Life and Light
By Shira Gorshman
Translated from Yiddish by Faith Jones
She came in, looked around with her narrow, uneven black eyes, and said to me:
“Don’t take this amiss, but could you open the curtains? I can’t stand covered windows. I love to see the light coming in . . . . That’s better! I’ll try these. Vilna cream cookies practically eat themselves, don’t they? You’re looking at me wondering how I managed to survive. Believe me, I don’t really understand it myself. But I have to tell you, that in each of us dozens of hearts were beating, we breathed with dozens of lungs. One heart stopped, another kept going. One breath was cut short, another started up again. There were twenty of us lying in the pit they had cleared out under the cellar near a burnt-out wall. Three died . . . yes, three. Old Dr. Feinberg, Khonen Fridman’s mother, Leah Shapiro’s father. But if the ventilation hadn’t gotten plugged, we would all still be in that pit. See, when the ventilation got stopped up, we drew straws for who would go out to clear it out. It fell to Khonen Fridman. That very day we had eaten the last crumb of our hoard of rusks. We were sitting there slowly suffocating. Suddenly, Khonen tumbled down the stairs. His lips were blue, his face like chalk, and he couldn’t get a word out. Leah Shapiro poured a quart of water over him—that’s as much as we used to share for a whole day. And he shouted, ‘We’re saved!’
“And then, how we got out of the pit is a story in itself. There got to be such a commotion in there, so much banging and clattering, as if we weren’t seventeen people, but a hundred! Khonen Fridman and Lazar Davidovitch held everyone back, and scolded us like you do little children. When we came out from that living grave, we saw a fire. While we were collecting ourselves and our eyes were adjusting to the light, we realized that around the fire there were Red Army soldiers sitting, eating out of a pot. When they noticed us, they stopped with the spoons halfway to their mouths. They made as if to pick up their guns, then looked closer at us. This was a sight to see! Shadows. . . .To make a long story short, we all starting talking at once, explaining. The Red Army soldiers took us to their commander. We were able to wash ourselves and given some cotton pants and clothes. One young soldier found an undershirt and shirt for my little Chaim-Meyer. After that they often took us to the commander, and he was always trying to figure out how we had survived.
“Now the story really starts. Listen, listen and remember! Don’t believe that there were only cowards in the ghetto, bumbling fools. I’m telling you, in the ghetto there were people who were a lot more afraid of two things than they were of the death that was lurking behind every stone and in every crevice. What two things? First, not remaining human. Second, letting the cat out of the bag—they kept their mouths shut, making sure they never harmed someone else. A day didn’t go by that we didn’t find a murdered policeman or a disarmed fascist! But until it touched me personally, I could never figure out who was doing it. . . . My Meyer was one of the best brick masons in Kovno. He had spent a few years in the Kovno prison under Smetona. Not for bricklaying, obviously! He was a communist. My Meyer understood perfectly well what fascism meant. Every day as we left for work we would say our goodbyes, because we both knew that each day could be our last day. It was a very cold winter. We were in danger of freezing. Meyer didn’t want to work. This was right after the Children’s Action, when our five-year-old Nehemiah was killed. Meyer was building stone fireplaces at the house of the one of the fascist commanders. I couldn’t understand what was taking Meyer so long to finish the job, until . . . until Leah Fridman came running to whisper the news that that the wall tumbled down, along with another wall, and the bigshot fascist and my Meyer, of blessed memory, were killed underneath . . . and just as that fascist is burning in hell for all eternity, I am a widow for eternity also. A pregnant widow in the Kovno Ghetto.
“Old Dr. Feinberg was one of those people who knows how to avoid danger. Often it seemed that the butcher’s knife was at his throat, but somehow Dr. Feinberg found a way to avoid the executioner. Who could I tell that I was pregnant? I went to Dr. Feinberg. ‘Listen,’ I said to him, ‘me and my Meyer made a vow that we would have another child. You know, don’t you, what the brutes did to our Nehemiah?’ He said nothing. Then he said to me, ‘A vow is a good thing. But having a baby means getting shot. For bearing life you pay with death. Wrap yourself tightly in bandages. Be very careful. The most foolish thing in the world is dying foolishly.’ Okay, I wrapped myself up the way he had shown me. Not even a little birdie knew. A living person believes and hopes. Nobody speaks of people like these in the ghetto, people like Dr. Feinberg, like Meyer Davidson, like Khonen Fridman . . . I wish a ghetto on nobody. We should all be spared more wars. But at that time I used to often think, I wonder how they would behave in the ghetto, the ones who call us baby-eaters! When the time came, Dr. Feinberg came running to me. I don’t remember pain, I don’t remember how long it took. I only remember how the old doctor showed me, saying quietly, ‘A boy. Get up, burn the sheets. You can’t send the baby back where it came from. Make no mistake. Before the criminals do it—better with your own hands!’ I knew exactly what I had to do. My God, such a thing. But then I was putting it down, and it clung to me and wouldn’t let go! What can I tell you? His little face like a moon. Black, thick hair like a brush. As I was holding him, the doctor came back in and yells at me, ‘Put him down! And get up this minute! UP!’ I got up and stood in the dark hallway. It seemed to me that a whole world of mothers would come running at my screams. But in the deathly quiet I heard Dr. Feinberg say, ‘Done. How it is, that’s how it will stay.’ I went back into my room. There, where I had lain my baby, were two big pillows, one on top of the other. My feet came out from under me. I don’t remember or know what happened after that. Suddenly I heard, ‘Stand up, Miriam; snap out of it.’
