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[Page 69]

A Cursed House

by E. Almi

Translated by Janie Respitz

Since 1880 a large house stood on Muranov which belonged to someone called Kartovsky, so this is why it was called none other than “Kartovsky's house”. Only beggars lived in this house, which existed from before the Polish rebellion. They would set out to town every morning with their wives and children and beg for alms.

During the rebellion on 1863 a large family moved into the house occupying a few rooms which was really not an appropriate thing for poor people to do. The members of this family kept their distance from their beggar neighbours, did not initiate friendships and were generally quite secretive. The beggars, who knew each other very well, were quite shocked by this remarkable family. They concocted all sorts of stories about them, each one scarier than the other; some said they were counterfeiters, others said they were “fallen”, meaning formerly rich people that lost all their money, declared bankruptcy and were now hiding in the Kartovsky house. The “truth” was, this was actually a known wealthy family, Melzon, who did not lose their money.

This family really did move into the Kartovsky house to hide, but not from bankruptcy, rather for a completely different reason. The Jewish aristocratic Melzon family engaged in picking scarves

* * *

E. Almi was born in 1892 in Warsaw, the pseudonym of Kh. Sheps. He arrived in America in 1913 and ended his own life in 1963. - - a poet, essayist, popularizer of philosophic doctrines, popular columnist, journalist, polemist, memoirist, auto biographer. One of the most complicated Yiddish writers – yet his writing was always clear, logical and with humour. His books include: Moments From a Life –, 1863 Jewish Rebellion Stories, almost all take place in Warsaw. However in an anthology one can find more samples, which we did. E. Almi published 26 books. Some have appeared in Hebrew, English and Polish.

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which were used to bandage the revolutionaries that were wounded in the rebellion. Because of this they had to move away from the wealthy street where they had previously lived to Muranov into the Kartovsky house because a house full of beggars would never be searched by the police…

Melzon's wife and two daughters busied themselves picking out scarves. They were so committed and dedicated to their work they would often forget to eat or sleep. When they had enough scarves one of the daughters would take them to the rebels' camp and her father would often give her money to take as well. It was usually the younger daughter Rokhele who brought the scarves to the camp. She was admired by the revolutionaries and one of them, the son of a Polish doctor, Ludwig, fell madly in love with her. Rokhele knew he loved her and she did not love him any less. However, outwardly she gave him the cold shoulder. She knew that even though her parents raised her in Polish they were still Jews and they would never approve of her relationship with a Christian.

Suddenly Ludwig was arrested. He was sentenced to death. He managed to escape and ran to Krakow. From there he began to send many letters to Rokhele writing how much he loved her and kept asking her to come to him. Rokhele went to him promising her parents she would soon return. Rokhele converted to Christianity and married Ludwig. When her parents learned of this they became desperate. Her father went straight to Krakow and tried to convince his daughter to return to Warsaw, but Rokhele would hear nothing of it. She was not going to leave Ludwig. Her father returned to Warsaw. Despite the troubles that tormented them, mainly due to their daughter, the Melzon family continued to provide scarves for bandages for the “rebels”.

One day when the mother and her older daughter were deep in their sorrow and their work picking at the cloth their door was broken down and a gang of “police” barged in and discovered everything. They tied up the whole family took them to jail and a few days later they were hung.

When Rokhele received this terrible news in Krakow she left everything and immediately returned to Warsaw. She met her former revolutionary friends and they, in fear she too may be arrested did not allow her to return to Kartovksy house and took her to a secret apartment on Shvientoyanske Street. The police new of this secret place and came to arrest Rokhele and the

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other “rebels” who were hiding there. When the police arrived Rokhele was there alone. When she saw the police from the window she quickly closed the door and decided they would not take her alive and she carried out her decision: when the police banged on the door she hung herself and by the time they opened the door she was already dead.

People said that three days after her death there was a terrible storm in Warsaw which tore roofs off buildings and caused great destruction…during this entire time, in the house where Rokhele hung herself, stones flew from the window splitting the heads of many people. This place had since been called “the cursed house”…where people were afraid to enter for many years…

The Stock Exchange of Ideals…

by E. Almi

Translated by Janie Respitz

The word stock exchange rings with money, with business, with shares, speculations – even beggars know about the large stock exchanges in the capitol cities of Europe and America, where overnight people become very rich or paupers, or leave with an investment. It depends if it is rising or falling, if the stocks are ascending or declining; Nu, which Jew did not read – and; laughed and cried – Sholem Aleichems's stories about business, cheats, twists and turns, eternal fleeing just like Menakhem Mendl?

However in Warsaw we had other exchanges – primarily during the years of revolution and dreams of freedom, equality universal happiness – from 1905 until the outbreak of the First World War: these were stock exchanges of ideals, of dreams, of concealed longings and future music. Every party, every circle, every doctrine had its own Bourse of “Birzhe” as the Litvaks would call it: each of them laid claim to a certain street and no other party had the authorization to enter.

Above all it stirred with revolution and dreams in the Jewish quarters of Warsaw where the most oppressed and plundered lived; the dreamers of the ghetto who searched for the Messiah either within their own Jewish ideals or in general, humane ideals. The majority of these exchanges were actually in the poor Jewish

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streets, the streets of workers and merchants because on the wealthy streets they did not dream about future music, but rather how to better adapt to the present, to the non Jewish surroundings, where they wanted actively to erase the Jewish image of God.

There were many parties and circles on the Jewish street and they were growing like mushrooms after the rain: the Bund, Labour Zionists, Territorial Zionists, Sejmists (Sejm being the Polish parliament) who strove for Jewish self management, with its own parliament in their own Yiddish language; Polish Socialists who fought for Polish independence, which at the time was torn between three imperialistic lions.: Russia, Germany and Austria; Social Democrats, anarchists and – who can remember and account for all the parties, big and small on the Jewish street?

They all had “exchanges” – except for the general or bourgeois Zionists who did not believe that the general ideals of freedom would bring Jewish redemption. The exchange was – revolution. Just the fact that a party went out onto the street, although public gatherings were forbidden under Czarism, was a revolutionary step. The general Zionists were satisfied with schools and Houses of Study for meetings within four walls where they spun their dreams of settling in Zion, the dream of the prophets and Dr. Herzl.

Understandably these exchanges were swarming with spies, who listened in and looked for a way to get into the parties and often succeeded. These exchanges were mobile as staying in one place would have been seen as a street gathering which was strictly forbidden. They regularly walked, marched and spoke and haggled about the future of humanity and the Jewish people. Every party would dispatch its people, agitators, and “apostles” to the exchanges of other parties in order to “capture the souls”, to attract young boys and girls as they believed that only they knew the real truth and only “they” could bring about the redemption of humanity and the Jewish nation.

These exchanges would naturally “open” in the evening, after work, after supper. After a poor man's meal they would go to the exchanges. With thirst and open souls they swallowed the words of the propagandists, local and foreign and those dispatched from other parties. At times it would result in heated confrontations, even punches among their own and dispatched propagandists and agitators who came to grab members from one exchange and bring them over to another party. Sometimes you would see an agitator with a sharp tongue show up and within an hour claim victory, like a general who won a battle, and march

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back to his exchange – followed by “captured” Jewish boys and girls who he persuaded to join his exchange on the neighbouring street. This is the truth.

There were boys and girls who every night were at a different exchange, convinced of the truth of another party. I once had a conversation with one of these, an apprentice tailor, our neighbour's son, who was constantly changing parties. In his sincere innocence he explained : “I listen to the Bundist and I see he is right; then the socialist comes and tells me I'll have a great year- he's so right! Then the Labour Zionist comes to me and tells me about a Jewish state where everyone will be equal – is he not correct?”

There were many like this apprentice tailor. They thought everyone was right. The world must be free. Poland must be free. Jews must have their own land. A territory for the time being somewhere else? – Why not! The Land of Israel is good! So why haggle, why quarrel?

Agreeably they should all agree, unite and from all the parties create one. It was hard to argue with them. For the agitators, they were easy bait – they were easily convinced. But for the party they were hard nuts to crack. They could not understand why other parties or doctrines were not acceptable. They wanted all good things and they wanted to belong to such important people.

All the young people at all the exchanges marched around with walking sticks. This was in fashion throughout Europe. But at the exchanges these sticks were useful in conflict. If they caught a spy, they were lacking nothing! Sticks came flying down on his head until he fell down bloodied. Then, as if magically, the exchanged emptied. Even the outsiders disappeared. On an empty, nocturnal, half dark street a bloodied man would lie wresting with his pain until the police arrived and took him away. Sometimes the beaten man was an innocent victim, a curious bystander, who would listen to one, then another and his behaviour would raise suspicion until someone would whisper: A spy! People would hear this mumbling and the mumblings would turn into shouts: an informer, a spy!

