Translated from the Yiddish by Odelia Alroy
Oh, why are bells ringing there?
Something is going to happen
At Gleckel's small house
There is a carriage.
Perhaps someone rich is
Cries are heard
Only onelittle Hentshe
Woe, they are dragging out the grandfather
In the evening, the neighbors wonder
All about the street is quiet,
__ ___ ___ ___
The guard, Stash, stood watch
Woe, did she fight
(Songs, Minsk 1938, 2017)
Translated from the Yiddish by Odelia Alroy I approach Bobruisk by train. Memories come to mind. I remember what my father and mother told me long ago: when I was two years old, I stamped my feet in the street and, crying, demanded that they give me the mascot of the Pozaner jail. Later events of my life are etched in my memory and bring me to the years in my hometown. I have lived in various towns and cities, traveled the world, and even important events in my life have not ever taken that corner of my memory which is tied up in my childhood. I wonder what there is to remember? Our little house?
YesI hear a voiceindeed, that little house with its oven and ledge, with the dirty clay floor that was dirty all week. Only on Friday did they sprinkle the floor with pale clay to prepare the house for Shabbos. The smell of the henhouse, day and night, choked us unless we opened the door to let in fresh air. And because there was never much bread, the challah on Friday night brought a holiday into the house. Because we didn't eat cooked food during the week, the Shabbos chicory with hot milk, the cholent after davening on Shabbos, was so welcome.
Just as though it just happened, I see my parents at the station when I left for America, how I looked at them through the window of the car and assured them that we would see each other again. I see how hardworking they were, during the week and on Shabbos and on a Friday nightmy beautiful mother with her silk scarf on her head, the ends tied behind her ears. Her face is peaceful and on Shabbos she seems maybe ten years younger. I see my father just having come home from shul, and the Shabbos meal was waiting on the table. He's wearing his black coat which is always dear to him, like a new garment, the paper collar and the white paper cuffs sticking out too far from the sleeves and father keeps raising them. They stick out, just a sign of them showing. On Shabbos the harmony between father and mother is evident. It seems that they appeal to each other more then, than during the week. The week and Shabbos are paired before me. The deep mud with rain and cold, the snows and frost and the orchard with rows of flowers around the polygon. The woods around the town! Such a pleasure to wander there Shabbos after lunch.
I ride from the big station to the small one where I'll be closer to the town. On one side of the railroad is the Perisip neighborhood and on the other side, the Shosi, which runs through the town to the Fort and the polygon in the middle is like a division between the town and the river. I pick a carriage and not a sled because I imagine that in a thaw, the Shosi is full of puddles. The driver, a Jew and no fool, immediately understands my practicality and asks me how I know our streets. When he hears that I am a Bobruisk native, he looks me over from head to toe. He can tell from my clothes that I am an American and he keeps asking me who I am. When he hears that I am Yechiel, Isaac the teacher's son, he is very happy and recalls my grandfather, Moshe Itze the driver and says: He was a fine Jew, he had a spot near the Eastern wall near Aryeh the builder in the builders' shul. He himself is Elikum the driver's son, the big house near the builder's shul, he underscores. I remember his father. A Jew with shaggy gray hair, very tall and it was said about him that his horse knew the way to Zuza's bar by himself. On Simchas Torah he would go drunkenly from house to house with other Jews from the builders' shul, poke into the neighbors' pots, see what was cooking and look for tsimmes meat and demand the chicken livers and gizzards. When I tell Elikum's son what I remember, we both laugh heartily. He soon relaxes and contemplates how his horse is like a person, feel when his master is relaxed and doesn't whip him, goes easily and seems to listen to what we are saying. He recalls me as a child and begins to tell about the Slobode of old and now, as though he were reading from the siddur. I learn from him that in his old age, my father became the caretaker of the builders' shul and lived in the small house built next to it. He died there, he adds. Just at the end, he starts to tell me about the Soviet regime. His children won't have to pull horse and wagon as he has done his whole life with his father's legacy, his span of horses. His children study in Minsk, he says proudly.
Moshke Zarchin, my older sister's son and his wife, to whom I had come, were happy with their uncle from America. I didn't plan to stay at their small apartment and Moshke immediately began to worry about a hotel. Things are very good for me since the revolution, said my nephew. He is a bookkeeper in the Soviet. I learn from him that in the big state house the local government is now located. He told me about many improvements in the town and added: like in Moscow, Minsk, and perhaps over the entire land it is like this.
At breakfast, I learn about many people whom I had in mind to visit: the Hebrew teacher Lvovitch, who is now a teacher in a sevenyear school; Hershel Yochvid, Nachke's brother, about Aryeh the tall one and Aryeh Thief, and others. My nephew is hurrying to work which he had left because of my coming and I set out to see my hometown.
