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Molodetchno, The Eve of Shavuoth, 1915.
From Falik Zolf's autobiography Translation by Martin Green http://www.onforeignsoil.com
The few Jewish families who lived near the station in town sent a messenger to tell the village, that the deportation of Kovno had begun: the first train packed with deportees was already at the station...
The shocking news spread like lightening through the whole village. It caused an uproar in the House of Study, where the congregation had just risen to begin the Shavuoth evening prayers. Suddenly there was a commotion, a turmoil...no one could hear what the cantor was saying. Everyone was in shock. All at once, each one felt as though the earth had shaken under his feet.
"Jews, why are we standing still? Let's do something!" came a chorus of shouts from all sides.
Soon the rabbi appeared at the podium. The beadle banged on the table to get everyone's attention. It became deathly silent. Everyone's eyes were fixed on the Rabbi. The Rabbi, his face white as chalk, began to speak in a broken voice:
"Gentlemen, this is a matter of saving lives; therefore we are required to break with the rules of the holiday. So come, Jews, let us go meet with our unfortunate brothers and sisters, the Exile of Kovno!"
They abandoned the festively decorated synagogue, with the candles still burning, and ran straight home; there, the wagon-drivers and butcher’s apprentices began to harness up horse and wagon. Soon they were racing through the town, stopping at every Jewish door. Jewish mothers and Jewish daughters, with frightened faces and pounding hearts, quickly snatched from their holidaty tables the fresh, braided khallehs, the fish, the pots of meat, the dairy dishes from their pantries...and carried it all out to the wagons. Many of them followed behind the wagons on foot. It wasn’t long before the wagons were laden with all kinds of holiday foods, and with that, everyone hurried down to the train-station.
Following behind these fully-loaded wagons with Jewish provision, there came, as though to a funeral, almost the whole village. They hurried impatiently, driven by the storms raging in their own hearts, the more quickly to be able to meet the suffering travellers, who only yesterday had been respectable householders, established for generations. And now along comes that Enemy of Israel, Nikolay Nikolayevitch, the Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Armies, and in the space of twenty-four hours, they find themselves uprooted from the soil...that same soil, which until then, they had thought of as their very own. On top of this, they are branded with a cruel "Mark of Cain", as traitors...enemy spies, who must not be allowed near the heroic Russian Armies (who were now running like devils from every front).
In the train station there now stood, one after the other, long windowless cars with locked doors, which had previously been used to transport horses and cattle, and now...Jewsih children. From the packed, window-less freight cars there came forth confused cries, desparate shouts. And the closer you came, the more clearly you heard, from within the locked, barred doors, the whimpering of children, the cries of parents, the sighs of the elderly.They banged with their fists against the locked doors, shouting and crying in Yiddish and in Russian:
"Water! Water!"
"My child has fainted!"
"My father is dying!"
"My God, my mother has fainted)!"
"Save us, have mercy! Water!"
From somewhere in another wagon, you could hear desperate voices:
"Take the corpse from us...give him a Jewish burial!"
The Molodetchno Jews rushed for the trains, the more quickly to bring the necessities of life to the sufferers. But suddenly the village, which had come to the station as though on a wave of Jewish mercy, of sympathy for the sufferings of their own brothers....suddenly they fell back, as though struck by a second wave: they were standing face to face against armed soldiers, gendarmes with loaded rifles, revolvers, and clubs in their hands; with cruel faces and a malicious look in their eyes.....who would not permit the one outstretched brotherly hand to reach through to the "second brother"....because "traitors", who had sold out their "Mother Russia" and their "Tsar Batyoushka" to the enemy, the Hun, would not be permitted to receive bread and water! This was the order of the higher military authorities!
And so the two sides stood facing each other: on one side, broken hearts, sympathetic, tear-filled eyes...and on the other side: hearts of steel, cruel hatred armed with rifles and bayonets. Jewish mercy on one side, and Gentile cruelty on the other side, stood there staring each other in the face, as if to see which emotion were stronger.
All at once, the village Jews, unable to restrain their emotions, picked up their full baskets of food, their pitchers of milk, and rushed toward the wall of steel rifles and bayonets. Leather whips and rifle butts crashed down on Jewish heads...there was a dreadful commotion. Confused shouts, anguished cries filled the air. Mothers wrung their hands and tore their hair, and cried out:
"My god, where is my child? My child! They're going to kill him!"
"My daughter, where are you?"
"Save my son!"
The air was filled with the voices and the cries of parents, and of the sons and daughters being beaten, mixed together with the muffled cries of the Jews of Kovno and her sister-villages, locked within those dark rail-cars. And in answer to those same cries, all at once the clouds split open over the heads of the "chosen people", as though to recognize that down below, the enemy was splitting open Jewish heads.
On the ground, on the train platform, and in front of the padlocked doors of the rail-cars, were scattered the holiday hats and kercheifs, together with the braided khallehs, pastries, and pieces of broken pots and shattered glass...