It is superfluous to say that these exchanges were occasionally surrounded by the police or soldiers. When this occurred there would be a stampede, not God forbid from fear, but simply to avoid arrest, beatings or for the sake of conspiracy as many of them had pockets filled with proclamations. But these boys and girls were not afraid. When it came to battle, to open challenges, a May 1st demonstration,

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or a demonstration in the middle of the year – they fought bravely and heroically. However every time they could avoid a confrontation they did, if the conflict was not necessary or in the interest of the party at the moment.

Sometimes the police would go into the streets not to make arrests but o disarm the youth. When the police saw a young person with a walking stick they confiscated it and let the person go. It was funny to see the police, and at times soldiers marching with heaps of walking sticks – their combat trophies…I will now boast that even though I always walked with a stick, the police never took it away, although I did find myself occasionally in the midst of a stick confiscation. I would apply a certain “trick” as they say in English: as soon as I saw the police were confiscating sticks I transformed into a cripple, a lame man that could not take a step without his stick…therefore the police left me with my stick, even moving out of my way…

I assume there were many such clever people like me who did not to give the police the pleasure of confiscating our sticks which they either sold our used to heat their ovens…however among my friends I was considered to be quite innovative and they claimed if I wanted to I could become an impressive actor. Their opinion of my acting talents was not only due to my pretending to be lame during the stick chaos, but also because of other pranks I would pull off. For example once my pockets were filled with proclamations from an anarchist group and a group of patrolling soldiers approached me, led by an officer. They stopped every young person and asked for documents, searched and if they were suspicious, made an arrest. The patrol unexpectedly turned from another street so there was no possibility to run away. What to do? I instantly transformed into a cripple as I did during the stick chaos. Totally bent over I was practically crawling by the soldiers feet – unnoticed, “ignored”. Suddenly the officer came toward me, grabbed me by the shoulder and in anger and contempt asked me, such a miserable cripple, where I was dragging myself at night. At that moment I became deaf and mute. In sign language I showed the officer that I could not hear nor speak. With a scornful glance he looked at the multiple cripple – deaf, mute, lame and hunchbacked, - kicked me with his foot and told me to leave…

Among the boys and girls who came to the exchanges, were

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many who were attracted not only to the idealism, to fight for a better world, but also – romance…above all the romantic motive or better said the match making motive – as there was no shortage of girls. Both genders came to the exchanges, walked side by side, discussed Karl Marx, Herzl, humanity, the Land of Israel, anarchism, but in their hearts they were singing the Song of Songs…more than one match was made at these mobile exchanges and more than one generation is the result of those conversations during the nights of summer, spring and autumn on the streets of Warsaw as well as other large Jewish cities in Poland.

Except for the turmoil with confrontations between “hated” agitators, spies and police, occasionally other confrontations broke out, a Hasidic father or a pious mother would show up and go from group to group searching, until they found their daughter who transgressed from the righteous path, joined the socialists (a word they could not even pronounce) tripped over the Czar and hung around the exchanges with debauched youth. An angry father would grab his daughter by her braid or slap her in the middle of the street; her mother, with kindness and tears asked her daughter to return home with her and not become a laughing stock. At times, the daughter would be ashamed, leave the exchange and go home; other times the daughter would obstinately stand up against her father, or her mother and shout loudly that she is not anyone's slave and she is free to do whatever she wants.

Sometimes these fathers and mothers would be received at the exchanges with a “Hoorah”, laughter or a variety of exclamations. I remember only one incident that resulted in punches when a Hasidic Jew, healthy and broad shouldered hit his daughter with his fists. The young men who were walking with her, hid the girl and when the Jew lifted his fists toward them they honoured him with their sticks on his head and he began to scream that they were killing him. The daughter came between her father and her protectors in order to defend him however in the tangle and turmoil she was hit on the head with a stick – and fainted. The father left his daughter lying there and shouted to her:

Good for you, you debauched woman! – And he spit at her.

The young men, with great tenderness, carried the faint girl inside the gate of a house. After this incident the exchange was vacated.

These wonderful exchanges although not money businesses were future dreams as stocks!

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Noyakh Prilutsky (A Poem)

by E. Almi

Translated by Janie Respitz

From Smocza, Stavka, Niske, Shliske
And from towns – near and far –
The people are drawn toward Shviente – Kzshiske
The elderly, women and the young.

With troubles and naked garments
The people come to Noyakh;
Prilutsky's house is filled with exile
With sighs, folksong and cries.

Their livelihood is taken from the Jews,
“Oy, save me Mr. Lawyer!”
Here Noyakh had a request:
“Repeat the proverb accurately”.

Prilutsky writes and takes notes on paper;
Trials – poems – proverbs;
His pen is rushing to not lose
A Yiddish proverb, clever and gentle.

He listens and researches every look
And draws from everyone's grief;
And sometimes a poem is a supplication
His only and highest reward.

(From the books: 1863 – Jewish Rebellion Stories – Warsaw 1927;
Moments From a Life – Buenos Aires 1948; Last Songs Buenos Aires 1954)

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Peretz and Dinezon: Peretz' Last Year

Sh. Anski

Translated by Janie Respitz

Soon after I first met Peretz in 1906 I was in Warsaw, where I saw Peretz in his everyday life, in his usual surroundings.

Over the last few years nationally inclined Jewish intellectuals began to organize their residences in a Yiddish style. They would hang Jewish pictures on their walls, almost always the same ones (“Bad News”, “Exile” …), and on the tables, various Jewish items, and works of Bezalel.

I did not see any of the usual Jewish pictures in Peretz' house that I had seen elsewhere, and yet it was the most Jewish house I had seen. On every wall and in every corner there were Jewish pictures, engravings, sculptures, bas reliefs and other objects of Jewish art. Among the artistic addresses and jubilee gifts there were old Jewish antiques. All the new art objects were original, the work of Jewish artists who Peretz was close to and helped to step out into the free world. One look around the house and you could see that the man who lives here is at the centre of a new Jewish culture which while flowing, settled here with one of its elements.

* * *

Sh. Ansky – Shloime Zaynvl Rappaport – was born in 1863 in Tchechanik, White Russia[Belarus]. He lived in countless cities in Russia, then from 1892 until 1905 in Paris and Berlin. After 1905, often for months on end, in Warsaw. From 1918 he remained in Warsaw and died there in November 1920. He is buried in the Genshe cemetery near the graves of Y. L. Peretz, his most distinguished friend, and Yakov Dinezon. Over these three graves is Avrom Ostchega's large artistic tombstone which is called Peretz' Tent; the holy tomb of modern Yiddish literature. - - A poet and author of the Bundist “Oath”, storyteller, dramatist – author of the most successful – also international – Yiddish theatrical work “The Dybbuk”, performed for the first time in Warsaw. He was one of the greatest, if not the greatest collectors of Jewish folklore. When he was in Warsaw, Peretz' home was his home and in the end Peretz' resting place became Ansky's resting place.

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I met Yakov Dinezon in Warsaw in person. I had met him previously through letters. I would meet him at Peretz' or Peretz would take me to him – and later I almost always saw them together. The closer I got to them the more I felt the intimate friendship between them, until they were, in my mind, and in my heart, inseparable. I could not imagine one without the other.

There is a folk expression of the highest form about friendship and love between two people: “one soul in two bodies”. When talking about Peretz and Dinezon you could say the same expression but in reverse: “Two souls in one body”. It is hard to imagine two characters, two individuals, who were so different from one another like these two friends who were intimately united and inseparable for years.

Peretz with his sparkling wonderful clever eyes, with animated gestures, with his flashing words, always evoked in me the image of a large manifold polished diamond: like a diamond this man was pure and bright, lie a diamond he sparkled with every polished edge, like a diamond he was strong in his opinions, and also like a diamond, would at times sharply cut those who stood in the way of his means of achieving his highest goals. Dinezon – with his quiet calmness, with his loving glance which beamed with unending gentleness, compassion and devotion, with his constant readiness to give of himself to another; Dinezon who was organically incapable of saying a harsh word, or cause someone the smallest amount of grief was in all aspects the opposite of the stormy passionate strong Peretz, and these two friends were as if united in one body. There was not one thing, one literary plan, one accomplishment or one idea that one had and the other did not know about. They both lived with the same life, the same interests, the same joys and worries. In Peretz' house, Dinezon was the host, just like Peretz. He knew where every piece of paper lay, and he would often, without asking, respond to Peretz' letters.

