ON FOREIGN SOIL
An Autobiographical Novel
by Falk Zolf
Pages from the Rakov years
TRANSLATOR from Yidish: Marty Green
Falk Zolf was born in the village of Zamostia, Belarus, in the year 1898. His parents greatest concern was that their son should grow up to be a religious Jew, unlike his three older brothers who had run off to America and forsaken the Holy Torah. At the age of 11, he was sent away to study at the near-by yeshiva in Brisk. He made great progress in his studies until one day he got a letter from his brother in Warsaw. This letter introduced him to a group of free-thinkers who taught him Russian and introduced him to socialist thought. When his parents learned what was going on, all hell broke loose. He was removed from the Brisk yeshiva and sent away to a much more distant, much stricter yeshiva in Lithuania, where he spent two peaceful years immersed in religious studies.
This idyllic life came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the First World War. From then on, he was constantly on the run to avoid service in the Russian Army. His path led him first to Molodetchno, where he stayed with his aunt until she was able to get him a false passport. He then fled to the village of Rakov. Here, living under a false name, he witnessed the brutal expulsions of Jews from the war front, and took an active role in the relief efforts to help re-settle them. Here, in the long cold winter nights, he became a writer for the first time, thereby unwittingly arousing the curiosity and interest of the young women of the village. Unfortunately, he was not able to stay put and enjoy the attentions of his admirers, because according to his false passport, he was now one year older and once again, subject to the draft. So he set off again .
"Young man, where do you want to get off?", the wagon-driver asked me, as we pulled into the village of Rakov, having come from the nearby train-station in Zaslov.
"Next to the Rabbis house", I answered, with an uncertain voice.
My uncertainty was due to the fact that now, for the first time on my own, I would have to earnestly begin to play the role of my new identity, of that "alter ego" with the strange name - Yitzkhak Taytsh. I was terrified of being found out...that someone might realize, that I was not me; rather, an imposter.
The Rabbi of Rakov, Reb Avraham Kalmanovitch, a tall, well-proportioned man in his early thirties, with a noble countenance, which was framed by a long blond beard, at first received me rather coldly. But as soon as he found out, that I was a former Slobodka yeshiva-boy, and a Musarnik to boot, his dark blue eyes lit up, and he said with exictement:
""If so, then youre "one-of-ours", and welcome to you!"
The Rabbi had studied for severals years in the Slobodka yeshiva "Knesset Yisroel", where he was known as a great scholar and a stauch Musarnik, and was one of the favorites of "the Old Man", Reb Notte-Hirsh, the director of the yeshiva. He immediately began to ask me all kinds of questions about the Head of the Yeshiva, the Director, and the supervisor....whether I knew this or that famous yeshiva-boy, his former comrade; whether I knew this or that family where he had rented lodgings. It was clear, that with my arrival, I had awoken in him his sweet memories of Slobodka, from which he had now been separated going on half a decade. He had studied there until he got married in the small village of Rakov, with the deceased Rabbi's daughter...and as a "dowry", he had been recommended to the village for the position of Rabbi.
Although by nature he was an outgoing, energetic man, his duties placed him in the constant company of old, established householders, the "pillars of the community" ....and so, he unwillingly adopted the staid manners of a much older man. In fact, he felt very isolated and lonely among those small-town Jews. And here, out of the blue, standing right before his eyes, is an actual Slobodker - there was no limit to his joy, even though his un-expected visitor was a few years younger than he. He wanted in fact no less, than that I should take my lodgings with him.
Before long I found myself settled the old House of Study, back with my gemorras. It became known in the village of Rakov, that they now had their very first "refugee", a homeless yeshiva-boy; and as such, everyone felt obliged to show me a particular warmth. Before long the Rabbi had matched me up with a few well-to-do children, I should teach them bible with commentary and some Gemorrah as well, and thereby have with what to cover my living expenses. And every day, as soon as he had dispensed with his affairs in the town, he would come to spend a few hours with me in the House of Study; and sitting down next to me, he used to say:
"Come, Yitzkhak Taytsh, lets study a page from the Gemorra..."
And study he would! With intensity, with fire, with the old familiar melodies of Slobodka, hoping to ignite me as well with the same fire. But I must confess that in those days, the words of the Gemorra used to go in one ear and out the other. I felt apathetic, depressed, as though I were in an upside-down world. My mind was occupied with confused, distracting thoughts: home, parents, family.... where were they, and where was I? And most of all, I was tormented by the strange, false name which lay across my shoulders like a heavy sack of rocks.
I avoided meeting people...I forged no close relationships. I led a quiet, inconspicuous life, like a hermit. My aloofness caused me some difficulty, because I am out-going by nature. I love society, take great pleasure in conversation, in exchanging opinions; especially now with a war raging on all fronts. Every hour brought with it new events. I was dying to share my feelings with someone else; to clarify my own thoughts about the issues and arguments that raged everywhere.
Wherever Jews came together, they talked about the war: about "the footsteps of the Messiah"; about the decrees, expulsions, and accusations against the Jews; and about the great defeats of the Russian armies. Jews argued, philosophized, expounded on military strategy...often enough, there would be a little war in the House of Study, a heated debate between the Russian "patriots" and the supporters of the Germans.... with the partisans of each camp arguing strenuously, that their side "should and would" win the war. And when this war got too loud, the Rabbi would give a bang on the table, and shout angrily:
"Jews! Stop fighting! The walls have ears! Dont forget, we are living in Exile!"
And in the midst of these heated arguments, I felt a strong urge to join in; but I simply held my tongue. I didn't speak up because of my own inner turmoil, the duplicity of carrying two identities...my own and a strangers.
Often, representatives of the two sides would approach me, and start to lay before me their arguments, wanting to hear my opinion. And although all my sympathies lay on the side of the Germans, I held to my resolve to only listen...and keep silent.
But the hardest part was everybody would leave, leaving me all alone in the House of Study, with my uneasy thoughts and my downcast mood.
Sitting all alone every day in the empty House of Study, I would often be overcome by a longing for my true self, for my own name, for my own "I". Many times I was all but ready to run to the gendarmeria, which was busy rounding up the runaway soldiers, the hidden deserters, the "rabbits", as they used to call them.... to tear off my mask un shout out loud:
"This is me, Falk Zolf, and not Yitzkhk Taytsh as they call me. Take me!"
I felt, that I couldnt bear it any longer. Once and for all, I had to share with someone the secret of my duality. Perhaps then I would find peace ... as it says in the passage: "a heavy heart must be unburdened". But whom could I trust with such a terrible secret? What about my neighbor, the village idiot, who was hiding out, like me, in the same House of Study? Who knows what reasons drove him to madness? Several times, I had already tried to carry on a conversation with him, to find the source of his tragedy. But I could get nothing out of him. He only stared at me, with his half-extinguished eyes...which made my blood run cold.....
One time, when I was sitting with my gemorra in the east corner of the House of Study, and my regular neighbor, the madman, was sitting in his corner by the oven. In strode the Rabbi with his walking stick in his hand; he came straight to me, and quickly said, as was his custom:
"Come, Yitzkhak Taytsh, let us study our "page of the day".
I stayed where I was, like one who was stunned. The Rabbi fixed his eyes on me, and with a frightened voice asked me:
"Whats the matter? Are you ill? Tell me, well do something!"
"Rabbi, rabbi..." I began to stammer through my tears, "I cant stand it any longer....I have to tell you the whole truth..."
The Rabbi looked at me uncomfortably, from head to foot, as though he were seeing me for the first time, and then spoke sharply:
"Rabbi, you must know, that "Yitzkhak Taytsh" is not my real name. No, it is a false name, a phony name. My true name is Falik Zolf....."
I spilled out my soul for him. I felt like a stone had been lifted from my heart. It was somehow a release for me...I could finally breathe freely. The Rabbi, hearing my confession, sat there in shock and confusion, looking around as though to convince himself that there was, God forbid no one else here who might have overheard what he had just heard. After a few moments thought, he spoke:
"I'm afraid you must leave at once from my house. Because if you should be caught, then the authorities would say that I, the Rabbi of the village, was responsible for concealing runaway soldiers with false passports..."
And with this short speech, he picked up his stick and his rabbis coat, and disappeared from the House of Study, leaving me all alone.
That very night, I slept in a strange attic....
One bright afternoon, there appeared in the House of Study a young boy, who looked to be about my age. He walked uncertainly over to the large bookcase, took down a gemorra, sat down in a second corner, and began to study with a soft, mournful melody. I answered him from my corner with a similar melody. In this way, we spoke wordlessly, he from his corner and I from mine. In my mind, all kinds of questions started to come forward: who is this boy? Where does he come from? What could have driven to come all the way to Rakov to be in this House of Study? Is he not possibly also a "rabbit" like me? Who knows, perhaps he carries about with him the same secret as I? Yes, certainly, there's no other explanation... I can see it the way he moves, in his glance; he looks around him a bit too much; somehow he buries his face too deeply in that old, dusty gemorrah....
I began to wrestle with the problem: should I make his acquaintance? Should I greet him, to see what he looks like up close? But suddenly I shrank back: No, I mustnt! One doesnt dare! Who knows who he might be? These days.... anything can happen!? Better I should wait. Yes, wait and see, .Better he should come to me first. First I'd want to look in his eyes; because, like it says in the morality books, "eyes are the windows of the soul".
But I was absolutely certain that he was also dying to make my acquaintance. He simply didnt have the courage. Maybe he was afraid of me, as I was of him? Once more, he had taken up his mournful gemorra-melody, this time a little louder than before: "mah koh mashmoh lon?"... what does he want me to hear..."mimah nafshekh?" ....mimah nafshekh... is he trying to tell me something? Go to him! Something told me, just go! You were here first, he is a newcomer, a stranger, it's up to you to make the first move....
I went over. And when I stood before him face to face, I gave a shout, as though not with my own voice:
We fell on each others shoulders and began sobbing out loud. Our sobs echoed up through the hollowness of the House of Study.
