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Chapter 17: A Girl
From My Hometown
One Saturday morning, we met as usual on the corner of
Flaker's Street and turned to walk down it. As always, the windows were shuttered. I
asked Abrasha if he knew the occupation of the occupants of those houses, To my amazement,
he answered unhesitatingly, "Yes, indeed, 'znus' (prostitution). Imagine, a
young lady selling herself for money. The most cherished things in life, love and
motherhood, are offered for so much money. I have contempt for such women, and yet I also
To think that a girl might do that without any love for the
man! The thought horrified me; it seemed inconceivable. Abrasha's explanation was
complete, and I heard it for the first time. Until then, the existence of prostitution had
been unknown to me, and the thought of it made me feel like vomiting.
Suddenly, we heard my name being called, "Moshe!
Moshe!" We turned our heads and saw that a young girl, standing on the opposite side
of the street, was calling me, "Please, Moshe, don't you know me?" Abrasha
was astounded and asked me if I knew her. I told him I wasn't sure, and he suggested
that we walk over and find out.
Two more girls were standing beside her and I recognized
her. She was from my town, from a good family which had become impoverished. For about two
years, she had been a maid in sister Sarah's house. Her name was Lea. I was almost
speechless, but managed to ask, "Lea, what are you doing here?" She began to
weep, but told us her story. Her married sister received a letter from a girl friend who
had moved to Bialystok asking her to send Lea there. In Bialystok, she wrote, "I
shall help Lea attain something." Lea had come to Bialystok about three months
previously and said that this was what she helped Lea attain. "Do you know, Moshe,
what I am forced to do here?" she asked, looking down. Abrasha asked if she was
pleased doing that. Weeping, without looking at either of us, she said that she was
desperate and despised herself all the time.
She had seen us passing by the past two Saturday mornings,
she explained, and had decided to watch for us on that morning hoping to talk to us. She
implored me not to write home about her, which I promised. It made her happy to see one
that knew her family so well. On Saturday morning, she explained, the girls were free. Her
master and the "Madam" of the house usually went to services.
Abrasha and I went on to the forest. I was then only a
little past thirteen, but I realized the depth of Lea's plight. I thought about the
woman who had deliberately condemned Lea, who was only fourteen, to physical and moral
ruin. I had observed treachery among people, even in children, but Women, I felt, had
finer feeling than men. Suppose something like that should happen to Malka, or one of my
sisters, what would I do? There was no question in my mind that I would act, but
didn't know exactly how, or what I would do.
We had been walking in silence, and Abrasha finally spoke
up, interrupting my thoughts. He asked about Lea's family, and when I told him, he
suggested that perhaps something could be done to save her.
We reached the forest, but there was no question of doing
any studying that morning. We both realized our limited capacity for whatever we might
wish to do to help her. We were young; we were Yeshiva pupils. It would be embarrassing to
even relate the incident to anyone. After a lengthy discussion, we both agreed that the
only person we could possibly confide in was Gospodyin Shmulevich, and we decided to try
to see him that very afternoon.
A neighbor told us that the Shmulevich family was at the
park not far away. We found them there, along with the two other instructors and their
families. After introducing Abrasha to their wives, I asked to speak to Gospodyin
Shmulevich privately. I began to tell him how Abrasha and I had met that morning for a
stroll and then began to blush. I looked at Abrasha, hoping he would come to my
assistance, but he bad his head turned away. I began to perspire profusely and groping for
words. Gospodyin Shmulevich became impatient and asked me if I actually did have something
urgent to discuss with him.
I was gazing down as I told him I did, but turned to
Abrasha and asked him to tell the story. Gospodyin Shmulevich was restless and asked,
"A story?" Abrasha remarked that it was a story and that there was a girl
involved, and that she was from my home town. "A girl?" asked Gospodyin
Shmulevich. "Go on, then, tell me what you've come to tell me."
The ice had been broken. Gospodyin Shmulevich seemed
interested. With much faltering, Abrasha and I, complementing each other, gradually
related our shocking experience and concluded with a plea to help the girl. "Very
well," he said, "I shall see what can be done in the matter."
I slept very little that night. It was mid-June, and the
nights were short. When dawn came, I was even more restless. I realized my helplessness in
my desire to help Lea, but I had another desire, to convey to the poor girl that something
had been started in her behalf. Perhaps such news would cheer her up. But there was no
question of my going over to see her at that "house."
At the session the following afternoon, Gospodyin
Shmulevich told Abrasha and me that he had already discussed Lea's plight with one of
the leaders of the Jewish community. He told us that it would be a difficult and thankless
task, but assured us that, if she was willing to be rescued, she would be.
I was in a sleepy state all that Sunday and merely feigned
attention to Rob Isaac's lecture. I kept my eyes fixed on the page of the Talmud
volume that lay before me, which I shared with another boy, but didn't follow the
tutor and didn't absorb his explanations. My sleeplessness of the previous night had
its effect and prevented me from concentrating, though I was much better prepared for the
I slept better Sunday night, but having missed Reb
Isaac's lecture the day before, I found it difficult to concentrate on the
recitations during the following days of that week. Had I been called on Thursday during
review, I should have failed miserably. I permitted my mind to become almost completely
occupied with Lea and her miserable condition, but, at last, Saturday arrived.
Abrasha and I met at the appointed time and place, but he
suggested that we use a different route to the forest, even though it was much farther. I
had waited for that Saturday morning with great impatience, and I frankly admitted that I
wished to see Lea. He was irritated by my stubbornness, and remarked that I didn't
have any practical sense. I told him to do his studying by himself, at least on that
Saturday, and I would attempt to see her. "Now," he said, "you are
threatening to bring our friendship to an end. You are acting younger than your age, but I
shall go along with you, Just this time."
We turned into Flaker Street, and walked on the opposite
side of her "house," We walked the whole block, but there was no Lea. We walked
back to the corner and there we saw a young girl on the opposite side walking swiftly
toward the corner, and motioning to us. We stopped, and she motioned us to follow her. She
turned right on the street that ran perpendicular to Flaker's and when we reached
her, she told us that she was one of the other two girls we had seen together with Lea the
Saturday before. The other girl, she said, had reported Lea to the boss, and Lea was
whipped for violating the regulation not to communicate with people outside the
"house." Lea would have to remain indoors for three weeks.
She handed us a note from Lea, written in Yiddish, in which
she implored me to save her. I wrote a brief note back, in Yiddish, to inform her that
rescue work had already been started and to assure her that we would not rest until we
succeeded. The girl thanked us and said that she would not forget that there were still
some good people in the world.
I began to fall further behind in my Talmud studies after
the Sunday morning when I was sleepy and preoccupied with Lea's distressful
situation, and was finding it ever more difficult to concentrate. I was lucky, I thought,
that the tutor hadn't called on me to recite, either on any advance portion or at
review. Had he done so, many of my classmates would have welcomed it as an opportunity to
jeer at me. All my classmates seemed very friendly to one another, but most of them seemed
to try to avoid me. I knew how miserable I would be after failing a recitation and I began
to fear such an ominous possibility.
Several weeks passed. I no longer had any hope of catching
up with the Talmud study and had been drifting away ever farther. Sooner or later, I knew,
Rob Isaac was bound to call on me and I was in mortal fear of being exposed as a phony.
Another two months and the semester would end. I would then have to go home and face
Father. I confided in Abrasha, but he was unable to advise me, as it was too late in the
semester to pick up where I had left off. "Besides," he said, "your
ambition lies with the courses."
The only other person I could confide in was Gospodyin
Shmulevich, but I remembered that he had been abrupt when I consulted him at the beginning
of the semester. Nevertheless, I decided to go to his home on Friday afternoon,
immediately after the Yeshiva was out. I knew I would not find him at home so early. This
would give me an opportunity to talk with Mrs. Shmulevich. I knew she was a compassionate
person, and I felt reasonably sure that she would discuss my problem with her husband and
perhaps influence him on my behalf.
Like all Jewish housewives on Friday afternoon, Mrs.
Shmulevich was neatly attired with a white apron over her dress preparing the Friday
evening meal, even though neither she nor her husband were overly religious. The dietary
laws and the strict observance of the Sabbath were not a part of their cultural and
spiritual life, and they often referred to "modern thought" as distinguished
from religious dogma. They possessed a deep respect for the feelings and convictions of
their orthodox parents, however, and they restrained themselves in their behavior. They
attended services at the synagogue only on the high holidays, but were conscious of their
Jewishness and proud of their heritage.
