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[Pages 483-484]

Some Memories

by B. Alkvit

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

B. Alkvit is my pen–name; my birth name is Eliezer Blum. I was born in the valley of Jewish poverty – on the “Naye Tsal,” that is Pocztawas Street, in the great center of Jewish life and culture, Chelm, on December 7, 1896. (The date is uncertain. That year it was the last day of Khanike. In the Khanike lamp made from hollowed–out potatoes, the oil had already been exhausted, and the wicks extinguished.)

I was the eldest son of Sholem and Henie–Beyle, who had I don't know how many children. That is, there were three of us. But in those days there went among us a tall, dark, taciturn man, who carried hung over his shoulder a longish chest covered with black cloth. We saw him only when a child had died, when he appeared like a shadow of the unseen. He would rush into a house and rush out into the street with the child inside the chest. No one ran after him. Funerals were not held for small children.

How many times did this man come to our house? Often enough. Once our mother packed up a few things, gathered the children and put a lock on the door. But she didn't want the Angel of Death to think that we had just gone off for just a short visit to our aunt, who lived at the far end of town on the way to the forest, and would return the next day. So she gave my father a piece of chalk and told him to write.

My father took the chalk and with a flourish, began formally with b”h [barukh hashem –blessed is God] and the date in Hebrew. He continued : “Be informed that we don't live here anymore. Therefore you need not exert yourself to come here anymore.”

We did not live in fancy surroundings. But who can forget the spaciousness of a house in Chelm? And it wasn't just the house – there was the street as well. And we had a window that looked out on a courtyard that ran uphill, where our father kept his paints, ladders and tools. For Father, who was called Sholem Pineles, was a painter, a painter in summer and a glazier in winter.

That Chelm was an old, a very old Jewish town I didn't learn until later, when I was already far from home. Still later, a friend gave me a picture of Chelm, an etching taken from a book named “Ghettoes of Poland.” This friend, a colleague, knowing that I came from Chelm, gave it to me as a gift. But the picture truly stunned me. Chelm looked so old, so antique, as if unchanged from the Middle Ages, and so sunken in despair. That was not the Chelm I knew. I had never seen that kind of poverty. Our poverty had a bit of grass. In our poverty there was color and laughter, and the hill and the courtyard outside our window. And the hill, which was bare on top, was a hill for children. It was a young town – a town of mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and good food to eat on the Sabbath.

I thought that the artist who made the etching was a depressive. He had not been to the market place and seen the people of Chelm in the crowd of peasants and soldiers at the stalls with ribbons and beads; and the market women sitting over their fire pots selling bagels and hot beans. He hadn't heard of our artisans, our boot–top makers and hat makers, who made hats for the army officers – all of whom worked together and shouted together, along with the cobblers and tailors, “Down with the Tsar.”

He had never entered the Hasidic shtiblekh [one room prayer houses]. Or the factory, the foundry where Jews did not in fact work –– they weren't allowed to –– but which provided us with its whistle. When the factory whistle went off we knew it was noon, they were having lunch now.

Still, the etching was a picture of the neighborhood where we lived. What had happened? Had the town changed so? Had I changed? Without having contact with the life of the town, could I even be certain that I had been born in Chelm – I mean in Chelm itself –– or maybe just in one of the tales about Chelm.

In any case, the famous tales they tell about Chelm are after all, also Chelm. But given that there are no children in the Chelm stories – probably because children aren't taken to meetings, and where are meetings so talked about as in the stories about Chelm –– we return to Chelm itself.

The education I received was the kind that is called “traditional,” except in one respect – the melamdim [teachers of young children in religious schools] had no memorable influence on me, either good or bad. I can't complain that someone in Chelm ate my bread and jam, or that the teacher's wife sent me on an errand to buy a groshen's worth of sour cream or potshmetane with tsharvetshane cheese. Potshmetene is probably sour–milk, but the cheese? I've eaten all kinds of cheese, Swiss and French, Dutch, Italian and cheese of unknown origin, but the tsharvetshane cheese of Chelm that one could buy for a groshen is for me a riddle to this day.[1]

What I retained from my studies during my years in kheder is what my father taught me. In general, my impressions of those years, I mean my impressions in retrospect, are mostly of moments with my father. For example, every Sabbath in summer he would study a chapter from the Bible or Talmud, just when I ought to have been playing outside with my friends; he couldn't find a more suitable time. Those times, when my mother came out of the house and called to me, that my father needed me, I began to understand why people wanted to overthrow the tsar.

