|The steppe with flowers adorned
Planted by Gd Himself
Spreads far and goes further
Without a beginning, without an end.
|C. N. Bialik
From his poems in Yiddish
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
by David Tverdovsky
To my Parents - Nakhman and Khaya, of blessed memory
Translated from Hebrew to English by Moshe Kutten
Edited by Yocheved Klausner
The Journey to the Fields
A custom, common in this house from the days of my great grandfather was to go out to the prairie, at the onset of the harvest season, to examine the crops. At the house, the children were already reminding each other, on the day prior, about the joyful news:
Tomorrow we are going out to inspect how the winter crops have fared!
and we will also visit the wheat and oat crops, said Saba [grandfather in Hebrew. MK]
and you will eat breakfast near the Lake of Elimelekh, announced Savta [grandmother in Hebrew. MK].
For the small children, this was a true holiday, and for R' Yehuda- Leib'ichka [ichka is an endearment ending in Yiddish. MK], this traditional journey to the prairie was held, from the early times, like a holy ritual that occurred every year, before the harvest season, with an exceptional festive spirit and reverence.
At the day's first light, the grandchildren, giddy and excited, were singing melodies of ditty songs, gathering in the yard and rolling, together with Saba, out from under its cover, the blackish polished carriage which, during all of its beautiful and usually easy life was only used for special and festive occasions. In this ornamented carriage, we used to travel during the period of Shavuot [the harvest holiday. MK], or even just on Sabbath to stay with the sons' families in Sdeh-Ya'akov [literally - The Field of Ya'akov. MK], or to visit our relatives in Nakhlat-Shefa Hagdola The carriage was also used to accompany a military recruit from the village to the train station, or a groom to his wedding. On some rare occasions, the carriage also served to welcome a Gubernator [a governor. MK] who had announced his intended visit in advance. However, this grandeur carriage was mainly used for trips, made from time to time, to the crop fields in the prairie.
Oh, how festive, worry-free and pleasant were these journeys!
From early dawn, the carriage was already standing opposite the open gate, decorated, sparkling in its shiny blackness and attracting the crowd of the fiery grandchildren by its beautiful welcoming affability and springy softness.
Those grandchildren were already climbing it up and down, and cuddling on its black varnished wings, swinging on its foot-ramp from that side to the other and pulling R' Yehuda Leib'ichka's coat-wing every minute:
Saba, Nu [a call of impatience in Yiddish. MK]! When are we going, Saba?
Saba was far from sitting idle. At that hour, he had already managed to return from the Morning Prayer, water the farm animals, bring the cows and the calves to the herd that was leaving for the meadow, and anoint the carriage's axels and wheels with resin. In fact, he had been busy during a good part of the morning with the preparations. At the crack of dawn he had already sent his two gigantic youngest sons, Hirsch and Vevi, along with his eldest daughters on the green carriage loaded with tools, supplies and a brimful barrel of water to the fifth plot which was the farthest away, to hoe the corn and sunflower tracts. After that, he saw to the shaking of the sleep out of the two awfully slumberous girls Dina'tshe [tshe an ending of endearment in Yiddish. MK] and Etly, and went with the girls down to the vineyard to give them the instructions for the day's work. Later on, he took a pair of smooth and well nurtured horses out of the stables - the two courageous and fiery horses, brushed them thoroughly, trimmed slightly their rather long tails, and adorned them with a pair of splendid reins fitted with small bells, yellowish bronze shoeing and twisted red fringes for decoration.
Even little Zelik, the oldest of the grandchildren, was not idle. He helped his grandfather, with body movements that meant to show sincerity and practicability. Above the hook of the rear axle, he hanged an empty pail for collecting corn cubs on the way back for cooking and, prior to climbing with the whip to sit on the bench, he hurried up to the doghouses to release the dogs.
Whereas the quiet and skinny Rachela managed, before climbing onto the carriage, to pump some rainwater and fill, for Savta, a tub from the concrete pool that was located near the new wide sheet-metal roofed house. She even managed to soak the laundry in the tub.
The two freed dogs Vera and Pranaitis[a], participated in this hurried activity as well. They walked around under the legs of the household members, like two self-pleased in-laws, twisting their way among the children, waggling their tails with flattery. They licked, with appreciation, the faces of the smallest children causing them to fall down from time to time. This was an additional unnecessary annoyance for Savta who was very busy anyway. The cries of the scared children made Savta restless and she grumbled, from one minute to another, and moaned toward the opened door, full of outrage:
I am just asking you, Zelik! Didn't you have any other work before you had untied the dogs? Look here, look, how the babies are being frightened!
However, Savta did not have any spare time to worry about the babies at that moment. Everything was on fire now under her hands.
Just as the earliest reddish stains appeared in the brightening east, Savta Dvora Zisel was already on her feet. She thought to herself that, on a festive day like today, anything she had to deal with had a taste of elation and childhood. Amazingly light and agile, she threw herself into the stove, below her waist, and moved the baking pans from here to there, taking some of them out as provisions for the trip. One of the pans was filled with poppy seeds cookies, and the other with fat dumplings filled with cheese. Besides the special boiled eggs, rolled thoroughly in ember, there were also dumplings filled with pumpkin and all sorts of other foods that she usually prepared for Lag Ba'Omer - all of that was prepared to supply Saba and the grandchildren on their festive trip to the fields.
Savta had to pack these provisions with her own hands, and secure every item in its place on the carriage, to prevent from any damage. She then also added a jar full of plum-compote, which was left over from Sabbath, along with nicely cut and arranged honey-rye rusks for a meal-ending dessert. For the young crowd, who were always thirsty, she added a clay jug full of water, and for her old man, she stuck a bunch of sun-dried cheese triangles, under the seat, along with a jug full of sour milk. To secure the jug and to prevent, G-d forbid, any turning over or spilling, she laid down some hay under and around it. She kept reminding the old man that a cocoa bottle was especially prepared for Rakhela - the little skinny and thin countess, who was fussy with her food.
and just don't forget, Yehuda-Leib, that here, under the seat, I embedded the bottle.
In addition, just a short moment before they left for their trip, she reminded, and asked one more time, that - he would not stay there too long and come back home as early as possible, and for G-d's sake don't make any of the children catch cold. At the same moment, she whispered to herself:
It is on me and myself - whatever may happen to you!
As the warm and impatient horses were already moving, she still stood there, with her hands hugging behind her apron, and under her head shawl, which was tied under her chin for modesty, her luminous and wrinkled face peeked for a long while - a face by which one could never tell whether she was laughing or crying. This happy Savta exulting in gratitude, just stood there at the gate for a while longer, looking after the carriage exiting toward the street, following
with her eyes the carriage that carried her meager treasure, her cream of the crop, and just at the last moment, remembered to shout after the departing carriage:
Please watch Yosa'le [le- endearing ending for Yosef. MK], Yehuda Leib yes, yes Yosa'le! Pull his pants down in time before he goes, this little pig! and watch Teiba'le. She has a running nose Teiba'le . and as far as little Moshe-Khaim'ke [ke - endearing ending for Khaim. MK], you should better move him near you on the bench yes, yes , otherwise he would pinch them all, this Mazik [endearing term which literally means a pest. MK], and everybody would end up with blue bruises
However, nobody listened to her voice anyway any longer. The old man nodded his head, just as to fulfill one's duty, and hinted the courageous and elegantly decorated horses to start their brisk galloping, but gradually he allowed them to return to their regular steady pace.
The carriage, with its quivering load, exited the lower street - also called the Mem Tet Street [Mem-Tet in Hebrew's Gimatria - 39. MK], crossed diagonally the six upper straighter streets, and soon left the colony. Swaying gently on its springs, the carriage crossed under the Eruv [Sabbath range limit. MK], and as if it was hovering and floating, sailed toward the flat, wide and infinite prairie.
Oh, how happy, and beautiful were these outing trips!
At first, the melon plots sprawled and extended - the plots with the bright green watermelons and the yellow melons, which were hiding among the intricate leaf blades. Only then, running and approaching from both sides of the narrow road, were the first wheat fields, quivering and shifting in the wind.
How widely and gracefully were the waves hitting - the waves of this huge sea of wheat stalks, heavy with the night dew saturated grain and carrying within them the winter wheat!
How mystified, and carrying a message of abundance, was the heavy and somewhat yellowish rye bending over and whispering to the erect, unkempt-headed and restless oat crops moving and gaudy in the wind!
The festive spirit was so plentiful here. The jubilant chanting of fast growth, blessing of good luck and abundance and the melody of an approaching harvest, and the plentiful crop about to be collected to the barn was apparent everywhere.
Far, far away, in the bluish steamy horizon, the rising tall silhouette of the old monument named after Ber'eh-Volf emerged and protruded more and more clearly. This was the old mount with the shape of a sharpened cone towering up. The sight of the old monument prompted R' Yehuda-Leib to begin his tale.
Look over there, children - near the monument of Ber'eh-Volf your ancestors prayed their first prayer on their own land, immediately upon arriving at Novo-Russia [Southern Ukraine. MK], more than a hundred years ago. As you would soon learn, my beloved grandchildren, their journey was very long, extremely hard, life threatening and full of life dangers.
Upon hearing these words, the children quieted down and attentively observed the monument, which was still far away in the distance but protruding majestically in the horizon. From that point on, they settled into listening curiously and eagerly to Saba's story.