These two friends, who had some three years earlier studied together in the BriskYeshiva, and who had shared a love like that between David and Jonathan, and who had not seen each other since then...had now found each other once more! From that day forward, we were not only the best of friends, but also "brothers in misery"...because we both carried the same Mark of Cain, the stigma of a runaway soldier...
And with two, it was in fact easier to bear our shared fate....
36. Days of Turmoil
Rakov, early autumn, 1915.
The German enemy was now at the very gates of the "Jerusalme of Lithuania"...the city of Vilna. The beaten Russian Army of the Northwest Front was in rapid retreat. All roads were clogged with people in flight. Soldatn, on foot and on horseback, were running like the devil, one after another, with such recklessness, as though the earth was burning beneath their feet. Everywhere they robbed, murdered, and burned, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.
And now they were all converging, like dark storm-clouds, from all sides, on the small village of Rakov, which lay on the road to Minsk and Smolensk. The air in the village was filled with the clamor of voices; shouts, screams and curses, which rose from the throats of thousands of soldiers, mixed with the cracking of whips and the neighing of horses. Heavy transports, wagons laden with cases of ammunition, and convoys laden with provisions, thundered over the old stone bridge with sparks flying from their iron wheels. The roads shook, and the windows trembled in Jewish houses...
Mixed in with the confused masses of retreating soldiers, there were thousands of refugees, the homeless, the greater portion of them Jews. Whole villages had taken flight, with their religious leaders and leading citizens at the head.....whole families traveled on foot, old and young, holding their small children by the hands, their older ones by their sides, all of them weighted down with baggage.
An old Jew with a disheveled appearance trudged down the road, carrying in his arms a Torah-scroll, wrapped in an old, yellow prayer-shawl. He must have rescued it, at great personal risk, from a burning synagogue somewhere, which the retreating Russian soldiers had set afire.
A Rabbi with a peaceful expression and a long beard, carried under his arm an old gemorrah. He must have been right in the middle of a difficult passage, when he had been suddenly interrupted in the midst of his studies. The Rabbi seemed pre-occupied, his brow deeply furrowed, as though in spite of everything, he was still immersed in the tangled reasoning of the Tanna'im.
A working-class Jew, with a sweating face covered in stubble, led an animal by a rope. The animal looked out with such confused, frightened eyes, as though she understood and shared the tragedy of her Jewish master.
An old Jewess, who could barely shlep her feet, carried in one hand her most treasured possession: a "tzeneh-urenneh", and a little book of supplications by Sarah bat Tovim, tied up in a kerchief, as though she were just returning with them from synagogue. And in the other hand, she clutched a tied-up hen, probably one she'd raised herself.
Young women, whose husbands had long since gone off to war, carried in their arms there tired little "chicks". Beside them walked their older children, bent under the weight of heavy bags and suitcases, which were bigger than they themselves.
And so they came, all together. Most of them were on foot, the richest once having rented peasants horses and wagons, and loaded up their most essential possessions, their precious heirlooms, which they had hastily rescued at the last minute. Up on top, on a pile of suitcases, pillows, and blankets, a small child would be sitting in his mothers lap, or his grandmothers or grandfathers. The men, with dark, unshaven faces, walked beside the wagons, holding on by the railings.
The whole Rakov market was packed with wagons, strewn with luggage, bundles, baggage from the army of homeless. From a distance, you would think the great crowd had come together here for some kind of a country fair. But when you got close enough you could see that no one was here to buy and sell...instead, they were escaping, some barely with their lives, from cruel misfortune. Their frightened eyes and dark faces described the turmoil they were going through. From every direction, you could hear groaning and moaning.
They sat on the wagons, on the ground, or on their baggage, like beggars...weak, hungry, and thirsty. Each one was looking for something with which to still his hunger. This one chewed on a dry piece of bread; that one, a cucumber; others, a beet - whatever they had hastily brought along as last-minute provisions.
Everyone went to the water-barrels, with pots, with copper vessels, with tea-pots. The barrels were mobbed, and the water was soon gone. But the thirsty crowd could not tear themselves away from the empty barrels. They kicked and shoved, pushing each other with fists and elbows. They all but tore the wooden barrels to pieces.
The Rakover Jews, seeing how their market square had suddenly, in broad daylight been taken over by a great Jewish exile caravan of need, hunger, loneliness, and despair.....were overcome by a sense of dread: the appearance of these Jewish homeless had brought with it the dark premonition, that their own hour of reckoning was close at hand! They suddenly felt that the ground underneath their feet had shaken....even though they were still, at that moment, established householders with shops and homes, they could already see, that the same fate was awaiting them.
Soon the whole village of Rakov was caught up in the same turmoil. People couldn't decide what to do first... Jewish mothers rushed to their young daughters, in whose beauty they had so recently taken great pride, and covered them with rags...locked them in dark cellars, to hide them from the hungry soldiers' eyes....and everyone huddled behind locked doors and shutters.
And in the minds of the village Jews, there arose the painful question: was it now their turn to abandon their homes and set off on the road, to run with wife and children to wherever they feet could carry them?
But who should we really be running from? From the distant enemy, the German....or should we be more worried about the more immediate danger....the Russian soldire, the Don-Kuban Cossack and Siberian, who had been whipped into a frenzy day-in and day-out by the Black Hundreds and the anti-Semitic press, with slanders and accusations against the Jews: "The Jews are sending messages to the Germans from their synagogues"; someone claimed to have found, in the beard of a Jew, a hidden telephone; "Jewish soldiers are surrendering en masse to the enemy"; "The Jews have stolen all the gold in the Russian Treasury and buried it in the ground", etc.
And as clear proof, that the Jews had secret telephones, they would "discover" the "eruv", which every Jewish village possessed, and which served to permit one, on Sabbath, to carry his prayer-shawl to the House of Study, and after prayers, to carry the Sabbath lunch from the neighboring bakery. And for those "secret Jewish telephones", more than one Rabbi and more than one ordinary Jew had already paid with their lives.
These vicious slanders, which had been intentionally spread among the people and in the army against the Jews, had already led to tragic results: more than one pogrom, more than one fire that the Russian soldiers and Cossacks had carried out in the Jewish towns and villages which lay near the front, especially in Poland and Galicia.
Those who had houses facing the market were the first to start packing: the quilts, pillows, the brass and copper, the silverware and such. Any other valuables, which they couldnt take with, they went out at night and buried in a hole. The wives and children, especially with the adolescent daughters, together with their luggage, were sent off to the big city of Minsk a distance of some 30 to 35 kilometers. There, in the big city, they hoped, one might be more certain of his life.
The fathers, meanwhile, stayed put, to wait until "this too shall pass", in case the army should stop retreating, and the "state of emergency" should be called off. In that case, one might bring ones wife and children back again. And if not, he could at least save a remnant from his meager possessions, the merchandise in his shop...
And so they stood in their shops with frightened eyes, white faces and pounding hearts, and pretended not to see as the blond Cossacks and Russian soldiers took from the shelves whatever they saw, on the authority of the "Tsar Batyoushka" and the "Holy Fatherland"....and meanwhile, pale trembling Jewish lips whispered a prayer:
"Lord of the Universe, spare me my life and I will relinquish all my property...."
From the House of Study we could hear the thundering of the heavily-loaded wagons of the retreating Russian Army, and the clamor of the retreating armies of the homeless. My friend Yankel Novoradocker and I, both of us with false passports, were sitting there the whole time, supposedly studying the Gemorrah....but in fact, we were immersed in all kinds of illicit reading material....Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian books. We quickly put down our gemorrahs....and also, the other books, and forgot about our pupils, from whom we had been earning such a "comfortable" livelihood. We rushed off to the village market. There, sitting and lying everywhere, on the ground, on their baggage, were hundreds of Jewish homeless, who reminded us of the "Exile of Judah" by the Rivers of Babylon.
In that moment, we completely forgot about our constant fear of being apprehended as "rabbits", deserters, and being sent to the front. We mixed freely with the homeless, as thought we were the "guests of honor" at this bizarre "wedding". In the faces and in the eyes of these broken, unhappy people who had escaped from fire and sword, we could see our own parents, our own brothers and sisters....who for all we knew, at this moment might also have been standing outdoors in a strange market.
With all our youthful fire, we threw ourselves into the work of bringing the necessities of life, to help as best we could to aid and comfort the faint, the weak, and the hungry.
Above all, we began hauling buckets of water from the river, bringing hot, steaming pots of tea and loaves of bread from the neighboring houses. Soon we were canvassing the whole village, going from door to door, mobilizing Jewish homes and hearts to carry out the relief work. The Rakover Jews, descendants of generations of Sons of Mercy, responded warmly to our appeals. Every householder agreed to take in as many homeless as he possibly could. vifiel er hot nor gekennt. More than one of them contributed the very pillow from his own head...many gave up their own beds, their own piece of bread, for the sick and the weak. Other homeless were lodged in the two Houses of Study, and in the cold synagogue. But as for the majority, we could only watch sadly as they went off on the road again.
And then the flood of refugees came to a halt. The Russian-German front had stabilized a little closer to the village, and now both armies were digging new trenches, in which to spend the second winter of the war.
37. The Refugee Aid Commitee
The young, energetic rabbi, Reb Avraham Kalmanovitch, had called a meeting of the townsfolk to decide how to help the unfortunate exiles. They quickly established the "Refugee Aid Commitee", which worked in conjuntion with the local Red Cross, which had begun to distribute food and clothing among the Jewish homeless.
Both of us, that is, I and my friend Yankel Lubchanski, quickly became the most active members, the regular "hewers of wood and bearers of water" of the Rakov Aid Commitee. Every morning, we went with a wagone-driver to the Red Cross with a list of the names of the homeless souls, to collect their provisions, which consisted of loaves of bread, flour, sugar, barley, salt, oil, and so forth. We delivered it to the Rabbis store-house, where the homeless would come to collect their "dole".
the credit of the Russian Red Cross, it must be said, that they displayed
toward the Jewish refugees no worse an attitude than towards the Christian.
