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My Town, Nowy–Dwor

by Boaz Young–Yungvits

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Personalities

I don't remember many of the important personalities of the 1870's and 1880's well enough to tell about them. Instead I turn to the town of my boyhood as I remember it.

Nowy Dwor, the town where I was born, was situated on the Narew River. In winter, we boys would skate on its ice and in summer bathe in its waves. When the ice melted in spring, the Narew often inundated half the town and we would row a boat down the middle of town. My grandfather told me that the Narew once remained frozen until the holiday Shavuos. The town burghers went out onto the frozen river and in honor of this unusual occurrence held a holiday feast there.

Around Nowy Dwor there was a “periphery” where only poor people lived. It was called “the Piasek” [sand] and had a tall mountain of golden sand that divided the periphery from the town. In the winter we would sled down from the Piasek and in summer, when the mountain changed from snowy white to brown and gold, the Christian boys would pull wagons of sand for the well–off households to use to sprinkle on their floors.

There were two market places –both unpaved – a Jewish one in the center of town and a Polish one on the edge of town. The Jewish market was always muddied with the water from the public pump, but that didn't interfere with business. All the fairs were held at the Jewish market. But when the Jewish market was overfilled with products that the Christian peasants had brought in from their villages, they would bring some to the Polish market, too. It was always neat and clean, but business was light. The tidiness seemed to say, “I am respectable,” but it also whispered, “…not.”

At that time Nowy Dwor had 5000 residents, of whom 75% were Jewish. It had a beautiful large wooden synagogue where the most respectable men of the town prayed. The common folk prayed in the besmedresh [house of study, also used for worship], along with the sons–in–law of the middle class. Boys from rich families studied there during the day, and the working people would come at twilight to listen to a chapter of Mishnah.

The Hasidic shtibls [small houses of worship] –Gerer, Kotsker, Radziminer, et.al., –– were the places of prayer for the melamdim [teachers of young children], sons–in–law who were continuing their religious studies while being supported by their fathers–in–law, and Jews who knew their Talmud. Among the Radziminer Hasidim were one of the richest men in Nowy Dwor, Reb [respectful term of address] Motele Peretz,

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and his son–in–law, whom they called “the Black Young Man” (after the novel by Jacob Dinezon.)

At that time, Nowy Dwor had a rabbi who was very intelligent, a great religious scholar and a prominent religious authority. When he died in old age, the town hired a young rabbi, whose rich father–in–law had paid off the kehile [organized Jewish community] to give him the rabbinical post.

The young rabbi inherited two shamosim [sing., shames, beadle or sexton of the synagogue]–a chief shames and an under–shames. The under–shames, Fayvele, was well known as a fool. He would wake people to call them to prayer in the morning, and if you paid him a few pennies, he would throw in a song outside the window; and for a penny more, he'd do a little dance in the snow. But the chief shames, Khatskele, was quite intelligent.

I remember two Jews who used to stay in the besmedresh, behind the stove. They would roast potatoes in the hot coals, and share them with the boys who studied in the besmedresh. One of them had escaped from Siberia and the authorities had wanted to send the other one to Siberia because he had converted to Judaism.

Nowy Dwor had a chimney sweep, Yosele, who would clean out the chimneys of the rich. He was a handsome, tall young man, with curly black hair and a brown face, so the soot wasn't so obvious on him. Yosele would walk on the shingled roofs as sure–footedly as if he were walking on the ground. Sometimes he would bring along his little boy and teach him the art of walking on the roof. The boy would go first, with Yosele behind him holding on to him with both hands, his brush on his shoulder, attached to his oilcloth belt. Young and old would watch in amazement and Yosele, as if giving a performance, got a lot of pleasure form the audience's applause.

There was a klezmer band; Itsik was the leader and fiddler, and the drummer collected money on a tray. Pretty women and girls would beam with delight as Itsik, starry–eyed, would draw his bow along the strings.

There was a badkhen [wedding entertainer, jester], but the rich didn't use his services. For a celebration they would bring in a badhken from Warsaw, who boasted of a close acquaintance with the famous badkhen Eliokum Tsunzer from Vilna.

In the summer, when I woke up before dawn to hear joyful sounds, I knew that it was Itsik's band accompanying a bride and groom to their private room [to consummate the marriage.] On such occasions I, already a 15 year–old, could not fall back asleep.

Nowy Dwor had everything a town needed, except for a decent mikvah [ritual bath]. The mikvah was old and broken down, the steps overgrown with green moss and slippery. The ground was so muddy you would sink into it. The only light came from a tiny candle inside a lantern.

The women didn't want to immerse themselves there and the young rabbi didn't respond to their husbands' request to build new mikvah. Then a tall woman called all the women to a meeting and they then pulled a prank on the rabbi. They poured red dye into the mikvah and when the rabbi went one morning to immerse himself in the dark he emerged covered in red. After that the community finally decided to build a new mikvah.

There were many wagon drivers in Nowy Dwor who transported supplies into the fortress. At the time, the train had just started to run between Nowy Dwor and Warsaw and people were still afraid of taking it. Not until the government distributed free tickets did the public agree to try it. At the time, people travelled between Nowy Dwor and Warsaw with two omnibuses, drawn by horses. They travelled only at night and often the omnibus would overturn because the driver had nodded off.

After my father

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obtained a lot of money, he became a large–scale contractor for the fortress. He ordered rye grain for the fortress and had the concession to transport goods from the train to the fortress by horse and wagon. My father employed a lot of drivers in this business.

The wagon drivers of Nowy Dwor were renowned in the entire region for their boldness and strength. The highway robbers didn't dare to try to rob them. If they did rob a passenger, it was only with the driver's approval.

Among the drivers was one who was a true saint, Yenkl the Driver, whom my mother would call “Holy Yenkl.” He was pious with God, honest with people, and good to his horses. He always fasted on Thursdays. When asked why, he answered, “So that my horse will have more to eat.” Before daybreak, he would run to the besmedresh to pray, before harnessing his horses. He would recite the psalms holding the reins in his hand.

Every Saturday night, Yenkl would go from door to door, to collect alms for poor sick people. When someone complained that he didn't have the money for a dowry to marry off his daughter, who was past the age for marriage, Yenkl would console them that God has a special treasury set aside to marry off children. But Yenkl himself had an unmarried over–age daughter, because he didn't have the money for a dowry.

Yenkl never used a whip on his horses. “The horses,” he would say, “work and sweat for me, to give me my living. Should I then also beat them? If I were a rich man, I would put them out to pasture, to let them rest in their old age.”

Yenkl had great compassion for animals and when he heard that someone had poisoned my father's six horses, his sorrow was indescribable. Yenkl discovered who had committed the terrible crime against God's dumb creatures, but when he wanted to turn over the names, they threatened him that his own horses would meet the same fate.

Yenkl had a son who was not a driver like his father, but a gifted student. Yenkl wanted him to become a rabbi, so that “he would earn me a place in heaven,” but it was not to be. The son died of burns, after having scalded himself in the bathhouse.

Yenkl was our family friend and I witnessed his despair when his hopes of having a son who was a rabbi were dashed. And when my mother consoled him, Yenkl said that God had taken away his son as punishment for not giving over the names of the men who had poisoned my father's horses, out of fear for his own livelihood. That was Yenkele's way and manner of living. He was, like the other Nowy Dwor wagon drivers, a simple Jew who gained merit before God through acts of courage and defense of Jewish honor.

At the start of the 1880's the Russian pogroms reached Warsaw. The Polish pogromists did not do their work by slitting people's bellies like the Russians, but in a more refined manner, as befitted such “gentlemen,” by looting people's property. The Polish hooligans attacked the “Nowy Dwor courtyard” in Nalecza ( #11 Nalecza Street, where the wagons and omnibuses used to stop and where the drivers had their inns, shops and even a small synagogue.) But the wagon drivers fought back, wielding their wagon shafts as weapons and the pogromists had to retreat.

The same thing happened in Nowy Dwor itself. When they expected an attack in town by the peasants from the region along with the town hooligans, it was the drivers who stood watch and protected us. That night, I remember, none of the Jews,

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children or grown–ups slept. Our house stayed open – the guards kept dropping in to warm themselves with a glass of tea. Every guard carried a piece of iron or another weapon, in anticipation of the pogrom.