R' Yehuda-Leib'ichka himself turned around, half way toward his grandchildren, until they could see his profile, and hung the loose reins on the break handle that protruded above the carriage seat. The courageous-fiery horses were already running by themselves steadily at their own rhythm. With ease they sailed through the prairie, which was divided by colorful stripes and bands.
All of that happened in the days of Czar Alexander the First. He was just a very young man at the time, and was probably a good-natured king. However, his advisers were inciting him to stray away from his honest ways.
With one hand he signed an order to settle the Jews in the desert prairie of Novo-Russia around the Black Sea. These were the days when the prairie was new and wild land - a desert area that was conquered from the Turks. The young and ambitious king was therefore interested in settling this uninhabited area as soon as possible and he promised your great-grandparents assistance, during the initial settlement period - until they could stand on their own feet. He promised to give every family a pair of oxen, some seeds and tools needed to establish a farm. He promised all of that, not as a gift, G-d forbid, but as a loan, on credit, until the new settlers would be able to pay their debt, slowly, gradually, and incrementally. But in particular, the king promised the settlers to provide them with government-built houses. Not to loan them money for the houses but to build them houses ahead of time, before they arrived to their new land.
This was, certainly, very kind and nice of him. However, counter to the first order, he signed, with his other hand, an order to expel all the Jews from their villages, namely to throw them out from their existing homes in their current settlements. You can imagine for yourself the situation, where thousands of families along with their elderly, children and women - were driven away, one bright day, hurriedly and hastily, like prisoners under the guard of soldiers and leaving them without a roof on their heads. Just like a heard of sheep, they were expelled and pushed out from all villages to the provincial towns and cities and left abandoned and homeless on the city streets.
That was the reason why many of the dislodged people, practically whole communities of Jews, who were uprooted of their places, and left without means to support themselves - now grabbed onto the Czar's offer to settle as farmers in the prairies of this totally new land. Wild prairies, uncultivated for generations upon generations, waiting since the six days of creation, for owners to come, settle and work them.
This hasty race by the Jews to acquire land, started only after the expulsion from the villages, when the sword was already laid upon their necks. That was how this dashing toward settlement started. It became even a bigger panic, one generation later, as a result of another decree the one associated with the abduction issue.
When R' Yehuda-Leib felt that his grandchildren did not understand what he was referring to, he proceeded to explain and provide more details:
The abduction issue was about the Jewish children who were abducted to be turned into soldiers. They were abducted from their mother and father, and were handed over, forcibly, to the military to become Czar Nicolai's soldiers. That is unlike the new recruits of today who enlist when they reach the age of 21, serve two years and eight months, and then return home. No! These evil people were not satisfied with that. They forced little children nine and ten years old, to become Cantonists , meaning, servants of the Czar, for no more and no less than twenty five whole years. That way, they would forcibly uproot them from their Jewish heritage. For example, take our old Michailo, namely, our gentile bath-attendant, who is actually Jewish.
Is he really? Our mute gentile-bath attendant is Jewish? asked the astonished children, raising wondering and amazed voices.
Yes! Yes! said Saba.
He is a true Jew, and he is not mute at all. Tormented and pain-stricken he is. He forgot, for a long time now, how to speak Yiddish. His real name and place of birth escape his memory. Jewish customs are already alien for him. In his old age, he does not want to use Fonye's language [Fonye derogatory name for a Russian, in general, and for the Czar, in particular. MK], particularly among Jews. However a Jewish spark was preserved in his soul. These Feldwebels [Sargent-Majors. MK] could not uproot this spark out of him with their whips and lashes. And so - here he is, residing in the corridor of the public-bath, and people in the colony invite him, from time to time, as a guest to stay with them on Sabbath.
The mood of the grandchildren became somber, because of this unexpected discovery, so the old man hurried to return the discussion to its main subject:
This was the reason why, in my opinion, many new colonies were established later on. The reason was that the settlers were awarded a complete exclusion, during the first few years after settlement, from the threat of this horrible military duty. In any case, the first and the oldest colonies were established well before this panic migration.
The actual founders of the first colonies, that is, the first who settled here more than a hundred years ago, were people who carried in their heart, in most cases, the idea of walking on their own piece of land. They carried the idea for a long time, long before the Jews were expelled from their villages. These people dreamt about returning to working the land, to agriculture, to the life of farmers, like the life of our ancestors in ancient times, who lived on their own land in our fatherland, sitting under one's own vine [1 Kings 4:25 a phrase used to describe peaceful life. MK] everyone as a homeowner and farm owner rooted in one's land.
Among the first settlers who came here, most of whom were storekeepers and craftsmen, were also quite a few learned people, young men of knowledge with modern views, who went out on the journey together with the commoners and devoted themselves, with all of their faith and warmth of their heart to the interest of the settlement. For these young faithful people, the land idea was the most important issue. They believed that the Jewish renewal would come from returning to their land.
For just a small piece of land, they were willing to go to the ends of the earth and even beyond the Sambation, just to break out of the narrow square cubit of the miserable Jewish domain and redeem themselves, once and for all, from the Jewish distress. They wished to rid themselves of the low-value bogus Jewish ways of making a living, escape and distant themselves, as far as possible, from the envy-hatred of the gentiles and finally breathe freely the pure air of the spacious prairie, mixed with the smell of raw and fresh hay.
The old man encircled with his radiant glance everything the eye could capture around him all the way through the place where the waves of the wheat kissed the bluish heavens above, turned a bit more on his seat and faced the rest of the young children.
The horses, which were left to run free, galloped by themselves very nicely and alertly along the lengthy field road, a route they knew thoroughly. While running along the familiar road, with their specially-made leather glasses that hid their view on the left and right, the horses nevertheless managed somehow to occasionally throw their gluttonous necks beyond the edge of the field, as if casually, tear-off a bunch of barley spikes and grind them quickly between their teeth with the rein in their mouth.
And so, R' Yehuda-Leib'icka continued:
These learned people were those who, most of the time, served as the principal organizers of the pioneering groups in our original localities. They were the ones who convinced the rest of the people to come back to mother-earth by using the phrase: He who tills his land will have plenty of bread [Proverbs 12:11. MK], meaning - the Jewish salvation and sustenance would only be secured by working the land.
In addition, these young learned pioneers had to lead the first groups of settlers through the lengthy and dangerous journey; ...and when they arrived at the settlement locations, they had to shoulder the burden
of all of the public matters.
Even the dealing with Fonye's [Russian. MK] authorities was not one of the easiest things to do - not at all! That was because they had to deal with Jew-haters and bribe-lovers. These thugs were the ones from whom they had to receive, those days, all the borrowed farm needs - horses and carriages, meager seeds and needed tools. It was also necessary to watch the authority people closely so that they would not distort the bills and would not decrease or completely deny the support promised to the settlers. Besides all that, they had to deal with the headache associated with digging the wells equipped with ice-cellars, building Batei Midrash [Houses of learning and praying. MK] and the Khedder's [religious classrooms for children. MK], worry about finding a Rabbi and a medic, erecting a public bathhouse with a mikveh [ritual-bath. MK], and other thousands of concerns and matters associated with establishing a new settlement.
These young people were actually best fitted and able to deal with all these issues. They had not only devoted themselves to do all of these tasks, but they were also knowledgeable and experienced with all the needed information. They were well- spoken in Russian, so that they could relate their claims with the authorities appropriately and, in time of distress, they were able to serve as emissaries to the honorable Gubernator [governor. MK] himself.
In the meantime, behind the horizon, the sun began to unfold and rise a little and, while still young and big, rolled and ascended above the Ber'eh-Volf monument, and from there it shone all over the entire prairie and dazzled it to its edges. Only the far-far away margins retained their early morning fogs, which were still hanging in the air, painting the air silver.
From time to time, R' Yehuda-Leib'itckha sneaked in a brief glance at the horses and the two dogs that were running around, uninterruptedly, ahead of them. He enjoyed the crops that passed by on both sides of the narrow road above the wide sea of spikes, flattering in the wind, and continued his story:
Our great-grandfathers originally gathered together into a small group containing above one hundred families and set out on this awfully frightening long journey. That was the reason, my dear children, that setting out on such a long and strenuous journey with one's family and all belongings required an abundance of courage in those days. It required plenty of patience and stubbornness to set out with wife and children, relying on God's grace and wander to the edges of the world, in order to start everything anew, from the beginning.
As said before, these were the days of Czar Alexander the First. There were still no railroads during those days, nor were there powerful and rested mail-horses provided in exchange for their tiring mules. Families were large and burdened by many little children,
and the journey involved many months of traveling in canopy-covered wagons from Belarus, Lithuania and Poland.
On my father's side, our family originated from a big metropolis called Vitebsk. However, your grandmother's Dvora-Zisel claims that her parents' parents came from Courland [northern part of Latvia. MK]. This in itself is not that important to our discussion. In fact your grandmother is a native of Novo-Karslevka, [actually, Dvora-Gitel was one of the first-born of the colony-settlement of Novo-Poltavka. MK] - which is one of the later colonies or settlements in the Nikolayev region. What we are talking about here is about the pioneering settlers, who set out in those days in groups, to travel on the huge wandering routes of Mother Russia, and then scattered in all directions leading to the Black Sea on their way to the far, yearned for, south.