I remember every house. It is winter, the snowy softness, which in melting promises the approaching spring. Drivers with long wagons are standing in rows. On the corner, other drivers are in a circle, waiting for customers. On both sides of the street are shops. The onetime tailors' signs, dressmakers and scissors, are still hanging. Here is Holodetz's building, once a manufacturing place. Further on, on the left side, is Reb Schneurson's big house. I think the house got much older and it doesn't seem as big as before. From a distance the pastry shop is visible, where young people would gather in a holiday mood to buy pastries, three kopikes each.
I would swear I remember many people. Such familiar faces. Of course, here comes Yerachmiel Petshura who once lived in my uncle, Mendel Narkin's, court. What a beard he had cut off! I think I see two Yerachmiels, one from long ago and this one who is approaching me. I recall the Yerachmiel Petshura who would like to tease me: You were in jail in Kiev and the world, Artshe, you made no better. I would answer him in the same manner: Wait, we will yet make a better world. Now I'll get even with him. He hurries by but he notices my American manner. I liked the way he looked at me. I am absolutely delighted that he recognize me immediately and I say: Reb Yerachmiel! So he turns around to meWhat do you mean, Reb Yerachmiel? We are now ‘Citizen.’ When he look at me again, he stares and says
Look here! Artshe is here! How did you come here? You went to Americawhat am I saying? He catches himself.
I liked his bewilderment so I laughed. Yerachmiel regards me again and says:
Wait, waithe comes out with a big Sholom Aleichem, you have come back. What else? The whole world will now come back to us just as they left us before laughs Yerachmiel goodnaturedly and continues to hold my hand in hisLook, you have a womanly face, without your long mustache, he teases. Then he regrets that he has compared me to a womanI mean a true actor, without the whiskers.
We talk about the current situation:
Which is better? We are not eating goose cracklings and pancakes every day, but I make an account and in ten years' time it has gotten so much better, what will be in another ten years? Yerachmiel Petshura comes out with pleasure from children and forget about me, our children! It will be good for them! Do you remember my Motele, Artshe? What do you think he is now? He is a big deal, an engineer in Moscow. Do you think he stays still? They keep sending him on government trips. And Gitele, do you remember? She is a doctor in the Minsk hospital. Yerachmiel laughs goodnaturedly with true pleasure. He invites me at least for dinner and a bit of whiskeyand winks. I thank him and we part. After a few more encounters with former neighbors, Bobruisk knows that I have just come from America.
According to the addresses which my nephew gave me, I open the door of Aryeh, Thief. He was also called Aaron Gorelick, like me, but because of his appearancea darkskinned face, burning black eyes, thick hair, thick eyebrows and black mustache, the guys nicknamed him Aryeh Thief. He was more than a friend, he would share many things with me. Once he told me a secret, that he liked Big Esther. In appearance, Esther could have been his sister. She was also dark with a healthy appearance. She was a good seamstress. She had been an orphan, lived with her brothers and was always afraid that she ate too much (was a burden). Aryeh was a bootmaker (soldiers' boots) and he would always smell of tar and he earned very little. Big Esther was one of the first members of my circle and I regarded her as a close friend. Once she confided in me, He's a fine lad but his work, may we be spared!
In a while, after my second arrest, when I came back to Bobruisk for a visit, they had already gotten married. Both practical people, they probably decided that she could open a workshop for she was a good modiste and he opened a cigarette and tobacco store with incidentals, like notebooks and pencils. You could also get socks, paper collars and sleeves, neckties and suspenders. Their devotion to the movement was great and his store served as a meeting place. In time of trouble, in time of arrests, we would store literature and fliers, leave passwords and guys would go in to buy cigarettes and various necessities. The store was also called The Store on the Exchange. Later, before my leaving for America in 1913, Aryeh had a big business in the market. Esther had a workshop with several working girls. Some girls in the movement said that Esther was like all other employers. Most of the girls praised her and wished that there would be many such employers. Both businesses were run under the name Gorelick. So they began to call them by the name Gorelick's Store or Esther Gorelick, the modiste. Comrades would come to get something from the store and Aryeh and Esther would wholeheartedly help the movement.
Busily involved in their activities were they when I suddenly opened the door. Esther had aged, gotten heavier and there was a shadow of whiskers on her upper lip, which made her look somewhat mannish. With needle and thimble in her hand, a dress started on the table, I imagined that Esther was still sewing someone else's dress, just like when we said goodbye before leaving for America.
What a guest! What a dear guest has come! called Aryeh. His dark eyes sparkled with charm, his white teeth gleamed when he laughed with joy on seeing me. We clasped hands, laughed and talked, talked and laughed. In our conversation, it was often commented, We have lived to see a free Russia!
The door opened and two grown boys, strapping lads, heavybrowed, with short dark hair, one older than the other, but it was apparent they were brothers, from one father and mother. One extends his hand, then the other: strong lads. Soon the daughter enters. She is between the two boyswhispers to her mother. The girl is slender, a sprouting youth.
She's beautiful, whispers Esther in my ear.
(Gorelick's sons, I learned later, in the wartime, I read in the paper, were among the heroes of the Soviet Union.)