But when it came to the the portion of meat, which we had coming
to us, calculated according to the number of Jewsih souls, there
was a something of a dispute over the question of kosher meat.
of Moscow and Petrograd who directed the local Red Cross, argued
that according to their constitution, they were not obligated to provide
the Jewish refugees with rabbis and ritual slaughterers. From the other
side, the local Jewish commitee, with the rabbi at its head, argued
that we would not and could not supply the Jewish homeless with
non-kosher meat. Finally, a compromise was reached, which satisfied
both sides: twice a week, the Russian Red cross would give us a few
head of live oxen, which we would take to the kosher slaughterhouse
to be killed. The front portions, with the luns and livers and giblets,
would go to the Jewish homeless...and the hind portions, to the Gentiles.
The Gentiles of Moscow and Petrograd who directed the local Red Cross, argued that according to their constitution, they were not obligated to provide the Jewish refugees with rabbis and ritual slaughterers. From the other side, the local Jewish commitee, with the rabbi at its head, argued that we would not and could not supply the Jewish homeless with non-kosher meat. Finally, a compromise was reached, which satisfied both sides: twice a week, the Russian Red cross would give us a few head of live oxen, which we would take to the kosher slaughterhouse to be killed. The front portions, with the luns and livers and giblets, would go to the Jewish homeless...and the hind portions, to the Gentiles.
Twice a week, we would drive those great oxen, bearing the stamp of the Russian Red Cross, to the Jewish slaughterhouse. Those oxen, in turn, served us well: for their sake, we were saved more than once from falling into the hands of the police and the gendarmerie, who were constantly on the lookout for such young fellows as us. It worked this way: whenever we saw those "grabbers" coming, we would poke our oxen with our long sticks. The oxen would take flight...and we would chase after them! And when that happened, not even the harshest, strictist policeman would try to stop us and demand our passports, because anyone could see that we were engaged in a very important function: to serve and protect a genuine Russian ox!
One day the village received a visit from the eminent Dr. Nakhum Gergel, who was well-known for his activities in the Jewish community. He was the director-in-chief of the Petrograd Central Jewish Refugee Commitee, which went by the shortened name, "YEKOPA". The Committee had established as its chief purpose the amelioration, as far as possible, of the tragic lot of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, deportees, and war orphans, who had been wandering on foot for weeks and months, or tossed about in locked rail-cars over all the highways and bywas of Greater Russia.
Dr. Nakhum Gergel was, as far as I was concerned, the ideal person for this difficult, thankless task. First of all, he was a true Jew, "one of us", with a warm Jewish heart and a genuine sympathy for the needy Jewish masses. Secondly, he possessed a great deal of enery. He was stationed with his staff in great city of Minsk which lay in close proximity to the northwest front, and which was also the main point of convergence for the great streams of Jewish homeless. Wherever he went, even in the most cast-away village, he brought a ray of hope. He mobilized the local Jewish intelligentsia, to help re-settle those of the homeless, who no longer had the will to go further; the remainder, who constituted the greater portion, he helped to evacuate to the central Russian provinces.
Among the legions of homeless, it was rumored that this very Dr. Nakhum Gergel had been personally excused from military service by no less an authority than the Russian Czar himself, in order to help deal with the problem of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were in transit on all the roads of Russia, thereby interfering with the mobility of der Russian Army.
Dr. N. Gergel was especially satisfied with the work we were doing in the village of Rakov. My friend Yankel Lutchanski and I were the "dynamo", the driving force behind the local Aid Commitee. The entire technical apparatus lay on our young shoulders. Because the rabbi and the townsfolk, the commitee members, in addition to their concerns for the homeless, also had problems of their own...with regard to family, business, and other such things. We, on the other hand, were "free as birds"...without home or family, alone in the world. We didnt have to worry either over our livelihood....because, like the homeless, we also lived from the meager "refugees dole".
We drew close to those lonely, harried and beleaguered ones, as though they were bone from our bone, and flesh from our flesh.....and they, in turn, drew close to us. They would often come to us with all their problems.
Often there would break out an argument between us and the rabbi, Reb Avraham Kalmanovitch, because we would often decide, on our own initiative, to do certain things for the homeless, without having asked his permission in advance. But fundamentally, as a strictly religious Orthodox Rabbi, his biggest greivances against us were: that we didnt go to the House of Study every day to pray. That we shaved our beards, didnt wear the fringed undershirt, and other such terrible sins, which were a disgrace to the names of Slobodka and Novagradok.
We would constantly argue with him:
"Rabbi, dont forget, that "preservation of life" takes precedence over even Sabbath..."
But he would not accept this for an excuse. And when Dr. N. Gergel, from Minsk, returned for an inspection, seeing how deep was the rift between us and the strictly observant Rabbi, he took our side:
"Rabbi", he would say with his characteristic, good-humored smile, "dont worry about them, I take responsibility for all their transgressions. And I have a good place for them...I will pass them on to the Jewish big-shots of Petrograd. They are already carrying so many sins and transgression, it wont hurt them to carry a few more..."
And he arranged for us to receive a certain stipend for our work, so that we should have a steady income. He also gave us a kind of insignia, with special arm-bands, to wear on the sleeve of our left arms, as a sign that we were not just anybody, rather we were important workers, officials even, possibly no less important than those who worked for the Russian Red Cross.
Those white arm-bands with the red lettering turned out to be very useful for us, no less than those Russian oxen from the Red Cross....the arm-bands served as a kind of protection, a talisman against the evil eye of the ever-present "grabbers", as they were called in the shtetl.
Those "grabbers" consisted largely of homeless Warsaw Polish-Russian police, who, after the German occupation, had been evacuated behind the Russian lines. And so to demonstrate to the higher authorities that they were still performing a useful service, and that they were not eating the bread of charity....they began to lord over and harrass the Jewish villages, just like they used to do "back home". They went around through the Jewish villages night and day, like dog-catchers, looking for contraband, runaway soldiers, and hidden revolutionaries. In this way, they hoped to protect both their beloved "Tsar Batyoushka", and the exposed rear flank of the Russian Army.
The first few times when we appeared outdoors, those "grabbers" used to put us through the gauntlet, demanding to see our passes, our dokuments. They examined us with sharp, probing eyes, from head to toe, highly suspicious as to why such healthy young fellows should be found so far from the front. But to their deep chagrin, they were unable to do anything to us, because on our passports it was clearly stated, in black and white, under the official mark of the two-headed Russian eagle, that we were but young, young pups, altogether hardly seventeen years old.
Now, however, that we wore the white armbands which had been given to us by our beloved Dr. N. Gergel, along with official Russian documents, certifying that we were working for the relief effort. , those same "grabbers" stopped harassing us altogether. As though they no longer had any jurisdiction over us. In fact, we became quite good friend with them, "colleagues" even. from time to time even sharing a conversation or a cigarette, and letting them know that if they themselves, as refugees, needed anything, they shouldnt be embarrassed. They should report to us, and we would see what we could do for them. And takkeh, thanks to that friendship "across enemy lines", we were later able to secure the release of more than one young, homeless father, more than one young boy from the neighboring Volozhin Yeshiva, who had fallen into their hands.
In our hilfs-arbet, we frequently came into contact with the local military authorities. for example, to obtain a permit to be able to travel after curfew; a permit to travel to a neighboring village to puchase wood for the homeless; to appeal an order commandeering a house from a homeless family; and quite often, to get medical help for the sick: which, in those days, could only be obtained in the military field-hospitals, which were found in and around the villages. Our requests were usually accommodated, often more fully than we had anticipated.
We encountered fine example of genuine Russian generosity, as it was so often described in Russian literature, in the person of the chief military doctor Vlassevsky, who bore the title "Polkovnik". His name in particluar is etched in my memory. He could truly be reckoned among the "righteous gentiles". Each time we called on him to attend the sick, even in the middle of the darkest night, he would go without hesitation. He would provide the sick one with all necessary medicine; sometimes, he even took a few roubles from his own pockent, and left them for the sick one. Nor was this an isolated example; there were many others like him, who exhibited genuine human kindness to the Jewish homeless.
Yes, we yeshiva-boys, the eternal sojourners with the dispersed camp of Israel, learned from our experiences, that there was a world of difference between the great Russian People and the Russian Czarist Government. And this knowledge was for us, in those dark days, a source of some consolation.
38. Our Eternal Flame
Rakov, winter 1916.
From the nearby Russian-German killing fields, we would hear, day and night,the muffled thunder of the cannons, until the ground shook. Steel and iron cut down young lives, like the harvester cutting down corn. "The hand of Esau laid waste to the abundance of his own orchard..."
At this time, there was in the small village of Volozhin, which lay of the very fron lines, a small group of young people, who were fighting with all their strength to keep alive the not-yet-extinguished spark of the ancient, always-new Yavneh, which bore the present-day name of....Volozhin. This was a remnant of the previously famous yeshiva, "Princess of the Yeshivas", which had, for generations, sent forth into the world hundres of Students of the Wisdom, Sages of the Generations.
The Sons of the Yeshiva kept watch and studied. One would go off to rest, and a second would come to take his place. They studies day and night, ignoring their surroundings and the hunger than gnawed at them from the inside. The quiet, mournful gemorra-melody rose up over the half-empty yeshiva buildings from one end to the other. It wound its way from one yeshiva-boy to the next, like the night-watchmen who went about in the pitch darkness with glowing lanterns, signaling to each other, drawing close together the lonely souls, in the old/new web of Jewish stubbornness and optimism:
"And so the rabbis taught....!"
