louts!...
Melted tar often was poured into the houses of the malevolent ones. It took weeks of toil to scrape it off this one a hero and that one a sage had become stubborn and did not give, when the young ones asked one stubborn, a usurer, in one night all of the privies were brought to his house, so that it could be smelled from a kilometer away
This was told by Meir the soldier. But what did my father say about Meir the soldier? The story that I interrupted at the very beginning?
It seems, the Cossack who broke away from his division and stopped at the shtibl, where Meir the soldier sat tranquilly on the earthen bench attached to the house, placed his lance on him and shouted:
Hey, you Jew! Bring out a Shabbos roll!Meir did not move from the spot, but looked from under angry brows in wonder at the Cossack. The Cossack moved closer and threateningly, repeated:
Bring out a Shabbos roll!Meir stood up calmly, as if he wanted obediently to fill the order and called to his wife:
Bring out the ax! And his wife brought the ax.The Cossack stood with a murderous face, his lance turned to the Jew's chest and opposite him was a thin Jew with an arrogant goatee and an ax, ready to spring like a panther at any minute and split the Cossack's head.
The Cossack stood as if nailed to the spot: We ask a Jew for a Shabbos roll he brings an ax?! He lowered the lance, spit and with the spit let out a long Russian Mishebeyrekh [May the one who is blessed prayer for healing], whipped his horse and left
Jews who were forest brokers by trade were living in the city for many years. How they arrived at this trade I do not know. However, I do know that they were great specialists. It was told of a case when tradesmen with diplomas the Polish forest engineer, Sczalkowski and a well-known wood specialist from Warsaw, a certain Kenig, quarreled for two days about clearing a forest, choosing trees to be chopped down and preparing double railroad ties to be prepared or other material there. They really fought and waited for one of the Jewish forest brokers to come to make a decision. And they actually held to his decision.
In late autumn and winter, Faleshukes, peasants from the swamps between Volyn and Falesia, would arrive. They came in fastales, [shoes] made of bast [fibers made of bark] on their feet; in coarse, self-made woven pants; in pelts, shiny with age; in fur caps from under which their hair stuck out like bundles of grass, which had possibly not seen a comb for years. They began to roll trees. It is easy to say roll. They first had to be cut down and then sawed and when a tree remained that had to be cut, it would be expertly knocked down and thus one tree after another. Then, the branches of the trees on the battlefield would be cut off and the trunks of those cut down trees would be sorted according to their designated use: to be split, for boards, for ship building and for many other purposes.
When the devastation ended and the earth was frozen, the wozekes [wagons] would arrive: Poles Masovians [from the Masovia region of Poland] with large, healthy horses. They would pull out the trunks with steel cables to the road; lay them out and tie them up and take them on short sleds to the shores of the Biala River several kilometers from the shtetl. There, the trunks had to be lowered about 40 to 50 meters down the hill to the river. This laying out of the blocks to
lower them to the river was a great achievement because the wisdom of this was that the trees, laid out one on the other under a more or less straight corner would hold and not move from the spot. Boards would be placed perpendicular on the trunks and then a new row of trunks [would be built]. Thus a giant, stable cube grew that stood until it was necessary to let the trunks into the river and bind rafts from them. A long section of the river would be filled with such cubes.
The Masovians were very skillful people at their work. As young people they would come to the forests with their fathers and later they inherited the trade. The binding of the rafts on the river was the work of the surrounding peasants. However, this also demanded a mastery and experience. The raft binders needed to work with a mathematical exactitude even if they could not sign their names. The most responsible of all of the series of work [assignments] was the lowering of the logs to the river. Just the right number of logs had to be tied together not one log more nor one log less. The logs had to be bound in a requisite order: the thick and thin end here and there. If the required order was ignored, the current could carry them away and, then, try to hold them back.
And first of all: thus lowering every log, he must not drag along the others and scatter the strongly built up cube chaotically on the shore. One error and there could be a catastrophe. The bundled together rafts could fling apart and drag with them the gear, the tools everything they encountered on the way as well as people, wagons, horses. The collapsing cube would scatter the masses on all sides.
Semen, a peasant from the village of Novosilka, was very skillful in his trade. A youth with a shiny cap visor over his eyes, a short mustache, black eyebrows and small, furtive eyes a strong young man. Real boots on his feet and not those made of bast, as with the rest. He was a joker, a happy young man; the girls would run from his hands with satisfied shrieking. He loved to drink, but he was always sober at work. The logs, as if they understood his language, rolled to the river regimented and tranquilly lay themselves one next to the other.
