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[Page 63]

Friday at Night

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The shtetl [town] was quiet during the week, as if asleep. Many worked in the villages, others at home. The streets were empty. They yawned in the shops and looked at the customer.

The shtetl first woke up as if from sleep on Friday evening and things began to stir: every young man with his girl, every girl with her young man, groups of young men and groups of girls would go out into the street. At first they hurried to the premises of various organizations where there were a meeting places. Here everyone spoke together, debated, discussed, had fun and told jokes. They were as one family, full of merriment and laughter, with joy and familiarity; just as if one family had come together, a family that had been separated all during the week.

Before the police began to carefully watch the premises of the Peretz Society here, it was full. The young people with various political convictions would come here. Motl Chasis, the merchant, and Benyamin Kac, the dental technician, Minyuk Shefa and the son of the cantor, even activists from other parties – they would come here to see their girls who were only incidental guests here.

It was bright and noisy around the premises of the young. The discussions were carried out into the streets. When night fell, they dispersed reluctantly. Naturally, the pairs who were in love sneaked out first. They searched for solitude in pairs under the moon and they did not even notice that the group was dispersing, diffused in the night. The shine of the moon enveloped the shtetl as if a

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mysterious veil. Candles in silver and brass candlesticks shone from the windows. Their flames quivered slightly in the enveloping quiet and emptiness like the hearts of the young girls who for the first time met young men's eyes with their own. Alone and afraid for oneself. People sat on benches and stools on the bridges, on the porches – they rested after a difficult week of toil and worry – Oyneg Shabbos [enjoyment of the Sabbath]. Hands crossed in laps, they rested, they conversed and, as usually happened, gossiped. Here, everyone knew what was happening to everyone else. The men, naturally, talked not only about the synagogue, about the rabbi, gabbaim [sextons, persons who assist the rabbi], but also about politics: the removal of ministers and they smacked their lips at the wisdom of diplomacy, and [they] also were unimpressed even with the Tsar.

At farm wagons, around the bridges – it was full. The young people were so beautiful, so charming – the girls! Just look in their eyes and you would see a beautiful world sparkling in their pupils, like a dear world.

In the middle of the shtetl near Rywtshe Godomiczer's door, on the long bridge near the house, sat Sender Szlajen, Asher Dim, the reserve officer from Lemberg, the young Polish man, Janek Staczila, the old man Babrov, the former Russian official with the tsarist postal system and the pretty young girl – Sonia, the most beautiful of all in the shtetl; Godomiczer's daughter and her smart sister – Ite.

From Godomiczer's bridge quiet melodies were drawn into the shtetl. The unusual voice of Asher Dim intertwined with two girlish voices, accompanied by Sender Szlajen's soft humming bass. The trembling of the guitars of Babrow and Janek Staczila flowed into the choir. This was not just singing, but singing by trained tenors who know where and know when to flow like the Styr [River], to murmur like the market and to cry with sweetness…so this was real singing, just as Pesakh the klezmer's [musician] fiddle was legendary, or ever better, the purest oil. I did not yet know that it was the music of Dvorak's Humoresque, Shubert's Leider, Webern and such composers that was heard from the bridge.

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On the other side of the shtetl, a well-organized singing of Ukrainian songs would come from the Ukrainian streets, from Bakecki's house. A choir, a true choir, from which would escape several high soprano voices, interwoven with a lyrical tenor. We knew the words, we heard them from afar:

Scho proyde lyube litechko,
Shche vernet'sya vesna, vesna.
A molodist' ne vernet'sya,
Ne vernet'sya vona!

[“The beloved summer will pass
Spring again will return,
But youth itself will not return
It never will return.”]

Another love motif extended from a second bridge:
Du is der garn fun shtetl,
Du is meyn libe, meyn troym…

[Here is all of the shtetl,
Here is my love, my dream…”]

This was a new song that Undzer Vilna [Our Vilna – a theater troupe] had brought with them. And from the Peretz Hall many other songs – not sentimental, not tempestuous, hopeful, calling, martially rhythmic:
“Yet it will come, too early, too late, the time, it is a dream.”
And like an argument from another meeting hall, voices answered:
[With Chaim Nachman Bialik's] “Strengthening the hand of our brothers…”
And the dark velvet of the water of the Styr called solemnly – this was helped by the fishermen at the catch[ing of fish] with burning buckets of pitch.

Friday nights, Jewish Friday nights – what a mixture of melodies, what a mosaic of images of longing and desire…

*

On one such Friday night, not far from the bridge among the small houses of the old pond-keeper and the fish-seller, I got into an argument with Chaim Szpilberg in the middle of the road. We were then like heaven and earth, more – two [different] worlds, two antagonistic worlds, fighting for all eternity. Both he and

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I were convinced that we were divided by an abyss, our paths not only never coming together, but never even intersecting.