Mrs. Shmulevich, despite her preoccupation with her chores,
was her usual self, affable, charming and smiling. "He almost never comes home this
early, even on Friday," she said. "By the way," she commented,
"I'm glad you took such an interest in that girl and I'm glad it turned out
the way it did." I felt my face was reddening and turned my head and gazed downward.
"Did you come to see him about that girl?" she asked. "If so," she
continued, "I can tell you that she is now a maid in a prominent Jewish home."
That was good news, and I thanked her for the information.
I then told her that I had come to see Gospodyin Shmulevich regarding a problem of my own.
"Is it one of your perennial problems?" she asked. I told her that it was of a
similar nature, but much more serious, and she suggested that I tell her while she
continued to work.
That vas precisely what I was hoping for and I began to
unfold my story. I stressed the fact that I would find it impossible to return home at the
end of the semester. "You seem inclined toward pessimism," she said, "and
you are much too young for that." I politely declined her invitation to remain over
for dinner, telling her that Uncle and the family would be worried. She suggested that I
come over the following afternoon.
Abrasha and I met in the morning, as we had been doing for
the past two months. We followed the infamous Flaker Street to the woods. I told him what
I had learned about Lea's rescue. This time, we didn't anticipate seeing Lea or
anybody else, but a girl's voice greeted me with a Polish "Dzien dobry,
Moshek" ("good morning Moshe"). We looked around and saw Lea's friend.
"If you see Lea," she cried, "please greet her in my name." We
returned her greetings but decided that we would no longer use that street. Being
recognized and greeted by a resident of that street was embarrassing.
Immediately after dinner, I hurried over to the Shmulevich
home. I knew that he had peculiar moods, but hoped I would find him well disposed and
properly prepared by his wife.
His mood was cheerful enough. "Moshe," he said
immediately after he and his wife greeted me, "I am glad you came over. I have good
news for you about Lea. She's out of that cursed place. She's now a maid at the Kavons' home, the textile magnate, you know. She's now safe and secure."
He spoke rapidly and it was quite clear that Lea's
rescue gave him a sense of happiness and pride. I was about ready to begin, when he, in a
teasing manner, said, "I understand you, too, have a problem. Knowing you as well as
I do, I can guess what it is. Now, let's have it."
I explained the situation and told him that this time I was
thinking seriously of not going home for the between semesters vacation for the high
holidays. "There was no sense," I went on, "to go on fooling everybody. I
cannot force myself to study the Talmud; I have neglected it too long and my being exposed
as a fraud is inevitable. My conscience has been disturbing me so much that I no longer
have any peace of mind."
Chapter 33: Home
That same day, I wrote Father a letter in which I requested
him to obtain the necessary document, explaining the situation and urgency. Four days
later, I received a telegram from him. It contained just one word: VISLANO (sent out), and
four days afterward, I received the paper, a sort of certificate, signed by the voyt (our
town's mayor) and the sekretar of our gmina (municipality). A letter from Father was
enclosed, urging me to come home, since things had taken such an unfavorable turn for me.
It had been agreed between the Mirovoy Sudya and my employer, as I was advised by
Gospodyin Mirsky, the manager, that, upon receiving the document, I should show it to the
station master and then leave within twenty-four hours. Otherwise, I should be subject to
be taken by Police escort all the way home. Upon receiving the document, I was prepared to
leave, and I boarded the train for home that same day.
The trip by train to Grajewo took two days and nearly two
nights. It included numerous transfers, but the connections were remarkably good, each
requiring short waits - except in Bialystok. I reached that city at 2:30 P. M., and the
train for Grajewo was due to leave at seven. I rushed by droshki to the Shmulevich
Shmulevich was startled at seeing me and exclaimed,
"Moysey, how you have grown!" She insisted that I have lunch with her and
repeatedly expressed regret that I couldn't remain long enough to see her husband.
She told me of several letters they had received from the Rachmil's regarding me.
Some were from Palestine. They were worried, they wrote, over my decision not to return to
The mention of the Rachmil name made me sad. From the
moment I discovered, in Yekaterinoslav, of Pavel's family's move to Harbin, I
realized the mistake I had made in not returning to Gomel and to Ratner's. The
reference to the Rachmil's letters only served to bring this freshly back to my mind.
There was no time to be lost. I left the Shmulevich
apartment, happy that I had seen Mrs. Shmulevich, who would convey my greetings to her
husband, and rushed to Uncle Zalman's house, a good distance away. Uncle Zalman and
my aunt barely recognized me. I asked them if they were still holding a grudge against me.
Both bluntly expressed resentment over my sneaking out of their house two and one-half
years before, but said they had long since forgiven me. They were glad to see me. I spent
about two hours with them and then rushed to the depot.
In the evening of the following day I reached Radzilowo.
The family was expecting me; even my two younger sisters were up, waiting for my arrival.
At last I was home, in the beloved town of my birth, after an absence of nearly three
years. Whenever I thought of that period, I felt that it was the time of my adolescence, a
very interesting period for me. My contact with the people in Gomel had its beneficial
effect; it served to accelerate my mental maturity. I had grown in education, in
experience and understanding of life; my intellectual horizon had widened. I was no longer
a young boy from a little town; I had absorbed knowledge from several sources, not from
the Gymnasia alone. The reception that Father, the moome and my younger sisters gave me
overwhelmed me. It was after midnight that Father suggested we retire. "He needs to
rest up," he said.
I went to bed, but was too nervous to fall asleep. I was
happy to be with the family and so crushed by the affection shown me that I began to weep.
But one of the reasons for my sleeplessness was my impatience in hoping to see Malka. She
had been on my mind almost continually since I had decided to return home. I wished for
morning to come soon.
I finally felt asleep and woke up rather late. The moome,
with an expression of great happiness, invited me to have breakfast, but pleaded with me
to go to the synagogue immediately after for morning prayers. (According to Orthodox
Judaism, one may not eat anything before such prayers.) Because of the late morning hour,
I was bound to be hungry, and "God will forgive both of us this time." I
responded to her plea. On the way to the synagogue, people stared at me, in surprise at my
arrival in January, a time when I should have been studying at the Yeshiva or the
Gymnasia. Nevertheless, everyone greeted me with smiles.
The hour was too late for any minyan. Actually, there was
no one in the synagogue except Rabbi Akiba [Goldberg]. He was seated in his pew looking into a Talmud
volume. He raised his head and, as he looked at me, I nodded my head in greeting. I
removed my overcoat and proceeded to adjust the tefillin straps that belong to the head.
The Rabbi, I noticed, was watching me and, as I placed it securely on my head and began to
adjust the one that belonged on the left arm, he motioned to me to come forward. I did,
and he asked me whether I was a stranger visiting someone in town. I identified myself,
and he nearly screamed. "You are Moshe, Joseph's? A young man, a grown young
man, you are! Glad to see you, really."
There was much snow on the ground, but it was a sunny day.
I visited sister Sarah's house and was received most cordially by my brother-in-law.
In view of his past hostility toward me, it was a pleasant surprise. I saw many people
during the day, including some of Malka's girlfriends - from a distance, of course. I
took several short strolls in the direction of Malka's house, but I did not see her.
As I was unpacking, Father commented about the number of books that I had brought along
with me and about the loving care with which I was handling them. I said that they were
invaluable to me. "Yes," he said, "to you, they always have been." It
wasn't clear to me whether he expressed it as a matter of fact or meant to express
his regret. Father soon left the house, and I went into the kitchen, where the moome was
busy preparing food for the Sabbath, since it was Friday. I began to ask her about my
friends; Zishka, Alter (Malka's cousin), Moshe and the others, hoping, in an indirect
way, to learn something about Malka. I knew that all my boy friends were away from home,
studying in Yeshivas. After briefing me about all my friends, I asked her whether there
were any Jewish boys, or girls, studying in schools out of town. "As far as I
know," she answered, "there aren't any Jewish boys attending any regular
schools, in town or out; but there's one Jewish girl, Malka; she's attending
some school in Lomza."
