by Avraham Liessin
Translated by Yechezkel Anis
|The renowned Jewish writer poet, Avraham Liessin (1872-1939); see pp. 263-7.
The following reminiscences, with deletions, are taken from his book Zichronos v'Chavayos (Memoirs and Experiences),
Am Oved Publishers 1943. Trans. A. Kariv.
When did I first hear about Socialists? As I consider this, there appears before me the erect image and thick-bearded face of Skobelev, the renowned White General, hero of Pleven, who, following the Russo-Turkish War (1878), established his residence in Minsk. This was early in my youth. I had just started studying the Early Prophets. Among my greatest heroes such as Yehoshua Bin-Nun, Gideon, and Yiftach was Skobelev, the only one who was not Jewish. I recall an incident wherein I went to see the Victory Gate, which was erected in Minsk for the purpose of welcoming him. I stood and pondered it, suddenly recalling Yiftach, who was also a valiant hero of military campaigns. He, too, must have ridden his horse through a gate like this, after which he vowed to make an offering of his only daughter something that had tortured my young imagination. With a trembling voice I queried my father as to whether Skobelev had a daughter and if she would be coming out to greet him at the gate. My father set his eyes upon me, grasped what was troubling me, and laughed loudly, saying: No, my little one! Have no fear. Skobelev is still a bachelor.
It was my custom on Saturdays, together with my small friends, to stand and wait for hours on end outside General Skobelev's house. When we would see him on his tall white horse, his beard wild and his smile generous, we would run after him and yell out, Hurrah, Skobelev! Once on a winter morning, on my way to cheder, my eyes beheld Skobelev on his white horse, with his attendants, troops, and cannons following behind him, setting off on their way. I immediately changed course and followed the army, until I saw a familiar Jew at the edge of the city who grabbed me by my frozen ears and brought me home.
And then, behold, I heard regarding my hero that he made a brazen remark somewhere stating that he would lend a hand to those Socialist fellows, due to his resenting the peace that was made with the Turks.
I heard this report in Blumke's kloiz (study hall) where my father would pray like other similar reports, on Friday night after the Evening prayer. The bimah (pulpit) in Blumke's kloiz was low with no stairs. The worshippers were mainly learned Jews whose minds were exemplary but whose appetites were less so. They were in no hurry to partake of the gefilte fish and the noodles. As the prayers were finishing, they would a grab a place around the bimah, one leaning against the other, delighting in the Sabbath, hands stroking beards, while delving into world politics. The earthshaking report about what Skobelev had said was recounted by David Chaim the melamed (teacher), who was already
used to reading the Golos. I recall his uttering the word Socialists in a strange tone, low and fearful, almost a whisper, as he lifted his gaze to the few chandeliers. This made a huge impression upon me.
The Narodnaya Volya [a revolutionary Socialist organization tr.] had begun conducting in earnest its terrorist campaign. Daring assassinations were attempted, the murder of high-placed ministers. An implausible pursuit of Alexander II had begun that age-old, wonderful conflict between a handful of heroes and the full power of Czarism. Its echo rose up around the bimah of Blumke's kloiz as well. With bated breath, they would recount and interpret the news amid a growing tension, while at home the wait to make kiddush grew longer. First, they would steal a laugh. Someone, for example, took in too much tabak (snuff) and the sound of his sneeze exploded in a blast. Father replied, saying, Take a look! With that kind of material, you're bound to demolish the Czar's palace. He was alluding to the explosion in the Winter Palace. Indeed, from week to week the fear grew: Who knows what will be in the end, what other challenges face the Jews. Regarding the Crown Prince, the future Czar Alexander III, it was said that he had the physical strength to break copper pennies but that his brain was weak. No good was anticipated from him. Father would moan from deep in his heart. Jews predicted that horrible events were brewing their way. The deeply furrowed brows of the Torah scholars became even more furrowed, while the sad eyes of the Jews gazed with even greater sadness.
And I, a young boy of nine, stood beside the corner of my father's coat, taking in the reports, all of me aglow.
I was of an excitable temperament in my youth: exuberant, strong, but emotional to a fault. If I heard of an awful incident, it would immediately make me terribly anxious. When I was six years old, someone during a family conversation brought up an incident that had occurred years before in a certain shop in Minsk. It concerned two small children who, unnoticed, had climbed into an empty crate and played there until sleep overtook them. After a while, their mother came and refilled the crate with merchandise and then sealed it, suffocating the children. I immediately began imagining how the two children must have woken up, thrashing about, calling for their mother, struggling to stand on their feet. Terrifying visions followed my wild imaginings; without stop, I saw before me their small tortured faces. I heard their smothered cries; I suffered their agonies. For a few days the images would let go of me only to return and burst into consciousness like a wound. Months passed before I recovered from it, as one recovering from a raging fever. After a while, another incident was brought up in conversation concerning a mother who left her infant in its crib for a short time, giving it some matches to play with. The matches became lit and the infant was burned. Once again that same panic took hold of me. Constantly, while sitting, while standing, while walking in the street, I saw before me that infant on fire. I heard his cries; I felt the terrible burns. The previous summer, it happened that I went on Tisha B'Av with some friends to the old cemetery where the author of Seder HaDoros is buried. We climbed up the old pear trees, broke off some branches, straightened the fledgling pears,
picked them and dropped them in our mouths. I returned home, my face aglow, my back all scratched, my sleeves hanging, and my conscience weighing on me. My father understood that we had been frolicking in the cemetery (there are three in Minsk). I was prepared to absorb some slaps to the face. However, instead of laying his hand on me, he stood up and told me a story. It once happened that a branch was chopped off in the cemetery and immediately groans were heard the branch was groaning. Indeed, that was all my father had to say: from all the corners of the house, the groans of branches welled up in my ears. Serving to increase the terror was my recalling what kids would often say, that the author of Seder HaDoros would after midnight enter the cold synagogue in order to pray together with the dead. Suddenly he appeared before me, between the branches, fully erect and wrapped in kittel and tallis (ritual shrouds), fluttering opposite me with his lifeless eyes. A fever seized me and I was bedridden for several weeks perhaps due to the pears having been unripe. I probably mumbled repeatedly in the throes of my fever about the groaning pears, for I recall that father kept watch over me all night long, looking into my eyes, caressing me, and saying softly: Quiet, quiet. Branches don't groan; branches are not moaners!
