by A. Sh. Yuris (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Claire Hisler Shefftz
1. Ulica Ciasna
My cradle stood on Ulica [Street] Ciasna, which means narrow street, and I do not remember if the house was numbered 4 or 6, but I am inclined to number 4. The street was not actually a street, but an alley; in Hebrew one would have called it simta and in Russian, pereulok. The alley connected two beautiful streets in the very center of the city that went to the very central square of the city, to the rynek, which means the market, with the city hall in the middle and the train line for the small train, kolejka, which cut across the market and the entire middle of the city. Yes, I almost would have forgotten the name of the city: Kolomea. Eastern Europe, more correctly, Pokuttya. Incidentally, the city earned a well-known reputation in Polish and Yiddish literature. It was immortalized by Sholem Aleichem in his famous humorous story, S'a Lign [It's a Lie] and Stanislaw Przybyszewski, characterized one of his heroes in his novel, Synowie Ziemi [Sons of the Earth] (The Children of the Earth), thus: He looks like some sort of Englishman from Kolomea. For him, it appears, my city was a synonym for a backwards corner at the end of the world.
I was born accidentally. When there are poor parents who live in barely one room with an alcove that also serves as a kitchen and who already have nine children, they do not excessively long to sow another, tenth child. However, as I was born on a happy day, in the middle of Purim, it seems that my appearance in the world was met with love. Go figure, a tenth child, but they would not throw it out. And for the sake of the true historic record, I here provide the date: the 8th of March
1890. Formally, the two-story house belonged to us, but as the burden of a mortgage and debts of all kinds lay on this house, an [impounder] collected the entire rent money from all of the neighbors for a bank account [in payment of] the debts, which had a tendency to keep increasing. A poor house. My father was a small broker of large houses. Prosperity was rare. The income minimal.
I spent my first childhood years in this house. I would always run out into the larger world and, for me, this was two streets into which my street ran. On one side was Jagiellonska Street, which was a noisy street of businesses and I was enticed by its noise and tumult. On the other side was Kosciuszko Street, which was impressive with its elegance and on which was found the salon of the Kasa Oszczędności [savings bank], where all of the important communal-literary undertakings, Jewish and non-Jewish would take place.
A childish soul longs for experiences that will pull it through the monotony of great poverty. Exactly across lived a baker with a beautiful daughter, Ruchla. On Friday nights, she would often pull me into their house to their comfortable dinner, about which we could not even dream [in our house]. Her small blond head and her sweet smile are forever engraved in my heart and memory. And when some sort of house began to be built on the street and childish fantasies longed for blazing flames, the children and I from the same street and the same poverty started a small fire of wood chips, which engulfed the entire scaffolding with its fiery tongue-like flames. The city firemen arrived just in time to put out the fire. However, the small igniters, including me, were not found. I was very frightened, lying hidden under the bed for hours. And we, the mischievous boys, could not bear that the middle class in the city would prepare the fish for Shabbos [the Sabbath] and hide them in the cellars because of the natural coolness we decided to punish them for their fish-wealth and avenge our fish-poverty in a characteristic, conspiratorial manner. On a Friday evening, when it was a bit dark, we sneaked into the cellar of a member of the middle class, stole the good
cooked fish and ate them ourselves. However, to add to the mockery, we filled the pots with stones and covered them with the fish remains. In the morning it was a Yom Kippur for the rich, but Simkhas Torah a celebration for we poor children. Those, who did this also were not discovered.
And a rare, nice family, nice and genteel, lived in the house on the right side of our house: a man and a woman and their wonderfully beautiful daughters the Henish family. In later years, Gabriele D'Annunzio's splendid novella, Three Graces, fell into my hands; the slender figures of the three sisters surfaced in the field of vision of my memory.
And when, for the first time in the history of my city, gas lighting was brought in on the streets and gigantically tall poles were erected, it became my favorite pleasure to climb up to the very highest height of the gas pole on my street to the great fear of my mother. In this way I wanted to be closer to the heavens. My mother was afraid that, God forbid, falling down from such a pole could truly lead to my departure, falling into heaven for eternity.
The heavens drew me for my entire life, to this day. And will until I draw my last breath.