The Volozhin Yeshiva was sinking; the light was flickering dim. But she refused to die! The small group of stubborn yeshiva-boys was determined to forge one more link in the eternal Jewish chain. Links forged not from steel and iron, but from an ancient spirit, a spirit that traces is origins all the way back to the burning bush, which burned and burned and was not consumed....
"And so the rabbis taught.....!"
But the small Volozhin Yeshiva was surrounded on all sides: mit hunger, need, and poverty. That in itself would not have been the main problem, because to such things they were long accustomed. becuase "this is the way of the Torah....". What was worse, was that the enemy sought to extinguish the very last spark of the Light of the Torah, which still glowed in the old Volozhin Yeshiva. It came down to a test of strength between the "Voice of Jacop" and the "Hands of Esau",.a kind of contest betwee the Masters of the Torah and their eternal enemies, the Masters of Blood, to see which one of them would prevail....
The enemy, the Russian gendarme, armed with rifle and bayonet, was lliable to burst in at any time of the day or night on the pale, hungry Volozhin Sons of the Torah, as they sat poring over the pages of their wide-open Vilna Gemorrahs....and they never left empty- handed.
Every day they would come to seize one more yeshiva-boy, throw iron shackles on his arms, and lead him away on foot, to the war-torn city of Minsk, which lay under the military rule of the infamous Governor-General Hirsh, Tormentor of the Jews, who was already famous for his Jewish gallows. From there, from Minsk, the half-starved yeshiva boys would be sent straight to the slaughter-fields....or they threw him behind bars among drunks, street gangs, and common criminals.
Volozhin, the Princess of the Yeshivas, was sinking. With each day, she become more and more shrivelled, emaciated, like the dried fig of Rabbi Tzadok; fewer and fewer remained afloat on this life-raft. And so the remaining yeshiva-boys became even more stubborn. When one of them was taken away, his friends would take up his "daily readings", so that even his studies shouldn't be interrupted.
Those dedicated yeshiva-boys didn't pay attention to the muffled voices, the "voices" that thundered on without cease from the iron mouths of the cannons, inundating the world with blood and fire. They didn't look at their horizon closing in around them. They had before them but one ideal, one burning desire: that the flame of Volozhin, the modern-day Yavneh, should not be allowed, God forbid, to flicker out.
And as though to defy the forces of the outside world, to mock the mighty iron "Hands of Esau", there rang out ever louder the "Voice of Jacob", echoing within the half-empty walls of the yeshiva:
"And so the rabbis taught.....!"
The people at the yeshiva in Volozhin sent a letter via a messenger to the rabbi of Rakov. In their letter, they wrote::
"To the leaders of the community of Rakov:
"You must know that the water is up to our necks; for weeks know we have struggled in the claws of hunger, virtually with no more strength to go on; because, "it would have been better to die by the sword than to die from hunger". We are like orphans without a father or mother. We have been cut off from the world and forgotten.
"The town of Volozhin, which had previously drawn her livelihood from the sons of the Yeshiva, is now hardly able to support itself, because it is under a strict quarantine. No one enters or leaves without a special permit from the government. All commerce has been suspended. We are a burden on the village. She no longer has the means to provide us with food and water.
"Therefore we beg of you: You must find a way, all the more quickly to send us a bit of food, to sustain our souls. Because other than "our Father in Heaven", you are our closest neighbor."
That very same evening, the Rabbe called together a meeting of the whole committee. After reading us the letter from the Volozhin yeshiva-boys, he turned to us with the questions:
"What should we do?"
"We should send a letter to the Central Aid Committee in Minsk," suggested one member of the committee.
"No, it will take too long...its a matter of life and death!" shouted the rabbi, Kolmanovitch. "The wagons are already waiting outside..."
"Let us go around town, calling on the rich Jews, the merchants, to collect food," suggested my friend Yankel.
The Rov drew himself up to his full height, and hammering his fist on the table, shouted at the top of his voice:
"I will not permit you to go from house to house asking for bread, even for the Volozhin Sons of the Torah!"
"But this isn't begging...it's our duty!"
"We could take a small portion from the rations of the homeless", suggested a second rich committee-member.
"Stealing from the poor!" we young folks shouted out.
"The Volozhin yeshiva-boys are just as deserving as the homeless here," a third householder shot back in reply.
"The refugees are the proper owners of the little bit of food, which they receive from us,...therefore we should first ask their permission," we argued.
The rich balebatim were adamantly opposed to this: where was it ever heard of, that one should ask the poor people how to apportion the charity? Such a thing is unheard of!! The whole thing all but came to blows...young, hot-tempered boys against old, established grey-beards. We even threatened them with a strike. But at that point, the young Rabbi came down on our side. The hot tempers gradually began to cool down.
The next morning, the homeless assembled, as usual, in front of the storehouse which was situated in the Rabbis yard. The Rabbi came out with his staff in his hand, his prayer-shawl tucked under his arm, hurrying on his way in to the House of Study for morning prayers. But first, he stopped before the large crowd and began to give a short sermon, explaining to them the great importance of acting to save a life. Before he could finish, the whole crowd of refugees interrupted him, shouting with one voice:
"They should eat well! We give what we have without reservations!"
That same morning, each homeless one returned to his family with a smaller "dole", but in a cheerful mood. A joyful tear shimmered in his eye. Each one felt that a spark had been re-kindled deep in his heart. After all, he himself had not so long ago been driven from his home, from his own table, and now he finds himself on the road, on a long March of Exile, which no one knows where it will end; and here, by the side of the road, he has been given a place to rest his tired feet, to catch his breath and still his hunger. And he was only too grateful for the chance to share this bread, these meager provisions, with the hungry yeshiva-boys, they should also be able to enjoy something from the generosity of those who had contributed. And it was this feeling, the knowledge that one belonged to one and the same shared fate, which warmed and consoled.
Outdoors, there was a cold frost.. The road which led to the front was all but impassable. But the young, energetic Rabbi of Rakov, the great scholar and committed Musarnik, would not entrust the duty of bringing the necessities of life to the Sons of Volozhin to anyone else. All of the protestations from his sick wife, from his family and from the leading townsfolk were to no avail.
The rabbi dressed up in his new, warm fur, which was a wedding present, and on top of that a heavy cloak, with a warm hat on his head, tied together at the waist with an old leather belt. He quickly said his prayers for the road, kissed the mezzuzah with his hand, sat down in the the large sled, stuck his feet between the sacks of food, and set off on the road.
The kind-hearted women of Volozhin, who had a reputation in the yeshiva and among the neighboring villages for their good-heartedness, quickly heated up their groyse back-oyvens, and set to work baking bread and making noodles for their half-starved yeshiva-boys. And the Rabbi of Rakov, the guest, for his part, couldn't wait to share with the Sons of the Yeshiva a clever Talmudic argument, which he had just worked out on the way.
A few days later, the Rabbi of Rakov returned home from his mission. As he was crawling out from under the pile of old warm clothes that the women of Volozhin had covered him with, you could see that he was beaming with pride and satisfaction. He couldn't stop darting back and forth in his house, rubbing his hands together in great excitement. And all the while, he kept repeating these words to himself:
"Not to worry, not to worry; Israel will not fail, Israel will not falter...!"
39. Days of Loneliness
Rakov, vinter 1916.
The war was buried under deep snow. Both opposing camps were dug in opposite each other, stiff and cramped from the cold and frost, waiting for the arrival of spring so they could once more crawl out of their trenches, to plow the fields with steel and iron from guns and cannons, and to sow death and destruction.
In the meantime, it was quiet. From time to time, you would see passing though the village two or three ambulances from the Red Cross, bringing a few dozen soldiers from the nearby front, some of them missing a hand, others a foot, and some suffering from a frozen limb. And then it would be quiet again. As though there never had been any such blood bath over the face of the earth.
The river of homeless had also run dry. The greatest portion of them had already been scattered deep in Russia, all the way to the Rivers Don and Volga. There, on the new, foreign soil, they "pitched their tents", still hoping to return one day to their former homes.
The smaller portion settled in among the neighboring towns and villages, which lay in proximity to the Russian-German front. There they waited for "the Redeemer", German.... that he should come all the more quickly and capture them, so they could return to their homes, and not have to be dispersed once more to some far-away, unknown destination.
Now that the flow of Jewish homeless had ceased, I began to feel the burden of my own homelessness. The long, empty hours dragged my spirits down. The whole time when I was busy with the working of bringing the necessities of life to the hundreds and thousands of Jewish exiles, the escapees from fire and sword, it was easy for me to forget about own fate....that I myself was no more than a loneley refugee, uprooted from my own soil. Because next to the human pain and suffering which I saw before me, my own lonely life appeared small and insignificant. Now, sitting all alone, I began to take stock of my own life:
Where did I stand in the world? What kind of future was it for me to sit here in this small, cast-away village of Rakov? And for how long am I supposed to sit at a strangers table, to sleep in a strange bed?
These kinds of thoughts and questions continued to churn in my brain. I wanted to run away from myself, to escape these voices, which seemed to fill my whole body like an infestation of ants.
I was overcome by a nagging longing for home, for my own family. Where were they now? What if, God forbid, the storm had torn them away from their own soil, and carried them away to God knows where? Who knew if they weren't also at this very minute in exile, along with other Jewish wanderers and deportees. Where was my poor, frail mother now? What was she thinking about me?
And in order to drive away such painful thoughts, I tried to immerse myself in the ancient Book of Books...the Bible. But I found no solace in the bible. So I threw myself into Yiddish and Russian books, which I borrowed from the local intellectuals. I read everything I could get my hands on: Dostoyevski's "Crime and Punishment", "The Brothers Karamazov"; Tolstoy's "War and Piece", "Anna Karenina"; "The Ashmedai", by Leonid Andreyev; "The Mother", by Maksim Gorkiy; "The Old Mare", by MM"S (Mendele Mokher Seforim); "Tevye the Milkman" by Sholem Aleykhem, and books by Peretz, etc. But even in all of them, I found little peace.