The quarrel began accidentally, but we very quickly flared up as if a fire had been ignited in both of us. From a quiet conversation we moved a tone higher; we began to throw arguments at each other like cobblestones and then as if cinders. Each of us had the whole truth and was spiritually convinced of this. And there cannot be two truths, so one begins to burn the other. As always happens with the truth, it is written regardless of the usual understanding – Galileo or the Inquisition.

People began to gather around us. At first out of pure curiosity and then they took sides. I still remember several faces around us: Yisroel Sima, Leibl Perliuk, Leibl Turczinski, Ebber the carpenter, Henekh Bikelnicki and others.

[There was] a considerable group around us and it kept growing [larger]. We threw out every word, every example with such fury as if they were grenades. There was soon the threat that the words would be transformed into a dark, vile but not less embittered fight; with one word it almost reached a fighting argument that is used in war.

I fought for erasing the old world and on its ruins building a world of bright glass houses in which only joy, good fortune, laughter was heard. He also wanted a new world, a new life for Jews, with orchards and groves, with the dried up deserts transformed into a heaven on earth. He did not want to drag the yoke for the world; it was enough that everyone should “make Shabbos for himself” [march to one's own drum], with his own strength and abilities.

Those around us stood, mainly as spectators at a boxing match. Each time they were on the side of the one who given the strongest and most sparkling blow. However,

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there were also those who were supporters of both doctrines. [On] my side was Henekh Bikelnicki – it was seen in his face how he accepted with satisfaction the blows that I gave and with a sullen face the blows that I received. When we both were hoarse and argued with our last strength, the discussion then was ignited among the recent kibitzers [onlookers offering advice]. And each side gathered new arguments with each new fighter. In the end the shtetl itself was divided into two sides.

Finally, each one deeply convinced of his truth, we separated with deep sorrow that the opposing side was laughing in such obvious delusions.

Dozens of years passed. We both made use of the words of Leivick [pen name of Leivick Halpern] in his Lebn Meins [My Life], carried out our lives through great dangers, went through, according to the saying – the bath, mill and poorhouse, through jail and across ruins, through [war] fronts, hunger and thirst, through wide highways and village paths, froze in the frosts on the roofs of trains and through endless steppes – one through detours, seas and oceans to distant Montreal, the other through squalls, to burned Warsaw.

Dozens and dozens of years have passed and we met again. We met and did not even remember our old differences of opinions and quarrels. We only felt like one: the large satisfaction that we had been destined to meet again.


[Page 69]

A Metamorphosis of a Melody

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Kolki naturally was not Tolna [Talne, Ukraine]. No doubt Tolna was probably like all of the Kiev area. And in the Kiev area, if one believes the Tolna Hasid who tells his story in [Y.L.] Peretz's A Metamorphosis of a Melody, there was “a fiddle in the house and if you wanted to know how many men belonged to a house. Look at the walls! How many fiddles were hanging, that many men.”

Kolki did not compare itself to Tolna; Kolki was what? An unassuming shtetele [small town]; if you will – a little boring. But what kind of boring! Kolki had its look, its character and its melodies; Kolki had its Pesakh the klezmer [musician]. If his melody had been like a strange heart, Kolki would have rejected him. We presume that Pesakh the klezmer's melody drew its vigor and its inheritance from Kolki.

As one from Kolki I carry in me the melody that I heard in Kolki and even more the melody has become more mature and as a result – refreshing. I cannot forget the summer dawn when night had not begun to vanish and the day was still wrapped in its thinnest veil. And thus [the time] between day and night took on various colors – earlier at the distant horizon, and them on the crowns of the trees, about which you must know that the golden rays of the sun begin to mix with the green of the crowns, the green is no longer green, and the gold is not gold, but a color that God Almighty had just created and we, the Children of Adam do not begin to know what this is. But you should know that whether God is present or not present, there was never a greater painter

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than Him and there never will be. Every morning arrives with His colors; they touch one another and begin to mix in such varied sounds that one can go crazy. A color has its tone and a melody has its tone, and one melody is not equal to another.

Daybreak. The entire insignificant shtetele [small town], the houses and the shtiblekh [one-room synagogues], the stoops and earthen benches attached to the houses, the footbridges, the fences, the old cemetery covered with greenery, the shiny bridge, all the bushes and trees, every blade of grass – everything shimmered with color, a symphony of colors on which one had to be an expert because God himself spoke through it. The courtyard street was the privileged one. It was juicy in color because it possessed an abundance of greens. Earlier the colors emerged as if from a fog, then they became sharper, clearer like a melody that becomes a leitmotif and what is most important is embodied in it.