2. Ulica Rejtana
The debt and mortgage on our house exceeded the real worth of the house. This house was auctioned and we left it without a groshn of money, penniless. For lack of a choice, we moved to a still smaller residence. What is a still smaller residence? In any case, the residence consisted of barely one room, but much smaller and of barely one alcove that was identical to a kitchen and, in addition, an oven, but also much smaller than on Ciasna Street much more crowded. And in addition, one brother, a bookbinder, placed his worktable for cardboard in the only room. The street, Ulica Rejtana also had its patriotic name. However, the street itself was smaller and more narrow in addition stifling because opposite the house in which we lived was the
workshop of a shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]. The cry of the slaughtered chickens caused shudders. The flying feathers crept into the nose and eyes and ears. The smells nauseated and choked us.
I am only left with sad memories of not being on the street for very long. When my older brother, Yosef, and I needed to go from the folks-shul [public school] to the gymnazie [secondary school] and the payment was three krone, our mother had to pawn in the pawnshop the only pair of candlesticks that we had. And on Friday she blessed two candles that were stuck in two potatoes.
3. Ulica Zamkova
We moved to a very romantic street: Ulica Zamkova. And we lived in a very romantic courtyard in which a row of houses was located, divided into the highest and lowest parts of the courtyard. This was a more gentile street, close to the gymnazie and there was always a danger in passing through at night because of the angry dogs in the Polish houses.
I was inebriated by the romance of the courtyard. My romantic feelings were ignited here for the first time for a small girl and her name was Lorka. I was then 12 years old and she was about 10. But this strange feeling, and call it what you will, prematurely made me into a poet because it was in poems that I poured out my heart and was stirred up for the first time and it should be understood that there were rhymes and they [the poems] were in Polish.
And on the street I lived through the premature death of my brother, Kalman. Although, a very capable and good brother, Hersh, died on Ciasna Street. But that death was at the beginning of my first years of childhood; it did not shock me like the death of my brother, Kalman, at a time when I was a student at the gymnazie. Since then I have been a principled opponent of death and an absolute proponent of life. Death is the saddest and most excessive thing in our, in any case, so short lives, which are given to us only once by His Dear Name [God]. This life is a gift from heaven. Why does heaven take it back so quickly?
4. My First Slap
Again because of poverty, we changed our residence and moved a little further from the Jewish center onto a completely gentile street, right down after the spring. No many memories of this street remain in my memory because it hurt my soul deeply. One evening I returned home and some sort of gentile boy, even an intelligent enough Pole and a brother of my colleague in the same gymnazie class, approached me by chance from the opposite direction, and without any reason, slapped me, saying: Masz Zydku! there you have it, Jew-boy. This is a classic illustration of the Jewish tragedy of exile: a minority among gentiles and, therefore, persecuted. The slap on my face still burns for me to this day as an earlier momento. I do not remember what the street was named. Perhaps Ulica Szewczenko or perhaps Ulica Orzeszkowa or perhaps another name. However, whatever name it was, the street and the Jewish person in me was defiled by it. And this is one of the internal, physical factors of my Zionist conception: I will no longer be the one who gets slapped, not being able to answer them. My Zionist concept says: not a slap for a slap, but a double and triple slap for a slap. I regret now that I have forgotten the name of the street as the name of the street also was defiled. I have since avoided that street in my home-city. It only remains an angry nightmare.
5. Back to Ulica Zamkova
We lived on the gentile street for almost a year and then moved back to Ulica Zamkova. I spent all of my gymnazie years up to my certificate of graduation here. I formed my essence here. I was a celujący, that means an excellent student. I was especially captivated by history and literature. I began prematurely to write a diary during all of my gymnazie years. I wrote many poems in Polish. They, both the diary and the poems, disappeared during the stormy years of the First World War. A shame.
I was prematurely absorbed into the secret Zionist cultural circle, Bar Kokhba, which was connected with the Galicianer student movement, Tzeiri-Tzion [Youth of Zion]. In my 15th year of life, I wrote a large report in the form of a brochure in Polish on the theme, Poalei-Zionism [Workers of Zion], what it is, where did it arise and what does it aspire to. Incidentally, my first paper made a deep impression in our student circle. The chairman of our circle, also a student, but in a higher class, Feywl Shternberg, with great enthusiasm, then equated the beauty of my presentation of ethical standpoints to the cry of the lost 10,000 Helenes when they suddenly saw the sea, a cry of spiritual ecstasy: Thalasai! Thalasai! (Sea! Sea!).