The news struck me like a bolt of lightning; all my hopes
of seeing her were dashed. Lomza, the provincial capital, was only twenty-five miles away,
but what excuse could I possibly use for visiting it? It was sad news indeed!
I went to my books, hoping to distract my thoughts. I sat
down on the couch at a window facing the square. Looking out, I saw Reb Mendel Zelevinski
walking diagonally across the square from his own house toward ours. I couldn't
believe his destination was our house, as he and Father had not been on speaking terms
since my infancy. To my astonishment, Reb Mendel came up to our front door and rapped.
Father opened the door and greeted him cordially. Reb Mendel then shook hands with me,
welcomed me to our town, and sat down. The moome served tea with preserves, and the
visitor asked me numerous questions about Gomel and Yekaterinoslav. "You certainly
are a venturesome young man," he said. "To think that a young fellow like you
would stay away from home so long."
Father, obviously wishing to explain to me the sudden
friendship between him and Reb Mendel, said, "You know, Mendel, whenever I think of
the Racibory deal and how you managed to force yourself upon me as a junior partner, I
feel you deserved your share of the profit just for your shrewdness." From the
discussion that followed, I learned that the Racibory Squire, an old friend of
Father's, had decided to dispose of his estate. He approached Father with a
proposition to sell the estate for him. From the proceeds, he was to receive a certain
minimum; any amount in excess would go to Father. Reb Mendel found out about it and sent
word to Father that unless he took him in as a partner in the net yield, he would approach
the nobleman and guarantee him a higher yield. Father explained, probably for my benefit,
that he really had no fear of any adverse consequences in the event Reb Mendel did
intervene with the nobleman, but decided to take him in on the deal and patch up their
long-standing animosity. Their old friendship was thus restored.
At the Sabbath service that evening, many people came over
to shake hands with me. Among them was Reb Zalman the Scribe. He was the last man to greet
me, and the manner in which he did it nearly brought tears into my eyes. He was too
humble, too shy, to push himself to the East wall of the synagogue. His profound humility
caused him to remain behind everybody and approach me with much hesitation; he, who, in my
opinion, was more educated than anyone else in our town, except, perhaps, Pan
shook his hand with special warmth and told him that I was very happy to see him again.
Father seemed pleased with me, and the awareness that he bore no hostility toward me made
me immensely happy.
At home, after the Friday evening meal, sister Sarah and
her family came over. It was a very pleasant occasion. But the next day, Saturday, I began
to feet my loneliness. All my friends were away from home, studying. Pan
Zalewski had been
transferred to another town. How glad both Pan and Pani Zalewski would have been to see me!
I didn't know the gentlemen who had replaced Pan Zalewski and I didn't have much
desire to meet him. I decided to "behave" myself with respect to religious
observances, for Father's sake.
At the morning services, I noticed that the attendance was
not as full as in the past. I wondered why and mentioned it at the dinner table. Father
said that it was an important question. "The town's Jewish population is
definitely diminishing. Many artisans are emigrating to America. In the past, they used to
spend a few years there, save up a few hundred dollars and then return home. This has
changed. Instead of returning, they take their families over, and I don't blame them.
There is a steady deterioration of the economic and political conditions here. America
appears to many people as the solution to the problem."
That Saturday was very boring to me. In the evening, I
examined my younger sisters in Russian and Arithmetic. I had learned that they were
attending special classes at the elementary school every afternoon. This was initiated by
the new teacher. Later that evening, I had a visit from a man named Moshe. He was about
twenty-five years old and newly married. He was the son of a tailor and had attended the
Yeshiva. He was now a private tutor for modern Hebrew and elementary Russian and Polish.
He came to invite me to visit him. He reminded me somewhat of Sokotsky. I accompanied him
to his modest dwelling, where I was made to feel welcome by his young wife. I knew very
little Hebrew and, in no time at all, realized that his knowledge of Russian and its
literature was very restricted. There was little mutual interest between us. I was glad
the next morning, when my cousin Libby, from the neighboring village, Klimaszewnica, paid
us a visit. She had come, she said, to see me and, if agreeable, to take me to their home
for a visit.
Libby was a tall, pretty, sophisticated young lady of about
twenty-four. She felt very close to our family. Father regarded her as a clever girl and
enjoyed conversing with her. She was engaged to be married to a prominent young man from
Lomza. That Sunday was very cloudy; the atmosphere was humid, but not cold. We walked many
places and visited some of her friends. In the evening, she pleaded with Father and the
moome not to let me run away from home again, to hold me long enough, at least, to attend
her wedding which was to take place in April. Despite the difference in our age, I enjoyed
The following morning, with the reluctant consent of Father
and the moome, and with the explicit understanding that I would return before the next
Saturday, we left by sleigh, reaching the village in about one hour.
Her father, my uncle, Moshe Joseph, and her eldest brother,
Abraham, were in the timber business. They were in the habit of leaving early and
returning from the forest at dusk. The family gave me a hearty welcome. Their younger
sons, Isaac and Shmuel Aaron, were Yeshiva students and away from home. I spent four
pleasant days, taking long hikes with Libby, sleigh riding in the evening, helping Libby
with her Russian letters to her fiancÚ and reading hooks. In accordance with my promise, I
returned home Friday morning.
That afternoon, I was indeed glad that I had returned. As I
was walking toward our house from a brief visit at sister Sarah's, I instinctively
looked in the direction of Malka's house. To my great surprise, I suddenly saw Malka
standing on the steps leading to her mother's store. As I neared our house, I
realized that she saw me. I remained standing in front of our house, looking, ostensibly,
at various points in the square, but often turning my head to the left, in the direction
of Malka's house. She, too, continued to stand there, without, obviously, any
particular aim or purpose. The distance between our houses was less than one hundred
seventy-five feet. I finally abandoned all pretensions and began to restrict my
observations to her. She, too, I noticed, had grown and looked as beautiful as ever. I was
certain she was looking at me, too, but suddenly, to my dismay she turned and walked into
her mother's store.
That night, after dinner, I stepped outside and for a while
stood in front of our house. I was very lonely. I had no particular place to go or anyone
to visit. Despite the cold I decided to take a long walk. It was a dark night, and as I
was standing there, undecided as to which direction to start out in, I suddenly heard a
cough, just a single one. Somehow, I realized that it was not a natural one. I was
convinced that it was some kind of signal, and that it was intended for someone other than
me. Almost immediately, it was followed by another one. This time, it dawned on me that
the sound was coming from the direction of Malka's house, and that it was feminine.
Still convinced that it was not meant for me, I nevertheless decided to investigate. I
walked to the corner of the square on which Malka's house was situated. As I
approached the corner, I was stunned as I recognized Malka. "Is it really
Malka?" I kept asking myself. "Am I dreaming?"
"Don't you wish to speak to me, Moshe'le?" she asked.
I took her by her arm and answered, "I am so happy,
Malka, I don't even know how to express it."
She took my hand in hers, saying, "Moshe'le, I
feel the same."
As I led her, holding my hand under her arm, I trembled
from excitement. We walked on the road to Szczuczyn, almost by the Catholic Cemetery. It
was dark and cold, with deep snow on the ground, but we disregarded these discomforts. She
asked many questions about the places I had been, the school I had attended, how I lived
and whether I was fond of any particular barishnya in Gomel, Yekaterinoslav, or Devladovo.
My answer to her last question was reassuring to her, and she asked whether I was feeling
cold. Without waiting for my answer, she took my right hand into hers and stuck both
into her ladies' hand-mufti (?), cautioning me to keep my other hand deep in my coat
We continued our stroll, talking about the events that had
taken place during the nearly three years I had been absent from home, until we realized
it was late. We discussed schemes of how we might see each other again, the following day,
and we finally adopted a plan. Soon after nightfall, immediately after the stores reopened
for business following the Sabbath, I would come into her mother's store and ask for
an item that was unavailable in any of the town's stores. She would manage to be at
the store and, after greeting me, would invite me into the adjoining dwelling. "We
will thus spend the evening together. I'm sure Mother will not object to my inviting
We parted at the rear entrance of her mother's house.
