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Self Defense

[Pages 120-122]

The Weapons that were Hidden in our House

Chava Vardi-Yoelit

Translated by Jerrold Landau

(Three episodes from the days of self defense in the city, from 1903 to 1905)

A. The dangerous bayonet in the hands of my young brother

My brother Zvi, who now lives across the ocean, was stubborn in his youth. He decided to study a trade and earn his livelihood through his own efforts. If only he had chosen a refined trade such as watch making or photography, he would certainly have remained at home and studied with the famous photographer in our city of Lukashevka, as did our older brothers Elkana and Yitzchak, who also studied with him during their youth. However his heart was drawn specifically toward “coarser” trades such as auto mechanics and locksmithing – trades that dirty the hands and the clothes. Therefore, he did not receive the agreement of our father, who saw this as a complete rejection of books. Mother, on the other hand, encouraged him and agreed to his plans.

One day my brother arose and traveled to Kishinev to study and work. On account of his work, he joined the ranks of the “self defense,” despite his young age. He was injured during the disturbances that broke out in Russia in 1905 with the abrogation of the constitution that was issued by the Czarist government. He returned home one day with his right hand wrapped in a sling, all feverish. We lay him to bed and gave him over to the care of Dr. Bilinski, a Polish doctor who was a friend of the Jews.

He returned to Kishinev after he recovered. After a brief period he returned and brought with him a large trunk, of at least a square meter in size. We brought the trunk into the room of our house that was called the office (Kontura).

My brother spent many hours each day alone in the office.

He invited me into the office one day, and from the trunk containing various “implements” he brought out a large revolver, black and flat, with a magazine that could take several bullets. It was called a Browning. He explained to me that he had mastered the art of not making a sound at the time of shooting. He showed me several other revolvers of various sizes: some were broken in the middle and resealed, and others were presented to me in parts. He showed me how to load and seal the gun before it is put in its case. My brother then gave me some sandpaper and showed me how to clean off the rust.

I was a young girl at the time, and I knew how to polish silver and brass objects with a cream. Now I learned something new, which is to polish steel objects with black paper. I had great pleasure when I saw the “implements” leaving my hands shiny and sparkling. While I was working, my brother was busy with the “implements” that were cleaned. He smeared them with oil and put them aside. After some time, I realized that these “implements” were being hidden, some in the wooden ceiling that was above the space between the double doors.

When father returned on the eve of the Sabbath from the estate in the village of Vorotets, where he served as the farm superintendent and accountant, there was no trace of the “implements” in the office.

That Sabbath afternoon, my parents took a nap as they usually did every Sabbath. The young children went out for a walk, and I left the house as well. When I returned from the walk toward the evening, I was surprised and astonished at the sight that I saw: my young brother Asher Zelig, the son of my parents' old age, was holding a bayonet in his hands and boasting to his friends outside about the weapons of the Cossack that fell into his hands. I advised him to go into the house, but he did not pay attention. I threatened him that I would tell father. However, he did as he pleased. I had no choice. I ran into the house and told my father about the matter. He was also astonished, and ordered my brother to come into the house immediately with his bayonet. The trickster entered the house, all excited from the game and surprised, and stood before father. Father ordered him to immediately place the bayonet on the table. Then he took his dear son over his left knee, and spanked him soundly over the soft place with his left hand.

Our house was astir after the Sabbath. The emotions ran very high. Finding the bayonet made it clear to my father that weapons were hidden in our house.

Fear of the police always pervaded every Jewish home in Czarist Russia. This was especially the case in our home, for my eldest brother did not present himself to the army exam, but rather fled to the United States. From that time, the police would visit us on occasion in order to collect the fine of 300 Rubles that was owing to the state treasury in accordance with the law. At every such visit, they would search and inspect all of the household utensils. They would record all of our possessions in a complete list, and place an insignia upon them. Thus, one can understand my father's fear. Such a lone bayonet, which was left exposed by chance, was liable to expose our secret and bring a great disaster upon the entire family.

I recall how I hid myself in a crevice at the door of the oven in that room and how my heart ached as I wailed along with my brother out of pity for the thrashing that he endured. Nevertheless, I did not regret that I had exposed the secret. My conscience was clear. I was certain at the time that I could not have done otherwise. The cleaning of the “implements” that I had done, and my knowledge of the secret made me a partner in responsibility for the safety of the hidden weapons.

B. The Cache in the Cellar

The sign of the weapons that were hidden in our house is etched on the middle section of the left forearm of my brother Avraham Moshe, as a memorial of those days. Thus was the story: Our house was built upon a large vaulted cellar, a remnant from the time of Turkish rule of Bessarabia. There was a legend in our house that a treasure was hidden in our cellar. I remember how they came to destroy one of the stone walls of the cellar to excavate it. They dug and dug until another arch was exposed. They continued to dig, and yet another arch was exposed. As I think back now about that excavation, I understand that the entire matter of the treasure was only a pretext, for they went down there as if to excavate, and in the interim, they practiced shooting down there. I only found this out by chance after some time.

One day in the afternoon, my brother Avraham Moshe broke into the house wailing, as he was holding his bleeding left hand with his right hand. He was asked to explain the situation. He explained between sobs that his hand was injured as he closed the heavy iron lock of the door. He was too young to have been included among the ranks of the self-defense, but he would diligently follow what was going on in the mysterious cellar. He decided himself that he should also practice with weapons. He secretly went into the cellar, and started to practice without any training. To his surprise, the bullet that was shot did not reach its intended mark. Rather, it reached an entirely unintended target. He also received his punishment for following after those who were older than he.