And our conversation covers fourteen years, my experiences, theirs during their occupationsunder the Germans and the Poles and about ten years of freedom in the country.
What a pleasure this life is! Aryeh is no longer the storekeeper. Our Soviet businesses are of a larger scope. It's a different world. It will be better for the children!the parents become enthusiastic and Aryeh tells about his new work: he is a manager of a section of houses which he oversees and is a useful citizen.
The drivers, the shoemakers, the tailors learned that Artshe the shoemaker, of the first Bobruisk movement, was a guest in the city and they let me know that they invited me to a celebration of the Parizer Commune which would take place in the Holodetz Building where the clubs were.
More people came than the hall could hold. They were standing on tiptoe, one looking over the second one's shoulder. I sit on the dais and think about what I am going to say. In the audience I see Lvovitch's face. He has aged. He looks at me sharply. I feel a bit guilty that I didn't see him before.
Here is Hershel Yochvid, Nacke's brother. I hear the speakers but I don't listen. Experiences flood my mind. They call my name. I hear praise for me, for the former movement, and I become enthusiastic and words come. I begin to speak! I told about my various experiences and gave a picture of my life. To the Petshuras, to the drivers and shoemakers, who sat opposite, I spoke in my workman's manner. From time to time I felt tearful. The crowd applauded and laughed.
Lvovitch waited after everyone left and embraced me. He invited me to come to the school where he was a teacher, to say a few words to the children.
Hershel Yochvid, who had come over to us, was quiet. He let me finish with Lvovitch then he invited me to his home where he lived with his mother, in his father's big house. On the following day, I was invited to the fortress to the Red Army, to participate in a celebration of the Parizer Commune.
The Fortress was a city in itself with big stone barracks, military hospitals, pretty official houses, clubs and stores. The streets were paved. There were orchards, boulevards and churches. There was a military guard at the gates. The gates opened and closed with heavy chains.
In the evening at the appointed time, when I needed to go to the fort, someone from the Red Army came to take me there. He brought me a horse to ride and asked me to ride at his side because the thaw outside had left deep puddles of water at the polygon. I told myself a joke aloud, to soothe my heart, les the horse throw me. It worked.
The big barracks were decorated and full. The faces of the soldiers in the Red Army were flushed. My guide took me to the long table at the dais from which they were soon to begin speaking.
The warm reception, in a disciplined manner appropriate for soldiers, and the military band surprised me. I had not expected such honor. It is hard to explain in words how I felt. I remembered the onetime convoy and how it would bring me to my hometown as one who had been arrested and now I was received as an important citizen and with such a parade! But who has time to think?
I will never forget this moment of my life, the warmth, the reception, the shouts of Bravo, the soldiers tossing me in the air like a ball, and the exit to music. That was the best reward for helping in the movement, the battle for better times.
I fell asleep very late. In the morning I visited Lvovitch's school where I was asked to speak to the assembled children. I spoke and was asked to speak more and more, especially to tell about the American schools. There were questions, large and small. And all the questions indicated the desire to know.
With the song of Soviet songs, battle songs, the school holiday ended such as I had never seen in my childhood years.
After a warm farewell with my friends, I left Bobruisk on the way to Kiev, Odessa, as before.
Translated from the Yiddish by Odelia Alroy More than once are Jews found traveling in a wagonmy custom. Traveling over towns and villages in Poland, one finds Jews in various businesses. Some are working as merchant brokers, some as butter merchants, others as leather merchants. In Bobruisk I was always taken for a wood person.
A forester? asked the driver, taking me to the hotel.
The same was asked at the private hotel on Hirsh Lekert StreetA forester?
Will I get a room with you?
Even two answered the owner, a Jew with the face of a poor man, dressed like a workman in boots and a cap.
Don't you have any guests?
Where will I get them from? asks the Jew back. Once many would come to Bobruisk. Much wood would leave here for abroad. Foreigners would come, sometimes landowners and people from the government, high officials. Today there are no landowners, no one to conduct affairs of state and should someone come from the Soviet Agency he is a poor man with just enough for expenses and one doesn't earn any money.
On the main street, which everywhere is called with Karl Marx or Revolutionaya or Sovietskaya or Lenin, Jewish unemployed are wandering about and smelling out an opportunity but not going over to ask about one. One can't just go up to anyone and propose a deal. Once one could go up to any Jew and be certain If your name is Mendel one can eat from your pot [it would be kosher].
Today you are not certain with Mendel. Mendel could be a rabid Communist, a controller, an agent, and you have to be careful.
A Jew with a face of an Ivan, a neighbor in my hotel, nabs me for a chat.
It's not good, he saysone of oursa registrarsaid that there is no room for our children in the schools.
Everyone complains about thatall the merchants, storekeepers, airheads. It is hard to get their children into schoolespecially the higher schools.
And that is not allthey tell their acquaintancesthey don't teach in Russian.
