Micha Joseph Berdyczewski ~ Military Service
“They look as if they’d enough of me!”
So I think to myself, as I give a glance at my two great top-boots, my wide trousers, and my shabby green uniform, in which there is no whole part left.
I take a bit of looking-glass out of my box, and look at my reflection. Yes, the military cap on my head is a beauty, and no mistake, as big as Og king of Bashan, and as bent and crushed as though it had been sat upon for years together.
Under the cap appears a small, washed-out face, yellow and weazened, with two large black eyes that look at me somewhat wildly.
I don’t recognize myself; I remember me in a grey jacket, narrow, close-fitting trousers, a round hat, and a healthy complexion.
I can’t make out where I got those big eyes, why they shine so, why my face should be yellow, and my nose, pointed.
And yet I know that it is I myself, Chayyim Blumin, and no other; that I have been handed over for a soldier, and have to serve only two years and eight months, and not three years and eight months, because I have a certificate to the effect that I have been through the first four classes in a secondary school.
Though I know quite well that I am to serve only two years and eight months, I feel the same as though it were to be forever; I can’t, somehow, believe that my time will some day expire, and I shall once more be free.
I have tried from the very beginning not to play any tricks, to do my duty and obey orders, so that they should not say, “A Jew won’t work—a Jew is too lazy.”
Even though I am let off manual labor, because I am on “privileged rights,” still, if they tell me to go and clean the windows, or polish the flooring with sand, or clear away the snow from the door, I make no fuss and go. I wash and clean and polish, and try to do the work well, so that they should find no fault with me.
They haven’t yet ordered me to carry pails of water.
Why should I not confess it? The idea of having to do that rather frightens me. When I look at the vessel in which the water is carried, my heart begins to flutter: the vessel is almost as big as I am, and I couldn’t lift it even if it were empty.
I often think: What shall I do, if to-morrow, or the day after, they wake me at three o’clock in the morning and say coolly:
“Get up, Blumin, and go with Ossadtchok to fetch a pail of water!”
You ought to see my neighbor Ossadtchok! He looks as if he could squash me with one finger. It is as easy for him to carry a pail of water as to drink a glass of brandy. How can I compare myself with him?
I don’t care if it makes my shoulder swell, if I could only carry the thing. I shouldn’t mind about that. But God in Heaven knows the truth, that I won’t be able to lift the pail off the ground, only they won’t believe me, they will say:
“Look at the lazy Jew, pretending he is a poor creature that can’t lift a pail!”
There—I mind that more than anything.
I don’t suppose they will send me to fetch water, for, after all, I am on “privileged rights,” but I can’t sleep in peace: I dream all night that they are waking me at three o’clock, and I start up bathed in a cold sweat.
Drill does not begin before eight in the morning, but they wake us at six, so that we may have time to clean our rifles, polish our boots and leather girdle, brush our coat, and furbish the brass buttons with chalk, so that they should shine like mirrors.
I don’t mind the getting up early, I am used to rising long before daylight, but I am always worrying lest something shouldn’t be properly cleaned, and they should say that a Jew is so lazy, he doesn’t care if his things are clean or not, that he’s afraid of touching his rifle, and pay me other compliments of the kind.
I clean and polish and rub everything all I know, but my rifle always seems in worse condition than the other men’s. I can’t make it look the same as theirs, do what I will, and the head of my division, a corporal, shouts at me, calls me a greasy fellow, and says he’ll have me up before the authorities because I don’t take care of my arms.
But there is worse than the rifle, and that is the uniform. Mine is years old—I am sure it is older than I am. Every day little pieces fall out of it, and the buttons tear themselves out of the cloth, dragging bits of it after them.
I never had a needle in my hand in all my life before, and now I sit whole nights and patch and sew on buttons. And next morning, when the corporal takes hold of a button and gives a pull, to see if it’s firmly sewn, a pang goes through my heart: the button is dragged out, and a piece of the uniform follows.
Another whole night’s work for me!
After the inspection, they drive us out into the yard and teach us to stand: it must be done so that our stomachs fall in and our chests stick out. I am half as one ought to be, because my stomach is flat enough anyhow, only my chest is weak and narrow and also flat—flat as a board.
The corporal squeezes in my stomach with his knee, pulls me forward by the flaps of the coat, but it’s no use. He loses his temper, and calls me greasy fellow, screams again that I am pretending, that I won’t serve, and this makes my chest fall in more than ever.
I like the gymnastics.