I stood at daybreak near Motl the carpenter's new house and looked into the depth of the courtyard street. It was quiet, so quiet and a person could hear his own heart beat. Suddenly the quiet began to change like a wind had mysteriously begun to murmur and little by little, little by little a melody began to tremble: arose and disappeared, and repeated – several times. Then it began to approach and grew even closer – became even stronger. Yes, a fiddle played, played and grew, just as religious ecstasy, enthusiasm, fervor begins to climb higher and higher, and not losing its softness, tenderness; the melancholy grows; the sadness, however, [is] as if wrapped in fog, in silk and in velvet. A melody wrestles with itself; sounds want to overcome one another, fall in the arms, descending and climbing, feel like shmeterlingen [butterflies] [flying] around, around the candlelight, burning their wings and withdrawing in order to again be drawn to the radiant flame that shines and warms and escapes from the strange, frightening total darkness. The melody, the distant melody flows together with

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the colors of daybreak in one song, in one concert, in one line – color and sound, as if born from one source for one and the same purpose…

I was with Daniel Weiner; we stood, embraced, looking and listening, looking and listening, looking and listening, and like two dazed [men] had one feeling and as if we both [had become] one soul. Not speaking to each other, we began to walk toward the sound, but it was no longer only a fiddle, it was joined by a clarinet and other instruments and they flowed together like streams in a gurgling brook. We walked opposite the sounds and they opposite us. We saw a group of people in the distance. So it was from them that the singing prayer came. We began to recognize faces. Well-known everyday faces in a world of complete Shabbos [Sabbath], of complete spirituality, of dream and of longing. The soul is the fiddle and the fiddle is the klezmer [musician]. He and his orchestra.

Pesakh the klezmer. A small yamulke [skull cap] on his head, a large, high forehead, closed eyes, pressed together stubborn lips, as if with his strength he wanted to hold back the flood of sound that tears from him, wants to throw himself like a waterfall from a high dam that blocks the way of the flow with a giant mass of power. [He was] tall, strongly built, with a blond beard thickly threaded with grey like satin. He walked as if he was not led by his eyes, but by the notes from his fiddle. Chaim the klezmer, who walked near him, moved like someone blind – the notes from his clarinet led him. And the same rhythm moved the group in the black, silk Shabbos [Sabbath] kaftans and black caps, white shirts. Holiday Jews, and with them – their wives and daughters – black kerchiefs, white, satin shawls.

They walked, and Daniel and I accompanied them – eager and bewitched. Here is the tailor's synagogue and Elihu Groisman's house, on the left an alley leads to the circle. The day tempted with its blueness. Day. Welcome – a new day is here. But the shtetele was still asleep. Very soon it would begin to wake up and doors would begin to open and shutters and porches

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would be enlivened, and children would begin flying around like doves. The roofs as if under cap visors, looked at the new sun and the windowpanes bowed down to the earth, bent for years even deeper as if they had prepared their own grave. Good morning, shtetele. Pesakh the klezmer did not awaken you with his orchestra, but [rather, you were woken by] the worry that also woke you up in the middle of the night. The old woman of worry, the sorceress with dark eyes like an abyss, always awakens you.

Suddenly the playing was interrupted and we again felt the rule of the stillness and just as unexpectedly it was cut short, the sounds were spiritedly revived. Other sounds, another pace; broader, freer, melted away like circles, comfortably, a circle in a circle, one circle woven into another and they moved faster, more lively. Joyfulness invaded the melancholy. At first, a little shyly, then very boldly, more boldly, more joyfully. Everything with more faith and good news. The notes already were knocking on every house in the circle. Now they were awakening, now they called, now they opened the shutters and doors and so, I thought, they will begin to shake the trees at their crowns, [pull] the young men by their forelocks, stroke the rosy cheeks of the girls and like the wind, play with the peyes [side curls] of the boys.

The sky became clearer, the green more yellow. The day had vanquished [the night]. Pesakh proudly led his orchestra, drove out the shadows. Now he bent his entire body to all sides and made semi-circles moving from below, up and down – lively, more agile, confident, a living being! Let us live, and he danced, let us dance! And as he already is was, I think, there, above, just above, in the power of complete joy, he again began to fall, to fall, lower, fallen into sorrow, he began to plead and to beg and a lament forced its way through and notes roared like a curse – who can understand what a fiddle wants to be? What does the fiddler say? What does he dream? For what does he long?

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But day is day and the light comes and consolation comes, and again the fiddle began to drive away the shadows, drive them from all of the corners, drive them like a bad smell, and fresh winds began to blow over the leafy forests and played with the ripe ears of corn in the fields. A day arrives; a bright day arrives for you, my brothers and sisters. The glow of the music plays with the light on the faces; smiles appear, eyes begin to shine, quicker movements of the hand and the step becomes bolder.