“Peretz, why didn't you reply to my letter?” I once asked him.

“I thought Dinezon replied to your letter”.

“What answered?” Dinezon should have known this as well as he did.

There closeness had already surpassed the level of friendship. Such an intimate bond could only be found with an old couple

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who had lived together for a half century in love and devotion, and have lost the boundaries of their individual “I”.

Besides Dinezon – no one! Peretz did not have one other person close to him. Standing at the centre of the creation of Yiddish literature, practically the entire new Yiddish culture – Peretz was terribly lonely. This was a great tragedy for this giant personality.

Being the spiritual leader of a generation of Yiddish writers, feeling the great responsibility of this job he undertook – Peretz did not have surroundings, he could not feel the earth beneath his feet. Everything was found in a chaotic state, not ripe, not organized, ready to be disrupted, ready to disappear. Peretz had to be everywhere, throwing himself into everything. He always had to tear himself away from his own artistic creations and present himself as a publicist, critic, popularizer, editor and publisher of “Bletlekh” (“Pages”), monthlies, weeklies, collections, giving lectures etc… but more than anything, he gave his time and energy to young Yiddish writers. He raised and nourished an entire generation of literati. Almost all who have now made their name in Yiddish literature passed through his “School” and must thank him fro their literary education. While he was strict and strong with the hundreds if not thousands of young people who drove him crazy with non talented writing, he was gentle and approachable to those whose talent he recognized. He gave them his time, his work, supported them and helped them enter the world of literature.

* * *

When Peretz died, not only was Yiddish literature orphaned, but a whole generation of Yiddish writers!

After my first visit to Warsaw I returned a few times. Two or three times Peretz came to St. Petersburg – and with each time we became closer. Our friendship became even stronger three or four years ago when I organized the Yiddish Ethnographic Expedition from 1911-1914 and began to travel through the towns and cities collecting folktales, legends, songs, melodies and such. Peretz and Dinezon were delighted with this undertaking. Every time I came to Warsaw I would spend hours telling them story after story. He would listen and could not be satiated. At the same time I had the opportunity to witness how Peretz brought forth his creative spirit. Here, in person, while I was still telling my stories, Peretz already began to assimilate them, throw away the non- artistic character traits, add new ones and tie it all together

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with other details from another story. I barely had time to finish my story when Peretz would begin to tell me his own story, reworked in a “folksy style” which was far removed from the first version, like a polished diamond which had earlier been a just mined rock. The next day the story would be written and a few days later published with a dedication to “Ansky: the collector”.

Peretz and Dinezon were so interested in the expedition, they both decided to participate and a few weeks later travelled with me through the towns. Over two summers, when Peretz and Dinezon were guests at the summer home of B.A. Kletzkin, we wrote about it. Then I waited for them but received a telegram that due to several circumstances (it seemed to me a health issue) they would be unable to travel.

The last time I saw Peretz was the summer of 1914, when I spent two months in Warsaw, November and December. I lived with Peretz for a few weeks.

It was a terrible time in which Warsaw had just experienced the stormy arrival of the Germans in Poland in October, and was expecting another attack. The enemy was already at Sokhachov, at Bolimov. In Warsaw canons could be heard like far away thunder. Planes were flying over the city dropping bombs. The city was filled with military, the streets were filled with military carts, medic wagons, with artillery. Life in the city reached the highest level of nervousness.

For us Jews, the dangers of land and air strikes were set aside as we had to deal with the horrible tragedy of the flow of Jews arriving in Warsaw from surrounding towns and cities…hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes arrived every day by foot, naked, barefoot, hungry, frozen, frightened and helpless. Everything around was boiling and the Polish war against the Jews was blazing, incitements, defamations and denunciations. Every day brought new fears, new troubles, new edicts and we were heading toward worse times.

Peretz lived through this hell. The war totally ruined him materially… all the while Peretz worked for the Jewish community where huge groups of homeless wanderers came for help…

This horrible national catastrophe suddenly weakened Peretz. His health situation was broken. When I arrived, around the middle of

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November, I immediately saw the horrible change he underwent.

Peretz hated talking about his own suffering and illness. He would not surrender to any sickness. However here he could not conceal his physical condition: he was always tired, sad, and would not willingly leave his house. A few times, when we would go out for a walk he would experience chest pains and would have to return home. At night, the smallest noise would wake him - and then he could not fall back to sleep and the whole next day he would be tired and sick.

The changes in Peretz' mood left a greater impression on me. I saw a different Peretz before my eyes: broken and shaken. He lost his self confidence. There was a new expression in his eyes: an uncertain question, how would he find the answer, what was happening.

His attitude toward “Yiddish St. Petersburg”, which until now he did not value because his work was not internal – Yiddish but rather external. Now he listened attentively to what was being done in St. Petersburg, expressed his opinion about the direction of this work.

Understandably, Peretz devoted all of his time and energy to the homeless. He founded, in “HaZamir”, where he was the chairman, a home for a few hundred refugees, and worried about ways to help them. With a very generous hand he held a lottery and gave away, to the homeless, all the expensive gifts he received for his jubilee from his admirers.

However, all this work and sacrifices did not calm Peretz at all. His tired weak heart was hurting, inundated with blood, and his strong giant spirit was constantly looking for an answer for the historic destruction of Jewish life. The first day when I arrived we had a long conversation about this situation, and I heard Peretz say a word about his bitter, strong despair in humanity.

When I came to him again late at night, I found him at his desk with pen in hand. Without lifting his head he said to me:

“Sit down, I would like to read you my translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes. I've been working on it over the last few months”.

He read to me, what was in my opinion most musical work he ever created: I felt his Ecclesiastes was his broken spirit. His broken spirit was not accidentally deep in Ecclesiastes. When compared to the vanity of vanities there are very strong assured foundations, “A generation passes and another generation arrives but the earth remains forever”.

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I felt he was searching for an answer to the horrible question of the day.

I intentionally asked him if he was planning to translate the Book of Lamentations. He squirmed.

“No. A lament without images, without a thought about the future…”
The next day he said to me:
“I'm very happy you came. You must tear me away from my work. I need to forget about it for a few days in order to be able once again revise.
Again a few days later:
“I made a mistake. I thought I wanted to tear myself away from my work for a few days, but it turns out I lost the desire, the interest, not that…
The following day he read me the story “Neilah in Hell” (Neilah is the closing prayer of Yom Kippur). When he came to the part when the cantor's melody freed everyone in hell from their sins, except the cantor who remained, he stopped.
“How shall I end this story?”

“I don't know”

“I don't know either”.

The next day he sent me to “HaZamir”, to the homeless.
“The homeless are not interesting,” he said sadly, “normal poor Jews who want to eat, receive alms. An interesting person is one who completely sacrifices for his own sake. This is a rare person, watch out for him. Even more interesting are his children, I'll go to them.
This is how Peretz' broken spirit cast light on the eternally old Kohelet, and on the spirited hope of a people, the children, and created dreams about an opportunity to be saved from the boilers of hell. It is possible that the powerful spirit of this giant man found an answer to the terrifying problem of Jewish life and overcame the doubt, however his sick tired heart did not hold out.

Peretz left us.

He left us a large immortal inheritance. However the most respectable, gentle musical poem, Peretz himself, we have lost.

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In Warsaw

Y. Opatoshu

Translated by Janie Respitz

It was the beginning of Elul, 1824.

Jewish Warsaw was ill at ease. In a month or two the new expulsion will become law. Ten streets in Warsaw will be rid of Jews and a few thousand Jews will remain homeless. And not only this. Cruel Poland was reintroducing the “day pass”. If a Jew came to Warsaw, to Praga, he once again would have to pay 20 groschen for every day he stays in the city.