As much as I sift through my memory, I cannot recall any expression of disapproval, or of praise, for the Socialists. People were afraid to utter the very word Socialists. Words were spoken and stories told simply using the term them. The heart, however, was disposed toward the Czar. In Blumke's kloiz, Alexander II was regarded as a benevolent ruler. Granted, it was mainly the rich Jews who benefited from his benevolence; and more than they benefited from him, his government benefited from them. In Blumke's kloiz, there were no wealthy Jews, outside of a few exceptions. Most of the worshippers, my father included, were poor. Yet, the older ones still remembered with a shudder Alexander's father, the evil oppressor Nicholas I or as referred to in private, Nikolaika, may his name be expunged. They still remembered with a shudder the Cantonists [Jewish youths forcibly conscripted into the Russian army for a period of 25 years tr.] and the other dark decrees that Alexander subsequently nullified. They were satisfied with those crumbs, those minor clemencies, that were tossed at small groups of Jews: rich merchants who could afford to pay the guild tax; diplomaed academics, who were primarily the sons and sons-in-law of the wealthy merchants; eventually certain craftsmen, as well, as long as they worked at their trade all these were permitted to dwell outside the Pale without having to convert. Jews yearned and anticipated, with optimistic hearts and hopes that took wing, that additional crumbs like these would be granted them. Who is satisfied with naught like Israel! From the conversations of these sharp-minded Jews, as preserved in my memory, my impression is that the Socialists were considered in Blumke's kloiz to be bewildering creatures. They were capable of placing explosives beneath the train tracks on which the Czar was to pass, of bombing the Winter Palace, of digging a tunnel so as to pillage (or, in their words, impound) the royal coffers; but as for getting Vanya to accept the world-order of the French, or even of the Germans with regard to this, the men of the kloiz had little faith. With dynamite, they won't achieve it, my father would say.
In father's bookcase, among the large Gemaras, Chumashes, and Tanachs, were other tracts, as well, written in Rashi script which I had begun reading while still a child. These were old history books Emek Habacha, Shevet Yehudah, Sh'eiris Yisrael introductions to the great afflictions visited upon Israel in the course of her history, the streams of blood and tears enfolded within these pages that were yellowed from age. Father was not pleased with my reading them, as they would cause me
to neglect my studies. If I were to neglect praying even that did not disturb father as much. As long as he studies! was his refrain. He loved the Tanach [Bible] with all his soul. He and my rebbe, R. Shaul Karlitscher a precious man whose reveling voice still resounds in my ears whenever I open a Tanach both implanted within me a life-long and fierce love for Tanach. Still, the mainstay of my studies was Gemara and more Gemara. I began the study of Gemara at the age of seven. By the time I was eight, father was no longer satisfied with just one teacher and one tractate. During the summer, he hired one of the regulars in the kloiz to tutor me in another tractate between the Afternoon and Evening prayers. The pretext was so as to keep me from running about with the idle youths. In truth, however, it was because father was never completely satisfied with my progress. Secretly, in a corner by the light of a small lamp, I would crouch, nights at a time, over the aged chronicles, shedding tears upon them and taking fervent oaths before the blood shed by the martyrs that I would conduct myself as per their example. The desire burned within me to be tested by horrible decrees just as they were. Both in dreams and in my imagination, I would envision carrying out their deeds. Even in the morning, before my Gemara studies, all those martyred in the sanctification of God's Name would come and stand before me in all their awesome glory.
By the age of eight, I was already diligently spending nights once again hidden from sight, once again moved to my core by the light of a small lamp in the attic, over the five issues of the Narodnaya Volya newspaper that I secretly obtained. Once again, there arose before me in all its awesome glory a chronicle of self-sacrifice, the history of Narodnaya Volya, the most wonderful of Russian revolutionary parties. It was clear to me already then that spiritually this was a continuation, after a long break, of my fascination with those aged chronicles of the Jews' experience.
Around the same time, my father brought me the small Hebrew tract Mashal u'Melitzah by the rabbi of Campina (the Malbim [R. Meir Leibush b. Yechiel Michel]). Its allegorical content, suffused with a fear of Heaven, was composed in rhyme verse. This was the first time in my life that I read rhyme verse. I reviewed it again and it wasn't long before I composed by myself a poem in Hebrew my first poem. Yet, what I was drawn to most was still the oral newspaper around the bimah of the kloiz those wondrous reports and the analyses accompanying them.
And so passed the winter of 1880-1, when the holiday of Purim arrived.
In honor of Purim, a suit and jacket were sewn for me, matching in color brown with green checkerboards. All day my arms were loaded with mishloach manos [traditional gifts of food exchanged between friends tr.]. Towards evening, my mother bedecked me in my new clothes and we made our way to her eldest brother, Uncle Mendl. The family was accustomed to gather in his home for the Purim feast, where we would sing and gladden our hearts until long after midnight.
Earlier in the day there was a thaw and the snow had melted into puddles. Towards evening a mild chill set in and a thin crust of ice formed on the puddles. Attempting to glide on it on our way to uncle's, the ice cracked and mud splattered all over me. My mother clapped her hands in dismay and came to clean me up. We proceeded a few more steps again I skated and again I muddied myself. My mother, in her disgust, clapped her hands once more and came again to clean me up. She eventually lost patience and threatened to report me to father. I laughed a sly laugh; my good-hearted mother only mouthed threats, but it was never her way to actually report me.
Behold, we were in Uncle Mendl's house. The assembled were already having a nosh, washing their hands for the meal, and taking their place at the table. Then the door opened and my father walked in, without any greeting, his gaze tense and his face white as lime.
They got him! They got him! They murdered him! They tore him to pieces!
Everyone stood up in a panic Woe to us! Woe to us! Everyone indeed understood.
Father spoke softly, his lips whispering and his face contorted in an effort not to break out in sobbing.
He had just passed by the governor's house. He saw people congregating. An officer jumped out of his carriage, hands clasped together as he cried out between sobs, What a tragedy! What a tragedy! After some moments, it became evident that the Emperor had been slain. A bomb had ripped him apart.
Whenever I recall that sadness a heavy sadness of the heart and gut that enveloped all of us dining in my uncle's house, I am once again reminded how faithful is the instinct, how sharp is the sense, that miserable fate has cultivated in our people. Everyone was struck dumb, as if in a mourner's house.
In the eyes of the Jewish masses, Alexander II was in no way a liberator Czar. Emancipating the peasants from serfdom, with a minimum of land and a surfeit of taxes, created a proletariat in Russia. Industry and trade began to develop, and wealthy Jews, as was their way, accrued riches upon riches. Jewish railway barons, millionaires, appeared in the land. But the masses, the indigent Jews, only became poorer and poorer. Between the new class of landowners and the new class of peasantry, sources of livelihood for them shrunk. For all of his reforms, Alexander II refused to grant Jews even the basic right enjoyed by all creatures the right to dwell wherever they wish. He granted this right to a few pedigreed classes of Jews, but not to the Jewish nation. Some liberal ministers gathered the courage and suggested, as in western Europe, equal rights for Jews. Other liberal ministers proposed that, at the very least, the Jewish Pale of Settlement should be abolished. However, the Czar absolutely rejected all such proposals. And we're talking about the so-called period of the Great Reforms. Like the rest of the Romanov dynasty, Alexander II was also an oppressor of Israel; sugar-coated, attired in slightly more humanity, but an oppressor of Israel nonetheless. Despite this, it quickly became apparent that the Jews, in expressing genuine sorrow over his death, assessed the situation correctly.
