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[Page 600]

Bobruisk[1]

by The Tunkeler[2]

Translated by Maria Gilbert

 

A. Geography

The whole town of Bobruisk looks like a suburb! You are riding and riding, you are convinced that you are still outside, still in the outskirts of Bobruisk, and soon the true town will appear. Only later, when you find yourself on the other side of town, near the big, empty Polygon Square, and a sparse little forest called roscha do you realize that you missed the town and you are asking the driver to go back and take you to the inn.

Among the large cities of the world, I would compare Bobruisk to New York; true, the size of the population, the commerce, the industry, and the commotion in the streets and buildings are not quite comparable. Even the pristan (river port) on the Berezina River, in the heat of the summer season, with steamers shuttling between Bobruisk and such “metropolises” as Parich, Damonova and Berezin, and all the youth out in the rowboats, and Nikolai, the Gentile, earning almost as much from boat rentals as the Hamburg-USA ship line, even that cannot be compared to the port of New York.

How does then Bobruisk resemble New York? In its plan, like New York, Bobruisk was planned squarely, in four directions, on a grid; the town plan looks like a chessboard.

The only problem is that these well-planned streets are no more than well-planned “dust-deserts” in summertime and mud the rest of the year. It appears that Bobruisk mud is already well known around the world, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, like the Pyramids in Cairo, like the British Museum in London, like the Niagara Falls in America.

There are many sights and wonders in the world playing a major role in the destiny of a region. They are surrounded by various hotels, inns, restaurants, places of entertainment, etc. – all catering to tourists and travelers. The attraction, however, remains the sights, like in the Swiss Alps, the Niagara Falls, etc . The same goes for the mud in Bobruisk; the mud glows as if it is the most important thing, as if it is playing a major role. The mud here is the center of town, the hub, and all around it stand a few shacks.

A Bobruisk Jew actually experiences two seasons a year - dust and mud. The coldest winters, with the mighty frosts, that freeze the largest rivers and seas, have no influence on the mud here. Mud ignores them, remaining extensive, large and powerful, in its own banks, reflecting poor shacks and lanterns, truly like Venice! Mud rushes, turbulent and fierce, and propels forth waves, like the ocean.

 

B. Language

Bobruisk is a Jewish town; this fact is well-known around the world, and you will notice it as soon as you first arrive there. And, indeed, for the sake of the language, everyone speaks Russian here.

Stop a Jew here and ask him where so-and-so lives, he will look you over, he will decide that you look educated enough, and, therefore, capable of understanding Russian, and will answer you only in Russian. And, if you ask him, “why 'Uncle' are you speaking Russian,” he will give you some excuse. A Bobruisk Jew is not going to engage in long discussions, explanations, and arguments about the language, nationalism, the future, etc. He has his peculiar excuse – he needs practice, he says, it is useful. Go figure!

Understandably, since Bobruisk is a Jewish town, one hears Yiddish also, depending on where and when . Some Jews use language according to time, for instance, during the week it is Yiddish, on Saturday and holidays, it is Russian. Others use it according to place; if one is in the lower streets, say Sloboda, Old Shlyakh , behind Nasip, one speaks Yiddish. As soon as one gets over to the higher streets, say Shosseinaya, Muravyovskaya, Minsk Place, one speaks only Russian.

The newlyweds from the lower, Sloboda streets, are promenading; you are following them, you are listening and you hear them speak Yiddish. As the “border,” as Rabinovich Street is approaching, one switches to another language. Here, in the higher part of town, suddenly they produce such Russian … that Heaven preserve us!

 

C. Commerce

What is the employment of a Bobruisk Jew? Please go out into the streets, listen to the conversations, and you will understand his employment.

“Oak, load, rafter, small change; received top grades, director, inspector, affairs, got accepted, Jewish quota (norma ), examination, wagons, will fail; rafts, reward, alder, medal, boards,” etc. From this confusion of words, one concludes, that a Jew in Bobruisk has actually two businesses – forestry and “arranging'' for his son to get into a Gymnasia (Russian high school). Which of these two businesses is more urgent and acute? You will probably say the first one, that is forestry, and show me contested promissory notes that multiply here and grow like mushrooms after a rain. I would disagree with you; I believe that the second business, that is “arranging” for his son to get into a Gymnasia , plays a larger role here; I will show this clearly. For the sake of the first business, a Bobruisk Jew will travel to Gomel, the furthest he will travel is to Minsk; but for the sake of the second business, he will go to Gomel, to Minsk, to Vilna, to any place at all, even to Saint Petersburg. For the sake of the first business, a Bobruisk Jew will travel to see a broker, a forester and at most a landowner; but for the sake of the second business, he will travel (it is called “going through back doors”) to see a director, a trustee, a deputy minister, and even a minister himself. For the sake of the first business, a Bobruisk Jew will engage a steward, a courier, a broker, for sake of appearance; but for the sake of the second business, he will mobilize the entire household, wife, children, relatives, acquaintances, both sides of the family, intercessors, petitioners, and whatever else is needed; everyone will do their utmost, they will knock on all doors, so that his son will be accepted into a Gymnasia.

And here is another observation – the entire affair with a Gymnasia captivates him much more than all other businesses put together. This affair, like no other business in the world, has made him extremely clever and resourceful. For example, a Bobruisk Jew that wants to get his son into a Gymnasia donates twenty thousand bricks to build a fence around a church. You may ask, where is the connection? What does a fence around a church has to do with a Gymnasia? Perhaps there is a connection and perhaps it has to be done this way.