Even Yenkl the driver did not rely on saying psalms that night, but stood in front of the synagogue holding an iron bar. His comrades, the other drivers, protected the houses of the Jews of Nowy Dwor and Yenkl protected the house of God.

*

It was 1913, and I was back in my town, having come to Nowy Dwor with my wife, the actress Clara Young. It had been 27 years since I had last seen the town. I wanted once more to see the mountain I had sledded down, the river at which I had studied with the rabbi Hersh Ber Tik. I wanted once more to hear the lovely melody used in reading the gemore that had given a Jewish boy the desire to study. I wanted to see the Narew where I used to bathe in summer; the synagogue with the desk where the Torah is read, where Khatskele Shames called me up for the privilege of reading the last part of the Torah portion; the besmederesh with its cupboards full of books. I wanted to be once again in my father's house, in the room where my mother had whispered for the last time the prayer shema yisroel.

As we approached Nowy Dwor, the first thing I saw was the woods where I would walk every Saturday afternoon. Every tree greeted me and reminded me of how I would lie in the shade of a tree and read “Ahavat Zion,” [“Love of Zion,” early Hebrew novel.] I had shot an arrow into another tree there when my teacher took us into the woods on Lag B'omer, and we boys held a wooden bow in one hand and a bag of raisins and almonds in the other.

When we drove past the Polish Catholic church I remembered how a Christian boy had shouted at me to take off my hat, and when I didn't obey, snatched it from my head.

When I trod the ground of my town, I felt as if my feet had gotten lighter, younger. And I wanted to run through the streets. When I went out to look around and came to the market place, all of Nowy Dwor already knew about me, the actor, and the actress Clara Young, and people surrounded me to say hello. Everyone introduced himself and when I inquired about their grandfathers, the answer was always, “He died.”

The road to the besmedresh was still muddy, still unpaved. We passed the house of Avigdor Melamed, where I began learning Gemore, where 8 boys sat on long benches around a long narrow table with the teacher at the head, his whip at his side.

And when I got to the besmedresh, I saw from a distance Khatskele Shames. “Boaz,” he said, sticking out his small hand with a warm greeting; “Don't you recognize me?” Twenty–seven years had passed and Khatskele

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was still the shames in Nowy Dwor.

I wanted to take in the whole town in the space of an hour, and we entered the besmedresh. Only a generation ago, you could hear the melody of the reading of the Gemore even outside the besmedresh. But when I entered now, it was silent and empty. A single Jew stood at the book cupboard, looking at a book. And I never got to hear the melody I so wanted to hear.

When my brother noticed my disappointment, he said: “The young of Nowy Dwor have exchanged the melody of the Gemore for the Bundist anthem.”

 

A Rabbinical Court Case Between My Mother and Father

I won't, God forbid, speak ill of my father, but one may always speak the truth. He was a very hot–tempered man and unapproachable to his children. My mother, with her tact and careful handling of him, would restrain and calm him down.

He was a very strong man, tall with a broad face and a reddish blond beard. When Tsar Alexander III visited the Modlin fortress, I saw in him a strong resemblance to my father. My father could bite a coin in half with his teeth and it was even said that he could lift a table with his teeth, while a person was sitting on it.

My mother, a very saintly woman, was entirely different, weak, thin, but full of spirituality and piety. She knew a bit of Hebrew, even some Gemore, especially the agodes [legends]. She would pay one of her brothers 30 cents for every page of Maharsho [Talmudic commentary by 16th century rabbi Shmuel Eidels] that he could recite by heart.

She had many virtues. She gave alms anonymously, and it was because of that, that she went before the rabbinical court with my father. She had on her “list” 30–40 poor people in Nowy Dwor, and so that they wouldn't have to stand and beg at the door, she distributed the “work” among us children, having us bring her donations to the homes of the sick and poor.

I was responsible for ten poor people and every Sabbath evening I would bring them a quart of flour, a pound of meat and 50 kopeks. As directed by my mother, I set the package by the door, announced it by knocking on the door, and disappeared. Many times, as I was leaving, I would hear how they blessed me.

My mother gave this charity without my father's knowledge, and there is a saying in the Talmud that charity given by a wife without a husband's knowledge is not credited to her in the world to come, because everything that a woman possesses belongs to her husband and to take it without his knowledge is like stealing.

My mother knew about this and because of it was in a dilemma. Should she tell her husband how much money she gave to charity? After all, he was very hot–tempered. But if she didn't tell, she would lose merit and her proper portion in the world to come.

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But my father found out himself about the money his wife gave to charity, and since there was no other choice, he demanded that she should “transfer” to his account all the mitzvahs [credit for good deeds] and the portion of the world to come she had earned with his money.

My mother was very upset. She could not believe that this materialistic and hedonistic man would suddenly want to accumulate mitzvahs [merit for obeying religious injunctions and good deeds.] My father wouldn't even agree to my mother's suggestion that they have the matter decided by her brother Yosl. She asked our friend Yankele the wagon driver for advice and he advised that she and my father submit the matter to the rabbi.

When the rabbi sent Khatskele Shames to summon them to his court, my mother said to me, “Come with me to the rabbi, Boaz. Father took Yenkele as his defense attorney; you, Boaz, bring luck. I have you to thank that I can now help poor people. Come with me to the court.”

My father's complaint before the rabbi was that my mother had already accumulated enough mitzvahs on her account. “Rabbi,” he said, “even before I married her, she had already earned herself a place in heaven. Because when her parents wanted to break off our engagement because I had shown myself to be too crude, she did not allow it, so as to spare me the embarrassment.

“When I wanted to send her to the health spa at Sokatshinek to heal her sickly lungs, she said to me, ‘Avraham, that must cost a couple of hundred rubles. Let us better give the money to Yenkele for a dowry for his daughter.’ I have to tell the truth, rabbi, and I admit it to you, too, Yenkl, that I didn't want to give the money for your daughter, I couldn't bring myself to do it, but she prevailed.”

My father turned from the rabbi to Yenkl: “I now know, Yenkl, where you got the money to buy a new horse when your old one died. She, Hene Freyde, my wife, she gave it to you.”

“So,” he again addressed the rabbi, “hasn't she already earned her place in heaven? But I'll arrive in the world to come completely naked, without any mitzvahs.” My father burst into tears: “Rebe! I even cut my prayers short to run off to take care of business in the fortress. I am the gabai [administrator] of a prayer group and this whole year I haven't had the time to participate in communal prayer, to say even one chapter of Psalms. Shouldn't I at least get credit for the charity she distributed to the poor with my money?”

When the rabbi asked my mother what she had to say, she made her case: “It's true, Rabbi, I know what is written, but God has rewarded him many times over for his charity. The more charity I gave, the richer he became, and he has gotten enough of the goods of this world in return for his money.”

“Avraham,” my mother said, shaking her head in shame. I know everything, I have been sick since I had my first

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child, and my days are numbered. Any day now I will have to stand before the Eternal One.”

Here, she turned to the rabbi,: “But he, my husband, is only 45 years old, healthy and rich. He still has time to perform a lot of mitzvahs and good deeds. I've suffered enough troubles in this world. Let him at least not begrudge me after death.”

I now saw my father as a bandit who wanted to rob my mother and I wept bitterly. The candles burning on the rabbi's desk started to sputter, and when the rabbi tried to trim the wicks with a scissors, one candle went out and only the light of the full moon illuminated the room.

The rabbi, his head leaning on his hand, stood up in the middle of his deliberations and said, “It is written that the heavenly court does not issue its judgment until the earthly court has carried out the ceremony of honoring the moon. Come, let us go outside to greet the moon. When we returned to the rabbi's room, we found my mother at the window, reading a book by moonlight.

We all sat down and the rabbi said to my father: “Avraham, you know that when God created the world, the angels asked him, ‘Why do you have to create man?’ God answered, ‘You will see how man will sacrifice for me with his deeds.’ You, Avraham, didn't even want to sacrifice your money to do a mitzvah, but she, Hene Freyde, your wife, she perhaps sacrificed her life for Yenkele's daughter. It's true, you had the right not to allow this, it was after all your money, but I ask you, Avraham ben Yehuda, do you still stand by your demand?”