The next day, the entire community congregated in the Great Study Hall where the official rabbi spoke. This time, though, his official words received more than just an official reception. Jews were genuinely and wholeheartedly despondent. They cried from the heart, loudly, and I cried with them. Before my eyes I saw the Czar being borne up, his legs severed. And I cried and cried together with the others.
However, I never heard a word of denunciation against the Socialists around the bimah, even on those Friday nights after the Czar's murder. Just the opposite; they had never spoken of them so respectfully. Soon enough, the agitators succeeded in inciting the Russian peasants and laborers, who themselves were just peasants, against the Socialists, claiming that as estate owners they murdered the Czar on account of his having emancipated the peasantry. It wasn't long before all kinds of sectors in what is called Russian society, even the intellectuals and so-called liberals, began croaking in unison like frogs, belching up the mire of all the bogs and swamps across Russia. Meanwhile, the Jews, who felt themselves so wounded by the murder, who were so fearful of its consequences, nevertheless spoke respectfully of the murderers, of their heroism, of the purity of their intentions.
For them this was merely admiration for self-sacrifice, for people who were prepared to
martyr themselves for an ideal the admiration of a nation that for generations had walked down the path of self-sacrifice and spent its life for the sanctification of an ideal.
Whenever I ponder the mighty influence that the heroic selflessness of Narodnaya Volya had on Jewish revolutionaries, even those whose ideologies were far removed from theirs, I am reminded as well of Friday nights in Blumke's kloiz during the days when Zhelyabov and his comrades were tried for the Czar's assassination how captivated even the older generation was with the nobility of the Czar's assassins.
I can clearly remember the drift of conversation on that Friday night after they died on the gallows how they spoke wondrously in whispers about the hanged; how they spoke out of shame, but also with a quiver of compassion, of the pregnant Jewish girl who for this reason was not to be hanged but rather was to suffer an agonizing death in solitary confinement, to which hanging would have been preferable; how they never tired recounting over and over again all the engrossing details, of the cheese store from which the bomb was transported to the street along which the Czar was to pass. And my soul, the soul of a child, was torn between pitying the benevolent ruler who was murdered and pitying many times over his noble murderers.
After a few days, the reports were already arriving in Minsk of the pogroms that were taking place in southern Russia. In those days we were not yet accustomed to such riots, even in Russia, and the effect was one of horror. The Friday night talk in Blumke's kloiz was increasingly suffused with a spirit of despair. The new Czar would under no circumstances give in to the Socialists. He was heading in a much worse direction than his predecessor and the Jews were to become his scapegoat. The angel of destruction had been given full sway.
I would wake in the middle of the night from nightmares, tossing and turning as my heart anguished: Who were the goyim responsible for these murders? For me goyim were the Emorites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites from the Chumash; or the oppressor and priest from Emek Habacha and Shevet Yehudah not our own peasants whom I would see in the streets on the Sabbath as they flew by on their wagons like an arrow in flight. One Saturday night I visited an acquaintance, a taverner, who wanted to amuse me. He said to me, Avramele, would you like to see some people who resemble a donkey? He got up and opened the door between his residence and the tavern. I saw before me a scene that made me sick: All over the place on benches and underneath benches, on the filthy, muddied floor, amid the space sated with smoke and alcohol drunkards wallowed, embraced, and struck each other, sang at the top of their lungs, snorted and spurted and slapped about in their vomit. The taverner stood on the threshold, looking wise and smug, laughing with such disdain that his whole body took to shaking.
Whenever I pondered goyim, it was this picture in the tavern that would rise before me: Could these miserable, debased drunkards also be capable of such killing?
I had a friend, a couple of years older than me, who grew up with me in Blumke's kloiz Avramele Kaplan (eventually, a well-known Zionist in Minsk and the hero of a famous trial in the Minsk district court, concerning an act of self-defense that he organized in the old marketplace where some soldiers were beaten while taking part in a riot). On Sabbath afternoons we would study (or fool around) together in the kloiz. Avramale Kaplan craved sweets. Frequently, he would turn around and run home to satisfy himself with a piece of sugar and I would accompany him. Since their home was in the vicinity of the swamp, we would happen to pass
Abattoir Street and the embankment. These poor Jewish streets on Saturday afternoons were swarming with groups of frolickers, both married men and teenagers, who would shriek gleefully as they ran after the carriages of the goyim. All the heated and bubbling energy of that gang, which after they turned fifteen would channel itself into the workers' movement, unleashed itself then in this wild manner. The government's envoy on Abattoir Street was dosatnik Alexander a short, scrawny soldier who had finished his service; a Cantonist, with tiny eyes, bloodshot and sickly, who wore a faded cap over his pale face, always inebriated; who was forcibly converted in his youth but still remembered some words in Yiddish. Sometimes I would bring him a slice of challah and say to him, Alexander, say challah-klakos. He would chew the slice with what was left of his yellowing teeth and say the word in a mocking tongue. We, the kids, would leave, full of glee and delight. It goes without saying that Alexander had little to do with those Saturday rumpuses in the street. He would sit wherever he sat and nap, perhaps seeing in his dreams the pounding arms and goring elbows of the goyim that were his lot, be it in the Volga or in Arkhangelsk. And when the gang would occasionally get its hands on one of the zhlubs (a goy, in thief slang), one certainly couldn't envy him. I was actually put off by it all, and would challenge my older friend, Is it possible? A hundred against one! Avramele Kaplan would answer, smirkingly, Don't you know how they deal with us when they've got the advantage? Let them have a taste once of their own medicine! The lesson being: Isn't it always a hundred goyim against one Jew? Let it once be a hundred Jews against one goy.
The beginning of summer 1881, the wild summer of the pogroms that took place in my youth.
We lived on Yuriev Street, a few courtyards away from the yellow church, on the second floor of a house that stood on a hill. Below, in the valley, a wild garden flourished the only patch of green in the entire vicinity where I would chase butterflies in the summer and trap them in my arba kanfos [the four-cornered tzitzis, or fringed garment, worn by observant Jews tr.]. Behind the garden, the Nemiga river coursed its way like the waters of the Shiloah, gently flowing [Isaiah 8:6]. That is how I referred to it in Biblical terms. Extending beyond the Nemiga was Abattoir Street, dwelling place of the bold pranksters. I called them by the Biblical name zimzumim [Deut. 2:20, lit. hummers, a population of giants who once lived in Ammon tr.]. Abattoir Street was always caught in conflict with Yuriev Street. The zimzumim were more formidable than us both in number and in stature and strength, but we occupied the hill while they dwelled below. Since we waged war with stones, our position had an important strategic advantage. We were prepared for battle with cisterns full of stones. The terrible battle to end all battles broke out in the afternoon. There wasn't a window pane on either side that survived intact. Zecharia the wagon driver, whose apartment was below ours, got up, grabbed a pole, and rushed up the hill, which emptied in the blink of an eye. Others like him probably did the same on Abattoir Street, for the fury of battle abated all at once there as well. Zecharia, pole in hand, stood watch on the hill many afternoons after that and the land was tranquil [Judges 3:11], a serene calm was cast upon the hill.