With the heavy oxen, they certainly did not advance very swiftly like a bow's arrow, but dragged themselves very slowly on all possible alternate desert roads of the desolated and remote Novo-Russia. In fact, they walked more than rode.
As they drove deeper and farther away, the tired and straggled groups lagged behind and scattered along the enormous stretches of the prairie, spreading over distances of hundreds of miles.
The meager coins and necessities, which they took with them, were exhausted long ago. The five Kopecks per day provided by the authorities for food could not buy much perhaps only some water for the porridge. Even that poor man's loaf was not always available to them in time. Many wagons had already deteriorated due to the hard and long journey, and the food for the oxen was also lacking.
The number of the sick increased from one day to another, and so did the number of the dead. Small children were the most vulnerable. Many pregnant women were lost on the way. There was hardly any family, which was not struck by the bitter fate.
The groups dwindled and became impoverished. However, despite all of the misfortunes, the settlers pressed on, and bravely broke their way south. Weary, hungry and disheartened due to the frequent fatalities, they nevertheless pushed on, placing their fate in the hands of the Creator, and forced their way through, farther and deeper southward into Novo-Russia, and thus, filled with hope, paved the way for all of us.
While revealing his ancestors' tale, R' Yehuda Leib'ichka glanced delightfully at the group of young travelers on the carriage, for whom his father's fathers once paved here the new road. He took out a lighter from the pocket of his blazer, tamped his pipe, passed over the steel lighter with several swift motions, over the flint rock with the wick and brought up the flame and the smoke.
And so, my dear grandchildren, after several good months of wandering, the depleted group, originally containing more than one hundred families, the group that later on established our settlement of Nahar Gilovka [Literally Gilovka River] was by now shrunken and depressed from the unrelenting, day-and-night travel.
This little journey was drawn out and entered slowly into the fifth month. Everything transformed into a wasteland. Even the most powerful and strong people weakened and withered.
Some of the wagons that dried up from the weariness of the thousands of versta's [an old Russian measure of length about 2/3 of a mile. MK] fell apart and could not be used. Even the patient and formidable oxen could not always tolerate the hardship. Many of them kneeled down under the added and heavy load and the lack of food, just spread their hoofs and expired. Since families with broken wagons had to be moved from the damaged to the unbroken wagons together with the rest of the group, the crowding under the canopies became more and more unbearable. As a result, the numbers of the sick and the dying increased even more.
Our Novo-Russia settlers were never enormously wealthy people to begin with. During the months' long journey, the pockets of our group emptied, until there wasn't even a penny left for any expense.
Despite the nice promises by the authorities given at their original localities that included a guarantee of sufficient amount of food and wagons for the entire trip the settlers became disappointed from the beginning. It had been clearly agreed that they would be helped in the same way as the other, non-Jewish, settlers.
In reality, the German settlers, who could be assumed to be wealthier to begin with and who also received additional support from their government, received four times as much support from the Russian authorities, thus earning twenty Kopecks for every five promised to the Jewish settlers. Hence, the Jewish settlers realized, from their first step, that they had been lured into one big calamity. Their people were dropping, like flies, due to the meager amount of food. The farther they went on their way, the more victims the infinite wandering claimed. It got to the point that half of the original pioneers perished before they arrived at their destination.
Our ancestors left thousands of graves seeded along all the direct and by-ways of Mother Russia.
You may ask why would the authorities do that and for what purpose? After all, for the authorities, as agreed ahead of time, these were travel expenses given on loan, which were supposed to be paid back. The settlers agreed to eventually pay back their loan to the authorities to the last penny. They actually ended up paying all of their debts to the last penny, with interest and beyond - twice over. Even if any small portion of the debt was ever absolved, once in a blue moon, on the occasion of a Czar coronation or any other festive day, the government had never lost its share in that deal. On the contrary - the government grabbed and received a fat bone from us, when years later, it confiscated, with one swoop, the entire public fund more than a million rubles that were accumulated in the colonies over decades.
But this really happened later. For the moment, the poor settlers had to undergo a new ordeal namely, selling their own meager belongings for a slice of bread. Due to the scanty five Kopecks food ration, which they did not always receive on time, a new series of selling everything they owned - commenced. People took the last shirt off their backs and their only pair of boots. They even bartered their Sabbath candlesticks, all of that for a loaf of bread, a pot of millet or a jar of milk for the babies who were overcome by hunger.
R; Yehuda Leib'itch'ka adjusted his sitting on the bench, and scolded Moshe-Khaim'ke who went overboard with his mischievous behavior. He then continued his story:
Obviously, the settlers set out on their way in the beginning of the summer. However, in the meantime, the summer was already over, and the distance to the location of the new settlement with the promised new houses, somewhere in the remote prairie of Novo-Russia, was still very far. It was, literally, at the end of the world. The oxen seemed always to have spare time on their hand. Oxen are not horses. Unless it is particularly lazy, the horse is an agile creature. Just pour a bag of hay into its bowel and let it rest, it would then immediately continue to march ahead.
R' Yehuda Lebich'ka, glanced proudly over his two smooth and buoyant runners - swift and quick moving horses and continued:
The horse swallows miles like an iron train, hurriedly and alertly. The oxen, on the other hand do not! They are like the day of yesterday! You children never saw such heavy and sluggish beasts in your life. The ox is never in a hurry. It is an apathetic and easy-going creature - a bulk of indifference. This creature is like saying if I do not arrive today, there is always tomorrow. The ox, with its white and cold bile, was not interested in the fact that the tired convoy of the exhausted wandering settlers, has been tortured on this road for five months and that it was losing its last strength.
Indeed, the fall was already approaching, pursuing them on their heels but the way to rest and security of the Promised Land was still long and distanced.
Distant from the main road, cut off from the rest of the world, alone and forgotten, our muddled group wandered and strayed in the desolated prairie like a strange monster in the land of the last judgment, who was ordered to wander around until the end of time. Our poor wanderers were not sure anymore whether they would ever be granted the privilege of seeing the place they yearned for and the houses which were supposed to be built for them ahead of time as promised. The bright, clean, warm and welcoming houses were certainly waiting for them already for quite some time now. The authorities' delegates are also certainly standing and waiting for them, ready to welcome them cheerily:
Milusti prusim [welcome in Russian. MK]. Kindly agree to accept these new houses; settle down on your land. Good luck and all the best!
and the delegates would proceed to quickly light the fire in the stove, set a pot with hot stew on it, and hurriedly bake a rye bread, and before all of that, there would be a pot filled with cholent to refresh one's soul.
...but, man thinks and G-d sits in Heaven [a Hebrew version of the Yiddish phrase which means the reality is always different from one's plans. MK]
It should have been, probably,
expected from the start, that all of their adventures would turn into nightmares. Outside, the fall could already be felt in all its strength. Our orphaned bunch, that was already reduced and dwindled enormously, perhaps about sixty or seventy families altogether, was drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of the open, cold and infinite prairie.
Every morning, at dawn, dense and humidity-packed fogs descended, blinding the eyes and making the road more torturous - a road that was already challenging and unfamiliar. Many times, the fog caused the group to stray away from the proper route, and proceed in an entirely wrong direction. When strong winds blew against the travelers, the heavy-moving oxen would carefully assess the situation, turn around, and pull in the opposite direction, like saying get me out of here. So now - with all of your wisdom, go and make them turn around and regain the lost few miles.
Yes, yes children, milk and honey - your ancestors did not lick on this trip - not at all! In fact, as you can see, things turned out to be extremely misfortunate.
The fall came closer and closer, and was already hanging over their heads every day, cloudy and furious, ready to unleash its wrath and its downpour. Torrent and cold winds blew their frozen breath over the torn, worn-out and exposed wanderers' camp. At dusk, awfully bitter cold and dense irritating rainfall was chasing after the travelers, penetrating the torn canopies and piercing through into the water-soaked wagons loaded with the weak and the frail. The rest of the camp - the exhausted foot-travelers, would follow behind the wagon dragging their swollen and bloody feet using the last remnants of their strength.
At that point, the old man quieted, and encircled, with his penetrating eyes, the group of children who started to be raucous. The noise grew beyond his tolerable limit. He raised his long and threatening eyebrows toward the mischievous Moshe-Khaim'ke, as a precaution, until the child became frightened and quieted immediately like a scared kitten. On the other side, he turned toward tiny Yosa'le, who was just about ready to start crying, and cheered him up with a wide smile, playfully wiggling his eyes. He then took out a candy box.
Who wants from these sweetie sweets?
Me, me, yelled everybody in one voice, except the two older grandchildren Zelik and Rakhela. I want a red one Saba! ...and for me, Saba, a green one! ...and a blue one for me.
Saba made sure to share the candy with everyone and thus calmed and quieted them all down. The slim and serious-minded Rakhela took Yosa'le and set him on her lap in an act of guardianship.
This is good on your part, Rakhela. Watch over the little ones, and you Moshe Khaim'ke be quiet! I do not want to hear a noise or sound from you!
And so, my children - one evening, all sloppy and wet, the rain was drizzling slowly-slowly, not hastily, but uninterruptedly, soaking the tattered and torn canopies, penetrating to the bones. The whole prairie was dark and muddy, and the wagons were stuck in the mud above their wheels' axels. The worn-out oxen, slow and heavy to begin with, were dragging their hooves in the murky fog, crawling at an undeniable turtle-pace. Any tiny advance or minute movement forward, required an unbelievable effort; every mile forward seemed to be as difficult as the parting of the red sea.