On reaching our house, I first tried our front door and found it locked. Then I went to
the side door and, to my deep dismay, found that it too was securely locked. I tapped
lightly on each door and on some of the windows, hoping I might wake one of my sisters. It
was in vain. The high "lightning" lamp in our drawing room was always left
burning on Friday night, as it had been Father's habit to rise early on Saturday
morning and catch up on his weekly portion of Talmud study. In the light at the window, I
looked at my watch; it was nearly midnight, and I was very cold. I didn't wish to
disturb anybody, but I had to make a decision quickly. I went into the barn adjoining the
stable that housed our cow, the "Aristocratic lady," as I had dubbed her. It was
filled with hay, and I surrounded myself with plenty of it, removed my overcoat and
covered myself with it, and hoped I might go to sleep. There was no question of sleep for
me that night, even if I had been in my own bed. My mind seemed unusually clear and
perceptive. I felt elated despite the cold. Again and again the question came to my mind
-- perhaps it was all a dream? Was it possible that even my lying here, deep in hay and
feeling cold, also was a dream? I lay awake for a long time, but finally I fell into a
drowsy state, somewhere between sleep and waking. Each few minutes, after falling asleep,
I was awakened by the cold, after a short while fell asleep again only for the same
procedure to repeat itself. Suddenly, I heard the door being opened and felt a fresh
current of cold air moving in from the outside. For a moment it was quiet, and I wondered
whether the door had opened by itself. I made up my mind to get up and close it, when I
heard Father's voice! "Moshe, is it you?" I answered and began to get up.
Father rushed over to me and grabbed me by the arm. "What happened?" he asked in
a bewildered tone. "Were you locked out last night? What a mistake! Why didn't
you awaken us? You could have rapped louder, longer." He led me into the house,
helped me undress and to bed. It hurt me to see the sad expression on Father's face.
Later that day, the moome apologetically explained that she was going to leave the front
door unhooked and had locked the side door. Father, on the other hand, was going to leave
the side door unlocked and he had hooked the front door. I slept quite late that morning,
and Father didn't even wake me to accompany him to the Sabbath morning services. When
I finally woke up, I rushed to the synagogue, and reached it after the reading of the
week's portion of the Torah was over. Everybody at the synagogue stared at me, except
Father and my brother-in-law. Father actually smiled at me, perhaps in appreciation of my
having come at all under the circumstances. Rabbi Akiba [Goldberg] and Father's pew neighbors
asked me how I was feeling. Afterwards, I learned that, in reply to their inquiries as to
why I failed to accompany him to the synagogue, he told them that I was not feeling well
and that I was in bed.
After dinner, the moome said to me, with a broad grin, that
at the services at the synagogue, which she attended that morning (it was customary for
married women to attend the Sabbath morning services; they didn't however, sit
together with the men - their section of the synagogue was separated by a wall three
fourths up to the ceiling), she found out something very interesting. She chuckled,
arousing my curiosity. It didn't require much pressure from me to induce her to tell
the story. Someone had told her in "strict confidence," that, last night, I was
seen strolling with Malka ... "I suppose," she added, "that same person
will now spread it all over town - in strict confidence, of course." I laughed with
her and our laughter was loud enough to reach Father's ears.
"I presume," he said, "your laughter's
about some gossip you've heard at the synagogue this morning." The moome turned
to me and asked me quietly, "Shall I tell him?" I answered her just as quietly,
"As you wish." She was in the proper mood and, as if she wished to arouse
Father's curiosity even more, she answered, "Yes, I did hear something at the
synagogue this morning, and it's more than just funny." Father commented,
"Eh, feminine gossip, without a doubt!" He seemed ready to dismiss it from
further thought. But the moome was too playful and continued to chuckle. She said,
"Joseph, you too will be amused - it concerns Moshe and his being out last
night." Father was astonished. "What?" he asked, "How could anyone,
outside our own immediate family, know about it so soon?" As the moome began to
relate the story, Father focused his eyes on me. At first, I feared a reprimand but to my
delight, he listened to the story and then simply turned his head, without making any
That afternoon, sister Sarah and her family and several of
Father's friends came over. At the table, everybody seemed eager to hear from me
about Jewish life in the large cities and far away provinces. Among other experiences, I
related the one with the Karaites. None of those present had ever had actual contact with
them, or even seen one, but they knew very well of their existence, from history as well
as from other writings on the subject. They enjoyed my stories relating to Jewish life in
those places, and they questioned me quite extensively. Even my brother-in-law asked me a
number of questions and seemed pleased with my answers. I then read some of the
Rachmil's letters I had received from Palestine.
That evening, immediately after the Havdalah (a
prayer-blessing over a glass of wine on Saturday evening, after dark, officially
terminating or separating the Sabbath day from the newly-beginning week), I walked over to
Gitele's store. As I entered, Gitele and her daughters were inside. The mother
welcomed me with more affection than I anticipated. "Such a welcome guest. How
thoughtful of you to visit us." She looked me over and turning to Malka she
continued, "Look how he's grown." I felt embarrassed by her attentions, and
tried to avoid facing her. Luckily, she invited me into the dwelling and soon apologized,
saying she had better see about the store for a minute or two. "Be at home here;
really, you are at home," she said, and left the drawing room.
Malka looked very pleased at the unexpected turn of events.
Her mother continued to alternate with her older daughter between the store duties and
visits to the drawing room. Tea with cake soon appeared on the table, and in between, I
asked Malka about going out for a stroll. She nodded her head in affirmation, but I was
afraid her mother might disapprove. I was surprised at Malka's boldness in asking her
mother's permission and her mother's reaction. "Object? With him? You may
go and return in good health."
Once again, we went out for a stroll, but it was much
different than the night before. We were out with Malka's mother's consent, and
all the stores were open for business. Many more people were in the square and on the side
streets. The danger of being seen was greater than the previous night. Malka suggested we
use the Easternmost street, alongside the barns. There, in total darkness and secure in
the feeling that nobody of the Jewish community would be likely to see us, I told Malka
about my experience the night before. She stopped, turned around, faced me, looked at me
as if stunned and suddenly kissed me.
She was due to leave for Lomza in the morning, and we
returned to her house rather early. We no Longer felt any need to hide from her mother, so
I remained for about half an hour. Her mother asked if we were cold, and before we had
time to answer, she reproached herself, "A silly question, isn't it? I must be
getting old asking two young people whether it was cold." She first looked at me,
then switched to Malka and, with tears appearing in her eyes, she turned her head away
from us. Malka asked her mother whether she could come in for the following weekend. Gitele looked at me and asked, "Does he wish you to come in?" I was too shy to
answer such a direct question, but she then directed the same question to me, "Do
you, Moshe'le?" I took courage and said, "I wish she didn't have to
leave." Then Gitele, still smiling with tears in her eyes said, "Of course,
perhaps even Thursday night; Moshe'le is quite lonely here and needs company."
As I lay in bed that night awake, my thoughts gradually
began to wander in another direction. Everybody, the whole town, it seemed, was glad to
see me. My hopes about Malka had reached a degree of realization I had not even dared to
dream of. Nevertheless, the question "What next?" was continually on my mind, in
fact, ever since I had made the wrong decision by not returning to Gomel from
Yekaterinoslav. Now, I said to myself, I must begin to study it with fresh vigor. This
time, I owe it not to myself alone. I must strive for tachlis (future) for Malka's
sake as well.
To please Father, the moome and sister Sarah, I went to the
Synagogue and attended services every day - in fact, three times daily. I didn't
discuss the subject of religion with anyone, though I was convinced that Father, the
moome, and sister Sarah and her husband realized my irreligiousness. Orthodox Judaism
required one to keep his head covered at all times, whether it be a hat, cap or skullcap,
to eat with a bare head was a sin. Having acquired the habit, in Gomel, of going
bareheaded inside and at times even outside, as well as eating without any headcover, I
frequently forgot myself and sat in the house, reading without my cap on. The moome often
cautioned me to be on guard.
On one occasion, I stepped out of the house and walked over
to the barn, to visit the "Aristocratic lady." I had taken a liking to the cow,
and often went over to feed her hay. Inadvertently (I never did it intentionally), I was
without a cap. As I reentered the house, there were two men with Father in the
drawing-room. One of them was Reb Yisrael Mejer who, for years past, had been coming to our
house to read Father's newspapers. He immediately noticed my bare head and stared at
me. The moome motioned to me to come into the next room where she asked me to put on my
cap. Returning to the drawing room, I found Father and his two visitors absorbed in a
discussion about news of an earthquake. From the discussion, I concluded that the loss of
property and human life was extensive.
