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The Scroll of my Life

Chapter 21 – Warsaw

The large city was a new world to me. Everything was new to me. All the streets seemed large and beautiful to me. They were broadly paved. On my first day I felt as though I had fallen into an enchanted world. I had brought from home the address of a Warsaw inn owned by a Jew from Semyatitsh. As soon as I left the train station I took a tramway and arrived in the very thick of the Jewish quarter. The streets were as noisy as a mill. Tramways and automobiles clanged and clattered. There was tumult in the large stores. The big-city bustle and din both attracted and repelled me. Everything was so large, so tall, and so strange that it reminded me of the generation that was scattered after the building of the Tower of Babel (dor-haflogo), which ceased understanding one another and began speaking different languages.

In the inn of the Semyatitsh Jew someone gave me the address of an agent (makher) who would arrange my formalities, since doing it alone was practically impossible. After a lengthy search, I finally found the agent. He asked to be paid, and promised to arrange everything, warning however that it could take long. In the days I had to remain in Warsaw, I walked the streets a lot. They were full of preoccupied Jews in long coats (kapotes) and small cloth caps; women with wigs (shaytlen) and with women's caps (kofkes). Everybody was in a hurry. Street vendors hawked their wares with singing voices.Mostly I heard cries of rolls (beygl), fresh egg-beygls, [94] potato cakes (kartofl-kukhn), hot beans (heyse bobes), apples and pears. A little Jew with a broad box on his back called out, "Panes, panes!" (shoybn). I used to watch to see if someone would take pity on him and let him earn something.

This scene of poverty struck you in the eyes, while nearby great platforms sank from the weight of dry-goods. A porter barely pulled a wagon with a heavy load and a barefooted boy carried a handbarrow (German Trage) of paper boxes (shakhtlen) on his back. I wandered about the streets for hours. On one occasion I entered the Old City. This was a small romantic section of the Polish official residence (rezidents) near the Vistula River, an outstanding remnant of the Middle Ages and of the former Polish glory. There were monuments there and castle ruins. In the inn I learned that up to World War One, this area, which was Poland's pride, was neglected by the Russian governors. They did this malevolently; they had no wish to cultivate Poland's national antiquities. It was the government of liberated Poland that with great energy began to restore these places, called Stare Miasto ['Old Town'] in which were located the precious relics of the fatherland's former pride.

The new Polish government had appointed special architects and engineers to renovate the monuments, pave the narrow lanes and restore all the houses in the various colors of hundreds of years ago. These were historical buildings ornamented with much gold, with blue, red, green, rose, violet and many other colors. The Old Town really did look like an ancient picture which had lain neglected in a dark cellar until a lover of antiques discovered and restored it. Here and there they repaired a part, added something, repainted. The place sparkled with glorious things and tourists came there and stared at everything and marvelled at the pictures hanging on the walls of the historical buildings. Some probably thought they were connoisseurs and examined the old furniture and domestic utensils. I was somewhat interested in the glassware, the faience, but I found nothing out of the ordinary there.

Why am I telling all this? Did any of these antiquities occupy an important place in my life? I, after all, like all the people from my environment came from a different world and we had no particular understanding of this kind of art. Yet I think it is worth recording these reminiscences, since in those days of wandering about the streets of Warsaw serious changes occurred in me. In Semyatitsh, transition from childhood to youth (yugnt) was not accompanied by any dramatic events or particular conflicts. The thought that we needed a land caught me when I was barely thirteen years old. At fifteen I was already a member of Hekholets Hatsoir and met with no opposition from Father.

I believe he was even pleased, for in the shtetl there were cases where yeshiva boys became Communists, and that was the worst thing possible.  Moreover, I attended prayer services with Father every Sabbath and he knew that within me I carried "dos pintele yid" and that I was tied to Jewishness and that even though he did not always understand my ways, the ideas to which I had become attached, he had faith in my intentions. I often noticed how happy it made him when I said the blessing over bread (moytse), the blessing over vegetables (boyre pri hoodomo) when Mother handed me the potatoes, a favorite dish in our family. To this day I see before my eyes the deep, gold-bordered plates from which steam rose as from a steam bath.

Straying about the Warsaw streets I did not stop thinking about home. A busy home. Everyone was busy and yet there was always time for blessings:  on washing before meals and after meals (bentshn), at the Sabbath hymns (zmires), which we sang with a ringing melody – thinking about all that warms my heart. Many things became clearer to me in the days I spent in Warsaw. I had more time to read newspapers.There was still excitement over the after-effects of Grabski's regime, from which Jews had suffered. [95] Grabski was formerly Finance Minister and later became Premier. He had promised to get rid of inflation, which had so raged in Poland. After several months it became clear that the steps taken by the Grabski government had completely ruined the Polish economy.

Grabski might have continued like an economic genius who would work miracles, but he finally had to resign, leaving economic ruin after him.  Poland had to receive foreign loans, small loans with high interest, which led to high taxes, evictions and confiscations of Jewish property. These were common occurrences which oppressed and choked Jewish businesses. Even though several years had passed since Grabski resigned, the ruinous situation which he brought about was still felt, especially by the Jews.  The New York stock market crash, which so shook the economy of the world, worsened the crisis in Poland. Poland suffered from that difficult crisis more than any other country.