My father was silent and then the rabbi addressed my mother: “Hene Freyde, Avraham's wife, are you willing to transfer to him a portion of the world to come?” My mother, without deliberating, went over to my father and said innocently, “Avraham, my husband, you have been my partner in this world for almost thirty years, so be my partner in the world to come as well. Let the rabbi write the document and I'll sign it.”

When the rabbi had finished writing and my mother and the witnesses had signed, the rabbi handed the paper to my father and said, “Avraham, remember, hide this in a chest where you keep your most precious possessions.” Yenkl said, “Avraham, give it to your wife, the saintly one, let her keep in the chest with her jewelry.”

 

My Mother's Will

When my mother brought me to kheder for the first time, she said to the teacher, “Reb Fishl, he is a lucky one, he will bring you income.” I don't know whether he in fact gained much income because of me, but I also don't remember that he ever punished me for not doing so.

I was not a genius, but at seven years old I was already studying Gemore and Tosafos [Talmudic commentary] and at age 12, they had already sent me to Janove, where my brother had gotten married, so that I could study with the rabbi there, along with three other boys who were 17 years old. When I returned home from Janove, my mother was already in her final hours.

Candles were burning and all her children were gathered at her bed. I stood near her and recited chapters from the book of prayers for the dying and deceased. More than 60 years have passed and I can't forget that time. I have already witnessed the deaths of many people but never have I seen such faith that only the body dies, the soul lives on, that

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soon she would fly to the place where God's angels will greet her and take her to the eternal world.

Her eyes half–closed, her lips dry, my mother mumbled psalms, pronouncing clearly the phrase, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” When she felt that her last moment had come, she set her glazed eyes on her eldest son Shmuel, signaling him that he should take her will from under her pillow and give it to my father. Then with her last breath she whispered shema israel and with a smile on her face departed this world.

When my mother was already lying on the floor covered with a white sheet, my aunt said to me, “Boaz, go over to your mother and tell her to intercede on your behalf before God.” I was certain that my mother would succeed in obtaining from God anything I might ask for, so I bent down and asked my dead mother to ask God that I grow up to be a good Jew.

Following my mother's wishes, we opened her will before she was buried. All her children stood around the purification board on which she lay, and my oldest brother Shmuel read the will to the curious audience. She requested that on her yahrzeit [anniversary of death], her children should study Mishnayes and a minyen [quorum of ten] should recite psalms; that for the year after her death her children should dress in a Jewish manner; and she forbade any of her children from naming a child of theirs after herself, because she knew that they would change her Jewish name Hene Freyde to [the Polish] Helena.

She requested that my father support Yankele the wagon driver and that on every yahrzeit he should distribute at least 50 rubles to the poor to whom she had given charity. My father shook his head at this. His grief was indescribable. We had never seen him cry, but now at my mother's grave the tears poured from his eyes. This strong man had completely broken down.

Of all my mother's requests, only one was fulfilled: None of us named a child after her.

 

I Grow Up with a Stepmother

As soon as the thirty–day mourning period was over, my father brought home a pretty, healthy, middle aged women and her three children, and introduced her to us as his wife, our second mother.

Many years later, I played the role of Shmuel Leyblekh with Jacob Adler in Gordin's “The Wild Man.” Adler asked me, looking at my makeup and clothing, why I had made myself look even taller and heavier than I was. I tried to explain that the taller and heavier I looked, the funnier it would appear to the audience when later in the play Shmuel turns into a henpecked husband to his second wife Zelda. But the truth is, I was copying my father, the giant and tyrant before whom everyone trembled, and how he became a weakling in the hands of my stepmother.

My father, that strict, severe person, appeared comical when his second wife smiled at him. In her hands he became as soft as dough and she could get him to do anything she wanted. In fact, under her influence, he transferred to her ownership of all his buildings, despite the fact that she already owned a five–story building in Warsaw which she had inherited from her first, old husband.

And so we grew up together in one house – 8 children; my father's five and my stepmother's three.

I studied in the besmedresh with moyre haroye [rabbi or religious judge] Hersh Ber. Reb Hersh Ber had

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a thick head, but he was a devoted scholar who could spend 24 hours in one spot studying. The maskilim [enlightened, more modern Jews] said about him that he became a moyre haroye not because of his intellectual ability but because of his sitting ability. He was always looking through religious texts.

By this time, I was somewhat of an apostate. It was my friend Khatskl Berman who had influenced me to become one. One Saturday afternoon in the woods he gave me a novel by Shomer,[1] the first novel I had ever read. Later, in America, I read Sholem Aleichem's pamphlet, “Shomer's Verdict” which tells what happens when Shomer is brought to judgment before the heavenly court for the stories he wrote, which were read by housemaids on Sabbath. I was very offended at Sholem Aleichem for making fun of Shomer. Shomer's novels gave us boys our first stimulus to read; his “Bird of Paradise” turned me into a reader.

It was only after that, when I learned about the book “Ahavat Zion,” [Love of Zion] that I learned Hebrew, in order to understand it. And after “Ahavat Zion” I read Jules Verne's “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” which our teacher, Frenkl, had translated into Hebrew. And then I came to Shakespeare.

It wasn't only young boys and housemaids who read Shomer in those days at the end of the 1870's. My older brothers, who were already reading scientific books in Hebew also got pleasure from the Yiddish book, “The Bloody Adieu.” When I read “Sins of Youth,” I went to the woods outside of town with a boy who was six years older than I. His name was Isaac Yenkl Lubratski (His father was in the actors group of Dave, Fanny and Golda Lubratski.) I already considered myself an apostate and started to smoke a cigarette on the Sabbath, but when I went to strike the match, I found I couldn't do it. With every puff on the cigarette, I felt as if someone inside me was pulling at my soul. But by my second Sabbath cigarette, I was already enjoying it.

There was a man in Nowy Dwor, who was known as an apostate. They called him “Dead Hershl.” He was tall and thin and the black beard surrounding his pale face gave him the appearance of a living corpse. Hershl was a teacher, a writer of petitions and very intelligent and refined. On Saturdays, during the reading of the Torah, we boys would leave the synagogue and drop in on Dead Hershl to have something to eat. Once, when I had eaten onions at his house and then returned to the synagogue, I heard them calling me up for the privilege of reading the last part of the Torah.

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The person who was reading that Saturday happened to be Khatskele Shames, who was so small that his pipe stem was as long as he was, and he couldn't reach far enough to put a match to his own pipe. But he was very adept at the trials in the rabbinical court. He could maneuver both sides, so that everyone was satisfied, and he would get paid a fee by both sides. We called him the “common cause” shames because he was in good with Hasidim, misnagdim [Ortohodox opponents of Hasidism] and maslikim [less traditional, more modern and secular Jews] alike.

When I went up to the reading desk and began to make a blessing over the Torah, I saw that Khatskele was looking at me with his little eyes and pulling at his nose. When I finished the blessing he said “Amen” as if he were saying, “So that's what's been going on.” I quickly finished up the reading and wanted to get out of the synagogue but Khatskele stopped me and said: ”What, Boaz, do you deserve the privilege of reading the Torah after what you've done? Well, God will deal with you for eating in the middle of worship, but for not rinsing your mouth, so that people don't have to smell the onions near the Torah – I'll settle with you for that.”

 

“Nimble Fingers”

There were two young brothers who were known in Nowy Dwor as bad guys. They weren't orphans, they had parents, but they grew up to be delinquents, thieves, and pimps. For obvious reasons, I'll refer to them as Distracter and Nimble Fingers.

Distracter was a bungler of a pickpocket. They would catch him before he even tried to put his hand in someone's pocket. So he became a helper for his brother. He would distract people at the market place so they wouldn't have time to see what Nimble Fingers was doing.

Nimble Fingers was a whiz at pick–pocketing. He was so skillful, so delicately would he pull the purse of money from a mark, even when the mark had put the purse under his vest. As if by magic, wallets, purses, and diamond pins made their way into Nimble Fingers' pockets. He always carried a sack in one hand and used it to hide his other hand as it did its work.

Many years passed, and one day I suddenly saw Nimble Fingers standing on Second Avenue in New York. I stopped to talk; after all, he was my townsman. Nimble Fingers had no idea what to do with me.