In summer we go out early into the yard, which is very wide and covered with thick grass.
It smells delightfully, the sun warms us through, it feels so pleasant.
The breeze blows from the fields, I open my mouth and swallow the freshness, and however much I swallow, it’s not enough, I should like to take in all the air there is. Then, perhaps, I should cough less, and grow a little stronger.
We throw off the old uniforms, and remain in our shirts, we run and leap and go through all sorts of performances with our hands and feet, and it’s splendid! At home I never had so much as an idea of such fun.
At first I was very much afraid of jumping across the ditch, but I resolved once and for all—I’ve got to jump it. If the worst comes to the worst, I shall fall and bruise myself. Suppose I do? What then? Why do all the others jump it and don’t care? One needn’t be so very strong to jump!
And one day, before the gymnastics had begun, I left my comrades, took heart and a long run, and when I came to the ditch, I made a great bound, and, lo and behold, I was over on the other side! I couldn’t believe my own eyes that I had done it so easily.
Ever since then I have jumped across ditches, and over mounds, and down from mounds, as well as any of them.
Only when it comes to climbing a ladder or swinging myself over a high bar, I know it spells misfortune for me.
I spring forward, and seize the first rung with my right hand, but I cannot reach the second with my left.
I stretch myself, and kick out with my feet, but I cannot reach any higher, not by so much as a vershok, and so there I hang and kick with my feet, till my right arm begins to tremble and hurt me. My head goes round, and I fall onto the grass. The corporal abuses me as usual, and the soldiers laugh.
I would give ten years of my life to be able to get higher, if only three or four rungs, but what can I do, if my arms won’t serve me?
Sometimes I go out to the ladder by myself, while the soldiers are still asleep, and stand and look at it: perhaps I can think of a way to manage? But in vain. Thinking, you see, doesn’t help you in these cases.
Sometimes they tell one of the soldiers to stand in the middle of the yard with his back to us, and we have to hop over him. He bends down a little, lowers his head, rests his hands on his knees, and we hop over him one at a time. One takes a good run, and when one comes to him, one places both hands on his shoulders, raises oneself into the air, and—over!
I know exactly how it ought to be done; I take the run all right, and plant my hands on his shoulders, only I can’t raise myself into the air. And if I do lift myself up a little way, I remain sitting on the soldier’s neck, and were it not for his seizing me by the feet, I should fall, and perhaps kill myself.
Then the corporal and another soldier take hold of me by the arms and legs, and throw me over the man’s head, so that I may see there is nothing dreadful about it, as though I did not jump right over him because I was afraid, while it is that my arms are so weak, I cannot lean upon them and raise myself into the air.
But when I say so, they only laugh, and don’t believe me. They say, “It won’t help you; you will have to serve anyhow!”
When, on the other hand, it comes to “theory,” the corporal is very pleased with me.
He says that except himself no one knows “theory” as I do.
He never questions me now, only when one of the others doesn’t know something, he turns to me:
“Well, Blumin, you tell me!”
I stand up without hurrying, and am about to answer, but he is apparently not pleased with my way of rising from my seat, and orders me to sit down again.
“When your superior speaks to you,” says he, “you ought to jump up as though the seat were hot,” and he looks at me angrily, as much as to say, “You may know theory, but you’ll please to know your manners as well, and treat me with proper respect.”
“Stand up again and answer!”
I start up as though I felt a prick from a needle, and answer the question as he likes it done: smartly, all in one breath, and word for word according to the book.
He, meanwhile, looks at the primer, to make sure I am not leaving anything out, but as he reads very slowly, he cannot catch me up, and when I have got to the end, he is still following with his finger and reading. And when he has finished, he gives me a pleased look, and says enthusiastically “Right!” and tells me to sit down again.
“Theory,” he says, “that you do know!”
Well, begging his pardon, it isn’t much to know. And yet there are soldiers who are four years over it, and don’t know it then. For instance, take my comrade Ossadtchok; he says that, when it comes to “theory”, he would rather go and hang or drown himself. He says, he would rather have to carry three pails of water than sit down to “theory.”
I tell him, that if he would learn to read, he could study the whole thing by himself in a week; but he won’t listen.
“Nobody,” he says, “will ever ask my advice.”
One thing always alarmed me very much: However was I to take part in the manœuvres?
I cannot lift a single pud (I myself only weigh two pud and thirty pounds), and if I walk three versts, my feet hurt, and my heart beats so violently that I think it’s going to burst my side.