As interesting as Warsaw was for me, as much as I admired its streets and monuments, the city has remained in my memory as overcast and sad.  Much wealth and much want, forlorn, with near-desperate little childish voices crying, "Hot rolls, hot rolls" (heyse beygl, heyse beygl) and beggars with muted speech pleading, "Give a donation, give, give!" (shenkt a nadove, shenkt, shenkt). I once stopped by a group of people standing over a young man who lay on the ground. "What happened?" I asked someone. "Nothing," he answered, "unemployed. He fainted from hunger."  Most of those in the circle shuffled away, went on, but there were some good-hearted people who rushed to bring the hungry man something to eat.  His pale-blue lips whispered, "Give me work."

Among the things that I learned in Warsaw were figures. Some of them inscribed themselves in my memory: 60 % of the workers in Poland were unemployed. From among the sick who had been examined in the past year by physicians, 80 % were undernourished, and suffering from tuberculosis, quite a few Jewish children among them. On one of my days in Warsaw there were fifteen suicides, according to the newspaper. I was told that in the preceding month there were three hundred Jewish suicides. The hospitals and clinics were not in a position to give medical help to all the Jews who turned to them. The old-age homes, orphanages, shelters, and children's homes did not have room for even a tenth of the homeless. Old people languished in cellars, railroad stations, under the bridges of the Vistula. Is it any wonder that mothers abandoned their children wherever they could? I heard of instances where mothers brought their children to the flea market (mark fun altvarg), the vo'luvke, [96] to sell their children for a zloty per child – but there were no customers for such merchandise. The newspapers wrote openly that the military cost sixty percent of the national budget.

There was a case I can't forget, it affected me so strongly. I was passing a street and saw a crowd in front of a gate. I stood still and heard a child cry. A Jewish woman held and rocked the child in her arms.  The people standing about were talking, one louder than the other. One person said that an unfortunate mother had abandoned her newborn infant and it should be handed over to an institution. Someone else claimed that it had to be taken to the Police Commissioner. They spoke Yiddish and Polish. A young woman in a shawl wanted to know if the baby was Jewish or Christian. Someone answered that it was a girl child and one could not know…. "What is the difference?," cried out a young man in a faded jacket, "It's just an unfortunate child." A young woman began to cry. The crowd regarded her suspiciously: Could she be the mother? But no one bothered her and she left, weeping.

On the Warsaw streets I often encountered crowds or sudden gatherings of people. There was shouting and screaming because of evictions, because of a hanged man being carried out to an ambulance, but I no longer stopped. I felt awful (es hot mir geklempt bam hartsn). I became depressed and wanted to leave Warsaw as soon as possible. I felt bitterness towards those responsible for all the suffering. Who was responsible? At that time I could not answer clearly. A medley of ideas I had heard from Bundists and Communists at the question-and-answer evenings in Semyatitsh ran together in my mind. But my resistance to them remained because of their stubborn stand on Zionism and their mockery of the Land of Israel.

On another street I came upon a demonstration of unemployed. They shouted, "Give us work and bread!" I wondered why the demonstration left the passers-by indifferent. They were apparently accustomed to demonstrations. But suddenly people stopped and craned their necks to look up. Inquisitive, I saw a red flag hanging on a tramway electric wire.  Movement in the street stopped, but only for a short while, since police came running from all sides and began chasing people, hitting the heads of everyone they could get to with their rubber clubs (palkes). The passers-by quickly saw they were in the wrong place and disappeared into the surrounding gates. I was dragged through a gate. Someone quickly closed it and, holding our breaths, we listened to what was going on outside. After a few minutes we heard the clanging and honking of fire engines.

Someone asked, "Where is the fire?" But we soon understood that the fire engines had been summoned to take the red flag off the wires. A few minutes later it was still. We went out through the gates, each his own way. This experience excited my curiosity and I listened to what the people walking next to me were saying. Someone admired the ingenuity of the Communists in hanging a red flag so high up and so quickly. Another person said that demonstrations and flags could not help the unemployed.  The crisis was world-wide. Things were bad everywhere, worse in Poland, and worst for the Jews. One had to get out….

The agent who had undertaken to arrange my papers gave me a new excuse every day for taking more money from me. He claimed that the officials demanded payment for every piece of paper, every little stamp. You had to grease palms (shmirn) constantly or nothing moved. I finally received the papers and returned home. Everyone at home was happy to see me. They all wanted to know what Warsaw was like and how I had gotten along there. For days and weeks they listened to my stories of Warsaw, of Jewish occupations and Jewish prospects. While I talked, I relived the sharp contrasts of the big city. On the one hand, wealth and luxury, elegant streets, store windows full of goods; and on the other hand, poor neighborhoods, want, unemployment. When I told the story of the abandoned child, father asked, "How can one be certain that the child is Jewish?" In a pensive voice he immediately continued, "You say that it happened, after all, in a Jewish street…. Of course it was a Jewish child…. The world has completely deteriorated…. We believed the Jews would be a people who would redeem the world's evil with its righteousness."

I could say a great deal about my experiences during the few months before I left Poland. I knew that news of my emigrating to Panama had created something of a stir in my circle of Hekholets Hatsoir comrades.  They all knew of my zeal for the Land of Israel, my diligence in adapting myself to physical labor, and my effort to learn all I could about the Land and the kibbutz. I wanted to arrive in the Land as a useful person. They all knew this and thus couldn't understand why I was about to start a new chapter of wandering through the world. My close friends understood me.  They knew how hard I had tried to get a certificate to immigrate to the Land of Israel, but like many others I had small chance of getting one.  The doors of the Land seemed to be locked to me for a long time.