Suddenly, Reb Yisrael Mejer turned to me and said,
"Moshe, Tanna Rabah (great sage), perhaps you can explain to us what causes such
catastrophes as earthquakes and volcanoes?" I went to my private "library"
and withdrew two text books, one on geography and one on physics and proceeded to explain
as well as I could, showing them a number of illustrations supporting my explanations. All
three men listened intently, but Reb Yisrael Mejer said, "According to your books and
your explanation, it's all caused by natural forces, eh? It has nothing to do with
God's will?; He has no control over it, eh?" I was stunned at his reaction, as I
feared that Father might share his fanatical sentiments. To my deep amazement, Father came
to my rescue. He removed a volume from his large bookcase, turned a number of pages and,
finding the spot he was searching, began to read aloud. It was in Hebrew, and it dealt
with the science of astronomy. The portion Father was reading explained how planets
probably were formed, that the earth was only one planet in our own solar system, and that
there were a great many more such suns and planets in the universe. Reb Yisrael
interrupted him. "Now," he said, as if something had suddenly dawned on him,
"now I understand something I didn't for several years. I had wondered why you
permitted your son to go to school instead of to cheder and the Yeshiva. It is the old
saying: 'the apple falls nearest its own tree, the tree that bore it.'"
Father calmly said to him, "You are a shoteh (stupid person)."
One morning after services at the synagogue, only three
days after Malka had returned to Lomza, her patriarch looking grandfather came over,
greeted me, and asked if he might sit down and speak to me. Except for an occasional
formal handshake or "good morning" or "good evening" greeting, I had
never spoken with him. He sat down near me and asked how I was enjoying my visit. "It
must be lonesome here for a young man like you, after being away in big cities," he
said. I didn't know how to behave myself in his presence. He probably understood my
hesitation, because he said, "Son, if you should ask your father, he would tell you
that he and I have been friends for many years. Please, don't hesitate to talk to me.
I understand you've been quite a distance away from home for nearly three years.
It's true you didn't study in any Yeshiva, but you did study other things. The
important thing is that you didn't waste your time. Up until now, you've been
quite good at planning your own future. That is really remarkable. Have you any further
plans? I should be glad to assist you in every way, and I hope you call on me." I
thanked the old gentlemen and assured him that I would be happy to avail myself of his
wisdom, should the need arise.
I told the moome about my discussion with Reb Joske and she
remarked that "the whole town was talking about" my romance with Malka. "I
wonder," she said, "if the fact that he is Malka's grandfather has any
connection with that?" Since she mentioned the town's talking about Malka and
me, I asked her whether Father knew about it and, if so, would she tell me his reaction?
She said she was not certain. It could be that the rumor had reached him. "Of course,
you are very young, just sixteen, but Malka is a nice girl, even Father thinks so, and she
does come from a nice family." Her injection of "even Father thinks so,"
was an indication that she and Father had discussed the subject.
The moome related to me a discussion that had taken place
between Father, sister Sarah and her husband concerning me. Sister Sarah had asked Father
whether I had indicated to him any future plans about myself. Answering her question in
the negative, he commented that he had noted so much change in my personality that he no
longer considered me able to even live in a small town like ours. "His mind works
like that of a future doctor, lawyer or professor." I realized that Father was
expecting me to find a solution to my problem and I agreed with him. As in the past, my
problem was a challenge to my ingenuity as well as to my initiative. I must first conceive
a plan and concentrate on executing it.
Except for reading my old text-books, there was nothing for
me to do in our town -- nobody to talk to and nowhere to go. Though the weather was at the
time unusually mild, it was midwinter, and all I could do was go out for a stroll, which I
did every afternoon. The strolls served to increase my pessimism over the town's
future. The decline of the Jewish number of young artisans and apprentices was everywhere
During one such stroll, I paid a visit to Reb Zalman the
scribe. Reb Zalman was in his tiny studio and his wife received me with confusion and
excitement. "What an honor! Please, do sit down, please! My husband will be so
glad!" In a few moments Reb Zalman came in and welcomed me. Their dwelling looked the
same -- the same few pieces of old furniture; nothing added, nothing changed. I asked Reb
Zalman about the town's decline. He not only confirmed my impression, but was also
pessimistic. "Things here," he said, "are in a state of flux. Conditions
are changing, and yet our (Jewish) people are restricted in their activities and endeavor.
The younger generation is unwilling to accept such a situation; they are unwilling to
tolerate degradation and perpetual hopelessness. The result is emigration to
One afternoon while I was standing in front of our house,
Gitele passed by. She greeted me in a motherly fashion, and I accepted her invitation to
"drop in" whenever I wished, and so that evening I visited her. She expressed
understanding for my loneliness and restlessness.
"Moysey," she said, "considering your age,
your mental maturity is amazing, and, therefore, your concern about a tachlis (purpose in
life) is understandable. You are torturing yourself for missing school this year.
Acquisition of knowledge, in itself, is a worthy purpose, but let's go a step further
-- picture to yourself that you have graduated from the Gymnasia, what then? What
next?" I answered, "I do have long range ambitions. First, if I could live long
enough to get my Gymnasia diploma; between now and then, I could decide. What really
disturbs me is the discrimination against Jewish students in the restricted number that is
admitted in the country's universities. I feel as if I were suspended in
The next morning after services at the synagogue, Reb Joske
greeted me again. He asked how I was enjoying my vacation. "I know how lonesome it
must be for you here," he said. "You have become estranged from our kind of
life. There is nothing here for a young man like you. In a larger sense, there is little
for you and your kind in our province, perhaps in our whole land. Have you thought of
America? There's a land of great possibilities. Give it some thought - perhaps your
plans can best be fulfilled there."
His mention of America didn't immediately impress me.
Perhaps it was due to a letter I had received from Semyon and his parents. They wrote that
there was serious talk about the planning of a Technikum (Technion) in Palestine. It would
be, they wrote, an Engineering college enabling graduates of Herzliyya Gymnasia to obtain
higher technical education. "As you see," they continued, "we are making
progress. Perhaps the proposed school will subsequently be expanded and converted into a
full University with departments in medicine, jurisprudence, philosophy and pure science.
How sorry we feel that you left Gomel. Perhaps you should return there, even now. All our
friends will certainly lend you any assistance you may need to get your pupils back.
Extern until August - we feel certain that by then you can catch up with alt the fourth
class requirements. Then take your entrance exams at Ratner's for the fifth
class." They also urged me to think about going to Palestine, "where you will
make your home with us." The question of returning To Gomel, with the conflicting
desire to see the Rachmil's in Palestine occupied my mind. Then Reb Joske injected
his suggestion about America!
That week, on Thursday afternoon, the weather was quite
mild and I decided to take a long walk. I went downhill, crossed the bridges over the
river and continued toward the Kobjanka forest. Despite the moderate weather, the river
was frozen solid and the tall pine trees on the little island to the right were full of
crows' nests, as always, while the others were bare. As I continued, I saw the meadow
and, in the distance, the bathing spot where my friends and I loved so much to wade and
swim. There was no point in walking all the way to the forest since it was winter. I just
wanted to walk to the outskirts, to satisfy my desire to see the town, particularly the
places that so vividly reminded me of my past.
I became absorbed in thought about my problem. The letter
from the Rachmil's stirred me. Here I was, in my own home, in my beloved little town,
surrounded by loved ones, by affection, even admiration. And yet, how nostalgically the
city of Gomel and Ratner's and, above all, the Rachmil's, so frequently came to
Dusk was approaching; it was nearly time for late afternoon
prayers. I started for the synagogue. The bad attendance there depressed me even more.
Each time I saw its emptiness, it reminded me of the town's decline. The Jewish
community, which had clung so assiduously to age-old spiritual values, was hopelessly
dying. I observed a significant change in yet another sphere. In the past, it was
considered undignified for a married artisan to work for someone else. Following his
marriage, the tailor or shoemaker artisan would open up his own shop. This, I learned, had
changed. Several such craftsmen were employing a number of married men, and the former
were accumulating, though gradually, some wealth. The change, or improvement in this
group's economic status was unmistakable.