What happened? The drum began to be the boss; the drum began to shriek. What happened? Daniel Wajner and I knew what. Pesakh and his orchestra were at the house of the in-laws, leading the groom's side. They were leading the groom's in-laws back home from the wedding, a joyful one. May it be with good fortune! And how could it be joyful without a drum? The drum had been quiet for too long. Now it flew into a rage. It shouted with all of its voices!

I remember this daybreak and I become sad. I remember that there once was… There was a sort of completeness, one's own air. It was familiar… The melody existed and lived in all of us. When I remember Pesakh the klezmer, I also remember that Kolki had a melody and the melody had a soul and to this day if I am drawn to the music, it is certainly the “pull” of the past. We sang in our house and not only on holidays. My mother sang various songs – above all in Yiddish, Polish and Ukrainian.

Pesakh the klezmer was my neighbor. He lived almost across from us, somewhat to the right. He would play not only at weddings. He played every day for several hours just for himself and when he would play I would listen. I understood none of this. However, during his playing I felt that a strange sweetness had begun flowing in me and made me lighter, better, as if I sensed my own soul. When I began going to concerts, I knew that the melodies that I have remembered my entire life, hearing Pesakh the klezmer, were

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classical works – Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and others. Pesakh the klezmer's playing actually were my first concerts. Later, I heard the same works played by the great masters of famous violinists and every time I realized how deeply what I had heard from the house across from us lived in me. How familiar these works were to me. In my adult years and in old age, from those times in the distant past when I was a young boy and did not even know the names of the composers.

Pesakh the klezmer has been dead for a long time. He still lives in me, just as he lives in the legend. Yes, there is a legend and the Kolki klezmer is woven in it for the ages.

Legends are legends and are impossible to confront with reality, but since such a legend circulated, it demonstrated how deep an influence Pesakh the klezmer had on the mood of people of the area. The legend that I heard also was heard by his son, Fishl Sznicer (Pesakh's family name was Sznicer). I heard the same version he did.

Here is what was said:

When the Germans were approaching, Pesakh escaped to Osowa from Kolki. Osowa lay tens of kilometers deep in the forest. [He thought:] No wide roads led to the shtetl so the German troops would not get through. What did they have to search for in such a [shtetl] as Osowa? Several thousand Ukrainians lived in Kolki; [there were] in Osowa, only Jews. Pesakh the klezmer did not understand this, that only Jews lived there, [and that] would draw both the Ukrainian fascists and the Germans. It was not important that the Jewish peasants in Osowa had lived in peace with those around them. The century-old community was not worth a groshn. In the other one [Kolki], Soviet partisan divisions could have quickly been created [by the residents]. German divisions arrived immediately to liquidate the partisans and with them there

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was a Ukrainian student from Kowel named Horila (perhaps a nickname because of his drunkenness or his passion for setting fire to Polish villages and Jewish shtetlekh.), a “specialist” in arranging such blazes so that no one exited with his life (Horilka or Horis).[1] In these two trades he was a great “inventor.” To great misfortune, this Horila was also a musician – played an accordian and never parted from it. And his boss, the S.S. officer, was infatuated with the Greek goddess Euterpe who was the muse of music. He always brought his gramophone and records with him. With whisky, his heart would be delighted with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and not only with Wagner through whom the voice of German blood spoke. When this S.S. man learned that a Jewish violinist was in the shtetl, the musician in him was ignited and he ordered that they look for him [the violinist] and bring [the violinist] to him.

Pesakh, an old, sick, broken Jew who had not held a violin in his hand for a long time, was brought to him. Pesakh could not refuse to play and he did not want to play. He presented a condition: after he played, the German officer should shoot him at the Jewish cemetery so that his bones would lie with his own [people] and not somewhere in a ditch. The S.S. man agreed, but he did not keep his word – [he] let the old man live so that he could play for him. Pesakh knew what he wanted, to die at the Jewish cemetery! Because he already had watched the dead bodies swimming in the Styr [River], open graves of those who had been shot, and he wanted to avoid this. His dead body should not be abandoned. He repeated the condition every time and every time the German promised and then did not keep his word.

When Pesakh the klezmer learned that the Osowa ghetto had been liquidated and all of the Jews murdered, at the next encounter with the hangman he declared that he would not play under any condition. Horila's brutal curses and wild shrieks did not help. The blows from

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the German officer, the threat with a revolver did not frighten in. No and no. The proud Jew, beaten, with blood flowing, remained firm in his decision not to appear anymore. The officer, insulted in his bandit-like horror, promised that today he would take him to the Jewish cemetery and shoot him himself.