Uneasiness surrounded me from all sides. I was so depressed and irritable that any triviality was enough to upset me. In one of these moods, I got into an argument with the Rabbi, by whom I was a frequent house-guest. He, the strict Slobodka Masoratic, and even more of a zealot, had become a self-appointed guardian over my Jewishness...whenever I came to see him, he would, instead of asking me if I had eaten, subject me to a severe cross-examination over my adherence to religion: had I prayed yet? He would feel my face with his hand, to see if I had shaved again, and thereby violated the law from the Torah of "the five corners", and other such "offenses".
In fact, my shaving was at that time associated with genuine "preservation of life"...I had to conceal budding manhood from the suspicious eyes of the Russian politzay. But from such things, he wasnt interested in hearing...
He harrassed me so long with his constant lectures, until my patience snapped, and in anger, I slammed the door and never went back...not even to pick up my wages, which were still owing to me as an employee of the Refugee Aid Commitee, of which he was the chairman.
And at about the same time, the bond of friendship which had prevailed between myself and the former Novordocker yeshiva-boy, Yankel Lyubtchanski. was also severed. Up until that point, our friendship had been as strong as the love between David and Jonathan. But recently Yankel, the happy, life-loving young man, had given himself over to the pleasures of the world, from which one might seize as much as possible. He had suddenly shed every trace of the Yeshiva-boy, and rebelled against God and his Torah. He started smoking cigarettes on Sabbath, and wasn't even above trying a piece of "the meat that squeaks", and such things. He had changed, and was no longer willing to deny himself any of this world's temptations.
It wasn't long before he had made aquaintance the village intellectuals, with the well-to-do young women, the former students and midwives-in-training, all of them attractive young women. They were all starved for the society of young people, for the romantic pastimes which the war had so unexpectedly brought to an end. In their present womanly loneliness, they stirred their own imaginations with the erotic novels of Artsibashev and Moposan, which ignited their young blood and intoxicated them with hot, glowing desires for unsatisfied love. And in the person of my friend, the yeshiva-boy, with the dark, romantic eyes, they saw their dreamed-of hero, the slim Cavalier, the proud Officer. Was it any wonder, faced with such an abundance of romantic opportunity, that my friends head was spinning?
And in those days there was one more thought always present in the minds of the youth: "My number may be the next one called". In the meantime, therefore, one had to seize from the worlds pleasures as much as one possibly could, because tomorrow might be too late. This was the new "bible", that my friend, the former yeshiva-boy amnd Masoratic, had learned so quickly, and begun to practise with great fervor.
And so this "agitator" became a modern-day Jerboam ben-Nevot, who, having sinned himself, now wanted others to join with him. He took it upon himself to become my personal guide, to "make a man of me". Perhaps he had the intention, that with two of us it might be easier to ignore the voices of his yeshiva-boys conscience...who knows?
Day in and day out, he would come to me with his constant refrain:
"What's the point of sitting over your books like a hermit? Leave them for later; there will be time for that after the war! Come, better, let me introduce you to beautiful, intelligent young women, the likes of which youve neve seen in your life! Women, I tell you, real beauties, I swear! In their society, youll soon forget about everything and everybody! Come, they're already asking about you!..."
He nagged and argued with me so persistently, that he finally succeded in awakening within me, that 17-18-year-old boy, the desire to make the acquaintance of those "beauties".
So I went along with him. But I felt very uncomfortable in their half-Russified female society. I felt lost and embarrassed, like a village boy who finds himself among big-city folk. In addition, I was terrified to open my mouth in Russian, in case I should make somehow a mistake, which would make a bad impression on these well-educated high-school graduates. So I ended up sitting there withdrawn, like a stranger. And no matter how they tried to draw me into their cheerful, happy society...they were not successful.
My friend, on the other hand, was like a fish in water. He regaled his admiring listeners with witticisms...tossing off Russian expressions right and left. It didn't bother him in the least, that he butchered the beautiful, resonant Russian Tongue with his fractured grammar.
Before long he had tossed aside his hat, lit up a cigarette, and like an real cavalier, grabbed hold of one of the girls and led her around the floor in a dance, to the music of a balalayka or a mandolin....soon, he had taken hold of a second one, and disappeared with her in a dark corner. And in that time, he would look at me as though he were a nouveau-riche, who wanted to show off his "riches" before a poor neighbor.
He was on fire, devouring a world that had been out of bounds to the former Novardock yeshiva-boy. Now that he had crossed over that line, the thirst for the forbidden worldly pleasures had burst out of him with the force of hot steam bursting out of a vessel.
His reckless abandon, his unboundedness, both in his infatuation with women, and in his screaming heresy, which verged on obscenity, was finally more than I could bear. Although I myself was no "holy man", and had for quite some time now failed to observe the "613 commandments", yet still, deep in my heart, I was basically religious. And so with each day, he became more of a stranger to me. I began to avoid him and his intelligent "beauties".
But since being alone with my own uneasy thoughts was even worse, I began to spend time with the local, working-class youth, which consisted of a group of tradesfolk: shoemakers, tailors and seamstresses, who shared with me a longing for the printed word in Yiddish. Among them, I felt quite at home.
Every night we would meet together in another house. By the shine of a small oil-lamp, behind closed windows, we spent many long, pleasant winter evenings. You could talk at ease, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. One would start up a melody, a folksong, Rayzen's "Huliehet, Huliehet Beyze Vinten", or his "Mah Koh Mashmo Lon" and others, and everyone would join in softly and sing along. From time to time I would read for them something by Peretz, a humorous story by Sholem Aleykhem, which would bring forth a hearty laughter from everyone. Other times someone would start a discussion about Jewish and general affairs; what would happen after the war was over. Everything was so relaxed, so free and natural...as "natural" as the need and poverty, which stared at you from every corner!
When this lively group would get hungry, it would be time to conduct a shared feast. From under the oven someone would pull out a basket of potatoes, start up a fire on the hearth, and start boiling a pot of potatoes. Soon there would appear on the table a loaf of black bread....someone would cut it into portions. We threw ourselves on that bread and potatoes like a pack of wolves, washing it down with a glass of hot tea from the kettle.
In those moments, your heart was at ease. For the time being, your could forget about all your sad surroundings, and your constant loneliness. You felt then, that it was good that your fate was bound together with the fate of these poor, honest, sturdy working-folk, who shared their bread and their friendship together.
Eventually, the hard-working parents, who were trying to sleep in the next room, would give a signal with a cough and a throat-clearing that it was time already to call it quits. Quietly we would make our way home, alone and in pairs, through the narrow side streets, so as not to alert, God forbid, the military patrol, which kept watch over the sleeping Jewish village of Rakov.
40. Between Dreams and Reality
With the progress of the war, each new day brought with it more trouble. Here was a family that had yet another son, or a son-in-law, taken away to the army. There, the military authorities had imposed a severe punishment on a Jewish shopkeeper, bringing him to misfortune. A father would suddenly receive the tragic news, that his son had fallen in the slaughter-fields. Parents whose under-age children were soon to be eligible for military duty wandered about like dark shadows, with sad, worried faces.
Even more depressed and downcast were the village youth. They felt that they were being watched from all sides. They would get together less and less frequently, as though afraid to face one another.
I, the stranger, who carried the additional stigma of an assumed name, virtually stopped showing my face in the streets, never mind visiting a friend's house. I had the feeling, that when those worried mothers and fathers saw me going about free and sound in all my limbs, that they would be jealous of me; I didn't want to remind them of their own sons, who were rotting away in the trenches, while I, the stranger, strutted about "free and easy" over their streets.
I stayed cooped up in my small room, with my troubled thoughts to keep me company. In this isolations of mine, I felt for the first time the full weight of my loneliness. The wintry silence of the small village of Rakov gave me the eerie feeling that the residents were all inmates of an insane asylum, with each one isolated from the others, and all of them suffering from the same sickness.
I found myself searching deeper and deeper within my own soul. Things that were locked inside of me, that I had been ignoring until now, began once again to gnaw at me like a worm, forcing me to take stock again:
"Millions of young men like you are away spilling their blood, and here you are hiding out behind a false name....this is cowardice! If you bear a grudge against the Russian Czar for all the persecutions, which he has carried out and continues to carry out against your people, how is the Fatherland to blame whose soil is now besieged by a bitter enemy? Go! Pick up a rifle and defend your homeland like everyone else, because you are also a part of her!"
But then another voice pushed its way forward, which argued just the opposite:
"You say "earth" and "soil"...fine, where then is your share of earth in this great "Fatherland?" Haven't you seen for yourself what happened to your brothers, the Jews of Kovna and Souvlak, who had occupied their land for generations, who had made it fruitful with their shveyss un blut, and suddenly, without so much as an "if you please", they wre uprooted from their soil and scattered like straw in the wind?"
And so there continued within me a bitter struggle. One voice screamed at me:
"Go! Go! You have to show everybody, that the things they say about us Jews, that we are cowards, is a lie! A slander!"
And a second voice answered back:
"Dont go! Don't throw your life away! Enemies will always be enemies! Your sacrifice will never be acknowledged, because that has always been the fate of us Jews!"
These thoughts continued to rage against each other in my mind. Confused feelings raged within me, keeping me awake all night. The angry voices wrapped themselves around my neck, all but choking me to death...
During those uneasy times, I used to go to the House of Study, to the Womens Section, where there lived a homeless familiy, consisting of an older couple and a daughter with four small children, who had found their way here all the way from some distant border town in Polish Galicia. They were actually following the daughter's husband, the son in law, who was here as a soldier behind the front lines, baking bread for the Russian Army.
To this particular family I felt a special closeness. Something about them cried out of such pain and sorrow, more than the other homeless, as though they were a symbol of the whole Jewish Exile. Whether it was their appearance or their manner of speaking, something separated them the great mass of homeless Lithuanina Jews among whom they lost and strange.