And it came to pass on a beautiful summer night. There he stood at work and a young man with a steel rod stood on the other side. Rhythmically they on both sides moved the logs and they began to turn like soldiers at an order: one after the other so that it really was a pleasure to watch.
Suddenly something crashed, a thump like thunder from a clear sky. The logs began to spring one after the other with a frightful clatter as if in hell, in dangerous disorder, with a terrible impetus as if from an earthquake. The noise and clatter grew from second to second. The cube flew in a wild rush on all sides as if was trying to make a ruin of the world.
And again suddenly two logs stood on end and with terrific impetus drove themselves into the earth. They began to jostle wildly, resisted like two strongmen. The jostling and the terrible impetus of the logs grew weaker, quieter and finally the mass of logs lay immovable like a wounded animal.
We saw in the emerging quiet that Semen was standing with his hands on his hips, bewitched by the two log strong men that took upon themselves the danger and protection so that the misfortune would not grow any greater. And during that moment, it did happen. Under the pressure of the mass [of logs] a board split and one of its slivers found its way to Semen legs with its all power
and they were cut in two. A misfortune. A victim. And, as was the way, this story was quickly forgotten. The misfortune was Semen's.
However, one [person] did not rest. This was Chwedar Baika, a shoemaker. A remarkable type a Ukranian who spoke Ukrainian with a Yiddish accent, therefore Yiddish like a real Jew. It is a wonder? He lived his entire life among Jews. There was one difference: a satin shirt jutted out from under his jacket, thrown over his pants. He also had a beard like a Jew but a blonde one. [He used] Hebrew words in his speech, an example, a proverb, a Jewish curse: It happened between Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers], He was locked up in the Khad-gadya, Call me a nutcracker, this was the lexicon of his Yiddish speech.
Such a story happened in the shtetl: there always were two shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] in Kolki and suddenly a third one turned up. A great quarrel broke out. Artisans, poor traders united around the newly baked shoykhet; rich merchants, influential people, the so-called Kolki purses, around the earlier shoykhetim. In the quarrel involving the tzadekim [righteous men] from Stalin [Donets'k], Trisk and other locations, Chwedar Baika stood on the side of the new shoykhet along with the other poor men. He shouted louder than anyone: We must have our own shoykhet.
And actually this Chewdar learned eight or nine months after the misfortune with Semen that things were very bad with the victim. There was no bread, not even potatoes. Semen's beautiful wife had become so dejected that she was unrecognizable.
It turned out that the merchants believed that Semen was himself responsible for his own misfortune and therefore he was not entitled to any compensation, particularly somce they had had no contract with him. They simply were letting him and his family die of hunger.
Chwedar was incensed and he knew to whom to go. He went for the Jewish forest brokers:
Jews, help!The forest brokers had no connection to the matter. Their role ended in the forest, before the trees and logs were taken out of the forest. However, Chwedar knew that there was justice in a just heart. So he went to the Jewish brokers.
In short, the forest brokers were the solicitors [of money] for Semen with the merchants. The merchants became as stubborn as donkeys: that he, Semen, was not entitled to it; they would not give him a penny.
You say that you did not have a contract with Semen argued the brokers. Good! You also have no contract with us, but if a tree falls on us and makes us cripples, you also will wipe your hands of us, because you have not concluded a contract with us. We do not want to work for such people.The forest merchants were convinced that the brokers were not fooling around, they were not joking. It was not worthwhile to lose such good specialists; it was not worth the trouble because a broker that they would have to bring from Danzig would cost them four or five times more because who knows each tree in every local forest!? So they became softer and began to negotiate until an agreement was reached.
Chwedar immediately, as was his way, shouted from the roof tops:
We won! They became better, the fat selfish ones. The brokers and I pressed them to the wall well. [Things] will not be hopeless for Semen and his wife.
Nyunya Gildin in Baltimore told me that Chwedar, the gentile Jew, had Jewish luck. The Kolki Jews had already been slaughtered. He was sitting once with a fishing rod near the river and catching fish. A boatful of Germans then
arrived and they carried on a conversation with him. A word for a word, and Chwedar managed a fine tone for the Germans. What beautiful German he knew and he began to speak Yiddish to them. One subordinate officer realized:
You are a Jew!The German did not wait for an answer. He shot one bullet into Chwedar's Jewish face and a second in his heart.