At the manœuvres I should have to carry as much as fifty pounds’ weight, and perhaps more: a rifle, a cloak, a knapsack with linen, boots, a uniform, a tent, bread, and onions, and a few other little things, and should have to walk perhaps thirty to forty versts a day.
But when the day and the hour arrived, and the command was given “Forward, march!” when the band struck up, and two thousand men set their feet in motion, something seemed to draw me forward, and I went. At the beginning I found it hard, I felt weighted to the earth, my left shoulder hurt me so, I nearly fainted. But afterwards I got very hot, I began to breathe rapidly and deeply, my eyes were starting out of my head like two cupping-glasses, and I not only walked, I ran, so as not to fall behind—and so I ended by marching along with the rest, forty versts a day.
Only I did not sing on the march like the others. First, because I did not feel so very cheerful, and second, because I could not breathe properly, let alone sing.
At times I felt burning hot, but immediately afterwards I would grow light, and the marching was easy. I seemed to be carried along rather than to tread the earth, and it appeared to me as though another were marching in my place, only that my left shoulder ached, and I was hot.
I remember that once it rained a whole night long, it came down like a deluge, our tents were soaked through, and grew heavy. The mud was thick. At three o’clock in the morning an alarm was sounded, we were ordered to fold up our tents and take to the road again. So off we went.
It was dark and slippery. It poured with rain. I was continually stepping into a puddle, and getting my boot full of water. I shivered and shook, and my teeth chattered with cold. That is, I was cold one minute and hot the next. But the marching was no difficulty to me, I scarcely felt that I was on the march, and thought very little about it. Indeed, I don’t know what I was thinking about, my mind was a blank.
We marched, turned back, and marched again. Then we halted for half an hour, and turned back again.
And this went on a whole night and a whole day.
Then it turned out that there had been a mistake: it was not we who ought to have marched, but another regiment, and we ought not to have moved from the spot. But there was no help for it then.
It was night. We had eaten nothing all day. The rain poured down, the mud was ankle-deep, there was no straw on which to pitch our tents, but we managed somehow. And so the days passed, each like the other. But I got through the manœuvres, and was none the worse.
Now I am already an old soldier; I have hardly another year and a half to serve—about sixteen months. I only hope I shall not be ill. It seems I got a bit of a chill at the manœuvres, I cough every morning, and sometimes I suffer with my feet. I shiver a little at night till I get warm, and then I am very hot, and I feel very comfortable lying abed. But I shall probably soon be all right again.
They say, one may take a rest in the hospital, but I haven’t been there yet, and don’t want to go at all, especially now I am feeling better. The soldiers are sorry for me, and sometimes they do my work, but not just for love. I get three pounds of bread a day, and don’t eat more than one pound. The rest I give to my comrade Ossadtchok. He eats it all, and his own as well, and then he could do with some more. In return for this he often cleans my rifle, and sometimes does other work for me, when he sees I have no strength left.
I am also teaching him and a few other soldiers to read and write, and they are very pleased.
My corporal also comes to me to be taught, but he never gives me a word of thanks.
The superior of the platoon, when he isn’t drunk, and is in good humor, says “you” to me instead of “thou,” and sometimes invites me to share his bed—I can breathe easier there, because there is more air, and I don’t cough so much, either.
Only it sometimes happens that he comes back from town tipsy, and makes a great to-do: How do I, a common soldier, come to be sitting on his bed?
He orders me to get up and stand before him “at attention,” and declares he will “have me up” for it.
When, however, he has sobered down, he turns kind again, and calls me to him; he likes me to tell him “stories” out of books.
Sometimes the orderly calls me into the orderly-room, and gives me a report to draw up, or else a list or a calculation to make. He himself writes badly, and is very poor at figures.
I do everything he wants, and he is very glad of my help, only it wouldn’t do for him to confess to it, and when I have finished, he always says to me:
“If the commanding officer is not satisfied, he will send you to fetch water.”
I know it isn’t true, first, because the commanding officer mustn’t know that I write in the orderly-room, a Jew can’t be an army secretary; secondly, because he is certain to be satisfied: he once gave me a note to write himself, and was very pleased with it.
“If you were not a Jew,” he said to me then, “I should make a corporal of you.”
Still, my corporal always repeats his threat about the water, so that I may preserve a proper respect for him, although I not only respect him, I tremble before his size. When he comes back tipsy from town, and finds me in the orderly-room, he commands me to drag his muddy boots off his feet, and I obey him and drag off his boots.