The exhausted and tired travelers were looking for a small flicker of light in the darkness. Perhaps a sign of a small village - a community of people, which might give hope for a sheltered night with a roof over their head, and hopefully a little cholent to revive their soul and some hay or straw for the animals.
But there was only darkness and pitch-blackness on the prairie - a palpate complete darkness [one of the ten plagues. MK] and the annoying misty rain continued non-stop to damp the bones, sticking icy needles in one's back and freezing-up the body.
The lone two guides, who were only slightly knowledgeable about the route, were still marching exhaustively in front of the group trampling in the mud, scouting in the dark to find the flooded road. These were the two emissaries who were sent ahead of time to tour the place in Novo-Russia. They were your great-grandfather Ber'eh Volf [actually Avraham-Ber Tverdovsky, Saba Moshe-Leib Tverdovsky's father. MK] and his good friend Elimelekh Nevler - named after his native town Nevel [Today a Russian city near the Belarus border. MK]. These two public servants had some experience, since they had already visited, by government initiative, the region near the Black Sea which was offered to the settlers. As representatives of a large group of settlers, they were allowed to extensively tour the area ahead of time, select a nice piece of land and decide upon the exact appropriate location for the first settlement. They had selected to establish it on the elevated bank of the River Yeni-Gil [actually the Ingul or Inhul River] a name which means 'the New River in the tongue of the Turkish people.
G-d endowed these two vigorous people, both Saba Bereh-Wolf and his friend Elimelekh Nevler, with wisdom and decisiveness. Both, thank G-d, were people without any faults. They were young, healthy and well-learned people. Both had also carried in their heart for many years, the idea of establishing Jewish colonies.
The first, Saba Ber'eh-Volf, was a courageous and fearless Jew who did not balk at any difficulty. Agile in his actions, cleanly dressed, opinionated and decisive, he became the first Schultz namely the first village elder [name adapted from the German settlers.MK]. The second, Elimelekh Nevler, was not one of the frightened or the weaklings either. He was muscular and tall, with broad shoulders and a scary club that put fear
in the heart of the prairie robbers of those days and all other kinds of wanderers with bad intentions. He generated respect and appreciation by anyone who met him because everybody realized that he could land a hard and dry blow, at a time of need, which may cause any potential victim of his to expire on the spot with just a sigh. In fact, he was basically a good-hearted man by his character, a communicative person who liked to mingle with other people and was well-spoken even with the authorities. He was also an expert navigator. People said about him that he was some kind of an astrologer because he had a good sense of direction and could find the correct route even in complete darkness.
That was the reason why all of these brave and agile Avrekhim [Torah-ready youths. MK] and their families converged around these two leaders. Even under these horrible conditions, the two were still treading ahead in the mud, groping and touching every step of the flooded road to avoid any pits or trenches, or dangerous sudden slopes.
Despite of all the efforts, to their disappointment they did not find any sign of a settlement, or at least an inn on the side of the road. The prairie itself was one big expanse of darkness. The rain trickled and poured alternately, causing fear and terror under the torn canopies. Like a Hekdesh [a poorhouse. MK] on wheels a troubled and tormented congregation, crying out their heart to Heavens.
But no, no. This was not just a Hekdesh! It was something much worse than that - a thousand times worse! Hell itself descended down to earth, spreading over the entire prairie, penetrating the canopies accompanying our pioneering and courageous settlers in a horrific parade, traveling and marching to Novo- Russia.
People lay under the canopies in piles, cramped from pain, soaked, smelling of stench and burning with fever. The most severe was the condition of the children. Sighing silently, almost every one of them was held by the claws of diseases. Every child was sick with diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles or rubella and some just with an intestine disease or malaria.
All those people laid down close together, unconscious and burning like a hot blaze. With dry and scorched lips they demanded a bit more from this world, numbing out of their fever, but no one was listening to them any longer, except the angel of death that followed them step after step. He was already standing guard under their head rests and spreading his commands openly and forcefully.
R' Yehuda Leib'ichka himself looked like he was reliving this old and remote time - in the gloomy past of the sorrow, bravery and suffering. Completely absorbed and excited, he clung passionately to his pipe, and intensely pulled several suctions. He touched the reins, as if just to do one's duty, and continued cynically with deep bitterness
It is good to heap the burning coals, when somebody else does it
Above the prairie, the air had already warmed up pretty nicely. The old man tossed
his blazer off his shoulders and remained only in his shiny black vest. He took out his chained pocket-watch and glanced over it. He asked Rakhel'le to serve as a temporary house-wife, and provide all the children with some snack to keep their hunger in check until breakfast. He himself just blew a few smoke loops into his beard and continued his story.
That was how, my dear grandchildren - they sent the Jews to settle - heartless, without a basic insight into the needs of the settler, particularly the Jewish settler, without any warm sentiment, or some simple human compassion. That was how they sent our great-grandparents to Novo-Russia - without proper training, without an expert guide, without proper clothing, with insufficient provisions and equipment and without anything else. Everybody was, by now, half-naked and exposed, torn and worn-out, and suffering from cold and starvation. Everybody had lost everything, except the will to live and the faith in the Creator that He would lead them into a new and free life. They carried the belief that He would stand by them during this second Exodus from Egypt, rescue them from this desert, and bring them finally, after all of these bitter and harsh encounters, to their settlement, yearned dwellings and the place of their new lives.
And this was just what happened and how the events really unfolded.
Silently, with a whispered and submissive prayer on their lips, our desperate and dispirited group poured its bitter heart toward G-d - compassionate and graceful G-d, and asked for His mercy:
Our Father in Heavens, please observe our sick babies, our little and innocent chicks, lying there in the wet and cold canopied wagons. Please save them now before it is too late to do so!
Their heart-rending prayer, most likely, did reach Heavens and a miracle happened. Finally, the camp's scouts discovered a frightened and trembling flicker of light in the far away distance. Tears filled Saba-Ber'eh-Volf's eyes tears of joy. He quickly ordered some of the youths, who accompanied him in the scouting group, to return back to the camp and apprise the people of this happy news and thus help cheer-up somewhat the very depressed community.
The intensifying flickering lights that were growing in numbers, made it clear that they are approaching not just an abandoned hut or a tiny village but a big well-populated settlement that has suddenly shown itself up in this desolate infinite and cruel prairie. Our heartened camp crawled forward with its last drops of the energy and arrived, with G-d's help, to a large metropolis. As it turned out, that was a notable provincial city, which housed a Gubernator, or a provincial governor, who was a gold-hearted person. Sokolov Voznesenski was
his name. This was not just a person he was an angel! I recall from my childhood days, that every time the settlers had mentioned his name, they could not stop from praising him for his good heart.
This was a rare Jewish-loving person and a magnificent human being. Although it was a relatively late hour, definitely beyond his office hours, he welcomed the representatives of this pitiful group that arrived in his city, without any delay.
These representatives obviously had a few things to complain about. Saba Ber'eh-Volf told the Gubernator, in minute detail, about all the deep troubles the camp went through along the long journey - hunger and cold, death and suffering. He told him about those who died and about the many that lost their way and never came back. He told him about the broken wagons and the remaining oxen which were also failing:
Enough, we do not have any more energy to continue in our way.
After Saba laid out all of his grievances, Elimelekh from Nevel, did not scrimp and added some grievances of his own, using some polished Russian phrases, just to fortify his friend's tales.
While they were talking, the Gubernator glanced over these two strange fellows and thoroughly examined their thinning and shrunk faces and their sunken and feverish eyes and was moved by their circumstances. He tried to calm them down and asked them fatherly to come back at dawn when his office would be open and he would try to arrange for anything they may need for continuing their trip.
Vasha Gubernatorskuya Visuchtavo, meaning, Your Honor the Gubernator
Saba Ber'eh Volf could not restrain himself again:
We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kind reception. However, if you want to help us, you must do it now - this minute! Our people are waiting for us outside, in the rain, soaked to their bones. Hungry and frozen, they stand over there in the market square, trembling, and their teeth are shaking from the cold. We also have many sick people, some with dire conditions, we need a medic, right away, a hospital, medications especially for our children, our poor and tortured babies and maybe also but let's not open the door for Satan G-d forbid we need to check immediately under the canopies
And with these words, our Saba, who was as strong as iron, could not control himself anymore. His heart broke inside, and he felt a vast weakness descending on him. Suddenly, he choked up and a wellspring of tears burst into his eyes. He started to cry like a little child against his strong will. That was when Elimelekh came to his aid:
Your Honor, dear enlightened Gubernator - he said please have mercy and charity, come down with us for just a brief moment and see what is really happening there with your own eyes oy what is really happening there.
Being an honest and good-hearted Christian, he in fact did not need to let them beg any longer. He went with them down to the street that was occupied by
wrecked wagons, loaded with strange figures wrapped and bundled with all sorts of rugs, tattered garments, and sacks torn, soaked and rotten smelling from decay and dampness. The figures looked like terrifying scarecrows. Twisted from the chill and cuddled together, they stood there, leaning on the steaming oxen, exposed to the thorny wind, and shivered.