Once on the second day of Shevuot, he woke from a short nap to go to synagogue.

[Pages 485-486]

It was well before the evening prayers. I ran after him. He asked if I wanted to go with him to say Psalms; today, he said, was King David's yortsayt [anniversary of person's death]. King David's yortsayt? That made a strong impression on me. The yorstayt established a connection between King David and dying – this had the effect of actually bringing him back to life, resurrecting him. In another minute and I'd have hear him playing on his harp.

But it was cold in shul and there were so few people. I was the only boy in that big cold shul with its heavy chandeliers hanging on chains over the men reciting psalms. The voice of each worshipper had another voice, an echo that repeated after him, “anshey ha'ish” [“Blessed is the man,” Psalm 1]; that recited and reverberated over the chandeliers among the chains, “Why do the heathens rage,” [Psalm 2] and “For the conductor of music, a psalm of David,” [Psalm 4].

I trembled with cold. My father led me by the hand. Outside, we were embraced by a delicious warmth. He took me on a bit of a walk, up to Lubliner Street and then further up to Rubieshower Road, to the Chelmer forest, where people regularly gathered wood and mushrooms and in the summer days of Shevuot picked lilac and berries, and where they would sing revolutionary songs. And to me it seemed that walking that road we were also commemorating King David's yortsayt.

We were three brothers and when the fourth child, a girl, was born, my mother died. And that ended our life as a family. The girl, my sister Henie– Beyle, named after my mother, died in childhood of hunger during the war [World War I]. Father was already gone; he died shortly after my mother. I, already grown, a 12–year old, was sent to live with an aunt in Lublin. From there I went to Warsaw, where I also had relatives, then on to Vienna. There I plunged into loneliness as into deep water, over my head. But there in Vienna I became acquainted with a young revolutionary, Eliash Gutorinski (Bragniski in his home town near Kiev) and this was my first friendship with an adult.

In 1914 I arrived in America and until 1920 when I got to know Yankev Glatstein, there was no friendship that influenced me as much as the one with Eliash. In New York I went to night school, worked in a shop, then studied in preparatory school. In 1920 I began to publish in the journal “Inzikh,” [Introspective] published by a group of poets ––Yankev Glatshtein, A. Leyeles, N.G.Minkov – who along with other arrivals had formed the Inzikhist movement of Yiddish poetry. I was drawn to the group, and later became co–editor, became a teacher in the Sholem Aleichem Folks Institute and contributed poetry, stories and literary criticism to Der Feder [The Feather], Fraye Arbeiter Shtime [Free Voice of Labor], Undzer Bukh [Our Book], Kinder Zhurnal [Children's Journal, Kern [Kernel], Kultur, Hamer, Oyfkum [Rebirth, Emergence],Yidish, Di Prese [Press], Yidishe Kempfer [Jewish Fighters], Tsufkunft [Future], Der Tog [The Day].

And so life proceeds. Bu among all these facts and accomplishments, my memories of Chelm remain fresh to this day.


Translator's footnote:

  1. The errand referred to seems to be an occurrence in one of the fictional stories of Chelm. return


[Pages 485-486]

Woislowicz

by Yisroel Kelner

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

 

che485.jpg
Yisroel Kelner, industrialist and social activist in Capetown

 

Twenty kilometers from Chelm lies the town of Woislowicz, which had 300 Jewish families. The Jews lived a life of poverty, but they were very religious. There was a besmedresh [house of study also used for worship], a synagogue, and a number of Hasidic shtibls [small house of worship], each for a different Hasidic group – Gerer, Trisker, Radziner, Belzer, Wlodovker and Kotsker.

Woislowicz had a rabbi who earned his living by selling yeast. He also made money from ritual slaughter, even though the town had three shokhtim [ritual slaughterers] who were well learned in religious matters and fine leaders of prayer.

The Jewish occupations were the same as in all the shtetls in Poland. There were shopkeepers, merchants and artisans. There were a lot of orchard keepers who rented orchards and sold fruit in the area.