Sometimes I don’t care, and other times it hurts my feelings.
Isaiah Berschadski ~ Forlorn and Forsaken
Forlorn and forsaken she was in her last years. Even when she lay on the bed of sickness where she died, not one of her relations or friends came to look after her; they did not even come to mourn for her or accompany her to the grave. There was not even one of her kin to say the first Kaddish over her resting-place. My wife and I were the only friends she had at the close of her life, no one but us cared for her while she was ill, or walked behind her coffin. The only tears shed at the lonely old woman’s grave were ours. I spoke the only Kaddish for her soul, but we, after all, were complete strangers to her!
Yes, we were strangers to her, and she was a stranger to us! We made her acquaintance only a few years before her death, when she was living in two tiny rooms opposite the first house we settled in after our marriage. Nobody ever came to see her, and she herself visited nowhere, except at the little store where she made her necessary purchases, and at the house-of-study near by, where she prayed twice every day. She was about sixty, rather undersized, and very thin, but more lithesome in her movements than is common at that age. Her face was full of creases and wrinkles, and her light brown eyes were somewhat dulled, but her ready smile and quiet glance told of a good heart and a kindly temper. Her simple old gown was always neat, her wig tastefully arranged, her lodging and its furniture clean and tidy—and all this attracted us to her from the first day onward. We were still more taken with her retiring manner, the quiet way in which she kept herself in the background and the slight melancholy of her expression, telling of a life that had held much sadness.
We made advances. She was very willing to become acquainted with us, and it was not very long before she was like a mother to us, or an old aunt. My wife was then an inexperienced “housemistress” fresh to her duties, and found a great help in the old woman, who smilingly taught her how to proceed with the housekeeping. When our first child was born, she took it to her heart, and busied herself with its upbringing almost more than the young mother. It was evident that dandling the child in her arms was a joy to her beyond words. At such moments her eyes would brighten, her wrinkles grew faint, a curiously satisfied smile played round her lips, and a new note of joy came into her voice.
At first sight all this seemed quite simple, because a woman is naturally inclined to care for little children, and it may have been so with her to an exceptional degree, but closer examination convinced me that here lay yet another reason; her attentions to the child, so it seemed, awakened pleasant memories of a long-ago past, when she herself was a young mother caring for children of her own, and looking at this strange child had stirred a longing for those other children, further from her eyes, but nearer to her heart, although perhaps quite unknown to her—who perhaps existed only in her imagination.
And when we were made acquainted with the details of her life, we knew our conjectures to be true. Her history was very simple and commonplace, but very tragic. Perhaps the tragedy of such biographies lies in their being so very ordinary and simple!
She lived quietly and happily with her husband for twenty years after their marriage. They were not rich, but their little house was a kingdom of delight, where no good thing was wanting. Their business was farming land that belonged to a Polish nobleman, a business that knows of good times and of bad, of fat years and lean years, years of high prices and years of low. But on the whole it was a good business and profitable, and it afforded them a comfortable living. Besides, they were used to the country, they could not fancy themselves anywhere else. The very thing that had never entered their head is just what happened. In the beginning of the “eighties” they were obliged to leave the estate they had farmed for ten years, because the lease was up, and the recently promulgated “temporary laws” forbade them to renew it. This was bad for them from a material point of view, because it left them without regular income just when their children were growing up and expenses had increased, but their mental distress was so great, that, for the time, the financial side of the misfortune was thrown into the shade.
When we made her acquaintance, many years had passed since then, many another trouble had come into her life, but one could hear tears in her voice while she told the story of that first misfortune. It was a bitter Tisho-b’ov for them when they left the house, the gardens, the barns, and the stalls, their whole life, all those things concerning which they had forgotten, and their children had hardly known, that they were not their own possession.
Their town surroundings made them more conscious of their altered circumstances. She herself, the elder children oftener still, had been used to drive into the town now and again, but that was on pleasure trips, which had lasted a day or two at most; they had never tried staying there longer, and it was no wonder if they felt cramped and oppressed in town after their free life in the open.