“I hear you've become a big actor in America,” he said, winking with his shifty eyes.

“And what do you do in America?” I asked him.

“I don't work in pockets anymore. I work with safes.”

“With safes?” I repeated, not knowing what he meant. “You work in a factory where they make safes?”

“No,” he answered. “I work on safes in houses, and the policeman stands outside to keep watch in case someone comes. I also have two “mares” [slang for prostitutes] who work for me,” he boasted.

“What do you mean – mares?” I don't understand.”

“Then you're a fool, a sucker. After all, you're an actor, don't you know what I mean?” He asked me, “Where do you live?” like a good friend.

“On Fifth Street, at Avenue B.”

“He repeated, Fifth Street at Avenue B,” and added, “On the third floor, do the rear windows look out over a synagogue?”

“Yes, yes.” I was surprised. “How do you know that?”

“Just like that,” he said.

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“You, Boaz, live there? I was going to pay you a visit tonight. I was told that you could find diamond earrings there, a little cash, and other stuff. Well you can rest easy now.”

That was my encounter with Nimble Fingers in New York. When I went to Buenos Aires in 1929, I again saw Nimble Fingers in the crowd of people who came to meet us at the ship.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“What do you mean? I read in the newspaper that you and your wife Clara Young were coming to Buenos Aires, and I'm after all a townsman of yours, so I came to the ship to greet you.”

I was embarrassed to be seen talking to him for too long. I thought to myself that here in Buenos Aires he must feel like a fish in water.[2] Two weeks later, we began to perform in the theater. Near the cashier I saw Nimble Fingers in the company of three women and two young men. I thought to myself that they were there to buy tickets. “Shapshavitsh (Sholem Asch's hero) [a brothel owner in the play “God of Vengeance”] has brought his entire brothel, with the tough guys, to the Yiddish theater. I tried to pretend that I didn't see him and I started to walk away.

“Come here, Boaz,” he cried after me. “I want to introduce you; I told them you were my townsman.” I had no choice and went over. “This,” he said, pointing to the older woman, is my wife, God bless her. These are my two dear daughters–in–law, this is my eldest son, a doctor, and this one will soon be an engineer.”

As I later learned, Nimble Fingers was a prominent man in Buenos Aires.

Taken from the book, “My Life in the Theater,” YKUF Press, New York, 1950.


Footnotes

  1. Shomer was the pseudonym of Nahum Meyer Shaikevich, an early Yiddish novelist, who was very popular among the Jewish masses, but reviled by contemporary intellectuals for his sentimental and fantastic style. Return
  2. This is an allusion to the fact that Buenos Aires was a haven for a large prostitution industry in which many Jews from Eastern Europe were involved. Return


In Tsarist Times

by Meyer Blake (Blakharov)

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

 

Two Graves Near the Fence

Nowy Dwor was immersed in fear and there was darkness in our souls when a small group of young people approached the preparation room at the cemetery in order to carry out the night–time burial of their comrade, who had fallen at his post in service to the liberation movement. This was the martyr Yosef, son of the military tailor Alter Ruda.

Many years earlier, Alter Ruda had moved from Nowy Dwor to Jablanna, where a large military garrison was stationed. There he established a large workshop and raised his two daughters, Rokhl and Sore, and his two sons Leyzer and Yosef. Alter Ruda dressed and behaved in a European manner, as did his youngest son Yosef.

Yosef always bore himself proudly, his head of black hair topped by a black hat, with a cape over his shoulders and a chain attaching his pince–nez to his vest – in the fashion of the intellectuals and revolutionaries of the times. A good–natured boy of 15, he worked in a store in Warsaw and there he chose his path as an activist in the revolutionary movement.

One winter day, when Yosef was carrying a package of illegal revolutionary material for the soldiers in the Jablanna garrison, the police stopped him as his was getting off the train. Yosef

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tried to escape, but the officer, who used to have his clothes made by Yosef's father, pursued him, shooting and wounding him, then shot him again several times in his father's house, to the cries and weeping of his parents, sisters and brother.

Because Jablanna didn't have its own Jewish cemetery, the body was brought to Nowy Dwor for burial. The funeral was held at night. It was attended only by his parents, some family members and some uninvited guests from the revolutionary movement. He was buried near the fence and when the last shovelfuls of dirt fell and there was grief and weeping all around, an old man approached the young people and broke the cemetery silence with the Biblical quote, “The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children.” [Exodus 34:7] Then, he pointed with his cane to a snow–covered tombstone, which stood at the same fence, quite close to Yosef's freshly dug grave. “Do you see that stone? There lies a young woman, a good daughter, who was killed by the grandfather of today's victim.”

Everyone froze; they had heard something about such an event, but who would have thought it was connected in any way to Yosef? And the old man continued with his story: “There once lived in the town a tailor, Yenkl Bahelfer, a respectable, prosperous man, who ran a large workshop for the garrison at the Modlin fortress, as well as a respectable, prosperous household. He always brought home a guest [for the Sabbath or holiday] and gave to charity. He had two daughters; the eldest, Zisl was a beauty and they were always afraid she would attract the evil eye.”

“But misfortune had its way. An officer of the garrison once left behind his revolver as a pledge [for money owed for tailoring]. Then came the tragic day, when Zisele was nursing her little daughter Khanele and one of Yenkl Bahelfter's apprentices, Borekh (in fact the grandfather of today's victim, Yosef) was fooling around with the shiny plaything, the revolver left as a pledge. Jokingly, he said to Zisele: ‘Zisele, I'm going to shoot you,’ and before you knew it, the baby had fallen from her mother's arms and Zisele was lying on the floor in a pool of blood, with a bullet in her forehead. And on top of this, so as to avoid having to deal with the authorities, they buried Zisele secretly at night, there, in fact, near the place –––”

“What happened to Borekh?” someone asked, curiously.

“I'm coming to that,” the old man said with a sigh. “I had worked with Borekh at Yenkl Bahelfer's worshop, but now they have both passed away.” According to the old man, “Borekh, the father of Alter Ruda, Yosef's grandfather, wandered around for years in despair, took upon himself the punishment of cutting himself off from the world and in spite of the weeping of his wife and children, packed up his prayer shawl and phylacteries and went off into exile, and we still don't know where he wound up.

“ The sins of the father shall be visited upon the children,” the old man repeated, and everyone left the cemetery in fear, looking at the two graves near the fence.

 

In the Tsarist Army

The first thing they taught the new recruits was the goosestep, an exercise in which each recruit marched slowly while looking at the ears of the person in front of him. You had to keep within the marks delineating a square, and when you came to a corner, had to stop and turn right or left upon the order of the commander.

Instead of looking at the ears of the recruit in front of me, I was looking

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at the mountain, which was reaching toward the clouds, wearing a snow–white yarmulke, while down here it was quite hot. The clouds swam slowly by, surrounding half of the mountain with their whiteness, as if the whole world had been dipped in peace and serenity. My eyes caught up in this lovely scene, I forgot I was a recruit and had to carry out instructions, and instead of following the lines and looking at the ears of the recruit in front, my eyes led me in the direction of the mountain.

Suddenly I heard a shout from the staff sergeant: “Blakharek, where are you?” Yes, this shout brought me back to reality. Yes, I am a soldier in the Tsar's army and will have to perform such exercises for almost three years. The Tsar gives me food and a uniform and sends me to the Caucasus, but not so I can enjoy the beauty of nature. Here, I can't go about as if in a dream, but must carry out orders and adapt to the life of the barracks.

*

The First World War broke out when I had barely a year left to serve. Our regiment was sent to the Austrian front, and shortly thereafter I was deafened in an explosion. Along with the other injured soldiers, I was taken to a hospital, where I remained for six months, until the head doctor decided I was fit to return to the front. In such cases, a soldier was assigned to a “reserve battalion,” consisting of soldiers who had “fallen out,” who didn't know where their original battalion was, or who were reservists, or who had been hospitalized.

My “reserve battalion” consisted of Georgian, Armenian and other Asian peoples. These soldiers were the most backward element in the Russian army at the time. Before we left for the front, a [Eastern Orthodox] priest came and gave a patriotic speech, in which he explained that we were now going to fight on Polish territory and we should know that we must fight not only the external enemy –the Germans – but also the even more dangerous internal enemy.