Life was quiet and idyllic after World War I. During the war the Jews had evacuated to Berdichev. In 1918, life changed radically. New winds began to blow. The young people became Zionists and various organizations and parties were formed, which maintained contact with groups in Chelm.

Woislowicz had friendly, good hearted Jews who helped each other in time of need. Notably, Sholem Kelner and his wife Taybe were very hospitable. They took into their home beggars and couriers, giving them food and a place to sleep. There were many such good hearted people in my town


[Pages 487-488]

Reminiscences

by Tsadek Ayzen, Melbourne

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

 

che487.jpg
Tsadek Ribayzn (Ts. Ayzn)

 

The Khevre–Kedushe [Burial Society] and the Founding of the Talmud Torah [free elementary school for poor children]

The khevre–kedushe in Chelm was run by artisans and laborers. It was their practice, when a rich person died, to require the payment of a large sum of money for his burial. If that payment wasn't made, the corpse could lie unburied for three or four days.

When Gutele Khones, a well–known wealthy woman died in 1910 the town was in an uproar. The khevre–kedushe wouldn't agree to bury her until the amount of money they demanded was paid. My father, Leyzer Yankele Blekhermakher, who was the gabe [administrator] of the khevre–kedushe's synagogue and Melekh Hirsh, who was the gabe of the khevre–kedushe, both agreed with the rabbinical court that it was forbidden to shame a corpse.

The situation was tense. The majority of the khevre–kedushe didn't want to give in, so the family of the deceased had no choice and turned over the amount demanded. The khevre–kedushe rejoiced in its victory and conducted the burial.

With the money they received the khevre–kedushe built the new Talmud Torah where 150 poor children studied and each child was provided with clothing. Because of the rich woman's death, a few poor children were set on their feet and there remained a fine memorial to the woman – the Talmud Torah.

 

Der Langer Shmuel [Tall Shmuel]

We once had a relative who worked for us, Langer Shmuel (Shmuel RIbayzn). He was a ruffian, had served in the tsar's army as a dragoon, and always hung out with his kind. No matter how much people rebuked him for his improper behavior, it made no difference. He would answer: “I was born a Jew and I'll die a Jew. And if a non–Jew insults a Jew, he won't come out of it in one piece.” And so it turned out.

A peasant once came into our store to buy tools. He bargained with my mother over the price and insulted her “Jewish mug.” This shocked Langer Shmuel and he beat up the peasant. Whether other peasants and a policeman attacked Shmuel, he gave them the same treatment and ran away. The police looked for him for a long time. My father helped him out with a few rubles, but Langer Shmuel continued to maintain that “a Jew should not allow himself to be insulted.”

 

Averting a Pogrom

In 1918 the Poles seized power from the German–Austrian occupiers of Poland. It was winter on a Sabbath day. I was in the Workers' House of the Bund in Chelm, where I saw Dr. Fensterblau speaking with a group of workers who were very agitated. It was a serious matter.

Poles in the town were preparing to carry out a pogrom, to attack the Jews. They said that the bloody act would take place on Sunday morning, after church services, with the help of peasants in the vicinity who would come to town especially for that purpose.

Der Fensterblau and others with him were very anxious and upset. There wasn't much time to act, to organize self–defense; it had to be done in a hurry. The young people who were there in the Bund headquarters were designated to be messengers to call together representatives from various Jewish organizations, as well as certain private individuals, doctors and people who could administer first aid.

To the quickly arranged conference came representatives of all political groups with the exception of the Right Zionists and the Orthodox. The proceedings were held in strict secrecy. All night they prepared to provide every Jewish street with a defense post and a first–aid station. They needed several safe places to hold weapons and the Kuzmir shtibl was designated to be one such place. But the

[Pages 489-490]

men of substance in the town refused and wanted to inform the police about the entire matter. So people went to the little synagogue of the butchers, which was next to the big synagogue. There they hid guns and grenades among the torah scrolls.

The aroused Poles got word that the Jews were preparing to defend themselves, that they had weapons and an organized self–defense. The Poles their desire to attack and the planned pogrom was averted.

 

Getting Rid of a Jewish Informer

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Russian military headquarters was in the building owned by Herr Berish Kuper at 27 Lubliner Street. A Jewish soldier from Kiev was stationed there, working as an informer. His assignment was to denounce Jews.