My meetings with comrades were now more frequent. We used to meet in our clubhouse and also took walks together, but we talked mainly about political and ideological matters. That was on the surface. Although everyone had his private problems, his worries and quite often his whims (shigoynes), in those days they were not subjects for open discussion.  Often it seemed as though we had no private life. We lived in a political atmosphere, and although I already had my papers for Panama, my interest in problems connected to the Land of Israel did not lessen for one minute. I continued to gulp down articles in Hebrew and Yiddish journals which we received, and which dealt with life in the Land of Israel, the struggle for immigration (aliya) and others problems.

At the same time I continued to help my father and brothers run the business. I continued to visit towns, fill orders and take new ones, and again I saw how Jews walked about like shadows with heads bowed from the weight of their worries. The number of unemployed kept rising and the Jewish occupations became increasingly difficult. Seeing the situation of the Jews in the shtetls broke my heart and also filled me with anger at myself that I was helpless to assist them. I already felt an habitual revulsion at indifference to human suffering and I was ruled by a drive to be socially active. Youthful energy flowed in my veins and strained to unload.

My ideal was and has remained khalutsism, which arises from deep human aspirations and from the most hidden desires of every Jewish youth, a people's desires (bagern fun folk). Despite my preparations for emigrating to Panama, Zionism remained my dream. Leaving Semyatitsh for Warsaw, I met the beautiful May day with an uneasy spirit. All my brothers and Hekholets comrades accompanied me to the station. We said good-bye to one another and my heart overflowed with nostalgia. Father came to Warsaw with me. He tried all the way to keep a cheerful conversation going on all sorts of subjects, business, communal, domestic, but I felt how worried he was. He wanted to hide his sadness at parting by his animation.


Chapter 21 – Footnotes:

  1. i.e, 'egg cracknel'. Return to text
  2. Wladyslaw Grabski (1874-1938). He was premier in 1923-1925 and in 1929. In 1924 and 1925, his government's battle against inflation hit Jewish merchants very hard. A wave of suicides among Jewish businessmen as well as increased emigration was attributed to Grabski's policies. Return to text
  3. Stutshkov notes on p. 502 in a group with tendlmark 'market for secondhand goods', tolkutshke, rintshok 'marketplace', valove, voluvke, walowka 'grub [ = food]'. Return to text

Chapter 22 – Trip to Paris

It was only at the Warsaw main railroad station, when I had to climb into the train, that Father embraced me, pressed me to him, and said, "You are going far away, take care of yourself, observe your Jewishness (yidishkayt)…. Remember your home…. If it proves too hard for you, come straight back." Father's voice was choked with tears. My throat was also stuck and I could hardly utter a word. I wanted to tell Father that I was not a person who gives in with crossed arms, but these did not seem to be the right words for saying good-bye to him. I wanted to say something warm, and with difficulty I said, "Father, please don't worry unnecessarily…. With God's help everything will be fine…. I am no longer a child." Father's tears seemed to turn into joy. My words seemed to have helped to calm him. He only reminded me that on entering the train, I should recite the "Prayer for the Road" (tfiles haderekh). [97]Father, always so strong and vigorous, so energetic, at that moment seemed like a child." I was overcome with a great pity for him and I swore to myself that I would do everything, the most strenuous work, to get him and the rest of the family out of Poland.

My fantasy began to frolic and I saw myself in that distant land, occupied with work, with business, engaged in the great goal of earning money. I saw myself as one fixed upon achieving that goal with the greatest possible speed and again being together with my parents and brothers, all pleased and grateful. With that dream I entered the Warsaw-Paris train. I was to be met in Paris by an agent of the travel company, who was to accompany me to the ship. The entire time I saw Father standing there and watching the departing train, whose puffing began to accelerate. His last words rang in my ears, "Be a Jew (zay a yid)….  Don't forget your home…."

In the train to Paris I thought for the first time about Father's fears. I understood that he feared the strange, the dangers that await a young man, loosened ties with Jewishness that follow upon loosened ties with home. My father differed from other observant Jews, from Hasidim whose immersion in Jewishness meant distancing themselves from the world and its problems. My father lived with the problems of the world, and that is why he understood so well my decision to leave Poland, to leave home.  But my departure nevertheless posed a sharp dilemma for him, which he connected to the danger threatening a Jewish youth, that of tearing him from his roots. To the observant Jews of Father's sphere, reports from the world might have been from a second planet, from interstellar space where the laws of gravity did not apply, yet they threatened danger to the Jewish world in which they lived.

In contrast, my father had never rejected worldly concerns – neither the beauty of nature nor the conventions of how to behave in public. [98] He was always very careful to be tidy (tsikhtik 'neat, clean') in his dress, even achieving a certain elegance of a Jewish kind. But none of this stood in opposition to his strict Jewishness (frumer yidishkayt), which was in complete harmony with his character, his conceptions, and a life wholeheartedly devoted to the interests of his family.

I thought of Father all the way from Warsaw to Paris and I reflected on his strength in overcoming so many stumbling blocks in his life. Once convinced of the rightness of his acts in the eyes of man and God, he found the strength to withstand all difficulties, the objective ones and those placed under his feet by others. Thinking of Father, I thought that I would follow in his path, and that night in the train from Warsaw [99] I so strongly wished that Father would know of my decision to be like him and follow his ways. I promised myself not to disdain anything and, like him, to respect every human being, even the poorest.

