A Portrait in Time
By Sam Hoffer
Seated are Vikke and Yoshia with their two children, Henia and Zelig.
Standing is Vikke's sister (name unknown). Photograph, circa 1922.
A Note to the Reader:
These are the imagined though not unlikely events that led to the making of this portrait.
A knock at the door. Vikke, not expecting anyone, immediately cast her eyes about to assure herself that Zelig and Henia were there and safe. She shooed them out of the room, wiping her hands on her apron to remove what remained of the dough she’d been kneading at the kitchen table.
Who could it be on a Monday morning? she wondered. Her husband Yoshia had left hours ago to the market in Viznitz with a wagonload of hay. Chava, her younger sister, was in the village delivering some mending she had done.
She went to the window, carefully moving aside an edge of the cloth curtain. It was a young man, wearing a tired black suit and hat and bearing a closely trimmed full beard. He seemed pleasant but one could never tell. She opened the door just enough to avoid offending the stranger but without appearing to welcome him into her home.
“Hello,” she said, waiting for him to explain what he wanted.
“Good afternoon and excuse me,” he said, touching but not removing his hat. “My name is Yakov Katz. I’m a photographer. I’m visiting Chornohuzy to make family portraits, if you are interested.”
Vikke noted the modest horse and buggy behind him. She had of course seen photographs but had never seen a camera, much less met a photographer. She hadn’t dreamt of ever having her picture taken and felt a rush of excitement as she saw a fleeting image of herself and her family posing for a portrait. She wondered what Yoshia would say.
Sensing that it was not dangerous, Zelig age four and his sister age three crept stealthily behind their mother, each gripping one side of her skirt while catching a glimpse of the stranger.
“Could you come back tomorrow in the morning?” Vikke asked. “We’re busy right now,” she added, hoping he would not suspect that she was alone with her children.
“Of course,” he replied. “I’ll come at ten o’clock if that suits you.”
Vikke nodded and moved to close the door. Zelig and Henia squeezed into the narrowing gap, straining to watch the man leave.
A torrent of questions followed. “Who was that, Mameh? What does he want? What is a photographer?”
Vikke tried to explain, but grew impatient as her mind wandered to her husband and Chava, anticipating what they would say. Yoshia was not one for the latest gimmicks. Times were trying enough without squandering hard-earned money on frivolous things like photographs. As she thought about it, she half-regretted asking the photographer to come back, not wanting to upset Yoshia if he had had a difficult day at the market. She resolved to bide her time and see how things had gone before she told him about the photographer’s visit.
Less than an hour later, Chava returned. She had hardly had a chance to close the door behind her when she was besieged by Henia and Zelig.
“Tanteh Chava! Tanteh Chava! We’re going to have our picture taken!” exclaimed the chorus of voices. Chava bent down to embrace them, kissing their beaming faces. She glanced up at Vikke inquiringly, unable to read her expression.
“Sit down,” Vikke said, beckoning. “I have to talk to you before Yoshia gets back. An interesting thing happened while you were away.” She told Chava how she had answered the door, and she described the young man who had greeted her, noting that he was decently dressed and mannerly, and that he’d introduced himself as a photographer offering to make a family portrait. “I didn’t want to discuss it without Yoshia here so I told him to come back in the morning. What do you think, Chava?” she asked.
Chava could tell that Vikke was excited about the idea but guessed that she was uncertain about Yoshia’s reaction. “I think it would be wonderful to have a family portrait,” she replied, more cautiously than she would have wanted to, reluctant to put any pressure on her sister and Yoshia.
“But will Yoshia be here in the morning?” Chava asked.
“Yes, I’m sure he’ll be here. I just don’t know what he’ll say.”
Chava got up from her chair, reflecting on the sudden appearance of this stranger. Visitors to the village were few and far between. The most common were rabbinical students who came from Viznitz to collect donations for the yeshiva. Their stay in the village, however brief, never failed to stir the imagination of the single girls. Occasionally, peddlers who also travelled the rural roads took a room at the local inn, but they were suspect, not the kind Yoshia or any family head would entrust with one of his own.
Her mind drifted to the images of the man Vikke had described. She had said that he was young and presentable. The fact that he wore a neatly trimmed beard could mean that he was religious and maybe also enlightened, modern. But he might be married. Everything, she concluded, would depend on Yoshia.
Yoshia ate contently, seated on his wagon behind his market stall. He was grateful for the cheese that Leib Drassinover, his son David’s father-in-law, had brought him when he came into town. Leib had three cows and some sheep that he kept in a clearing in the forest. He made a good living selling his cheeses as well as milk, cream, and butter to the townsfolk in Chornohuzy and even Viznitz.
He considered how fortunate David had been to find such a fine girl as Chaya Sura, Leib’s eldest daughter. She was much younger than David and full of life, always singing and cheerful, but also devoted to her parents. She would be good for David, who was hard-working, a caring son but a bit too serious. Maybe Chaya Sura would teach him how to enjoy life more.
He inhaled the aroma of the thick slices of freshly baked bread and quartered the apple Vikke had sent along. It had been a good day. He had sold all of his hay to the wagoners who needed it for their horses. Nikolai had even offered him a drink of vodka to toast their deal. He was one of the regulars who relied on Yoshia for good feed at a decent price. Yoshia tried hard to keep him and the others happy. He didn’t relish the thought of having to compete for new customers. He had stiff competition and being Jewish didn’t help. Still, he got along well with them. It was good that he had a thick skin. He could laugh along at their jokes without forgetting why he was there.