Once, the informer encountered on the street not far from the Russian headquarters, a Jewish artisan (Fishl Shnayder's brother, who sewed cheap clothes) and asked him where the headquarters were. The Jew didn't understand anything, didn't know he was in danger, especially since the question was asked by a Jewish soldier. So he pointed out the headquarters and was immediately arrested, taken from his family and imprisoned.

The Jewish artisans in Chelm decided to teach the informer a lesson. Risking their lives, they locked him up until the Germans occupied Chelm. Then they turned him over to the new powers.


Jews of My Town

by Rivka Szrojt

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

In 1905, in my hometown Chelm, people were expecting something and that something frightened them. And then suddenly, there was joy: a constitution had been granted. Kith and kin, young and old went into the streets, singing and joyful. But suddenly, quite soon, people began to run in great panic, not knowing where to hide from the soldiers and police who were attacking them murderously.

When things quieted down, people in Chelm began singing a folk song that went like this:

Tsar Nikolai gave us a constitution
then quickly took it away.
He wanted to stop the revolution
with his filthy politics.

In Hrubieshower Street there was a voyener [state?] hospital with its own water authority and clocks which a Jewish clockmaker wound once a week. Further up the street there was the “old” hospital for civilians, and after that a home for Christian orphans. On the other side of the street were the barracks where the “Moscow Regiment” was stationed. Quite often we'd hear a Jewish recruit singing of his loneliness from a window opening onto the street.

At home I wore shoes, comfortable old shoes
Now I have to spend the Sabbath with Fonye Ganev[1]
Oy, Fonye Ganev
Fonye is a Ganev, 1,2,3.

The residents of Hrubieshower Street, who were poor artisans–– cobblers, tailors, rope makers, glaziers, peddlers, organ grinders and thieves, listened to the song with compassion and wanted to take the recruit home as a guest for the Sabbath.

There was also a water pump in that street which dried up in the heat of summer and froze in the winter cold. And when it was working it was the object of conflict between the Jews and the Poles, over who had arrived first.

Hrubieshower street ended at Rogatke, where two other streets started. One, Lubliner Street, on a hill, the other, the “Nayer Tsal,” in a valley. That began with a technical school and an ironware factory and soon petered out into small crooked houses with deep, moist sitarines [?] with small windows that looked out onto the ground, through which one could see and hear people walking by.

Here, in the poor Jewish part of town there were sewing workshops, carpenters, lathe operators, small synagogues and Hasidic shtiblekh, with constant fights between the Trisker and the Kuzmir sects. The Trisker rebe laid a curse on the Kuzmir rebe, that he should not have any children and the Kuzmir rebe laid a curse on the Trisker rebe, that he should have no beard. Although they later both regretted the curse, by then it was too late.

But the Kuzmir rebe stuck up for the people. On Simchat Torah he led the procession that carried around the Torah in the big synagogue. Although he had a limp, he didn't get tired of the singing and dancing. Afterward, they sang his newly crafted nigunim [Hasidic melodies.] They would continue to sing them in the workshops and also at weddings.

[Pages 491-492]

In the “Naye Tsal” lived Chaim Gergele, the petition writer. He was short and walked fast, lost in thought, seeing nobody. His caftan open, his head stretched out like a rooster, bent over the ground, looking for scraps of discarded pages from holy books, picking them up and putting them in his pocket, just as his father the rag picker would put scraps of fabric in his sack.

Between seeking and finding he would pluck at his beard. His cheeks were streaked with blue, like the quills of a plucked goose feather. But he wrote good petitions.

He wrote with an old pen on the back of the papers. He didn't need to ask many questions of his clients; the less he heard, the better, because he knew, as if from the air, everyone's complaints and legal issues, as well as their origins, their family and address. The peasants would pay him in homegrown food products. And in the middle of writing he could get up and go inside and check to see if the hens had laid an egg.

Opposite the “Naye Tsol” was Lubliner Street with the cathedral that stood atop a high hill, the loveliest hill in town, with trees and flowers surrounding the cathedral, although no Jews were allowed there.

***

Lubliner Street continued on with beautiful stone buildings with gates and courtyards with nice shops, hair salons, and barbershops with many mirrors on their walls.

