(Three stories excerpted from a book)
By Isaac Babel
Translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk
Crossing the Zbrucz
The sixth division commander reported that Novograd-Volynsk was taken today at dawn. The staff has moved out of Krapivno and our transport sprawls in a noisy rearguard along the highway that runs from Brest to Warsaw and was built on the bones of peasant men by Nicholas the First.
Fields of scarlet poppies blossom around us, a midday breeze plays in the yellowing rye and virgin buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery. The quiet Volyn bends. Volyn recedes from us into the pearly mist of birch groves and creeps into the flowery hills, its feeble arms getting tangled in thickets of hops. An orange sun rolls across the sky like a severed head, a gentle light glitters in the ravines of clouds and the banners of sunset flutter over our heads. The scent of yesterday’s blood and dead horses seeps into the evening coolness. The blackened Zbrucz roars, twisting the foamy knots of its rapids. The bridges are destroyed and we are fording the river. A stately moon lies on the waves. The horses sink up to their backs and sonorous streams trickle between hundreds of horses’ legs. Someone is drowning, loudly disparaging the Mother of God. The river is strewn with the black squares of carts, filled with rumbling, whistling and songs that thunder over snakes of moonlight and glistening pits.
Late at night we arrive in Novograd. In my assigned billet I find a pregnant woman, along with two red-haired, thin-necked Jews; a third Jew is sleeping, huddled up against the wall with a blanket over his head. In my assigned room I find two ransacked wardrobes, scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement and shards of the sacred plate that Jews use once a year—on Passover.
“Clean this up,” I say to the woman. “You live in filth, hosts...”
The two Jews spring into action. They jump around on felt soles, picking debris off the floor. They jump silently, monkey-like, like a Japanese circus act, their necks swelling and swivelling. They spread a torn feather mattress on the floor and I lie down, facing the wall, next to the third, sleeping Jew. Fearful poverty closes in above my bed.
Silence has killed everything off, and only the moon, with its blue hands clasping its round, sparkling, carefree head, tramps about under the window.
I stretch my numbed legs. I lie on the torn feather mattress and fall asleep. I dream of the Sixth Division commander. He’s chasing the brigade commander on a heavy stallion and plants two bullets in his eyes. The bullets pierce the brigade commander’s head, and both his eyes fall to the ground.
“Why’d you turn the brigade back?” Savitsky, the Sixth Division commander, shouts at the wounded man—and here I wake up, because the pregnant woman’s fingers are fumbling over my face.
“Pan,” she says to me. “You’re screaming in your sleep, thrashing around. I’ll make your bed in the other corner, because you’re shoving my papa...”
She raises her skinny legs and round belly off the floor and removes the blanket from the huddled sleeper. It’s a dead old man, flat on his back. His gullet is ripped out, his face is hacked in two, and blue blood sits in his beard like a hunk of lead.
“Pan,” says the Jewess, giving the feather mattress a shake. “The Poles were slashing him and he kept begging them, ‘Kill me in the back yard so my daughter doesn’t see me die.’ But they did it their way—he died in this room, thinking of me... And now you tell me,” the woman said suddenly with terrible force, “you tell me where else in this whole world you’ll find a father like my father...”
On Sabbath eves I am tormented by the rich sorrow of memories. Long ago, on these evenings, my grandfather would stroke the volumes of Ibn Ezra with his yellow beard. The old woman, in a lace headdress, would conjure with her gnarled fingers over the Sabbath candle and sob sweetly. On these evenings my child’s heart would sway like a boat on enchanted waves... O the Talmuds of my childhood, reduced to dust! O the rich sorrow of memories!
I roam Zhitomir and search for the shy star. By the ancient synagogue, by her yellow and indifferent walls, old Jews are selling chalk, bluing, wicks—Jews with the beards of prophets, with passionate rags on their sunken chests...
Here before me is the bazaar and the death of the bazaar. The fat soul of abundance is killed. Mute padlocks hang on the stalls and the granite pavement is as clean as a dead man’s bald pate. It twinkles and fades, the shy star...
Success came to me later, came just before sunset. Gedali’s shop was tucked away among closely packed rows of stalls. Dickens, where was your shade that evening? In that old curiosity shop you’d have seen gilt shoes and ships’ ropes, an antique compass and a stuffed eagle, a Winchester hunting rifle engraved with the date 1810, and a broken stewpan.
Old Gedali paces around his treasures in the pink emptiness of the evening—a little shop-owner in smoky glasses and a green frock coat reaching down to the ground. He rubs his little white hands, tugs at his little grey beard and, bowing his head, heeds the invisible voices drifting down to him.
This shop is like the box of an inquisitive and serious boy who’ll someday become a professor of botany. The shop has both buttons and a dead butterfly, and its little owner is named Gedali. Everyone’s left the bazaar, but Gedali remains. He wends his way through a labyrinth of globes, skulls and dead flowers, whisks his motley brush of rooster feathers and blows the dust off the perished flowers.