– You can be calm, accursed Jew. The honor of the German officer will not be sullied. Leave.”

S.S. officers and several Ukrainian policemen chased the emaciated, bent over, crumpled and bloodied Jew. [They] drove him with cursing, with mockery and whistles. His naked body was seen through his rags. His long white beard fluttered and shook, but his hate and disgust with his torturer shot out from the burning darkness of his eyes. He held his violin in his hand and did not let it go. He would keep his word. He would play on the Jewish cemetery before his death.

And the legend says: He played. The playing of a violin began to be heard from the cemetery. Pesakh played in joyous expectation that he was leaving the dirty, loathsome world and would rest among his own people. His entire life flew from the strings – Yiddish melodies and a requiem for the thousands of holy martyrs who perished before he did, with whom he would be united with pride. However, when his violin began storming with anger, and higher, enraged notes mixed together with quiet tears and sighs, the band gang understood that the anger from the violin was turned against them. The two-legged reptiles with their loathsome feeling even sensed that the violin was cursing them. Three shots hit [Pesakh] as he played…

Letting go of the violin, the old man fall with hands spread on a grave and embraced it, saturating the earth with his blood.

It probably is not just a legend that before his death, Pesakh played his violin and was shot as he played – the sounds were

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interrupted along with his life. If it had not been that way, the legend that went from mouth to mouth and is told to this day probably would not have been born.

Several peasants say, and the young do not want to believe them, that once a year a violin concert is heard from the spot that once was the Osowa cemetery. The concert is heard far in the villages and the peasants are attacked then with shivers and the old cross themselves. The violin sound is quieted when [the sound of] three shots from a revolver are carried from the same spot. The shots naturally calm the peasants with unclear consciences.

I confess in full that when I sit at a violin concert, Pesakh the klezmer stands before my eyes. With my eyes closed I hear and recognize his hesitations and bows, his silk and his satin, his wonderful purity that comes from a wonderfully pure and proud soul, and when the violin finishes, I feel as if I had woken up from a sleep and that I had dreamed this. I dreamed or was this not a transformation of a melody? Is this not Pesakh the klezmer whom we are applauding so fervently, along with the violinist [at the concert]?

He lives in me, the old klezmer, he lives in me!

*

 

Translator's Footnote
  1. The Ukrainian word horilka means vodka; the Russian word gorelka means burner. Return


[Page 79]

The Benyamin Tribe from Kolki

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

In a blizzard

The road, sparkling like crystal, led far, far away and cut a path uphill with a clear line to heaven, directly to the One who resides in heaven.

It slowly began to get dark, first dark gray and then all black. Night arrived and the frost grew worse.

Two horses ran along the road, harnessed and hitched to a long sleigh packed with sacks of goods and silhouetted over them were people.

The horses ran in good spirits. The noble steeds were homesick to get back to their warm stall and earned rest after heavy labor.

Yosef-Benyamin did not hurry his noble steeds. No matter, his four-footed breadwinners knew everything themselves. The frost already had covered Yosef-Benyamin's beard, whiskers and eyebrows with ice crystals, covered even the collar of his hooded fur cape with ice; a white vapor emanated from his breath.

Yosef-Benyamin got down off the wagon, easily ran alongside to warm himself. He became tired and again jumped onto the sled. The horses, who treated their boss gently when he ran alongside, again began to run lively when he had sat down. Yes, their boss was no longer as skillful as before; they had an equine “compassion for living things…”

Little by little, the lone trees on the road disappeared and they were surrounded by a bit of forest. A thick forest hovered on both sides and a small road cut in the middle. A road on which he had traveled

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his entire life, at all times of the year and which he knew as well as his own face. Silent. Silent. The silence seemed to echo. The beat of the horse hooves was the only instrument in a silent orchestra.

The forest also had an end. The corridor slowly grew wider, still wider. The forest began to withdraw and was joined as in one dark mass; it began to be more spacious, large, dark fields, somewhere cut bushes, like small, white hills. Around and around a snowy desert and fast moving spots.

Yosef-Benyamin snuggled into the sled and some unhappy thoughts suddenly sneaked into his imagination. He looked to the sky often, looking for some sign there. He noticed something and became uneasy. Would a murderer suddenly fly into a rage? He suddenly felt that the air had become damp and warm; a damp snow began to fall like pieces of soft cotton. The breath of air from his mouth began to melt the frost on his beard and whiskers. The snow-butterflies on the equine shoulders began to melt and drip.