As the afternoon began to fade, he lingered a moment in the warm sun before preparing to leave. He was not in a rush. He would be home well before dark.
He fed and watered his horse and checked again that the money was secure in its place under the seat. Pulling away from the market stall, he nodded to the others who were loading what remained of their wares.
There had been no rain for two weeks so the road was dry and easier on his horse and wagon. As he drew closer to the countryside, he began to hum the songs of the Shabbos prayers that he found so comforting. His mind wandered to days long ago when he was a small boy and had gone to the synagogue with his father on Shabbos mornings. Most of all, he had enjoyed sitting beside him, wrapping a hand in his father’s tallis and inhaling the musty smell of the old books from which the men studied. With these thoughts flooding his mind, Yoshia’s voice rose to the heavens.
From afar, he noticed the tall stalks stir just before three men emerged from the corn field along the road. He couldn’t tell at this distance who they were. They were being boisterous, laughing and slapping each other good naturedly on the back. It would be only minutes before they saw him approaching.
He came closer, maintaining a steady pace, his horse plodding along, oblivious to the men just steps away. Yoshia recognized one of them. Vasily lived half a kilometer from his home. He was the youngest son of Sasha, the Ukrainian neighbour he’d known since both of them were boys. They had played together until they became teenagers and then they had drifted apart. But to this day, Sasha had been friendly to him and Vikke, always greeting them respectfully and asking about their children.
Yoshia hoped that a wave and a smile would be enough for Vasily and his friends to let him pass.
Vasily put up his hand and kept it there, signalling Yoshia to stop.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted Yoshia. “It’s good to see you on such a fine day.”
“Good afternoon, Vasily,” Yoshia replied, smiling. “It’s good to see you too. How is your father?”
“Fine,” Vasily replied, as he held the horse’s bridle, his friends walking casually around to the back of the wagon.
“How was your day at the market?” Vasily asked, glancing at his friends. “With such fine weather you must have brought a good load and gotten an excellent price for your hay.”
“It’s been a good day, thank you, Vasily. I’m looking forward to getting home and putting my feet up with my family.”
“What’s the rush?” chimed in one of Vasily’s friends. “No time for a chat?”
Yoshia, feeling uneasy, looked for some reassurance from Vasily but Vasily avoided his gaze.
“Of course,” Yoshia replied. “In fact, how about a drink before I move on?” He got up from the seat and flipped open the lid to take out the bottle of vodka he kept there for the occasional shot. Vasily peered into the open box, his eyes fixing on the small leather pouch that he was sure held Yoshia’s money. But he said nothing as Yoshia pretended not to notice Vasily’s searching eyes and closed the lid.
He handed them the bottle, grinning approvingly as each of them took a generous swig. A small price to pay, he thought, though he worried that the drink might go to their heads. Vasily drank last, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and returned the bottle to Yoshia.
“You’d better get going, old man,” he said, giving the horse a friendly slap on the rear. “It’s getting late and you never know who you might run into on the road,” he laughed loudly, the others joining in.
Yoshia lost no time to flick the reins urging his horse on. He casually saluted the young men who stood aside to let him pass. Vasily, still laughing, shouted, “And give my best to beautiful Chava!”
Yoshia stepped up the pace. He’d had enough, not wanting to chance an encounter with another gang of antisemites. He wasn’t so concerned for himself but he knew that none of them was safe: Vikke, his kids, and certainly not Chava who had obviously caught Vasily’s eye. And they weren’t alone. Only a year ago, a herd of men in town had ganged up on a Jewish farmer and his wife, and in a drunken stupor had burned their home to the ground, nearly killing them inside.
Worst of all was the constant taunting. He’d had a steady diet of it from when he was a child, going to cheder. And now he feared for Zelig and Henia. It would be impossible to protect them day and night.
As the sun set behind the surrounding forest, he pulled into his yard. Vikke came out to greet him, offering him a drink of ice cold water and a taste of the potato pudding she’d just baked.
“Hello, Vikkele,” he said smiling gratefully as he savoured his favourite treat. “How are the children?”
“They are well,” she answered, her eyes searching for a hint of how his trip had gone. He appeared to be tense, but she chose not to probe. She’d let him tell her if there was anything wrong.
“The market was good,” Yoshia said as he removed the harness from his horse. “I sold all the hay, most of it to Nikolai, and at a good price.”
Vikke smiled, wondering all the more about the strain in Yoshia’s voice. “I’m going inside,” she said. “Come in soon. It’s getting dark.”
Yoshia finished his chores, then led the horse into the barn, and locked him up for the night.
Inside, Vikke, Chava, and the children were already seated, waiting. After washing his hands, Yoshia sat down in his chair at the head of the table and recited the blessing over the bread to begin their meal.
“Well, children, what do you have to tell me?” Yoshia asked in a jovial voice, hoping to disguise his lingering unease. He caught Zelig’s eye just as the boy glanced quizzically at his mother.
Anticipating Yoshia’s question, Vikke said, “We had a surprise visitor today. A photographer.”
Yoshia looked up, waiting for her to go on.
“He came to the door mid-morning. He said his name is Yakov Katz and offered to make a family portrait for us. I didn’t know whether you would want to or if we could afford it, so I told him only that he should come back tomorrow, thinking that he could discuss it with you.”
“Are you sure,” Yoshia asked, “that he wasn’t some fraudster looking for trouble?”