One such barber was called Moyshe Pitshke the Royfer [non–credentialed medical personnel] Most of his clients were peasants and the poorest of Jews. Once a young fellow found his way in, wanting a haircut. He emerged with one side of his head shorn like a convict, the other half with his hair barely trimmed.

Moyshe's medical treatments were similar. When he was called to attend to a patient he would take their pulse and begin asking questions:

––If you cover yourself with bedclothes do you feel hot?
––Yes.
––If you take off the covers, are you cold?
––Yes
––If you look down from a mountaintop do you feel dizzy?
––Yes.
––Well, that settles it. We have to do cupping or apply leeches and you'll feel better.

Despite this, people loved him like one of their family. He came when he was needed and he didn't quibble about payment. They didn't like going to big doctors, like Lutshkoski or Genrekh, a Jew who had converted and who gave himself airs. Genrekh believed in the immortality of the Jewish people, citing as proof that Jews can eat cholent [Sabbath stew], which remains in the gut from Sabbath to Wednesday, and still survive; therefore, they must be immortal.

Chelm also had a large synagogue and a besmedresh. They said that in the attic of the synagogue a golem lay among the discarded religious books. Since no one could come near him, it wasn't possible to renovate the synagogue. The cantor was a fine, quiet man well–versed in music. One of his former choir members is today the well–known New York cantor Yankev Brayfman.

Opposite the shul was a small market place, with butcher shops and stalls selling fish, baked goods, pumpkin seeds and hot chick peas and beans. In an alley lived Yoysef Itshe Hindes the bookseller. In addition of sacred books he also had story books like Tsentre, Ventre, Eli Royber with Six Fingers, the Pretty Bird and the wonderful stories of G. Achim.

In time the readers of the story books grew up to become subscribers to Dubkovski's private library which had books from both Yiddish and other literatures. Dubkovski also had a newspaper kiosk in the very heart of Lubliner Street. Not far was the magistrat [town hall], a church, and the Saxon Gardens where young people strolled in the evenings, fearful of being attacked by Christians.

So Chelm lived, with its gymnazie [academic high school], teachers' seminary, yeshives, Talmud Torah, weekly fairs, and with its police, including the policeman they called “Spudnitse” [skirt] because he had such a fat belly, he looked like he was wearing a skirt. People were as used to them as they were to Meshugene [crazy] Berele who went crazy in the summer heat and set off into the street with his long blonde beard and black caftan, complaining to God and the world in three languages – Polish,Yiddish and Hebrew.

And Crazy Suzhe was of course also a citizen of Chelm. He was a giant of a man, lived in hunger, went barefoot in winter. In the middle of the night he would stop and roar, say something and then burst out laughing. Sometimes he would speak in such a way that it seemed he had come to his senses, but then something would get tangled in his head and forced him to become crazy again.

When Chelm was about to become a gubernie [province] the First World War broke out. A year later, Germany and Austria occupied Chelm. After that, there appeared political parties, bourgeois and proletarian. Shmuel Ziegelboym took his first political steps there. There came workers' housing, libraries, drama clubs, our own weekly newspaper. Hunger raged. Cholera and influenza took entire families. The linea hatsedek [aid to the sick poor] organized young Jews who risked their own lives to care for the sick in poor homes, feeding their parched mouths.

When Poland was liberated, Jews took a prominent role. But soon they were obliged to organize against Polish pogromtshiks. The youth of Chelm even assaulted a group of Halle–ites. [followers of General Halle, prominent anti–Semite.]


Translator's footnote:

  1. “Fonye” is a diminutive of Ivan and was a derogatory term used by Jews to refer to the tsar or Russian rule in general. “Fonye Ganev [Thief]” enhances the insult. return


[Pages 493-494]

Light and Shadow

by Reyzl Tseber, Australia

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

 

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Reyzl Tseber, nee Rikhtshrayber

 

Who can forget grand Lubliner Street, which ran from the Ravitser Forest, through the suburb of Pulitshanke to Hrubieshower forest. Lubliner Street and surrounding streets teemed with Jew and Jewish life. That is where the exchange was situated, and the famous “ring” of 70 Jewish owned shops which extended to the small market place next to the Jewish butcher shops. From there ran streets that were exclusively Jewish.