“You will easily recognize the internal enemy,” he said. “They are bearded creatures and behind every beard is a telephone which sends our military secrets to the external enemy. Many of these traitors are already hanging from trees in the woods, but not all of them have been captured. You must find them and exterminate them, because they are much worse than the external enemy.”

It was a long speech. The soldiers stood quietly, taking in every word with pious religiosity, as if they were in a mosque or church. Every word the priest said pierced me like a bayonet. I don't know if there were other Jews in the battalion, but if there were, I'm sure they felt the same way. Just think, I thought. I'm carrying a rifle and I'm going off to give my life for Russia, and here in my presence, they're inciting these backward people to kill me, and also to kill, rob and rape my people.

I thought of my loving mother, sister, and brother, and my dear girlfriend, whom I hoped to marry after the war. I saw before me all the Jews – young and old, with their varied appearances – whom I had encountered in all the towns in Galicia I passed through on my way to the Austrian front. They now came before me with their sad faces; none

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of them could see how I was trembling beneath my uniform. My soul was full of pity for myself and for the fate of all the Jews.

After the speech, the priest walked past the ranks and sprinkled holy water on all the soldiers. I was pained that a drop of it fell on me, causing my whole body to shudder as if hot tar had been poured on an open wound. The thought struck me that I shouldn't go with this wild, incited horde to the front. I shouldn't go, even if that would cost me my life.

*

The troop transport stopped for several hours in Baranovitsh. There, many of the men who had been cowards and deserters on the German and Austrian fronts suddenly became tough guys and started running wild. They tore the locks off Jewish stores, and robbed and attacked with abandon, without any interference or discipline from the battalion commanders. The town commander had actually called in Cossacks to control the looters and pogromists, but no punishment was imposed on them. On the contrary, the looters got away with entire sacks full of Jewish property. They didn't even consider that tomorrow they could be felled by a German or Austrian bullet and would have to leave their loot behind on the battlefield, next to their dead bodies. In the meantime, attacking and robbing was a special pleasure that gave them courage and was an expression of freedom for them.

In the midst of all this chaos, I hid in a Jewish house, in the hope that the troop transport would move on and I would be left behind. The Jew was, alas, afraid to hide a Russian soldier, a deserter; that would mean the death penalty for both of use. So I had no other choice but to go to the train station and somehow get out of having to go to the front with the pogromists.

When I got to the train station, it was late at night and all the doors to the train cars were shut. When the staff sergeant saw me he was very surprised that I wasn't with my platoon and after questioning me, pushed me up onto the departing train. Luckily, the train was moving slowly. After the train had travelled several viorsts, I climbed down from the turret to the wagon and hurt myself. When the pain had eased a bit, I began walking back to the station. There, I saw the same sergeant who had several hours earlier pushed me atop the train standing near me.

He asked me how I had gotten here and I answered with a question, “What are you doing here?” Our conversation took on a confiding and friendly tone. It turned out that he had a wife and children in Warsaw and he was very lonesome for them. I was very glad to hear this. I told him that I had had the same idea and so we two, Pole and Jew, became good friends.

Before long, a train with a troop transport arrived in the station, travelling in the direction of Warsaw. The sergeant advised me to remove the pass attached to my overcoat, so it would look as if I were his prisoner; otherwise, we wouldn't be able to get through the military guard. Not until we got off the train at the St. Petersburg station in Warsaw did he return my pass. We parted as friends and I never saw him again.

*

While serving on the front we knew very little about what was happening to the civilian population, especially the Jews. In towns with defense fortresses, like Nowy Dwor,

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the Russian army had driven out the entire Jewish population. My entire family was uprooted and now in Warsaw and I spent several weeks with them there.

Suddenly, there appeared large posters warning that any deserters who did not report at a certain time would be shot when caught. Warsaw was full of homeless Jews, the streets and courtyards were teeming with refugees from the Russian pogromists. All the Jews with their bundles holding the little property they had left took their chances and poured into the nearby big city. The roads were jammed with them; they filled the besmedroshim [houses of study] synagogues, courtyards. All of Warsaw's Jewish social organizations were involved in caring for them. It was heartbreaking to see the suffering of children and their parents.

To top it off, there were frequent police raids. Suddenly, groups of soldiers would storm in, shouting, roughing people up, rummaging through things, searching for deserters. And I, a sensitive fellow, could no longer remain in hiding. I left, reported myself to the military commander and he, without asking any questions, immediately shipped me off to the front.

Another Jew from Nowy Dwor, named Goldbrokh, turned himself in at the same time as I did. He had left a wife and children back home. A lot of young Jews had returned to the army because they didn't want to endanger their families, who already had enough worries and suffering.

As sad as our situation was, many of the young Jews held on to their faith. I felt this especially with my fellow Nowy Dworer Goldbrokh. It seemed that I was made of weaker material than he. I was completely resigned to my fate. But Golbrokh was full of faith, hope and a desire to live. He was always encouraging me, “Meyer, don't give up. Don't despair. A Jew must never lose hope. Take me as an example. See, I've left behind a wife and children, and I hope to God that I'll remain alive and come home safe and sound.”

He was like a real father; he forced me to wash, to keep myself clean in body and soul. “A Jew must look like a Jew and must not lose his likeness to God.” He motivated me to eat and strengthen myself. “You need strength to bear your troubles.” When I fell asleep, he would cover me with my coat and watch over me, as if I were his child.

When our train stopped in Vilna, he suggested we go to the besmedresh to pray. I followed him in this as I had with all his other suggestions. We went to pray in the synagogue of the Vilna Gaon. After prayers, I began to recite psalms, one chapter after the other; they poured out of me, and tears fell from my eyes onto my beard. I felt as if King David had written these verses for me, and for these times. My heart was aching and I saw in my imagination my father in old times, reciting psalms with all the other Jews. I remembered how my mother once asked me to please my father and go with him to say psalms on the second day of Shavuos. She was happy when I complied and spared my father shame and her heartache. As I said the psalms now I longed for my mother, wanting to kiss away her tears. For the first time, I resented my devoted friend Goldbrokh when he reminded me that it was getting late and we had to

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return to the troop. I complied, and as soon as we got back to the train, I fell down like a tree that had been cut with an ax, and fell asleep.

I then had a dream in which I was walking with my rifle and knapsack on my back when two Jews approached me, both thin, one tall and one short. They both consoled me: “Don't be afraid. Have faith. Your angel will protect you wherever you go and with God's help you will return home safe and sound.”

I related the dream to my friend and he smiled kindly. “I told you that God watches over us. A Jew must never lose faith.” From that time on, I was cheerful again. I ate, drank and was more courageous, to the point that my close friend couldn't believe the transformation of my soul.

*

When we came to the assembly point, I and my friend Goldbrokh were assigned to a regiment that would soon be sent to the front. Although the regiment was composed of the various nationalities ruled by the Russian Tsar, no patriotic speeches were made to them. As it turned out, these people were goodhearted souls and were especially good to me, because of my long red beard. It was because of my beard that they called me “Old Man.” When we had a difficult or dangerous assignment, they maneuvered things so that the Old Man was spared. This treatment by these honorable non–Jews restored my belief in the human race.

We served on various fronts in various areas. The enemy attacked from the right and the left, like a peasant cutting down hay. Finally, I was taken as a prisoner of war. After I was released, I returned to Nowy Dwor in 1919. IT was already under the rule of the new Polish state. There were new uniforms, new laws, a different kind of money, a new life. But the economic life of the Jews of Nowy Dwor hadn't changed at all. I felt as if I had returned from the other side of the Sambatyon [legendary river beyond which the Ten Lost Tribes were exiled].

I only now learned that my father had died in 1917. My mother was a gray–haired widow with two adult daughters and two adult sons. We had to rebuild our destroyed lives and find a way to make a living.

And my friend Goldbrokh came home safe and sound and moved to another town.

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now271a.jpg
Yisroel Yezhi Mundlak, an officer in the Polish army with his wife, Zelde, the youngest daughter of the Zionist activist Reb Itshe Meyer Mundlak.

