The World in Flames by Falk Zolf
From; ON FOREIGN SOIL: TALES OF A WANDERING JEW The book that starts
in English and turns to Yiddish. Falk Zolf's memoir of life in Tsarist
Russia as translated by Martin Green
Slobodka, 1st August, 1914.
It happenned suddenly. One bright summer day, the world went up in
flames. On the Ninth of Av, the day when Jews mourn the destruction of
the Holy Temple, there began the great destruction of the whole world.
Everyone was overcome by a deathly fear. The streets of Slobodka were
soon swarming with confused people, shouting and crying out loud. Sons
and young fathers of military age were being torn away from wife and
children, from parents, from brother and sister. The air was filled
with a clamour that came from every direction at once...
From just outside my window, I heard a heart-rending cry. It was the
voice of my neighbor, a young mother of two children, crippled in both
legs, whose husband was being taken away in the general mobilization.
She was sitting on the front steps, with dishevelled hair, both
children in her lap, raging at the heavens with clenched fists and
pleading with passers-by:
"Lord, what do you have against my innocent children, my little lambs?
Kind people, take pity on them, take them with you, save them from
here! I'll stay behind...!"
Her cries stabbed at my heart like sharp needles, deep in my body.
Watching her, I suddenly understood the terrible cruelty of war. In
her cries, I could hear the cries of all the unfortunate mothers of
the world...she would be only the first of many...
No one could sleep at night. People were afraid to get undressed,
because at any moment one had to be ready to run. The air was full of
rumors, each one more frightening than the last. People jumped at the
slightest noise, terrified of their own shadows. They would sit in the
dark, holding on to each other, waiting for the night to end.
Slobodka began to empty itself into Kovno. Kovno, which had already
been hit by the first waves of refugees from a number of border towns,
had itself begun to take flight, to wherever their eyes led them. The
confusion soon overcame the population of the yeshiva. Yeshiva-boys
began to pack their things in preparation to leave. Some of them in
particular had a terrified look in their eyes....those were the ones
who had just realized that they were now "enemy aliens". Up to this
moment, they had been full-fledged "citizens" of the Yeshiva, with
equal rights...and suddenly, without warning...they had become enemy
aliens, citizens of an enemy state! A good portion of the yeshiva had
already been caught in the sharp teeth of the mobilization; the very
next day, they would be dressed in soldier's jackets, on their way to
the front. The yeshiva-boy's allowance for their daily expenditures
was suddenly cut off. Some didn't even have enough for a single
People rushed to see "the Old Man", Reb Notte-Hirsh...from him, to
their supervisor; from the supervisor, to the Head of the Yeshiva, Reb
Moshe-Mordekhai Epstein, looking for advice, asking what to do. "The
Old Man" re-assured them, told them to have faith, to wait for "this
too shall pass", because "he who watches over Israel will neither
slumber nor sleep"...but his words were of little help. Because almost
everybody was already caught up in dem general terror, the obsession
to escape, to get away as fast as possible...because the city, which
lay so close to the enemy's border, would soon be transformed into an
"city of slaughter"...
At the train station, there was a dreadful turmoil. Thousands of
people with bags under their arms, with bundles on their shoulders,
stood around waiting for a train...but as if to torment them, not a
single train was to be seen, heading from Kovno to Vilan...instead,
every train that came to the station was headed the wrong way! Trains
packed with soldiers, horses, and ammunition...these were the sons and
fathers of the Russian People, racing towards the German border to
block the path of the enemy, who was advancing at a fiendish pace.
Every minute there arrived fresh new waves of people. Wherever the eye
looked, there was a sea of people, shoulder to shoulder. Small
children hung from their mothers' shoulders, clung to their mother's
hands....older children clutching at their mothers, elderly parents
huddled with their grown children. People held tightly onto each
other...terrified, that the sea of humanity might pull them apart,
separate them from their loved ones and carry them off to God knows
And when the first in-bound train appeared, the sea of humantiy hurled
itself upon it. People pushed, shoved, and crawled over top of each
other. They pounded on the walls of the train, tore at the doors.