Father told me that Reb Joske had spoken to him about the
discussions he had had with me. He surprised me when he asked what I thought of America.
He said he noted my tack of enthusiasm for that Country and wished to know why. "It
seems that most of those who go there, lately, don't return and most of those who do,
soon go back for good. I have had hopes that you, my youngest son, would remain near me,
but it would be selfish on my part to expect you to sacrifice your whole future for my
wishes. Your brothers are in America; I understand it's a country where the people,
the people themselves, rule, not like here. With your determination, that should be the
right place ... I am just suggesting."
Several months previously, Malka's cousin had become
engaged to a young man from a town about twenty-five mites away, and he was visiting with
his fiancÚ. I had seen him, but had not met him. He had a good appearance and looked
intelligent. During the week, while I was standing in front of the house, Gitele passed
by. Naturally she stopped, greeted me, and said, "Moshe, please come over Friday
evening. I shall have a little party for my niece and her fiancÚ, just a few people."
At about noon Friday, Malka came in. During the afternoon,
she frequently came out of the house and stood in front. I did the same, and we both
looked in each other's direction. We were still too shy to be seen in public
together. What was permissible in Gomel for even fourteen year olds was still taboo in our
town. After dinner, the moome smiled and asked me understandingly whether I preferred to
sleep in my own bed, "If so," she said, "I shall see that the front door
remains unlatched." I came to Malka's house early and, with her mother's
consent, we went out for a short stroll. Again, we were alone, walking as closely to each
other as is possible for two young persons who had, as it were, one soul. I told her of
the interest her grandfather was, surprisingly, showing in me. It pleased her and amused
her at the same time. I then proceeded to unfold my problem to her. She listened patiently
and when I finished, she said, "You know, Moshe'le, when you first arrived, I
was so happy to see you that nothing else mattered. Now, I realize the problem that's
facing you." We walked in silence for some time, then she spoke again.
"You said a while ago that this country was not good
to us. I think neither is it good for us. I hope you consider my grandfather's
suggestion, particularly since your father is in agreement, but, I hope..." She
didn't finish her thought and tried to resist my efforts to have her complete
whatever she wished to tell me -- but not for long. "What I wish to tell you,"
she said at last, "is to remember what Ruth said to Naomi: 'Wherever you go, I
shall be glad to go, too, and that I say it to you.'" We returned to the house,
where we found her cousin and her fiancÚ, together with the bride's -to-be younger
sister, their mother, Deborah, and a recently married couple. I spent an enjoyable
evening. Naturally, Malka's presence there contributed much to that enjoyment.
That night, I lay in bed awake for a long time. I
remembered what she said about Ruth and Naomi. That meant that wherever I decided to go,
even to America, she would, yes, in fact, she even urged me to consider her
grandfather's suggestion about America. I remembered reading some of the history of
the American Revolution, its struggle for liberty, its great Constitution. I was deeply
impressed by the Declaration of Independence, the language used by Thomas Jefferson and
Patrick Henry, the dignified humility and high principles of Abraham Lincoln. I remembered
how we young students admired the Western countries, England, France and even Germany and
Austria, the freedom which the people of these countries were enjoying, the high
percentage of their literacy, the high standard of living they were enjoying. But our
highest admiration went to America, a republic in contrast to despotic systems of
government, a country dedicated to peaceful economic development.
The following day, after the Sabbath dinner, sister Sarah
and her family came over. The relations between my brother-in-law and myself had changed.
I had grown in stature with the whole community. As Father had pointed out, I had acquired
an air of self-reliance and intelligence superior to young men of my age. My
brother-in-law's politeness toward me was almost bordering on respect. Strangely, a
discussion was started about me. Father started it by explaining that I was well aware of
the nature of my problem and its implications. He paused for a moment and went on. "I
feel that Moshe isn't enthusiastic about going to America; neither do I want him to
go there. Once he leaves for that magical land, I know I shall never see him again; and
yet, it seems that go there he must!" Everybody present nodded their heads. My
brother-in-law added his comment. "I, too, came to the same conclusion."
I asked to be excused, left the house and walked over to
Gitele's house. This was the first time that I ventured to enter Malka's house
in broad daylight. Malka opened the door and said that her mother was just rising from an
afternoon nap. She herself had been reading. We still didn't dare go out for a
stroll, in daylight, for all to see us. The privilege was still reserved for formally
engaged couples. Her mother came into the room, and there, too, to my amazement, my
problem came up for discussion. Gitele said that she felt sure that my final decision
would be America. "I say it," she said, "because your father, my father and
even your brother-in-law think logically."
It was nearly time for the Sabbath afternoon service. As I
was preparing to leave, Malka said she wished to visit her aunt's house, to see her
betrothed cousin and her fiancÚ. We came out of the house together and walked out onto the
square. To my great surprise and embarrassment, I saw Father, the moome, sister Sarah and
my brother-in-law standing in front of our house. It was too late to withdraw; they all
saw us. The moome and Sarah smiled to me, while Father immediately turned his head in the
opposite direction, with my brother-in-law following suit. There was no alternative but to
walk over to them. As we approached them, she greeted everybody and, to my great delight,
everybody, including Father, returned the greeting in a cordial manner. Malka then went
on, while Father, Moshe and I proceeded to the synagogue.
Chapter 34: I Choose America
I spent that Saturday evening with Malka, her mother and
sister. During the early evening, Malka and I strolled hand in hand with a feeling that
our pleasant experience with Father earlier that day was equivalent to his granting us the
freedom of the town.
That night, I lay in bed thinking, as before, about my
problem. The question that perturbed me with respect to America, was my desire to remain
with Father during his old age. He realized my situation. He was aware of my lack of
enthusiasm for America, though he did not know all the reasons. Everybody seemed to be in
favor of America for me, even Gitele. But Malka . . . Only a short few weeks ago, even my
hope of seeing her was just a dream. Certainly, I didn't suspect that all during my
absence she, too, had been thinking about me as I had been about her. Three years
previously, I wouldn't have believed it. Malka's frankness about her feelings
toward me gave me a feeling of inner happiness, the kind of gratification one finds in the
final realization of a long cherished and most sacred dream. Again, I remembered her
quotation from the Book of Ruth.
The following morning, soon after Malka left to return to
school, I approached Father and told him that I had come to my decision. It was then
decided that I should go to Grajewo and have my eyes examined by the eye doctor there. The
next morning, I took the covered sleigh to Szczuczyn, where I immediately transferred to a
coach to Grajewo. The eye doctor found a mild infection in one of my eyes. He treated it,
gave me some drops to use, saw me again two days later, treated my eye again, instructed
me to use the drops regularly and to come see him one day before crossing into Germany. I
left Grajewo, where I spent four days with my nephew, Michel, sister Sarah's eldest
boy, who was attending school there. I reached Radzilowo Friday afternoon, finding Malka
was already in town. Immediately after dinner that evening, I went over to Gitele's
house. A short while later, her sister, her two daughters and her eldest daughter's
fiancÚ came over. Gitele asked whether I was preparing to leave them again soon. I noticed
that everybody looked at Malka, who blushed. Her cousin's fiancÚ remarked that I
probably didn't have much liking for my home town. He was led to his conclusion, he
said, by my having been away for such a long period of time. "Perhaps," he said,
"you've become 'big-citied' and are bored with small town life."
Had I listened to my impulse, I should have told him that he was wrong, but I didn't
want to offend him by contradicting him directly. I began to refute his conclusion in a
soft, calm tone, slowly choosing my words. I said, "I really love this town and its
people. The fact is, each time in the past that I left home for any extended period of
time, each time afterward, I blamed myself for my failure to absorb more deeply in my mind
the looks of the town, as if it were possible to do so. And each time I pledged myself
that upon returning home, I should be conscious of being in my beloved hometown, seeing
it, observing it and feeling it every moment of my stay. Realizing that my further
presence here is now limited, I shall consider every minute of my remaining time here as
precious. That's how I really feel about Radzilowo and its people."
When I finished, there was a brief silence. Then the
groom-to-be said, "Moshe, that was a fine tribute. Surely, there's something in
this drab town to have inspired such feeling in a young man like you, who has seen so much
more of this world. I will try to find it, too."