And again the air changed. The snow became dry and it began to snow heavily, thickly and even more thick. Yosef-Benyamin already was covered in snow as were his companions and the surrounding fields. They sat cuddled up and the people began to look like covered hills. Not an hour had passed and Yosef-Benyamin began to feel that danger hovered over him on all sides. Which way and what roads? The horses pulled their feet out of the heavy snow, threw their heads from side to side and as if they were trying to feel a road under their feet, they moved very carefully – everything all around, everything had disappeared.

Yosef-Benyamin crept down from the sled, gave an energetic shake and entire pieces of snow fell from him like torn bed sheets. He tried to revive the horses, but the noble steeds moved even more heavily; tapped their hooves to the right here, to the left with their big feet. Yosef-Benyamin yelled at his horses, shrieked

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The horses acted as if they had not heard anything. Apparently, there also was a strong fear in them, stronger than their obedience to their boss. Yosef-Benyamin, angry with rage, started to use his whip, but this did not help, either. To the devil, such a road polished like steel, where had it gone? He looked around did not find anywhere to grasp with his eyes; he did not find the least landmark that would at least suggest the direction home.

And the snow fell and fell. It fell with success and with a crazy stubbornness. A wind began to howl and he heard laughter in it:

“Yosef-Benyamin, there are no big shots present. You are a lost one!”

Yosef-Benyamin already was in snow over hiss knees. He thought and thought and could not find another way out, except to rely on his noble steeds. In such circumstances one could rely more on them than on oneself. For this they had to have some sore of sense…

The horses did their part. They felt that the earth under them was uneven: they tapped here and there and moved like wavering drunks. The wind increased, the snow fell thickly and turned in a circle. A dark night and whiter snow. The wind smoothed out the snow on all the holes. A wild dance of demons. A white snow and a crazy swirl and Yosef-Benyamin began to feel pity for himself, for the horses, for the few people. He cleared off the snow on the back of the horses and in a few minutes they were covered again. He pet them, calmed them. Silent souls, how did they sin? He thought: we cannot stand still, we must move, move, at any cost. Perhaps, a fire will appear, we will go toward the fire, come to some kind of settlement, to some kind of hut.

The blizzard resounded seriously. The horses were afraid, but were occupied in creeping carefully in the snow. [The wind] howled as if a pack of wolves had been howling. We could not stand still and be harmed! Faith is a great thing!

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He looked for a fire through the thicket, at least one small fire. He saw it and it disappeared. He took the reins as if the fire would appear; he would lead the horses there. There it was! There it was!

Suddenly, the sled cracked as if it had broken. The horses remained in place. Benyamin saw that sled was half bent and was sinking even deeper – a pit, a ruin. The horses braced against each other.

Oy, a misfortune! My God, just not this, just not this! Yosef-Benyamin thought out loud.

His light bay, the best horse in the shtetl [town], was ready to fall down as if his feet had been cut off. He {Yosef-Benyamin] threw off his hooded fur cape – he had become warm – and he went to the horses. He unhitched them, quickly unhitched them!

And one horse already was standing at the side, calmly. But the other one, the light bay, the best horse, lay in the snow gasping with his last strength, as if he had been strangled. Yosef-Benyamin grabbed his knife, cut the leather straps. The knife was dull.

– He shouted, “Help! The swingletree of the wagon [metal bar to which leather straps are tied] needs to be pulled off.”
But the swingletree was tightened like a string; it could not be pulled out. The people tried. Everyone tried together to pull it and the horse was choking. Two healthy young men wrestled with the straps; their fingers already were bloody, and they pulled and pulled. For a minute it seemed that the light bay had been saved. However, when the straps were finally released, the light bay's head fell on the snow like a stone – he had suffocated.

The misfortune was great. When they dragged themselves home with one horse, barely alive, Yom-Kippur [Day of Atonement] and Tisha b'Av [the 9th of Av – fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem] began in the house. Everyone was as if struck dumb and it was as if they had fainted. Quite a trifle, the death of such a horse! It undoubtedly had cost 60 or 70 zlotes. Where would one get the money for another horse? Even a cheap one? There was nothing from which one could save; no, mouths had to eat. A loaf of bread on the table disappears just by the pinching off of pieces of it; yes, just from pinching.

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*The Smells from Yosef-Benyamin's House*

There is no solution – my memories grow weaker. But there are pictures that were etched [in my memory] and remain alive to this day. I can call them up every time. They possess so much strength to live on.

I remember Yosef-Benyamin; I immediately see his house before me. The floor shiny as if smeared with egg yolks. Every Tuesday, his oldest daughter, Chana, and the youngest daughter, Frayda-Mirl, would work on the floor. They would rub it with a brush and rinse it again and again until the floor was so clean that we could eat kasha off it. It shone like a mirror, like a crockery plate, like a well-polished ice skating area.

