THE SCROLL OF MY LIFE
CHAPTER 25. DAVID (CHIRIQUI)
Arriving in the port I came upon much activity; porters were loading bananas on ships which carried them the world over. The trip cost me thirty-five dollars, which I had to pay in order to free my baggage, necessary for my first steps since my mirrors and the frames in which to frame them were packed there. Desperate, I turned to the leader of the expedition to request that he allow me to take out a few frames, because I did not have a penny with me. I spoke to him in a simple Yiddish, but from my gestures and movements he understood what was bothering me, and apparently moved by my forlorn condition, he allowed me to take away my baggage. On the spot I began to frame the mirrors, which I right away sold to the people in the port, earning one hundred dollars. And thus I was able to pay my expenses and the bill for my hotel, which was located near the port and where I stayed four nights. I later found a room in a small clay house for six dollars for an entire month.
From the moment I decided to become a peddler I saw myself the equal of all the others and allowed myself no more doubts. I wrote to my uncle and other Jews I knew in Panama to ship me frames, chairs, tables and beds, which I sold on the installment system, doing quite well. Always when I face difficulties there open within me new life-sources, new strengths, and thus I took upon myself a new occupation, like a person who throws off the burden of the past and prepares himself with young blood and a free heart for a long voyage, to be taken regardless of hardships.
I used to walk for kilometers in the new town, entering homes, stopping passers-by to offer them my merchandise for sale. The great majority shook their heads from side to side, but most did so with a friendly smile. Walking through the little streets of the town, from one clay house to another, I momentarily recalled the past. Had I imagined that my life in Panama would be like this? As sober as I was, I could not have seen myself in the skin of a peddler. True, my dreams had always been modest and I had not dreamed of wealth, but every dream contains its own riches and in contrast to the most modest dream, reality is always poor and gray.
It seems to me, however, that in the very first days I perceived the new reality and adjusted to it to such a degree that I was even impressed with my hitherto hidden talents. Sales went well, but not without much hard work. Evidently, I saw how strengths arose in me of which I had no previous notion. These strengths did not allow me to be crushed those days when tens of people indifferently passed by my proffered goods, and I did not even understand what they said or mumbled to me.
The work was hard, especially because I did not know the language, but overcoming the difficulties gave me a certain pride. Not for one minute did I feel demeaned by my new occupation. I did not lose my moral equilibrium and my sense of personal wholeness. This helped me maintain my stubbornness and I became more self-confident each day. There were days when I had no rest, but worked the streets and lanes. Every sale gave me strength to continue, not to let fatigue, the need to rest, get the best of me. With a fresh roll bought on the way I would often still my hunger and afterwards treat myself to a drink of cold lemonade. This repeated itself day after day, the same operation with my pack of goods. The load became easier to carry from day to day and it became easier for me to accept the constant refusals of passers-by and householders, the shaking of heads to signify No to my merchandise.
I recall having once read that there are birds who know that they will fall on their first flight and yet also know that they will indefatigably raise themselves to the sky and sing the trills that tell the small birds who have stayed behind in their nests about the open skies, the light that streams from the heavens, and about the food they are bringing. At the outset of my difficult struggle for existence, I compared myself to those birds in their maiden flight. I was calm, a lot calmer than during my first days in Panama, but I was aware that I must not become complacent. If my mood were to change, the slightest blow of an unanticipated event could rob me of the will to go on struggling. In such a situation, a single momentary blow of the smallest kind could wreck everything I had achieved in the course of days of tireless effort; could, God forbid, drag me into depths of despair such as lie in wait for people in a strange town in a strange land where I understood nothing people said aside from the figures of the prices on my goods.
After a while people started to come to me to place orders. Their faces were friendly, awaking sympathy and closeness. When I brought their orders to their homes, I felt like sharing in the satisfaction I was giving them. At such times I wanted not only to praise the quality of my goods to the buyer, but to praise him, his home, which was now prettier, but -- where did one find the Spanish words? I would often say all this in Yiddish. The buyer smiled at me and I imagined he understood what I wanted to say. I remember how a woman, after paying for a mirror, held it in her hand long as though she could not say good-bye to her own image reflected there. She was truly beautiful and her smile was one of pleasure. She said something and although I did not understand the words, I was convinced she was expressing her gratification. I felt, What a pity I could not understand the exact meaning of her words.
The longer I stayed in the town, the more my first impression of the inhabitants' friendliness and goodness was confirmed. This struck me from the start. Surely I was also affected by the fact that every person wants to have friendly relations with others. In all my years in Poland I encountered grim hatred on the part of the Poles. Here in this back-water Panamanian town from the very first day I felt on my own skin the sincere friendliness of the population. The average person in Panama demands from life no more than the natural joys which the earth, air and water, the four seasons, health, sunshine and love can provide. (111) People instinctively felt that hatred gives joy to no-one.
During the entire time I spent in the town and in surrounding towns and villages, which I used to ride around on horseback, my eyes were always hungry to see and to observe. My gaze took in not only the landscape but also the people of various classes and they attracted me even before we uttered a word to one another. Other Jewish immigrants, of whom there were very few in this town, felt the same way. There was an Egyptian Sefardic family which had immigrated to the Land of Israel. They had lived briefly in Jerusalem, but could not get established and came to Panama, where they had a small business in the town. I spoke Hebrew with them. These people wholeheartedly wanted to share their experience with me, so as to make it easier for me to get settled and to acclimatize myself in a new place.