Malka and I accompanied the guests to their home. We walked
behind them and spoke quietly of our love for each other. After bidding the others good
night, we continued walking through the side streets. I promised her that I would go to
America to study' that I would study hard, graduate from some University, and then,
depending on her wishes, my parents, and her mother's wishes, either take her to
America or return home. She, in turn promised to wait for me and think of nobody but me.
It had already been settled that I would leave on the following Monday. This meant that we
would see each other during the following weekend.
The following afternoon, Saturday, sister Sarah and her
family and several of Father's closer friends came over. My impending departure for
America had already become known to everybody in town. All the visitors were conservative
in their political views, ail deplored the conditions which made it necessary for large
segments of the population, particularly Jews, to leave the country of their birth and
emigrate to foreign lands in order to find their fortune. Most of the Jewish community
knew of my ambition to continue with my education. The sentiment toward secular education
had undergone a change. Many parents sent their young daughters to special classes
conducted by the new elementary school principal. My two younger sisters attended them
along with many others. Nevertheless, at our house that afternoon, the participants in the
discussion were careful not to refer to the nature of my ambitions. There were moments
when I was conscious of the regard, in spite of my youth, that these scholarly and learned
men were showing me, and which embarrassed me.
I saw Malka that Saturday evening. There was a noticeable
change in her mood. She seemed reflective and didn't smite as often as she had
before. Her mother explained that she had been in that mood all day. My efforts to snap
her out of it were to no avail. She sat in a chair and seemed to meditate, utterly
oblivious to our presence. Finally, her mother said, "Malka, Moshe hasn't left
yet. Besides, it is getting late, and remember, you have to return to Lomza early in the
morning." She looked at her mother, then at me, as if returning from dream to
reality, and gave me her best smile. It wasn't quite as late as her mother had
implied, and we spent some more time together.
One week remained for me at home. Despite the often
disagreeable weather, I devoted most of my time to absorbing everything about my town. I
walked through every street to its very end and stopped and looked at every house.
Father's gloom was quite noticeable, in spite of his natural reservedness, but the
moome was more outspoken in the expression of her feelings. On one occasion she said,
"Until you came home, we were always hoping that you would come and spend your
vacation with us. Now, there will be no such hope; no hope of seeing you again, I suppose,
ever." She wiped her tears away, quietly, reminding me so much of Mother, whose place
she had taken and honored.
Early Friday afternoon, Malka came in for the weekend, By
then, our romance was no longer a sensation among the populace, and though we were both so
young, it no longer aroused the degree of public criticism and gossip that it had in the
beginning. I was waiting for her arrival impatiently, remembering her doleful mood at our
parting the past Saturday night. I immediately went over to see her. She met me with her
radiant smile. Nevertheless, I detected her gloomy mood.
Gitele divided her time between her duties in the store and
the chores she had to perform as a mother and housekeeper. She served us tea with lemon
and preserves and often stopped in the doorway, Looking at us for a moment, and then
rushing back into the store.
At the Friday evening dinner, Father was silent, very
reflective. After dinner, as I was telling the moome that I wished to go out, Father
stopped, looked at me, and made a motion as if he wanted to say something to me. I waited
in order to hear what he wished to say, but he seemed to change his mind. He turned and
without saying a word, left the dining room. I went on to Malka's.
Her cousin and her fiancÚ were there. We spent the entire
evening inside, discussing various aspects of Jewish tradition and culture. I felt
embarrassed by Malka's sitting next to me and frequently touching my shoulder. She
constantly stared at me, but rarely smiled, even when our eyes met. Throughout the
evening, her cousin's fiancÚ exerted himself in his efforts to change her frame of
mind, but, like myself, was unsuccessful. Suddenly as a last resort, he said to her,
"Malka, is Moshe the only nice young man in this world? There are so many, --even
nicer than him."
She gave him a stern look, but answered, "That
isn't funny. For me he's the only one in the whole world." Her mood changed
and she began to smile, looking at me. Despite my own shyness, her candid reply and
uninhibited demonstrations of affection toward me pleased me unendingly.
The following afternoon, in accordance with the
arrangements we had made the evening before, we all met at Malka's aunt's house.
The weather had improved. There was snow on the ground and the temperature was still below
freezing, but the sun was out, warming the atmosphere. An overcoat and a pair of galoshes
were sufficient to sustain us. We decided to walk to the Kobjanka forest. On the way over,
I continually looked right and left, desiring to absorb and forever impress my mind with
the surrounding scenery. It attracted Malka's curiosity, and I had to explain my
reason for doing it. She kept admonishing me, reminding me that she was accompanying me.
We reached the forest. Most of the trees were bare of
leaves, though from the distance, the pines gave the forest a green appearance. There was
no question of our sitting down anywhere. There was much more snow between the trees than
on the ground outside the forest. From the distance, I pointed out to the others the peat
bogs which were, because of the distance, indiscernible, and told them how Zishka and I
had visited the place over three years ago, while they were in operation, and how it had
fascinated us. I then led them to the spot where I had read lectures on science to Zishka,
and told them the effect that it had upon him. These places and the surrounding villages,
I said to them, would always remain dear to me, I would always cherish their memory.
We returned in time to attend the late afternoon Sabbath
service at the synagogue. Afterward, sister Freida remarked about my seat at the table
that was to become unoccupied soon, and this time, permanently. Father immediately stopped
eating and rose from his seat. He began to walk back and forth in the room, and presently
we heard him weeping, quietly, uncontrollably and unashamedly. The rest of us rose from
the table, and I was immediately surrounded by the moome and my two younger sisters, all
embracing me and joining Father and myself in weeping. The moome rushed out of the house,
and in a few minutes, she returned with Sarah and her family.
It was dusk; inside the house, darkness was beginning to
set in. But the Sabbath day was not yet over, and the lamps were not lighted. Some of
Father's friends, realizing, perhaps, what was taking place, also came over. They
spoke to Father soothingly. That was the third emotional outburst that I had witnessed in
Father, who ordinarily regarded uncontrolled emotions as unmanly. Father's weeping
finally ceased. He sat down on the couch between his closest friends Reb Zorach and Reb
Jacob Leib, whose pews at the synagogue separated his from the Rabbi's. He was sullen
and shifted his looks from me to the womenfolk, who again had surrounded me and continued
to be vocal. The dark shadows in the room increased steadily until it became completely
shrouded by darkness. The situation was tense and the atmosphere was getting more weird
with every passing moment.
Reb Zorach stepped outside and returned a moment later to
announce, "The stars are out and it's time for the maariv service." There
were not enough males for a minyan, which required a minimum of ten, so each one prayed
individually. When the service was over, the moome lighted the lamps and everyone wished
everybody else the traditional "good week." All the visitors then left for their
homes to tend to their daily chores. The Sabbath, the day on which the Jews of my home
town literally put all their material worries out of their minds, was now over.
My brother-in-taw soon returned. Father made no effort to
conceal his distress. I was sitting in a corner, still under the spell of what I had
witnessed and feeling deep concern for Father's distress at my impending departure.
Suddenly I heard my brother-in-law's voice. Turning my head, I was surprised to see
him sitting in a chair next to me. His voice was soft and friendly. In the past, his
voice, whenever he was addressing himself to me, was always laconic, harsh and concise. He
said, "Moshe, you are no longer a young boy; you are a maturing man. All of us are
aware of this. I'm sure you understand your father's feelings. Your departure is
to him, one of his life's tragedies, a very tragic event. In spite of everything, you
have become his pride and his hope. Now, all this is about to go into memory."
I said that really I was being forced to leave, so I could
continue to study, that I was hoping to return. "You are sincere," he said,
"but it is an illusion. Very, very few people return here from America, and I
don't blame them. What I am asking you is to speak to your father and assure him that
you will not neglect to write to him regularly. Make this a solemn promise. This certainly
will comfort him. Will you do it?" I was profoundly touched by his frankness and his
I then went over to Malka's house. Gitele said she had
noticed several friends going into our house before dusk. She was curious because, during
the winter season, when the day was short, it was not customary to be visiting during that
hour of the late afternoon. Her own eyes began to moisten as she listened to the incident,
although I related it very briefly. Malka and I then went out for our last stroll
together. We were fully conscious of the consuming love that we felt for each other. We
were two individuals with only one soul, one hope, the hope that some day we would be
reunited and remain so forever after. We were walking together in the cold, dark night.