“He seemed pleasant enough,” Vikke replied. “He was dressed respectably, he had a full beard, neatly trimmed, and he was very polite.” Hearing no immediate objection from Yoshia she added, “He said he would come back at ten.”
The idea of making a portrait was as far removed from Yoshia’s mind as climbing the Tower of Babel. But he could tell that there had been a lot of excitement in his absence. He wondered whether Chava had also met this photographer. He didn’t want to ask for fear of appearing to doubt Vikke. Chava had said nothing so far but he suspected that beneath that silence she, most of all, was hoping he would approve of tomorrow’s visit.
“All right,” he smacked the table with the palm of his hand. “If we’re going to have a guest, then let’s have a guest! We will invite him for some refreshments, perhaps even to our midday meal and let him tell us what’s going on in the world. But,” he cautioned, looking at Vikke, his face turning serious, “I’m not promising anything about a portrait.”
“I love you, Tateh!” Henia shouted as both children cheered, their heads nearly colliding in a frenzy of scheming. The twinkle in Vikke’s eye, which he knew so well, revealed her excitement. Chava eagerly fetched the cookies from the stove, baked to welcome Yoshia home, and set them on the table, returning just as quickly to boil some water for tea.
Yoshia observed his family’s joy and suppressed the bitterness of the afternoon. He had a great deal to be thankful for. He’d had a good day at the market and he was here, surrounded by his family in his own home. There was little more that a man could ask for.
Yakov was up in time to join the men in morning services at the small one-room wooden structure that served as the village synagogue. It wasn’t much of a building, more of a shack with a single window, a roof that threatened to leak at any time, and walls that sagged from years of service and a patchwork of repairs. Chaim, the shammes, who had been so generous to put him up in his one-room flat overnight, clearly did what he could to hold the building together using his ingenuity and the few coins that the regulars found to spare on days when they had yahrzeit or, with God’s help, a stroke of good fortune.
As they neared the synagogue, Yakov noted the brilliant sun rising above the tops of the distant hills, its warming rays mingling with the cool morning breeze. Yakov took a deep breath, filling his chest with hope.
He smiled gratefully at Chaim as they came to the doorway. “Thank you again for letting me stay at your place last night. I had a very restful sleep.” He was being honest, despite having spent the night on the floor on top of a makeshift bed of blankets and rags.
Chaim nodded in acknowledgement, immediately searching to see if any of the men had arrived. Reb Moyshe, the eldest of the regulars was already there, dressed in his tallis and tefillin, hunched over one of the holy books, studying fervently under the still-dim light at the window. Chaim walked over to him with Yakov, knowing that while Moyshe would not ordinarily want to be disturbed in his studies, nothing was more important than welcoming a stranger into their midst.
Chaim stood respectfully at Reb Moyshe’s side, waiting for him to look up before speaking. After a moment or two, Reb Moyshe caught sight of Chaim out of the corner of his eye and turned to face the two men.
“A good morning to you Reb Moyshe,” Chaim said, in a loud voice, betraying Reb Moyshe’s failing hearing. “We have a guest this morning. His name is Yakov Katz!”
Reb Moyshe looked from one man to the other and slowly broke into a welcoming smile. “Sholem aleykhem,” he said, “where do you come from, young man?”
“I am from Chernovitz,” Yakov replied. “I came here only yesterday and am passing through Chornohuzy on my way to other villages.”
“And what brings you here?”
“I am a photographer, Reb Moyshe,” he said, speaking slowly.
Reb Moyshe looked at Chaim. He nodded knowingly but said nothing, not sure if he’d heard the strange word correctly and not wanting to offend their guest. “May you have good fortune in your endeavours,” he offered, and returned to his studies.
As men filed in, Chaim introduced Yakov to them, one by one. They welcomed him warmly, gathering around, eager to hear the purpose of his visit and to glean some news from the outside world.
After services were over, as the men conversed while putting away their talleisim and tefillin, Reb Hersh the butcher and Reb Zalman the tailor, both clearly better off than most of the others, invited him to their homes to meet their families and explore possibilities for a portrait. Yakov was encouraged by their interest. It had been a long journey. He needed some fruit for his labours.
In honour of Yakov, Chaim took out the bottle of schnapps that he’d kept hidden in his jacket and unwrapped the portion of honey cake that the baker’s wife had given him the previous evening.
When all had filled their glasses, Chaim raised his and pronounced, “May your journey, Yakov, be fruitful and your stay in out modest village bring you success. To good health and peace, l’chaim!” The men responded with a resounding “l’chaim!” and downed their liquor, each smacking his lips, officially marking the conclusion of the morning service.
Yakov returned to Chaim’s flat, retrieved his horse and buggy, loaded his equipment and set out for Yoshia’s home.
Yakov felt that he had plenty of time to get to his destination. A brief detour into the countryside on a blissful day would sharpen his creative instincts for the work ahead. The truth was that nature photography was his passion and that the verdant slopes of the Carpathian mountains never failed to quicken his heart.
The road from Chaim’s flat took him to a main street which, in fact, was a dirt road only a bit more travelled than the track in front of the synagogue. The street took him within minutes to the edge of the village. He maintained a leisurely pace, taking in the small orchards of plums, pears, cherries, and apples, fruits that grew in abundance on these fertile lands. A warm gust of wind enveloped him in the aroma of the ripening crops and made his mouth water. How he longed for these sights, the occasional wildlife, the songs of countless birds in the trees. Chernovitz was rich in commerce and culture, he conceded, but his heart was deeply rooted in the countryside.