It is hard for me to judge the degree to which I have been able to realize this resolution, but I always learned from Father that one must pay the same attention to small transactions as to large. Father used to say, "Din pruto kedin meyo [mone]", which he also interpreted to mean, "Don't look down on pennies," by which he meant little merchants, small sales, because you can never know what can grow out of a small business. True, I was still under the influence of my emotional departure, but I was sober-minded enough to assess Father's nature, his precise logic in thinking and in doing business. Logical and intelligent response to everything was Father's daily bread. I admit that the reason I have emphasized these particular character traits is that I knew from early childhood that I lacked them, at least to the extent that Father had them.  Often I would suddenly be made aware of how much I lacked Father's fine qualities.

I always knew more than I could logically comprehend. In my life I often acted from intuition, a premonition or something like it. A sudden impulse has frequently impelled me to decide regarding an important matter, a private transaction or a social solution, without thinking it through, simply in the dark. I just acted on the feeling that that is what I had to do. Luck often helped and things worked out well. People assumed that I had thought the matter through and acted with iron logic, very wisely. I never told anyone why I decided to do thus and not otherwise. It seems to me that in general people know more than they are capable of understanding. In my brothers, too, I've observed the trait of doing business according to the dictates of intuition. In contrast, Father was exceptional in his clear intellect, his critical sense and his ability to analyze his every decision. Father always looked for the clear and intelligible.[100]

In the train compartment with me were eight other Jews, parents with children, and several youths. All had left Poland to seek their fortunes in a distant and strange land. Several of them were trying to speak Polish. A middle-aged Jew took them to task (hot zey opgeforn) and told them not to be foolish and to speak plain Yiddish (mame-loshn). He looked like a cheerful person with a sense of humor. He said we ought to celebrate the privilege of being free of the antisemitic Polacks and their language, which unravels like a snake with the "tshes" and "shiens." [101] When you talk Yiddish, he said, you feel so homey (heymish), as though your own mother was right there.  When he had to speak Polish, he felt as though he were being examined by cross teachers or by a commission which was trying to conscript him and which was ready to tear him to pieces (greyt im tsu doyresn) for every mistake. It pleased me when he said that with Yiddish you felt you were at the meal at the close of the Sabbath (melave-malke), when even your mood was sweet and consoling (zis un treystndik). [102]True, the week was on its way, but it would soon be Sabbath again….

Arriving in Paris we were met by an agent of the travel company, a very polite Englishman who took us to a pension which reminded me of the Semyatitsher Jew's Warsaw inn. The agent spoke French all the time and we did not understand a word. I questioned him and replied in Yiddish. There was a young priest with us, who had also been on the train. He apparently was also emigrating from Poland, to Uruguay I believe. He thought I spoke French and tried to make me his interpreter. Understandably, he was soon disappointed. I made use of the three days we spent in Paris to walk all through the city and visit sites.

I knew that Paris was the most interesting city in the world and I wanted to see as much as possible; the possibilities, however, were limited. Many impressions, nevertheless, have remained in my memory, but they are not the goal of these memoirs. I will just mention the places which evoke the Jewish past, as, for example, the Latin Quarter, visited daily, especially at night, by thousands of students and bohemian youths.  They flood the sidewalks of the cafes and there is hardly a tourist in Paris who does not visit this area.

The truth is that I knew little at the time as to what went on in the narrow lanes. I later heard a lot about the Jewish moments that are related to them – about the Jews who came to Paris in the tenth century and built a famous yeshiva where great rabbinical personalities were trained. When I read about these things years later, a chapter of Jewish martyrology in Paris opened before me and I regretted that I knew nothing of all this during the days I had been there. At that time I looked at various monuments, art works and all sorts of antiquities and knew nothing of their history. I knew nothing of the blood libels, persecutions and decrees endured by the Jews in France from the twelfth century onward.


Chapter 22 – Footnotes:

  1. Ashkenzic Hebrew: tefilas haderekh.  Return to text
  2. di ongenumene klolim vi tsu zayn a mentsh in gas.Return to text
  3. The typescript has "der rayze ka varshe" 'the trip to Warsaw', which is obviously an error, but perhaps it reflects the earlier reminiscence of the writer's resolutions on the way to Warsaw. Return to text
  4. M.R. writes "dos klore un loytere, dos farshtendlekhe un loynbare." The last word must be loyzbare (from German lösbar 'solvable'). There is a Yiddish word "loynevdik" 'worthwhile', but it doesn't fit here. The typescript contains many daytshmerisms. Shimen Kants is probably the source of most of them, since he was born in Cracow in Galicia not far from German-speaking territory. Return to text
  5. i.e., with the Polish sounds represented by the letters 1) cz and ci and 2) sz and si. Poles often made fun of how Jews spoke Polish and there were characteristic Polish-Jewish speech forms. See Maria Brzezina, Polszczyzna Zydow, Warsaw/Cracow: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1986. Return to text
  6. Not treyslendik, as written, which would create a contradiction. Return to text

Chapter 23 – Ship Voyage

On the fourth day we left the pension and drove to La Pallice, a French port town where we had to wait two more days for the ship to arrive. [103] On the shore at La Pallice there was great commotion, and for the first time I saw blacks who worked in the port. In La Pallice we were joined by fourteen more Jews, five families from Romania and Bessarabia which were traveling to Chile. These were also Jews who had been driven from their homes by the difficult economic situation and they had decided to seek their fortune on the Latin-American continent.