When they first settled there, they had a capital of about ten thousand rubles, but by reason of inexperience in their new occupation they were worsted in competition with others, and a few turns of bad luck brought them almost to ruin. The capital grew less from year to year; everything they took up was more of a struggle than the last venture; poverty came nearer and nearer, and the father of the family began to show signs of illness, brought on by town life and worry. This, of course, made their material position worse, and the knowledge of it reacted disastrously on his health. Three years after he came to town, he died, and she was left with six children and no means of subsistence. Already during her husband’s life they had exchanged their first lodging for a second, a poorer and cheaper one, and after his death they moved into a third, meaner and narrower still, and sold their precious furniture, for which, indeed, there was no place in the new existence. But even so the question of bread and meat was not answered. They still had about six hundred rubles, but, as they were without a trade, it was easy to foresee that the little stock of money would dwindle day by day till there was none of it left—and what then?
The eldest son, Yossef, aged twenty-one, had gone from home a year before his father’s death, to seek his fortune elsewhere; but his first letters brought no very good news, and now the second, Avròhom, a lad of eighteen, and the daughter Rochel, who was sixteen, declared their intention to start for America. The mother was against it, begged them with tears not to go, but they did not listen to her. Parting with them, forever most likely, was bad enough in itself, but worst of all was the thought that her children, for whose Jewish education their father had never grudged money even when times were hardest, should go to America, and there, forgetting everything they had learned, become “ganze Goyim.” She was quite sure that her husband would never have agreed to his children’s being thus scattered abroad, and this encouraged her to oppose their will with more determination. She urged them to wait at least till their elder brother had achieved some measure of success, and could help them. She held out this hope to them, because she believed in her son Yossef and his capacity, and was convinced that in a little time he would become their support.
If only Avròhom and Rochel had not been so impatient (she would lament to us), everything would have turned out differently! They would not have been bustled off to the end of creation, and she would not have been left so lonely in her last years, but—it had apparently been so ordained!
Avròhom and Rochel agreed to defer the journey, but when some months had passed, and Yossef was still wandering from town to town, finding no rest for the sole of his foot, she had to give in to her children and let them go. They took with them two hundred rubles and sailed for America, and with the remaining three hundred rubles she opened a tiny shop. Her expenses were not great now, as only the three younger children were left her, but the shop was not sufficient to support even these. The stock grew smaller month by month, there never being anything over wherewith to replenish it, and there was no escaping the fact that one day soon the shop would remain empty.
And as if this were not enough, there came bad news from the children in America. They did not complain much; on the contrary, they wrote most hopefully about the future, when their position would certainly, so they said, improve; but the mother’s heart was not to be deceived, and she felt instinctively that meanwhile they were doing anything but well, while later—who could foresee what would happen later?
One day she got a letter from Yossef, who wrote that, convinced of the impossibility of earning a livelihood within the Pale, he was about to make use of an opportunity that offered itself, and settle in a distant town outside of it. This made her very sad, and she wept over her fate—to have a son living in a Gentile city, where there were hardly any Jews at all. And the next letter from America added sorrow to sorrow. Avròhom and Rochel had parted company, and were living in different towns. She could not bear the thought of her young daughter fending for herself among strangers—a thought that tortured her all the more as she had a peculiar idea of America. She herself could not account for the terror that would seize her whenever she remembered that strange, distant life.
But the worst was nearly over; the turn for the better came soon. She received word from Yossef that he had found a good position in his new home, and in a few weeks he proved his letter true by sending her money. From America, too, the news that came was more cheerful, even joyous. Avròhom had secured steady work with good pay, and before long he wrote for his younger brother to join him in America, and provided him with all the funds he needed for travelling expenses. Rochel had engaged herself to a young man, whose praises she sounded in her letters. Soon after her wedding, she sent money to bring over another brother, and her husband added a few lines, in which he spoke of “his great love for his new relations,” and how he “looked forward with impatience to having one of them, his dear brother-in-law, come to live with him.”
This was good and cheering news, and it all came within a year’s time, but the mother’s heart grieved over it more than it rejoiced. Her delight at her daughter’s marriage with a good man she loved was anything but unmixed. Melancholy thoughts blended with it, whether she would or not. The occasion was one which a mother’s fancy had painted in rainbow colors, on the preparations for which it had dwelt with untold pleasure—and now she had had no share in it at all, and her heart writhed under the disappointment. To make her still sadder, she was obliged to part with two more children. She tried to prevent their going, but they had long ago set their hearts on following their brother and sister to America, and the recent letters had made them more anxious to be off.
So they started, and there remained only the youngest daughter, Rivkeh, a girl of thirteen. Their position was materially not a bad one, for every now and then the old woman received help from her children in America and from her son Yossef, so that she was not even obliged to keep up the shop, but the mother in her was not satisfied, because she wanted to see her children’s happiness with her own eyes. The good news that continued to arrive at intervals brought pain as well as pleasure, by reminding her how much less fortunate she was than other mothers, who were counted worthy to live together with their children, and not at a distance from them like her.