He thought of how much he would have wanted to enjoy this moment with Rivka. They had grown close in the past year, sharing hopes for the future. She, developing her love of the violin, while he explored his passion for photography. They had met at a gathering to celebrate their mutual friend Esther’s engagement and, after proper introductions, had arranged to meet, first in Esther’s company and then alone. They knew that their families would not approve but they took their chances, hoping to be safe from prying eyes.
He wished that Rivka would overcome her reservations about living in the country. He understood her need to be among people, especially colleagues who shared her passion for music. He had witnessed her rapture during a solo performance and her genuine delight when she applauded a friend. She understood his passion, too. His burning desire to capture the beauty of nature. Yet she feared that life away from the city would spell the end of what to her was more than a career. It was her life.
He climbed down from his buggy and, having removed his camera from its case, walked toward the cherry trees that bordered the side of the road. He strolled into the orchard, looking back occasionally to check on his horse. He regarded the trees with awe, their age, their gnarled limbs, the ruby-red colour of the cherries soon ready to be picked. A particular tree caught his eye. As always, it was that indescribable combination of light, shape, colour, texture, and context that made it magical. He stood under the tree and noted the striking contrast of the wizened branches against the expanse of vibrant blue. He caught sight of a solitary white cloud drifting directly over the tree, breaking up the singular colour of the sky. Its presence threw the branches into a mixture of relief. It struck Yakov that this imperfection was the perfect image. He took picture after picture quickly, with movements that were second nature to him now, assuring himself that there wasn’t an angle or a perspective that he might have missed. He could perform magic later in the dark room but nothing would replace what his eyes now saw.
Getting back into the buggy, Yakov was pleased with his prize. It would make a fitting gift for Rivka, a token to compensate for his absence.
As Chava tossed and turned trying to fall asleep, her thoughts drifted repeatedly to her friend Tushka. They had known each other since they were small children in school and had continued their friendship through the years, not quite best friends but always taking an interest in each other. They had grown closer when Tushka’s older sister Chaya Sura married David, Yoshia’s eldest son.
Chava admired Tushka’s resolve in moving away from Chornohuzy to make a life for herself in Chernovitz. It had a large Jewish community, yeshivas, and a host of Jewish enterprises, large and small. Tushka’s father had encouraged her and had placed his trust in his brother, a successful businessman in the city, to give her a home and make her welcome.
It had come as a surprise to Chava when she received a letter almost a month before from Tushka, inviting her to come to visit. She would stay with her at her uncle’s place where there was plenty of room and generous hospitality. Together, Tushka suggested, they would explore the city, Tushka offering to introduce her to the cultural attractions and historical sites. They might even enjoy a meal at Tushka’s favourite restaurant in the Jewish district. And her aunt, who had lived in Chernovitz all her life, might arrange for them to meet some of the wealthy ladies with whom she met regularly. Who knows where that might lead? Tushka teased. The possibility of a suitor was, of course, an ever-present hope. But it was the last few lines of the letter that had made Chava’s heart race:
Chava, I know that you have always liked to make ladies’ clothes. You are very creative and a good designer. You’ll never have a chance to use your talents in Chornohuzy. But here, where fashion is on every woman’s lips, you can have a future. Let me at least introduce you to the owner of the company I work for and see what happens. At worst we’ll have a wonderful visit together.
Chava had hardly been able to contain her excitement. She was already eighteen and was beginning to feel that her uneventful life was leading nowhere. She saw no possibility of breaking out of Chornohuzy, dependent as she was on her sister Vikke and her generous husband Yoshia, for a home. Her parents had passed away, leaving her little by way of independent means, and without the support of someone to sponsor her, it would be impossible for her to make a life of her own in another place.
She recalled her conversation with Vikke, to whom she had read the letter only after she’d studied every word in it a dozen times in the privacy of her room. Vikke had been conspicuously silent for some minutes afterward. She had obviously weighed her reaction, having had mixed feelings about the prospect of Chava leaving.
In the end, she had approached Chava and putting her arms around her and kissing her on the cheek, had said, “You deserve to be happy. That’s all I want for you. So you have to be careful and you have to be sure.” Her sister’s eyes had visibly teared up as she let Chava go and turned away.
“I don’t want to leave you, Vikke,” Chava had said. “The idea of being with strangers in a big city so far from home terrifies me.”
“You’ll get used to it. You need a new life. Tushka is right, you have amazing talents that you should put to work. Not here, but where you can flourish. And where, with God’s help, you will find your match. We’ll miss you greatly Chava, especially me. But maybe you’ll be our reason to get away and come to visit the big city!”
Chava had been certain that Vikke was only being kind.
They had discussed the letter at length, imagining all the exciting possibilities, Vikke secretly rejoicing in the happiness that these dreams brought to her sister’s heart. After a time, they had agreed that nothing more would be done until they told Yoshia about the letter.
Chava recalled Yoshia’s distressing reaction. He had said nothing at first. Finally, he had told them that he would think about it and would discuss it further in a day or two. The days and hours were an eternity as he remained tight-lipped, refusing to tell even Vikke anything of his thoughts. It was not until two days later, after the children had gone to bed, that they all sat down to talk at the table.
Yoshia had begun by recounting Chava’s early years with them, when she was much younger and he and Vikke were newly married. The sudden passing of Chava’s mother had left her alone and frightened. Yoshia reminded them of how painful the adjustment had been for Chava, despite the fact that Vikke was her sister, and how difficult it had been for Vikke to gain Chava’s trust. “Now,” he had said, “you are a grown woman, Chava. You have a right to your own future.”