“When I came around, I saw the doctor standing by the bed. My baby lay bundled up, opening his lips, his hair damp like it had been washed. Dr. Feinberg was cooing like an old lady, wiping down the baby with a cloth, saying strangely: ‘A living little mite is stronger than a thousand corpses. You should name him Chaim.’ ‘His name will be Chaim-Meyer. Chaim means life, Meyer means light.’ And that’s what his name is. I hid my baby under the bed in a crate. The neighbours looked in, people wondered why I hadn’t been at work for two days. But nobody knew. Because Meyer, of blessed memory, made our little room and the corridor with double-thick walls—so a peep couldn’t be heard. What was I to do? When I went to work, I put Chaim-Meyer on the bed, with both pillows around him. I could barely endure it. I felt I was losing my mind. I could never take off my woollen shawl because my blouse was wet with milk. I suckled Chaim-Meyer in the morning and late at night. His eyes were always stuck together from lying under the bedclothes. I was running out of strength. I ran one night to the doctor and begged for mercy: ‘Have pity on me. My milk is like a bottomless well. Chaim-Meyer is expanding like yeast. Give me something . . . to make it stop! Yesterday I found him on the ground . . . people will find out! Before the criminals do it—better by your hands!’ The doctor screamed, ‘What makes you think I have the means to do that? You’ve suffered so much, okay, you can suffer a little more. Soon I’ll come take Chaim-Meyer. You don’t know the old Jewish legend, about a certain tsadik whose wife died in childbirth? He felt so much grief for his motherless child, that from his male chest milk began to flow.’ And that’s what happened. Late one night the doctor came and took away my Chaim-Meyer. I didn’t need to ask questions. I was sure that the old doctor wasn’t taking my baby to raise him.
“A few months later the doctor came to me and said, ‘Miriam, we’ve got a hideout. If you agree, we’ll come for you tonight. You know where we stand, don’t you? Yesterday the Judenrat gave the Gestapo three hundred first-class tradesmen.’ I said, ‘Yes. I know.’ That night the door opened, and in came Khonen Fridman with an armed Gestapo. I can’t even tell you what I lived through until I realized that the Gestapo was Lazar Davidovitch. They bound me by the hands, and we left. Me and Khonen in front—Lazar with his automatic rifle as our ‘escort.’ We walked through the whole ghetto, past the Judenrat, we went to the burned-out wall, let ourselves into the cellar, and from the cellar into the pit. . . There I saw my Chaim-Meyer sitting on Dr. Feinberg’s lap, eating something from a jelly jar.
“So, here I am eating a cookie. You see, oh I have to run! Even though it’s Sunday, my Chaim-Meyer is working. Oh, this is a boy, a Young Communist, just like his father! A real gem . . . every mother should have such light, such life!”
Antonas Smetona—Nationalist president of Lithuania from 1919 to 1920 and 1926 to 1940. He came to power in 1926 through a coup and gradually eliminated most checks on presidential power, creating an authoritarian state. He fled when the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940.
Children’s Action—There were two targeted massacres of children in the Kovno Ghetto.
“Having a baby means getting shot”—In 1942 the Germans ruled women living in the Kovno Ghetto must terminate all pregnancies. As Gorshman’s story indicates, women successfully hid pregnancies and a number of children were born in secret in the Ghetto.
Tsadik—A just or wise man (for women, tsadikas).
Judenrat—the Jewish governing council set up by the Nazis as intermediaries with the ghetto population. They were often forced to hand over wanted individuals or groups to the Nazis. In spite of the negative portrayal of the Judenrat in this story, the Kovno Jewish Council actively aided and abetted resistance groups; its Jewish police force refused to reveal hiding places, for which some were executed.
Copyright © Estate of Shira Gorshman 2011. Translation copyright © Faith Jones 2011
Shira Gorshman (1906–2001) was born in Krakes, Lithuania. Raised partly by her grandparents due to her family’s poverty, she became self-supporting and independent at a young age. In 1924, she went with her first husband to Palestine to become part of a communal labour group which attempted to live out their socialist ideals through the Zionist movement. When this group splintered, Gorshman went with the more radical branch to Crimea, taking her young children with her. Living on a communal farm in Crimea for several years, she came into contact with official visitors including the artist Mendel Gorshman. They married and she and her children returned with him to Moscow. At that point, with encouragement from her husband’s circle of artistic and literary friends, she began to write. Her stories were published in Soviet and Polish Yiddish periodicals, and she had several collections and novels published. After the death of her husband, and her children’s emigration, she followed them to Israel. Arriving in Israel in 1990 in her mid-eighties, she nonetheless energetically produced new stories and books until her death in 2001, as well as republishing many of her Soviet-era stories, which were otherwise not available in Israel.
Faith Jones is a librarian in Vancouver, Canada, and a graduate student investigating Yiddish print culture in Winnipeg. Her writing has appeared in Canadian Jewish Studies, The Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Forward, and Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, where she also served as Yiddish editor.