Whoever was able to, crawled in through the narrow windows; people
climbed on the roofs; others were hanging on to the stairs. Police,
gendarmes and soldiers beat at them with clubs, with sticks, with the
butts of their rifles..but there was no force strong enough to hold
back that sea of humanity. From all sides, there came forth cries,
frightened shouts from children, screams from hysterical
mothers....suddenly there was a confused cry from a woman:
"Help me, for God'sake! I've lost my child! My child! Give me my
child! Let me off the train...I'll break the window! Give me back my
The locomotive let off a puff of steam, and with a screech, began to
pull away. The unlucky mother's cries were drowned out by the clacking
of train-wheels on steel rails.
After several long days of confusion and turmoil, I fell exhausted
into my mother's house, just in time for the blessing of the candles.
My parents, who hadn't seen me in over two years, were shocked at my
appearance....and also a little surprised at my rapid growth. Under
the circumstances, there was little cause for my parents to rejoice in
my homecoming. My mother silently held me close, and didn't want to
let me go...my father stood back, weeping tears...his lips were
trembling. I noticed that since I had been gone, he had grown older.
In his long, blond beard, there were now silver strands. I remembered
what he used to tell me...that those grey hairs were "summons", sent
down fun der Haykh, as a kind of message, that one's time was drawing
to an end. I was overcome by a feeling of pity for him...
For the last few days, my quiet, little village had felt as though she
were in the middle of the war...already, more than one young father,
and more than one son had been taken away. Mothers wandered from house
to house like dark shadows, children clutching at ther aprons, looking
for their husbands, for their missing sons. Somehow they couldn't
believe that they had simply been taken away, without so much as an "I
beg your pardon". They clung to the belief that their husbands must
still be somewhere in the village, perhaps visiting a neighbor...
Not enough that they had already taken the men, and even the
horses...now they had started to go after the the middle-aged and the
teenagers, to work in the Brisk defence preparations. There was a
whole new panic. People ran off to the forests, to the grain-fields,
to hide from the police, who had started conducting regular round-ups
for able-bodied men...
I, the "guest", had spent already the whole of Sabbath hiding in the
attic. My mother wouldn't leave my side, making sure that I had enough
to eat, so as to recover my strength from the lange, hard journey
home. With every knock at the door, she would be seized by
panic....from the look in her eyes, I could tell that she was ready
with tooth and nail to fight for my life. My father stood watch
When it got dark, I came down from my hiding place. I started packing,
to get away from there that very minute. But where to run?...Yes, to
Molodetchno (Vilna Province)...to stay with my aunt, the cantor's
wife! There was no state of emergency there, and for the time being at
least, it was still far from the front....
With a trembling hand, my mother took down a fresh pillow from her
mountain of pillows and quilts which she had, over the years, with the
help of the children, made from goose-feathers. She packed the pillow
in a white cloth sack, along with a few items of clothing, and some
food for the road. My sister Pesheh, "rich American", gave me her last
ten-rouble note for train-fare.
When it came time for me to leave, my mother broke out in a dreadful
fit of crying. Looking at her, we all began to cry. My dear sister
Pesheh, with her five children...my younger brother Yitzkhak-Eyzaak,
and my little sister Dinneleh, my favorite, fell upon me from all
sides...they kissed me and held me, so that it was hard for me to tear
myself from their arms. But hardest of all, was to tear myself away
from my mothers' arms...just as it was hard for her, painfully hard,
for her to let go of me. It was as though she knew somehow in her
heart, that I was being separated from her for the last time...
My father had taken one bundle on his shoulders, and I took the other
one. Making our way in the dark through farmer's fields and meadows,
he accompanied me to the highway, where the man who delivered the
town's mail would take me to the Zhabinkeh station.
My father was silent the whole way there. We were both immersed in
deep thoughts. Now and then, there would come from him a cough, a
sigh, which would echo in the still, dark night. I felt that he wanted
to say something to me, but he couldn't...
When we heard in the distance the approach of the wagon, he got up to
take his leave. We fell upon each other...We held each other for a
long time, in silence. I felt his hot, silent tears burning my face.
And as I crawled onto the wagon, I heard him barely whisper:
"My son, may God grant that we live to see you again..."
My mother's convulsive sobbing, and my father's last words ("..may we
live to see you again..."), echoed in my ears for a long, long time...