As soon as the Gubernator saw these frightening shadows, with their torn rags hanging and flapping on their exposed bodies, and their swollen feet - as soon as he glanced over the torn canopies and the frozen load under them, he understood exactly what is shown in front of him, and a huge sense of mercy was awakened in his heart.
Immediately, he gathered his deputies and sent messengers throughout the corners of the city, and sent orders to every appropriate place to summon help. First, he called for first aid and all the nurses in town along with any volunteers, most of whom were wealthy and high-ranking women, headed by the Gubernator's wife herself. All of these people started the rescue mission at once.
They immediately separated the healthy people who were still able to walk, so that they would not need to witness the magnitude of their disaster and tragedy, while they were still exhausted and hungry. Then they turned their attention to the collapsed canopies, pulled and sorted out the frozen and sick travelers.
They sent the most fragile and sick people to the hospital. Those who were unconscious and frail were sent to poorhouses and other shelters. They separated the dead from all the wagons and kept them apart.
They sent the rest of the group to various inns throughout the city for the night. However, before they sent them away for the night, they brought them to city restaurants for a refreshing meal. This good- hearted Gubernator, sent his delegates to every important inn and restaurant in town ahead of time to wake up their people in that late hour, so that they can make fire in the stove and prepare food for our wandering settlers, and ordered them to charge everything to him - the Gubernator's account.
First they boiled some stew in the warmers to drive out the chill of the bones. Later on, they served a Kosher wholesome meal, everybody according to their preference. Ample hot and boiling tea followed, as much as could be consumed without limits according to each person's wish. The Gubernator would pay the bills later on.
Only during the next morning, after they had a chance to rest and somewhat recover from the toil of the road, did our travelers realize how enormous was the loss they suffered during last night's travel; Forty nine people were dead, and close to two hundred sick, quite a few of them in a dire condition.
They were extremely fortunate that G-d dropped them onto the hands of that Gubernator, who was a good-hearted and Jews-loving person. That governor, Sokolov Voznesenski, stood by them in their worst time, and even comforted them in their big tragedy, as if he was their own brother.
He kept calming them down, and raising their hope for the coming days. The next day, he called the capital St. Petersburg and spoke with the Honorable Czar Nikolai the First, himself. He lobbied with the Czar
to provide them with an additional loan from the government. Only after he equipped them with new clothing, provisions, wagons, and hay for the animals, he made Saba Ber'eh-Volf duly and lawfully sign for all that and had him swear that he would continue his fight and progress toward the next province to the next city they would encounter on the way.
However, my dear grandchildren, good people - people who hold G-d in their heart, like that provincial minister, our wandering travelers met only very seldom. More commonly, they met with Jew-haters, and greedy people who competed with each other on who could better his colleague in soliciting a bribe. The entire route to the new land, which was destined for them, was a prolonged and torturous road flooded with teary seas and seeded with countless graves.
In the meantime, the carriage continued to carry them swiftly through the fields, and sail into the prairie with a deep springly softness. The huge Ber'eh-Volf monument was approaching and rising up toward them, and drew everybody's glances by its incredible enormity. R' Yehuda Leib'ichka was still sitting, half facing his grandchildren, talking to them as equals, continuing and adding to his story about that far, legendary and sorrowful past.
Young Zelik, who mostly saw the good and beautiful in life, felt like he wanted to cheer up his grandfather somewhat, said:
Against all of that, everything advanced smoothly for them later on, didn't it Saba?
No Bears and no Forest! [a phrase in Hebrew which means nothing of the kind. MK]. All of those troubles during the journey were a children-game compared to what was about to happen to our great grandparents later on, after arriving to Novo-Russia.
Like there is no end to the sea, there is no end to the troubles of the Jews. All of their real sufferings would only start from the time they arrived.
All the good promises they originally received were Urva Parakh [literally translated as a flown away raven, which means a cock and bull story or a pie in the sky. MK], as if they never existed! They did not find any sign of housing, nor did they find horses, tools or seeds. There was not even one sack of flour to bake bread for the starved overdue guests. There was absolutely nothing!
They did not find anything except a cold and arid prairie, parched and wild, covered by thistles and wormwood plants as well as prickly burnets rooted deeply in the ground. The feather-grass grew so tall, that the people and wagons sunk in it as if they disappeared from G-d's earth.
Only that thing, hinted Saba, pointing at the huge cone, protruding tall and enormous against the sky - the lone, erect and elevated monument of Ber'eh-Volf stood there, waiting futilely for generations, that man would someday show up.
And here, all of a sudden, just like that, so many unexpected guests,
showing up with their wagons, and even set their encampment here for the first time. A heart-breaking Jewish prayer could be heard instantly. As I told you before that was how your great-grandparents ascended onto their land for the first time with a prayer and tears in their eyes. From this high plateau, your great grandparent saw for the first time, the giddy fast- flowing river of Yeni-Gil [actually - Ingul River. MK].
In his excitement of seeing this lively and refreshing river, he declared in Lashon Kodesh [the Holy Language(Hebrew). MK]: Nahar Gil [meaning River of Joy] and we will settle it! The name for our colony - Nahar Gilovka was first mentioned here, and it remained as such from that day on, more than one hundred years later [as mentioned above the actual name of the colony was Yefeh-Nahar or Beautiful River. MK].
Since they did not find any of the things that were promised to them, they temporarily raised tents around the monument. Later on, when the winter's bitter cold arrived, they did not have any other choice but to dig pits into the ground and spend the winter in these pits, which they have covered with dirt. Under these conditions, they incurred additional losses. People died like flies, from cold and crowding. Only forty-nine [in Hebrew the letters Mem-Tet. MK] families remained when the settlers finally moved into built huts, out of more than one hundred that started the journey. That was the reason why we called our lower street, the Mem-Tet Street [49th St. MK] - in memory of the forty-nine first huts. However, other people say that the street is named in memory of those forty- nine poor souls that were lost during that miserable night, on the prairie.
And these old forty nine huts, Saba - do they still stand?
No Zelik'le! There is almost nothing left from these huts. They were built haphazardly, using anything that was available. The walls were built from crude bricks made of a mixture of straw and mud, and were erected on trivial foundations. You can see for yourself - our settlement was completely rebuilt since, where most of the houses are now made of stone. Our old pantry - that patched-up structure, which stands between the pool and the storage room, is a remainder of these old castles, built in the days of Czar Nikolai the First. However, our settlers had to yearn even for these scanty structures for a long time. Oh truly, a very long time! They yearned for these structures while staying in their pits underground!
If so, Saba, why did the settlers settled here first, and didn't go to the place where the settlement is located now, in the first place?
Now - this is a very nice question! answered the old man with a bitter smile.
That was what the prophet has been weeping about! Do you think that the settlers received the parcel that was selected by their emissaries, in the beginning? If you have said yes - you made a grim mistake! It never happened! As if all the effort exerted by two emissaries, in their long trip to find a place to settle, was nearly in vain.
Take a look over there, against the monument of Ber'eh-Volf, downwards on the left
R' Yehuda- Leib'ichka, hinted to them by pointing the stick of his whip at the wide and green valley where the tall smoke chimney
of Dubovits' wine brewery was proudly overlooking the valley with its reddish bricks.
Here, just near the bank of Yen-Gil River [Ingul or Inhul River. MK] was our settlement supposed to be established. There were even several groundbreaking houses built there. This was also where the first Nahar-Gil'ovka's [Yefe-Nahar's. MK] cemetery was located.
And so, go and do something about it! While for Fonya we were always like a bone stuck in his throat, then before we even started to do anything, the authorities came and reduced the promised settlement area; after that they came and grabbed the prime part for themselves, and then, the Dubowits'es a local family of distinguished parits [a Jewish term that means a rich man, nobleman or landowner. MK] came to the area and the authorities carved away for them several thousand additional desiats [Russian old measure for area. MK] near the river, just as the settlers were ready to settle. That is just the way the world order always works - people treat each other in accordance to the old rule: Scratch my back and I will scratch yours. A parcel of the most fertile land, on the other bank of the river, was given to a retired old general, who once upon a time, according to the stories, fought the Turk; the other part of this fertile area was handed over to the neighboring Ukrainian village Kalinovka [Probably Plyushchivka. MK]. You could see, therefore, that the authorities resented the fact that our ancestors would settle in such a fertile valley from the beginning. Therefore, the authorities did not have any intention of endowing this valley and promised land around it to the Jewish settlers to begin with. They asked them politely to leave and move far away to the plot where we are located today at the feet of the mountain.
Against all that, probably as a consolation, they allotted them parcels of land that were horribly distant. They shoved them into this long and narrow stretch of land. There was nothing we could do. As a result, the plots in the settlement were fragmented, dispersed and spread along all the way to Nakhlat-Shefa, and that is, as you well know, a distance of twenty verstas and more. These distances are really depleting us.
At the time of the harvest, when work is on high burners and every movement of the livestock counts, we can't bring more than one cart loaded with grain through that distance. In general, all of these frequent shufflings, going these distances for hours and hours, with food, water, tools and sometimes with the children whose help is needed, was very tiring.
A distance of twenty verstas and more is not a child's game. How can one be a successful farmer with such distances?
R' Yehuda-Leib'ichka asked, spreading his arms in amazement and resentment.
But could we try to do something or change this situation, when we were so dependent on others in everything, and we did not have control of our own affairs?