In Spring 1927, there were rumors that the Radomer Train station would be transferred to Chelm. In order to achieve this, the starostve [local government] donated the land adjacent to the starostve and to the Hrubieshower Forest as a site for the necessary administrative buildings and for connecting the streets of the railroad administration with the train station. The people of Chelm hoped that the transfer of the station to Chelm would bring thousands of new residents, businesses and employment that would improve the town's economic situation, and that of the Jews.

In the summer of 1927, construction businesses, engineers and architects arrived and work soon began on a large scale. Thanks to the construction many Jewish workers and businesses did well. Economic conditions improved. The Jewish merchant bank, a division of the Joint Distribution Committee, experienced strong growth in membership. At the same time a small business bank was founded.

Jewish organizations in Chelm were very active. Jewish cultural life developed greatly. Two Yiddish newpapers –– Chelemer Shtime [Voice]and Chelemer Vokhnblat [Weekly] appeared regularly. Three Jewish libraries enriched our supply of books and the best Jewish theater troupes and lecturers visited Chelm.

Jewish youth studied in the Jewish and state–run high schools, like the Tarbut gymnazie, business school, Jewish–Polish gymnazie, teachers' seminary and others. People traveled to study in the universities of Warsaw, Lemberg, etc.

In the course of the several years that the administration building was constructed the town expanded into the new neighborhood.

The Town Council of Radom opposed the transfer of the administration to Chelm and got the Polish Sium [legislature] to intervene. As a result the Kontrol Koleyova [?] was transferred from Bidgashtsh and moved into the new building. The officials were real Nazis. They settled into the lovely, comfortable building. Along with them came Christian merchants who settled into the heart of the Jewish town center and caused enormous harm to the Jewish merchants.

The material conditions for the Jews got worse and worse. The tax burden became intolerable. The new tax official who was appointed to Chelm levied huge taxes on the Jews. Many Jewish businesses had to close, especially shopkeepers and tradesmen. This also badly affected the Jewish bank. In 1935 the merchant bank failed, the crisis in town worsened and many young people left for Warsaw and other places to seek work.

1939 was the most difficult year under the Polish Fascist regime. A few years before the terrible war there were burdensome government edicts aimed at Jews and the Jews in Chelm felt it the strongest. At the time there was the “urbanitske linie,” a so–called beautification project. The Chelm Town council also undertook beautification efforts, and their first undertaking was to get rid of all the poor Jewish houses. The renowned “ring” of businesses, consisting of 70 Jewish shops which was the source of livelihood for hundreds of Jews fell victim to the “urbanitzatsie”.

The order to demolish the ring evoked an oppressive feeling among the Jewish population. They tried to have the edict retracted; delegates visited the town authorities, appealed to the council, to the president and others. But they were unsuccessful.

While efforts to persuade the authorities were still underway, the town council ordered the fire department to tear off the roofs of the Jewish shops and to destroy the ring. As moral compensation the council voted to give every Jewish merchant a symbolic zloty. This was a painful insult and a great humiliation.


[Pages 495-496]

A Day in Chelm
(A chapter from memoirs of the First World War)

by Eliezer Shindler[1]

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

On Tisha b'Av, 5675 (1915), during the first year of World War I, I was wounded and fell into the hands of Fonye [the Russians].

Tsar Nicholas's armies were at that time experiencing defeat after defeat and they took out their anger on the prisoners of war. The sick and wounded among us were in a terrible situation. Our new caretakers didn't even think of providing medical treatment, cleaning infected wounds, or changing dirty bandages.

They encouraged us with Russian curses and beat us with Cossack whips. A group of us wounded prisoners dragged ourselves under Cossack guard over the sandy Polish paths like living corpses, until we got to Chelm. There we were driven into the garden of a church, with guards posted at the gates with whips and guns.

Spotting a well, I dragged myself over to get some water to clean my pus–filled wound and wash my dirty bandages. Suddenly, a priest appeared in his clerical garb, a pock–marked swine with a fat red neck and a belly like a German beer barrel. He began shouting at me angrily for dirtying the trough that stood near the well; because I had washed my wound and bandages there, his cows would not want to drink from the trough.