After wandering about all day and, often, riding a horse in the surrounding area, I would sit in the park in the evenings to enjoy the fresh air, it being close and sultry in my little clay house. There I met people who wanted to talk to me; we understood one another very little, yet we felt close to each other. There was a Czech mechanic who spoke German and from him I learned some news of what was going on in town and in the world. I gradually learned more Spanish words, but too few to carry on a conversation or read a Spanish newspaper. Nonetheless, I heard news of what was happening in Europe, of a growing Hitlerism and the deepening crisis in America. All this reached us like a distant echo. People here had few needs and were for the most part satisfied with their fate.
I felt best with the family of Israel, a father and three sons, who had two dry goods businesses and spoke a little Yiddish. My first Passover they invited me to their seder. It was somewhat strange to sit at a seder-table with Jews who knew so little about how to conduct a seder. Moreover, one of the sons had married a Christian girl from a wealthy family. The youngest son, a boy of about sixteen, could barely ask the Four Questions. The family was from Russia and had some time before immigrated to the Land of Israel. According to what the father said, he had lived in an isolated place among Gentiles in Russia, also, and badly wanted to live among Jews, which is why he immigrated to the Land of Israel. However, try as he did, he could not get established there and by various routes had arrived here, as though he were fated always to be far from Jews. Materially he did well here, made a fortune, but did not cease to long for a bit of Jewishness. There were several Sefardic Jews who owned coffee fields in the region. The field workers were native Spanish-speakers, all Catholics. They called the Jews Turcos ('Turks') and I never met any prejudice there against Jews.
I used to have occasion to ride out over areas where the poverty cried out to you. I knew that it was hard to find a customer there and that the chances of selling even the cheapest items were slim. They reminded me how great the poverty still was in that country. You saw young mothers with children in their arms, dejected and broken human beings. Their men worked in the coffee and rice fields, earning little. A dollar was a lot of money there. They lived on maize. Rarely could they afford the luxury of white bread, and they did not even dream of meat. In that small land, whose population at that time was not more than half a million, a large percentage of the people was sunk in want. Work-hands were cheap. Despite all this, the people were as friendly to every stranger as they were to their own.
In this manner I spent more than two and a half years there, until something happened which tore me out of my congealed [condition?]. (112) And this is the story: It took place in a forsaken settlement about a hundred kilometers from the provincial center, David. I was riding through the area with my mirrors and among the houses I entered was a little one with Christian holy pictures on the walls. The truth is that in the course of time I had grown used to such houses, yet the madonnas, Jesuses and other holy pictures could still strike me as weird and somehow hostile to me, making me want to leave as soon as I could. It is no wonder that in this house, too, I had that uncanny feeling of discomfort, even though the householder received me in the friendliest manner. After chatting for a few minutes, I learned that he was a Hungarian Jew and could even speak Yiddish a little. Yet I felt that he, too, was sensible of the strangeness accosting him from his very own home.
It was oddly quiet in the room in which we sat. In a low voice he told me of his transformations ( gilgulim ) from Hungary to here, where he had slaved the first years. He had failed at everything (113) until he got to the coffee plantation. Now he was well established; he raised coffee. Indians worked in his fields. I felt that he had something to disclose to me, but apparently he could not express this in words. His face reflected embarrassment. A flustered pale smile strayed between his lips and from time to time he sighed. You sensed that something within him was oppressing him, but that he couldn't talk about it. Listening to him speak I was reminded of stories of the Cantonists in Tsarist Russia, children conscripted from Jewish towns and sent deep into Russia, to Siberia and the Urals, raised among Gentiles to serve as Nikolai's soldiers. Many of them forgot they were Jews. A coarsened demobilized soldier sometimes wandered back to his shtetl after an absence of decades, telling sad stories of the life of a kidnapped child flung far from home into a cold dark land of endless days and nights.
When I left that house my thoughts were strangely jumbled and I could not put them in order. Would I end up like that Hungarian Jew? Work and slave day and night, tie myself to a Gentile woman, and live in a house full of idolatrous pictures? How would I end up? ( Vos vet zayn mayn takhlis ?). In my mind I saw our home. Father's eyes were upon me, dunning, beseeching. His pleading voice echoed in my ears, " Be a Jew.... Regardless of what you have to live through, remember always to remain a Jew." Slowly my thoughts began to arrange themselves and the gnawing in my heart made them decisive. No, I would never allow myself to become like that Hungarian Jew! My decision was set. I would not stay here!
At that time I received a letter from Father. He had sensed from my letters that things were not so rosy, and had asked that I return home so that we could all be together. At about that time I flew to Costa Rica. After finding a hotel, I went out for a walk, hoping to meet Jews, locate a Jewish restaurant, get my bearings -- perhaps I would uncover some Jewish life here. I missed and was constantly in search of Jewish company. When Friday rolled around I missed being in a Jewish home, where Sabbath candles are kindled and the coming of the Sabbath is felt. My longing at such moments clasped me as with a pair of tongs. There were times when I saw myself as a prisoner waiting to be freed or as the Sabbath waiting to be redeemed....
One day I drove into a small town, a resort, where I met several Jewish store-owners. In one of the stores I encountered a Polish Jew. We were delighted to see each other and felt an immediate closeness to one another. I realized that settling down, striking roots, was not such a simple matter. Everywhere you had to look into things carefully. I had little in common with the Jews in that town. They all lived separate, half-sleepy lives, far-removed from Jewishness ( yidishkayt ). It always seemed to me that there was still some fierce storm I would have to pull through before the skies cleared for me. Everything depended on luck. Some were born with a silver spoon in their mouth ( geboyrn in a zaydn haybl ) and somehow got settled, but I was fated to slave, to overcome many obstacles, and who knew where and when I would succeed in putting down roots?