It was particularly at that time that I would spend entire nights reading the works of Josephus [a 1st-century Jewish historian who chronicled the Roman-Jewish wars tr.] already at their end. Few books impacted me as much during those coming years. The last chapters of Josephus' work were the most captivating, wherein he describes the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome. With every page, those heroic Jews battling Rome captured my imagination with greater force. Those zealots, whom Josephus cursed and scorned
so much, caused my soul on every page to blaze fiercely due to their hopeless war the same way it blazed in regard to the Czar's assassins and the other Socialist heroes who sallied forth in the face of torment and death. I can't recall the extent to which I consciously connected those Russian Socialists with the Jewish zealots of old, but I indeed remember my excitement and pride that we, the Jews, 1,800 years earlier produced fighters like those, heroes like those.
All the month of Sivan, while engrossed in reading about the Great Revolt, in my imagination I stood on the ramparts of Jerusalem the besieged. Constantly, wherever I was in the synagogue during prayer, in the cheder studying Gemara the great war, the destruction and conflagration occupied the chambers of my heart. On my way home from cheder, I would wander about the streets and in my imagination surround the city of Minsk with defensive walls an inner wall, a middle wall, and an outer wall, exactly as it was in Jerusalem. And high above the ramparts, I would stand shoulder to shoulder with the great leaders of the zealots with Eliezer ben Chanani, Yochanan the Galilean, and Shimon the Jerusalemite and I would ready the arrows, brandish the sword, and unceasingly fight the war of life and death.
I recall one Friday night in Blumke's kloiz a hot Tammuz night. Yet the news that was reported there made our blood freeze: the pogroms were continuing nonstop; the new Czar and his chief ministers were displaying more and more a dark hatred for the Jews. The government was blaming the pogroms on the inciters and deceivers, that is the Socialists. But their disinformation was obvious to all. The government's own officials, and the newspapers associated with it, were the real inciters and instigators of the pogroms. They were raising an outcry that the Jews were a plague on Russia. The government was pleased with the pogroms; it needed a scapegoat. So as to reward the rioters, it planned to issue all kinds of new decrees against the Jews.
That was our last Friday night in Blumke's kloiz. A few days later, Minsk went up in fire. Blumke's kloiz was consumed together with the entire synagogue compound.
Rumor had it that in those Jewish cities where it was inconvenient to stage pogroms, fires were set instead. The great fire in Minsk was clearly intentional. While still early in the morning, a fire broke out in a quarter of the city where one of our relatives lived. My mother, a young and robust woman, immediately hustled herself and ran off to rescue him. That fire was put out. She returned exhausted and sweaty, and threw herself into bed so as to rest. I had already prepared myself for cheder. When I looked out our windows on the hilltop, I could see a black cloud of smoke rising over Abattoir Street. I then saw flames and smoke on that street as well as in other places.
Late that night I was with my mother in the city center the upper marketplace. My father, with the remaining possessions that had been saved, was in the new cemetery where masses of Jews had gravitated. My younger sisters, with one of our aunts, were on another end of the city, in Kamiroika with our non-Jewish launderess. Mother and I tried in vain to reach the cemetery to see father. Walls of fire rose on three sides of the city, where buildings on tens of streets groaned and crackled and went up in flames. Across the sky a canopy of fire spread out. Along the small boulevard, the older one, which had not yet been planted, saplings lay in large sacks belonging to the district chattel authority, the treasury, and the church. It was on top of these buildings that the firemen and large units of soldiers gathered, abandoning the entire cities to the flames.
Somber groups of soldiers, with sabers drawn and rifles at the ready, stood around people's belongings. They carved us up with their hateful stares. My heart grew faint and gloomy. I recalled the scenes of destruction that I had just read about in the works of Josephus and I said to my mother, All that's left is for them to pierce us through as well, just like when the Temple was destroyed.
My mother, who despite all the frightful things she had experienced steeled herself throughout, couldn't contain herself any longer. She grabbed me, took me in her arms, and bleated weepingly, No, my son, there isn't a Temple any longer to be destroyed. This now is the destruction of Israel…
It was only after the holiday of Sukkos that we found a place to live this time in a better-off quarter of the city where the fire had been stopped, in part due to the nearby government buildings and churches that were protected. Our new apartment was small, damp, and dark, but it was in the center of the city, not far from Uncle Mendl's home. In place of the stimulating Friday nights in Blumke's kloiz, I now had, in that winter of 1881-2, Saturday nights in my uncle's home that were no less fascinating. My closest relatives would meet there and, once again, there were accounts of various misfortunes and pogroms, just like in Blumke's kloiz those same bleak assessments and brilliant insights. Still, this was just a small family-circle, and people were less prone to hold their tongue. There was no looking up in fear at the chandeliers. Conversation flowed more freely as they interpreted the news and debated amongst themselves.
Meanwhile, I, a restless and scampish youth, would stand silent behind a chair, thirstily soaking in everything I heard, afterwards going over it in my mind, expressing it inwardly. I would then impatiently anticipate all week long the next Saturday night which always held for me an endearing charm.
I write these lines while reverberating in my ears is my mother's melodic voice intoning hamavdil [the post-Sabbath blessing separating the sacred day from the ensuing mundane week tr.] her voice so soft and full of emotional outpouring. Here she lights the candle as the added soul of the Sabbath takes its leave. Across the house, the shadows of the mundane, the anxieties of the mundane, densely settle. Father returns from the Evening prayer, and all the weekday worries amass throughout the house: Where will we find money for tuition, for rent, for kindling wood? Father walks back and forth across the long shadows of the house. I hear some soft moans, but they immediately give way to the captivating tones of Eliyahu Hanavi, Eliyahu Hatishbi [a post-Sabbath hymn dedicated to the prophet Elijah, harbinger of Redemption tr.] tones so bittersweet, yet so comforting. Out of the dark come shining the images of Mashiach ben David, the Redeemer who may yet arrive speedily with the heavy winter clouds across the skies of Minsk, and the prophet Elijah, the herald, who in the meantime assumes the guise of a servant, building a glorious palace overnight. These wondrous images come shining forth through the melody and the idiom. Father paces among the dense shadows and sings, and I sing as well, as does mother who lights the furnace while doing so.