The ship on which we were to embark was English and carried the resounding name Orbita. [104] Those hours of my boarding the ship, like the days and weeks that followed them, have remained inscribed in my soul. In the first moments it seemed to me that everything on the ship and the ship itself were, like me, impatient.  The ship began to rumble from its pistons [105] and the tall smokestacks hummed. Small boats surrounded the ship.

There was noise, bustle and pushing on the shore and in the midst of the brouhaha I tried to stay together with the other Jews. It took several hours until we finished with the little table with the officials and mounted the narrow steps that led to the third-class deck. When we came aboard ship we were still quite bewildered because of the tension of all the waiting and all the formalities. Now we passed from one sailor to another. Downstairs, upstairs, and again downstairs, until we finally got to our cabins (kayutn) in third class. Like everyone else, I put down my packages, the little luggage I had, and right off mounted to the deck and relaxed by the ship's railing, looking down on a still bustling scene of people and belongings.

I was fascinated by the loading of the ship, which was carried out quickly and rhythmically. During those minutes I thought that perhaps I too would have to engage in hard physical labor. I let myself be carried away by this idea and it did not frighten me. When it began to grow dark, lights began to come on all the length of the shore, which slowly emptied of people. I began to feel nostalgic. The ship now seemed to suck all the life, the hurly-burly, into the narrow passageways and decks where people begin to congregate in couples, in groups, chatting, silent, looking with longing eyes into the distance.

We soon heard a long continuous whistle and the smokestack of the ship let out a thick cluster of smoke. The coast, with the remaining workers, grew distant, receded from us. I felt that I was leaving my past, the world in which I had lived until then, and that soon I would be swallowed up by a new world. I stood on the deck for a long time and I could still see the people on shore. It seemed to me that with their entire being they gravitated to no other but our ship, which had slowly moved far from the shore. Several passengers waved handkerchiefs to the unknown figures on the shore and it seemed to me that the latter answered, although I did not see them.

We were already far out. In those few minutes I thought the world, the people in it, were not so bad as we imagined, as I had thought they were in Poland when I saw what the Poles were capable of, how much they hated the Jews. In those minutes it seemed to me that there were also Poles on the shore and like all who remained there, perhaps they too had a longing in their hearts. All of these thoughts quickly vanished. I understood that this was but the wishful thinking of a Jewish youth who was about to go out into the wide world and who wished to believe that all people were good, and that they wished one another well.

Our ship, the Orbita, was already sailing at full speed. The people ashore dispersed. From a distance one could only see shadows, silhouettes, but it was clear that everyone had gone his own way, to his own problems, restlessness and longing. Likewise on board. Everyone turned to his own place, but here there was nowhere to go. It was cramped in the cabins, so people went up on deck. Night had fallen and the shore lights became smaller and smaller and were like distant stars on earth, flickering, until they finally disappeared into the night sea-darkness together with the coast, the town, everything that had brought us here to the ship, and everything to which we were saying good-bye.

In such moments one feels how embedded in the heart is all that we leave. Unconsciously, we draw up an inventory of past experience and, like wanderers, we search for a sign as to which road to take. But more than a sign, I wanted to see the road itself, because it was unknown and I wished to discern it through the mist that rose from the sea. The surrounding sea began to rush with horror, with darkness, but to tell the truth , I was too much alive then to allow morbid thoughts, such as probably afflict many people in such situations, to get the better of me. I began to walk back and forth on the deck. People were still fussing about with their luggage in the cabins, trying to get organized. I had no problem, since I had very little luggage.

The commotion on the ship gradually died out. The passengers somehow settled down, each in his own corner, and you could see how they were slowly making themselves more comfortable, if it is at all possible to feel comfortable on a ship at sea. A cold sea-wind began to blow, foretelling a storm somewhere far off. The cold ate through my clothes and spread through my body. I began to feel the fatigue of the day's bustle. I barely managed to find my cabin and fell into bed, exhausted.

The next day I began to observe the passengers. The ship was packed with a varied bunch of people, no more than twenty or so Jews among them, mainly from various towns in Bessarabia, several from Lithuania and I was the only one from Poland. The long summer day at sea seemed endless. I dragged myself from one corner of the ship to another, got tangled in the thick anchor ropes, and could not find a place to settle in. It was the middle of May. The sun seemed to have separated from the upper skies and was pouring down warm rays. The eye soon tired from such a surplus of light, from the bright blueness. I felt like going back to sleep but my uneasiness kept me from settling in one spot. I strolled across the bottom half-deck until I grew tired of walking and sat down on a bench which stood in a corner. It seemed to me to be more comfortable and calmer in that corner, not at all like a ship full of immigrants seeking a home, a new home, new ground under the feet, and unable to rid themselves of the anxiety in their hearts.

Much has happened to me since that time, but the voyage on the ship has remained fresh in my memory. The ship slid along smoothly, without rocking and shaking. Only the turning of the rudder, which moved the deep waters with enormous power, reminded me constantly that we were on the open sea. [106] On the other part of the deck people congregated, chatted, made inquiries from old and new acquaintances. Some of them looked like frightened hares who don't know where they were yet and were staying close to others, to relatives or people they had just met and felt they could trust. It is always that way. In such situations you believe that sharing will ease matters, clarify, lift the fog dividing present from future, give you information and help you get somewhere.