The Warsaw Jewish community sent petitions to the government, they sent bankers, contractors, who had a “foot” in with important people. Everyone tried to repeal the edict. The Hasidim ran to Pshiskhe. The Pshiskhe Zadik (Saintly man) Reb Simkha Bunem, by then a blind man, was sure, that not only his Hasid, Berek ben Shmuel, but Berek's wife, the righteous Temerl, would succeed through prayer to have the edict repealed. In this edict, the Pshiskhe Rebbe saw this as

* * *

Yosef Meir Opatovsky – pen name Y. Opatoshu – was born in a forest estate near Mlave Poland, in 1886. From 1901- 1906 he studied in Warsaw. During the period from 1922- 1929 he visited Warsaw – most importantly – in 1922 and received a triumphant reception. Master of the short story, of which he wrote hundreds, master of the novel in general, particularly Jewish historical novels. From 1907 until his death in 1954 he lived in New York. He was an engineer by profession but worked in this field for a short time. His novel “In Polish Forests”, published in 1921 was released numerous times and translated into many languages. Educated in secular subjects and a scholar of Jewish knowledge. He identified with the group “Di Yunge” in America. He was active in the most important Jewish cultural societies, especially YIVO. Even though his themes include many Jewish periods in various lands, he is considered predominantly as a Polish – Yiddish writer. The Warsaw landscape and people appear most often in his work, mainly in his short stories. We are presenting three here, in order of the years they describe: 1824, 1912 and 1938 – just before the Third Destruction.

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a punishment, the Warsaw “Enlightened” Jews wanted to be equal to the Poles, the Russians, they didn't want to be Jews any longer. The Pshiskhe Rebbe could not rest. He had Hasidim who were; a contractor to the military, a Hasid who built houses, highways, a sugar factory owner, a lessee of salt mines – they all mingled in the corridors of the Mostovsky's palace where the Sejm was held. Every piece of news was sent to Pshiskhe. It was already the month of Elul. In two months time it will be the end of Cheshvan. By the end of Cheshvan the edict must be repealed. What does one do? The Pshiskhe Tzadik warned his devoted Hasid Reb Mekhl Dantzinger, who in Novidvor built new barracks for the government, “Be very careful Mekhl. If you intend to come to Phiskhe for Rosh Hashanah, make a stop in Warsaw, find out what they are saying about the edict against the Jews at “Mostovsky's Palace” on Pshyazd.”

A week before Rosh Hashanah Reb Mekhl Dantzinger was already in Warsaw. During the day he was in the Sejm building speaking with members of the “Jewish Committee”, then dropped in at Leybl's restaurant on Tvarde Street where Jewish youth learned all the city and community secrets. When night fell, Reb Mekhl hired a lantern carrier who took him through the dark streets of Warsaw to the House of Study on Iron Street where Reb Itche Meir Alter sat and studied with the sharpest Hasidic minds in Warsaw, then to Volove Street where Reb Itche Meir has his dry goods store. This continued for a couple of nights. Reb Itched Meir with his flaming red beard listened to Reb Mekhl and from time to time threw in a word. On the third night Reb Itche Meir spoke, and his face, white, transparently white like most red heads, - lit up and shone, not from joy but from great wisdom. He carefully chose his words and said:

“Of course we must repeal every edict against the Jews. We must have this edict repealed as well. There is one thing puzzling me: why are Jews racing through the gentile streets as lawless Jews? On Marshalkovska Street it's a new world. Jews who are living there do not want to have anything to do with Heders (religious schools), or Houses of Study, they pretend they don't speak Yiddish and claim they are “Jewish Poles”. Mekhl, how far do you think these Jews are from conversion? Just one step! Mekhl, do you know where all this stems from? The “Enlightened Jew” actually wants to go the route of paganism. The true good Jews live here on Iron Street, on Vovlov and Franciscan Streets…when you examine all this, there is no need to destroy the world - - because one who tears down his fence remains, in any event, one who tears down his fence as we have seen in Germany and we now see in the Poznan region. When the Rebbe asks you if you spoke to me, I ask of you Mekhl,

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tell him in my name: if they repeal, it is for the good, if not – “we have not lost anything”. And now, go in peace.

Reb Mekhl did not notice Volov Street was not paved and between the stones there were puddles of water. One bad step and you could dislocate a foot. He felt bad about not having asked Itche Meir what he meant when he said “we have not lost anything”. It was already over two years that Jews were trying to repeal this edict. Berek Zbitkover, his wife Temerl, he himself Mekhl, all moved heaven and earth. Then Itche Meir comes along and says that it is not a big deal if they don't repeal the edict, and “we have not lost anything”. Something good can come from this loss.

Mekhl could not begin to understand. He slept poorly that night. Only in the morning after prayers and breakfast when he went out on the half built Franciscan Street to grab a carriage for Phiskhe, did he begin to consider Reb Itche Meir Alter's words.

The noise from the shops, warehouses, open granaries where they were loading and unloading wagons of goods – these noises exhilarated him. At not just the sounds like children singing in their classroom and the melodies from the House of Study which could be heard among the shops in the courtyard, but sounds of the merchants who in the middle of a business transaction would pop into the House of Study and join a group prayer.

Avreml the wagon driver who was a Hasid, transported Hasidim from Warsaw to Pshiskhe and back, spotted Reb Mekhl from a distance and came towards him with a friendly “good morning”. As Hasidim do, he greeted his passengers informally, even someone as well off as Reb Mekhl Dantziger. He showed him to his place in the carriage, a comfortable seat in the middle where the wheels don't shake too much and said:

We will depart in half an hour. If you want a schnapps or a coffee with a hot roll go into Moishe Kozhniter's.

Reb Mekhl left the yard, walked down the narrow sidewalk and looked into the shops. Here – dry goods, kerchiefs and shawls. Here – grocery warehouses. Here – millstones and flour storehouses. Here – iron wares and a wine tavern. Customers were everywhere, goods were being packed everywhere, loaded and unloaded. And business goes on. You took a step, beat down the price took another step and clapped hands. This morning the streets were ringing with the Polish Yiddish dialect interspersed with the slang of wagon drivers and porters, horses neighing, all through Franciscan Street where one can feel the month of Elul in the air and hear, from a distance people practicing blowing the shofar.

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Reb Mekhl Dantziger returned to the yard where Avreml the wagon driver had already tightened the carriage wheels. Reb Mekhl sat down on the platform that was made from planks of wood. He listened to two porters, girded with ropes sitting on the platform and talking. One had a red beard and the other black. The one with the red beard said:

“Since they rebuilt Franciscan Street, praise God, we can earn a living. Tell me, when did porters in Warsaw ever earn 3 guldens a day?”

“One an a half guldens was considered great” replied the man with the black beard. “It was not that long ago that half a gulden was considered a decent amount”.

The man with the red beard smiled and looked into the eyes of the man with the black beard. According to their cheerful faces it was clear they were well taken care of. Then the man with the black beard said:
“Listen to this: yesterday I listened to my son Moishele. He is learning the biblical chapter “Vayera”. I found the chapter that talks about Abraham and Avimelekh difficult to understand. Meaning: “Veyichrato shneyhem brit” – and they both created a bond between themselves. The word “shneyhem” which means both is however superfluous. There were only two, Avimelekh and Abraham. It would have been suffice to say “Veyichrato brit” – and they decided to make a bond.”

“This is really a difficult question” the man with the red beard beamed. “Do you know the answer?”

“No I do not” the man with the black beard replied shrugging his shoulders and opening his arms.

“Let me tell you something” the man with the red beard said as he leaned toward the black bearded man. “It appears to me this is the explanation: Abraham our forefather, of blessed memory saw a prophecy, that we Jews will be scattered throughout the diaspora among gentiles. We will do business with them and we will have to turn to them for various things. Abraham our forefather, of blessed memory was afraid that we Jews would not learn a lesson from their bad deeds. So he decided to create a bond with Avimelekh so they could remain a “Shneyhem” – two, not one, they should not be one among the misdeeds like God forbid, the Jewish “Germans” (Enlighteners), who live on the gentile streets, and this is the explanation: “They created a bond to be “two” – to remain two, not one. Not to be one with the gentiles.”

Reb Mekhl Dantziger swallowed these words. Now Reb Itche Meir's words became clear to him. What's happening here? He asked rubbing his eyes. Was he actually sitting among Warsaw's porters or are they in fact two of the thirty – six righteous men? And right in the heart of Warsaw's commerce on Franciscan Street!

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Avreml the wagon driver called out:

“Mekhl Dantziger, we're leaving!”

“I'm coming Avreml” said Reb Mekhl as he stood up and said to the porters:

“Jews, I am travelling to Pshiskhe to Reb Bunem. He will appreciate your explanation and commentary very much. How much do you earn daily? Two, three gulden? Your explanation is worth a week of wages. Then Reb Mekhl counted thirty – six gulden. This is for you for the holidays, two times Chai (18).”

The porters took the thirty – six gulden. Amazed, money in hand they walked after Reb Mekhl. When he was already seated in the carriage, fastened to his seat, he said to the porters from the bottom of his heart: “Remain healthy, Jews”, they walked after the wagon and repeated together:
“Safe travels! Safe travels!”

