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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.


  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

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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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