That is how we would musically welcome the drab week to come as one greets a holiday. Afterwards, the men father and myself would set out into the winter night, over the creaking snow, to Uncle Mendl's. How much charm and pleasantness emanated there, how much light and ease! Yet, how gloomy was the talk there! Our own individual woes seemed almost non-existent in face of the community's fearsome misfortunes. I can see on father's face a troubled expression that I didn't see before
after havdalah. They are speaking of the prime minister, Ignatiev, who wasn't preventing the pogroms but, rather, was planning decrees against the Jews that were darker than the preceding ones, so as to justify the riotous actions of the unbridled masses. They are speaking of the prosecutors whose responsibility it was to indict the murderous rioters, but who, instead, were prosecuting the victims of the pogroms. They are speaking of Novoye Vremya and the others feeding the inferno, those vipers who accuse us, the ones who have been mortally bitten, of being the real vipers. To this day my father's bitter words are imbedded like a nail in my brain: Could we really be vipers? What are we, but worms! As it states [in Isaiah 41:14], ‘O worm of Jacob’ worms!
Then on one of those Saturday nights I heard at my uncle's house a report that stung me like a nettle: Those Socialists, who previously had assassinated high-placed ministers and the Czar himself, were now the ones staging the pogroms in the south and spilling Jewish blood.
It was a known fact that Russian Socialists held a great fondness for the rioters and that Jewish Socialists were, on account of this, experiencing a terrible internal crisis. Many Jewish activists in the Socialist movement were undergoing a painful personal accounting. The exceptions were mainly those few who uprooted themselves by emigrating abroad or who were in the barracks of the Czar's authority. Virtually all the Russian Hebrew intellectuals who tended toward Socialism switched over then to Chovevei Tziyon [Lovers of Zion, a proto-Zionist movement, promoting immigration to Palestine tr.]. A large percentage of the assimilationist intelligentsia, mainly the youth who were in schools, were also profoundly shaken. For any Jewish revolutionary with a heart and feeling, the news caused torment and doubts.
Things could not have been otherwise. The accepted opinion was that this was none other than the dark reactionism of Alexander III's reign engendering anti-Semitic pogroms. Yet it is known that reactionism doesn't always produce a wave of pogroms. The reaction to Alexander II's murder certainly wouldn't have assumed such a brutal anti-Semitic aspect if it wasn't for the fact that Jews took such an energetic part in the revolutionary movement.
There were already familiar Jewish forces within the revolutionary movement such as Mark Natanson and P. Axelrod. With his extreme devotion, tact, intelligence, and organizational talents, Natanson, a Kovner lad, formed the two largest revolutionary organizations in Russia the so-called Tchaikowsky groups, although Tchaikowsky himself had only a small part in them; and Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty), which subsequently split into Chornyi Peredel (Black Repartition) and Narodnaya Volya (People's Will). Among those joining the (Russian) masses, some wonderful Jewish fellows, holy souls, already distinguished themselves. By the end of the 1870s some Jewish terrorists had appeared as well. A Jewish woman had collaborated in the March 1, 1881, assassination of the Czar Hesia Helfman although only as the owner of the clandestine apartment where the plot was hatched. Still, that was enough to ignite the anti-Semitic hell fires that ensued. The government couldn't afford to exact revenge from the Cossack community, to which Zhelyabov belonged; or from the Pravoslavian priests, with whom Kibalchich was associated; or from the governors, one of whom had a daughter, Sophia Perovskaya, who was also involved. Helfman, however, was merely the daughter of a Jewish fishmonger from the Minsk region the daughter of
a people that had been scapegoated throughout history. Hence, revenge against all the Jews commenced immediately. Across the country poisonous accusations began pouring forth, that the zhids were the ones inciting the Russian youth. Eventually, that evil ignoramus, Alexander III, who at first experienced trepidation over the pogroms, was cajoled and convinced that the Jews were responsible for everything.
And that is the bitter irony of the Jews' fate: While the pogroms were revenge on the part of the royal hangmen for the Jews' participation in the revolutionary movement, many within that same movement looked with favor upon those pogroms on those acts of revenge by the Czar's proxies. In both parties, in Narodnaya Volya as well as in Chornyi Peredel, there were Russian revolutionaries who willingly promoted the pogroms through which the government punished their Jewish comrades.
The government came to realize more and more that it needed the campaign of pogroms in order to distract the masses from the revolutionary movement. At the same time, certain revolutionary circles believed that the pogroms served their interests as well, for eventually they hoped the rioters would face off with the estate owners and government officials. And even if their prophecy was not to come true, they believed in any case that they shouldn't alienate themselves from the people simply on behalf of the Jews. At the end of August 1881, the famous executive committee of Narodnaya Volya issued a shameful statement to the Ukrainian people goading the masses to continue conducting the pogroms, which by then had already subsided somewhat. The noble souls behind Narodnaya Volya had already been removed from the executive committee by the hangmen. Just one year before that, at the end of August 1880, while Zhelyabov, Alexander Mikhaelov, and Sophia Perovskaya were still active, that same committee proudly issued its lofty statement to the Russian working class promising freedom for all oppressed peoples. How low the committee sank in the space of one year!
That is how Narodnaya Volya related to the pogroms. How did Chornyi Peredel, the other revolutionary movement, relate to them? An incident that may answer that question is related by Iosef Getsov, one of the elder revolutionary activists in Minsk, in his book of memoirs. Getsov belonged to Chornyi Peredel. When its clandestine printing operation in St. Petersburg failed and its workers were put in jail, Getsov with the aid of another two Minsker fellows, Grynfast and Lievkov set up a secret print shop in Minsk where they printed the movement's periodical as well as the popular workers' paper, Zerno. The editorial board remained in St. Petersburg, sending manuscripts to be typeset and printed in Minsk, after which the printed sheets would be sent back to St. Petersburg. Once, in 1881, an article about the pogroms in the south was received for Zerno. They read the article and couldn't believe their eyes: the author welcomed the pogroms, saw them as heralding the revolution, and enjoined the masses to continue with them, but to include as well the estate owners and police as targets. The three Minskers, children of devout Jews who joined the movement straight out of yeshivah, unanimously decided that they would have no hand in preparing an article like that. Getsov took off for St. Petersburg, met with the author of the article promoting pogroms, and got him to tear up his own article and to immediately write a new one condemning the pogroms. That is how cavalierly the Russian revolutionary was willing to treat both the property and the lives of millions of poor Jews.
On an adjacent Minsk street, perhaps on the very same evening that the three Jewish revolutionaries
read in desperation the Zerno article inciting pogroms, I myself, still a child, heard in desperation, in my uncle's house, reports of the rioters and the Socialists.