I often brought them their "dole", so they shouldn't have to stand and wait in line. More than once, I brought them the military doctor with medicine for their old grandfather, or for their sick boy, the youngest, who suffered from ashthma. Whenever I came, the sad pale faces of those homeless children would light up...they would rush to greet me, just as though I were their own brother. Even the very sick 6-7-year-old boy would manage a weak smile.
One day, when I came to visit them, as soon as I opened the door of the House of Study, I heard a wailing, a cry from the children. I ran inside, and saw before me a shocking scene, which made my blood run cold:
The young mother of four children was sitting on the ground, with the sick child in her arms. The childs face was yellow, the eyes glazed, the body a stick of wood....dead. The unfortunate mother was sitting motionless, staring with unseeing eyes wide open. The children, clearly in shock from their mothers mute silence, were clutching at their elderly grandparents, who were whispering prayers. The children cried out to their dead brother:
"Yankel, little brother, open your eyes! Uncle is here! Uncle is here!..."
I was horrified. The cries of the children stabbed me to the heart. I ran off to get help. They were barely able to pull the dead child from the mothers arms.
Late at night, after returning from the funeral of the homeless child whom I had helped to a Jewish burial, I stumbled into my small room, threw myself on the bed, buried my face in my mothers pillow, and cried. All the pain and loneliness I felt inside, and all the suffering I saw around me, burst forth with the force of a river spilling over its banks.
That night, I was tormented by all kinds of dreams. One dream in particular, which etched itself deep in my soul, is still clear in my mind:
I was suddenly back in my village of Zastavia, making my way towards my mothers house. I saw a great crowd standing outside, all of them with such dark, sad faces. I barely pushed my way through the crowd, into the house. On the floor, under a black shroud, surrounded by burning candles, there lay a small, shrunken body.
"Mother!" the thought raced through my mind.
Kneeling by her head, with a lighted candle, there sat my sister Pesheh-Blumeh, with dishevelled hair, crying out loud. Holding tightly to her was my little sister Dinelleh, with the blond hair and blue eyes, whimpering softly. On the other side sat my younger brother Yitzkhak-Eyzik moaning. My father, a bent figure, stood at her feet, wringing his hands and pleading with a hoarse voice:
"Ester-Yehudit, Ester-Yehudit! Why have you left me?"
I threw myself to the ground, reached out to the black shroud and began to cry in an anguished voice:
"Mother! You cant be dead! You mustnt die! Stand up, look at me, Ive come back to you! Speak to me! Let me hear your sweet voice! Mother! Mother!!"
Suddenly I am awake, drenched in a cold sweat. My teeth are chattering from the cold. I look around to see where I am. Where is my mother? Where has everything suddenly disappeared to? Was it all nothing more than a bad dread? But who is that standing by my bed? Yes, its just my landlord, Botvinnik the mechanic! He is standing over me with a light in his hand, trembling. Next to him stnads his wife, my landlady...she is shaking with fear.
"For the good! Let some good come of this!", repeated the frightened woman, and added for good measure, "To far-away fields and forests, let it go!"
But no sooner had my landlord left me alone, than I was once more immersed in that feverish delerium. The Angel of Dreams was not yet finished with me.
I was back home with my family. We were all going to my mothers funeral. I hear the wheels of the funeral-wagon clattering over the stone bridge, which leads to the City of Kamenetz, to the Last Resting Place. The whole village is following us. I try to scream, to cry, but I cant. Something is stuck in my throat. My heart is torn with pity for myt poor mothger, and for myself as well. How can this be? Will I never again feel my mother's arms around me? Will she never again clutch me to her heart, the way she always used to do whenever I came home for the holidays? Would I never again hear my mother's soothing voice, which used to calm me to my very soul?
But who is holding me back? Who wont let me go to my mother? "Mother! Mother! Come to me!" A heart-rending cry burst out from my soul.
For the second time, I was awoken by my kind landlady, interrupting my dream. She spat in fear while mumbling the words:
"Tfui! Tfui! A dream, for the good, may some good come of this."
The night was finally over. Daylight was already coming through the window. I lay there completely drained, broken in all my limbs. When I came to my senses, I dragged myself out of bed and got dressed....from my suitcase, I pulled out my phylacteries, which had lain unused for months, and with the tired, uncertain steps of an old man, made my way to the House of Study.
That morning, I prayed with heart and purpose, like in the old days back in the Yeshiva. And when the mourners required to say Kaddish for a deceased relative got up to say Kaddish....I suddenly jerked to my feet. Without realizing what I was doing, I stood up with all the mourners and began to say the Orphans Kaddish:
"Yiskadal ve'yiskadash shemey robboh...."
But as soon as the words had left my mouth, I realized what I had done. A shudder came over my whole body...my legs buckled, and I fell back on the bench...
Years later, after my wanderings, when I finally made it back home again, I found out that this had not been just an idle dream. My mothers name had been called on that very night...
41. I Start to Write
It happenned suddenly. Right in the midst of my darkest moods, I felt a powerful urge arise within me...and I sat down and began to write, with great urgency. I spilled out on paper all of my heartache and loneliness. My writing was no love-song to nature, or to the Daughter of Heaven, the Muse that had appeared to me for the first time...rather, it was a cry for help from a young, anguished heart. The more I wrote, the more I felt that the tangled voices and painful thoughts, that had wrapped themselves about my neck like serpents, were loosening their grip on me an letting me breathe easier.
In my first literary work, which came forth so unexpectedly, like a call from the depths of my soul, I didn't only bemoan my own, personal fate...rather, I wrote about the disaster that was taking place among my People: the armies of refugees and deportees, the Exile of Lithuania, whom I had so recently seen scattered on all the highways and byways, weak and hungry, humiliated and burdened. In them I saw a symbol of our long exile, which started out from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the Guadalquiver and the Rhine, the Niemen and the Vistula, and continues to this day all the way to the banks of the Volga.
"Who knows," I wrote with feeling, "if it will ever end?
"Who knows where it will yet lead us?
"Is it all nothing more than the ancient "Get out of your country...", the constant cry to "Go! Keep going! You are a stranger! Everywhere a stranger!...."
I wrote not as one who went out with loaves of bread and pitchers of water to bring comfort to my hungry and thirsty brothers, the dispersed wanderes....but rather as one who was himself a wanderer among the great mass of displaced persons.
I did not merely bemoan the sufferings and the tribulations of my People Israel.....rather, like a faithful son of Israel, I also tried to find the true solution to our Exile, so that the Jewish People should no longer have to be the eternal scapegoat.
And wherein did I, the young boy who had suddenly been possessed by the Muse, see the road to Israel's salvation?
I wrote from the depths of my heart:
"Stand up, my People, cast off your chains of exile! Turn back to Holy Zion, and be once more a nation among nations! We will be the "light unto the Gentiles", the sole bearers of light among the nations, so let us come together, that we should also have a place under the sun!"
I believed, with all the fire of my youthful idealism, that as soon as the People of Israel" would hear my flaming words, my call to action, that they would quickly re-direct their March of Exile towards the Land of their Forefathers, where their problems would be solved.
And although my burning speech, my call to action, went no further than my rickety writing table, I continued to scour the writings of the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, to find the perfect phrase, to reach straight to the reader's soul. And when the Lord of the Universe would take pity on me and actually send me the word I was looking for....at that moment, there would be no limit to my joy.
I sat day and night and wrote with force and urgency. Red-hot words flowed from my pen as though driven by some primeval force, without pause or hesitation. Line after line, page after page, flowed from my pen with such speed, that I didn't even dare to stop and read them over. I was afraid that if I should pause for a rest, the stream might be interrupted, the way it had happened with the widow, in whose pitcher of oil the Prophet Elisha had sent his blessing.
The canvas on which I painted my pictures was of a dark gray color, and so was my tone, which resonated like a modern-day Book of Lamentations. From one side, I described the Jewish pain and suffering, which was as deep as the sea; from the other side, I decried the shame of man, the "chosen of Creation", who willingly renounces his "image of God" in favor of the Mark of Cain, by murdering his own brother. At the same time, I felt that I was experiencing a personal, spiritual awakening. For the first time, I understood the great, mysterious power that lay in the written word. One word is tied to second, and together they breath life into hidden thoughts...a wonderful interplay where ideas and emotions are clothed in words, where word and thought become one, just like in the story from Genesis, "Let us make man in our image..."
By writing, I could forget about my bleak surroundings, forget even about myself....that I was a stranger, lonely and up-rooted from my own soil, who lived under a stranger's name, which followed me everywhere like a dark shadow. Now I had discovered for myself a new world...a world of creation. In the written word I also found companionship, a sense of belonging, warmth and closeness. My life now had sense and purpose. I was no longer all alone with my own uncertain fate.
I didn't write only about the difficulties facing the Jewish people as a whole, but also stories. In my first stories, sketches and pictures from those days, I drew on my longings for home, from which I had been tossed so far away. I saw each one of my former neighbors, just as I had known them back then, as though I were still the same small boy back in my village.
I described the appearance of the ancient, grizzled beadle, Reb Moyshe Starishever, with his patriarchal countenance, his tall, stately figure, his long, silver-white beard and forelocks, which all but hung down below his belt...how he walked about so proudly, carrying his great staff, which was never to be seen without. He carried himself not like the beadle of an insignificant little House of Study in Zastavier, but rather as though he were the High Priest, preparing himself for holy service in the ancient Temple.
I had always looked on him with great respect. I used to see in him the incarnation of our Father Abraham, or some other such holy Jew, the way I pictured them in my childish imagination. It was for me a great pleasure, when on the the ever of Sabbath of a holiday, he gave me the distinction of helping him in the holy work of decorating the House of Study, polishing the brass candelabra, straightening out the place of worship, filling the copper barrel with water, spreading out the long tablecloths, etc. At that time he would be going about back and forth in the empty House of Study, humming a melody from a holiday prayer.