Chwedar Baika could not even scream. His body slid down into the water and the current carried him in the direction of the Biala shores where had long been the mass grave of his young friends his Jewish neighbors.
(Photo, captions: Yakov Liplewski)
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
My friend, I am not writing a novel in which one chapter is woven into another. I am recording that which comes to my memory; recording that which is engraved in me from my childhood years on.
Our shtetl [town], cast aside among similar ones in Wolyn, lived its life, but time invaded that life, not asking us for advice. We lived as neighbors with Poles, with Ukrainians; we lived in a state with its laws and customs, among waves that swayed and among them we often felt like a miserable little ship in the middle of an angry ocean.
I remember how in the 1920s Ukrainian groups of students, poisoned with hate toward the Jews and who longed for [Symon Vasylyovych] Petlura and wanted an independent Ukraine and blamed the Jews for everything in the world, took charge. These were the students from the higher classes in the gymnazie [secondary school]. Organized, they traveled on boats along the rivers and streams of Wolyn [Volhynia] to the rivers of Polesia and positioned themselves in the shtetlekh, floating by, agitating everywhere agitation against Jews: The Jews murdered Petlura; they were communists, eternal enemies; even in Chmielnicki's time, the Jews and the Poles carried out war against the Ukrainians; they, the Jews, used the blood of Ukrainian children and similar provocative nonsense.
The police tolerated the antiSemitic agitation and only when there was the threat of pogroms did they demand that the agitators
travel on further. [It was] a deliberate policy not permitting the shedding of blood, but not preventing the antiSemitic agitation that was sometimes a good lightning rod for anger against the government. The shtetlekh [towns] became uneasy when the agitation was swimming on the rivers. Understand, it was just the same in Kolki.
They came to Kolki a day before the fair. Do you still remember exactly how the fair looked here in our shtetl? The income of the shtetl was dependent on the market day that took place one day a week. For the peasants from around [Kolki], the fair was like a holiday. Wagons, hitched with horses and oxen, would begin to arrive a day earlier; others came riding with packs on their backs; many on foot with their goods on their necks.
Every area differed with its regional clothing, with the embroidery on the shirts with the collars that buttoned on the side, with the colors. The peasants from Troscianiec, Sytnitsa, Khmel'naya, Zhuravichi and other rich villages dressed differently. The Masurians as we would call the Poles from Rundia, Rudnik, Taracz, Majdan, looked different. They would bring cattle, horses, pigs, calves, rye, wheat, oats and barley to the fair. The Masurians would be dressed in dark colors, in coarse cloth and stiff boots, in white shirts without ties, in small caps with lacquered visors on their heads. They were cleanshaven, neat. Their heavy wagons were hitched to healthy large horses and the shiny horsecollars were adorned with brass nail heads. They were Faleshukes [from Falesia] who took the lumber from the forest to the shores of the Styr River.
The Masurians lived in peace with the Jews. Every Masurian had his Jewish house in the shtetl he would pull up there, leave his wife and children there, preparetheir family meals there with the dishes they had brought. The Jews also had their Masurians in the villages and also felt as if at home with them.
People from Troscianiec dressed differently. The young were in soft boots harmatkes; they wore red, green and yellow Cossacklike pants. Their white, embroidered shirts glimmered colorfully. Their healthy girls with flaming, really bloodsprinkled cheeks, singing and laughing would be at the side of the young men, in their blouses with the wide sleeves and with all of the colors of the rainbow. They did not come here to trade, but to parade, to show themselves, to [determine]: who is prettier. There were beads at their throats that would dangle and bang when they moved one against another. Less than 10 strings of beads at the neck indicated poverty. Here, everyone prided themselves with their health and wealth. Beautiful young people, sunny; however, the mood in their heads was very gloomy overflowing with hostility even toward their own who were not as unhappy politically as they were; so that it selfevidently caused in them an outrage against Jews, the opposite of the Masurians who showed no hostility to Jews.
The peasants from Great Osnitsa [Osnica Wielka], Lesser Osnitsa, particularly from Niezwir and the more distant villages on the border between Wolyn and Falesia looked different. [They dressed] in grey linen pants they made themselves, in linen shirts over the pants, belted with a rope or with a small leather belt this was their attire. Shaggy hair, uncombed heads, over grown faces, linen leggings on their feet or in fastales [shoes made from fibers made of bark] khadakes [a type of shoe worn by peasants] their attire particularly brought attention. Their poverty called out from them; their destitution cried out [from them].