I recall a trip I made to San Jose by train. (114) I met Jews there and tried to talk to them to find out about the possibilities of settling there, of business and work. Suddenly a young man came up to me and said in a homey Yiddish, "You're from Semyatitsh, aren't you?" Something within me started. For a moment I wanted to embrace him, but answered, both moved and surprised, "I don't remember you from Semyatitsh. Where do you know me from?" The young man smiled goodnaturedly, "I am from Koseve, (115) where you used to come to get orders. I knew your father well and you take after him. You had an uncle in Kosove, didn't you?," the young man reminded me. Actually, this was a brief accidental encounter with a person I hardly knew and yet I have never forgotten it.
This is surely because I was terribly homesick in those days. The young man from Koseve returned me to my old Jewish home. He reminded me of the wedding which I had attended together with the entire family. The bridegroom had come from America and right after the wedding went back there with his fresh wife. The young man who had recognized me was the American's cousin. This meeting was somewhat exhilarating, but my decision to leave and to settle among Jews was a fixed one. My first thought was the Land of Israel, reaching there by way of Egypt. However, the Egyptian consul to whom I turned in Panama required that I have a British visa with a transit permit for Egypt. At the British consulate I quickly saw I had no chance of getting an entrance visa to Palestine ( ertsisroel ). My request was categorically refused.
I became depressed. I could by no means reconcile myself to the idea of remaining in an alien environment, far from Jewish life. At the same time I rejected any idea of returning to Poland. It was 1933. Reports from Europe told of the rise of Hitlerism, so strongly felt by the Jews of Poland. I still dreamed of swimming to the shore and rescuing my parents and brothers. During that time I met a Jew in Panama to whom I unburdened my heart, and he advised me to go to Bolivia. Eastern European Jews had already settled there at the beginning of the twentieth century, mainly from Russia, Jews fleeing the Tsarist and Bolshevik regimes.
Bolivia in those years was still a wild, primitive and backward country. For the majority of Jews who came there, Bolivia was no more than a springboard to other lands of settlement, such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. Of course, the Bolivian government was then interested in absorbing immigrants from Europe. They hoped their talents would help to develop the country, which was populated for the most part by Indians. The stream of immigration to Bolivia became stronger in the 1930s. Hundreds of Jews from Germany, Poland and Romania began to come there. Later the first Jewish association, "Circulo Israelita," was founded, which is today the Jewish community of La Paz. In 1933 Jews were received as "farm workers" ( erd arbeter ) and small communities in distant regions began to crop up. The Jews there were employed on farms. However, they hadn't the slightest inkling as to what farm work was about. Moreover, the climatic conditions were unbearable. In addition they struggled with financial difficulties, and thus nothing came of the entire Jewish "agricultural project." Therefore, Bolivia was not then much to my liking.
I dreamed of a Jewish atmosphere like that I knew from my home, with the stir of Jewish trade, Jewish labor, Torah-study and prayer, Hasidism and Zionism. Word reached me at that time of a Jewish life in Peru. True, I understood that it was still far from being the kind of Jewish life that we had in Poland, but the idea that there was a Jewish community there warmed me; I decided to go there.
Chapter 25 FOOTNOTES:
111) M.R. may have carried over from Poland the conception of four seasons, which of course Panama lacked, or this is an interpolation made by his amanuensis. Return to text
112) The typescript has farglive= and the next line, the bottom line of the page, is missing. The context seems to suggest that M.R. saw his protracted stay in Panama as approaching a kind of congealment, to escape from which demanded action and decision on his part. Return to text
113) M.R. writes alts iz im ongekumen mit grine verem , literally 'everything happened to him with green worms'. Return to text
114) A train trip to this city in nearby Costa Rica was possible and so I assume this is how to read the typescript's San Rasey [resh, alef, samech, ayin, yod]. Return to text
115) Yiddish Koseve = Polish Kosow [mark over the second o to indicate u-sound]. It is 50 kilometers northeast of Semyatitsh [Polish: Siemiatycze]. Return to text
CHAPTER 26. PERU
The procedure for getting an entrance visa was simple. The Peruvian consul in Panama asked me if I had five dollars and right away issued me a visa. Pleased, I boarded the ship for Lima. Until I arrived in Ecuador, I noticed no Jews among the passengers. It took nine days to get to Ecuador, where more passengers came aboard. The three Jews among them delighted me. The one I became friendliest with was Velvl Ziglboym [Velvel Zighelboim], a Bessarabian Jew. He simply radiated goodness. In the course of the five days that the ship sailed from Ecuador to Lima, I talked to him a lot.
We discussed the situation of the Jews in Europe, in Romania and in Poland. He knew much more than I did as to what was taking place. He told me about the Jews in Lima, about himself and his brother Leybesh. Both had been in Peru almost ten years and had already worked themselves up; they each had a small knit-wear factory and, as to income, he was not complaining. Our ship, the Santa Clara , (116) was American and it was neither large nor distinguished by its facilities, but during the five days I spent with Ziglboym [Zighelboim] it seemed cheerful and homey to me. His presence, the manner in which he related to me, encouraged me. I felt that in time this new land would prove a warm home to me.
Velvl Ziglboym [Zighelboim], indeed, took me straight home with him when we got off the ship. I ate my first breakfast in Lima at his house. Near him lived his brother Leybesh [Leon], one of the leading figures ( parneysim 'elected heads') of the Jewish community. It was lively in his house. Jews with all kinds of problems, personal and communal, would come to him. You saw in him a warm Jew and an active community leader. Both Ziglboym [Zighelboim] brothers treated me very cordially, and I felt their willingness to help me with advice or deeds. I spent my first night in a hotel near where they lived, but the next day Leybesh Ziglboym [Leon Zighelboim] found a Jewish pension for me and I moved right in. The owner of the pension was Felipe Goldberg. In introducing me to him, Leybesh Ziglboym [Leon Zighelboim] said, "He is a homey Jew. You'll feel good at his place."
