The Teacher Zaminski and his Pupil Rifkele
By Lili Berger
Translated from Yiddish by Vivian Felsen
Whether or not Zaminski was a teacher by profession, no one knew and no one thought to inquire. Whether he had students in the city where he lived was of no concern to the Jews in the shtetl. For them it was enough that under his tutelage a servant girl, who had never so much as held a pen in her hand or lifted the cover of a book, had learned to write a proper letter and read almost fluently. It was sufficient to establish his pedagogical prowess.
Sheyne Broche had told the women that the teacher Zaminski had performed a miracle for the servant girl at the dry goods store who looked older than her years. Since childhood, her hand had trembled from hard work whenever she tried to put pen to paper. Evenings, after she finished her work, he taught her to write smoothly without a tremor. In short, his reputation as a teacher was indeed illustrious.
There were mothers who quietly lamented the fact that the teacher spent only three months each summer at his dacha in their shtetl. As soon as his vacation was over, he disappeared. While some were sorry to see him leave, others thanked God to be rid of an apostate, and none more than Rifkele’s father, Reb Abraham, the most prominent Hasid in the shtetl.
And what a tiny shtetl it was, tucked away and as big as a yawn. Scoffers would joke that its one long street, without even a name, stretched out like a noodle. But make no mistake: that was not the whole shtetl. Scattered behind the long row of houses and huts were other Jewish houses and huts. At one time it had boasted a prayer house, a bathhouse, a heder, and even special living quarters for the rabbi. Behind the shtetl were fields and meadows, and beyond the meadows flowed the majestic Bug River. Across from the nameless main street was the highway, and behind it a ramp, and to the right of the ramp, the great forest. The small forest began on the other side, to the right of the “sands” where the shtetl ended.
And what relevance, you might ask, has all this to the teacher Zaminski? The fact is that the teacher loved forests. And since he had lodgings with a distant relative in a house in the middle of the long nameless street, he had to walk some distance through the town along the highway to reach the forest. This in itself would not have been a problem for the shtetl’s inhabitants. The problem was that the teacher did not wear a hat, and he walked among the Jews bare-headed. When pious Jews, especially women, saw him, they made a wish that his head would shrivel, that heretic. If Abraham, the Gerer Hasid, saw his bare head up close – or from afar – he did not curse, Heaven forbid, but turned away and quietly entreated God to take pity on the sinner.
Reb Abraham did not derive much satisfaction from any of his six sons. He had sent them all to the famous yeshiva in Lomzhe. The second oldest son had even graduated from the yeshiva and received ordination as a rabbi. Great was the father’s sorrow when that son chose a different direction. The best evidence was found concealed in the boys’ bedroom, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, which the father threw at once into the burning oven. He guessed that this unholy object had been brought into the house and hidden by none other than Aaron, who had been the first to complete his yeshiva studies. Of the ten children, not one of the sons followed their pious father’s path, although all were observant Jews. Instead, when it came to the strict observance of Judaism, the only one to follow in the father’s footsteps was a girl, the second oldest daughter, Rifkele. And who could tell what would become of her when she grew up? She was overly absorbed in religious books not intended for women, thought Reb Abraham.
Indeed, Rifkele was as strictly devout as her father. On the Sabbath or on holidays, from the age of six, she carried the prayer book to the women’s section of the synagogue for her mother. But by the age of ten Rifkele was no longer allowed to perform this function. She was now prohibited from carrying anything on the Sabbath. She would wrap her handkerchief around her wrist so as not to commit a sin by carrying it in the pocket of her Sabbath dress. Once, however, she unintentionally committed a sin. One Saturday in summer, while with her girlfriends in the forest, she had unwittingly stepped on a dry twig with her heavy shoe, and broke it in pieces. Rifkele knew that a sin required atonement. The penance she chose was to put the middle finger of her right hand into her mouth and bite it so hard that her eyes welled up with tears. When her friends brought her home injured, her pious mother yelled at her as she bandaged the finger. Her father, the silent one, smiled to himself. On the other hand, her widowed maternal grandfather, an opponent of Hasidism, gave her a kiss on the forehead and let her know that God would not have considered her transgression a sin because she had not done it deliberately.