The idea that she should go out to those of them who were in America, never occurred to her, or to them, either! But Yossef, who had taken a wife in his new town, and who, soon after, had set up for himself, and was doing very well, now sent for his mother and little sister to come and live with him. At first the mother was unwilling, fearing that she might be in the way of her daughter-in-law, and thus disturb the household peace; even later, when she had assured herself that the young wife was very kind, and there was nothing to be afraid of, she could not make up her mind to go, even though she longed to be with Yossef, her oldest son, who had always been her favorite, and however much she desired to see his wife and her little grandchildren.
Why she would not fulfil his wish and her own, she herself was not clearly conscious; but she shrank from the strange fashion of the life they led, and she never ceased to hope, deep down in her heart, that some day they would come back to her. And this especially with regard to Yossef, who sometimes complained in his letters that his situation was anything but secure, because the smallest circumstance might bring about an edict of expulsion. She quite understood that her son would consider this a very bad thing, but she herself looked at it with other eyes; round about here, too, were people who made a comfortable living, and Yossef was no worse than others, that he should not do the same.
Six or seven years passed in this way; the youngest daughter was twenty, and it was time to think of a match for her. Her mother felt sure that Yossef would provide the dowry, but she thought best Rivkeh and her brother should see each other, and she consented readily to let Rivkeh go to him, when Yossef invited her to spend several months as his guest. No sooner had she gone, than the mother realized what it meant, this parting with her youngest and, for the last years, her only child. She was filled with regret at not having gone with her, and waited impatiently for her return. Suddenly she heard that Rivkeh had found favor with a friend of Yossef’s, the son of a well-to-do merchant, and that Rivkeh and her brother were equally pleased with him. The two were already engaged, and the wedding was only deferred till she, the mother, should come and take up her abode with them for good.
The longing to see her daughter overcame all her doubts. She resolved to go to her son, and began preparations for the start. These were just completed, when there came a letter from Yossef to say that the situation had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and he and his family might have to leave their town.
This sudden news was distressing and welcome at one and the same time. She was anxious lest the edict of expulsion should harm her son’s position, and pleased, on the other hand, that he should at last be coming back, for God would not forsake him here, either; what with the fortune he had, and his aptitude for trade, he would make a living right enough. She waited anxiously, and in a few months had gone through all the mental suffering inherent in a state of uncertainty such as hers, when fear and hope are twined in one.
The waiting was the harder to bear that all this time no letter from Yossef or Rivkeh reached her promptly. And the end of it all was this: news came that the danger was over, and Yossef would remain where he was; but as far as she was concerned, it was best she should do likewise, because trailing about at her age was a serious thing, and it was not worth while her running into danger, and so on.
The old woman was full of grief at remaining thus forlorn in her old age, and she longed more than ever for her children after having hoped so surely that she would be with them soon. She could not understand Yossef’s reason for suddenly changing his mind with regard to her coming; but it never occurred to her for one minute to doubt her children’s affection. And we, when we had read the treasured bundle of letters from Yossef and Rivkeh, we could not doubt it, either. There was love and longing for the distant mother in every line, and several of the letters betrayed a spirit of bitterness, a note of complaining resentment against the hard times that had brought about the separation from her. And yet we could not help thinking, “Out of sight, out of mind,” that which is far from the eyes, weighs lighter at the heart. It was the only explanation we could invent, for why, otherwise, should the mother have to remain alone among strangers?
All these considerations moved me to interfere in the matter without the old woman’s knowledge. She could read Yiddish, but could not write it, and before we made friends, her letters to the children were written by a shopkeeper of her acquaintance. But from the time we got to know her, I became her constant secretary, and one day, when writing to Yossef for her, I made use of the opportunity to enclose a letter from myself. I asked his forgiveness for mixing myself up in another’s family affairs, and tried to justify the interference by dwelling on our affectionate relations with his mother. I then described, in the most touching words at my command, how hard it was for her to live forlorn, how she pined for the presence of her children and grandchildren, and ended by telling them, that it was their duty to free their mother from all this mental suffering.
There was no direct reply to this letter of mine, but the next one from the son to his mother gave her to understand that there are certain things not to be explained, while the impossibility of explaining them may lead to a misunderstanding. This hint made the position no clearer to us, and the fact of Yossef’s not answering me confirmed us in our previous suspicions.