The old man took out his oily velvet tobacco pouch, filled his pipe again and passed the iron ignitor over the fluted flint with a skillful arm movement.
Ay my beloved! We could have had a pleasant and comfortable life here, life similar to those of other nationalities. Unfortunately, we are not entirely independent. After settling, the settlers had to place their faith in the hand of strangers, and these people nominated
foreign trustees - German or Russians, who could not and did not want to understand the settlers' plights. They clipped the wings of the settlers from the start.
The settlers were surrounded by hostile authorities, burdened by bands of parasites, charity bread eaters that did not let them lift their heads up. They were grabbed by the strong hands of the authorities who held them with strong arms and taught them how to work the land like the way new recruits are tamed in the military - with threats and slaps, punishments and jail. Only then, when they had arrived at their settlements, Fonye took the time to teach them the Balak Torah Portion [The seventh weekly Torah portion in the book of Numbers. MK] with orders and commands and here started a whole series of suffering and misery, epidemics and droughts, hunger and cold, thefts and bribes, false accounting, and just simple day-light embezzlements which lasted decades.
Whole bands of guardians, managers, rude retired officers, and cruel administrators, countless cruel supervisors and evil inspectors descended upon the settlement. If this was not enough, a new affair of the so called Musterwirten namely - exemplary farmers- was developed. These were scowling-faces German horsemen, with whips in their hands, who were ready to school the Jewish settler and instill in him some wisdom. Other uninvited visitors and human trash, had also gathered around to suck from the labor of the Jewish settler.
But, my dear beloved children- this is a story for another time
Although Saba's sad story clouded the joy for a short while, it could not spoil the festive mood of the jubilant and happy youths, who relished the pleasure the trip itself brought upon them.
The fresh and pure morning air, the intoxicating smell of the flowering meadows, flying by on the left and right of the carriage, the joyful singing voices of the cuckoo birds, calling each other from their hiding places, and unwearied sniffing and poking by the two dogs, that were running around in front, helped to expunge the memory of the sad story and distant past.
R' Yehuda- Leib'ichka himself had already moved his thoughts from those distant times of his great-grandfather to the later years, when all of the land, which extended on the right hand side, was severed from the land resources of the settlement and given away to those who were named the Manchurians [the veteran Russian soldiers who fought in the Japanese-Russian War. MK].
His penetrating gaze could already recognize the first sparsely scattered ranches on the prairie's margins. The farther away they continued their progress, the more areas, familiar to him from the old days, were revealed areas which once belonged to the settlement for several generations.
He himself, the young Yehuda-Leib, invested many days and years of hard work around every step and every corner. So - the farther away they continued to go, the more reflective he became and the more pondering his glance over this familiar piece of land became. He and his friends nourished this piece of land, which lay just beyond the Shabbat boundary line. Not that many years ago, during his youth, this land was covered with an endless tangle of thorns and thistles. Not very easily - he and his friends converted this land, every yard of it, from virgin land to sown land. For decades, they had to pull out roots and straighten the area so that, at last, a considerable plowing-worthy fertile land could be added to the settlement.
Just as these desert lands were finally converted into fertile lands and started to yield bread plentifully, the authorities showed up again. Those were the days of just after the Russian-Japanese War, so the authorities started to hand these parcels over, as gifts, to the discharged soldiers of the front in Manchuria.
You see Zelik'le you can see the Manchurians over there.
The old man finally interrupted his thoughts and hinted toward the small houses that were scattered like small islands in a green sea. And now, the old man started to pour his heart out toward his oldest grandchild:
That was how they compensated the courageous soldiers, of Fonye's heroic war with Japan. They gave these parcels in abundance, as gifts, for their courageous standing in Port-Arthur at our expense.
Our settlement, you can imagine, boiled over with anger. For some reason, the authorities could not find another piece of land throughout the entire Russian empire for the Russian settlers except in the area resources of Nahar Gilovka settlement. Our settlers almost destroyed the building of the Prikaz[b] because of their anger. The Schultz the village elder, tried to lobby their grievance matter at the district office for if this decree had to involve our land, why not give it to Jewish soldiers from the settlements in the region, who fought in the same war? However, this is how the world always works. Your own shirt is closer to your body, meaning, your own needy, are closer to your heart. Very quickly, before we had the chance to turn around, they dug a ditch and it became the border, and everything beyond the border became the Manchurians' property.
And then there was also that matter of the vacant parcels. This injustice has been going on for many years. You must have heard about this issue before. Our area was decreasing from one generation to another. As the new generations grew up, their inherited plots started to diminish. The number of people, glory to our G-d, was growing, but no new area has been added to the colony. Jewish people were also forbidden to buy new land. On the contrary, they cut out our land from time to time, not only from the public parcels, as before, but also from the private-inherited land. There was no shortage of excuses for that.
If somebody's parcel became vacant, that is without heirs, as it happenned once and a while, or if a craftsman who also owned a parcel, neglected it
and went to work in his trade somewhere else (e.g. the city of Kherson), the authorities came and confiscated the land, despite the fact that we had many customers among us who would be interested in this parcel - large families who were rich in number of people but poor in the amount of land. Those customers may have already leased the land. However, you can talk to the wall. They would listen to you the same way they would listen to the voice of the blowing wind on the prairie.
What did the Prophet Yeshayahu say, Zelik'el, in the chapter Nakhamu, Nakhamu Ami[ Comfort, Oh Comfort my people. MK]?
Kol Koreh ba'Midbar [literally translated to a voice calls in the wilderness, Isaiah 40:2. MK], said Rakhel unexpectedly, surprising both the grandfather and his grandson.
Very true my little granddaughter. I see that you have listened well to what your brothers learnt from the Rabbi, and you know already to mention both the verse and its location. You can continue to listen to my story.
When a parcel became vacant, instead of allocating it fairly among land-poor people of the settlement, the authorities would capture it and divide it among the neighboring villages.
It was therefore, no wonder when your uncle Motia-Ber packed his belongings, immediately after his wedding, and left our house. You, Zelik'le, should still remember him.
Do you think that, perhaps, the house was too crowded for him? If that is what you think, you would be totally wrong. The new house was built broadly, no power to the evil eye, large enough for all of my children, including their wives and children. Lack of land drove my son Motia-Ber all the way to Argentina. My other son Naftali, whom you may not know at all, did a very smart thing as well. He left us, while still in his youth, and went to our old ancient mother-land, the land of Zion. Today he is over there in a place called Metula. He writes that he is his own landlord who owns more than 100 dunams [an old Ottoman area measure roughly a quarter of an acre. MK] of black sown soil.
Nevertheless, Saba - it is much better here now than it used to be, isn't it?
The excited Zelik'le tried to cheer up his grandfather's heart. He encircled with his luminous eyes the impressive wheat fields, his beloved prairie - the prairie that fills his heart with fondness. He believed that he could reduce somewhat the weight of his grandfather grievances.
Look Saba, how tall the stalks are, how heavy their heads are packed with wheat seeds they are much more bountiful than those of the goyim [gentiles. MK]. That is what I think Saba. Today the state of the Jewish farmer is already good.
Yes, it is so, now, thanks G-d. Our state is not bad at all.
There is no comparison with the state in those old days. We are already very proficient in our work. There is no denial. We know and recognize all of Mother Earth's secrets, and we are, generally speaking (without committing any sin against G-d), successful property owners with nice houses.
However . what is the use of all of that, if even here, on this beautiful and free prairie, you are considered as a stepson. After all, not every governor is Sokolov Voznesenski's kind of a governor, and not every goy in Kalinovka is like our honest friend Ofanas Ratonda. They managed to drag in the old hatred even here to the depth of the prairie. They keep reminding you often, with resentment, that even here, on your own homeland, bought by your ancestors with their soul and sweat,
at the end of the day you are but a foreigner - not more than a tenant or a guest who came to spend the night, and that they would show you the way out of here at the first opportunity.
and you Saba, are you afraid of the Goyim?
Now, listen to this new invention! Now you are really talking like a small child. We are not cowards here. We are not letting anybody do us any harm or dishonor us. Not every fight-seeker or bandit dares to face us in a fistfight. If the authorities would not intervene and would not secretly support the bullies, we could stand by ourselves and defend our soul and our honor.
However - what you said about the fact that our wheat is beautiful and more bountiful than the goyim's wheat for that we really need to thank Mother Earth, said R' Yehuda Leb'ichka, pointing with his finger toward the expansive fields.
She does not want to know about any trickery. She does not distinguish between a goy and a Jew. In her eyes, we all have the same notoriety and she pays every one back according to his faithfulness to her.
Following those words, R' Yehuda-Leib'ichka turned back toward the horses, grabbed the reins, just in time, and with his threatening-reverberating whip, stopped the horses who started to gallop because they could smell, from the distance, the cool refreshing water of the approaching lake Elimelekh.
The festively decorated horses gulped the many verstas as easy as a game. The bells ringing in their curb bits announced with joy and knell, over large distances, the good news about the arrival of the new coming visitors. With this noisy and ringing message about the ripe crop waiting in the heat of the summer to be harvested into the barn, the carriage turned and climbed over the dam-road of Elimelech's Lake.
Except on the side of the dam, where there was an access road for carriages and cattle, the long banks were surrounded by plot after plot of winter wheat and rye that spread from there and stirred waves far-far away to the horizon. From the top of the dam, the lake looked as if somebody dropped a silver tray over a huge bright-green velvety expanse, shimmering against the sun and persistently and tirelessly spraying its returning light rays to dazzle the eyes.