I remember everything that was in his house: the table, the stools, the chairs, the windows, the clothes cabinet. I was a member of this household for a long time and I remember all of the objects. And strange, I remember the faces as if through a hazy glass. This makes me wonder. This torments me. And I cannot make it clear in any way. Why? Dead objects – yes, and living faces – no.

Meir, the older son, came from the army on furlough; one of the city young men, a young man like a carved oak. In black, shiny, pressed boots, in a military uniform, with four stripes on the collar, with a konfederatka [four-sided military cap] on his head, with a sword at his side. A cavalryman, a fellow who was like a magnet to the girls. They would eat him with their eyes, smack their lips, just stare at him.

A loving warmth always carried from his house, always an aroma as from freshly baked bread. The two sisters stood bent over the kneading trough: the tall, slender Chana, with hair cut short like a boy, so dark-skinned and so thin. And the younger Frayda-Mirl, a girl “with body,” a curly head [of hair] and with a wide face like a sunflower, gleaming

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eyes and snow-blinding white teeth. One could smell strength and health from Frayda-Mirl, the “Cossack woman.” She was not stingy with her words, you said one word to her and she answered with 10 words, hard as stone, sharp like knives. It was better not to challenge her. She worked with all men like a male. They kneaded the dough rhythmically and drew their hand out with a whistle. They dipped their hands in water and again started kneading. Their mother, Bluma, stood with her hands on her cheeks and smiled. She beamed with pleasure, looking at them, at her two young women. These are young women? – Flowers! Roses!

They would bake 10 large round and browned loaves of bread from this kneading. The breads also shone so that one could see her image in them.

The aromas from Yosef-Benyamin's house: fresh bread mixed with the smell of incandescent apples and ground corn. I remember it [the aroma] until this day. I absorbed it for always.

*

Shabbos night: a great light flowed from every window, as if they did not only have to light the house, but the street, the footbridges, the trees and the dirt roads as well and pull from the total darkness the mild, magical strokes from all around. The house was full, a tumult, a commotion, the conversation of boys and girls. Tables were dragged from the house and from the surrounding neighbors and they were placed like one long table. Their own and borrowed chairs and stools were set around [the table]. The tables were covered with white linens and on them, glasses, plates, trays of sugar.

What was happening here today? An engagement party, a wedding? Why was there such a commotion; why had so many people come together? What kind of a holiday was this? Nothing of the kind! The reason was: the members of the Peretz Society had decided to enlarge its library by buying new books. A book evening was taking place today. There was a

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dramatic evening, a literary evening for the same reason and today there was a friendly gathering for books. Every young man or girl, or both together, wanted to buy books for the library, at least one book.

There was a joyous tumult because of this. The Cossack, Frayda-Mirl, was the first server. However, her task was not only to serve – she coordinated, designated who, where and with whom one had to sit. And today her word was an order. She did not make a fuss; she gave orders and everyone obeyed. Chana and her mother poured the tea. Sura Maciwer and Liba Goldszmidt, Heika Wajner and Mirl Kac stood in the kitchen and grated potatoes for latkes [potato pancakes]; the mother fried them. The aroma carried through the rooms.

The door opened; the late ones entered. Moshe Chajczyk, a friend, entered. He was dressed nicely and looked at himself in a mirror more than a man needed to look. A choir singing together suddenly was heard: “Lomir ale ineinem Moshen makabal zeyn” [“Let us all together welcome Moshe.”]… Everyone sang and Moshe sang along. The girls and the mother in the kitchen sang. Yosef-Benyamin wrinkled his beard and looked at the ceiling full of pleasure, as if he was searching for something there and murmured, “Lomir ale ineinem…”

Every late arrival was met with a welcome, but no one was late. The latkes were not yet on the table.

That day's book evening was different from the usual one. No program had been prepared in advance; they felt freer. Everyone did whatever they wished; sang whatever they wanted; recited whatever they wanted; they amused themselves. They searched for and found the “Shenste Margaritka in Wald,”[1] while from the other corner of the table was heard another melody and it poured in like a guest from another world: “Mai Ka Mashma Lon der Regn, vos-zhe er lozt mikh tsu hern.”[2] They sang both Zalman Shneur and Avrom Reyzen, and no one argued. They sang in peace. At least they sang. Someone at the table told a joke and laughter shot around along with claps of the hands. The shouts reached up to the ceiling.

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The windows were open and the singing, joking, laughter flew into the world and already there were rascals near the windows making noise. Motl Walik, the oldest one among us, already married and with children, chanted “and the Rebbe Elimelekh” and he immediately began to fiddle and to drum. The street sang along. After havdalah [ritual ending of the Sabbath], the neighbors looked out onto the street through the windows and into the house. Jews returning from the house of prayer stopped and watched how the young “were turning over worlds” and “were emerging.” Women, with shawls over their heads, also listened enthusiastically. Joy draws everyone; laughter warms; a melody cheers one up; one sings along to a refrain from the street.