 

now271b.jpg
A group of Jewish soldiers in the Polish army.

 

now271c.jpg
Zelig Bornshteyn, a Nowy Dworer immigrant to America, enlisted voluntarily in 1918 in New York in the “Jewish Legion” and then served in Serfenad, Eretz Yisroel

 


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Around The Nova Giorgievsk Fortress

by Kh. Shoskes

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

The woman who was my main heroine that summer – the daughter of Reb Khatskl Berman, later the head of the Jewish community –died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Her daughter Lyuba, a teacher, died in Polenitz. These two deaths occurred in 1942. But the story I want to tell took place in 1912.

I had just completed my studies in the realgymnasium [academic high school emphasizing science and modern languages] and an uncle of mine, Reb Khaim Ayzenberg, a wealthy contractor for the Modlin (Nova Georgievsk) fortress that was then being built by the Tsarist government, invited me to take a temporary job as a foreman at Fort #7 on the Vistula.

The center of the fortress wasn't far from the lively, active town of Nowy Dwor, but the fortifications around it stretched out for tens of miles, from Warsaw to Pultusk. Modlin was supposed to serve as a barrier against German attacks; the Russian government hoped that in the event of a siege the fortress could hold out for a year at the minimum. But it fell in 1915 after a three–day bombardment. And in 1939, during Hitler's blitzkrieg, it fell after a 48–hour onslaught.

But in 1912, when I was entrusted with control over the transport of sand and rocks from which they were building the walls of iron and cement around the concealed canons of Fort #7, we all believed the fortress was unconquerable.

*

For me simply coming to Nowy Dwor was a happy event. I was immediately befriended by the young people, who were more free and independent than in other places. The proximity to the fortress, the flow of money from the deep pockets in St. Petersburg to the Jewish contractors and from them to anyone willing to work, lightened the mood, taking away the constant melancholy of small town life and the worries about making a living. People laughed, joked and enjoyed life.

My job required me to start off on my bicycle at 6 A.M., and ride from Nowy Dwor to the place where they were building the fort. There I had to make sure that the rowboats bringing sand from surrounding towns were full, and that the stones were quickly transported in carts over the shaky rails.

I also had to see to it that the 14 horses under my purview received their proper rations – 10 pounds of oats and 20 of hay, so that they would have the strength to pull the carts. In other words, I had to keep an eye on a certain Reb Elihu, who had the keys to the storehouse where the oats and hay were kept. My uncle Reb Khaim thought that this Reb Elihu was stealing from him, and that he was feeding the horses straw instead of oats.

I was then very naïve and I couldn't believe that that Reb Elihu, with his long caftan and black beard, could steal from such a fine man as my uncle. I also quickly got sick of watching his hands while he was preparing the horses' breakfast. I preferred to look at the broad Vistula, where steamboats travelled from Warsaw to Plotsk, and at the green banks across the river, scattered with the wooden houses of the town of Zakrotshin.

A few months later, when the great fire broke out in Nowy Dwor,

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Reb Elihu's house burned up. My friend [Reb Elihu] lamented to me that his misfortune was greater than everyone thought, that stuffed in his oven were 2000 rubles in banknotes which he had gathered for a dowry for his daughters, that they had all burnt up, and that I shouldn't tell anyone about this; it was a secret. It was then that I understood that the dowry that had burned came from the oats that the horses didn't get to eat, and I began to look quite closely when Reb Elihu was distributing oats for the horses, to see if a new “dowry” was being gathered.

I also had to go to the Vistula to meet the boats loaded with sand and ground stone. I would go out onto the wooden bridge between the shore and the boat and measure the depth of the load with a long iron pole. The Christians who brought the material from nearby towns were initially surprised that I didn't take their word for it that the boat was fully loaded. Old Man Kovalski, a Christian with shifty eyes and with a false smile under his aristocratic mustache, even asked me if I needed a low interest loan; he'd be glad to help me out.

When I refused him and came the next day with the iron pole to measure the depth of the load, an interesting thing happened. Someone gave a tug at the board underneath my feet, and I fell fully clothed into the river. Kovalski and his sons jumped in to rescue me and pulled me out, scared to death. They stripped me, rubbed my body with hard, rough canvas. When I opened my eyes, I saw their smiling faces looking at me. Then I understood that I would no longer try to measure the load of such an “honorable” person as Kovalski and I would have to take him at his word. The removal of the board from beneath my feet taught me a good lesson.

When the sun went down, I would get back on my bicycle and ride back to town, where rare pleasures and events awaited me. There were my cousins Felix and Eduard (actually Fayvl and Edek), and our friends, the violinist Bakman and the young doctor Karbovski. There were also the lively, dark–eyed girls Brokhe and Rivke Mundlak, friends of my cousin Beyltshe. That summer, the circus was in town, situated in a large canvas tent. There a blond sorceress pulled colorful ribbons from her throat, pulling long enough to reach my cousin Edek‘s deep pocket, from which she started pulling his easily earned banknotes, intoxicating him with the skilled acrobatics of a gypsy love.

But for me a new star lit up my life, the loveliest star in town. On a spring evening when the apple trees were in blossom with dazzling whiteness and the intoxicating aroma of the bluish lilacs stirred the air and my blood, there appeared on the horizon a small sorceress with an ironic smile and a rosy face that looked as if it were carved from marble – the charming Vera Maksimovna.

I saw her for the first time at a reception organized by my uncle's eldest son Yankev Ayznberg. In his wealthy home, filled with musical instruments and artificial palm trees, one would meet guests the likes of whom I had never before seen in a Jewish home. There were Russian officers with silver epaulets, Polish doctors and pharmacists, as well as the professor of music, Sobelevski, who happened to be spending the summer in Nowy Dwor The lady of the house, Slava, had been raised on a wealthy estate, read world literature, and easily handled

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the colorful array of guest of various nationalities that filled her hospitable home.

The Russian officers were connected to the Ayznberg family through their construction work at the fortress. Because of the monotonous life of the military garrison, they gladly accepted an invitation to the home of a Jewish intellectual. Dr. Karbovski with his young wife, a Polish patriot, and the teacher Ruven Milner with his lovely brunette, Hebrew–speaking companion, also added a special charm to the gathering.

I, the newly arrived a student, was a special attraction. A fresh tenor voice had suddenly emerged from my throat, replacing the hoarse alto with which I sang in school. I myself was surprised when Professor Sobelevski told me to open my mouth and produce musical notes over and over, ah, ah, ah, continuing to encourage me with praise –slitshno, tsudovnie etc. I didn't believe my own ears. Not long ago I had been unable to sing the high notes when singing in the chorus and my fellow singers would explode with laughter when I crowed like a rooster. And now, just look at me; I'd become a soloist. The professor rehearsed with me and didn't ask a cent for the instruction. He said that I would be a star, if not in opera, then in the operetta theater.

When you're 20 years old and write passionate love songs, when you have pitch black hair, and sunny skies are reflected in your eyes, you believe in boundless possibilities. I felt more confident and for the first time in my life I had a taste of being the center of attention.

One spring evening, I stood before a select group and sang Pushkin's barcarolle and [Stanislav] Manyushko's waltz. Especially pleasing was the last song in the Russian translation and at the end, as Professor Sobelevski had taught me, I stretched out my arms and sang:

Oh come to me, my true one, Lovingly and free

There slowly emerged from the group of officers and civilians a short young woman with a serious expression and an ironic look in her eyes, who provocatively said, in perfect Russian, “If you are calling me, I am here, a true friend, loving and free.”

I already knew that this was the eccentric divorcee, ex–wife of a doctor with whom she had lived several years in Siberia, and that she had left him suddenly, taking with her their little girl. She had settled in Nowy Dwor, where her father's prominent family lived. She had rented a private house set in a thickly planted garden on the banks of the Narew, where that river merges with the wide Vistula. I also knew that several Russian officers from the newly organized air regiment were her friends and she strolled with them in the evenings on the road that led to the train station. But I had never been introduced to her. The bold step she had taken when she addressed me with the words of Manyushko's song surprised me. I was 20 years old and had never had anything to do with a woman of this diabolical nature.