Then still looking at Chava, he had continued, “I paid Leib Drassinover a visit. I did it without telling you because I didn’t want you to worry. I wanted to know from him, face to face, about Tushka’s circumstances, about his brother Itzik and his wife, and whether he thought it was safe for you to go. Chernovitz is a big city, Chava,” he had cautioned. “There are many unscrupulous characters, and while I have total confidence in you, I couldn’t live with myself if something went wrong. After I asked him all my questions, and we’d enjoyed a wonderful spread of bread and cheese and a schnapps, Leib revealed to me that he already knew that you might be getting an invitation from Tushka. In fact, he said, his brother had written to him some time earlier, asking if he could confirm what Tushka had told him of your talent as a dressmaker. Leib said that he had discussed it with his wife, who knew your work, and then had given you a glowing recommendation. He was not at all surprised to hear of the invitation.
“As for my concerns, Leib told me not to worry. He said that Itzik, whom I never knew well even when he lived in Chornohuzy, is an honourable man, successful in his business, and would treat you like the daughter he saw in Tushka.”
Chava had paid no heed to the growing ache in her hand from Vikke’s tightening grip as they absorbed Yoshia’s words. She had been close to tears with joy when he locked eyes with Vikke, and with a generous smile ordered, “Let’s have a drink, a l’chaim. Our Chava’s life is about to begin. May it be blessed.”
When Chava awoke, the sun was already shining brightly. Vague memories of her thoughts during the night lingered as she suddenly remembered that the photographer would be coming at ten. It was late and she had to help Vikke prepare, especially as they were hoping that he would stay for the midday meal. She stepped into the kitchen, finding Vikke already bent over the table, cutting up vegetables.
“I’m sorry I slept in, Vikke. All night I tossed and turned and then I must have fallen asleep just before morning.”
“It’s fine. I have most things ready. The bread is baking and the soup is on the stove. If you want to prepare some fruit, that would be good.”
Chava made herself a slice of bread, butter, and prune jam, then chose some fruit to set on the table.
The sun was already well above the horizon when Yakov rounded the bend in the road and saw Yoshia’s home on a small hill in the clearing below. He had come upon it unexpectedly when he had approached Chornohuzy the previous day, and on an impulse had driven up to the door and knocked.
The lady had greeted him coolly, he’d thought, but the arrival of a stranger with a horse and buggy had clearly been unexpected. Being cautious was wise, especially if, as he suspected, she’d been alone with the children he had seen hiding behind her, watching him with a mixture of apprehension and wonder.
As he approached the yard , he saw a man carrying a bucket toward the barn. The man looked up and, seeing the horse and buggy approach, slowly set the bucket on the ground and waited. The children lost no time running to their father’s side.
Yakov drew his horse to a halt, simultaneously touching the brim of his hat and saying, “Sholem aleykhem.”
“Aleykhem sholem,” Yoshia responded warmly, introducing himself. “You must be Yakov.”
“Yes,” he replied, climbing down from his buggy to shake Yoshia’s outstretched hand. “I was here yesterday. I believe I spoke to your wife. She was kind enough to ask me to come back today. I hope you don’t mind.” He reached back to the buggy and retrieved a leather pouch that he slung over his shoulder.
“I understand you are a photographer,” Yoshia nodded, encouraging Yakov to go on.
“Yes, from Chernovitz. I’m visiting some of the villages, making family portraits,” and after a slight pause, he added, “this morning I had the pleasure of praying at the synagogue and meeting some of the men. Chaim, the shammes, was particularly welcoming.”
“Oh, good,” Yoshia answered smiling broadly. “I go there on Shabbos. During the week, I pray at home.”
Seeing Yoshia glance down at his bucket of water, Yakov said, “I apologize Reb Yoshia, I interrupted your work.”
“Not at all. Why don’t we tie up your horse here, near the barn, give him some food and water, and then go to the house?” Then turning to the children, he said, “Zelig, go and tell your mother that our guest is here.” Zelig and Henia sped off to the house, racing to be the first to break the news. Yakov followed Yoshia’s direction while Yoshia took the bucket into the barn to water his horse.
Yoshia prided himself on being a good judge of character. He was sure that there was more to this young man’s story, but he had a good feeling about him. As they strolled toward the house, Yoshia said, “I’ve asked my wife to prepare a place for you at our midday meal. We would be pleased if you would stay and join us.”
“That’s very kind of you. I don’t want to intrude or be a burden,” Yakov replied.
“On the contrary, Yakov, it will give us a chance to hear about what’s going on in the world. We rarely have the pleasure of a guest from the big city.”
Yoshia opened the door and ushered Yakov in, at the same time announcing their arrival. He was sure that the women had been anxiously anticipating this moment, and that they would be more than ready to receive their guest.
Vikke greeted Yakov with a warm smile. So much more welcoming, Yakov observed, than the previous day. Seeing Chava walking toward them, Yoshia encouraged her to come forward saying, “And this is Chava, my wife’s sister.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Yakov said, nodding to the women.
“Yakov,” Yoshia announced, “has accepted my invitation to stay and eat with us.”
“We’re very glad to have you,” Vikke said. “I hope you’ll enjoy our cooking.” Smiling at Yakov, Chava nodded in agreement. Yakov had no doubt from the aromas filling the room that the meal would be both succulent and generous.