For a long time, I couldn't adjust to our new apartment, to its dark confines. Two small rooms on a ground floor with a single window looking out onto a small courtyard that was blocked by large buildings. I sorely yearned for the burnt house on the hill, with its light-filled windows and the streets one could see beyond them. However, I had already begun studying books of musar (religious ethics) and I knew that such things were just superficial. I had a small notebook, in red binding with yellow lined-pages, in which I would record poems in the style of Luzzato and Mapu, aphorisms, and resolutions by which to comport myself. For instance, I wrote there that one needs to illuminate oneself from within and not care about the darkness of one's living quarters. After all, didn't God speak to Moses and the people of Israel from amid a thick fog?
The nearby beis medrash (study hall) where we learned was the Chotoyevicher beis medrash, established by the pious matron Mira'le Chotoyevich in her large courtyard on Franciscan Street, Minsk's main street. This beis medrash was new and incomparably more beautiful than Blumke's kloiz that poor, sorrowful kloiz where I grew up. Despite this, I felt a kind of alienation and coldness from this splendid beis medrash. Just as I yearned for the old house, so did I yearn for the old venerated kloiz for its warmth, its fire, which stayed in my memory for days and years on end. In my heart, the heart of a child, there already dwelled a dangerous inclination. Was this not the ancient legend concerning the glistening jewel and the glowing coal [see Exodus Rabbah 1:26]? My heart was drawn to the coal.
My soul felt desolate in that quiet, near-empty beis medrash especially on those long winter nights after the Evening prayer. In one corner sat myself together with another fellow student. In another corner, hovering over a large gemara, was a young masmid (diligent student) from a nearby town, softly intoning the text in a niggun (Chassidic melody). The ancient gemara's niggun rose with a biting sadness from his child-like voice. Aside from us, there were only shadows hosts of shadows. Lengthy shadows that stretched out from every direction toward the amud (prayer dais) where a memorial candle dimly flickered all the time.
I was once sitting on a stormy night with a certain fellow student when I recalled that at around the same time a year earlier, also on a stormy night, a new tractate of gemara was begun in Blumke's kloiz Tractate Shabbos. I remembered how they lit the table lamps with festive long candles that illuminated the faces of the youngsters who, gathered around, chanted in their heavenly voices with all their strength. A small new gemara, with colored panels, was open before each one. Everything there spoke Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos. The space was filled with a Shabbos-like glow. It seemed as if the Shabbos Queen herself had arrived there on an actual Wednesday, hovering and shedding her light on the faces, the tables, and the walls. What joy of Torah reigned amid the tempest and storm that raged outside! What fire of Torah burned between the frost-coated, snow-laden windows!
So fierce was the longing in my heart that I got up, left my study partner and the open gemara, grabbed my coat and ran a few blocks to the synagogue courtyard and Blumke's kloiz only to behold once again, in the dimness of night, the burnt ruins enveloped in snow.
Franciscan Street, the busiest and noisiest of Minsk's streets, lay between the sleepy beis medrash and our gloomy apartment. During the long winter evenings, when I was beset with sadness, I would often leave my study partner and the open Bava Basra [a gemara tractate] and make off for the lit-up street. My feeble mind strained itself all day over the section that I was learning then, the one beginning Hamocher es Hasefinah (One who sells a ship). In truth, my eyes had never beheld a ship. All I had seen, several times, was a boat from afar on the Svislach river that ran through Minsk. But what difference did it make? For an entire day I wrestled with the Talmudic arguments of the Tannaim and Amoraim [Talmudic sages], the Rashbam and the Tosafists [medieval commentators] all in regard to the ship that was sold in the gemara. I spent nights plumbing the depths of the logic and sophistry of the monetary laws that addressed this important transaction. But come evening, I would eventually break out into the chilly air of Franciscan Street and seek out other arguments. With pockets full of snowballs, I would stroll the sidewalks in search of my friends. After the gloominess cast by the dim memorial candle, I soaked up the lights of the display windows and the upper floors a strange and alien world that I paid no attention to whatsoever during the day. Unable to find any friends, I lifted my head and on the second floor, along the outside wall, there appeared before me an amazing sight a row of heads adorned with crowns, like the kings that appear on playing cards, gyrating this way and that (they were most certainly from a puppet theater). For me this was a tremendous novelty, which left me transfixed in the cold for a long hour. Could a fellow like me ever go in there that was something I could not imagine at all. I stood there like that until the idea popped into my head to lob a snowball at one of the crowned heads. A few moments passed and the snowball hit the window pane. Frightened, I lifted my legs and bore them away from there.
More than anything else, I loved on those nocturnal jaunts to hang on to the backs of sleigh-carriages as they flew by. I had a special affection for this sport that stuck with me. All along Franciscan Street, the noblemen's sleighs would regularly shoot by like arrows, upholstered in the finest fur, led by horses dashing like a fiery flame with bells ringing. This is how I described them afterwards in one of my poems:
Silver, singing, the sleighs pass by
Flying in fur and flicker
Full of cheer they clang, so free
Quickly, like a joyful shiver
These were the sleighs that I most loved hanging on to. The simpler sleigh, with a feebler horse, quickly noticed the passenger glued to its tail and would shake him off with a whip, so that the leaping escapee oftentimes bruised his limbs. For the mighty horses of the noblemen, the added passenger hardly registered. The noblemen themselves, wrapped in their high fur turbans and their expensive fur coats, were totally unaware that on the tail of their sleigh a Jewish child, half naked and invigorated by the cold, sailed along with them, breaking free of the gloomy Chotoyevicher beis medrash, his study partner, the Rashbam and the Tosafists. Somewhere far away, the ship that was sold that day in the gemara, with much mental effort, sailed off. I, too, sailed off into the distance on the back of a sleigh, to the jubilant sound of bells, holding on tight with frozen hands. My pleasure was most certainly greater
than that of the noblemen wrapped in bear-fur, ensconced inside their carriages. The more dizzying the flight, the greater the danger, the more I enjoyed myself.
Not just at home, but in the Chotoyevicher beis medrash as well, I was sending my signals. The shamash (supervisor) took constant notice of me, anxiously reacting to my every move with a disturbed look. He most probably would have chased me from the beis medrash altogether if it hadn't been for the mighty patronage of Ber Pines the God-fearing aristocratic son-in-law of the Chotoyeviches.
Ber Pines, director of the Tomchei Torah society in Minsk, was the most prominent personage in the Chotoyevicher beis medrash. He was an imposing figure, broad-shouldered, corpulent, with a round face that was as fresh and shiny as a loaf of bread just out of the oven, bordered by a thick black beard below and a broad black hat above. He had a clarion voice that would carry as if on wheels and emit a commanding echo from one end of the beis medrash to the other. It was dense, that voice, and heavy a brewing voice, like a Pesach brew; that's how I thought to call it. Ber Pines took an interest in my Bava Basra as well. He would stop as he passed by and stand looking into my gemara at the page number, wanting to know how far I had gotten in my labors. I did not look favorably upon this habit of his. I saw it as a kind of insult, as if he was scoring points at my expense. In an act of childish spite, I would conceal the page from him, but he would take my hand and remove it, eyeing the gemara at will as if it was his own.