The Day of Judgement

by Y. Opatoshu

Translated by Janie Respitz

Reb Simkhe Pizhitz had just returned from prayers. He took off his long black coat with the slit up the back, removed his top hat, and in a velvet dressing gown and a small cap on his head of grey hair, stepped onto the balcony where red geraniums grew in green painted boxes.

It was eight o'clock in the morning. And although the young sun was still rising in the east, the morning was ripe, hanging over the houses, the streets and air were filled with the scents of honey pears.

From the balcony which was in the sixth floor, Pizhitz saw half of Warsaw. The Psheyazd stretched out before his eyes, wide in the middle and narrow at both ends.

The width of the Psheyazd with filled with droshkies, with loaded wagons, with porters harnessed to pushcarts and hundreds of pedestrians.

Everything, the entire crowd, moved toward the narrow passage which led on one side to Novolipkie and on the other side to Leshne.

The narrow sidewalks were impassible. From the streets, alleys and back streets a stream of people poured out and filled the Psheyazd.

At every turn there were men, women and children. They stood over baskets of fresh baked goods, challahs with ladders, challahs with toasted birds.

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They stood over boxes of Yom Kippur straight wax candles. The candle makers gave the wax candles of inferior quality to the Praga cemetery. People gathered around the push carts filled with grapes, apples pears and plums. Jews carrying their prayer shawls and phylacteries under their arms hurried to the ritual bath. Servant girls hurried home with slaughtered fowl for the Yom Kippur sacrifice.

Although the crowd at the Psheyazd was larger than usual, it was less noisy. Merchants barely shouted out their goods. The customers did not push. They did not arrive with audacity. They bargained less than usual. A groshn more or a groshn less, they payed and went on their way. At every step there was a pitiful face and an outstretched hand. Hardly anyone was neglected. They stopped at every outstretched hand. When they placed alms in the hands their step became lighter and more self assured.

It was the eve of Yom Kippur 1912.

Reb Simkhe Pizhitz was pleased that people were preparing for the Day of Judgement. He stood on his balcony with an air, as if he was not only the head of his household in this building, but all Warsaw. His happy stature and broad shoulders made him appear taller. His blond, round combed beard spread over his vest like a fan, and in his eyes, not very big blue eyes, lay wisdom, Jewish wisdom.

Reb Simkhe Pizhitz was a member of the Jewish Communal Council in Warsaw. Hasidim and their orthodox opponents liked him. Pizhitz's great grandfather was a wealthy forest merchant and a passionate Kotzk Hasid. Pizhitz's grandfather and father were among the most respected Ger Hasidim. And he, Reb Simkhe Pizhitz, who for years now had not travelled to a Rebbe, in essence remained a bit of a Hasid, like the Hasidim who read Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, who enjoy a difficult passage in the Ibn – Ezra, and still speak about Reb Mendele of Kotzk with a shiver.

Pizhitz's father and grandfather's men who handled their lumbering accounts were Hasidim. Pizhitz's workers were pious enlightened Jews. More than one poor enlightened Jew who helped him understand a difficult pass age in Ibn Ezra was hired by him to handle his lumbering accounts.

Reb Simkhe Pizhitz's children were not Hasidim. He had three sons. He derived great pleasure from his two older sons. They were both respected doctors in the Warsaw Jewish hospital. They both had wives and children. However, both were removed from Jews and Judaism. Pizhitz did not derive any pleasure from his youngest son, the twenty three year old Dovid. Dovid was a bit of a socialist, and a bit of a Yiddishist.

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At his father's expense he spent years wandering around Rome and Paris. Then he actually disappeared for a while. He returned home a sculptor. Dovid moved into his father's house on the top floor. It is now the second year he sits there and molds people and chisels them out of marble.

From all three sons, only the youngest, the sculptor, was able to communicate with his father, make himself understood, he liked to look at his father's holy books. For this reason, Pizhitz loved him, perhaps more than the other two. But he never showed it. He always complained he would never amount to anything and would always sit on his father's neck.

Now however, when Pizhitz stood on his balcony and saw how the crowd was shaking off their daily concerns, the Yom Kippur shiver from his childhood was awakened in him. He knew his two older sons did not attend the Kol Nidre service the previous year at the Tlomatskie Synagogue. The younger son Dovid found his father's Ger prayer house too crowded and went to pray with the Bratslav Hasidim at Yigiyai – Khpimniks. He saw a bit of himself in his son. As a young man Pizhitz also found the Ger prayer house too crowded. He missed Mendele's words as well as Reb Itche Meir's. More than once he rushed to Ger on Yom Kippur wanting to hear the teachings of the Rebbe, only for close people. However these teachings did not stick with him. It was no longer Kotzk. However the trip in a covered wagon with Hasidim along dirt roads from Warsaw to Ger remained with him.

Pizhitz went into his office. The walls were filled with black massive book shelves. A picture of Maimonides hung on the wall above his desk. Pizhitz strode through his office for a long time. With each stride he shook off his brick house, the forests, and the supply contracts. His step became lighter, the sleeves of his dressing gown seemed to fly. Happily, he opened a drawer where he kept his letters. He took a letter which Reb Itche Meir had written to Pizhitz's grandfather. The letter was in Yiddish. Fifty years ago, a few days before Yom Kippur Reb Itche Meir wrote this letter. Pizhitz looked at the worn out handwriting and at the fuzzy paper and for the hundredth time began to read the letter with a melody from the Zohar:

“---If I am not for myself, who is – if I do not do my work who will do it for me? Everyone must do his own work. If not now when? He asked himself, when is “now”? The present “now” at that moment, which we are talking about, had not existed since creation. Before there was another “now”, later there will be another “now”.
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And in every “now” the work is different. One must be on good terms with the collective. If we do for the collective we receive from the collective. We receive more than we give. We can receive from every Jew's “now” if he did something good in his “now”. If I am not for myself what am I, a person does something crass and wants to repent. He thinks about the mean thing he did. He lies in his thoughts. His entire soul lies in this baseness. His mind becomes coarsened, his heart closed. This brings a person to melancholy. The person begins to suffer. Suffering in the mud, everything remains mud. If he sinned or did not sin, what remains for him in heaven? At the time I think about sin I can however become a piercing gem. I can drill Orliansky pearls which will be received in heaven. For this reason, stay away from evil and do only good. If you have committed transgressions, forget about them. It is almost Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On the eve of Yom Kippur a person has to work hard on himself not to think about past transgressions. One must be prepared to do only good deeds through joy. A person must be happy. When we pray “for our sins” we must do it as quickly as possible and not remain in our sins and not think about them. We must pray with joy. A song must emanate from a person. A person is worthy of being compared to the Creator”.

Pizhitz stared at this piece of paper for a long time. There were no periods or commas between the words. Letters, words, lines, everything was connected, everything spread like a river.

A sense of self assurance took over the forty year old Pizhitz. Not the security of owning his own buildings and forests, but the self assurance of Reb Moishe Kordovirer when he sang to God; the self assurance of Reb Itche Meir when he wrote this letter to Pizhitz's grandfather.

Only if he, Pizhitz, could give his younger son Dovid some of the self assurance? He felt a tug toward his son who was sitting one floor above, chiselling and forming his people. And as he decided to go to him, the telephone on his desk rang.

Pizhitz put away the letter and lifted the receiver to his ear. It was Pizhitz's manager, Uliand, a tidy little man, who always held a well sharpened pencil in his hand and accompanied every word with a number. Uliand spoke quietly, but every one of his words was heard:

“Mr. Pizhitz, there was a phone all from general headquarters. The new
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Colonel Smirnov asked that you come to him at two o'clock this afternoon. If I understood, he wants to give you the entire lumber contract.”

“Today? On the eve of Yom Kippur?” Pizhitz complained to his manager, “I don't know the new colonel, I can't discuss this with him. Listen Uliand, maybe you'll go meet with him?”

“I would gladly go, Mr. Pizhitz, but the colonel demanded to talk to you, not me. You have to go. They must see, that except for you, no contractor should step foot in headquarters. Take Dovid with you, he'll speak for you”.

“Okay, I'll go”.

Pizhitz hung up the receiver. He was not happy with the telephone. The visit to headquarters, and today of all days, was a hardship for him. He returned Reb Itche Meir's letter to the drawer and unhappily thought whether he should go up to his son, or eat first. There were good smells coming from the kitchen of freshly baked goods and roasted chickens.