The huge locomotive, which had slaked its own thirst for water there in the station, let out a whistle and began to spew out clouds of steam. The railway officials gave a signal, and the heavily-loaded train slowly began to move, its wheels clacking on the steel rails, the more quickly to be on its way, to make room for the newly-arriving trains, which would be bringing with them thousands of fresh Jewish deportees; exiles, being taken to God knows where....
The Jews of Molodetchno, who had been herded over to the far side of the station, with their left-over baskets of food, accompanied their unlucky brother and sisters with silent stares, as they were carried off to some distant exile. They stood frozen, with tear-filled eyes; but with their hearts and souls, they were travelling together with the exiles in their locked rail-cars.
When the village returned home, they found their holiday candles had long since gone out. Their tables were as they had left them...but nobody touched the food. Because in their ears, everyone could still hear the muffled cries, that came from within those dark, windowless, moving prisons:
"Water! Water!"
"Save my child!"
Late that night, the men gathered in the synagogue. This time, they had not come to say the prayers of Shavuoth...instead, there were all there, young and old, big and small, for a different kind of "midnight prayers": to release their silent anger and pain over the ancient Exile of the of the Divine Presence...and more to the point, over the present Exile of the People.
The rabbi and the village householders held a meeting. They prepared urgent messages to be sent to the nearby larger Jewish communities, Vilna and Minsk. But there was no time to wait for answers. And then the village remembered the old, tried-and-true methods, which the Patriarch Jacob had taught his children...in times of great troubles, they should send a present to their "brother Esau". And this solution was agreed on. It was decided that the rabbi, along with some of the leading citizens, should immediately assemble a substantial gift, and deliver it right away in to those in the "high places"....and perhaps in this way, the wrath of the "evil brother Esau" would be stilled, and he might agree to permit the Jews of Molodetchno to extend at least a spoonful of water to the exiles of Kovno....
Then everyone went home...merchants, shopkeepers, tradesmen....and brought back their purses and money-bags. Soon the long "holy" table was covered with their "worldy" ransom money.
And before even the night was over, the rabbi, along with several prominent citizens, quietly slipped out of the synagogue carrying the heavy sack of hastily-collected money, and winding their way through side streets, finally knocked on the door of the "Lord". At first, the "great man" was furious...outraged at the "Jewish insolence" of disturbing him from his nightly sleep. But as soon as he heard the clatter of Jewish gold being poured out onto his table, the anger of the great official was stilled. And by the light of the candles, he tallied up by eye the value of the Jewish gift, to see whether it was enough to persuade him to relax the strict prohibition, of not allowing bread and water for the
"Yids", the enemies of the Fatherland!
And as soon as he had convinced himself, that the heap of Jewish gold was big and heavy enough, his small, grey eyes (which were sunk deep in his fat, red cheeks) lit up with a thin, crafty smile. Twirling his mustache in deep contemplation, he said abruptly:
"Very good, we shall see..."
The trains that arrived the next day, packed with deportees, had more luck than the first ones. The cruel night guards kept their clubs down and their swords in their sheaths. The good-natured "Ivan" kept his rifle slung over his shoulder, as though he felt that no great danger threatened his Fatherland from this population. The locked doors of the rail-cars were flung open. People were soon passing out bread, milk and water to revive the weakened deportees. The sick were carried off by hand...on the guarantee of the Rabbgi anbd the leading citizens, that once they were fit to travel, they would be sent back to join the deportees. The village youth, some with their heads still bandaged from the previous night's battle between Jewish mercy and Gentile cruelty, worked tirelessly to provide the deportees with provisions to take with them for their long journey.
The deportees, with trembling hands, threw themselves upon the provisions...and especially on the jugs full of milk and water, thereby reviving their weakened children, their "little chicks". And at the same time, they whispered with pale, trembling lips:tsitterdike, blaykhe lippen:
"Dear Jews, our Brother Children of Israel, in recognition of this life-saving deed, may God grant that you will not have to endure our black fortune...:"
"Brothers and sisters, do not lose your faith....keep your Jewish optimism, and remember, that "Israel will not die"....
And among those suddenly-uprooted Jews, who only one day earlier had been in their homes, studying Torah and wisdom, I recognized many of my friends and neighbors from Slobodka. And with this sad glimpse, I felt all the more strongly my own parntership in the tragic Jewish fate...
Nikolay Nikolayevitch, the Enemy of Israel, who needed a scapegoat on which to hang the blame for the failures of his armies...had, with his decree of the "expulsion of Kovno", thrown the home front into dis-array: the tens of thousands of those who had been driven out from Kovno and her daughter-cities, with their long trains, had blocked and interfered with the military transportation. His decree had also scattered the Jewish exiles throughout Holy Orthodox Russia, to the very banks of the River Volga, where until now, no Jew had been allowed to live. And in those places, there arose brand new Jewish communities....