Reb Moyshe the Beadle was a "might Jew". Well into his eighties, he was still a mioght Jew. When he shook hands with you, you felt as though your hand had been suddenly caught between two millstones.
But as he got older, his memory began to fail him. Once he was lighting an anniversary candle, and accidentally knocked it over...it ignited the podium and the box of old books underneath it. The congregation had to put out the fire with wet towels and buckets of water. This somehow confused him, and he panicked. He took his great staff and begin to swing it left and right, all the while shouting desperately:
"Lord, Genitles have broken into your house, to foul your Holy Temple! To destroy your House of Worship!
In his delirious fantasy, he saw himself alone in the Holy Temple, which the enemy had set on fire. And he alone, the guardian of the House of God, would not permit that the fires should destroy it, even if he himself should perish for the "Sanctification of the Name". So long and hard did he fight the imaginary enemy, until his strength left him altogether, and he collapsed like a tree that had been cut down. They had to carry him home and lay him in his bed, from which he would never rise again.
It saddened me that this proud and glorious elder, who for me symbolized the the holy figures of ancient times, should end his days in such a common manner.
I described other figures from home: the beloved Reb Nyokhkeh the Slaughterer, the meek and holy one. He went about with quick steps, beard un forelocks blowing in the wind, eyes lit up, his face pale as a corpse. From deep inside his came forth a heavy groan, a sigh, because it was, alas, his duty to take a knife in hand, to slaughter a dumb creature. But for this he was not to blame: so it was ordained. And so he carried out his sacred mission.
And when his youngest son drowned in the river one hot summer Friday afternoon, he still went to synagogue to greet the Sabbath, like everyone else. And all through the Sabbath, no one saw on his face a sign of grief. He prayed and studied, even more than usual. And when his older son, suffering from a high fever, grabbed one of his father's knives and cut his own throat...once again, the unfortunate father, Reb Nyokhkeh, the meek and holy, accepted it as a judgement against himself...he took it for a sacrifice for his sins, for having all those years cut the throats of innocent, dumb animals.
That Nyokhkeh the Slaughterer had always stood out in my mind as a symbol great moral courage. I saw in him the Patriarch Abraham, who led his one-and-only son, Yitkhak, to the altar, and asked no questions, and did not hesitate.
42. I Become "Famous"
My good friends in Rakov were already wondering why they never saw me any more. They were baffled, and couldnt understand what had happened to me. My mysterious activities were a particular item of speculation among daughters of the well-to-do, who looked for any kind of diversion to help pass the grey, monotonous winter days in that quiet, gloomy village. They somehow felt that this strange, shy boy, with his curly head of hair and with those dreamy eyes of his, must be hiding some kind of deep secrets, which they were determined to uncover....
They started to look for all kinds of ways to get close to me, and thereby catch a glimpse inside my "holy of holies". To this end, they made friends my landladys daughter, an ordinary working-class girl whom they had, until then, only known from a distance. They starting showing up at the house, supposedly to spend time with the daughter....and in the meantime, to catch a glimpse, to steal a peek, to perk up their ears...looking and listening for whatever sounds might come out from the other side of that door, from the locked room where I had my place of refuge. Seeing, however, that from the "other side" there came not even a peep, they would try with a romantic Russian song, a longing melody, to see if they could lure me from my solitude.
But all this time, the mysterious boy was sitting locked up in his room, spinning his magical words from his heart, by the light of a small lamp. He never suspected and never guessed, that on the other side of that thin wall, female eyes were lying in wait for him...
And so passed several evenings...until one, from among that group, one girl....a hot-blooded one, with long black hair, and a pair of big, playful eyes, worked up enough courage to do something. WIth soft, quiet steps, like a cat, she came up to my room, opened the door, crept up behind my back, an managed to blurt out in one breath:
"Excuse me please, what are you writing?"
quickly spun around...my astonished, confused glance met with a pair
of smiling, long-lashed black eyes. I stood up suddenly in the tiny
room, thereby bumping into her proud, firm bosom...like two doves! Her
warm breath seemed to set my face on fire...
I stood there
dumbfounded, my mouth wide open, not knowing what to do with myself
or wth my un-expected guest. The cramped room grew unusually quiet.
You could hear my heart pounding so heard that any minute it would leap
out of my chest. In fact, at that moment, I must have appeared thoroughly
comical in her eyes. Her cherry-red lips parted, and in the half-dark
room her white teeth glistened. She made a motion with her hand to the
one-and-only chair, from which I had so suddenly jumped to my feet,
and asked casually: "May I?" I was just
realizing that so far, not one intelligent word had passed my lips...quickly,
I held out the chair for her, like a real cavalier, and said with a
very polite tone: "Oh, excuse
me, Miss....please have a seat". And I myself
turned around awkwardly, looking for a where I could sit down myself.
Finally, I found the only other place to sit, on the corner of my iron
bed. The moment I sat down, the bedsprings gave off such a wild screech...I
don't know if I was more embarassed or terrified! I found myself sitting
right opposite the girl so that my knees bumped into hers. At that moment
I felt an electric currentpassing through my whole body. It suddenly
got hot and sticky, so I could hardly breathe. Once again, there descended
upon the small room an un-earthly silence.
I stood there dumbfounded, my mouth wide open, not knowing what to do with myself or wth my un-expected guest. The cramped room grew unusually quiet. You could hear my heart pounding so heard that any minute it would leap out of my chest. In fact, at that moment, I must have appeared thoroughly comical in her eyes. Her cherry-red lips parted, and in the half-dark room her white teeth glistened. She made a motion with her hand to the one-and-only chair, from which I had so suddenly jumped to my feet, and asked casually:
I was just realizing that so far, not one intelligent word had passed my lips...quickly, I held out the chair for her, like a real cavalier, and said with a very polite tone:
"Oh, excuse me, Miss....please have a seat".
And I myself turned around awkwardly, looking for a where I could sit down myself. Finally, I found the only other place to sit, on the corner of my iron bed. The moment I sat down, the bedsprings gave off such a wild screech...I don't know if I was more embarassed or terrified! I found myself sitting right opposite the girl so that my knees bumped into hers. At that moment I felt an electric currentpassing through my whole body. It suddenly got hot and sticky, so I could hardly breathe. Once again, there descended upon the small room an un-earthly silence.
Finally she broke the silence. She leaned closer to me, as though she had long been a good friend of mine. She lifted her eyes towards me, and with a gentle, confident voice, started to ask me, if I wouldnt read to her from my writings, my essays....
And although I had long been waiting for someone to read my writings, even though I had been dying to hear the sound of own words, now that the moment was at hand, I felt as though I were standing before a judge who held my fate in his hands. I hesitated, struggling with the choice: to read, or not to read? But when my embarrassed glance met with her black, long-lashed eyes, I had no strength left to resist.
It wasn't long before I was known throughout the whole village of Rakov as "the young writer-poet", who would some day be world-famous....and furthermore, the whole village of Rakov would one day be proud, that on her soil the Muse had first appeared to this "great artist". For a while, I was the center of attention among the town intellectuals, the hero of the beautiful daughters of Rakov, as though to irritate my friend, the former Novordoker yeshiva-boy, who regarded himself as the leading "cavalier" in the village, and who considered me to be most backwards in the ways of romance.
But my un-expected acquaintanceship with this dark-eyed enchantress all but ended in catastrophe for me. Like a dark-haired, magical Lilith, she wanted no less than to take the place of the heavenly daughter...my Muse. And it was clear that for her sake I should become God forbid not a writer, a poet, but instead I should be transformed into an ordinary, week-a-day merchant of grain, pigskin, flax, cloth, and such....just like her father and her older brothers.
But once again, I was rescued by the same capricious fate which had already saved me from more than one disaster. It grabbed me with two strong hands, and hurled me anew on unknown soil. In this way I was saved, in the nick of time, from falling into the love-trap, which that dark-eyed small-town Lilith had spread before my feet.....
I also used my pen to draw other pictures from home...brighter, happier ones. It was Simchat Torah at night. The little House of Study was packed with men, women and chilren. Elderly Jews led the procession around the synagogue holding aloft the Torah scrolls, children waved their flags. Women and girls, standing by the oven on the far side of the podium, leapt forward with out-stretched hands for the Torah scrolls, because it was the one time in the year when they had a good chance to kiss the holiness. Scholars with long beards and forelocks started dancing in a circle. Little Jewish children clapped their hands and danced along. The pranksters, young apprentices and tradesmen, threw spitballs and apple-cores at the respectable householders by the eastern wall. Everyone sang together: Everyone danced a karahod. I was also dancing. Everyone jumped...I also jumped. Everyone shouted....I also shouted.
It was good indeed; a pleasure. Here beside me stands my father. He looks at me proudly, not at all like the strict father from all year long. Over there, among the womens congregation, stands my mother, beaming with joy. I lead her to the Torah Scrolls, where she wipes from her eye a joyful tear.
Drawing these pictures from my village, I could forget that ther was a war, that I was in a strange place, far from my family, from those closest to me, not knowing what the next morning would bring...rather, it felt like everything was as it was before, back in the good old days.
And once I had tasted the sweet, dripping honey of binding words to feelings, thoughts to words...I couldmt tear myself away from it. I was drawn to it as though under a spell. I wrote day and night. I found in my writing a spiritual stronghold, an "city of refuge", a place of rest for my rudderless soul. My whole being was overcome with an inner peace, which flowed from the depths of my heart and soul. I wanted to thank and praise the Lord of the World, that I had found favor in his eyes, and He had seen fit to bless me with the holy spark.
43. A Pair of Wooden Crutches
The snow had melted. Green grass was starting to poke through the black earth. Here and there you would see a summer-bird, returning from the distant south. The village peasant was starting to attend to his farm machinery, which had lain all winter rusting under a pile of straw. As soon as the ground was dry, he would be going back out to the field with his plow. The freshly-plowed soil would swallow up the farmer's seed-kernels, and it wouldn't be long before the face of the earth would be covered with waving fields of wheat, with fruit and vegetables. The air would be filled with the chirping, buzzing, and sounds of all Gods creatures, as they made themselves fruitful and multiplied.