Rifkele was his favourite, and he often said to his daughter that it was a shame, a shame that Rifkele was not born a boy. She would have grown up to be a rabbi, and perhaps a great rebbe. To which his daughter answered: “You know what I say, father? It’s enough that my husband is only interested in godly matters. I was not happy that he wanted to make our sons into nothing but benchwarmers. And as far as the girl is concerned, she can serve God in her own way.” And indeed, Rifkele served God in her own way. By the age of ten she had read the Tsena-Urena several times, and had not neglected a single one of the other religious books written for women. And she had even studied the Tanakh with her grandfather without her father’s knowledge. Her mother also hired a teacher for the girls.
There was no Jewish school in their small town. There was a Christian school, but it was two or three kilometres away. Once in a while a Jewish teacher would appear. When the teacher Zaminski arrived, Rifkele was in her thirteenth year and almost an autodidact. Her religious belief went hand in hand with her thirst for learning. Her mother secretly sent a message with Rifkele to the teacher Zaminski, which Rifkele delivered word for word: “My mother sent me to ask you whether you would give daily lessons to her daughter Rifkele who will bring her younger sister along with her. My mother asks that the lessons begin at eight o’clock in the morning.” The teacher listened to the entire message and asked why it had to be exactly at eight o’clock in the morning. “Because my father is in the prayer house at that time…” and Rifkele stammered. She suddenly remembered something else and added: “My mother will send you the payment for the lessons. Just tell me the amount.” A deal was struck, and the lessons began the next day.
The early morning lessons went very smoothly. Rifkele was a conscientious pupil who absorbed every word her teacher uttered. When it came to writing, she blushed because she used her left hand, although at home she tried to get used to writing with the right hand, but only scribbles appeared. Despite this, the teacher constantly praised her progress. Her mother was happy, most of all with Rifkele’s newly acquired knowledge of arithmetic, which would make her useful in business dealings. The only complaint she had about Rifkele was that she woke up her younger sister, who was somewhat lazy. When Rifkele was ready to go, the little one was still asleep. “Leave the child alone,” she said. “She’ll come a little later. She can find her own way.” But wanting to protect the reputation of her younger sister, Rifkele sought and found a solution. With a mouth full of water she sprayed the child’s face. The sleepy little sister woke with a start. When the mother saw what had happened, she shouted: “What are you doing? It is a real sin to do this to a child!” When Rifkele heard that she was committing a sin, she almost put her finger in her mouth, but remembered that her mother had forbidden it.
“Mother, who is going to say the morning prayer with her, if I’m not here?”
“Someone else will say it with her. Don’t be God’s Cossack!”
Rifkele, however, made up for it that night. When they both were lying in their beds, their hands washed, Rifkele recited the evening prayer with her younger sister so fervently that the little sister fell asleep immediately.
Often, when her father sat up until late at night in the small adjacent room, bent over his Gemore chanting quietly to himself, Rifkele listened attentively. She enjoyed the musical murmuring. But when her father hunched over his book of Psalms, quietly singing the words “Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked,” Rifkele silently repeated the words with the same melody until she had memorized all the verses of the Psalms that particularly appealed to her.
The summer vacation was coming to an end. The teacher suggested an extra lesson on Friday, a day when no lessons were scheduled. Perhaps he wanted to prolong the final week with an extra school day, or more likely he foresaw that on a Friday morning the younger sister would not attend, and he could feel less constrained. The extra class was devoted to natural science. Where the rain came from, how clouds formed in the sky, why rain was transformed into snow in the winter, and similar wonders of nature he had already explained in detail. In the extra Friday class he vividly depicted for Rifkele how and why the earth we inhabit turned continuously on its axis, and other secrets of the universe. Finally he asked her, “Do these things interest you?”
“Why not? I want to know everything. After all, I’m already a big girl. In six months I’ll be thirteen, I’ll be an adult. By then I should like to know everything there is to know.”
“Well, if you would like to know everything, I’ll give you something to read.” He took a small book out of a drawer. On the cover in large letters were the words NATURAL SCIENCE. “Put it in your satchel and don’t show it to anyone! Don’t let anyone see you reading it, and bring it back to me on Sunday.”
“Can’t I show it to my mother and my grandfather?”