It is hard for me to remember whether it was on the second or the third day on board ship that I met a Bessarabian Jew who seemed a bit different from the rest, who were self-centered and differed from him in their whole appearance and bearing. The immigrants were an upset lot, which is hardly surprising. They were upset from having left a home, a familiar corner, for distant lands where no plans had been made and where the future was uncertain. On the faces of the Bessarabian and Lithuanian Jews still lay the pain of bidding loved ones farewell. There doubtless still echoed in their ears the messages of relatives, and of parents left behind in the old home, of wives and fiancees imploring that they not forget… that they be careful in their distant travels. Even though I was still young and full of energy, confident in my own powers, I understood these people. It was no small matter to leave your old home where you were born and grew up, where every corner teemed with associations of people dear to you.  Suddenly, without the necessary practical experience, you were off on a long trip to a new and strange land.

During the entire period I thought I saw fear of the strange and worry about the future on the faces of many of the Jewish passengers. You could see this, too, in those who were stuffed shirts. [107] They tried to hide their fear of the unknown, their concern for the morrow from others, and perhaps from themselves as well. The Bessarabian Jew whom I befriended was different from the other passengers, which is why he caught my attention. I began to talk to him and right away he introduced himself with a friendly smile, started telling me about his home, his parents, said he wanted to settle in the Land of Israel ( ertsisroel), but saw no possibility of doing so.

You could see he had a deep Jewish sensibility (a tif yidish gefil) and a human sincerity (an intim-mentshlekhe hartsikayt). The more I got to know him, the more I trusted him; I felt I could open my heart to him. With each passing day I became more attached to him, and through him I understood better the other Jews on the ship. He said that even for the simplest person the voyage was a crucial life experience. A person feels that he has crossed a frontier, that there is virtually no turning back and he is intoxicated (oyfgebroyzt) from the transition. He finds himself at a crossroad. On the one side, the old home he has had to leave, and on the other side, the new one – which was both enticing change and threatening unknown. The promise of improvement was as yet enveloped in mist, in uncertainty.

I understood him very well, for I was after all in the same situation.  The old home still lived within me and the future was far away and unsure.  Between them stood an indeterminate vacuum, which slowly filled with questions, doubts and nagging worries which I drove off, but which nevertheless did exist. Most of the time people stood in groups and circles on the deck. The Jews talked to one another in a loud voice. Each of them knew that none of them knew any more than anyone else, and yet if one of them made a conjecture, it soon spread through the ship as a certainty, and people got excited and ran from one to the other to confirm if such a thing were indeed so. Since most of the Jews were traveling to Latin-American countries, they kept on asking if the South American Jews were really as courteous (eydele) and good-hearted as people said.

There were also a few people who never said a word to anyone. They strode across the deck and seemed to choke on their loneliness, their pain, their longings and their ruminations – who knows where we will languish there until we find a place to live, a roof over our head? There were some who thought about getting established in a trade, but most of the Jewish passengers had other plans. They thought mostly about setting up a business, making money. When I spoke to them, they first of all asked me what my line was and what business I planned to go into in the country to which I was sailing. But I happened to belong to those who were thinking of getting established in a trade. I carried no money with me and couldn't understand how one could go into business without capital.

There were those among the Jewish passengers who were warm and homey and who tried to help the single passengers overcome their feelings of loneliness. Talking to them, the shadows hanging over me seemed to disappear and my mood improved. Being with the Bessarabian Jew whom I had befriended made the days pass more quickly, as though they were intoxicated with friendship, high spirits and a little rest. He used to summon us to prayers and no one refused, even those who no longer remembered the prayers by heart. Understandably, in the course of the twenty-one days aboard ship, I got to know other Bessarabian Jews. Most of them were ordinary Jews (poshete yidn fun a gants yor), who in their home countries had been storekeepers and craftsmen. There were also observant Jews among them who told stories about wonder-rabbis. I was actually quite far from Hasidism, from orthodoxy, but I wanted to hear their talk and sayings – perhaps because they reminded me of my own father and other Hasidic Jews in Semyatitsh in the besmedresh where they used to tell stories of wonder-rabbis, which were so similar to the stories I heard on the ship.  The ship voyage was just right for such stories. There were days when the ship swayed as peacefully as on a river. The sea looked like a sheet of glass. A blue sky spread overhead and beneath – smooth, barely flowing waves. On such days the fair weather caught you and it was right, too, for talking, and for listening to others; your eyes peered into the sea and you felt close to these people and comfortable with them, and more prone to dream your own dreams of a brighter future.

I will not undertake to describe everything that happened and that was discussed on the ship in the course of twenty-one days on the open sea.  Among the tens of Jews there were various types and each experienced the voyage differently and looked towards the future differently. But there were also days when the monotony hung over the decks like a thick fog.  Some people became impatient on such days and others sought an exciting piece of news. Among the seekers of suspense were also those who liked to spread unfounded rumors about such things as complications in disembarking or, on the other hand, about unanticipated good luck. Things got worse when the ship suddenly began to wobble. Waves sprayed the upper deck. At night the sea stormed. Here and there passengers threw up their lunch and could barely stand up. The frightened went below and got into bed.

I, too, began to feel a bit dizzy, but I saw that some people had begun to pace vigorously back and forth on the upper deck in order to inhale as much fresh air as they could. Clearly, this wasn't their first time at sea and they knew what to do. I watched them and did likewise. I followed the sanitary regulations, soaping and washing myself at the open faucets, pouring tubs (tsebers) of water over myself, taking shower-baths.  All this helped me overcome sea-sickness more easily. The ship swung between powerful waves and storm winds. But this did not prevent me from observing the passengers.