Do you remember the fastales, my friend? One had to enter the noble's forest secretly, find small, young linden trees, cut the bark from them, like the pelt from a cow and then wash the bast [plant fiber made from bark], soak it and dry it so that it would finally be like soft leather and fastales would then be woven from this. They would be bound to the linen leggings with strings, neatly crossed and braided up the knee.
The attire was a witness to their lives. Old, young the same poverty. The girls all with the same style [hair] combed straight (their hair smeared with kerosene or grease), in dark brown or grey homemade short jackets, made from their own wool and own work; kerchiefs on their heads coarse, not gaudy and on their feet fastales, only instead of strings braided narrow hooks. Around their necks a few inexpensive glass beads and this was their entire finery. They did not parade; they felt ill at ease in a colorful sea of those adorned.
They would mostly come to the shtetl on foot. They brought a piece of butter, an earthenware cruet, braided karzines [braided baskets] with black berries, a little bit of dried mushrooms, handbraided rope for leashes, sometimes with a wagon of wiazkas (bundles) of wood, a bundle of small fish, a few sacks of potatoes, smaller and larger flour sifters and other articles. The container of cream or the sack of potatoes often was torn from the mouths of their own children.
The clothes were grey, the life was grey, held in unyielding need they would sweeten the bitterness of daily life at the fairs with bitter drops [whiskey]. They made lively toasts for several hours. Everything was Drink, eat, carouse, pauper! Death is cheaper!
An ample number of merchants from Lutzk, Kowel and Rowna and from other places also came to our shtetl to our large fairs. Many of them with street stalls, with tables and even with boards on benches on which they laid out their goods would be on the ring, on the large streets and on the most beautiful alleys. Artisans capmakers, shoemakers also would come with the goods they had made during the week. The Ukrainian town dwellers sold shoes and boots; the Jewish tailors peasant clothing that they had sewn throughout the week.
What was not at our market! Whatever a mouth can utter! Therefore, we will not mention all of the goods; it would
take page after page perhaps, thousands of kinds of goods from potatoes, wheat, confections, manufactured goods, haberdashery, meats, books to icons with golden crowns. There also was whatever one wanted for children: puppies, kittens, various ornaments ponies and small guns, soldiers made of poured lead and carved out of wood. Honestly, a large Woolworth, the department stores could probably have sheltered the assortment of essentials.
You and I know what a fair is. The young need to read about it in the old books. So, secondly, we must comment on it by telling the miracles of our market and fairs for those such as we who had seen all of this during our childhood and years of our youth in the small Jewish shtetlekh.
However, I write not only for someone else, I also write it for myself and everything is still alive for me and the nostalgia for those exterminated constantly evokes the pictures and images and for them the people from our beginnings we want to erect a headstone of words, consistent with our abilities. When I remember our market, I suddenly see before my eyes how the buyers and sellers slapped their palms strongly during the long and fervid process of haggling over the price such sights were real theatrical scenes and I loved to watch these debates and slaps of the palms, until finally, finally… until both hands already were swollen. First then were they reconciled to the price and gave the true, last slap of the palms as a sign that the purchase had taken place. And as the haggling occurred, an uproar usually was heard like a wild orchestra, accompanied by shouting. Naturally, after, we wet the bargain and both sides boasted with a real drink. The haggling at selling a horse was more drawn out, but the drinking was still longer and the result was that the seller left without the horse and without the money only with a whip…
Every market and every fair had its stars thieves and burglars. They would arrive in small wagons like finely dressed merchants and although both the local shopkeepers and the police knew who these people were, it caused no harm to their [the thieves'] business because uncaught, one is not a thief and getting entangled with them was a deadly danger. So they kept quiet and they [the thieves] did their work until shouting was heard, as in the wellknown song:
Help, a thief, help a thief, he just took something from me…
The [thieves] would provoke jostling, a quarrel and during the tumult they agilely handled the victims and vanished without a trace and afterwards there was something to talk about! However, if the peasants caught a thief by the hands, [the thief] left with their hands crippled and ravaged; often a cripple for their entire life. The police did not interfere, both when they saw the thefts and when they saw a person being beaten to death. Failure did not frighten a thief and no market went by without their distinguished and active presence.