Comrade Juda Langenmas was a student in the same class. He was a great follower of Yiddish literature and a Yidishist [proponent of the Yiddish language, literature and culture] on principle. In time, he began to translate all of [Jiliusz] Slowacki's poems, among them Ojciec Zadżumionych [The Father of the Plague Stricken] and [Adam] Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz [Mr. or Sir Tadeusz]. He lived not far from us, I think on Bernarska Street. Near the courtyard where I lived was a large pole with a gas lamp. We stood there until deep into the night, spoke and discussed everything and everyone, politics and literature we discussed everything!
I was in love with my street, Zamkova, because of the romance of the street and the romance of the courtyard, which certainly once was a kind of zamek [castle]. University studies carried me to Vienna. And Ulica Zamkova was my last street in my home city.
6. The Longing for Streets
University and then the First World War, in which my family was mandated to go to Vienna, finally ended this chapter of my home city as a home for me and [my] young friends and the experiences of my youth. However, a burning longing for the street and the house where my cradle stood, Ulica Ciasna 4, particularly remains to this day. And when I would come by chance, but rarely, to my home city for various party missions and missions
for Eretz-Yisroel in general, I would first find the street and apartment of my birth on Ciasna Street and immerse myself in a sea of childhood memories. I turned my steps first at the B-line to the courtyard at Zamkova Street, where my entire being slowly ripened as a Jew and a man, as a socialist and Zionist. These young ideals were expressed and carried out on this street of the beginning of my life, Ulica Ciasna, and on this last street in my home city, Ulica Zamkova, to which I have remained devoted for my entire life.
Translator's and Editor's Footnotes:
by Shloyme Bik
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Like almost every city in Galicia, Kolomea also possessed its small colony of Russian Jews. Among the immigrants from Fonya [Russia] long present here, there are those who have lived here for dozens of years and yet floating around each of them is still an atmosphere of secrecy, of fear and sometimes also a wariness.
For example, take the shamas [synagogue caretaker] of the small Itsikl synagogue, Yona the Russian, whose strange existence was permeated by secrecy. He came here [to Kolomea] when he still was a young man. He did not run from the military because why would he have to run when he had a severely crippled foot? It is certain that he left a wife at home; firstly, he came in a talis [prayer shawl] and put on a shtreiml [fur hat worn by some married Hasidim] here. Secondly, he remained in Kolomea for 50 years without a wife. He must have been descended from a rich, middleclass family because during the half century of his being a shamas, not one crumb of income stuck to him and [he was not dependent on anyone]. He spoke with the members of the middle class as an equal and from above with several of them, not as an equal. That Yona was not an ignorant person could be seen easily during one's first conversation with him. But how far he had gone in his education was difficult to know because he avoided discussion of words of Torah with anyone.
Why did he run from his home, somewhere in a shtetl [town] in Podolia gibernia [province]? Who were his family? Why did he never correspond with it and how had they sinned against him that he never even
spoke of it? A sort of Yoshe Kalb lived among a city of Jews for 50 years. But, unlike I[srael] J[oseph Singer's literary figure, the mysterious shamas from Kolomea was spiritually nimble, a person with clear senses and with a smooth tongue who knew everything and did not forget anything about himself and his family, but simply did not speak [about them]. In addition, it is strange that no one was curious enough to learn [about them].
A person who is overloaded with so many secrets and silence usually has a tendency toward melancholy. Yona Shamas had not unburdened himself for tens of years and yet (truly, wonder of wonders!) had not lost his easy-going mood in dealing with people. He was always ready for a joke with the adults and always with a prank for the kheder [religious primary school] boys in Reb Itsikl's small school. Yona Shamas created so much joy for we young boys with his call to the hakofus [circular procession with the Torah scrolls on Simkhas Torah]. When he finished with the first difficult names for the first and second procession, Yona then had a thin cutting remark for those newly called, which truly did not did not cause any hurt [to those who received the remarks], but a smile of joy and pleasure appeared on their faces. The ranks of young boys came for the fifth and sixth hakofus; each boy received a compliment or a small tweak of his nose, which awoke their ambition to study.
Zarekh Rauchwerger, who was taught privately [at the] gymnazie [secondary school] and knew several pages of Gemara [Talmud] by heart, was called up by Yona as follows: the esteemed Torah scholar, the young man Zerakh [son of Menashe], whose name will shine in the Torah and among the non-Jews. Yona invited my friend, Shimshon, who was known for having exceptional knowledge of the Tanakh [the Torah, Prophets and Writings], with this call: the young man Shimson [son of Moshe], the strong man of the Tanakh. However, they really laughed and had pleasure when Yona did not forget to call himself for the seventh hakofah: the esteemed Torah scholar, I honor myself with the honor of the Torah. Today I think I, myself was both an ideal mockery for the person who finds himself in the comical situation of honoring himself and as a jest about the difficult Jews who had a presumption of receiving an honor, for which each of them had already been named, yet they could not receive the honor without a command from Yona Shamas.