In what then do they teach?
Yiddish. Do you hear?
Yesbut mostly they learn the jargon.
What's the matter?
What's the use?
Students from Jewish schools are taken on all over. They are in the Jewish technical schools, teachers' faculties, division of general universities. With Yiddish, one can be a technical person, an elected official, but Jews still live with former goals.
What will the result be?
What do you do with the children?
They are studying in White Russian?
And White Russian is better?
So why do you send the children to White Russian schools, not to a Yiddish one?
Indeedit's bad, but it is better than Yiddish.
I knowat least they don't understand White Russian.
What's the reason?
They have to learn. They understand Yiddish, so why should they study it?
A few steps father and another world.
I come into the building of the professional union. They introduce me to the Chairman of the entire professional union of Bobruisk and the surroundings.
A large, wide cabinet. A typist types on the typewriter, officials go in and out with papers, the telephone rings.
The chairman is a young, wellbuilt, fullblooded youth, darkhaired, darkeyed, whose energy sprouts from everywhere, from his eyes, from his fair, from his swift feet, from every movement.
From a Menshevist paper? he asks with a goodnatured smilelet it be…. You want to know about the workers, please.
He takes out a pack of paperstatistics, lists and reads.
The Bobruisk circle has 20,000 workers: Bobruisk alone has 8,000 workers. Jewish workers account for 36% of the Bobruisk circle. Our work is conducted in the language which is spoken by most of the workers in the factory. The toilers, the tobacco workers, the veneer workers, leather workers, box makers, are led in the professional work in Yiddish. Where the majority is Russianin Russian. But everywhere each, even in the minority, can speak his own language.
It seems that the leaders conduct their official work in several languagesin Russian, White Russian, Yiddish, Polish.
In some parts, he said, they had to fight with the Jewish workers for Yiddish. They speak bad Russian and don't want to speak Yiddishcomedians! But we do what the majority wants.
He delivers his points as though he were delivering a judgment.
We have drawn many Jews into factories, he says, mostly girls, women who had sold from baskets and carts are now working in factories and are happy.
After the official speech we converse and I see in this energetic Jewish young man, an interesting person.
It seems that this official who directs such important activities, who must speak several languages, Russian, White Russian, and Yiddish, just seven years ago, in 1920, was a simple smith who couldn't sign his name.
Though I should be ashamed, says this handsome, healthy young man, my father also couldn't and he couldn't teach me.
But something happenedonce when a strange army was stationed in Minsk, where he lived, a soldier slapped him for no reason, only because he was a Jew and the smith decided to take revenge. As soon as the Bolsheviks came back to the city, he enlisted in the army to fight those who had slapped him for no reason.
He was in the army for two years and he was at the front. There, in the army, he first took a pen in his hand and, all fired up, this ordinary young man began to learn.
Now he is the chairman of the professional union and he does his job very well. He has a staff under him with intellectuals, all dealing with him, praising him, and fearing him.
It is truly a wonder to see how this smith works. He remembers everything, knows everything, is involved in everything, and in a short time has learned the official language, White Russian, and speaks fluently.
You speak like a true White Russian, I tell him.
When you need tohe saysit's White Russia.
In the professional union, there is a union of intellectualsof doctors, engineers, and others. Here one of the educated members sits and leads a conversation with the chairman. The smith from Minsk is involved in important matters. And with how much tact and savvy he conducts himself with the doctors and the engineers.
No goodhe tells the elected representativeyou must have a conference.
He knows that with shoemakers and tailors it's better to work. Intellectuals don't often come to confer. But he also knows that you have to have the intellectuals.
Nowhe tells meI am going to try to leave my work. I want to enter the university but I don't think they will allow me to leave.
Another episodenot with a heroic young man but with an ordinary young woman.
She is a small woman, inconspicuous and not from an important background. Her father is neither a shoemaker, a tailor, [nor] a farmer but alas [is] a merchant. But she has a position in the government as an agronomist.
Where this daughter of a Bobruisk merchant got the idea to study agronomy, only God knows.
However, she studied agriculture, learned it well, and got a position in the government in the department of agriculture.
This Jewish girl from Bobruisk goes from village to village and teaches White Russian farmers how to plow the fields, how to sow wheat, work gardens, plant orchards, and take care of cattle.
She gets a small salary, this girl, 7080 rubles a month, but she works day and night. She doesn't always have a horse and wagon to travel around the villages, so this young woman agronomist puts on a pair of boots, a kerchief on her head, and goes tens of kilometers on foot in the most distant places.
Good morning, comrade!she greets the farmerHow is the cow? How does the orchard look? How are the fields doing?
Farmers listen to this small Jewish Bobruisk woman because she knows better how to fertilize fields, get rid of worms in the orchards, how to plant, till and reap.
At lunchtime, the farmer's wife sets a big dish of potatoes and pig cracklings on the table for the whole family, gives each one a wooden spoon and a spoon for the guest. The whole family sits, serves themselves from the bowl and the Jewish girl from Bobruisk joins them.