I looked at this servant of God and said: “When I saw you, I thought that you were a student of Jesus of Nazareth, come to bring help and consolation to the sick, wounded and homeless. But from what you just said, I see that you belong to those about whom our prophet Jesus said – “They kiss the calves, but they slaughter the people.' Instead of cleaning our wounds you think about your calves.”

The fat Polish priest had not expected such a response and quickly left. Sitting near the pump in great suffering, afflicted by pain and hunger, without any idea of where to turn for help, I saw at one of the iron gates a Jew dressed in traditional Polish Jewish clothing. He was speaking to the Cossack guard, asking him for something, and put a gift in his hand. I thought to myself, the Jew is looking to do business; probably wants to buy or sell something to the priest, and is asking the Cossack to let him into the courtyard.

As soon as the Jew got inside, he ran over to me with his pack. He greeted me with a “sholem aleichem,” and stretched out a brotherly hand. “I saw you among the prisoners, and recognized you as a Jew, so I'm bringing you a bit of food, a fresh shirt and a little cash. Your journey is just beginning. Who knows how many miles you will have to go until you get to a camp. Take my modest gift and forgive me for not being able to give more. We Polish Jews are in great poverty and trouble. On one side, we face the enmity of the Russians, on the other, the Poles. The town is filled with refugees, there is famine, the poverty is terrible but we mustn't forget you prisoners. All Jews are responsible for each other.”

I forgot about my hunger and pain and marveled at the Jew who had come to help a brother. He had put his life at risk by approaching a prisoner, since the Russians thought every Jew was a spy and thousands of innocent Jews had been accused of espionage and shot.

The priest, the Goerings and the Goebbels, the killers of men, loved dogs and worshipped calves, loved animals and slaughtered six million Jews, men, women and children, including the Jews of Chelm.

We whisper, remember these pure and holy souls.

 

che496.jpg
From right: Dr. Dovid Valberger, Mordkhe Ivre and Shmuel Guterman, in Polish uniform in 1920


Editor's note in the original:

  1. Eliezer Shindler, well–known Yiddish poet and writer was in the Austrian army in World War I and was a prisoner of war captured by the Russians, who took him to Chelm. return


[Pages 497-500]

Mayn Shvester Perl

by Yankev Tsvi Shargel, Petach–Tikvah

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

In a village between Chelm and Lublin
(the ground that the Germans profaned)
amid forests and fields of green
there lives Perl, my sister.

Her visage is dark and charming,
but her hair too early turned gray,
alone as a stone in the village
she yearns for a far–off place

She's a simple and quiet woman,
mother to eight little ones.
Her heart is filled with prayer.
She gives help and counsel to all.

On frosty nights by the oven
she sits and spins her tales.
Perl can cure anything
with the power of her love and faith.

She can repel the evil eye,
apply leeches, bankes[1], compresses,
but her children have little to eat
though her home abounds in goodness.

Though her village neighbors are wealthy
her house is small and low
and in the night she lies weeping
and she is skin and bone.

Her little girls are growing up;
the youngest now wears a braid.
Their mother's skin is wrinkled,
her cheeks like shriveled apples.

She's well acquainted with bad luck;
she knows what fate holds in store.
Perl sends her girls to work as maids.
With head bowed, she still has hope.

Perl knows the forest and the dirt road
and her neighbors, the arrogant Germans.[2]
She hears their fearsome singing at night
and their horses' cries when they're beaten.

***

Her husband Ruven is a redhead,
with thickly grown eyebrows and beard.
Though the village pains him, like an illness,
he still loves it and holds it dear.

With long and heavy steps
Ruven hurries on his way,
a coarse, unmannered village Jew
content with all that surrounds him.

He doesn't ask any questions,
not “why” or “how” or “what for?”
The village admires his good nature
as it does the fields, grain and straw.

He travels to fairs with the Christians.
In his pack lie faith and belief.
He comes to life when he meets fellow Jews
who sweep through the fair like doves.

He came to the village with Perl
with love for her and the land.
Their fate is enmeshed with the village,
with a life from which Jews are banned:

with trees laden with pears and apples,
with cows and calves in their stalls,
with the land and all of its perils,
with fields and clean water in wells,

with grass at the windows and thresholds
with the wind and the chill of the field,
ready to do what others tell him,
to open the door to all.