That winter I saw several times in the Chotoyevicher beis medrash the devout Doctor Einhorn, father of the poet David Einhorn, sitting after prayer in tallis and tefillin studying a page of gemara. People knew that he was formerly a military doctor, causing some amazement, most of all on my part. I was an expert regarding all kinds of military dress uniforms and the associated signs of rank. I would gaze at the doctor and imagine how he looked garbed in his former uniform. With eyes closed, I would imagine brilliant epaulets in place of his tallis and a shiny cockade in place of the tefillin atop his head. Then I would open my eyes and before me surprise! the doctor in tallis and tefillin. To my mind, this begged explanation. What moved him to replace the cockade with head tefillin? It was only after some time that I learned that it was the result of a profound trauma (his brother converted out of the faith). In the Chotoyevicher beis medrash I heard not a word of this. Apparently, it was unknown there. That is why we looked upon him with great respect, albeit as one who was somewhat peculiar. Not normal! people would say. I remember my father once correcting that impression Perhaps not normal in this country, but in Germany there are not only God-fearing doctors, but even professors as well.
Another encounter, wondrous but hazy, occurred that winter in the beis medrash. It was with a tall, scrawny Jew, clothed in mystery, who would spontaneously appear here and there as he wandered across the land. A kind of dark aura enveloped him from the black frock he wore; from his small beard, black and trimmed; from his dark and sharpened eyes. He would enter the beis medrash gloomy, walk around for an hour or two, one hand on his forehead, the other cupping his small beard, which he would nervously pick at. A cloud of misfortune accompanied him. Someone whispered in my ear that he was a secret Sabbatean [a follower of the 17th century heretic and false Messiah, Sabbetai Tzvi]. The secrecy of it fascinated me to no end. Once, late at night, I caught him standing in a corner, dark and silent like a shadow, picking at his beard and waiting. It seemed that he was waiting for the beis medrash to empty out. I quietly hid behind a bench. Once the beis medrash was completely empty, I saw by the flickering light of the memorial candle on the amud how he suddenly left his spot and rushed to the furnace, grabbed a little bit of ash, and approached the aron kodesh (Holy Ark).
He sat on the ground and began murmuring incantations, one after another, accompanied by moaning restrained, but full of bitterness. It seemed to me that I explicitly heard several times the name Sabbetai Tzvi in his incantations. I felt terror all around. I jumped up and left my hiding place, not far from where he was. He stared at me from eyes that appeared like a pair of flames, eyes that I still see today. I rushed out of the beis medrash and never saw him again.
That incident occurred in the winter of 1881-2 more than 200 years after death of the false Messiah from Turkey who was still sending errant sparks into sickly Jewish souls, all the way to the northern snows of Minsk.
I had already learned about Sabbetai Tzvi from the book Sh'eiris Yisrael. In my father's bookcase I also found Rabbi Yaakov Emden's Toras HaKena'os, which in its entirety addressed the Sabbatean movement. In another small work by the same author, Eidus B'Yaakov, the renowned Torah scholar Eibschitz (Rabbi Yonas'l of Prague) is denounced as a closet Sabbatean (on account of some amulets that he produced). The whole matter had captivated me since childhood, for Rabbi Yaakov Emden originated from Altona while Rabbi Yonas'l of Prague was chief rabbinic judge in the combined communities of Altona-Hamburg-Ansbach (AHA). Rabbi Yonas'l was succeeded in this position, the most esteemed of its time, by my ancestor, Rabbi Rephael Cohen (R. Rephael Hamburger). From early childhood I remember hearing in our house the names Hamburg and Altona almost as often as Bobruisk and Slutzk, nearby towns. Hence, Rabbi Yaakov Emden's quarrel had special relevance to me. Still, as much as I conceived of Sabbetai Tzvi and his followers in the darkest of colors, that nocturnal incident in the Chotoyevicher beis medrash with the half-crazed Jew confused me entirely. The mystery surrounding him and the blazing pain that I saw in his eyes pursued me.
That winter, I saw the same blazing pain in the eyes of my uncle Gershon Leib as well: he would just begin talking about settling the Land of Israel and I would see it. It's hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between the melancholy vagrant who I saw in the Chotoyevicher beis medrash and my uncle Gershon Leib. My uncle was a smiley blond, handsome, a little portly, and a bit of a dreamer. Constantly gesturing, flames would leap in his eyes whenever he debated the matter of the Land of Israel. Consumed with a fiery passion bordering on wildness, the thick cigar that was his constant companion would begin flitting from one side of his mouth to the other. The debates would mainly take place on Saturday nights at Uncle Mendl's house. Uncle Gershon Leib's chief adversary was my father. Uncle Mendl himself viewed these arguments as idle banter. He would get up immediately after Havdalah, even before managing to remove his Shabbos top hat, and leave to take care of business. Without their host, the debate would get even hotter around the large, round table, over glasses of tea and before the lightning lamp and the lit chandeliers. When Uncle Gershon Leib would begin claiming that it was impossible to bear the terrible misfortunes any longer, and the flames of agony would leap in his eyes, it seemed to me that soon enough, like that dark, scrawny vagrant, he would sit on the ground, ash on his forehead, and mutter muted incantations. And when father, with his logical mind, would negate my uncle's proofs with citations from the Tanach, the Gemara, and the Midrash; and when he would unleash zealous barbs at the false messiahs who had recently appeared on the scene those Palestinians [a reference to proto-Zionists - tr.]; it is then that I recalled Rabbi Yaakov Emden as he appeared to me in my mind's eye, somewhere far away, in Altona, waving a finger of warning at an entire generation.
One of the most zealous Palestinians in Minsk was Beininson the son-in-law of Reb Muniah, the Rosh Yeshivah in Blumke's kloiz who would pray in our corner and whom I knew well. I can still see him standing erect before me: broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, humming a niggun, with a small, clipped beard, an energetic face, and a tough nape. Like many other Palestinians, he was an accountant. Accusations were cast at him that he was no longer careful with regard to observing the commandments. My father would have had nothing against him personally had he not dealt in matters of the geulah [redemption of Jews from their exile]. It is specifically the Beininsons who have started ‘forcing the end’ [a rabbinic term for interfering in God's plan for ending the exile]. This idea regarding the end, with Reb Muniah's own son-in-law as one of its Messianist proponents, wounded my father's soul to its core. I remember my uncle citing the words of Rabbi Hillel that there is no longer a Messiah for Israel, for we already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah [a reference to the Messianic promises that were fulfilled at that time tr.]. He wanted to thereby prove that one could not put too much store in such statements. Father answered him that most probably in Rabbi Hillel's time there were Beininsons as well who wanted to force the end, and that Rabbi Hillel saw fit to deny the Messiah so as to be free of their false messianism.