And then she puts on a canvas raincoat and goes from village to village, creeping over hill and dale, over swamps and mud, in snow and in rain. And when night comes, she goes into a farmer's home and stays over a pile of hay or on the big oven or on a hard table, her boots under her head.
Not every worker in Bobruisk has such a position.
At the home of the woman where I had lunch, who had once been wealthy, it is sad. Her son sits and studies. He can't get into a place of higher learning because of his bourgeois background and his mother is worried.
What do you do with him? How can he get a job?
The biggest aim is for him to become a member of one of the professional circles or a worker, but how do you get there?
That is the biggest worry. One generation grows up, a new generation which strives to learn and work, a generation which agrees with the Bolsheviks, which dislikes the bourgeoisie, is through and through proletarian and can't get work. The father's biggest worry is what do you do with the children? How do you make them employable?
Many are drawn into industry but the industry is small. The biggest industry in Russia for the time being is children. The city grows, children grow up, and what do you do with them?
It is bad say the fathers about the unemployed elementsbitter. They don't take our children into schools, into factories, into the armyat least drown them.
One Jew even demanded of me that England and America should make an arrangement. I told him that England and America are not up to it and he became an enemy.
What? he screamedthey want the world to go under?
And one Jew declared in despair, that the old world must die out, like the generation in the desert which was unable to enter the land of Israel.
You understand, the Jew said in a Gemara tune'they' dislike the old, they would like to get rid of us. The young people like them and they only like the young.
There is a lot of truth in his words. The young people are for the most part content. Just like in America, old age in Russia is now no honor. Young people have clubs, activities, lectures, newspapers, courses. It is likely for him. He enjoys this world. The changes in the club are little and even the young unemployed are not so badly off. He tries to fit in, to become more like the proletariat. The older order is sad. There is no business, no activity in shul like there had been. No respect for his old age. No extra respect from his childrenwhat does he have?
Before my leaving Bobruisk, several teachers invited me to give a talk about Yiddish literature and cultural life in other lands.
I didn't want to, but the teachers all wanted to hear about Jewish cultural life.
We are 90 Yiddish teachers, they said, and you understand how we are interested in Yiddish literature and culture in other lands.
It was left that I talk with the teachers. Later, a Communist teacher came and asked me to talk not only with the teachers but with the Jewish cultural activists.
So it was. On the next day, they invited me to the Jewish section. A pale young man sat at a table and struggled to write an article in White Russian for a newspaper. He put down his pen and proposed
Perhaps you will read for the Jewish workers too?
But I have to make you aware that I work at the ‘Forward’.
Then you will talk about literature!
About Yiddish literature, press, school, and theater.
When I was later brought to the club of the construction workers, which was once a synagogue, it was packed, mostly with young people.
I didn't tell anything new. I only told about what was going on in Yiddish literature, the press, schools, and theater. They were very receptive. Every book which I mentioned was new. They had never heard of Asch's works. They had not heard of most of the Yiddish books which were published outside of Russia since the Revolution up until now, with some exceptions they know nothing. The teachers were openmouthed.
Oh, when we have the books, they said, it would be fortunate. We have absolutely nothing to teach the higher classes. It is always the same writers and translations from Russian. The limited number of foreign books which appear are left with the editors.
The unrest of the teachers began to grow as did that between the boys and girls.
I told that in North and South America there is a growing Yiddish press with more than 3 million Jews and 700,000 circulation. In Poland there is circulation of the Yiddish press of more than 100,000. In Soviet Russia, the Yiddish press has barely 30,000 circulation.
There was a buzz in the hall like a beehive.
Are you going to allow him to speak? I heard voices.
Speak! Speak! voices calledWe want to hear!
I spoke further.
You have done wonders. One hundred fifty thousand Jewish children study in Yiddish schools. You have established faculties, technical schoolsbut at the same time, it is a sin against Yiddish literature. You are studying only your own authors. The students in your schools study geography and arithmetic in Yiddish and fiction they must read in Russian. You don't acquaint them with Yiddish literature except some of your ownwith one hand you build and with the other, you destroy.
Silence! scream voices. Counterrevolutionary silence!
Right, right! call others.
I spoke, showing the good and the bad and they didn't lynch me, didn't stone me.
They discovered history with me, especially the girls, but without danger. And there were many notes asking me how I liked the Red Army, what I had to say about Sholem Asch's letter to Pilsudski, what do I think about proletarian culture and am I a Menshevik?
It is understood that the same leader of the Jewish section who invited me to appear even though I told him about my working for the ‘Forward,’ came out against me with great complaints and screamed at my nerve.
But we do not have to regard him poorly. He had to save himself. Nevertheless, he was tolerant and he let me speak.
Later the teachers and librarians thanked me.
It had to change. They praised me. The readers demanded foreign books. When they get a copy, it is almost torn to threads.