Dr. Bilinski also tended to him. He was also registered in the city hospital as having been wounded by accident.

My brother, who received his first “immersion in fire,” came to the Land during the Second Aliyah and was active in the Hagana.

C. The Blond Boy

Sometime that summer, when my mother was busy boiling the preserves for the winter, and we, the young children, were running around the boiling tubs in the yard, waiting for a rosy portion of froth that would be removed from the boiling jam at times, the wagon of one of the local wagon drivers stopped before the gate of the yard. My brother Zvi got off, along with a handsome, blond lad, tall and wearing fine clothing. The wagon driver loosened two baskets that were tied with ropes behind the wagon. The two lads raised them with a large swing, carried them and placed them inside the yard.

My brother introduced the lad: “My friend Mesha.”

At dinner, my brother described the journey. Among everything, he pointed out that the wagon driver was surprised about the weight of the baskets. However after he explained that they contained presents for Mother, beef tallow and sheep's tails, he was satisfied. The elders broke out in laughter, and I did not understand the meaning of that laughter.

The next morning, when I entered the parlor, I saw the two lads sitting at the large round table that stood in the center of the room. A cloth was spread over the table, on top of which was piled some white, shiny powder. My brother rolled a rolling pin over the powder to break up the clumps, and his friend filled up the empty bottles.

What is this powder?,” I asked. “This is Bretolite Salt that is used as treatment for scabies,” my brother explained to me. He added, “I suffer very badly from this illness, and I have decided to take baths with this salt.”

That evening, the two lads went out for a walk. Mesha, who was a jovial lad, wore a small straw hat with a narrow brim, which was tilted at an angle toward the right side. For some reason, he also took with him a bright, colorful woman's umbrella, in accordance with the style of those times. We were all astonished. However, since my brother had come from Odessa this time, and Mesha was from Odessa, we said to ourselves, “This must be the style of Odessa.”

The two lads would go out on their walk every evening, and return home at dusk. The umbrella would be with them on every walk. At times it was closed, and Mesha swung it around in his hand like a stick, and at other times it was open, hanging over his shoulder shielding his back, as Mesha went around with youthful naughtiness.

One day, I walked on the road of the nobility (Dvorianskia, later Alexandrovskia), and waited by the steps that led to the foot of Mount Ivanus. This was a regular weekday. It was late, and there were few people out strolling. Suddenly, my eyes noticed the two friends sliding down the mountain to the creek that led to the yards of the noblemen. Then, I heard the sound of a dull explosion. Fear engulfed me. With a pounding heart, I impatiently awaited for the boys to appear on the steps, so that they could accompany me home. Along the way, my brother asked me if I waited for a long time near the steps, and if I had heard the explosion. I answered affirmatively. The friends exchanged glanced that were laden with innuendoes, and they stopped talking about it. I understood that they were involved with the explosion.

When we came home, my brother informed mother that he intended to return to Odessa as soon as possible. After dinner, he went to the wagon driver. He returned with the news that he was promised two places, for him and for Mesha, on the wagon that was setting out early in the morning for Kishinev. As added security, he took a Ruble from the wagon driver as a pledge that he would not travel without them.

In the morning, the two friends took their two baskets, that now were very light, for they included only a few sets of linen that my mother had time to prepare, and the traditional cake that she would bake when someone would set out on a journey. Mesha took leave of us with great warmth, literally like a member of the family. The wagon set out, and we stared at it until it disappeared behind the corner of the road that led to the long bridge over the Reat River, the route that leads to Kishinev.

They set out on Friday morning. On Sunday evening, we were surprised to see my brother return home, all emotional and agitated. Great preparations immediately started in the home and the yard. My brother and my mother were involved particularly with them. At a late hour in the evening, mother came in and asked me to pour water on her hands that were dirty with clay.

In the outer wall of our yard next to the cowshed, there was a box next to the ground that was called the milk box. In this box were stored the butter churn, the milking tools, the filter, the clay pitchers, and other milking utensils. The next day, I found out that the door of the milk box was sealed and plastered with clay. That day, my brother took great care to plaster the entire tall wall. When the plaster dried, it was impossible to discern the place of the box.

During dinner, as we all sat around the table, my brother told us the following:

My friend Mesha, our dear friend who so endeared himself to all of you, was exposed as a despised provocateur. When we arrived in Kishinev, before we set out for Odessa, I was urgently called to an unscheduled meeting of the central committee. At that meeting, I was informed that Mesha was sentenced to death. The plan was as follows: Mesha does not know the member who was to carry out the sentence. He would be travelling with us to Odessa, in the same train but in a different coach. At a certain stop that was agreed upon from the outset, the train stopped for a certain period of time. Mesha and I went out to attend to our needs. The member waited for us in the bathroom, and there he shot Mesha with a bullet from a Browning. I and the member who executed the operation then returned to our places in the train and continued on until the next stop. From there we returned to Kishinev in a train that was leaving that station in the opposite direction.

Thus was our family saved from a great misfortune that might have awaited us.

Flooding of the town

Flooding of the town
Many families were left with no home. There was damage to property and animals
were swept away in the streaming water. There were also human casualties.


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