It was true. I felt exhilarated after my first chat with him. As soon as I crossed the threshold of the pension, I breathed homey air, a hominess that emanates from peaceful and observant persons, efficient housekeepers who make sure everything is where it belongs, who do everything with a smile, with a wise saying or a helpful piece of advice, who feel for the newly arrived stranger hungry for a kind word to help him overcome difficulties and feel at home. It's true, I breathed that homey air with both my lungs, soaked in the domestic comfortableness that Felipe Goldberg and his wife brought into that dwelling. They let me have two rooms, one to serve as a workshop for my mirrors and frames, and the other as a bedroom. I felt how well these people understood me and therefore I was thankful to them. Now, too, I remember them with the same feeling of gratitude. In the course of my memoirs I will probably have further occasion to mention these people who assisted me in making my first steps, people who were prominent in the communal and cultural life of the Jews of Lima.
At that time there were five hundred Jewish families in Peru, three hundred and fifty in Lima and the rest in the surrounding towns and villages. The majority, about seventy percent, were Bessarabian Jews. A smaller group was from Poland and Lithuania, countries which waged a politics of persecution against Jews to make them feel like strangers, thus forcing tens of thousands to taking wandering stick in hand and go in search of an asylum in the world. This was not an ordinary migration, but an escape from a burning land, following wherever their eyes led them till they came to a country which would receive them in a hospitable manner. Today we know how good it would have been if all the Jews in those countries would have followed suit and fled the burning earth.
The Jews streamed mainly to Brazil, Argentina and Chile. In smaller rivulets they also went to Peru, where they benefited from the warm atmosphere and good relationship of the inhabitants. This restored all the life-blood to the Jewish immigrant and in time he established religious and philanthropic institutions, parties, and cultural-social organizations. When I arrived in Peru these institutions had already been founded by the pioneers of the community, who had taken upon themselves great responsibilities and had fulfilled them honorably. Here I met people I could talk to. We had meetings, theatre evenings -- in one word, a pulsating cultural-social life. At the outset the Jews underwent material hardships, as was the case wherever Jews undertook to establish a new settlement. As elsewhere, the Jews in Peru overcame the difficulties, began to settle down, and little by little organized themselves.
When I had already established myself and was involved in social activity, I would listen to the settlement pioneers tell of the early days when communal activity consisted of organizing a quorum for High Holiday services or helping some distraught wandering Jew from Europe find an asylum. Generally, such a Jew put himself on his feet. There were also instances when he became homesick but could not afford the passage home. The Lima Jews did not take offense or grow angry; on the contrary, there were always those who would offer help. They behaved in this way, too, when a sick or indigent family needed help to buy goods to sell, or to set up a workshop. Jewish hearts never remained cold to those in need. The stories the pioneers told me were moving accounts of how they rejoiced at the arrival of every additional Jew. They were glad to talk about all this. They described to us newcomers their early days of anguish and the endurance it took to stay put and not give up, but hope for better times and strengthen their positions. When I arrived in Lima, there was already a rabbi, a Jewish cemetery, a Zionist organization, and the beginning of a Jewish life which gradually reminded one of the old home.
I must again stipulate that in writing these memoirs, I cannot confine myself to exact chronological order of events. I have to let my mind roam freely and stop at whatever facts, events, experiences, memories claim an important place in my remembrance; these I record even though it may look as though I am going off on a tangent. Some of these episodes and thoughts may not seem meaningful to the reader, or they may seem, chronologically, to belong further on. However, since they control me at this moment of writing, I feel the need to free them by putting them down on paper.
In my first few days in Lima, I formed a picture of the struggle for existence there. Ninety percent of the Jews in Lima were engaged in klopn ('knocking'), which is what they called going with a pack of goods from house to house and knocking on doors. This occupation required a great deal of physical and psychological effort. In addition to physical strength you needed endurance, patience and faith. You had to believe in yourself and in people, not to be dejected, and you had to understand that a person wasn't only what he did for a living.
A human being is a human personality and often his life is more attractive and more interesting than the work in which he is engaged. Everyone knows from his own experience that you remember the person, even when you forget what he does. However, many people do have the prejudice that certain kinds of work, especially hard labor, lower a person. The Jews of Peru give the lie to this prejudice, as do many others whom I met in my life, in many cities and countries, who made their first steps, struck roots and grew. These were people who were not afraid of any kind of work. They endured every manner of absorption pain, work problems, social problems, and yet they preserved their humanity, their sense of a higher life, of Jewishness and humaneness.
When I arrived in Lima I did not, naturally, think about all these social problems which later occupied me. In those first days I, like every immigrant, was concerned with making a living. But caught up as I was in the stir of my new life I also felt the need for social activity, for getting closer to those people, most of whom worked all day at peddling, who met in the club in the evening for organizational and cultural work. In writing now of my start in Peru I cannot restrain myself from noting not only my purely personal experiences, but my involvement in everything, social and national [i.e. Zionist], connected to Jewish life in that land where in time I sank deep roots. I will surely have occasion to write more about these matters later. Now I wish only to record the positive influence on me, on my mood, of finding a well-organized Jewish community life in Peru. There lit up in me the hope that I had finally reached shore.
