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[Page 209]

The Russian and the German
(From the First World War)

Yekhiel Ornshteyn (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Tina Lunson

At the beginning of the First World War, our town (like everywhere, probably) split into two groups, one favoring the Russian army and the other German. The discussion leaders of the groups were Berke Litvak and Meyshe Mendl Orenshteyn. During the day the disputes took place in Aron–Osher Zaionts' shop, and in the morning and evening in the old bes–medresh [study house]. By the way, Aron Asher's arguments were not so firey because he cleverly knew how to listen, see and be silent, so he cooled the heat of the dispute and could arbitrate and say with a smile, “These and those are the words of the living God,”– that everything is from the Master of the Universe, in any case.

Meyshe Mendl, the easy–going one, would be quiet for a while but the hot–blooded Berke could not stop for one minute: “What does that mean?” he complained. “Of course ‘the words of the living God’ but many messengers are sent from above and we must do our assignments completely.” And the dispute blazed up again, but not with as much heat. The coolness lasted until minkhe time when people came to the old bes–medresh to say a prayer to God. There, both of them wanted to draw supporters to his side. And the dispute flickered without cooling and the voices reached up to the heavens. Berke Litvak, who favored the Russians, demonstrated with signs and wonders that the great, powerful Russia with so many soldiers must be the victor: Don't you remember the Russo–Japanese War in 1904 when General Stessel (himself not a Russian) sold Port Arthur to the Japanese for ten thousand rubles, that briber, that greased paw, but in ten years the Russian Army was well developed with all kinds of weapons. And the Russian victory was good for the Jews. And Meyshe Mendl maintained exactly the opposite. That for the Germans with their higher

[Page 210]

culture and discipline, one of their soldiers equaled ten Russian soldiers. And they would bring order and cleanliness to the grimy Russian that needs nothing and has nothing, and you could convince him to make pogroms whenever he liked. Now we hear of new decrees and they are driving people from the villages and from the towns on the border. That's how a German victory would bring salvation for the Jews.

Mr. Berke Litvak was a cigarette–maker and sold them himself. His vending place was on Dluga Street near the fence opposite Yudl Bliakhar's stall, where he carried out his illegal trade in his full–packed pockets. When the war neared the River Bug and the Russians marched through Dluga Street with their heavy canon and various troops, Berke Litvak with his long, wide beard went out into the street. He stood there beaming with his boxes open and distributed cigarettes among the soldiers, saying “Please take one,” until some of the gentlemen pushed him aside and grabbed all the boxes of cigarettes, giving him a few good blows, and as an addition ripped out hunks of his beard. He gritted his teeth about his poor Jewish chin and ended with a mi she'beyrekh for escaping death.

So Berke Litvak, beaten, felt, with his broken face, as though his world had collapsed and, ashamed, he crawled into a nearby alley.

And a little later the same thing happened to Meyshe Mendl Orenshteyn, who was also disappointed in his high–cultured Germans. In the first days of the German occupation he was standing in front of his shop with apple tarts and other delicacies, when along came several German officers. They told him to weigh two trays of the apple tarts, the best kind, asked him to pack them well, and instead of paying they snorted like neighing horses shouted into his face, “You cursed, filthy Jew!” and hit him over the head with a pointed rod and disappeared.

That day Meyshe Mendl closed his shop and did not go back. As always he went to the bes–medresh but took to bed broken and sickly, feeling as though his world had collapsed.

 

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