My attention fell on several young people who held themselves apart from the other passengers the entire time. They had nothing to do with us. The group included young women, whom the men related to as though they were their wives or fiancees. The know-it-alls among the passengers whispered that these were white-slavers who seduced poor girls from Jewish towns in Romania and Poland, made glittering promises to them, took them to Brazil or Argentina, where they sold them to brothels. The young men were well-dressed and were free with money. Evidently, the young women had no idea of what awaited them in the promised land to which they were being led. The pimps and white-slavers plied the naive girls with luxuries and painted a prosperous future for them. It depressed me to look at them.  What terrible tragedies, I thought, lay ahead of them.

You have to remember that on a long ship voyage the days begin to drag.  After all, it is a life in a narrow, restricted little world. You meet the same people every day. You look at the same faces and hear the same voices and often the conversations repeated themselves. There were days which from dawn to dusk were uninteresting, monotonous, uneventful. Nonetheless, there were hours when I was full of an inwardly illuminated hope of establishing myself. In the light of this hope, I saw how happy the worried passengers would be with a similar feeling – that they were leaving their old homes on cursed soil, where Jew-hatred raged and Jews feared for the present and future.

The Chief Steward aboard was an English Jew who treated us well. He was very polite; he combined European culture and Jewish warmth. The kitchen was kosher. In the course of working on the ship he had seen a great many Jewish passengers who had emigrated from their homes in search of other lands, passengers who counted the days until the ship landed. Most of the Jewish passengers fantasized, built towers in the air. Soon they would be doing business freely, building houses and factories, and raking in the gold. Every Jewish immigrant on the ship with whom I spoke carried with him not only greetings to relatives and friends, but the future of his own family, of relatives, who had long since placed all their hopes in him.  For like him, they too, looked forward to getting out of their towns in Bessarabia, Lithuania and Poland as soon as possible.

People were fleeing to new countries not only to save themselves but others. A Jew who, I believe, was traveling to Chile, or to another country, for which he had collected greetings in his own town in Bessarabia, said in a chat with me, "Young man, remember my words…. Come with me. You will be eternally grateful to me for listening to me….  There you will become a somebody (dort vet ir vern a mentsh)….  It's a free world, you can trade, earn a livelihood…."

The ship again sailed smoothly over the distant waters. In the late evening hours the stillness deepened and echoed sounds, which made me somewhat restless again. The sea, too, looked as though it would soon bubble into a quiet storm which, coming from the depths, would quickly spend itself – so similar to what was happening in me. When all were in their cabins sleeping, I would stay up on deck, unable to tear myself from the moonlit wonders of the sea. In the distance there seemed to hover, enveloped in mist, a dream of the future. No, the befogged future did not frighten me. Unused energy strained in me; I was full of expectation regarding the new land, full of faith that in that distant land to which the ship was nearing, I would find my place in life.

In such hours, I felt relieved, summery; great hopes sprouted. This was my first distant voyage and everything seemed new. I began to regard as new, too, the people to whom I got closer. Each was a world in himself. I learned something new every day. They were only simple people. One of them once asked me where Panama was, on this side or that. With his finger he pointed to the horizon, where only water and sky were visible, but he wanted to know where to look in imagining the land of his future. Among the passengers there was a quiet, sad-looking man, who seemed to be nursing a secret sorrow. I had a strong impulse to approach him, to comfort and console him. But when I tried to engage him, he gave me such a forlorn look that it made me feel bad; but I couldn't grasp what sort of bitterness lay on his heart. This was the first person whose burden I felt an urge to lighten since leaving home. In later years I encountered many like him.

Once, a certain Bessarabian Jew started to talk to me the way one talks to an old friend, with the kind of trust-in-others you meet in a man of the people (folks-mentsh). He told me that his ancestors had lived in Bessarabia for centuries. Now, all alone, he was going to an unknown country where he had a brother-in-law who had written to him that things there were not so impressive, even though he owned a farm with cows and sheep; he was solitary and lonesome, but hoped that together it would be better, easier to handle the work; he had faith. The confidence one heard in his voice carried a sad pensiveness, as though he saw his future life before him, life in some forsaken place to which he was nonetheless ready to bind himself. He had rescued himself from a Bessarabian town in which much innocent Jewish blood had been shed. He told me about the persecutions and the decrees against the Jews, and spoke as though this was all natural – fate. He kept looking into the distance and thought about the coming time with Jewish confidence. As I had often before in Semyatitsh, so here on the ship I met Jewish faith (bitokhn) which had been washed and purified in Jewish tears, in the forgotten blood of our ancestors, in the Bessarabian valleys of lament (yomer-taln), so like the towns of Poland.

The thought bothers me continually that my verbal descriptions of the ship voyage are inadequate. It was, after all, my first long sea voyage, with so many new impressions, new meetings. But is it really possible to report everything? Am I capable of describing all those people? [108]We passed the shores of Spain, Cuba and Colombia. When the ship anchored on the coast of Ecuador, we spent a few hours in the city. The air was hot and moist. Someone told us that on the right equator you could see the barrel (fas) that divided the earth into two hemispheres. Others said that they felt as though they were descending. Some believed that our ship would have to put on brakes when we left Ecuador. I asked if any Jews lived there, but nobody knew the answer. The same thing happened when we passed Colombia, Cuba. [109]

Years later I often met Jews from those places, but at that time everything there was strange to me. There were moments when I began to feel like a little sail which the sea has broken off from the shore and which carries me over roaring waves. Following such a mood, that night I dreamed of a storm, with islands, rocks, ports, shores whirling about. My ears were humming, as though I were lost in a blizzard in a forest, bogged down in snow, unable to advance a step. Something within me was pleading that I quickly reach land, feel ground under my feet. It seems that though I was not afraid of the future and had an inner certainty that I would not fail, in my subconscious mind there remained disconnected thoughts of worry and anxiety.