Following the last rainstorms, the willows that stood along the bank of the dam were dipped to their neck in water. Only their green crowns that covered their tops were visible, crammed with last year's grey birds' nests with black thrushes skipping around.
On the flat bank on the other side, a frightened flock of wild geese uprooted itself from among the water lilies and crossed the air with noisy flattering and deafening chirping. Only the snipes, continued courageously to hobble around with hastened steps on the dam's bank, and rummage peacefully in the shallow water, seemingly unintentionally, with their long sharpened beaks.
When they arrived at the lake of Elimelech, the day was already well established. The diligent storks were already hard-working here for a long time since dawn when they started on an empty stomach. They were now busying themselves in an intensive and studious hunt, although, it seemed that they were doing these things off-hand, standing on one leg, innocently as if they were immersed entirely in a dream of a summer morning. One remarkably industrious hasid [a play on words In Hebrew it means a male stork and also a follower of a Hasidic movement. MK], had completed his day-work in his innocence, and was happily and cheerfully ready to turn and fly home to his mate, carrying a twitching eel for her for breakfast.
Everything here was already awake and fizzing. Everything was breathing young life. It was a young, fresh and bright summer morning full of the smell of fresh soil.
When they traversed the dam road, the small and young children, who were the most sensitive to new sights, shifted themselves toward the edges of the moving carriage. Breathless, overflowed by glee and with burning eyes, turning and twisting all around, they tried to swallow the beautiful sights around them. They listened to the musical trickle of the water that swayed ever slightly around them with a nearly unfelt ripple. They captured and sensed the songs of growth and ripening all around them. They felt as if they were being sucked into this big, green and whizzing world. As this big joy and excitement engulfed them, their hearts widened, as if threatening to jump out from their young narrow chests.
Exuberant, with sharpened ears, the horses carefully strayed away, entered the water up above their knees, and quenched their thirst. And then, as they have been accustomed to do, they turned on their own, toward the hollow and shady willow tree, which stood there opposite of R' Yehuda Leib'ichka's plot. Without untying the horses, the old man threw the reins around the tree's trunk and tied it. Just as he was fastening the saddlebag, which was full of oat, to the carriage's shaft for the horses, the dogs uprooted themselves with a bark, jumped into the tall grass, and viciously attacked a band of stray dogs that appeared unexpectedly. Suddenly, a bitter skirmish ensued. The experienced and cunning Pranaitis grasped the throat of the uninvited adversary as was his way. As Zelik hurried after the stray dogs with a whip, figures of unexpected guests appeared from behind the bushes. Ofanas Ratonda and his youngest daughter were coming to water their horses.
As this was an unexpected encounter with his good old friend, R' Yehuda Leib'ivhka did not let them leave until after breakfast. Even the grandchildren troubled themselves around Ofanas, whom they all knew well, and took care of Ofanas's daughter cordially, and Rakhel'le offered the guests various refreshments, packed for them by Savta.
After he filled half of a basket of berries for them into their flask, Ofanas said good-bye, and he and his daughter set off on their way leading back to Kalinovka. R' Yehuda Leb'ichka grabbed the whip in his hand and turned to walk into the first grassy access trail, which branched sideways.
Like a herd of young and frisky calves, the little ones ran cheerily following Saba's long steps. Jubilantly jumping ahead of each other, the group members turned to the edge of the field and there, along the sprout boundary band, some to pick a bouquet of red anemones, the others to gather a bunch of dark blue cornflowers.
Saba himself, now that he has reached the winter crops, his spirit lifted, tossing out his usual gray and solemn daily appearance, his face lit up, and he forgot all about everything and any matter that had anything to do with the daily grind and worry.
With his hands crossed behind his back, his chest projected forward - arrogant-style, Saba strode forward near the waves of tall crops, experiencing the pleasure at the sight of the straight packed rows of the winter harvest. A long row of children marching in a shining parade, decorated with colorful and fresh flowers, followed him step by step. Unified though a soul uplifting loud singing, the group now marched into the field with the song The prayer by Frugg on their lips:
God, bless this year with plentiful fruit
Guard it from harmful tempest
Provide dew and rain onto our fields,
Give us a jovial harvest.
Even he, this stern rationalistic Jew, was changed by this childish ceremony, and he became like a child among children, enthused and exhilarated like one of them. At the peak of his excitement, in the middle of the march, he removed his black vest and was left standing with only his white cotton shirt. He then turned to step deeper into the wheat field with buoyant and careful strides. The children stopped their joyful march, and remained standing motionless in their position, not daring to follow Saba, G-d forbid, even one more step into the field among the wheat spikes. Only Saba had the right and the authority to do so.
As the children stood motionless at the edge of the field, waiting curiously but patiently with burning eyes, Saba took the poll of the whip and pierced the soil with it. He then scooped out a handful of soil and tested how deep the moisture managed to penetrate the surface. Only then was Saba ready to start performing his Grand Precious Test, this old wondrous inspection that was customary in the family probably since the first generation of the settlers: One would take a hat and toss it over the spikes. Should the spikes stand tall and not yield like a prayer kneelingunder the weight of the hat, then the rye spikes would pass the test, and the harvest would be indeed a blessed-harvest. The harvest would then be considered as secure as being already in the barn.
The children, who remained standing at the edge, started to ask anxiously:
Well, Saba. Please tell us already. Is the rye a blessed one?
Thanks G-d it is answered R' Yehuda L'eib'ichka.
With a winning grin on his face, he stepped out of the field, projecting his chest forward again. Like a kohen [A descendant of the Great Kohen Aharon, according to the Jewish tradition, and whose role is to serve at the altar on holidays. MK] during a holy service, he walked along the trail and stepped forward to the next plot. The cheerful parade of children followed him again, singing tirelessly. The process repeated. The parade stopped, again at the edge of the field, and again the children chanted their hearty childish prayer toward G-d:
A prayer for dew and a prayer for rain
a prayer for green grass,
a prayer for spikes weighted down by a heavy harvest
endless wheat and rye.
How sacredly and how reverently, Saba repeated his hat-tossing test! Like a sower spreading a handful of seeds with an arc-like movement, was Saba tossing his hat, from time to time, over the winter crops, and with stretched out arms, like a Kohen at the altar, would catch it and again toss it over the golden-greenish field, like a magician performing his act.
The children stared at Saba's motions of the hat tossing with enthusiasm and much admiration. It looked to them like a combined magic act and G-d's miracle.
Nu Saba, please tell us, is the crop successful.
Successful, children; successful! We are going to have, G-d willing, plenty of braided challah loafs! announced Saba joyfully.
Accompanied by cries of joy and wonder, he then proceeded to kiss every single grandchild. He whispered to himself, as he was leaving the field, something that sounded like a thanks-giving prayer. It was difficult to know however, whether it was gratitude for the bountiful harvest or for G-d giving him such a wonderful and successful bunch of grandchildren.
Oh these wondrous and happy trips and this traditional childish parade of growth and flowering, of abundance and shining joy!
When Ofanas Ratonda was still alive, and was already living with his youngest daughter - Nastia, he used to appear in this place once in a while. Just after the Holocaust brought on by the World War, or actually, even during the war, the old and silvered-hair Ofanas was the only man in the area who had the courage, acting against the will of the German, to visit this terrifying Ravine of the Jews.
The earth in the ravine, which was soaked with the blood of the murdered Jews, was breathing with their last breath long after their death, and made old Ofanas restless. As a result, the people in Kalinovka village considered him a mindless person or a bum. However, the old and honest farmer did not pay attention to what other people were saying about him. Every time he had the chance to pass through the place in his wagon, either on his way back from the hospital in Oostinovka [Probably Bashtanka, Mykolaivs'ka oblast. MK], or with a load of squash back from his squash plot, he would stop and get off the wagon. The old man would then slowly lumber himself along the hillside slope, all the way down to that narrow ravine where the spirit of the murdered Jewish settlement was still hovering for a long time after the killing.
He was the only person in the entire big world that came here to honor their memory. He would just stand there; take off his cap, pass a few crosses along his chest with his trembling hand, which was wrinkled like an old scroll. He would stand there for a long while, on the top of the fresh fluttering mound, and would wonder anew every time, this old man Ratonda:
Why? Why, Oh Yezus Christos? Why did they kill them?
That was how the old man was standing, reflecting, moving his bowed head from side to side, putting a small bunch of chamomile flowers on the big unmarked grave, crossing again his chest several times, then tossing his hands in the air questioning G-d again:
What is the reason Hospodi (King of the Universe in Russian) - why did they take an entire village full of hard working Jewish farmers, and buried them here alive?
However, no answer to his innocent question was provided. Only one threatening echo could be heard rising up from the narrow ravine, and then the silence would conquer it once again for a long time. The dead silence would return to the ravine in this remote corner of the thistles-grown prairie - the ravine that was named the The Ravine of the Jews since the day when the cruel German held his Jewish feast.
A few versta's away, diagonally toward the river, the lower neglected part of the mountain, where the colony of Nahar Gilovka once spread sumptuously along with its seven flowering streets overflowing with greenery, still watches over Kalinovka village with a stare full of grievance and importunity. The roads, trails, and cow trails, which led to that place for generations,
do not exist anymore. Everything is covered with wild weeds and prickly thorns.