What did the Jews think of Yona? I often heard it said
about him that he was a villain, an embittered Jew. It could be that this thought came from the fact that there was a lack of trust in Yona's seriousness and of faith in his smile. And perhaps he actually was a villain, a person who kept all of his grief to himself, buried his own cries in his own depth and never cried out his protests. Perhaps, human goodness, the very little real humanity, begins with a tear that someone else can also see and with the cries that someone else can also hear? Then the genteel, human language, the language of compassion is born!
The second Russian Jew whom I knew, my uncle, Motl Fonya, had, of course, spoken a great deal and told a tremendous number [of stories], but we did not learn much about his home and we also did not know much about his family. He came from Kiev. Shlomo the money-changer brought him to Kolomea as a son-in-law. Motl Fonya was not a crafty person, as the Galicianers considered the Russians, but instead a wild visionary. He brought a large number of rubles with him from his home. His rich father-in-law added a considerable amount of Austrian money and Motl began to dream about [increasing the value of] the money doubly and a hundredfold, about becoming a rich man. Later, the Kolomea Jews joked that Motl probably had not wanted to become rich, but to show the Galicianers of what a Russian was capable. Motl felt like a stranger in his new environment and it bothered him that the Galicianers took pride in their [Emperor] Franz Josef. Nothing less than love for the Russian tsar remained with Motl for his entire life. Motl had no greater joy (even in his old age when he had given his Galicianer sons and daughters in marriage) than from being able to sit with a hot glass of tea and talk about the greatness and richness of the Russian tsar. These were fantastical stories that Motl had heard when he was a child in Tulchyn, and then, over the course of years, with his literary talent expanded, leading even more and more to terrible, complete fictitiousness.
The first, and I think, the only one who 50 years ago befriended the young, Russian son-in-law with his stories about the tsar and with his dreams about wealth was Benyamin the royfe [old-time barber-healer]. Benyamin was a small Jew with a large water-head [large head, possibly suffering from hydrocephalius], with a
a pointed beard and with such a large hump that he could barely be seen from under it. I remember his cruelty. I was sitting on a stool. He was so small that he barely reached my hair with his small [hair cutting] machine. He asked me:
How do you want me to shave [your hair]? I answered: Half short. I actually did not have any conception as to what this meant. Benyamin pulled [my hair] half short so ruthlessly with his machine that the tears always suffocated me. Several years later, I happily escaped from Benyamin the royfe and I could get a haircut from Moshe Bal, who was a communal worker in the city and spoke to all of the gymnazie [secondary school] students as with an adult about Zionism and socialism.
However, 50 years earlier, Benyamin the royfe, it seems, was not yet a malicious person and such a puller [of hair] and he enchanted my young uncle, Motl, with beautiful Hasidic melodies and, chiefly, with listening to his [Motl's] stories about the tsar. Motl lent Benyamin all his money at a high interest and, in addition, he also receive a firm promise that he [Motl] and his entire family would be able to have their hair shorn for free. Benyamin never paid any interest. The principal, understand, was lost because the royfe was a poor Jew and could never pay back such a large sum. It would have been useless to even try. But he kept his word about cutting [Motl's family's] hair for his entire life. It had been agreed for my Uncle Motl and his children, but Motl would send even more distant relatives including me to have our hair shorn by Benyamin without payment.
Motl remained a poor man for his entire life. And for his entire life he also remained with a deep fervor for dreaming and for fantastical news items and stories. Without a doubt, he had the substance in him of a traveler to distant wonderlands and of a great newspaper reporter. Never in his life was he anywhere else but in Tulchyn and in Kolomea; he must have encountered these wonderlands in the city in which he lived. As he had no newspaper, he told the news, fresh and current, to his wife and his children and if there was no news available, he found it, composed it.