“Please, Yakov,” Yoshia said, “take a chair at the table, and let’s talk.”
Vikke gathered up the children and led them outside, explaining in a hushed voice that for the next little while they would have to play outdoors, while the adults talked in the house. If they were very quiet and well-behaved, she whispered, there would be a special treat for them later.
Yakov enjoyed Yoshia’s down-to-earth and friendly manner. It set him at ease in the plain but warm surroundings of this small home. The adults took their seats at a square table near the wood-burning stove on which he saw several pots warming. A doorway led from the kitchen to another area, probably the sleeping quarters. Bright morning sunlight lit up the room and streamed onto the worn but impeccably clean wooden floor.
“I see that you’re carrying a pouch, Yakov,” Yoshia said. “Do you possibly have some portraits of families you could show us? I’m very interested in seeing what you do.”
Yakov welcomed the question. It saved him the awkwardness of bringing up the subject and gave him an opportunity to show off his work. He carefully undid the straps of the pouch that Rivka had given him as a gift when he embarked on his trip, removing the album of photographs of the past year. He set the album on the table and opened it to the first portrait.
Yoshia studied the pictures. They were admirable photographs, capturing not only the appearance of the people in vivid detail, but also possessing a depth that offered a glimpse into their characters. The hint of a smile here, the exaggerated posture there, a cane in the hand at a determined angle, children grinning at a machine they had never seen before.
Yoshia’s mind wandered as he slowly turned the pages. Beautiful as the portraits were, they somehow made him uneasy. He struggled to understand his feelings but said nothing, nodding approvingly. It occurred to him that it was the silence of the photographs that troubled him, the stillness, the tranquility and comfort they portrayed. His throat tightened as an image of Vasily flashed before his eyes. Their encounter on the road played across the pages. The brazen disregard Vasily and his friends had displayed for Yoshia, for his person, for his right to be there, undisturbed. The not-so-subtle threats. The hint of trouble facing Chava. His fear for his children. He sensed an impending danger, a misplaced trust, as he looked into the eyes of the people who stared back at him from the pages. He could not accept the safety, the security, and permanence that the pictures promised.
“Have you run into any trouble on the roads, Yakov?” Yoshia asked, without looking up.
Yakov was somewhat startled by the question. He had been following Yoshia’s gaze as he reviewed the pictures, but had no idea as to why Yoshia was asking this or what in the photographs had prompted the question. In truth, he’d had run-ins with some small gangs of wandering youths but had managed to extricate himself without harm. He was reluctant to discuss these experiences and answered simply, “It’s been fairly peaceful. I don’t travel late in the day and I stay on well-travelled roads.” He hoped that this would suffice.
Yoshia nodded, certain that Yakov was not telling him everything. “Do you think we’re in danger, Yakov?” he continued, looking into Yakov’s eyes. “I have a fear that we’re living in a lull before a storm. Maybe I’m wrong, but as I look at your beautiful photographs, I fear that all this may be temporary, an illusion. That at a whim, the world will turn against us like so many times before.”
Vikke suspected that Yoshia’s jarring words were not random thoughts, and that something must have transpired, perhaps at the market the day before, to prompt these questions. She was convinced that this explained the tension she had seen on Yoshia’s return. She would ask him but clearly now was not the time.
Yakov listened intently. Yoshia’s concern was valid. Despite the generally peaceful relationship with the broader community, there was plenty of evidence of hatred in the city. Jews were ultimately accepted at the pleasure of everyone else, it seemed. Yet they survived, drawing their strength from their own community. It helped that Chernovitz had a large Jewish population. It enjoyed a vibrant religious and social life and a diverse and successful representation among the professions, trades and businesses.
“I understand your worry,” Yakov answered, trying not to sound patronizing. “But in Chernovitz, things have been calm. We have a thriving Jewish community but we also carry on our lives with the people around us and, as long as we’re careful, we manage to get along.” Pausing a moment to reflect, Yakov added, “They need us, Reb Yoshia. I can’t imagine that the Gentile community would ever turn against us.”
Yoshia knew that he could mount many arguments to refute what Yakov had said. History did not support Yakov’s trust. But he saw no point in a debate. He’d gotten the gist of the young man’s thinking. His portraits revealed his faith in a stable, even promising future. Yoshia was sure that his outlook reflected more the näivete and optimism of youth than the reality of what Yoshia saw around him.
Chava absorbed every word that Yakov uttered about life in the big city. She was going there, but was not about to reveal that to him, for fear that it might be misunderstood. Undeterred by Yoshia’s concerns, her excitement grew as she imagined a rich and active life in this urban center, a window on the world!
Aware that his worries were about to overshadow the joy of the occasion, Yoshia marshalled his resolve and pronounced, “Yakov, you’re a fine young man and I like your work. As long as you keep the cost within reason, let’s do a portrait. But I want it done now. You tell us what we have to do.”
Vikke and Chava were ecstatic, exchanging glances, relieved at Yoshia’s words. They smiled gratefully at him, listening closely as Yakov spoke.
Yakov took them back to the photographs. He drew attention to the formality of the portraits, the people appearing in their finest clothing. He suggested something similar, always leaving the option open in case they preferred something more casual, or simply did not have the fashionable clothes that others, especially his subjects in the city, wore.
“We’ll get dressed up,” Vikke declared. “I want us to look our best.” Yoshia said nothing, continuing to contemplate the pictures, but heard clearly the determination in Vikke’s voice. “Do you agree, Chava?” she asked.