Madame Pizhitz stood at the open door. She was dressed as if she was going on a visit. Her black hair was tied with a grey ribbon around her forehead and gathered at her neck in a bun. Her long weary face, diamonds in her small ears and the old Turkish brooch all spoke of old Jewish pedigree. She greeted her husband with a loving motherly smile:

“It's time to eat something Simkhe”.

“I'm going now”.

“Simkhe, I'm asking you, call the children. Let them come here to eat before the fast”.

“Why should they eat before the fast if they don't fast?”

“I'm asking you Simkhe”.

“I won't call and they won't come”.

“You are a stubborn man!”

His wife left before him. Small gentle steps over the panelled floor. After her, her husband. As he walked he tightened the belt of his dressing gown as if he was about to do an important task. He entered the bathroom to wash before eating.

In the bathroom, made from white tiles, the bathtub took up a third of the room. The bathtub was filled with water and in it were three pikes and a carp. The water looked greenish. The pikes, with their sharp fins swam back and forth, chasing the carp into a corner, at the bottom of the bathtub where he sat and turned with his fan – tail, staring with his round glassy eyes, afraid to swim away.

Pizhitz washed his hands, wiped them on a fuzzy towel and did not understand why man, the Day of Judgement and cruelty went hand in hand.

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On the Djibow

by Y. Opatoshu

Translated by Janie Respitz

Moishe Klafter, the owner of three cargo wagons and ten droshkies, occupied the entire third of Yakub's courtyard in Djibow.

The first two courtyards, dark with vaulted entryways stretched like tunnels. A courtyard is a courtyard. If you raised your head, there were windows and balconies which reached four stories. The courtyards never rested. Men young and old were quickly completing the building of their Sukkahs which stood on the balconies. It was a rush, a race, and you could hear the humming, talking and banging from the open windows. The courtyards were filled with the scents of the holiday which took your breath away, provoked an appetite. There were smells of chopped fish, gefilte fish, and cooked fish. There were smells of chopped chicken for soup, roasted duck and geese and sweet onions chopped with fresh, crispy bits of goose or chicken skin. It smelled of stewed browned dishes of carrots, prunes and lamb.

The third courtyard, which resembled a horse market more than a Warsaw courtyard, did not have dealings with first two courtyards. The horses, dogs and boys stopped the neighbours from going there. Half the courtyard contained wooden barns where the wagons stood. The second half contained brick horse stalls. On top of the horse stalls was a dwelling with ten rooms where Moishe Klafter lived with his “foster children”. This is what he called the boys who worked for him. A sharp smell came from the horse stall, from the two piles of manure which smelled like soaked leather, and soaked oak on a stifling afternoon and mingled with and swallowed the smells of holiday cooking.

The entire day before the holiday Moishe Klafter tinkered with his Sukkah. It was important to him that his Sukkah be nicer than those of the wealthy and Hasidim in the neighbouring courtyards. The four walls around the wooden floor were held together by chains. He hung his wife's Turkish shawl on the eastern wall. On the other walls he hung rugs used to cover horses. Silver candlesticks stood on the covered table, as well as carafes of wine, a braided challah and whisky. Moishe Klafter and his wife sat at the head. Their children sat on both sides of the table. After his children, his “boys” (apprentices) sat in age order. Two of the “boys” served. Two others kept watch to make sure fools from other courtyards would not come to them. A year before a clumsy oafish Hasid snuck in. He wanted to see how the boss Mosieh Klafter observed the holiday at his table. One of the “boys” gave him such a smack he would never dare try to return.

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It was already after the gefilte fish, after the bowl of noodles with broth, after the roasted turkey. Moishe Klafter opened his striped ribbed dressing gown and his coloured ribbed vest. He patted his belly like a drum and reached for the bowl of carrots. The carrots were sliced in round and cooked in honey. They sparkled like ducats. He really enjoyed the carrots. When both cheeks were filled he spoke to his “boys” with a full mouth:

“Hey, guys, why aren't you drinking?”
The boys happily shrugged their shoulders as the necks of the carafes were bent filling the glasses with wine. After the first glass “Gradul” said:
“Jews were beaten on this “spot”.

“Where, in the old town?”

“And in the Zaksish Garden too”.

“They won't come to Djibow” said Moishe as he cracked hard kernels with his teeth and spit the broken shells over their heads through the open door.

“If Jews are being beaten up in the old town and in Zaksish Garden” said Shloime Bikl Loyzer, “they will be beaten up in Djibow as well”.

“Maybe you Bikl” Gradul said to him, “but not me, Shimele Gradul. And these brawlers are not even brawlers. They are students with pocket knives and sticks. All we have to do his smack him, and that's it. They're done”.

As Loyzer continued to pour the wine the boys continued to talk. As they talked, first one dog barked, then another.
“Is someone coming?” Moishe Klafter raised his head and the boys moved the long table to make it easier to get out.
One boy came out of the Sukkah, after him another. Soon they returned with about five frightened neighbours:
“What, are their beating up Jews in Djibow?”

“They are throwing stones at the Sukkahs and lighting the branches of their roofs on fire”.

“Damned them!”

“They should all have gangrene in their intestines!”

“Come on guys!” called Moishe Klafter and grabbed his leather jacket.

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“You are not going” said his wife as she blocked his way.

“Causing problems already Malkele?” Klafter said as he pushed his wife aside. “Take the children and go inside the house”.

It was quiet in the courtyard. Klafter and the boys let out some steam in the horse stall. Then they went out in groups of two and three from the courtyard into the street. It was dark and quiet in the Djibow. Muffled voices were heard from the courtyard. It was hard to catch anything. Suddenly a cry tore through the air:
“Jews, they are beating us up!”
A beat up Jew was seen moving from one sidewalk to the next, after him a second and a third.
“Why are you running? Jews, don't run!”

“But they are chasing us”.

About twenty men with raised sticks in their hands moved through Djibow chasing Jews and breaking windows but they did not see Moishe Klafter and his guys.

Moishe Klafter went first. After him, Bikl and Gradul. They cut through the brawlers with spread wings. Knife blades flashed. Here and there you heard a long drawn out shriek. Here and there someone fell on his nose on the asphalt, on the stones. This all happened so quickly with such speed, all you could see were the gentiles running as they were being chased by the Jews. And they were not only being chased by Klafter and his boys, but ordinary Jews. Jews in their long black coats with rods and metal bars, left the courtyards with stones, bricks and were angry with the Jews who hid from the gentile brawlers.

In Djibow, from town hall to the Granitchne, you could not budge, it was so crowded. Everyone was saying and claiming:

“Strike back!”

“That's the only way!”

“Strike back!”

From the books: “Jews – Legends” and “When Poland Fell”.

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Miriaml – The Ninth Scene – The Providers

by Thea Artzishewska

Translated by Janie Respitz

Warsaw, Immigrant House

(Homeless children enter on stage, playing in the courtyards. Two boys with violins and a young female singer. At first Rokhele dances alone, then together with the children. They are playing and singing a folk song, a Hasidic song and conclude with a march. At that moment the head of the house appears).

Miriaml: Dance! Tzirele, Rokhel, dance!

Head of the house: The chairman is coming. (She disappears).

Miriaml: Chairwoman, shmairwoman. (Runs up the steps, looks in, and calls the ritual slaughterer's wife) there is a face attached to the head, a bare head and a person attached to its hands. He stood up, pushed out a large belly and he goes, she…goes, they all go, all!

The ritual slaughterer's wife: The big shots are coming.

Miriaml: The holiday sermon is coming.

All: Sh..sh..sh..

The female president: (an allegorical figure, appears with opera glasses and looks around) Very nice…

Figures: Very nice! Very nice! (The head of the house enters quietly on her tip toes).

Miriaml: (to the chairwoman) Very nice, like a bone in the horseradish. Like the manager of the synagogue, all with great joy…tell me, did you receive an official kosher permit for Matzah from the Almighty? What are you doing here?

Ritual slaughterer's wife: She has worries and pity…

* * *

Thea Artzishewska – (also known under the pseudonym: Miriam Izraels) actress, director; wrote poems, memoirs, a drama. Comes from Jewish Polish pedigree. During the Holocaust she was in concentration camps. Since 1946 in Paris. She died in January 1962. She belonged to the close Peretz circle. Her drama “Miriaml”, with an introduction by Y. Opatoshu (which received a prize from the Cultural Congress in 1954) is a mystical scene about the suffering of Jewish refugee children in Warsaw during the First World War. Thea A. was an authentic prototype for a few ideal female characters in Y. L. Peretz's dramas.

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Miriaml: Tell the truth? Are you dressed in plain satin! Pure gold with real platinum!

Children: (repeat after her): She is dressed in plain satin! Pure gold with real platinum.