Not since leaving Poland had I ceased to yearn for a place to settle down in. In this I differed from others; their departure from home contained an element of attraction to far places. I often met such wandering youths who felt a pull to distant countries. In contrast, I was drawn only to Jewish life. That is what I missed in Panama and since I found it in Peru in the Jewish community, in the people I met upon arriving, I was very happy. And I had been in Lima for several days, in the capital of Peru, a city with colonial glory, with the proud remains of the former Empire of the Incas, with the gilded churches from whose cellars, hundreds of years ago, rose the cries of those tortured by the Holy Inquisition. I didn't think about any of this at that time. I walked the streets and the squares with my eyes open to the daily reality, looking for customers for my mirrors. I was familiar with door-to-door peddling from before and I saw myself as equal to all the other Jews. I did not let myself fall into doubt, but kept steadfastly on my path. (117)
Whenever I face difficulties, which always attend new beginnings in life, new life-sources, new powers come to me. And this is how I began my first days in Lima. I felt like a person who tosses off the burden of the past and prepares with young blood and a free heart for a long voyage. I used to walk for kilometers all day long with a heavy pack of mirrors. I went into homes, apartments, stopped pedestrians and offered my goods for sale. Most replied with a shake of the head from side to side, but they generally did so with a friendly smile. There were moments when my thoughts returned to the past.
When I left home, had I imagined my life in a new country in this way? As sober as I was, I never imagined I would be inside the skin of a door-to-door peddler. True, my dreams were always very modest and I never dreamed of wealth, but every dream no matter how modest contains its own riches and in contrast to the most modest dream, reality is always poor and gray, less than one imagines. However, already in my very first days on Latin-American soil I perceived the new reality and adjusted to it. When I recall that time it seems to me that I was even a little impressed with my talents, which were previously unknown to me.
Evidently, I saw how strengths arose in me of which I had no previous notion. These strengths did not allow me to be crushed by the difficulties, as for instance, when tens of people into whose homes I entered to sell my goods, remained indifferent, as though they were superfluous articles. I did not even understand what they said to me or mumbled. But I did not feel demeaned by my new occupation and I did not lose my moral equilibrium and my sense of personal wholeness and this helped me maintain my stubbornness and self-confidence, with hope for better times. Like every peddler I seldom rested, but walked up and down the streets and lanes, whole kilometers.
Every mirror I sold gave me strength to continue, not to let fatigue get the best of me. I recall having once read that there are birds who know that they will fall on their first flight and yet also know that they will indefatigably raise themselves to the sky and sing the trills that tell the small birds who have stayed behind in their nests about the open skies and the light that streams from the heavens. At the outset of my difficult struggle for existence, I compared myself to those birds in their maiden flight. I was calm, a lot calmer than in Panama, but I was aware that I must not become complacent for one moment, since with the loss of tension, the slightest unanticipated event could rob me of the will to go on struggling.
The work became easier every day. The mirrors began to seem lighter. I understood the people better. The longer I lived in Lima, the more were my first impressions of Peruvian friendliness and natural goodness confirmed. I saw this on the first day and subsequent days upheld this impression. Doubtless I was influenced by the fact that every person seeks in his later years that which he loved in his childhood. All the years I lived in Poland I encountered antisemitism. The Poles were poisoned with hatred and prejudices towards the Jews. In Peru I saw how the population related to the new Jewish immigrants, whom they called judios , with sincere friendship. I soon learned that news of what was happening in Poland, Romania and Germany had reached Peru, but the populace took no interest.
The average Peruvian requires of life no more than the natural joys which the Peruvian soil gives him, air, water, health, sunshine and love. (118) The four seasons of the year in Peru are mild and so are the people. They know instinctively that hatred brings joy to no one. During my first days and years in Peru my eyes were always hungry to see and observe. My gaze took in not only the landscape but also the people of various classes and they attracted me even before we uttered a word to one another. The other Jewish immigrants also felt this way. The life of the Jewish immigrants went on normally. Most of the immigrants from Poland and Romania had after all escaped from edicts and persecutions, and they therefore knew how to appreciate Peruvian hospitality. Jews here found their new home. The natural instincts of self-preservation and mutual aid were given free play and released the energy which had dozed in the old home, where it was not possible to leap over the barrier of poisonous hatred.
In the evenings I used to come to the club, where I met with simple and educated Jews, modern, and such as had come equipped with knowledge and life-experience. There were heavy readers among them and almost all followed what was happening in the old home, in Romania and in Poland, in the wide world generally, and especially in the Land of Israel. At the pension, I met Roberto Feldman, who made a good impression on me. He edited the Spanish-Jewish newspaper, Nosotros , (119) and with his intellectual temperament he used to stir people who listened to him. He always responded to questions of the day and Jewish problems. He was an authority on social questions and maintained contact with the Gentile intelligentsia in Peru. In his paper he dealt seriously with the issues facing the Jewish community and all sorts of social questions.
The President of the Jewish community, Arn Lerner [Aron Lerner], was a Jew who had come to Peru from Chile, a person with a warm Jewish heart who labored hard for the community ( kehile ), (120) around which ranged a number of institutions. There was a besmedresh where Jews prayed every day and recited psalms together. There were Jews who knew the cantillation marks ( taymey-hamikro ) and could read the Torah with the right melody just like in the old home.
Naturally, in the course of years one forgets many events, people, and occurrences, but there are always those persons and events who are unforgettable, and the truth is that in the unforgettable we find ourselves, our true selves, how we looked and experienced. I would say that it is a kind of gift in life to the soul, since the unforgettable of yesterday, of many years ago, is in a certain sense one's future, for it helps him overcome hard times and strengthens him, strengthens the human characteristic of relating gently to people and to their weaknesses, for what is essential is to feel warm friendship. People who extended a warm hand are remembered as are the moments when we so desperately needed it. Sometimes a smile, a kind word suffices and is remembered for it came at a crucial moment and also belongs to the unforgettable of yesterday.
No matter how preoccupied with earning a living, which was sometimes as hard as the Splitting of the Red Sea ( kries ya'msuf ), we always remained sensitive to a friendly word, humane treatment, a human gesture, even in ordinary business dealings, but more so in social life. Every meeting with a friendly person gave us pleasure. (121) That is how it was when I met Khayim Kirmeyer [Jaime Kirmayer], who had recently arrived from Tshernevits [Cernauti/Czernowitz], a city which I knew to be a great Jewish center ( ir voem beyisroel ). The name Tshernevits sounded Jewish. That is where a Yiddish language conference took place before the First World War. (122) A warm Jewish life pulsated there -- lively Zionist activity, great Yiddish writers and creditable cultural leaders.