She was holding my hand in her mufti in a tight grip, as if afraid to turn it loose. We
walked in silence for a long while, neither of us having sufficient courage to say
something soothing to the other. Suddenly, she broke the silence with a question.
"Moshe," she asked, "are you mine for sure?" I stopped, kissed her,
and answered, "Malka, my dearest, I don't want to be banal and repeat some
phrase of some hero in any of the novels I've read, but I am really sorry that I
cannot find the words to express my feelings toward you, and my love for you." She
said she believed me. "Then it's agreed between us, we belong to each
other," she said.
Chapter 35: Parting
It was past midnight when we returned to her house. We had
been out over four hours. Despite a sleepless night, I rose quite early, since I wished to
see Malka off for Lomza that morning. Gitele and her daughters were still in bed when I
rapped on their door. My rapping caused only the mother to rouse. She admitted me, greeted
me, and said that Malka was still asleep, but was due to rise soon. She invited me to sit
down while she prepared tea. As she left the drawing room-dining room for the kitchen, I
quietly sneaked into the bedroom. In the dim light from the window, I saw the two sisters
lying in bed, fast asleep, with the covers up to their necks, with Malka's beautiful,
dark blond hair covering most of her face. I bent over and kissed her on the cheek,
without haste. As she stirred, her elder sister awoke, and seeing me, discreetly turned on
her side facing the wall. In a moment, Malka, too, opened her eyes, glanced at me as if
bewildered, and asked me whether she was dreaming. She promptly regained her composure
and, as if scolding me, said, "Now, like a nice young cavalier, please step into the
next room, so I can dress." As I turned around, her mother was standing in the
doorway. She said, "Moshe, you must learn to respect a lady's privacy. A bedroom
occupied by a young lady must not be entered without her express permission. It is her
strictly private castle. I forgive you, since in another twenty-four hours you will be
leaving us, but it is unpardonable."
I felt embarrassed and began to blush. Gitele, realizing,
perhaps, that I felt offended, came over and began to plead. "Now, don't feel
badly about what I said. All of us make mistakes, and I merely wished to call your
attention to the one you made I certainly meant no harm."
We drank tea, chatted, and soon heard the teamster's
brassy voice coming from the store, which was now open for business, "And where is my
charming and esteemed young passenger?"
I boarded the covered wagon with Malka and, with the
teamster's permission, rode on to the Kobjanka forest, through which the road to
Lomza ran, sitting close to Malka and holding her hands. As we reached the forest, the
wagon stopped. With a heavy heart, I wiped her tears away, kissed her and bade her
farewell. There were four more passengers in the wagon, three elderly men and a woman.
All, including the teamster, tried to comfort her. I finally got off the wagon, waived my
handkerchief until the wagon disappeared from view. That was the last time I saw Malka.
(Less than six months after I had arrived in America, I received a letter from home with
tragic news. The moome wrote, "Our beloved Malka is gone. She became ill last Friday
morning and at three o'clock that afternoon, she expired.")
I was due to leave early the following morning, and that
Sunday was a busy day for me. In accordance with local etiquette, I called on all
Father's friends to bid them farewell. Each time, as I came out of a house, I looked
longingly at the town, the houses, the Buda, and the people I happened to see. In the
evening, many of those I visited during the day came over. Among them was Gitele, her aged
father, her sister, her sister's daughter and her visiting fiancÚ, and, of course, my
sister Sarah and her family. Father's face reflected deep distress, but he controlled
his emotions. He frequently glanced at me, our eyes frequently met, and he no longer
turned his head away.
The teamster, whom Father had specially engaged for the
trip to Szczuczyn, showed up at dawn the next morning. The moome, my sisters, including
Sarah, embraced me again and again, kissed me and wept bitterly, and I along with them.
Father was wiping his tears away as he and I boarded the wagon. With my eyes, I swept the
marketplace, as if looking for someone to come to my rescue before it was too late, but
actually trying for the last time to inscribe onto my memory, for all time, the looks of
my beloved little town.
We sat in utter silence until we reached Szczuczyn, about
two and one half hours later. Not a word passed either between Father and me or between
him and the teamster, each seemingly preoccupied with his own thoughts, but actually our
thoughts were of each other. When we reached the town, we stopped over at the moome's
sister's house, where we were served breakfast. The hostess and her husband were
surprised to learn that I was on my way to America. Both were affable persons; I liked
them and held them in high esteem. We soon took the horse-drawn coach to Grajewo, and on
the way, I saw for the first time a fairly large motor-bus passing us up. A fellow
passenger explained that it had been put on the road only recently, making its daily
rounds from Lomza to Grajewo, a distance of about forty miles each way in two hours, as
against five to six hours by wagon or horse-drawn coach. (There was no rail connection
between the two cities.)
In Grajewo, late that afternoon and twice the following
day, the eye-doctor treated my eyes and finally told me that they were well. We stayed in
that town from Monday afternoon until Wednesday morning , when Father and I crossed into
Prostken, then a town across the border in Germany. [Currently named Prostki, it is 20.7
miles north of Radzilow. Back then it was across the border in Prussian territory.]
Immediately after custom inspection, we went to the steamship company offices, where
Father bought a ticket for me on the Red Star Line, via Antwerp, Belgium. He then bought a
bottle of some kind of German liquor, suggesting that I might enjoy a mild drink on the
ship, as he had heard of sea-sickness that some people suffer, aboard ship. We were then
admitted into an extremely large room, where I found a large number of men, women and
children with valises and bundles. The people seemed to represent almost every race on the
continent. The train for Berlin where we were to transfer, was due to leave at four P.M.
Father and I found seats on a bench. We sat down, each
absorbed in deep thought, and looked downward. I sat next to him and had an uncontrollable
urge to speak to him, to say something that would cheer him up. But I didn't know how
to start. I could not find the words that would be appropriate for the occasion. I also
feared that my emotions would get the best of me, and that, I felt, would have an adverse
effect upon him, which I wanted to avoid. We sat silently for over an hour, each gazing
downward. Then Father suddenly asked whether I was hungry. There was a Kosher eating place
adjoining the waiting room. I sighed as I shook my head.
He then began to speak reflectively, gazing as if he were
looking into his own soul, "Moshe, you are the last of my sons, the youngest of the
five, and the last to leave me, the one I had hoped would remain with me in my old age. I
am not at all certain that there is a hereafter, a life or existence in the beyond. I only
hope that there is, and, if so, then surely I shall meet your mother, once again." He
paused for a moment, still looking in the distance and repeating, as if to himself,
"If I should meet her, and she should ask what I had done for her children, I shall
tell her that our youngest son, while he strayed from the established pattern of life, at
least he knew what he was striving for. And I shall say further that I didn't
altogether disapprove. Since early childhood, you showed your preference for worldly
knowledge. After you entered the Gymnasia in Gomel, I began to realize that I had made a
mistake in opposing you as much as I did. I then wished I had never sent you to Wizna and
even to Bialystok. Your Uncle Zalman wrote me how diligently you studied there, often late
into the night. I have come to agree with you on some things. There is no future in Russia
for Jewish men like you; in fact, for any Jewish young man, so long as the present regime
remains in power. And so, you must go, in spite of ourselves."
Tears were flowing from his eyes. I tried to dry them with
my handkerchief and kissed him. How I wished I had the courage to tell him how much I
loved him, but suddenly it was announced that the train for Berlin was ready for boarding.
Father stood up, got hold of one of my valises, and suggested that I board immediately so
I could choose a good seat.
We picked a seat, left the baggage on it and stepped out.
Father was weeping quietly. We stood facing each other, my heart beating unusually fast,
until we heard the final announcement, "All aboard." Hurriedly, we began to
shake hands, and, as he was saying "Farewell, my son," he drew me close and
kissed me several times, the first time I could remember having been kissed by him. There
was no time left. As I was parting, I heard him say, "May peace be with you, my
son." I entered the train coach and looked out the window. I saw Father, standing and
waving at me with his large red handkerchief, and I waved back. As the train began to
move, I pressed my face against the window. For a moment, he followed the train, but it
began to pick up speed and I pressed my face against the cold glass harder and closer, but
in a second or two, despite my efforts, I saw Father no more.
and reprinted with the permission of Paul Atlas and Scott J. Atlas.
Edited by Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.