The city of several tens of thousands of residents without news items was too quiet for his effervescent mood as a reporter. He was tall, thin, with a grey beard plucked out in the middle, with an intense, pensive face. Motl carried himself like a whirlwind
in the morning hours from Hamer's Bank to Gralink's grain warehouse, from Meshulem Welwel's grocery to the butcher shops in pursuit of news. He had not had any income for many years. He even had given up worrying about income. Now he was only passionately interested in finding out if an event had happened that would interrupt the stillness in the city so there would be something to talk about, something to discuss.
Finally, I think, around noon, he got hold of something. He ran home at full speed. The discovered news burned in him like a deep secret that both wanted to remain a secret and wanted to be told. He ran breathless into his house and from the threshold he was eager to tell his only reader his wife the sensational news he had discovered.
What Motl? What happened?And when he was sure the reader had reached the highest level of eagerness and reacted like someone hungry for the Extra, he would blurt out the news:
I know everything! I learned everything!
They want to move the butcher shops. They are too close to the synagogue. Last night Yosl Funkenstein had a consultation with the mayor.And now came the greatest socialist reportage of Motl's reporting career. In the middle of the city, facing the A-B Line [the A-B Line refers to the designation of the buildings on one perimeter of the market] (the street where the young people strolled on summer nights) and facing Hamer's Bank and Cukerman's jewelry business (the sidewalk which was the temporary exchange where Jews walked around with their canes and looked with longing for a brokerage), stood the stone memorial of the Polish poet, [Franciszek] Karpinsky. Noise was made, people hurried, they spoke and they bustled around the stone he-goat and the he-goat himself remained solid and stared. For Motl Fonya who was entirely [involved in the socialist] movement, Karpinsky in the middle of the market was something of a symbol of mockery against life. The entire Jewish city hated the stone he-goat, Karpinsky. Karpinsky became a curse word.
A mother shouted to her son - Why do you remain standing all of a sudden like Karpinsky?[Page 249]
The wagon drivers and porters at the market cursed: Stoney Karpinsky!
I think, more than anyone, Motl Fonya hated Karpinsky. He thought about how to move Karpinsky from the spot, how to make a ruin of his lustrous importance. Motl, in general, did not believe that someone could stop and remain for years. One night when the city was asleep and the train that passed through the main street and caused the windows of the nearby houses to shake as usual, Motl thought that Karpinsky had stirred. This was his most sensational reporting. Pragmatic, unbelieving Jews laughed at his news, but Motl did not stop his fantastic reports. The opposite, he built them up wider and further every day and every day using commonsense, he fortified them more strongly and with more certainty. The listeners who laughed at him did not understand. They believed rigidly and he, Motl, believed in the strength of fantasy, from his fantastic stories that could even move Karpinsky from the spot. Motl is now already in the World of Truth [he has died] and, perhaps, Kolomea Jews have forgotten him. But the saying remains, that when the train shakes Karpinsky in the market, we remember the great dreamer, Motl Fonya.
And now in order to round off and end the portrait of Motl, I will in short explain that while the city was too quiet and too uneventful for him, he used the cemetery as a source of help with the news. Every Shabbos afternoon, when Jews had finished their kugel [usually a baked potato or noodle pudding or casserole] and had lain down to sleep, Motl Fonya dressed up in his Shabbos clothing and went to chase after news. The streets in the city were empty, the shops closed and Karpinsky, the king of nothing, ruled over the stillness.
He went past Hersh Puzer's grave and from there he could see the headstone of his [Hersh's] wife, Tsipa. Hersh had lived at odds with Tsipa for all their years [together]. She had not wanted to marry an unreasonable conservative from Krakow. They were about to divorce. Now she had to consider that Hersh had been correct because the Krakow son-in-law was the pride and joy of the family. And Tsipa told it to Motl,
and Motl, while he did not write on Shabbos, recorded it only in his head. It was sensational news that would shock the city.
And this was not the only sensational news that Motl brought from the cemetery. Death did not exist for him. If life was too quiet, in his fantasy death made noise, because it [death] could not bear that nothing happened, that everything would remain frozen, that nothing would move from its place.
In the 1920s, after the First World War, I saw my Uncle Motl Fonya for the last time. He already was in his deep seventies and the blinding whiteness of his beard waved with the legend of a white winter land. He also told me a good piece of news then, but one could see and feel that his fantastic world about which he had so much to tell had been somewhat destroyed.
And for a long time he could not no longer provide the noisy, clamorous news from the cemetery that had the virtue of not causing pain.
My uncle died quickly. He was joined to the rigidity of which Karpinsky was the symbol, a rigidity, that he, Motl, had hated all his life.
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