Khayim Kirmeyer came to Lima with a background of Zionist activity at home and thus I immediately felt comfortable with him, as though I had known him for years. Before we knew it, we were both active in the Zionist circle of Lima. A typical Bukovina intellectual, Khayim Kirmeyer was a man of heart and intellect. It was interesting to listen to his account of the Sixteenth Zionist Congress, which he attended as a Poale-Zion delegate from Tshernevits. He had the temperament of a movement person, the clear sign of a Poale-Zionist in those days being organizational zeal within the Jewish community. With much strength of feeling, Khayim Kirmeyer was involved in Zionist activity almost from the day he arrived in Lima. He brought with him from Tshernevits the strong desire for a full Jewish life.
One of my closest friends was Hersh Tsvilikh [Herman Zwilich], who came from Tishevits [Polish: Tyszowce], a shtetl in the vicinity of Zamoshtsh [Polish: Zamosc]. He was a talented person. Like me, he worked at peddling ( kloperay ). Day after day he went out into the street early as though to prayers, but in the evenings he was again all spirit ( kule ru'khnies ), deliberated with us over communal and international problems, universal and those touching the world Jewish situation. Gifted with writing ability, he eventually came to write feuilletons and even a regular column of his own, "In Jest and in Earnest" ( In shpas un rikhtik ), (123) in Roberto Feldman's publication. Hershl Tsvilikh's [Herman Zwilich's] stories, articles and feuilletons were written in a humorous, light and informal tone. His themes were events, problems and manners of Jewish life in the new country. He sometimes wrote his pieces in the form of intimate chats with readers, addressing them as though they were people he knew. People enjoyed reading him. In his private life he was also a homey and accessible person.
He was a skilled raconteur, who in his intimate hours told about Tishevits, a shtetl of which I had up until then not heard. But from him I later learned that the shtetl was famous thanks to an important historical incident in the seventeenth century, when a Confederation arose there against the Swedes who, under the leadership of the adventurist Karl Gustav of Sweden, conquered the whole country in three months with hardly any Polish opposition. It was only with the defense of Tshenstokhov [Polish: Czestochowa] that a reversal began. The great hetman Potocki led the army to Tishevits and there organized the Confederation to drive the Swedes out of Poland. Hershl didn't tell these stories to brag about Poland, but to share his memories of his shtetl, whose history once interested him and had taught him that in that war in which the Poles had suffered great defeat, Tishevits was burned down several times, filling the shtetl with ruins. In the thoughts and feelings of each of us, our home shtetl occupied a place. We had left behind in the towns and villages of Poland our dearest and closest, and so we were drawn to listen to stories of the old home, especially when someone could tell stories as well as did Hershl Tsvilikh.
The storytelling was a way of relieving the nostalgia for our families left behind in the old home, but we did not indulge ourselves with such relief often. We were too caught up in the present to be able to meditate a great deal on the past. The present, the new reality, also had its interesting moments. However, no matter how affected we were by the new conditions, we never lost our will to live Jewishly and to be active in Jewish cultural life. We differed in this respect from the earlier Jewish settlers, who had arrived with little Jewish background, but who nevertheless observed Jewish traditions and customs. They founded the Jewish cemetery in Lima in 1870. The year and the names of the sixty-seven Jews who purchased the plot for the cemetery are inscribed on a stone by the gateway. Only a few of these Jews, many of whom were from Germany, remained Jews; the rest all assimilated, became Christians.
Perhaps I shouldn't mention these facts here, since I am no authority on the history of Peru, but I do know that this history includes the bloodthirsty conquest of the Spanish conquistador Pizarro, (124) the extermination of so highly cultured an original population as the Indian Incas. Nor is there any lack of historical memories relating to the Inquisition, which was apparently more vicious in Peru than in the other Latin-American countries. These scattered images come into my mind and I mention them only to emphasize the liveliness introduced into the Jewish community of Peru by the new immigrants, the Bessarabian and Polish Jews. The Jewish community grew steadily, new immigrants constantly arriving, many after endless wandering -- weary, penniless, unoriented as to their new life.
But, as I have already said, there were always Jews in Lima ready to help. Such were the Brodski brothers, Bentsien [Bencion Brodsky] and Yisroel [Israel Brodsky], who were born in the Ukraine but lived all their life in Bessarabia, to which their parents had moved before the First World War, until coming to Peru in 1927. They were now established, had raised families, had a textile business and let newcomers have goods on credit until they stood on their own feet. In retrospect, it is clear that no matter how able he was, the new immigrant needed to be helped, materially or morally. This was certainly true if the matter was one of improving or securing one's economic position, since one's own efforts and abilities were limited. Help from others was always needed. There were no organizations for assistance in Lima in the first years such as existed in Polish cities and towns -- Visitors of the Sick ( biker-kho'ylim ), Free Lodging ( lines-tsedek ), or the various Free Loan societies ( gmiles-khe'sed-kases ). However, even in the absence of a special organization, we helped one another. This is how, with initiative and energy and in the most moving manner, the inner bond among Jews was created.