Acquaintances wondered at my bravery. Who knows, if I don't think of the leaders of the town?
Translated from the Yiddish by Odelia Alroy When the horrible German armies began their march over Europe in 1939, more than half the high schools in Bobruisk were Jewish. About threefourths of all the Jewish children of Bobruisk and the surrounding area studied in the Jewish schools.
Yiddish was the main language. From the 1st class to the 7th, there was not a complete program. From 8th 10th class, there was a full program. In the second class, they already learned White Russian and Russian. German was studied as a foreign language from the 6th class.
In the younger classes, they sang many Yiddish songs, songs about nature, about the heroic Red Army and so forth. The only Yiddish folksong which was learned was Oif'n Pripitchok and that underlined how children were once taught.
The children in school were influenced against chauvinism and Zionism was not mentioned.
Religion was a poison in order to poison the workers. The capitalists needed it in Russia and still need it in capitalist lands to keep down the might of the working class in order better to use them. There was no difference between people or between classes. That was what we were taught.
But Bobruisk was a Jewish town. And despite all the antireligious teachers and hardships in many homes, Jewish traditions and holidays were observed and in a small portion of the families, they were even very religious.
Therefore it was no wonder that on Seder nights or other Jewish holidays, there were organized antireligious evening events. And since all holidays were school days, the children had to come to school that day. I, for example, liked the Seder evenings. So I and many other students would come home early, as the Four Questions, and help sing the Chad Gadya song in Yiddish. Very few of my generation understood the content of the holidays. Many children would come to hear Kol Nidre in the synagogue (there was a synagogue on our street until 1941) and until today, I can't understand why we listened to that melody with such attentiveness and trembling hearts. We didn't understand anything. Maybe the sad faces of the grandmothers, grandfathers and parents worked on us!
We knew that on Succoth one builds a Succah, than on Chanukah, one eats latkes and plays with money, because there were no dreidels then. Others knew that on Lag B'Omer, one plays with bows and arrows, but why? Other parents or grandparents would explain the meaning of the holidays to their children, but since it wasn't taught in school, it would go in one ear and out the other.
We learned a lot about Sholem Aleichem and Mendele. About Peretz, Bergelsonvery little. In the 30s we studied the poems of Itzik Feffer, Markish, Marshak, Izzy Karik.
There were Sholem Aleichem evenings: plays like Tevye the Dairyman, Motl Pessi the Cantors. They would also perform Hershele from Ostropolie, The Magician, Two KuniLeml, and others. All these stories, all these plays were then understood, wellreviewed, and worked over so that no word against Soviet youth should seep through.
In the Jewish schools it was not even mentioned that there were such great writers as Bialik, Tchernikovsky, Asch, Katzenelson, Shmuni, and others. We learned a lot of Whiter Russian literature and grammar.
The teacher Papierna and the students of the older classes tried to make it so that the knowledge of the Russian language and literature in the Jewish school should be equal to the Russian schools. And we proved it when they closed the Jewish schools. We, the former Jewish students, did well in our White Russian and Russian studies and our knowledge was perhaps even stronger than the students not from the Jewish schools. We had the best teachers in the city. We were taught physics and mathematics by Lazarova who had advanced education. Chemistry was taught by Levina. German was taught by Levinson, Lipetz.
In the first classes we were taught by our devoted teachers like Berman, Gershengoren. Before the outbreak of the war the director of our school was Veishinker; he also taught geography and history. We learned a lot of history. Much about the Roman Empire, about Egypt but not once was mentioned that thousands of years ago there was a people, Jews, who fought against the Romans. About Bogdan Chmelnitsky, Pugachev, Ruzin, we knew because they were folk heroes. About Bar Kochba, Samson, we heard nothing.
About geography we know that on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea there was a mandate colony of the English empire which was called Palestine: we know no more.
In the days of the Soviet holidays, like the New Year, the day of the October Revolution, the first of May, anniversaries of writers, Soviet heroes, there would be contents and assemblies: song, dance, sports programs. The students of the Jewish schools would always take first place. And that was the case with other cultural events.
In the school year 19381939, all the parents of the students in the Jewish school were called to a meeting. It was declared that because the students who wanted to go to universities, technical schools, and other places of learning where studies were in Russian and White Russian, it was better that the lessons would be in Russian and White Russian. The parents did not understand what was happening. They didn't understand that after the short assembly with the president of the education union, they would close all Jewish schools in Russia. So suddenly the era of the Jewish schools ended. But Yiddish did not hinder the young people from becoming good doctors, engineers, technicians, fliers, and captains. It was difficult for the pupils, the teachers who had studied for many years in Yiddish. It was hardest for a teacher like Shub. The last year we were taught Yiddish literature and grammar by the teacher KaganHeller. He was a Yiddish writer and editor of the Yiddish newspaper in Bobruisk.
The Jewish children who were born several years later didn't even know the alphabet. That is how, little by little, the rich literary and daily Yiddish dwindled between the generations. A sorrow. Whom did Yiddish bother?