A Bobruisk Jew is not about to build any fences for the heck of it; he knows what he is doing!

Naturally, one may not easily understand this mechanism, one may not grasp this togetherness, and one may not be able to ascertain these linked reasons in a thousand years. It may even be easier to find out which came first, the chicken or the egg, or what the world would look like if Cleopatra had a different nose, or what would the human race look like without a thumb, or other such historical and philosophical questions. But one will never find out the connection between a brick fence around a church and a uniform for a Gymnasist!

But, I know what you are thinking. You see here only a stubborn Jew and you tell me that the actual story is different, that Bobruisk is not that “hung up” on a Gymnasia, it is not a town where anything goes.

Another Bobruisk Jew, a wealthy man, is fanatical in his outrage and cries out: ”How is it possible that a Jew would build a fence around a church! How is it possible, when our own cemetery is so neglected and crowded – people are buried in pairs, like in a strudel! Our old age home looks like a poorhouse! Charity is asleep here! The hospital is short of beds, instruments; poor people have no place to go for medical help! Doctors are unwilling to travel, they put forth unreasonable demands, etc .” He continues citing more injustices.

Please, I do not know this wealthy man but I do know that he doesn't care about any of these injustices! So what is his concern? The matter is quite simple. This wealthy man, who has taken on God's injustices, who is so concerned about the town, who argues in God's name, this man also has a son about to enter a Gymnasia. With few places for Jews in a Gymnasia , the other rich man with his brick fence sticks in his craw; this is the crux of the matter.

 

D. Motions and Flows

The strongest motions, naturally, occur here in the marketplace, in the shops, but certainly not among customers! “For the sake of” the customers, many Bobruisk shopkeepers would lock up and go home to sleep. But, I am speaking here of the motions generated by shopkeepers in pursuit of interest-free loans. You may think that this is not at all like Bobruisk, but more like some fair in Nizhny Novgorod. All this talk is just “much ado about nothing” – to receive an interest-free loan is a fine and legitimate deed for a shopkeeper.

A shopkeeper strengthens his motions as he recalls his household of nine or ten mouths, motioning and asking for a number of things from a bagel to a dress. An aging daughter keeps in motion a dozen matchmakers to move the motionless grooms. Another daughter is in motion taking extension courses. A son is in motion on the streets, idle without a stitch of work. Another pair of daughters is in motion, running around with Gentiles on the local Nevsky Prospect. [3]

More on the same subject; as in other fine cities like Grodno, Kovno, Minsk and Vilna, well brought-up Jewish girls show strong interest in Gentiles and officers. There is a saying in Bobruisk: “A boy is born – fear soldiers! A girl is born – fear officers!” Jewish girls are in motion here, running after Gentiles; and Jewish young men are in motion, running after these girls and swallowing their pride. Certainly, not being any great nationalists, these young men were complaining bitterly and recalling the chastisement, “… your daughters were given to other people.” How does one compete with Gentiles!

Pessimism and gloom has taken over these young men; in great despair some run to the river and ride boats, others - to the green billiard tables; and now they are all in motion running after cards, boats, billiard balls and billiard sticks, day and night.

 

E. Growth of Town

You may think that a town with wise men, intellectuals, authors and diplomats must rapidly advance and grow. Culture and education are everywhere in this town. To illustrate, one cites a recent increase in monthly wages received by teachers at a school for poor girls. You are mistaken, again! To those who are “stuck” in the same place, it appears that the town has progressed. The ones who have been away and returned notice barely any progress – the same quarrels, the same affairs, the same ambitions, the same preachers, the same ringleaders, the same “local intellectuals,” the same emptiness, lack of interest and boredom.

A year ago, Bobruisk lost one of her most beloved, and respected by all, citizens – Dr. Feiertog. You should have seen how the whole town united in grief, the hysterical obituaries published in the papers, the eulogies! You would surely sympathize with a great loss that Bobruisk experienced, and you would be amazed how an entire town was mourning one of her best sons. You could have read about plans to memorialize his name, about assemblies, meetings and conferences held for that purpose every Monday and Thursday.

At last, in a year, when you happened to visit the town, and you expected to find a variety of institutions named after the doctor, like a hospital, a clinic, a school, a library, a fund, etc. – you came to Bobruisk and found that after Dr. Firetog's death the town was, indeed, enriched by a Yortsayt [an anniversary of death]. Bobruisk has no hospital, no clinic, no street, no park, no school, and no fund in his name, but it has a Yortsayt.

When a poor man is asked what he owns, his answer is – a Yortsayt . I see a clear parallel here, Bobruisk, for the time being, owns a Yortsayt.

(“The Moment,” 1913, no. 135, 138, 141)


Author's Note

  1. Bobruisk will forgive me for my light tone. I know that Bobruisk is a fine town with a large Jewish community, with many excellent and useful institutions, like lending and thrift funds, that serve as examples in hundreds of provincial towns in the area, with an arts and crafts school, with a public library, and with others that earned serious mention; but about them – another time. Return


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The author uses a pen name Der Tunkeler, this can be translated as The Dark, Shady or Sinister One. Return
  2. The main street of the city of Saint Petersburg. Return

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