I didn't need financial help, having arrived in Lima with two hundred and fifty dollars in my pocket, a sizeable sum in those days. I was even able to loan money to others. But I did need the moral support of those around me, and my feelings toward those who provided it remain warm. Thanks to this moral support for a stranger, the town opened its heart to me and with the same openness I tried to do all I could to help the Jews of Lima in their cultural and social activities. This is how I became a member of a committee to start a Yiddish newspaper with Roberto Feldman as editor-in-chief. This was no easy undertaking. There was a problem of acquiring Yiddish type, which had to be imported from Europe. There were also other problems, which we finally overcame, and the paper became a fact. We hired someone to collect ads, which helped financially to keep the paper going. We couldn't, however, do without large contributions.
The paper came out every Friday and it was a medium for information on everything that happened in the Jewish community, an incubator of national and social ideas, a defender of fairness and honesty in the internal affairs of the community. It was also an instructor, an advocate who gave advise, sometimes a physician with addresses of a medical institution, and a lot more. It played an important role in Jewish life during the entire time of its existence; it was an important cultural institution. It gave much space to the Land of Israel, to the national and economic problems of the Yishuv. (125) We thought about the importance of aid organizations on the model of those in the old home, and we prepared to found a cooperative bank to help both new and earlier immigrants overcome financial difficulties. Leybesh Ziglboym [Leon Zighelboim] was the first president of the bank. (126)
The work required to make the bank function was considerable. It demanded the attention and effort of those who were socially involved in the project. In these early days of the Peruvian Jewish community, help had to be given not only to newcomers, but also to the semi-established, and to all others not yet financially secure. They were all from old-home cities and towns, and lacked the experience and the commercial expertise required in the new conditions of the new country. Not one of them would have saved himself from financial mishap without the bank's help. We, the organizers of the bank, understood its crucial role and were encouraged to continue; the bank gradually grew. None of us had a background in banking, nor any professional or academic preparation. The fact that the bank was conducted according to all the necessary principles and became a success in the life of Peruvian Jewry was due to the devoted work of those who gave themselves to the task of building and strengthening the bank for the community. My own experience as Vice-Treasurer of the Cooperative Bank taught me it was needed by all the Jewish immigrants, new and old. Ninety percent of the Yiddish-speaking population benefited from the bank's help and every Jew who applied was helped; this was true late into the 1970s.
From my very first day I did not begrudge the time I gave to the bank, and the several hours I spent on bank work daily gave me moral satisfaction. In going about trying to get people to purchase shares in the bank I was warmly received and almost no one refused to buy. The purchasers, of course, had the right to receive loans, which were often ten times greater than the cost of their shares. Our moral satisfaction was great when we saw what a loan really meant. It stabilized the financial situation of the borrower, who was often depressed when he came to us. After a short time passed, we saw a changed man, in another mood. In those days in Peru there were many Jewish immigrants who had left their families in the old home behind, wives and children. They could not afford the passage money for them, and in such instances, too, the bank came to their aid. For these reasons, working for the cooperative bank after a day's toil to earn a livelihood lifted our spirits. The evenings were suffused with idealism; for many of us they were an exalted holiday that helped us forget the hard days.
Social activities, however, were not limited to the bank. People were totally immersed in community work. I have already mentioned Arn Lerner from Chile, who earned his living in Lima as a tailor and was a highly devoted community activist. He was much loved, which is why he was elected to head the Lima Jewish community. (127) Thinking about him I recall learning in kheyder that man was created from dust, and the first man from selected dust from all over the world. It seems to me that the Jewish leaders of Lima were made of the very best human-dust from the Jewish settlements of Poland and Bessarabia. Concentrated in that dust were vast Jewish treasures and a spiritual valor which only waited for the right challenge to show itself, thereby continuing the legacy from the old home.
Lerner embodied the sacred dream of establishing a large building for the Jewish community. It would serve many institutions and organizations, would first of all include a large synagogue, and would contain rooms for secular cultural activities as well. Arn Lerner put his entire self into realizing this goal, drawing many others after him. Around him there formed a circle of observant and secular activists. Not all were religious; in the old home many had been socialists or Zionists, members of various organizations and movements.
It was interesting to see how the same people now related to matters connected to socialist and Zionist ideals. The words socialism and Zionism were surrounded by an aura of exaltation and sincere veneration in those days, as though they were sacred. For many of us Zionism went together with socialism and embodied an idea whose end ultimately was the redemption of the Jewish people and all mankind. Yet the construction of a new synagogue was a consecrated effort to all of us and its completion at the end of 1934 was a holiday for the entire Lima Jewish community. The hall for High Holiday services covered four hundred square meters and a smaller besmedresh was for daily prayers. The attitude of the Jewish immigrants in Peru towards Jewishness ( yidishkayt ) was not uniform. Each had brought with him from the old home his own version of Jewishness, his own concepts and habits, but almost everyone nurtured deep sentiments as regards Jewish tradition. But there were also those who, if asked why and in what way they were Jews, would have had absolutely no answer.
Here in Israel I have met apostates ( meshumodim ) who regard themselves as Jews, as children of the Jewish people, and there have even been such as have petitioned the courts for a revision of the law to enable them to be officially registered as Jews. There are even priests in Israel who work in Christian parishes and who profess themselves to be Christians and yet still consider themselves to be of Jewish nationality ( natsyonal-ongeherike tsum yidishn folk ). (128) In my wanderings through Latin America I have encountered various manifestations of the forgotten Jew, the Jew who has virtually forgotten his origins, the baptized Jew, but never did I come across a case in which a converted Jew demanded to be recognized as a Jew by nationality. Most were converts or assimilated, people who had run away from the Jews and didn't wish to be reminded that they were once Jews.
In Lima we knew that many Jews from among the old settlers, entire Jewish families, had abandoned their Jewishness, some by conversion and others simply through assimilation, losing their connection with the Jewish community and the Jewish people. They left their Jewish surroundings and no one in the Gentile surroundings in which they lived reminded them of this, and it seemed as though they themselves had just about forgotten they were Jews. But things were different with the new immigrants. A large percentage of them may have been non-religious, non-observers of the Sabbath, but most of them, almost one hundred percent, had a sentimental attachment to Jewishness, and quite a few took pains that their children acquire Jewish knowledge, feel Jewish emotions and undergo Jewish experiences.