No roads or trails are leading there any longer. Only that single road from Kalinovka which passes near-by, twisting forward toward the abandoned Nir-Gilovka's squash patch and grazing meadows, can be somewhat considered as an access road.
One day, it would happen that a thin and tall woman in her forties would appear on this neglected weeded trail, here on the empty and deserted mountain slope, looking around in every direction, like a stranger who came from afar.
She would come down here as if unintentionally or incidentally, and would stop over during one of her infrequent trips from the far-away Kazakhstan, on a mission, as an agronomist, to the home-office. Hence, when she comes here to visit her ancestors' graves, she does not have a choice but first to stop in Kalinovka by Nastia. Only then, she turns to come here, either on foot, or by riding a horse mostly alone, without Nastia's knowledge.
Dressed in her black narrow dress, she walks slowly, immersed in her thoughts. She carves her way through the wild dense and acrimonious thorny weeds, glancing around as she goes, pausing often, looking around with her eyes and trudging forward through the wilted shrubs.
Primarily, she is drawn toward home the deserted and empty area of the seven streets, which were wiped out. Slowly and deliberately, she surveys around through her spectacles and examines the silent and desolate areas, and sucks into herself, passionately, the expanses that life was erased from, looking continuously for something specific in the empty space. From time to time, she bends down and rummages through the thistles, raising a broken piece of shard or a piece of broken glass, and examining it, short-sighted, contemplating, then turns and throws it back. She thus continues forward with her long and peaceful stork-like steps, looking here for the yesterday that has passed.
However, there is nothing left from those seven streets that were once filled with motion and life. She is shaken by this disturbing idea, that here, in this place or close to it, Saba's yard was once located.
In the past, a low fence was erected on the street side, swallowed somewhat by an abundance of flowers. Across the yard, stood the house enveloped by the willow trees - that wide house with its painted roof and in the corner was the cement pool that collected the rainwater from that tin roof. Behind them, was the old kitchen, the barn and the cowsheds, and finally the wide hayloft hidden among the huge heaps of hay.
Farther down, deep in the yard, near the hayloft, leaning on the fence that was covered with manure stood, for generations, that colossal Mulberry tree spreading his wide boughs over the wild chicory and nettle plants underneath it. A laborious woodpecker was always nesting on it, and the little ones always played in its shadow, happy and worry free.
Now - there is not even a trace of that house and that lively yard, not a sign of that fence or the tree, not even a stump for a remembrance.
This destruction-thirsty and evil hand uprooted everything. It even dug out the foundations. The only survivors, peeking out here and there were the sun-scorched chamomile flowers.
She turns now and walks toward the old cemetery. At least over there, she could find some comfort, in her own way - in silence and thought in front of the old graves she knew well. However, even there, there was nothing left - nothing at all! There is no trace of the dead. Not even a pile of pebbles as a sign [A Jewish custom.MK].
She turns and starts to climb her way up the mountain. Deep in thought, confused in her spirit, she starts again to imagine:
Over there! Just about there, at the edge of the grass meadow, on the hill, the windmill of Meir-Itzi once stood. The old mill, idle for a long time, now crammed with grey birds' nests, entirely covered with dark green moss, used to embellish the landscape. Although it was unused and rickety, about to fall down, it added a romantic aura to the scenery around it. The colony's courageous and tough young men used to bring their horses at night to graze on this grass meadow, spending beautiful hours around flickering bonfires. The smell of boiled corn and roasted brown potatoes spread around from that place, during these blue-passion nights, along with the tea-smell of the hay, alfalfa and mint.
Across from the windmill, an unending rusty-screech of the water-pulley could be heard rising from the old well, during those warm and choking nights. That was how the colony's youths used to water the horses, and from time to time, they, too, would swallow up gulps of water from the cool wooden bucket.
She paces, reflecting, and continuing to see with the eyes of her memory.
Here is where, not so long ago, her school stood, in the shade of linden trees. Generations of mischievous children played and studied here. Across from here stood this clean and nicely arranged library, where they used to borrow books from the very beautiful looking librarian Busia Krol. Little beyond that was the bank, the cheese factory and Azriel's smithy. Farther down, beyond the alley, stood the hut of SaraHinda's Moshe-Yosl. Storks used to nest on its roof in the summer. Day after day, they used to gargle and send their friendly welcome greetings all around the spacious seven streets of Nahar-Gil'ovka.
All of a sudden, among the sun-scorched chamomile flowers her shoe bumped into a sticking concrete bracket.
She bent down to the ground and stuck her quivering fingers into the small dimple beside the bracket, digging, searching and digging again, fixing her shortsighted eyes on that spot.
Yes, yes, she almost recognized it. It looked to her that this was the location of the concrete water pool. Here is another projecting bracket.
The strange woman with her binocular continued to dig and search through the fragments.
but look here There is no doubt now.
Unexpectedly she discovered a second sign. Her eyes captured the shining sparkle of a decorated glass adorned with all the colors. Yearningly, she grabbed it with her trembling fingers and studied it with her penetrating eyes.
Oy Ima'le [Oy my mommy. MK], I recognize this piece of broken glass.
She finally, positively, recognized the Pesakh [Passover]. MK] cups of Savta Dvora-Zisl.
Oy my G-d in Heavens, I see in front of me the shiny table, set for Passover, comprising of all the goodness! This was the tremendous Saba's Seder [Passover Meal. MK].
A drizzle of boiling and stinging tears was shed that hot summer day in Saba's yard, a place she hardly recognizes now.
Then, is that the place where Saba lived? Is this really the place that was once so teeming with life, faith and vigor? There is nothing recognizable from all of that now. Everything was uprooted and disappeared. Everything was lifeless silent and deserted, returning to its state in the old days, when the ancestors arrived here one hundred and fifty years ago. There is one difference. This huge prairie, despite of all the Jewish colonies that were established by sweat and blood of the settlers for generations - does not belong to the Jews any more.
Bent and broken, lonely and orphaned, the wandering black-dressed woman turned and walked toward that last horrible unmarked place - The Ravine of the Jews. Over there under the tall thorns, rises up ever so slightly, the mass grave. The rains have gradually and slowly washed the soil above it, a little. The soil itself settled down from time to time. Nobody, not even the people who inherited their place in the prairie, put a gravestone in their memory.
Lost and mournful the woman turned under the scorching rays of the sun and walked over the prickly thorns, until she finally arrived at this remote narrow ravine. Over there, on top of the flattened mound, she knelt down and fell on her face.
She snuggled up for a long while on this flattened mound the mound containing the remains of an entire colony. She absorbed into her, with all of her passion, the smell of the soil, which she knows so well.
With her eyes closed, she saw them all - her relatives, acquaintances, neighbors and friends. She saw them all - from the little ones to the oldest - the entire colony.
Furthermore, she heard their voices, very clearly, and above all, she heard Saba's lucid words:
The Jews never licked honey, anytime and anywhere, but even Satan himself could not have dreamt about such destruction.
The long torturous day was almost over. The sun was was setting slowly and heavy oppressive shadows started to spread above the frightening ravine. At that time, a woman figure appeared above, leading two horses tied by their halters.
The woman called from the top the hill: Rakhil!, Rakhil!, but there was no response to her call. Only a threatening echo could be heard moving-passing between the two ravine's inclines and getting lost in the deep canyon. However, the woman at the top of the hill did not give up. She walked down toward the deep ravine until she clearly saw her strange guest from Kazakhstan, whom she had been searching for a long while. Her guest was kneeling at the grave mount, and seemed to be entirely taken away from the world. She touched her slightly, waking her up from her dream, and whispered to her, softly and secretly like a sister to a sick sibling:
Enough Rakhil!, enough! It is time to go home. The horses are waiting for us up on top.
I do not have any place to go to, Nastin'ka. There isn't anymore any home for me anywhere.
Still, Rakhil, please come! You must be awfully tired from being out here all day.
Without answering, worn-out and obedient, as if after a day of fasting, Rakhel followed Nastia. The two women mounted the horses and rode out of the dark Ravine of the Jews.
With erect ears, the horses walked slowly, step after step, tapping with their hoofs, moving their long necks impatiently, blowing heavy breaths and angrily expelling the gnats from their body.
A slight warm eastern breeze flew rapidly over the darkening scotched prairie bringing in its wing uplifting, soul-refreshing good news.
Rakhel turns her head for one more look behind her. Above the frightening ravine, a pale-blue moon appeared, new and young.
by Mordekhai Pitkin
Translated by Moshe Kutten
Edited by Rafael Manory
|1. The village
Roofs made of straw and hay,
And the hutsarranged in lines,
2. Establishment of the colony
On wandering and sorrowful roads
One by one, the shovels were distributed
Suddenly oy vey! The head phylactery
Many paths lead to the heavenly throne.
The oxen listened to the chanting,
The time for sowing has arrived,
And the wagon is laden
I do recall, at the field's edge
And when the harvest's time arrives
|3. Grandma and Grandpa
Outside, the cold is stabbing-burning
One is wise, the other mischievous
He tells stories about the past
How the village joined
And one day, misfortune happened
When he tells that storythe old man blushes
And grandma who was sitting in the corner
In the hearth, the straw is burning happy,
Grandma the heifer softly caresses,
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