I was lucky to finish seven classes in Yiddish.
Translated from the Yiddish by Odelia Alroy You want to know how I became a member of the partisans and what I did in the Otrad [unit of partisans]? It's a long story.
The 66yearold Kashe Bercovitch showed me an official document with all sorts of signatures and stamps as befits legal documents.
This document certifies that the citizen Kashe Bercovitch was an important member of the 57th Division of the Eighth Rohatshover Brigade. She completed several espionage missions and brought back very important. When the Germans blockaded the forests, she would bring us food and arms.
A second document certifies that Comrade Bercovitch would prepare medicine for the nursing division of the Red Cross and would care for the wounded like a loving mother.
The old woman put away the documents, adjusted the kerchief on her gray head and began to relate:
I lived my entire life in the little town of Fabolov and then in Bobruisk. I had my own house, a cow and chickens.
My husband was a shoemaker in a factory, my sonFaivkea locksmith. Our daughter, Laike, had given us two grandchildrena pleasure in our old age.
For holidays, days of rest, we would gather around a festive table and I would tremble lest someone give us an evil eye.
On Shabbos, June 21, 1941, I had a lot to do. My other daughter and her children were coming to visit from Moscow.
A mother wants to satisfy her beloved guestsso I baked and cooked, thinking up all sorts of treats so it would be as nice as possible.
My grandson ran around in the garden, jumped and danced because it was all new to him since he had not seen it in Moscow. Here he chases a hen, there a kitten. A lively world!
On Sunday, I was preparing for many guests for dinner but when Sunday came, everything was turned upside down.
After Comrade Molotov's speech on the radio, my daughter promptly prepared to return to Moscow and we couldn't leave Bobruisk. We didn't want to leave my fatherinlaw, who was crippled, alone. So we lost several days and we had to leave on foot. We hadn't gone farthe Germans were chasing usand we turned back to Bobruisk.
On August 5, I remember it as though it were today. It was a Friday when the Germans carried off 800 men, among them my son Faivke and my husband. None of them returned. How I didn't go instance from this, I still don't know. In a few days, we were all locked up in the ghetto.
I had a dreamI don't believe in those superstitions, but I had a dream that a black man was chasing me into the mud to swim. I screamed that I don't want to go.
I wake up and neighbors are rousing me: ‘Kashe, a pogrom!’ We hid. Sixty men in a cellar. We stayed there until late at night and when we left we saw a fire and the street was filled with murdered people. From where it was burning, we heard awful screams17,000 Jews whom the Germans were burning that night. I was hidden by a White Russian acquaintance, Stepan Valenshitz. After the riot he gave me a loaf of bread, sugar, a towel, a fur coat. I put my kerchief on my head and with a stick in my hand, I set out, not knowing where.
I wandered for about 40 kilometers, staying overnight at a farmer's house and in the morning I left for Krivichi.
I knew a White Russian family there. When their children studied in Bobruisk, they lived with me. They were wonderful children. I loved them like my own. I'd cook, wash, and men their clothes.
Now I came to them. They greeted me warmly, embraced me and said: ‘Don't worry, Kashe. Spend the winter with us and we'll see what to do next.’
I stayed with them. Sometimes I'd hide on top of the oven, sometimes in the yard or in a ditch.
I was bitter. Once on a Christian holiday, the family went to church and I was left all alone. So I left my hiding place and went away. As I was walking, I thought, ‘God of the Universe, what sin did I commit? Here a bird is flying, a worm is crawling, a blade of grass is growing, none is afraid, none is trembling, but I am cursed, damned, and any lowlife can destroy me. I've lost my husband, also my son, and God knows what is happening to the other children. Is there any justice that I must hide and tremble before each leaf? I must be able to help our people against the Germans.’
I promptly decided. I am not going to stay in Krivitchi. In the village I heard all kinds of stories about the partisans and their attacks on the Germans. So I thought perhaps it's an omen that I should join those very partisans.
My heart took me to Ticinitchi.
So Kashe, be well, he said to me, and if you don't like it here, come back to us and we'll live through the cursed German experience together.
We kissed and I was left alone.
I tied my kerchief lower over my head and with my stick in my hand, I looked like a Godfearing beggar.
I knocked on a hut and asked to stay overnight.
Where are you coming from, Grandmother? I was asked.
I am going with God's help, I answered tearfullyand good people don't let me down.
The mistress gave me a plate of potatoes, a piece of bread, and I climbed atop the oven. At dawn, someone of authority came in and said that the Germans are sending 25 policemen to Ozerian to search out the partisans.
I was lying on top of the oven and my teeth were chattering.
God, I thought. Give me, a foolish old Jewess, strength and wisdom.
With my sack on my shoulder and my stick in my hand, I left the village and went toward the forest.
It was summer. The sun was shining. The birds were singing and I was drenched in tears.
I remembered my son Faivke. As a little boy he liked to gather mushrooms, wild strawberries, and he knew all about mushrooms, where they grew, what their names were.