“No! Not to anyone! Do you understand? Promise me.”
“Yes, I promise. I will read it and return it to you.”
On Saturday, after lunch, Rifkele disappeared. No one knew where she was. Her grandfather, who always came to Rifkele’s defense, calmly reassured everyone that she must have walked to the forest where all the other young people went on Saturdays. Her mother resented the fact that Rifkele had not told them that she was going out. This time her father’s silence indicated that he was displeased with her behaviour. It was understood that Rifkele had gone with her friends to the large forest.
In fact, Rifkele was in the attic. She had hurriedly eaten her lunch, crept out of the house through the back door to the porch, and climbed up the ladder to the attic. Amid boxes filled with Passover dishes, she took the thin volume from her Sabbath dress, sat down on a box, and began reading. It was not easy for her to decipher the difficult introduction. But she had already climbed up to the attic and, more importantly, she had promised her teacher to read the whole book. Therefore, she made an effort to read it a second time. The second time it was much easier. But the clearer the words became, the more heavily they weighed on her heart. Her head was in a state of confusion.
Later, her worried mother scolded her: “Where did you disappear to? We looked for you everywhere.”
“I went to get some fresh air in the yard. I lay down in the grass and fell asleep. I was…I was exhausted…”
“Yes, you’re worn out,” her mother observed. “You want to grasp everything. You’re always peering into your notebooks, your schoolbooks, your religious books. You look as though today is not even the Sabbath.”
Indeed, that Saturday Rifkele walked around in a daze. She decided to skip the prayer she recited every Saturday evening with her mother – God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – so that her mother would not notice how disturbed she was. Immediately after havdalah she pulled out the day-bed in her bedroom, made it herself, and lay down. Her uneasy mother put her hand on her daughter’s forehead and repeated her diagnosis: “Exhausted, worn out. I’ll take care of you, my little girl. Your lessons are tiring you out. Thank God they’re coming to an end.” She said this quietly so that only Rifkele could hear her, but Rifkele was absorbed in her own thoughts.
Sunday morning Rifkele got up earlier than usual, walking on tiptoe so as not to wake her sister. Her mother was busy in her shop. Rifkele forced herself to eat the bowl of cornmeal that her mother cooked for her breakfast every day. She put on a happy expression so that no one would become suspicious. Today she would be able to argue with her teacher alone, without anyone watching.
“I brought your book back,” she said, catching her breath. “I hid it so that no one could see it.”
“So, are you happy you read the book?”
She started to stammer, her head dropped, and she spoke more quietly than usual. “It turns out that the world created itself…nothing else…no one else…all by itself…”
“And you don’t like that?”
“What about ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’?” She said the words in one breath, almost choking, as though stifling a sob.
“Rifkele, the Five Books of Moses are very interesting and beautifully written. We can learn many wise things from them. But they were written many thousands of years ago. In those days people thought differently. They wrote differently.”
“Was God also different than He is today?”
“That, I don’t know. When you grow up and have much more knowledge and experience, perhaps you’ll be able to better comprehend. You’re tired today, you don’t look well. And I have something else I must attend to. Tomorrow we’ll have a longer session. Go home before your little sister comes. Maybe you can meet her on the way and take her home.”
These were the last days of the summer vacation. The teacher Zaminski regretted that whole episode. What was the point? Did he want to make a free thinker out of a religious girl? She probably wouldn’t come to the last few lessons. But she did come. She even brought her younger sister. However, she was no longer the same Rifkele. Her happy eyes were clouded by sadness.
Eighteen years passed. Rifkele, now Rifke Firmol, was late for lunch in the cafeteria for the so-called “displaced persons” – survivors of the deportations who were unwilling to return to their destroyed homes. Rifke sat alone in the dining room thinking about how long she would have to remain in this accursed German land. Under no circumstances would she return to Poland. The Germans had murdered her entire family. Should she wait until the American Joint Distribution Committee located her mother’s brother and his family in Montreal? She could only give the Committee their names, but not their address. Should she apply to the local Joint office and ask for assistance to travel to Paris? She had already bothered them enough. They would probably advise her again to be patient and wait for an answer from Canada. You were supposed to exhaust all your family connections first. But it wouldn’t hurt to apply to the Joint again. They say that the more you pester them, the faster they find a solution.