Miriaml: (To the chairwoman, moves the hem of her dress) A nice little coat with a fake hem…(to everyone) dressed up devils, disguised spirits…

Figures: (the women look around and listen to Miriaml)

Miriaml: (quietly) I want to tell you something, I cannot tolerate you…(laughs). Charity and alms, angels…the angel of death…(goes over to Sholem)

Rokhele: (to Miriaml) Be quiet… don't talk…they'll think you are smart…

Tzirele: Madam! Madam! They gave Miriaml bare bones to eat…

The homeless: Be quiet! Be quiet!

Miriaml: The sacks have disappeared, clothes and jackets, candles, soap and rice – eaten by the mice. (She pauses and looks at her) You don't have lice crawling on you? (Secretly) The house has been scoured, they fooled you…(she laughs).

The ritual slaughterer's wife: (shocked) Send her away…such bizarre talk…

Miriaml: Underground everything is upside down!

The homeless: Miriaml!

Miriaml: A fire and a plague will destroy all that is kosher for Passover and all that is not, all that is kosher and all that is not!

The chairwoman: (cold, mechanical) Who is she?

The ritual slaughterer's wife: A Ukrainian orphan, from our town, the rabbinic judge's daughter. She's gone mad.

Miriaml: Who am I? A fly, a spider. Who am I? (Looks at the ritual slaughterer's wife) I've gone mad, (she takes out a small piece of mirror) See this mirror, look at yourself…Madam Roz, see what you look like…

The ritual slaughterer's wife: The rabbinic judge of blessed memory was a great scholar…

Miriaml: My father is lying in the sand…that is where the poppies grow as well as golden bells, sun cups and honey suckles.

Chairwoman: Ahem, ahem (all listen to her).

Sholem: (enters through the left door surprised, looks at and examines the figures)

Miriaml: I love little flowers and tiny leaves with silky veins. (pause) Don't take me away!

Chairwoman: (rhythmic, cold blooded and mechanic) What is with this girl?

Ritual slaughterer's wife: What happened to her…

The homeless: These children have suffered so much…death followed each and every one of their steps…

Chairwoman: Tell me! (all the guests repeat) Tell us!

The homeless: What for? Your blood will curdle. (Angry, impatient)

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Of what use is talk…why complain, even if we talk about it all day and night, it would only be a drop, a shadow…

Chairwoman: Talk…

Miriaml: (speaking quickly) Madam! Madam, I know everything…(unclear voices can be heard from under the stage, rhythmically together, Miriaml listens, speaks as if with an echo) fifty thousand, five hundred, thirty three orphans…wandering around…and a million…million…million… are lying without their heads…without feet… without hands…dead children…

The ritual slaughterer's wife: Crazy, what got stuck in her…

Miriaml: What's stuck in me…fear…

The homeless: What do you know, they tormented and burned us, like kindling…

Miriaml: they hung the Alexander Rebbe's son…

The children: (repeat) The Rebbe's son…

Miriaml: They shot the Rabbi from Plotck…

The children: (repeat more tragically, childlike, with fear and amazement) They shot the Rabbi!

Figures: Sh…Sh…sh..

The ritual slaughterer's wife: Be silent?...Stones should fall on them from the sky!...and they will be sentenced to death!...

Grandmother: Wife of the ritual slaughterer, those are sinning words, curses. We are merely worms. Perhaps they day will come when the evil will repent…

Miriaml: an evil man repent, what is this grandmother saying?...

Sholem: A snake, a powerful snake is crawling over this world!

Grandmother: If the Almighty created a snake, no doubt it must live.

Miriaml: Grandmother, you are a good person, good as heaven, (secretly) angels are waiting for you, get ready grandmother, get ready!... (sings with an absurd calmness) Pass through all the gates, I had a precious dream, I lost it…where are you Sholem…

The ritual slaughterer's wife: Be silent! (Examines the figures) Who is this one…for our troubles?...

Miriaml: A servant's servant…

Ritual slaughterer's wife: (Curiously on the side) Who are they?

Miriaml: that one is a clown…(she points) and those are cats…

The ritual slaughterer's wife: Their world is good… they do not know…(Someone is crying)

Figures: Sh…sh…sh…(They examine everyone around)

Miriaml: I know even more…they hung the beadle on the lantern!

Do you want to know? They threw my father, tore him up… burned him in a fire…(crying) see how he's lying…his lying here…(pause) go there… dig up the earth! Look! Look! What became of…

The homeless: Why don't they take her away?

Sholem: Don't move her!

The grandmother: Don't do anything to her! Her tears are pearls…our jewels… let her speak…

[Page 98]
Figures: (cold blooded, like marionettes) They don't have to speak, they don't have to talk…quiet is better…they must remain silent…

Miriaml: A good remedy…going to the gallows, you are but a clay creature…in the lairs, with worms…

Grandmother: What kind of world are we leaving for our children? God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, have mercy!...

Sholem: The children will judge on their own!...What did they see here?

Miriaml: How they burn and suffocate…

Figures: (together, rhythmic) We must remain silent…We must not shout…quiet…quiet…quiet…

Miriaml: Quiet…quiet… all the Jews naked and bound by ropes, all led across a black bridge, all our relatives, lying without prayer shawls, my father is lying without his prayer shawl after answering all the questions regarding Jewish law!!

The ritual slaughterer's wife: Stop black Satan!...You are totally depressing us with your words.

Miriaml: Ladies, so much good news…go home and dance! Two hundred and fifty towns have been burned! Let's drink wine and mead!...

Figures: Quiet!...Quiet!...Quiet!...(Standing the whole time motionless, listening).

Miriaml: Ritual slaughterer's wife! Where is the Creator?

We must call him to a rabbinic tribunal! (pause)

And where are the witnesses?

Our fathers! Our grandfathers!...

(Loud) Where are the witnesses?!...

(The lights are dimmed, quiet music is played slowly in the rhythm of a waltz, as the marionette figures slowly disappear, dancing on the steps, like soaring phantoms. Everyone watches in silence).

Curtain closes.

Y. L. Peretz Demands his Theatre

by Thea Artzishewska

Translated by Janie Respitz

We were all young but Y.L Peretz was younger than all of us; young in his belief and with his tireless effort to build the highest tower of Jewish beauty.

Already in my earliest years the name Peretz rang out as a legend and the following years, until his end, remained in in my memory like a fantastic dream, like the most beautiful gift I received in my life.

[Page 99]

It is still difficult for me to write and speak about Peretz, from whom I learned so much and performed his works. Peretz's image has remained with me as if woven from rays, and it is not possible to speak of him with ordinary, cold words. I would like to be able to describe him with a few colours and strokes.

The first thing about Peretz that captured you were his Peretz eyes: large, green – radiant, under thick scholarly brows. A small youthful forehead under a silver crown of lively hair. A classic carved face with proud Peretz - like features. His entire presence reminded me of the restlessness of a lion.

His strong resounding voice and his exact fine tuned language rang like metal.

Listening to his stormy speeches, his words resonated. He often looked like a burning tree…

The style of his speech was comprised of phrases, choppy and scant; however his intentions were always clear and distinct, each sentence firm and dynamic.

Peretz's calm lyrical moments only occurred when he was moved by something.

Peretz rarely laughed, however he smiled often; and his smile was very expressive.

I saw Peretz, I heard Peretz, I heard his voice and his words which have remained for me the finest jewellery I wear with pride. Peretz would often read fragments of his work to us, the young artists and close friends. He would read and interpret, creating his own theatrical style.

Peretz's reading of his “Goldene Kayt” (The Golden Chain) was unforgettable. As young stage actors, raised on serious Polish theatre we remained spellbound by his pathos and strength.

It is hard to imagine Peretz's passion and excitement when he explained his dramatic characters, his theatrical vision; as he wanted to take us to the depths of his symbols.

When Peretz explained my roles in his work he taught me to accept and understand the secrets of his artistic vision. Peretz wanted the words in the theatre to be polished, natural; the tone should have colour and rhythm. The Yiddish language should be sung. He wanted new chords.

During theatre rehearsals Peretz threw dozens of clever ideas at us which proved to be very revealing.

In his folk characters on stage, Peretz looked for simplicity and the charm of the folk – fantasy, while at the same time, he wanted something completely different from his mystical,

[Page 100]

symbolic characters; modern, stylized and deeply Jewish.

Peretz searched for young people with a theatrical education because he said professional performers were poisoned by a bad routine.

Talent and naivety were the key to gaining Peretz's trust.