I am not speaking about the surrounding commotion; all of the sellers shouted praise and boasted about their goods and if the goods belonged to a kind that had a resonance thus ended in a business deal. [There was] a mix of languages mainly Polish and Ukrainian. The young people, who ran around with their goods and praised their cold, sweetest and cheapest kvas [fermented drink made from bread], were the most skillful at shouting. In general, only the best was at the market. Makers of cheap clothing, namely, sellers of coarse cotton pants, also shouted that this was the best in the world, from the least expensive wool, made in the famous manufacturing seat of Lodz. They flattered the customer, saying that only to such a person as he, would they sell to for such a low price: they used persuasion, using various psychological tricks so that the goods would be sold. And who traded and who sold? The vast majority were
poor men and paupers and both remained, yes, a pauper and yes, a poor man. Into the tumult were inserted kosher and unkosher means of gathering together their livelihoods through begging: from the lame, limping, to the ostensibly lame, limping and blind, from the organgrinder to the lottery sellers where everyone won with them and a white piglet drew out an envelope in which was the mazel [luck] and sometimes even a sort of winning, a coin of little value. The drunkards crawled; an old, warm hit tore from the long throat of a gramophone…
A fair in the shtetl! A fair in the shtetl! Who does not remember the fairs as I do, returning from the fair, to the great attraction that called one life.
Fairs! And where, if not at the market and at the fairs, would the black souls come with their calloused hands to beat Jews, the neighbors, with whom they had lived side by side for hundreds of years. Later we had a name for them: fascists. However, before? We knew them from earlier, before we knew about such a creature that is called fascism.
They, those who did the beating, would suddenly arrive organized. They would agitate against the Jews, dragged in local hooligans, youths from the nearby villages: Roznichi, Starosel'ye, Kopyl'ye and others. It was already known in the villages that this time they would live it up on Jewish bodies, that this time they would let the feathers out of the pillows and the innards from the stomachs. They arrived with empty sacks to fill with Jewish property. The locals waited until those arriving began their beating, then they would steal. What? Their souls were the souls of mares?! The organized Ukrainian nationalists would do the beatings and they, incidentally, only innocently took things. Therefore, they carried the empty sacks under their arms.
When the nationalists arrived in Kolki on their boats, it already was known here what they had done elsewhere. They ostensibly would enter into a quarrel with someone, so that a fire would flare up.
However, before they widened their front, before they were able to draw the local peasants into the fight, they set off for Sender Shlejen. Sender's steel hand, his powerful shoulders, his face, his strength when he grew angry were well known in the shtetl. He knew the trade of giving a slap… No one could bear his slap. A young man from Klokowice [Klokovitse] joined Sender and Tine and his older son, Naftali Gutman's father and Buzie Maciwer, a pair of butchers, exercised their strength. Other Jews, seeing them, quickly turned up with carriage shafts and swingletrees [metal or wood bars used with draught animals] from wagons, with iron rods and crowbars and, generally, with anything they found. And at Sender's command, they set off… They moved forward like a living wall and the mob began to retreat. However, they decided to teach their guests a lesson they were easy to recognize because of their organization uniforms.
The peasants immediately separated from the guests, the villagers, the locals did not get involved. Those who were supposed to be a danger to the Kolki Jews themselves were in danger.
An acquaintance in Baltimore asked me: how was this possible? The local people had lived for tens of years as neighbors, wall to wall; they understood, so to say, with a wink; Ukrainians spoke Yiddish just as well as Jews, and Jews spoke Ukrainian just as well as their neighbors… And yet it happened that during a fire, the Jews risked their lives to help their nonJewish neighbors and the opposite; how was it possible then that what happened at the time of Hitler happened? How was such a bestial outbreak of hatred possible?
However, let us not run ahead. Life is also dear to the murderers. They will murder, but not be victims themselves. After the fair in Kolki, when their friends quietly took the violently beaten men, in torn and tattered uniforms, with bandaged heads
in the rented wagons to the train in Maniewicze [Prilesnoye], it also became quieter in the distant shtetlekh and the fairs there were also quieter. The Styr [River] was freed from the fleet of young Ukrainian fascists.
An innocent notice appeared in the Ukrainian press in Lemberg: Jewish hooligans attacked Ukrainian youth.
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