She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear the door open. Suddenly she felt two eyes biting into her from a distance. She lifted her head to see an elderly man, his face covered with scars. She shivered. The man smiled at her broadly, slowly approached her round table, and nodded his head in greeting. His appearance, his head covered with a black hat, aroused in her both fear and pity.
“Are you Rifke Firmol?”
“Yes, but how do you know my name?”
“I saw your name while searching the lists in the Joint.”
“Who are you to be interested in my name?”
“My name is Zaminski.”
“Zaminski?” she asked in amazement.
On his face was a strange smile, both bitter and ironic. “You once had a teacher called Zaminski. Don’t you remember?”
“So what if I had a teacher called Zaminski?”
“It’s me, your former teacher.”
“Mama!” she cried in astonishment, the way they did in her shtetl when something extraordinary took place. “What happened to you? You’re unrecognizable.”
“The same happened to me as happened to you, except that maybe I received too many beatings.”
Rifke looked at him, trying unsuccessfully to find a trace of her handsome former teacher. “Take off your hat. Why are you wearing a black hat in such blazing heat?”
“I wear a hat because I’m a Jew. A real Jew wears a hat.”
She suddenly had the desire to make him feel more at ease. “Teacher, you’re not going home?”
“I have no home, and no one left.”
“Then we’re in the same boat. Where are you planning to go?”
“With God’s help, I hope to go to America. They promised it would be very soon. And you, where will you go?”
“I had hoped to go to relatives in Canada, but I don’t have their address. They’re searching for them by their family name, but who knows whether anything will come of it. I would rather go to Paris, and I’ve already talked to the Joint about it. But as you can see, I no longer count on any help from God. In our greatest hour of need He didn’t help us, even when little children were being tortured and murdered.” Her pain was mixed with sarcasm.
For a few moments Zaminski smiled discreetly, as though he understood that this was aimed at him. Then he answered calmly, like a teacher providing an explanation: “When great misfortunes befall them, people change. Sometimes they find God and become committed Jews. During my four-year ordeal, like other fugitives, I had the opportunity to observe such spiritual transformations.”
“And I, Teacher, am also a committed Jew, as you call yourself. However, you were once my teacher, and you planted a seed in my mind. The seed slowly took root and, in the circumstances that you just mentioned, the roots sprouted.”
Zaminski was taken aback. He stood deep in thought. Then he gently took her hand and raised it toward his dry lips. He nodded his goodbye, with nothing more to say. He stopped at the door for a while, then turned, and in a friendly voice let his former student know that they would see each other again. “Yes, Teacher, we will see each other again,” Rifke Firmol answered with a smile.
Translation copyright © Vivian Felsen 2013
“The Teacher Zaminski and His Pupil Rifkele” is part of the anthology, The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers, edited by Frieda Johles Forman. This book can be purchased through Amazon.
This story was first published in Ekhos fun a Vaytn Nekhtn: Dertseylungen, Humash-Meshlekh, Eseyen un Skitzn, by Farlag Yisroel Bukh in Tel Aviv in 1933.
Lili Berger was born in 1916 in Malkin, Poland. After graduating from the Polish-Jewish Gymnasium in Warsaw, she studied pedagogy in Brussels. In 1936 she settled in Paris where she taught in a Jewish supplementary school.There, during World War II, she and her husband Louis Gronowski (Lulke Grojnowski) assumed key roles in the French Resistance. In 1949, they returned to Warsaw where Berger began publishing articles, stories and books in both Yiddish and Polish. Forced to leave Poland in 1968, she resumed her literary activity in Paris, writing for various Yiddish publications all over the world. Until her death in 1996, she continued to publish books of essays and short stories which received awards internationally.
Vivian Felsen (the translator) is a Toronto translator and visual artist who has long been active in Yiddish circles. For over thirty years she has been translating French into English, and more recently, Yiddish into English. She was the recipient of a Canadian Jewish Book Award for her translation of Montreal of Yesterday by Canadian Yiddish journalist and author Israel Medres, her grandfather, and her translation of his book Between the Wars, World Wars, won the prestigious J. I. Segal Award.