Y.L. Peretz did not have a theoretical theatrical education, however he did have something not all experienced theatre directors were able to put forward: the Peretz wings, his far sighted artistic glance, his high standards, and the holiday atmosphere which carried us into a distinguished world.

Peretz demanded from us a fanatic love for the beautiful Yiddish folklore, to the individual Yiddish spirit and style which for me was still new. He dreamed of seeing his works in the theatre believing the word from the stage would broaden and strengthen the people.

According to Peretz's serious attitude toward the stage actors, it became clear to us that the mission of those devoted is no less than the mission than the dramatist who sends his words through them.

Peretz donated a lot of his time and artistic effort to me, believing that I was the one who with talent could create and embody his female characters. More than once he wrote roles specifically for me, with his original, inventive instructions.

Later on, when I was older and more mature I looked deeply and thought carefully about his every letter in every word and began to understand Peretz's artistic goals.

He tried to give the theatre lover the right expressions and appropriate movement. He wanted to bring aesthetic, tenderness, finesse and introspection to Yiddish theatre.

I spent most of my time with artists and writers, my entire life was art and theatre. By then I knew the dramaturgical world literature. But Peretz's dramatic poems awakened in me the eternal sparks which radiated in my very being, remaining from my old generation, from my pious home and my entire pedigree. I saw with my intuition the genius of Peretz's symbolic work mirroring our great Jewish merits. And I remember, since I was so excited with Peretz's work, I suffered hearing the reviews.

A few Jewish critics felt Peretz's dramatic works were not scenic enough, not theatrical enough and not expressive. Even worse, Peretz was criticized by the old professional actors. They did not understand

[Page 101]

Peretz's “punctuation”, the pauses in the dialogue. The allegorical symbolism and mysticism were foreign to them. The quiet discreet experiences on the stage were also foreign to them.

They did not yet have the artistic means to create.

I remember one evening when I went to the Yiddish theatre with Peretz and his wife when his one act play “It's Burning” was being performed.

We sat in the theatre in silence and sad. His one act play was not recognizable. We didn't know if we should laugh or cry.

At that time I experienced painful hours seeing Peretz so depressed for the first time. We left the theatre without speaking. Peretz, who was depressed said these words with a weary voice when we parted:

“Not one moment…not one word was spoken as it should…we have no theatre…”
Y.L. Peretz came to almost all the rehearsals of Dovid Herman's production of his one act play “Frimorgn” (“Morning”). Peretz was very sensitive about every tone, every nuance. There were often “dramas” within the dramas as a result of wrong tones during rehearsals. During the moment when the old grandfather in “Frimorgn” tells his granddaughter Rivka that the wealthy man's son got married that day, the girl is supposed to faint. Her intellectually weak younger sister Leah, speaks to Rivka, asks her to open her eyes because if she doesn't they'll bury her. Rivka then has to reply: “They already buried me”…

This single word “buried” caused a lot of problems because none of the young actors could say the word as it should have been said at the exact moment.

At the second rehearsal when this unfortunate word “buried” was said, Peretz ran up to her and said:

“Imagine…your own boyfriend…who you love…leaves you…and marries another… how would you feel?...How would you speak?”

The girl nervously stuttered: “Mr. Peretz…don't talk like that…your words can, God forbid, bring evil tidings…”

“That's it!...exactly as you just spoke…that's how you have to speak and act…” said Peretz firmly and quickly, then laughed heartily.

No one can imagine the bitter disappointment Y.L. Peretz experienced in his many years of work for an artistic Yiddish theatre.

[Page 120]

The fight for a theatre was the tragic motif of his life. He wrote a lot for the stage and wanted a theatre where his works would be performed as well as the works of others.

Peretz was convinced he would create such a theatre and inspired and excited everyone around him with this idea.

At this time, through Peretz's initiative, a theatrical society was founded with respected writers and dynamic people including: Sh. Asch, S. Ansky, Avrom Reyzen, H.D. Nomberg, Yankev Dinezon, A. Vayter, Dr. Mukdoyni and others.

There were also many important names from among Warsaw's Jewish patrons and communal activists.

Peretz himself went to St. Petersburg to receive a large donation from Jewish magnates there. For this purpose, Sholem Asch travelled to Riga. Also the noble dramatist A.Vayter, who was devoted to Peretz with heart and soul, travelled to collect means for the theatrical society.

Unfortunately Peretz's flame was again extinguished by the cold wind which blew from the assimilated Russian – Jewish barons. Once again Peretz's dream was unrealized.

However, Y.L. Peretz did not lose hope in creating the theatre he dreamed of.

After a while he once again had theatre plans which he often spoke to me about, speaking with renewed passion and excitement. He once again surrounded himself with theatre dreamers and artists. Once again, Peretz's house was transformed into a theatre – studio.

Peretz designated the table as the stage and his desk as the wings, the door to his son's Lucian's room was the background or the anteroom of the synagogue. Peretz would spend hours explaining and showing how he imagined the performance.

Peretz's old friend Yankev Dinezon with his childlike smile, sat in the corner and rolled cigarettes for Peretz and would often transform into one of Peretz's characters or decoration. Peretz's wife, Madam Helena, often entered with good news, that she had found something, an old Turkish piece of fabric which could be used by the aunt in “After the Burial” or for another character and then she would find something still from their “attic in Zamosc”.

The doorbell did not stop ringing. Each time, the elderly Dinezon would open the door or Peretz himself would go answer with his youthful gait. Sometimes an artist would arrive with a sample of the sets he was drawing. They would speak, examine the drawings and Peretz would be ecstatic;

[Page 103]

“This is what I wanted…” his voice cracked. He walked through the house, pulling on the golden chain of his pocket watch. The entire house was filled with theatrical air. I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. Neither my professors in drama school nor the directors on the Polish stage could provide me with such creative enthusiasm.
The doorbell rang again and in walked the director Dovid Herman, a great admirer of Peretz. He brought with him a new artistic “force”, a student of the Polish dramatic school. Peretz's eyes were shining. Perhaps he will light up the Yiddish theatre sky, perhaps he will be the redeemer of the theatre – exile.
“Young man...” said Peretz, “You look young…the world is yours…say something…what do you know…”
This young man looked nothing like an artist. In my eyes he looked more like a rabbi.

It became silent, they waited for the young man to speak. He spoke, but not boldly:

“I can recite “King Lear”…

“What else” asked Peretz.

“Reb Shloyme from “Di Goldene Kayt”…

And the young man began to grumble in his bass low voice.

His “King Lear” was deliberately Jewish while Reb Shloyme was deliberately non –Jewish.

“Yiddish…more Yiddish…” shouted Peretz, “It sounds more non- Jewish than Jewish”.
However Peretz was renewed and happy as he saw in him theatrical talent.

In the last year of his life Peretz confided in me that he wanted to take a few of his Hasidic and folksy stories and rework them in dramatic form. Unfortunately he never managed to do this.

The war and particularly Jewish suffering consumed his time, his heart, and soon his life.

During those days I saw Peretz was depressed, despondent, due to the great Jewish tragedy. He did not have the strength to endure the loneliness of the Jewish child.

He had already stopped talking about theatre, oh no.

He thought and spoke about the homeless and the afflicted children and how to help them.

[Page 104]

Today, after forty years, once again we stand before the empty place, in the same atmosphere of indifference, the same Jewish theatrical poverty which persecuted Peretz his entire life.

Few have remained from those who disappeared to build a Yiddish theatre in the spirit of Peretz. Gone is the one who loved Peretz's word, his deep interpreter, Dovid Herman. Also gone are the quiet believing knights whose names never rang out.

I also made attempts over the years, during various times in various phases and in a variety of forms which were a result of my goal to fulfil my artistic debt to Peretz.

Peretz's symbolic dramas and his one act plays were performed from time to time in Poland by our renown and best modern director Zigmunt Turkow, Yonas Turkow as well as the famous Vilne Trupe. Even the variety theatre “Azalzel” breathed the cult of Peretz's scenic word.

One of the true masters and perpetuators of Yiddish creativity, Hertz Grosbard sings out his Peretz melody throughout the Jewish world until today. However, building an eternal, Yiddish artistic Peretz theatre could only consciously be done with the powerful desire of the entire people.

Peretz's students and devoted admirers are already travelling on that long journey to join him. If Peretz asks us over there if during this long period of time we succeeded in creating a dignified Yiddish theatre, we will bow our heads and remain silent.

Because we will not find an answer.


From the books: Miriaml – Dramatic Cycle in Fifteen Scenes and Almanach, Paris 1955-1959.


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