Afterwards, we left together and I accompanied her home to her isolated house on the river bank. But she didn't want to go inside yet, and suggested that we walk in the direction of the town gardens on Warszawska Street. And so we walked for hours on that spring night and with amazement I got better acquainted with this unusual woman who was a mixture of a student of Nietzsche, and Octave Mirbeau's

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demonic Madame Sappho. Around us the apple trees bloomed and their branches heavy with white blooms suffused the air with the aroma of unspoken hope.

*

We strolled, I and Vera Maksimova, over the sleeping streets of Nowy Dwor. She said somewhat odd things which sounded both harsh and promising. “I was thinking today about what you were singing and I don't know yet if you are truly a man or were just reciting the words. I just recently decided that the place by my side is vacant. I have just gotten rid of Captain Vasilyev, who has become too romantic, too sentimental, and while he may be a flyer he is not an eagle, but a bat. Only people with strong characters are entitled to love, to tenderness; that's what Nietzsche teaches us.

“You probably know that I abandoned my husband in a Siberian town because he would cry when I came home late at night. He was jealous of the young poet Teodorov who liked to read steamy love poems in freezing weather of 60 degrees [below zero, Celsius]. But I detest both things: love in freezing cold and jealous tears in the bedroom. Get this into your head, you black–curled lad, with the look of a Caucasian murderer. And maybe what I like in you are your contradictions. You should know that I live beyond good and evil, that I like to live dangerously.”

Something in me started to rebel. My youthful pride couldn't tolerate the insolent tone with which this little dynamo spoke to me. Filled with anger I said to her: “I don't know very much about the teachings of your rabbi, Nietzsche, but I do remember a saying of his: ‘If you're going to declare your love for a woman, take a whip along with you.’ [sic] It's a pity I don't have a whip with me now.”

Vera stopped suddenly, seized my hand and stammered with restrained suffering:”So that's how it is, my young friend. You have bared your claws, like a bird of prey. I think we're going to be friends. What a splendid summer awaits us.”

The summer was in fact stormy, full of cloudbursts and sunny days. But we did not become friends. A war flared up, in which masculine pride competed with the traitorous strategy of a tiger concealed within the captivating form of a woman. My whole future, my life were at stake. But then how splendidly beautiful were the apple trees in bloom in that time between night and day.

*

In that summer of 1912 when I was an inexperienced 20 year old boy who had fallen into the hands of a woman with half–enchanting, half–sadistic tendencies, I also happened to make a dangerous flight into the air.

In various towns they would demonstrate, for a fee, how a machine that looked like an old fashioned chicken cage could rise into the air, turn here and there for 10–15 minutes and then miraculously return to earth to the stormy applause of an enthusiastic audience. I myself had a year earlier bought a ticket in my hometown Bialystok where the aviator Count Scipio del Campo demonstrated the art of raising up the chicken cage.

But in Nowy Dwor, in the area of the Modlin fortress, they had already made the first, not yet confident efforts, to transform acrobatic flying into a military weapon. Between Warszawska Road and the train station they had built a mysterious semi–circular building into which they had wheeled four small, pathetic airplanes. They had brought in several daring graduates of the St. Petersburg engineering academy and called all of this

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“the first flying regiment.”

Just how dangerous the job of a pilot was considered can be judged by the fact that the young officers were given, right at the beginning, the rank of Staff Captain, at least three ranks higher than other officers just starting their service. The summer that I was at the fortress three of the ten airmen died and two broke arms or legs after a bad landing.

*

I used to meet the air officers at Vera Maksimovna's house in the garden, even though she had told me at our first meeting that she was planning to “decommission” Captain Vasily Vasilyev, whom until then we all considered her intimate “seasonal friend.” Still I had a suspicion that their long–standing love hadn't yet rusted away. For me, with my then raw, unbridled temperament, it was painful to endure the thought that another man stood between me and Vera. When we were alone, there were plenty of stormy scenes over Vasilyev, but Vera would neither deny nor confirm my suspicions. Also, I would observe sometimes in Captain Vasilyev's eyes the flames of a wild antipathy to me, the young student who from time to time received the privilege of staying with Vera after the officers left.

But under Vera's steely cold gaze even the brave officer had to discipline himself. I recall the typical song that Vera would sing to the officer when he had too strongly stressed his desire to remain alone with her:

Oh Vasily, Vasele
You're a foolish fellow.

Vasily would press his lips together, bend over Vera's hand with a gentlemanly kiss and leave. It seems it was hard for him to learn how to live without this alluring woman.

One evening, when several officers and I, the new friend, were sitting around the table, on which stood flasks of liquor and wine, the usually restrained Vasilyev turned to me and said abruptly and jokingly:

“I've heard I said that Jews are called luftmentshen – they hang about and live in the air. We flyers are also air people, although, thank God, we're not Jews. So would you, Mr. Student, be willing to accompany me on a flight tomorrow morning as my passenger. Two air people flying and falling together, ha, ha, ha.”

A dead silence fell upon the room. It was a challenge to a competitor and a Jew. I felt such a rush of blood in my bones that I felt I would choke. I also felt Vera's predatory gaze upon me, and the mocking eyes of the other officers. My voice sounded angry and clear:

“I would consider your invitation a great honor, Captain, were it not for your insulting comments about my people. Withdraw your insults and we will fly together tomorrow.”

A Russian officer is not a Polish boor and Vasilyev got up from his seat, shook my hand, and said, “Oh, forgive me, please. It's all the fault of Vera's whiskey. But we'll fly tomorrow, right?” The test flight for a newly–arrived airplane was scheduled for 6 A.M. the next day. My cousins Felek and Edek came; I had made them swear that they wouldn't tell their father. Also there were

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Vera and her usual entourage of flyers.

When they rolled out the clumsy “cage” and Vasilyev crossed himself before climbing up, I felt such deep fear that I wanted to spit on it all and run away. But that was unthinkable. They were already helping me to climb up into the plane seat behind Vasilyev, then they belted me in with two broad belts, so I wouldn't fall out, God forbid.

Then the plane was moving across a field with hillocks and holes and every shake turned my innards inside out. We started to climb. I shut my eyes and with a quiet prayer, gave myself up to my unavoidable fate. The 15 minutes that we flew over the fortress felt like an eternity.

I saw beneath me the red brick towers along the Narew and the military boats below and the Vistula and the bridge. Then I was thrashing about as if in a fever and if not for the secure belts, I would certainly have fallen out of the open “chicken cage.” Then all of a sudden I felt the wheels shaking as they rolled over the ruts in the field and they were releasing the belts and congratulating me.

Vera, beaming, warmly pressed my hand and whispered ecstatically, “You flew because of me? For me you risked your life?” And aware that I was alive, I answered in the same tone, “Of course, of course, it was for you.” And Vasilyev was forgotten and I heard Vera citing Gorky's winged words: “He who is used to creeping cannot fly.” [sic] “But you did fly and you did it for me.”

*

Over Vera's bed hung two portraits, one of Friedrich Nietzsche and the other of Knute Hamsun. Both of them then dominated the minds of the younger generation ––one [Nietzsche] with his daring Zarathustra aphorisms about the ubermentsch; the other with his deep analyses of the lot of small, suffering people. Who then would have expected that Nietzsche's devilish ideas would be transformed into the moving force of the insane murderer Hitler, and that Knute Hamsun would in his old age hitch himself to the Nazi wagon and besmirch his once great name.

Under Nietzsche's portrait, with his fly–away hair and disheveled mustache, Vera had inscribed Zarathustra's mad words: “I am the law only for my kind. I am not the law for all. I write for a race of people that does not yet exist.” And she would often speak to me in this manner – half–poetic, half ironic, the way she had been taught by the amoral misanthropic cynic Zarathustra and his thousand dazzling aphorisms.

At the time, I was writing romantic poems in Russian imitating [Konstantin] Balmont, and was also secretly in love with the veiled meaning of [Mikhail] Lermontov's verses. But Vera, with her great feeling for literature did not like my poetic style. “You think that only the beautiful, the true, is our goal in life. Nonsense! That's drivel! It is only the striving for dominance, for power, that is the highest truth and instinct in the world. Love and beauty come from power and joy and delight can grow only beneath strong wings. The weak, the impotent, do not know of beauty or good. Would you be capable of murder or theft in order to keep my love?”

