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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!


[Page 76]

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)


[Page 77]

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,

[Page 85]

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.

[Page 86]

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!

[Page 87]

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!”

 

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