– Hush! Quiet! – Leibl shouted – Let it be quiet! – and he began to recite Hey, Antasha, tu a zung and tu a klung oyf der bandura, shura, bura, tura, at azoy, hey, hey [“Hey, Antasha, sing and stroke the bandura, shura, bura, tura, like this, hey, hey.”]. The trays of latkes were brought in. We snatched ourselves away from the rhetoric; [the latkes were] a seething handiwork; no one wanted to hear any more recitations.

– Immediately! The songs can wait, the latkes cannot. They are tasty only as they are in the Chanukah song: Zudike, heyse latkes esn mir [We eat boiling hot, hot potato pancakes].

Emptying the plates, they remembered:
– Hey, Leibl, lay out your goods! – And Leibl “laid them out” – everyone knew he had [songs to lay out] and could:

        “There was a duke, white as snow, white as snow,
        He had children in the palace – daughters two, daughters two.”

Finished and again: “Sha, shtil, makht nish keyn geruder…” [“Hush, be quiet, do not make a stir…” – words of a song].
– This, what I want to read now demands quiet, a rikh in reshes tatn areyn [the devil take the villian's father – a mild curse]!
Leibl began, as if from afar, whispering, and…

Again – Kolobok [Russian fairy tale character – a round bread that comes to life]

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“Do you have bread?”
He answered quietly:
“Ah, alas, not now,
Once I ate everything
Bread, cabbage, radishes with shmaltz [chicken fat],
But not now.”
It was quiet until the end. Our crowd could make a racket; it could also be quiet and listen. I also had the desire to show what I knew, to present another Kolobok [fairy tale] and with all of the impulse of the young, I shot out my beloved song with a hot breath.
“And the bells rang
And bronze youth attacked then
A desire
To quiet
The fury
Of years
That are lost…”
Who did we not recite that evening? [Y.L.] Peretz and [Leib] Kvitko, [H.] Leivick [pen name of Leivick Halpern] and [Peretz] Markish and [Chaim Nachman] Bialik; we did not forget the great devotee of the Hebrew language. We declaimed him [Bialik] in Yiddish:
“And God had told me thus,
The tear of every heart, an oy [oh]
And the oy should be heavy and bitter,
So that the earth will tremble…”
I think all the Jewish songs were sung, recited, and so, unnoticed, we [started singing] Ukrainian dumkas [Slavic music, folk ballads or laments] at the long table: Reve ta

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Stohne Dnipr Shyrokyi (The Wide Dnieper Roars and Moans) and others…

This book evening was successful. Everyone was satisfied, they dispersed and the goal was reached: a large sum was collected for buying new books for the library.

The shtetl ended three or fours houses after Yosef-Benyamin's house. The large, aristocratic orchards began of sour cherries, cherries, pears, apples – a holiday of colors.

It appears before my eyes, every night now, when I slowly speak these lines into the tape recorder. I see it, the night, just as if it would lie behind the window of my residence in Warsaw, on one of the tumultuous, noisy streets.

It is a silvery, moonlit-night, a moon with a face like a bride under a white veil. It shines all over. The orchards are threaded with silver threads. There is such a beautiful blissful sadness. A small Catholic church stands apart, as if completely dipped in a silver liquid and behind it are scattered huts. They are still asleep. The silver soon becomes clearer and fades away in the morning; with every second it will get lighter and lighter; a young, fresh, sun-smiling day will come.

We did not hurry out of Yosef-Benyamin's house to go to sleep. We strolled hand locked in hand; we were quiet and wove dreams. Life was good. Life was beautiful. We wanted to make it better, make it better for the entire world.

The church bells called to prayer and also told of the arrival of a new day. Just then, we left for home, sleeping for a few hours until toil would stand us on our feet. Our shtetele [small town] would soon awake and the customary daily bustle would begin.

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No… No… The shtetele will no more awaken. Not awaken… Everything was scorched; the Jews, the houses, the youthful joy and the great worry of the fathers. Burned, reduced to dust, erased.

Today, for whom does the bell toll in our shtetele? It tolls for the past life, for the slaughtered children, for the blossoming lives that were cut short.

The bell tolls. I hear it. It tolls out the death around it, the death that swallowed everyone, everyone.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. The Most Beautiful Margaritka in the Forest, a song by Zalman Shneur. Return
  2. What does the rain come teach? What, then, does it let me hear, a song by Avrom Reyzen.. Return

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