I walked behind their chairs, once behind my father's, once behind my uncle's, and pondered this matter of forcing the end.
The darker the predictions that winter of what awaited Russia's Jews, the brighter grew the idea of settling the Land of Israel for my uncle, and the fiercer became the Saturday night arguments. Uncle Menachem Mendl had a son, Aharon Hamburg, who was the same age as my mother, his aunt. A lovely soul in a handsome body, this cousin of mine gravitated to Gershon Leib's side as well; he and several others. My father was left by himself. His stubbornness with regard to Chovevei Tzion [the Lovers of Zion, a proto-Zionist movement in Russia] increased more devout in its lack of belief, more Chassidic in its [Misnagdic] opposition, more drunk in its sobriety. This was the scorn of a zealot responding to the frivolousness with which people treated a subject as weighty as the geulah. This was the common denominator between my father back then and the Bundists later on. Truth be told, I would say that my father himself didn't believe that a wondrous bridge would descend from Heaven, fully readied for the Jews to come and cross over it into the Land of Israel. But he believed even less that the Beininsons would provide that wondrous bridge with the help of [donation] platters placed in the synagogue on Yom Kippur eve. And since the Messiah was part and parcel of his sacred faith, for which he was prepared at all times to give up his soul, that is why he took great offense at the idea that the Beininsons were the ones who were sent to bring the Messiah.
I see before me now, as I write these lines, my father's thin face, the face of a zealot. I see him on one of the Saturday nights at Uncle Mendl's house standing before the tall, white tiled oven; his hat cocked upwards; his black hair, which was always combed properly, unkempt; his fine forehead entirely seeded with large drops of sweat; his deep-set and expressive eyes flashing. He is talking very emotionally, drawing out every word melodically:
And I say: If God will not build the house, then its builders labor on it in vain (Psalms 127:1). Beininson will not bring the Messiah, he will not, he will not!
When I went out into the city's streets, spring was already pouring forth its radiance and song. Yet the terrifying pall of an impending pogrom hung over Minsk. Once again, the Jewish homeowners turned their attention to the rank and file to the butchers and market people, to the wagon drivers and craftsmen. With the gradual arrival of
Easter Eve, the night that was the source of all our fears, the order went out to shut the gates of all the courtyards on Franciscan Street. I, however, plotted to remain in the Chotoyevicher courtyard. Late that night, I already lay on the ground near the gate, peering outside and waiting.
And then the procession of goyim began: from the Franciscan streets toward the great church in the marketplace. I, who just a few weeks earlier was so drawn to an alien world, one of freedom and of splendor, felt now only terror and fear of that alien world, a world of force and brutality so terrified and fearful that I was ready to crawl under the gate and flee home. Out of curiosity, however, I remained in place as my terror grew greater. From my hiding place under the gate, I was only able to see the boots of the goyim, an abundance of boots of every kind screeching, tarred, gangly, full of anger. With a tumultuous sound, they trampled and stomped on the pavement of the abandoned, withdrawn, and panicked street. I was prostrate on the ground, trembling to the sound of my heart, for these were the real goyim, the pogromchiks. I imagined that these were the same strident footsteps as those of the Inquisitions's deputies who descended upon Jewish homes in the dead of night so long ago; that with this fevered pitch, at various times, great massacres were carried out in Jewish quarters. The goy is perennially besetting us in this march of terror. It seemed to me that all the horrors of Jewish history had risen out of the ancient chronicles and joined this procession. Filled with all kinds of supernatural fight strategies, in a dizzied thrall, I asked myself repeatedly: Will we ever have the power to stand firm before them and defend ourselves, as in the days of Haman the Agagite?
After several days, news reached Minsk of the pogrom in Balta. A few courtyards down from our apartment on Yuriev Street lived Ber Bampi, who hosted a minyan (prayer quorum) in his house. There, after the Friday night prayers, I heard all the horrid details of that pogrom. Bampi was a well-to-do maskil, inclined to piety, childless, who dedicated all his energy and wealth to his library one of the largest libraries in the Jewish world. Along all the walls, from the floorboards to the very high ceiling, shelves filled with books were sprawled out rabbinic texts of all kinds, Kabbalistic works, sermons and responsa without end. The books, too, were mutely privy to the horrible report. My ears absorbed the terrible news amid these thousands of Jewish books, for which myriads of Jews had given their lives in the course of time. Heartbroken, I envisioned how these books had stood, constantly listening to stories of pogroms, while Jews constantly died for them in those pogroms.
Of all the blood-curdling events reported, the one that outraged me the most was the bizarre death visited upon an elderly rabbi whom the rioters circumcised with a hatchet.
It was a pale, soft spring night. A pleasant breeze caressed my flushed cheeks as we exited the minyan. Across the lofty, star-studded firmament, tender white streaks stretched out. Suddenly, a vision rose before me of the pillaged house of the Balta rabbi, enveloped in the white down and feathers of the slashed pillows, gushing his blood, writhing in the agony of the old rabbi's death.
The next day, on Shabbos morning, upon waking from my sleep, that same terrifying vision visited me again. I was seized with horror. In the preceding years I had often been tortured by such nightmarish visions; that is why I was afraid of a new one plaguing me for weeks on end. But I was now older and more resilient. Immediately after the noon meal, I set out for the new boulevard,
which back then was still unplanted. For a few hours I played hopscotch. Afterwards, I spent a long time running about the boulevard, in the governor's garden, between the trees and bushes that had turned green in season. And then it passed.
It was at that same time that I had also become attentive to the words of Yiddish songs especially the songs of Goldfaden, which my older sister Fayga was so good at singing. Our house was full of song and chanting. Everyone joined in the singing even our 75-year-old grandmother. While tapping her foot, she would sing choruses of songs that her grandmother sang in her time from the 17th century. My sister Fayga would also sing the rhyming verse of Eliakum Zunser who was popularly known as Eliakum the badchan [jokester, a wedding entertainer]. Aside from this, Zunser was a neighbor. He lived in Minsk; in fact, he lived in the same courtyard as Uncle Mendl. It goes without saying that after discovering the sublime poetry of Michal [Micha Yosef Lebensohn, a leading Hebrew poet of the Haskalah tr.], it would be hard for Zunser to find his way into my heart. Still, his verses about the hopeless braggart and the letter-carrier and the rail line were very earthy at times, the earth of Minsk itself. I still remember a lesson in the political economics of Minsk that he conveyed in verse, going: Minsker capital has eternally slept sound, no one has ever knocked on its shutters, but when the locomotive blew its whistle, it suddenly woke and raised its eyelids. Still, the one who really captivated me was Goldfaden. To this day, I cannot listen, without being deeply moved, to the lyrics of his nationalist operettas, for through them the days of my youth come to life before me.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Minsk Memorial Anthology Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 9 Apr 2023 by LA