Soldiers with bearded, ash-grey faces, who had lain all winter buried in their deep trenches, began to quietly, cautiously peek out from under the dark baarricades, and with bleary eyes began to look around at Gods world. With wide-open nostrils, they sucked in the smell of fresh earth, that reminded them of their own fields back home. Even the sound of bullets whizzing here and their reminded them now of the birds and the bees, carrying them back to their quiet, peaceful villages.
Mother Russia was preparing now to drive back the enemy, which had sunk its wolfish teeth deep in the body of the motherland. Everywhere, on all fronts, energetic, feverish preparations were underway. People were sharpeneing swards, polishing their rifles and bayonets, that they should shine more brilliantly in the light of the sun.
From all over Russia, whole new armies of middle-aged fathers were being called up, along with new reserves, young sons, recruits. In the cities, legions on young people, carrying their belongings suitcases and valises. Together with the arriving legions of peasants from the villages, they all converged to the central military camps.
Around those military collection-points for new recruits, there could be heard a great wailing....parents seeing their sons off, husbands leaving their wives behind, bridegrooms with their brides, children with their fathers. The commontion was terrible. Heart-rending scenes were played out: here, a mother suddenly fainted; over there, a young girl couldnt pull herself from the arms of her beloved. Here a child was crying, with his hand stretched out towards his departing father. Military patrols kept everyone moving...quickly, quickly. And from up above, as though nothing were wrong on earth, there shone down a warm, springime sun.
In the towns and villages which lay near the front, the police began to intensify their search for deserters, the so-called "rabbits", who had gone into hiding to save themselves from the killing fields. No young man could walk the streets without fear that he might be seized. The police and the gendarmerie were no longer bothering to look at documents...it was all the same whether you had a real passport or a fake one: everyone had to go defend the Fatherland. There was panic and confusion.....people rushed here and there, like frightened dogs trying to run away from the dog-catcher.
My false name "Yitzkhak Taytsh", still following me around like a dybbuk, was, like me, also another year older. I was expecting any day now that either I would be called on to report to the military for my "day of judgement. Or maybe they would just grab hold of me in broad daylight, and haul me off to one of the enlistment centres. The thought that I would have to go off to war, to lay down my life under a false name, all but drove me to distraction. I used to envy my comrade, the former Novordak yeshiva-boy, who was also living under a false identity. He was better off than I: with his puny, scrawny appearance, he could easily be taken for a young boy...but what was I to do with my tall figure and broad shoulders?
Nighttimes I would go to sleep in an attic, a cellar, or a barn. The smallest noise would make me jump...life had become unbearable. Fortunately, the beautiful, kind-hearted Jewish daughters of Rakov, my "listeners", stood watch for me, keeping me safe. As soon as they sensed danger, that the police were making a "roundup", they would warn me, in I would hide myself in a new attic somewhere. And a very special watch was kept for me by my dark-eyed angel, Sonia P., who hid and protected me like a faithful sister. Secretly, she provided me with food and cigarettes. More than once, she let me hide for the night in her parents store, in a dark cellar, which was packed with merchandise, and in doing so all but brought down mis-fortune on her unsuspecting parents.
I resolved to get away from there as quickly as possible...but where to run, with the police lurking at every turn? Perhaps to Minsk? There, I might disappear into the vast crowds of homeless, and nobody would see me or hear me. Also, I had heard that after the expulsion of Kovno, many of my friends from my Slobodka yeshiva "Knesset Yisroel" had found in Minsk a temporary "city of refuge". It would in fact be good to be together with them once again! But there was a bigger problem in Minsk: the Minsk Governor-General Hirsh, apparently a German, and a dreadful Enemy of Israel, had given orders to seize any Jewish youth and send him straight to the front. Di Rakov wagon-drivers, who went there twice a week for supplies, told stories of horrible things that would make your hair stand on end.
What was one to do? What kind of solution was there?
But my salvation came altogether unexpectedly; my dear, clever auntie, the Cantors wife in Molodetchno, had been working all along on a new plan for me, to save me from falling into Gentile Hands. She wrote me, that I should leave as soon as possible, to go to her daughter Fanya, the teacher, who lived in the great Russian city of Yaroslavl, which lay on the far side of Moscow, on the very banks of the famous River Volga. There, her son-in-law, Shmul Voltchok, would get me a job in the same leather factory, where he worked, for which he had been freed from active service. It was actually a very good plan.....but how does the cat cross the river? That was something I would have to figure out for myself.
Late one evening, the youth of Rakov gathered with me in my room, behind covered windows and locked doors, to prepare me for my journey. The dark-eyed Sonia P., who was known in the shtetl as a very capable young woman, undertook to accompany me as far as the other side of Minsk. They wrapped my head in bandages, smelling of carbolic acid, as though I were dangerously ill. My dear friends provided me with all necessary provisions for the road, just as my mother used to do when she sent me off to the yeshiva.
I had one important question left to resolve: what should I do with my manuscripts, with my own writings? Take them with me? That could be very dangerous, because in those days the Yiddish word, in printed form, and even more so in written form, was strictly prohibited...every Jew was suspected of being somehow a German spy. My friends were throughly convinced, that I should leave it with them, under their supervision, and as soon as the war was over, God willing, I would return and be re-united with the fruits of my Muse. But it was very hard for me to leave my writings behind...I felt at that moment as though someone were going to cut off my hand or my foot.
After much discussion, I resolved: "Come what may..." whatever happened to me, would also happen to my manuscript. Because we were inseparable! We were of one body and one soul!
I tore opens my mothers pillow, which she had made hersef on one of those long winter nights, on her warm seat by the fire, plucked feather by feather with her own hand......and inside it, I laid my bundle of manuscripts, that I had plucked from my heart and soul....and so I departed from my beloved village of Rakov, which now had its own place deep in my heart, and placed myself in Gods hands, in the wide world.
The long trip to Moscow went by without incident. There I changed trains to continue on to Yaroslavl. It was late in the afternoon. All the way to Moscow, I had been staring out the window of my rail-car, soaking up pictures of the new Russia, which I was seeing for the very first time. Her great cities and spacious fields, which lay along the route from Minsk to Smolensk to Moscow, made a deep impression on me.
What a country! How satisfying it must be to walk freely on Russian soil! I was overcome by a longing, and at the same time a feeling of envy, that I, one who was born in this same land, should have absolutely no sense of belonging, as though I were nothing but a stranger passing through.
The whole time, I saw long trains packed with thousands of soldiers, rushing towards the front, to drive the enemy from their mother earth. Deep in my heart, I envied them for what they felt and what they knew...that they have their own, "rooted" home, that they live on their own land, and for the sake of that beloved soil, they were now prepared to lay down their lives. And here am I, a son of that same Fatherland, no better than a stranger, burdened on top of everything else with the brand of a traitor, a spy, an internal enemy who had made common cause with the external enemy, the German.
And while I was sitting immersed in my depressing thoughts, looking out my window at the great Moscow train-station which was swarming with thousands of people, there suddenly appeared in my empty carriage a limping soldier, hobbling on a pair of wooden crutches, his head wrapped in bandages. With a fit of coughing, he seated himself with difficulty on the hard wooden bench, right across from me. He immediately struck up a conversation with me. He tild me about the bloody slaughters that he had already been through on various fronts; how we was wounded, how he lay for weeks in hospitals, now he was headed home on leave; and as soon as he had recovered, he would return to the front, to defend his "Tsar Batyoushka" and his "Mother Russia".
I was overcome by pity for this wounded soldier. I was tormented by painful thoughts: I felt as though I, the deserter with the phony name, was to blame for his suffering, for his lame, wounded legs. I offered him a first a cigarette, then some chocolate. I shared with him the tasty egg-tarts, all the provisions that the lovely, kind-hearted Daughters of Rakov had provided me with when I set out on my way. The soldier, the invalid, took great pleasure in them all. He blessed me and thanked me profusely. He then asked if I might be so kind as to bring for him from the station a pot of hot water, because he was, alas, terribly thirsty. I gladly went off, eager to help this unfortunate war casualty in any way I could, thereby making up somehow for my own guilt, that gnawed at me like a silent worm......
When I came hurrying back with the pot of hot water, my new friend, the wounded soldier, was nowhere to be seen. And along with him, my baggage had also disappeared.
I stood there dumbstruck, unable to move, as though my legs had been cut off. The station clock began to chime; the heavy locomotive let out a whistle. Hot, bitter tears flowed from my eys. I hardly cared that I had lost all my posessions, my winter clothes, the sack with my mothers pillow, the only connection I still had with my long-lost home, wherein my passport with my true name was hidden. ll these things paled into insignificance next to the loss of my first manuscripts, that I had written with all the fire of my young heart. I felt broken, ashamed, devastated, orphaned....I wanted to run away, to cry out, make an outburst, so that heaven and earth should hear my pain...but at that moment, my eyes fell on the two wooden crutches, which still lay there on the bench, as though to mock me. I sat down on the heard wooden bench and wept uncontrollably....
You can purchase "On Foreign Soil" by using your Visa card. Phone toll-free 1-888-378-9273 for more information. "On Foreign Soil" is available in hardcover in two volumes. Volume I (349 pp.) covers childhood until the outbreak of the Revolution (1898-1917). Volume II (388 pp.) covers the period from 1917 to 1927. Each volume is $25.00, and may be ordered separately. Although we are located in Canada, all prices are in US dollars. Please add $5.00 for shipping and handling. If you wish to pay with Canadian dollars, please add 40% to the prices listed above. (Cheques or money orders may be made payable to Martin Green, c/o Benchmark Publishing, 477 Jarvis Ave, Winnipeg MB, Canada R2W 3A8.)