My father's parting words rang in my ears, "Be a Jew, observe Jewishness…." I strongly wished to be a Jew among Jews, true Jews like my father and brothers, like my comrades in Hekhaluts and at the training farm. The desire to live among Jews later drove me from one place to another. It did not allow me to remain in Panama nor in the other towns to which fate led me upon setting my feet on foreign soil. One day the ship began to sail less quickly and we felt that we were approaching the continent. The ship moved slowly between islands, turned about and dropped anchor. The ship's engines stopped and a stillness impelled everyone to go on deck. Everyone wanted to see where we were. Many were continuing their voyage, but this was my final destination. We had arrived in Panama.


Chapter 23 – Footnotes:

  1. La Pallice is the commercial deep-water port of La Rochelle on the central west coast of France, on the Bay of Biscay. [DR] Return to text
  2. The SS Orbita belonged to the Pacific Steam Navigation Company during those years and sailed the route from Liverpool to several ports on the Pacific coast of South America, stopping, inter alia, in La Pallice and Panama. [DR] Return to text
  3. M.R. writes kolbes 'stocks'. This is apparently – German Kolben 'pistons'. Return to text
  4. The Yiddish word in the typescript is ruder 'rudder', but could M.R. mean 'screw propeller' [Yiddish shroyf propeler?]? Return to text
  5. vos hobn zikh gehaltn ongeblozn, vi gekrokhmalet 'who carried themselves in a stiff manner, as though starched'. Return to text
  6. The following paragraph is crossed out in the manuscript, but it is somewhat necessary for the continuity of thought, even though it is confused geographically – the ship has not yet reached Colombia or Ecuador. Return to text
  7. The crossed out material ends here. Return to text

Chapter 24 – Panama

My uncle was waiting for me when I disembarked. He was very friendly to me, asked about his wife and four children in Semyatitsh, about our relatives and other close friends, and I gladly told him all I knew. My account returned me to loved ones and dear ones at home in Semyatitsh. I was home again and it felt good. My uncle showed himself ready to assist me and this made, too, me feel good. He told me of all he had undergone, and described the perseverance it had taken to stay and not give up, but to hope for better days. There were few Jews in Panama at the time, no more than a score or so of families. Everything necessary for a Jewish community was missing. At that time there was not even a Jewish cemetery there. Taking all this into consideration it is not surprising that few Jews were drawn there, and those who were there did not feel settled and secure.

In the beginning, naturally, I did not think of all these problems which later occupied me seriously. In those first days I was busy, as was every new immigrant, in looking for work, a roof over my head, and I straightaway harnessed myself to the job my uncle offered me. He had already established himself. He dealt in furniture, and also made all kinds of cabinets, tables, beds, frames for mirrors. He suggested that I go out on the streets of the city like other peddlers and sell mirrors. The truth of the matter is that I wanted to settle down and work, but my uncle explained that I would not be able to earn a livelihood from a trade. The wages were low and I would not get anywhere. A foreigner, with no knowledge of the language, I went out into the city, going from house to house, showing people sample mirrors with gestures. I wanted to catch on to the language, but only Yiddish words came out of my mouth.

It was probably thanks to the friendliness of people who advised me on how to do business that I was able to earn a living. But I quickly became convinced that it was false that Panama was a country where one could earn a fortune. Panama, however, was already then a country where people could seek bread, where life was free and where the people were courteous and friendly. It would be foolish of me to speak ill of a country with so fertile and fruitful a soil, where several tens of Jews from Romania and Poland had settled.

On my free evenings I tried to get friendly with these Jews, but I found a common language with only a few. The others were more alien and more distant to me than the Christian inhabitants, who were simple and friendly people. Downcast, I peddled my merchandise on the streets, and examining my situation, I wanted to grasp what had happened to me. On the one hand, I longed for work, and work to me, educated in Hekhaluts, was a fundamental concept of honest living. On the other hand, it was clear that one could not earn enough from work to live on, much less to save enough to bring over my parents and brothers. This was my difficult dilemma in those first days. Before my eyes always hovered my family which I had left in Semyatitsh and my promise to myself to get them out of Poland as soon as possible. These thoughts gave me no rest.

Plans were always buzzing in my head and I understood that I had no alternative but to become a peddler (kloper). I knew that the other Jews who had come here had done so and were now established. But I soon saw that there were no great prospects for me in Panama. My uncle and other Jews convinced me that I should go to a distant town, David, in the province of Chiriqui, where it would be easier for me to sell mirrors.  This was a port town and there were no factories there, no big businesses, and the people needed new furniture. There were then no land routes to these places and I had to travel by boat on a great river. [110]


Chapter 24 – Footnotes:

  1. M.R.'s reference to "a port town" indicates another lapse in memory, since David (Chiriqui) is not a port town, though it is a market town. M.R. may have landed at the coastal town of Pedregal and gone inland to David, which he later conflated with the smaller location. Return to text

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