Of course there were those who could not give succinct reasons as to why they were Jews. They did not live halakhically (129) and in the best instance practiced Jewish ethics, and were bound to Jewish tradition; but they all identified with Jews, with the Jewish community, and felt a sense of Jewish and social responsibility ( hobn gefilt oyf zikh a sotsyal-yidishe akhrayes ). The feeling of a common fate and responsibility for one another characterized Peruvian Jewry. A mystical bond was not felt at all times nor by everyone, but most Jews in Peru did experience such a feeling, did feel bound to one another.
In any event, no divisiveness existed among Lima Jews and certainly no split between faith and folk ( emune un folk ). But there were many whose traditionalism may have been nourished from one source but through two channels: religious Jewishness, the pious observance of commandments and precepts, and secular Jewishness, modern Jewish culture and progressive national aspirations. Knowing the Jewish community in its innermost self ( lifney velifnim ), with all the currents that fermented within it, I would venture to say that in the consciousness of the majority of the East-European Jews who settled in Peru, there always lived the ancient attitude that Israel, Tora and God Almighty ( der rebo'yne-sheloylem ) were one. That means that in truth not only the source but the channel was one rather than two.
It is therefore understandable why the dedication of the new community building ( kehile-binyen ) was a great festival for the entire Jewish settlement. The President of Peru, Benavides, sent an official representative who delivered a warm greeting in his name and declared that the building was an important religious and cultural milestone for the Jewish citizens of Peru. That event has remained in my memory. Jews were proud of the building, which soon became a center of communal life. The children made use of the new theater-hall; Adela Goldberg from our pension trained them in her spare time to sing Jewish songs and put on one-acters. She was from Tarnopol in eastern Galicia, a town with rich Jewish cultural traditions. She joined the Yiddish stage while young and exemplified the qualities of the actors in the better Yiddish theater. She left Poland for Argentina at a young age and joined a theater troupe in Buenos-Aires, where her husband Felipe also played. Because of financial straits they were forced to leave Argentina. Arriving in Peru, they got on their feet thanks to their pension, which was a warm home and a good starting-out place for newcomers -- some of whom lived there for years until moving into their own homes.
The period that the Goldbergs played in theater-troupes affected them permanently, and they spoke longingly of their repertoire, their roles, their fellow-actors, the applause and ovations so valued by performers. The theater left a glow in their souls ( a shayn in der neshome ) and they were ever after drawn to it as Hasidim are to their rebe's court, or drawn as to a divine spark ( nitsets ) such as leads people towards the good and the exalted. Thus both nursed an unquenchable love for the Yiddish theater and Adela never stopped dreaming of forming a troupe to perform good plays. The new hall gave Adela the opportunity of organizing a children's dramatic ensemble. She instructed school children and youth in singing Yiddish songs and reciting Yiddish monologues; she taught them Yiddish and improved their Yiddish. In this manner she prepared a performance in the three hundred-seat theater-hall. It was a moving experience.
The children acted, danced, and sang in a clean, delightful ( mekha'yedik ) Yiddish and the audience responded to the children's performances warmly, applauding them enthusiastically. Adela's eyes, which at that moment looked like hot and smiling tears, danced together with the little feet of the children, and it seemed as though they were dancing out her longing for Yiddish theater. The children's joyous presentation of a rich program of drama, song and dance cheered the mood of Lima Jews for a long time afterward. The Jewish club became a lively cultural center for young and old. In the evenings it resounded with merry bustle, of men and women, singles and couples. People talked about the events of the day and passed on greetings from the old country. Sometimes you heard Russian, Polish, Romanian or Spanish, but for the most part people spoke Yiddish.
Chapter 26 FOOTNOTES:
116 ) Grace Line's S.S. Santa Clara serviced during those years the New York to Chile route via the Panama Canal. [DR] Return to text
117) From about this point on the tendency toward repetition which has been present from the start breaks into complete echoing of passages, which suggests that the amanuensis may have mixed up his notes or that M.R.'s memory may have occasionally played tricks on him. The reader will note the similarity, even identity of certain passages and phrases. I do not omit anything here. Return to text
118) This stereotypic notion is first voiced regarding the Panamanians. See above. Return to text
119) A monthly, founded 1930 (see Encyclopaedia Judaica 13:325). Return to text
120) Here is meant 'the organized Jewish community'. Return to text
121) M.R. uses the present tense: "farshaft undz freyd" 'causes us joy', stating a generalized truth. Return to text
122) A reference to the 1908 conference attended by Y.-L. Perets and many Yiddish writers from all over the world. Return to text
123) According to Daniel Radzinski, the Spanish name meant 'Seriously and Humorously'. Return to text
124) Francisco Pizarro (1470?-1541) was the Spanish conqueror of Peru. Return to text
125) The Yishuv 'settlement' is the name of the pre-State of Israel Jewish community in Palestine. Return to text
126) In 1934 he was the President of the Cooperativa de Credito Israelita del Peru No. 259. Return to text
127) He served as President, Union Israelita del Peru, 1932-1934, 1937, and 1944. Return to text
128) M.R. is here alluding to such cases as that of Brother Daniel Rufeisen, who fought in the courts to be admitted to Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return, but lost his case. The question is one facet of the enormous "Who is a Jew?" problem in Israel, which is less of a problem in the Diaspora. Return to text
129) According to the Halakha, the corpus of rabbinic law embodied in the Talmud and followed by Orthodox Jews as ultimately derived from Mt. Sinai. Return to text
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