I sat down to rest. I took a nap and dreamed: Faivke embraced me, showed me his notebook: ‘See, Mother, I got an ExcellentGive me money for the fishing rod you promised.’
I'll give it to you, I answer from my sleep, but see, don't swim there.
I embrace him and suddenly I feel a knife in my heart, as I remember how the murderers chased my husband and son out of the house and how they led them and everyone else to the slaughter.
I woke up, got up, and went further.
I got to Ozerian an hour before daybreak. I knocked at a hut. A middleaged woman opened the door. She was, it seemed, very unhappy and very frightened.
Where are you going, Grandmother, so early? You can rest here a bitbut don't count on more. There's no room. Relatives have come to visit us.
And I immediately noticed on the wall in the next room there was a wide holster and I'd swear that a gun was in the corner. Yes, I understood, these must be partisans.
The mistress prepared the table and one of the relatives said to me:
Sit with us, old one, and eat with us!
I thanked him and wished that God protect him from all harm.
Both relatives laughed heartily.
You are right, old one, God should protect us, so we can protect others. And they started to ask who I am and where I am going. I immediately felt that they would me no harm. So I told them all, honestly, about how I live and what brought me to Ozerian.
If that's so, you're a clever one, called out one of them to me. You don't even know what a favor you've done by coming.
She is a good spy, said the second.
I didn't even understand what that meant.
The relatives left and in a while I understood that because of my news the partisans met the police and destroyed them.
The partisans to me with them and I remained with them. For two years I lived in the forest in a mudcovered hut and I went on various missions. I would do the laundry, sew, patch, cook, and tend the wounded.
Many times I was a spy. The commanders would tell me, Take yourself to this or that village, Grandma, and find out how many Germans are there.
So I'd put my sack on my shoulder and take my stick in my hand and go to the village, find out what I had to and come back.
I tended the wounded. We even had nurses and surgeons but no one got along with the wounded better than I did. I would not leave them: fixing their pillows, giving them a drink. It once happened:
The staff commander Lev (he even gave me a certificate about this) called me up and proposed that I stay in the village with one of the wounded partisans. His name was Mitya. The commander said to me:
See, save the boy.
And what do you think? I saved him. Mitya became very attached to me and called me Mama.
Such things happened to me a lot. After a heavy battle, the partisans left two who were wounded in the rye fields and needed help. I took a sickle, a basket, and I put in a bottle of milk, some eggs, gauze, cotton, medicine which the doctor gave me and I went off to the wounded.
I'd do that every day until they took the wounded into the forest.
It was very hard for us to get medicine and in the Rohatshover hospital, a village girl, Mariasha Letkova, who I knew worked, I went to the hospital, called her and talked to her about the war, about weddings, and told her that it was time for a girl like her to get married.
Oh, Grandma, she said, where are the groomsall are now in the war.
The war will end, I answered. The eagles will return from the front and the forests. And so, Marushka, you will indeed see that you will need to concern yourself with them.
And in the meanwhile I whispered a secret to her, that we need more cotton, gauze, medicine.
The girl blushed. The color of her face changed but she brought out all that I needed.
The doctor was overjoyed with me.
You are a true magician, he said.
And that is what is written in the letter which he gave me, that she does wonders in order to save the wounded partisans.
I was also an agitator but an agitator of a different sort. I had my experiences.
Women, especially those whose husbands and children were slaughtered, needed to believe in all sorts of superstitions, seers, in card readers, in witches.
And so I would lay out the cards on the table and begin to babblelike a true seer.
This ace of spades and this nine of hearts, show worry and agony. You are still worrying, daughter, about your mate, but these cards show that the war will end in peace for you. Your bottom cards show you man will come home safely and decorated and the cards would always come out that way.
You see, I would say, the king of spades always falls on the bottom.
The group would always understand who the king of spades was and would murmur: A plague on him, the German.
The Germans would give orders that we should go to work in Germany. For not declaring oneself in time, there would be all kinds of threats…. Then I would show with my cards that the only way was to go to the partisans in the forest: either to a sure death in a cozy house in Germany or into the woods where everything will be kosher…and my cards would make a strong impression. They would give me a great sack of products and a full barrel of the best wishes….
You laugh about my ‘agitation.’ Laugh, laugh, but when I would bring some loaves of bread, dumplings, sugar, salt…it wasn't so bad.
And surely it was good that tens of farmers joined the partisans due to my card reading.
Now I'm in Moscow at my only daughter's, who on that dark June 22 came to visit me in Bobruisk.
Translated from the Yiddish by Odelia Alroy
Heavy thought, heavy thoughts
Bite my mind like poisonous snakes,
Boring deep into my heart,
I see my homeland bloody and dark,
Yes it's my homeland bloody and dark.
My land is suffering and bloody
How I would want to suffer with them
(S. Niger, editor, Kiddush Hashem, New York [ ] 442)
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