“Yes, I would like a formal picture. Something we can remember, something special,” she replied, glancing at Yakov who caught her eye just before she looked away.
“All right then,” Yoshia responded. “Yakov, we’ll need some time to freshen up and then we’ll get started.”
Yakov readily agreed. He looked forward to roaming around the yard, watching the few animals, and taking in the primitive surroundings.
“I’ll be outside,” he said. “Just let me know when you’re ready and I’ll bring in my equipment.”
“I like him,” Vikke said to Yoshia, as if he had been waiting for her appraisal. “He’s very artistic! I love his pictures.”
“Yes, I agree, Vikke, and the next thing you’ll tell me is that he’s handsome, and then you’ll ask me if he’s attached. The answer is I don’t know. I see no sign of it. But you’re right, I like him, too.”
“Should we tell him that Chava is going to Chernovitz? What if it’s meant to be, Yoshia, if we only help a little to make it happen?
“I think we should leave it up to Chava. If she wants him to know, she’ll find a way to tell him.”
Vikke wasn’t so sure that Chava could do it on her own. She thought back to her own life in Viznitz when she and Chava were single and at home with their parents. She had been twenty-three when her father sought help from Malka the matchmaker, worried that she would remain unmarried, with no future. She had been wary of the process, but with assurances from her father that she would not have to agree to any match she did not want, she went along with it, however skeptically.
Yoshia had been the very first prospect. Vikke’s parents had heard in detail the background of this man who, they later told her, was from a nearby village called Chornohuzy. She had been aware of it, but she knew no one who lived outside of her birthplace, Viznitz. Then she was told the sad tale of Yoshia’s wife having passed away and Yoshia being left alone. He did have children but they were all adults and no longer lived with him. He was a fine man, the matchmaker had said, religious and hard-working. He had a small, simple home, carried on a modest business selling hay, and was well thought of in his community.
Vikke had found it all interesting but not appealing. Although she had had few opportunities, she had not stopped imagining a more promising future. Despite her reluctance, she had agreed to meet the man and then give her father her answer.
When at last they had met at her parents’ home, it was his charcoal eyes that had left her spellbound. His palpable intensity had been remarkably at odds with the softness of his voice and his gentle manner. She had listened as he spoke to her father about life in Chornohuzy, his work and his children, and was struck by his youthfulness, despite the full life that he’d already lived. She tried to guess his age, difficult to do with the full beard that he wore but, without staring, she concluded that he must be in his forties, twenty or so years older than her. The thought shocked her at first, but she put it in the back of her mind. The excitement that she felt troubled her more.
Their lives in Chornohuzy had at first been simple but happy. Though it had taken her some time to adjust to living in the countryside, there were the compensating pleasures of nature and the slower pace of rural life that nurtured her relationship with Yoshia. She had missed her sister terribly but Viznitz was only a few kilometers away. Occasional trips to visit her family had been just enough for them to feel that they were all still a part of one another’s lives.
Everything had changed with the tragic death of her father in a logging accident while he was harvesting timber in the mountains. Within months, her ailing mother’s health had deteriorated further. A year later, her untimely passing had left Chava alone, her life shattered. For her part, Vikke had been unable to shake the guilt of having left her parents. She had been the one they’d leaned on in times of need, especially when her mother’s health had failed. She had been more than a sister to Chava, providing a source of security and comfort when her mother was unwell and her father far from home. After the loss of their parents, Vikke had done all she could to restore Chava’s life by making her a part of the home that she and Yoshia had just begun to shape.
A warm feeling coursed through her as she thought of her own two children, Henia and Zelig, the apples of her eye, and loved by Yoshia as if they were his first-born. Even his grown children embraced them with all their hearts.
Vikke was lost in thought when Chava called to ask for help. A sleeve in her dress had caught and torn near the wrist. They tossed superstition aside as Vikke took out needle and thread and carefully secured the seam.
“Good as new,” Vikke declared proudly. “Now let’s get this beauty in front of the camera.”
“Shhh, you’ll embarrass me,” Chava said. “He might hear.”
“I want him to hear,” Vikke teased, poking Chava in the ribs. “I like him and so does Yoshia, but don’t tell him I told you.”
“Really, Vikke? I didn’t know you two were talking about him. He is handsome. But who knows if he’s already involved with someone?”
“We won’t know unless we test the waters,” Vikke replied, winking.
Yoshia knocked on Chava’s door. Before he could speak, Vikke announced, “We’re almost ready, Yoshia. You can tell Yakov that he can bring his equipment in and get set up.”
Yoshia, groomed and wearing his black suit, stepped outside, and found Yakov seated in his buggy, reading.
“Come in, Yakov,” Yoshia beckoned, “the ladies are almost ready, so you can begin.”
Yakov looked up. This was a transformed Yoshia. Dressed in his finest, his beard combed and trimmed and his shoes polished, he retained a strong physical presence, cloaked in a mantle of aristocracy. Yakov smiled, “You look very distinguished, Reb Yoshia, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Thank you for the compliment, young man. Now before I change my mind, come in and bring your equipment.”
“Chava, please help me with the children,” Vikke said. She had dressed them, Henia in her frilly white dress and Zelig in a smart sailor’s suit. But they already needed freshening up. It took only one minute for them to become dishevelled. Henia especially was a handful, wanting to follow Yakov around to see everything that he was doing.
“Is that the camera?” Henia asked, pointing to the black box on the tripod as Yakov set up the backdrop.