Meanwhile our old friend fell ill, and quickly understood that she would soon die. Among the things she begged me to do after her death and having reference to her burial, there was one particular petition several times repeated: to send a packet of Hebrew books, which had been left by her husband, to her son Yossef, and to inform him of her death by telegram. “My American children”—she explained with a sigh—”have certainly forgotten everything they once learned, forgotten all their Jewishness! But my son Yossef is a different sort; I feel sure of him, that he will say Kaddish after me and read a chapter in the Mishnah, and the books will come in useful for his children—Grandmother’s legacy to them.”
When I fulfilled the old woman’s last wish, I learned how mistaken she had been. The answer to my letter written during her lifetime came now that she was dead. Her children thanked us warmly for our care of her, and they also explained why she and they had remained apart.
She had never known—and it was far better so—by what means her son had obtained the right to live outside the Pale. It was enough that she should have to live forlorn, where would have been the good of her knowing that she was forsaken as well—that the one of her children who had gone altogether over to “them” was Yossef?
The Clever Rabbi
The power of man’s imagination, said my Grandmother, is very great. Hereby hangs a tale, which, to our sorrow, is a true one, and as clear as daylight.
Listen attentively, my dear child, it will interest you very much.
Not far from this town of ours lived an old Count, who believed that Jews require blood at Passover, Christian blood, too, for their Passover cakes.
The Count, in his brandy distillery, had a Jewish overseer, a very honest, respectable fellow.
The Count loved him for his honesty, and was very kind to him, and the Jew, although he was a simple man and no scholar, was well-disposed, and served the Count with heart and soul. He would have gone through fire and water at the Count’s bidding, for it is in the nature of a Jew to be faithful and to love good men.
The Count often discussed business matters with him, and took pleasure in hearing about the customs and observances of the Jews.
One day the Count said to him, “Tell me the truth, do you love me with your whole heart?”
“Yes,” replied the Jew, “I love you as myself.”
“Not true!” said the Count. “I shall prove to you that you hate me even unto death.”
“Hold!” cried the Jew. “Why does my lord say such terrible things?”
The Count smiled and answered: “Let me tell you! I know quite well that Jews must have Christian blood for their Passover feast. Now, what would you do if I were the only Christian you could find? You would have to kill me, because the Rabbis have said so. Indeed, I can scarcely hold you to blame, since, according to your false notions, the Divine command is precious, even when it tells us to commit murder. I should be no more to you than was Isaac to Abraham, when, at God’s command, Abraham was about to slay his only son. Know, however, that the God of Abraham is a God of mercy and lovingkindness, while the God the Rabbis have created is full of hatred towards Christians. How, then, can you say that you love me?”
The Jew clapped his hands to his head, he tore his hair in his distress and felt no pain, and with a broken heart he answered the Count, and said: “How long will you Christians suffer this stain on your pure hearts? How long will you disgrace yourselves? Does not my lord know that this is a great lie? I, as a believing Jew, and many besides me, as believing Jews—we ourselves, I say, with our own hands, grind the corn, we keep the flour from getting damp or wet with anything, for if only a little dew drop onto it, it is prohibited for us as though it had yeast.
“Till the day on which the cakes are baked, we keep the flour as the apple of our eye. And when the flour is baked, and we are eating the cakes, even then we are not sure of swallowing it, because if our gums should begin to bleed, we have to spit the piece out. And in face of all these stringent regulations against eating the blood of even beasts and birds, some people say that Jews require human blood for their Passover cakes, and swear to it as a fact! What does my lord suppose we are likely to think of such people? We know that they swear falsely—and a false oath is of all things the worst.”
The Count was touched to the heart by these words, and these two men, being both upright and without guile, believed one the other.
The Count believed the Jew, that is, he believed that the Jew did not know the truth of the matter, because he was poor and untaught, while the Rabbis all the time most certainly used blood at Passover, only they kept it a secret from the people. And he said as much to the Jew, who, in his turn, believed the Count, because he knew him to be an honorable man. And so it was that he began to have his doubts, and when the Count, on different occasions, repeated the same words, the Jew said to himself, that perhaps after all it was partly true, that there must be something in it—the Count would never tell him a lie!
And he carried the thought about with him for some time.
The Jew found increasing favor in his master’s eyes. The Count lent him money to trade with, and God prospered the Jew in everything he undertook. Thanks to the Count, he grew rich.
