by Binyumin Kts (Etiudn)
Translated by Tina Lunson
What do I remember from the town of my birth, Horodnitse? What do I not remember? Until I was eleven years old my childhood I was growing up there, playing, studying, dreaming, until one lovely summer dawn the town Rov took me with him in his wagon to Korets, and from Korets we arrived in Zvhil: I was departing for the larger world. From Zvhil I went back to Korets and from Korets to Rovne. All this with a horse and wagon. Then from Rovne, by train, to the ship to Canada; from Canada to the United States, and from there to Yisroel. That is how the years flew by.
Now I am back in Horodnitse in my memory. Just now? If only I close my eyes I see the market with the shops, the study houses, the cold shul, the street that leads to the factory and then down to the River Slutsh.
Akh, the Slutsh! I know the Hudson and the wide Mississippi and the wonderful Kineret and the Jordan, but the waters of Slutsh… And the ferry over the river,
and then the bridge those are now visions of a stormy childhood that are stamped into my mind and have left impressions all these years. The Slutsh and the forest and the prince's house and the factory are points that I cannot forget. The town was not even a dot on the map but a Jewish life pulsed there that is only described in books. A miniature of the larger world brought here. The grueling work in the factory; the class struggle with a proprietor who only came to visit his property once in a blue moon [yoyvl] when the fire department would greet him as they would greet a conflagration. A fear fell over the town the boss was coming! How to anticipate a boss? A lifelong job for a whole town in a factory and you do not know for whom you are digging gold; one deals with administrators, and the administrators pay you with payslips, and with those slips one can buy a living, and suddenly, the boss is coming! The factory sirens blow, the work stops, everyone runs to the gate in their workclothes. People run from every direction, from the back streets, from the market square.
What's on fire?
Fool, nothing's on fire!
The boss is here!
Tfoo, on all my enemies! He should burn himself, sweet father!
It took the town a long, long time to calm down from the boss's visit. And who got the see him? A coach harnessed with four horses went through town and created a lot of dust and a lot of noise.
It is quiet in town. A winter day. Shabes. Jews sit in the studyhouse and warm themselves by the dying embers. On the snow, in the street, black crows flutter. Pogromists are expected in town crows announce bad news and in the psalmsinger's melody, the sadness and the fear hover in MayerLeyb's studyhouse. It is getting dark now in the street and in the twilight the snow seems whiter, and each time that the heavy door of the studyhouse is opened with a whine, one's heart stops: a dread terrorizes the childish heart.
With each rumor of a pogrom I put on another pair of trousers, in case we have to flee the town…but where to flee to? On one side the river; on the other side, the forest; on the third side, the village and the goyishe streets; on the fourth side, the mill. Who knows which side the murderers will come from?
Selfdefense. On each of the four sides, youths from the town stand ready. Tomorrow, Sunday, there is a fair. There will be no fair now the goyim must not even be allowed into the town now. So say the Jews around the oven, and if Jews say it they probably know!
A wedding in town. A strange wedding. Ten years living together and now a wedding? Yes. Ten years with no children born can mean divorce, so the couple commissions a Torah scroll and sets up a wedding canopy near the cold shul. A starry night. The whole market square smells of spiced honeycake. The couple bakers have baked fragrant goods and invited everyone to the wedding. Musicians play a sad tune, relatives lead the groom and bride to the shul with the Torah scroll. They dance in a linked chain of hands and feet tap out a mitsve dance on the driedout mud. Two Jewish souls will never be separated; may the Torah scroll protect them, give a long life, mazl tov, Jews, mazl tov.
After the wedding, l'havdl [not to be mentioned in the same breath] an epidemic in the town cuts through all sides, not sparing one house, not differentiating poor or rich.
Save yourselves, Jews, stop the epidemic!
A young woman sits in the hospital for the poor. One of the usual beggars obstructs the vestibule. A wedding canopy is set up in the cemetery, it might stop the epidemic. And [bridal] sermongifts are requested for an unfortunate couple: The wealthy Mr. Pluny gives a ten karben sermongift. And the factory workers deliver the sermongift.
The crushed bride creeps from the cemetery, from the plaguewedding, back to the hospital and the groom drags after her, wasted in his new silk kapote and shtreyml.
A summer heat steams the town. Why don't people go to bathe? The river has not yet adjusted to summer, so people are afraid. Suddenly an alarm! People clear the river in one breath. A boy is drowning! The current has taken him. No one can save him. Everyone races to the river. The current flows along. People look at the river and shudder. The parents, sister, brothers come running and cries split the water. Boats are put into the current. We wait a long time and see nothing. It gets dark, very dark, as dark as in the spirit and people are angry at the river, at the beloved Slutsh. Tomorrow it will give up its victim; someone will bring him from far away, to his unfortunate father and mother!
Every summer the Slutsh takes its victim!
Now we can bathe.
Elections in the town. Things are cooking. The Bund does its work. It has all the workers in its pocket. The Zionists silken young people, sons and daughters of the administrators, shopkeepers, religious functionaries intellectuals, students, unmatriculated students shout in the streets with flashy placards:
Vote for slate number ____ !
Down with Zionism!
A deathblow to the Bolsheviks!
The children make the most noise of all. They carry the placards, one this placard, one another placard.
In the evenings there are gatherings in the studyhouses, in the large rooms of welltodo homes, in the stationhouse of the fire department, at the market placards, posters, flyers, written by hand, with artistic script, calling, calling, calling vote!
On one such evening, during khanike, I stepped up at a meeting of the Zionists as a representative of the children's club Cadets of Zion. I was the speaker and I gave a learned lecture.
I began with Od lo avoda tkusnu.
On the white tablecloth before me stood two beautiful candlesticks with large white candles that flamed against my nervous red face and at the side stood a large donation box for keren ha'yesod or keren k'yemet.
I talk. I myself do not know what I am saying. I am hot. I am all of ten or eleven years old. I see eyes before me, eyes and it is so quiet. I finish. People clap and say bravo, I stand and burn and am not consumed. A man approaches, gives me a kiss on the forehead and gives me a half ruble as a khanike gift. The silver piece flashes in my eyes. I hold it for a moment and then toss it into the big donation box! There is a roar, applause, they pick me up in their arms and I blush, I burn and shiver with cold.
To this day I regret that I tossed that silver coin into the donation box.
Even now they stand before my eyes, my elementary teachers, the Hebrew and Russian teachers, the men and women gentile teachers at the school, at the gimnazie; the proprietors, the craftsmen, the shopkeepers, the goyim at the fairs, the games of tag; the changing seasons; the hunger days and then leaving for Zvhil. The longing for home. The comfort that we had at least the river the Slutsh in common, made Zvhil beloved to me and now, into your great yizkerbukh Zvhil, may pour the memory of those Horodnitse Jews, cut down, murdered, burned and gassed, and may they find their rest and memorial together with their heroes and martyrs, as much partners as was the river Slutsh, that was red from their bloody bodies during the great misfortune for which we say kadish, and for whom we set a stone to remember, remember, remember!
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