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[Page 9]

Distant Echoes

 

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.

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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

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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

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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?[1] 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.

 

Footnote
  1. This is a reference from Jeremiah 31:20: “Is Ephraim my favorite son or a delightful child, that whenever I speak of him I remember him more and more?” Return


[Page 13]

Our Shtetl [Town]

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.

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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

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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?! Bože Matsiwer, Bože 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

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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,

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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.


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Guests

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.

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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

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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.

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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,

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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.”[1]

Every year the same thing was repeated. Several dozen young men received “notifications” for the draft.

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Weeks before presenting themselves before the medical commission that needed to judge: “godyen” or “nye godyen,[2] 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[3] – 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!...

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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…

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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

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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.

* * *

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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

[Page 29]

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.[4]

* * *

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.

[Page 30]

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

[Page 31]

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)

Translator's Footnotes

  1. einuntswantsik-yorike and einuntswantsiker both mean 21-year old Jewish young men who were required to report for the Russian draft. Return
  2. godyen - fit; nye godyen - unfit. Return
  3. The Recruit's Song is a well-known song that was sung throughout Russia by men entering the army. The words of the song are “Today is the last day I will stroll with you, friends; for tomorrow, at first light, my whole family will be crying.” Return
  4. Khad-gadya One Kid – is a cumulative song sung at the end of the Passover Seder. Khad-gadya is a euphemism for jail. A person locked in Khad-gadya is all alone in jail. “Call me a nutcracker” means “I do not care what you say about me.” Return

 

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