This was an unexpected question. I tried to give an evasive answer, but Vera wouldn't allow it. She had to know; she was losing patience. I already saw the steely darkness in her gaze and the heard the icy cold of her voice. Again, I felt myself rebelling at the insult to my masculinity at the command of a small woman who had such a tight hold on me. I answered, “No! Certainly not! I would not only not

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be able to commit a crime for you (and here I switched from the intimate to the formal form of “you”) but I consider your question itself to be an insult to my intelligence and pride.”

We looked at each other like two angry hens. “Get out of my house! Don't ever again show yourself before my eyes, you feeble sentimentalist.” My head bowed, not looking around me, I left that house in the blooming garden where heaven and hell had intermingled and intoxicated me with new experiences.

*

One day, when I was standing in the field between the barracks and the train station, and had as usual, been asked to sing something, I chose the Manyushko song that ends in the words,

Oh, come to me, my true one
Lovingly and free.

Full of painful experience and anguish, I stretched out my arm in the darkness and sang the refrain. And as in a fantastical story, Vera stepped out from between the trees, moving slowly and languorously as at our first meeting. And as if nothing had happened between us, she answered me, singing,

Here I am, my true one
Loving and free.

A young man was walking behind her. As if in a dream, I heard his name: Sasha Evn–Tov from Warsaw. I knew the name; he was one of the owners of large art store on Leshno Street. Was this Vera's new passion? But she walked on, leaving him behind with all the others in the company and taking me by the arm she asked jokingly and mischievously, “To whom were you singing that song? Maybe that dark–haired Dine, who's as foolish as a cow?”

I was upset by her closeness and the secret sweetness of making up. I answered as Vera desired; my own will was too weak to oppose the new surge of passion that overcame me. We joined Evn–Tov in the small house by the river where in the time since I had last seen her, the roses and the spicy smelling blue jasmine had come into full bloom. Evn–Tov, who had brought her as a gift a beautiful porcelain clock, was deeply disappointed that another man had come in with Vera.

In the fashion of the time, a gentlemanly suitor had to be able to sing or to recite, and Evn–Tov recited with fervor the poem, “The Cursed Snake.” You could tell from his diction and expression that he was using the words of the poem to accuse Vera of having bitterly deceived him. He shouted in the thunderous desperate voice of a tragic actor:

She cast a spell with singing and speaking
With sinful kisses enchanted us both
In the heat of a summer's night

Evn–Tov expressed his grievances in the words of a poem. But Vera didn't take him seriously. She pretended not to see the deceived admirer and asked us to listen to a Yiddish song she had learned in the last few weeks since we had fought. A Yiddish song? “Who has visited you here and taught you a Yiddish song?” I was angry again.

“Oh, a couple of times a young poet from Warsaw, Menachem is his name, came here. He works as the night editor for [the Yiddish newspaper] Haynt [Today] and writes songs. And Vera sang in her strange non–Jewish Yiddish, where the “r” sound got rolled around under the tongue:

Oy, Nekhomele, open the door
I'm afraid of your father
Dearest, darling, open up
Nothing will harm you

And then she sang further about the mother,

[Page 279]

the uncle, the aunt. It seemed that the mysterious Menachem had taught her this song since that time we had fought. Many years later in New York, I met the poet Menachem Boreysho, the author of “The Peddler,” but he could not remember if his evening visits to Nowy Dwor justified my jealousy.

*

Something wasn't quite right with Vera's nerves. The great Warsaw specialist Flatau examined her and determined that she had to be hospitalized immediately and undergo a complicated “water cure.” But that required a lot of money, which she didn't have. I wanted to help her with my modest earnings. But they weren't sufficient. What to do? Where could I get the 100 rubles that were needed?

I travelled to Warsaw and met with Meyer the “Red,” a Jew who loaned money at interest, who gave a discount to young men from wealthy families who had run short. Meyer the Red wanted to give me the money. “Of course, why not?” He is soft–hearted. After all, isn't he a Jew? But he imposed a difficult condition: I had to sign the note with my father's name. This was a terrible trial for me: to falsify a signature–and worse, my dear father's – who had such trust in me. I knew I would repay the note myself, and my father would never learn of my criminal act, but I still tormented myself all night. I returned to Meyer to sign the false signature.

I got the money, and with mixed feelings of satisfaction and regret went to Nowy Dwor to tell Vera that she would now be able to go to the hospital. Vera trembled with excitement when she heard that I had committed a crime for her sake. She was totally transformed. Her nervous apathy disappeared before my eyes.

“Really? Really? Aren't you afraid of prison, of your father, whom you worship? You're willing to commit a crime for love of me? Finally, I see you as a mature, sensible, a good student of Nietzsche's.” Vera counted the golden coins and played with them. Her eyes filled with life and zest. Her voice had regained its youthful tone. A miracle had occurred; she had been healed within the space of a few hours, and all because I, this man whom she held in the palm of her hand, had committed a crime for her.

She didn't want to go to the hospital. She hated doctors. And she would rather spend the golden coins on enjoyment instead of giving them to the “devil.” That very evening we would travel to Warsaw, where so many attractions awaited us in the nightclubs “Renaissance” and “Aquarium.” What wonderful experiences we would have together!

And I was weak. Instead of ripping the coins from her small predatory hands, instead of repaying Meyer the Red, I went with her to Warsaw where the summer night devoured in sin the hard–won coins. And the next day, I suffered the “hangover” of remorse, the self–imposed punishment of fear for having forged the note. Vera was actually cured, but my own nerves were destroyed.

*

Several days after our carousing in Warsaw I was involved in an incident that could have cost me very dearly.

Opposite the garden in which Vera's house stood was a Polish bakery. When I would leave the garden in the early morning and go out onto the street, I would always see the Polish baker with his pointy mustache sitting there in his long underwear, petting the fur of a big yellow dog that would growl nastily every time I went by. I would hear the Pole saying to the yellow dog, “Get the Jew, catch the

[Page 280]

Jew.” I never even turned around to see if the dog had followed me. I didn't want to let the Pole see that I was afraid.

This scenario repeated itself too often, but it never went beyond threats; the Pole held firmly onto the dog, so it wouldn't attack me from behind. I kept a gold–colored revolver in the back pocket of my pants, and as soon as I heard the threats “Get the Jew, catch him,” I would immediately tug at my back pocket, as if pulling out the gun. The Pole had no doubt noticed my move, and had therefore for a long time contented himself with a “war of nerves.”

But that morning when my agitation about the loan was at its height, the Pole told the dog, “Get the Jew,” and let him loose at me. I immediately turned around and felt the dog's paws on my chest. Without a second's thought, I drew the revolver and shot twice directly at the dog's chest. The bloody carcass lay at my feet, but the baker in his long underwear came at me with a wild cry, holding an iron rod raised above his head, ready to split my skull. I hadn't yet lowered my revolver and I shouted at the scoundrel: “Go ahead, just try, I'll shoot you like I did the dog.” And holding the smoking gun, I slowly retreated from the dangerous street.

But the shooting had occurred on the territory of the fortress and, in addition, a Jew had shot the dog of a non–Jew. An investigation was launched. Police came to question me, and grilled my uncle. I saw that I was becoming enmeshed in a situation from which I wouldn't soon be able to extricate myself. My relatives advised me to leave town as soon as possible and return home.

I also realized that I had gotten myself stuck in a morass from which I wouldn't soon get dry. My relationship with Vera had oddly changed since she had regained her health because I had committed a sin ostensibly out of love for her. The deeply–planted seeds of a good Jewish upbringing sprouted in protest against the dangerous road I had started upon.

On a dark night, I set out for the train station, leaving behind the place where I had sinned and the diabolical woman who had provoked it. Autumn winds were blowing and the rotted leaves were spread over the clayey earth. As if in a dream on a spring night, I saw the white blossoms of the apple trees of six months ago. An entire epoch of my life disappeared when the train carried me to the warm home of my parents.

In the winter of 1913 I went up to the highest balcony of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, took out a photograph of Vera in her winter splendor, her mouth open as if singing, and tore it into pieces that scattered in the cold air of the French capital. Like one born anew, I set out on my chosen path in life.

From the book, “A World that is Gone.”

 

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