The Jew had a kind heart, and was much given to good works, as is the way with Jews.
He was very charitable, and succored all the poor in the neighboring town. And he assisted the Rabbis and the pious in all the places round about, and earned for himself a great and beautiful name, for he was known to all as “the benefactor.”
The Rabbis gave him the honor due to a pious and influential Jew, who is a wealthy man and charitable into the bargain.
But the Jew was thinking:
“Now the Rabbis will let me into the secret which is theirs, and which they share with those only who are at once pious and rich, that great and pious Jews must have blood for Passover.”
For a long time he lived in hope, but the Rabbis told him nothing, the subject was not once mentioned. But the Jew felt sure that the Count would never have lied to him, and he gave more liberally than before, thinking, “Perhaps after all it was too little.”
He assisted the Rabbi of the nearest town for a whole year, so that the Rabbi opened his eyes in astonishment. He gave him more than half of what is sufficient for a livelihood.
When it was near Passover, the Jew drove into the little town to visit the Rabbi, who received him with open arms, and gave him honor as unto the most powerful and wealthy benefactor. And all the representative men of the community paid him their respects.
Thought the Jew, “Now they will tell me of the commandment which it is not given to every Jew to observe.”
As the Rabbi, however, told him nothing, the Jew remained, to remind the Rabbi, as it were, of his duty.
“Rabbi,” said the Jew, “I have something very particular to say to you! Let us go into a room where we two shall be alone.”
So the Rabbi went with him into an empty room, shut the door, and said:
“Dear friend, what is your wish? Do not be abashed, but speak freely, and tell me what I can do for you.”
“Dear Rabbi, I am, you must know, already acquainted with the fact that Jews require blood at Passover. I know also that it is a secret belonging only to the Rabbis, to very pious Jews, and to the wealthy who give much alms. And I, who am, as you know, a very charitable and good Jew, wish also to comply, if only once in my life, with this great observance.
“You need not be alarmed, dear Rabbi! I will never betray the secret, but will make you happy forever, if you will enable me to fulfil so great a command.
“If, however, you deny its existence, and declare that Jews do not require blood, from that moment I become your bitter enemy.
“And why should I be treated worse than any other pious Jew? I, too, want to try to perform the great commandment which God gave in secret. I am not learned in the Law, but a great and wealthy Jew, and one given to good works, that am I in very truth!”
You can fancy—said my Grandmother—the Rabbi’s horror on hearing such words from a Jew, a simple countryman. They pierced him to the quick, like sharp arrows.
He saw that the Jew believed in all sincerity that his coreligionists used blood at Passover.
How was he to uproot out of such a simple heart the weeds sown there by evil men?
The Rabbi saw that words would just then be useless.
A beautiful thought came to him, and he said: “So be it, dear friend! Come into the synagogue to-morrow at this time, and I will grant your request. But till then you must fast, and you must not sleep all night, but watch in prayer, for this is a very grave and dreadful thing.”
The Jew went away full of gladness, and did as the Rabbi had told him. Next day, at the appointed time, he came again, wan with hunger and lack of sleep.
The Rabbi took the key of the synagogue, and they went in there together. In the synagogue all was quiet.
The Rabbi put on a prayer-scarf and a robe, lighted some black candles, threw off his shoes, took the Jew by the hand, and led him up to the ark.
The Rabbi opened the ark, took out a scroll of the Law, and said:
“You know that for us Jews the scroll of the Law is the most sacred of all things, and that the list of denunciations occurs in it twice.
“I swear to you by the scroll of the Law: If any Jew, whosoever he be, requires blood at Passover, may all the curses contained in the two lists of denunciations be on my head, and on the head of my whole family!”
The Jew was greatly startled.
He knew that the Rabbi had never before sworn an oath, and now, for his sake, he had sworn an oath so dreadful!
The Jew wept much, and said:
“Dear Rabbi, I have sinned before God and before you. I pray you, pardon me and give me a hard penance, as hard as you please. I will perform it willingly, and may God forgive me likewise!”
The Rabbi comforted him, and told no one what had happened, he only told a few very near relations, just to show them how people can be talked into believing the greatest foolishness and the most wicked lies.
May God—said my Grandmother—open the eyes of all who accuse us falsely, that they may see how useless it is to trump up against us things that never were seen or heard.
Jews will be Jews while the world lasts, and they will become, through suffering, better Jews with more Jewish hearts.
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