“Yes, this is the camera. I’m going to stand behind it and point it at you. Then I’ll push a button and it will take your picture.”
“Will it hurt us?”
“No, but there will be a big flash of light that will be very bright for your eyes.”
“I’m going to shut my eyes,” she whispered to Zelig, beside her. He shook his head but said nothing. He took her by the hand and led her to the bedrooms. Chava was calling them to come and get ready.
Yakov’s camera was set up, his lights and backdrop in position. They had covered the window and moved the furniture around to make room for the equipment, allowing just enough space for themselves.
“Where would you like us?” Yoshia asked.
Yakov had thought about this at length. It was going to be a formal picture, and they had dressed appropriately, but there was also an irrepressible informality about these people. He decided that the children would stand, though he knew that stopping them from squirming and moving out of position might be a challenge.
“I would like you, Reb Yoshia, and your wife, to sit side by side, here.” They took their seats in the chairs that were already in place.
“Now, Chava, I would like you to stand beside your sister.”
Yakov stepped back to take a critical look.
Again looking at Chava, he said, “Please step behind your sister just a bit and rest your hand on the top of her chair.”
“You look nice, tanteh Chava,” Henia declared. “I’m going to keep your picture when you go to the city.”
Yakov pretended not to hear but suspected that “the city” meant Chernovitz. He wondered what Henia was referring to, but said nothing.
Vikke found the sudden silence awkward, and said, as if in reply to Yakov’s unasked question, “Chava is going to Chernovitz in a few weeks. It seems that all of us are already preparing to miss her.”
Turning to Chava, Yakov said, “It’s a wonderful city. I hope you have a chance to stay there long enough to enjoy it.”
“I’m looking forward to it very much,” Chava answered. “I’m going to visit a close friend who has promised to show me all the sights.”
Not wanting to probe any further or appear forward, Yakov only smiled, turning to the positioning of the children. Vikke had drawn Henia close to her when she had unexpectedly announced Chava’s impending departure, and Zelig stood in front of his father, Yoshia’s hands enveloping his arms. They seemed comfortable and natural in front of their parents.
Yakov moved behind his camera. He was pleased with what he saw. Formal yet intimate. The absence of smiles, as he had instructed them, would give the portrait a sense of timelessness in years to come.
He asked them to remain as erect as possible. Good posture was vital to complementing the seriousness of their faces and the formality of their dress. Chava, Vikke, and Yoshia straightened up, their eyes fixed on the camera. The children were another matter. Henia put her little feet together but insisted on leaning back against her mother. Zelig, his knee bent and arms cocked, was ready to escape.
Quiet descended on the dimly lit room as Yakov rested his hand on the camera.
Yakov regarded the family, ready, poised. He saw Chava, beautiful, statuesque, leaning slightly on her outstretched arm as she held the back of Vikke’s chair, perhaps her natural instinct to be close to her sister. The light-coloured dress, gathered at the waist, accentuated her shapely figure and stood in stark contrast to her black hair that was pulled tightly back. She looked confident, ready for the challenges ahead, perhaps anticipating her adventure in Chernovitz. What would she do there, while she visited her friend? Would she consider a life in the city? She seemed capable of a great deal, not bound by the ground she stood on. The radiance in her face struck him as the energy of a mature woman embarking on life with self-assurance and grace.
Vikke sat tall as if to overcome her short stature, so evident beside the towering Yoshia. Her white blouse sparkled against the black satin collar of her dress and set her face in sharp relief. Her black hair, like Chava’s, was dramatically pulled back. She exuded determination and strength, a woman steadfast in her mission to care for those around her and to be an emotional anchor to her family. She held restless Henia with only one hand, perhaps caring less for the perfection of the portrait than for the joy of the moment. Her casual grip on her purse conveyed a comfort with herself and the image she portrayed.
Yakov’s generous beard and black hair drew attention to his high forehead and wide-set eyes. His penetrating gaze into the camera lens displayed a deep intensity. This was no casual photograph he had agreed to. This was an attempt at capturing for all time what he feared might be an ephemeral moment. Yoshia wanted more than preservation; he wanted survival. His hands, gripping Zelig’s arms, revealed a man holding on to all that was dear to him, to life itself, in the face of a threatening world.
Yakov pressed the shutter. A portrait in time.
In the years following the making of this portrait, the people in the photograph and others who appeared in the story became victims of the Holocaust. This is what is known of their fate.
Those in the portrait:
Yoshia, Vikke, and Henia: All three, after being expelled from their home in Chornohuzy, were killed in 1941 by the Nazis and their Romanian collaborators.
Chava: Her real name is not known. Nothing is known of her life.
Zelig: Survived the Shargorod ghetto in Transnistria with his wife Freda. Their first daughter was born in Shargorod. After the war, they emigrated to Israel where a second daughter was born.
Others in the story:
Yakov: His real name is not known. Nothing is known of his life.
Leib : Murdered near his home by local Ukrainians in 1941, the first casualty in the Jewish community of Chornohuzy.
Itzik: Nothing is known of his fate.
Tushka: Survived the Bershad ghetto in Transnistria with her husband Zoniu. They emigrated to Israel after the war and had a son and daughter.
David and Chaya Sura: Survived the Shargorod ghetto in Transnistria, together with their two teenage sons. The family, including a third son born after the war, settled in the Sonnenfeld Colony, a Jewish farming community in the province of Saskatchewan, in Canada.
The remaining people portrayed in the story are entirely fictitious.