But rarely does anyone visit;
the Germans don't like to mix.
It's only when one of them sickens
that they come to seek help from my sister.

“ Ruven, dear,” they say, “darling,
the wagon awaits at your door.”
And they tell their son Mundzye [dim. of Mundlayn]
he mustn't hit Perl's children anymore.

But Mundlayn likes to hit people
and he gnashes his teeth in rage,
and one terrible dawn in September
he shoots and hits his mark.

The highway runs past the house
and leads to roads that stretch far away.
Perl closes the shutters
she knows that a storm's on the way.

* * *

Like horses all in a lather
in a frenzy of looting and lust
the brazen German colonists
churn the road to dust.

From towns and villages all over
they come to load their wagons with loot.
Pious Christian women make the sign of the cross
as Jewish blood flows.

Rings, still attached to fingers,
earrings, along with ears,
the bells on their horses still ringing,
the gates of the colonists crash.

Pillows bloodied in slaughter
still wet with children's tears.
With beastly eyes ablaze
the murder–train draws near.

The older children run away
to their savior, the Red Army
At my sister's house, no one slept.
Woe to the mother and father.

Terror entered their cottage,
stole the smiles from the children.
The father crawls away to hide.
The mother takes leave of her senses.

Why did she lock all the doors?
Why did she shut us up in the room?
Who will take us to the field?
Why is father trembling with fever?

The robbers brandish their swords,
the air is filled with lamentation.
But Perl, with wondrous enchantment,
waits for God's deliverance.

It will come, that great moment.
How can the world go so mad?
My sister believes in miracles,
believes she can escape fate.

And her neighbor, the murderer Mundlayn,
rages with poison and gun.
The wind carries the cries of my sister, the midwife
who delivered the village's children.

In a village between Chelm and Lublin
(the ground that the Germans profaned)
amid forests and fields of green
there lives Perl, my sister.

II

In the village Bekeshe the snow is falling.
My Perl stands watch on the porch.
She stifles her screams.
The highway leads from here to Maidenek.

The little ones are hungry and weak;
how can they make the journey there?
She stands and watches them as they sleep
on the road between Chelm and Lublin.

The vines are dry and thin;
they can't hide the light from the porch.
My sister tells her grievances to God,
gathers her troubles in a pack.

The tree in the orchard
stretches out a limb, like a hand.
The rope on the crank to the well
calls her to the other side.

The empty, gutted barn
is like a toothless mouth
that whispers to her Sabbath shawl
as her eyes fill with tears.

“We lived so many years with our neighbors,”
my Perl complains to God.
“This village, with all its charms,
has mocked and degraded your daughter.”

We had just dug up the turf
and scattered straw around the walls,
though the village laughed and mocked us
and shook their fists.

We gathered aprons–full of sorrel.
The nights are so long.
The children got fish from the pond.
Outside it was stormy and dark

We went to say slikhes[3] at midnight
to serve you with honor and awe.
Now they've killed the Jews who lived here.
Who will now dance with the Torah?

They snatched Ruven from his bed
and threw the dying man on a wagon.
Who will now come to the minyen?
Who will now pray to you.

It states clearly in the holy books
That it's not the dead who will praise you, my lord.
What use to you the countless graves,
the biers of horror and sorrow?

Her orchard whispers in terror
in a foreign, hostile tongue,
and the frogs are strangely splashing
near the well on this autumn night.

The stars go out over the village.
The porch is flooded with mourning.
My sister wipes away her tears
with her black Sabbath scarf.

In the village the night is ending.
My sister and the children on the porch.
Bekeshe has finished its slaughter.
The highway leads there, to Maidenek

The village awakens to snow.
The Germans laugh on the porch.
My sister and her children are on their way
to join the Jews in Maidenek.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Bankes are vessels used in cupping, a traditional remedy. return
  2. The Germans referred to here are colonists of Austrian–German origin who settled in Chelm and surrounding villages, dating from the time Chelm was under Austrian rule (1795–1807). During the German occupation in World War II many aided the German forces. This poem describes the experience of living as a Jew in a village among German colonist neighbors before and during the occupation. return
  3. Slikhes –– prayers for forgiveness recited in the period leading up to and during the High Holy Days. return

 

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