We are sitting on empty beer kegs. Gedali twists and untwists his narrow beard. His top hat sways above us like a black turret. Warm air floats past us. The sky changes colour. Up there, high up, delicate blood flows from an overturned bottle, and I am enveloped in the faint odour of decay.
“The revolution—we’ll say ‘yes’ to her, but will we say ‘no’ to the Sabbath?” so begins Gedali, entwining me in the silk straps of his smoky eyes. “‘Yes,’ I cry to the revolution, ‘yes,’ I cry to her, but she hides from Gedali, and all she sends our way is shooting...”
“The sun doesn’t enter eyes that are closed,” I answer the old man, “but we will rip those closed eyes open...”
“The Pole closed my eyes,” the old man whispers, almost inaudibly. “The Pole is a mad dog. He takes a Jew and pulls out his beard—eh, that cur! And now they’re beating him good, the mad dog. That’s wonderful, that’s the revolution! And then the one who beat the Pole says to me, ‘We have to take your gramophone in account, Gedali...’ ‘But I love music, Pani,’ I tell the revolution. ‘You don’t know what you like, Gedali—I’ll shoot at you and then you’ll find out, and I can’t help shooting, because I’m the revolution...’”
“She can’t help shooting, Gedali,” I say to the old man, “because she’s the revolution...”
“But the Pole shot, my dear Pan, because he’s the counterrevolution. You shoot because you’re the revolution. But the revolution is happiness. And happiness doesn’t like orphans in the house. Good deeds are done by good men. The revolution is the good deed of good men. But good men do not kill. So the revolution is the work of bad men. But the Poles, too, are bad men. So who will tell Gedali where’s the revolution and where’s the counter-revolution? I once studied the Talmud—I love the commentaries of Rashi, the books of Maimonides. And there are other men of wisdom in Zhitomir. And here we are, all learned men, falling on our faces and crying out loud, ‘Woe unto us, where is the sweet revolution?...’”
The old man fell silent. And we saw the first star cutting its path along the Milky Way.
“The Sabbath is coming,” Gedali pronounced with significance. “Jews must go to the synagogue... Pan Comrade,” he said, rising up, the top hat swaying like a black turret on his head, “bring a few good people to Zhitomir. Oh, what a shortage we have in our town. Oh, what a shortage! Bring good people, and we’ll give them all our gramophones. We aren’t ignorant. The International... We know what the International is. And I want an International of good people—I want them to take every soul into account and give it a first-grade ration. Here, soul, eat, go ahead, get some happiness out of life. It’s you, Pan Comrade—it’s you who doesn’t know what they eat the International with...”
“They eat it with gunpowder,” I answered the old man, “and season it with the best blood...”
And so she ascended her throne out of the deep-blue darkness, the young Sabbath.
“Gedali,” I say, “today is Friday, and the evening is here. Where can I get a Jewish shortcake, a Jewish glass of tea, with some of that retired God in the glass?...”
“No place,” Gedali answers, hanging a padlock on his box. “No place. There’s a cook-shop next door, and good people did trade there, but nobody eats there nowadays, they weep...”
He fastened his green frock coat on three bone buttons. He dusted himself off with the rooster feathers, splashed a little water on his soft palms and walked off—tiny, lonely, dreamy, with a black top hat on his head and a big prayer book under his arm.
The Sabbath is coming. Gedali—the founder of a hopeless International—has gone off to the synagogue to pray.
All things are mortal. Only a mother is destined for eternal life. And when a mother is no longer among the living, she leaves behind a memory that no one dares to desecrate. A mother’s memory nourishes compassion within us, just as the ocean, the boundless ocean, nourishes the rivers that cleave the universe...”
These were Gedali’s words. He pronounced them with significance. The dying evening surrounded him with the rosy haze of its sadness. The old man said:
“The doors and windows have been knocked out of Hasidism’s passionate edifice, but it is immortal, like a mother’s soul... Its eyes have been gouged from their sockets, but Hasidism still stands at the crossroads of the furious winds of history.”
So said Gedali, and, having finished his prayers at the synagogue, he led me to Rebbe Motale, the last rebbe of the Chernobyl dynasty.
Gedali and I went up the main street. White churches glittered in the distance like fields of buckwheat. A cannon wheel groaned around the corner. Two pregnant Ukrainian girls walked out of a gate, their necklaces jangling, and sat on a bench. The shy star lit up amid the orange battle scenes of sunset, and peace, a Sabbath peace, descended on the crooked roofs of the Zhitomir ghetto.
“Here,” Gedali whispered, pointing to a long house with a broken pediment.
We entered a room that was stony and barren, like a morgue. Rebbe Motale sat at the table, surrounded by liars and the bedevilled. He wore a sable cap and a white gown bound with a rope. The rebbe sat with his eyes closed and his thin fingers fumbling in the yellow down of his beard.
“Where has the Jew come from?” he asked, lifting his eyelids.
“From Odessa,” I answered.
“A pious city,” said the rebbe, “the star of our exile, the involuntary well of our calamities!... What is the Jew’s occupation?”
“I am putting the adventures of Hershel of Ostropol into verse.”
“A great task,” whispered the rebbe, lowering his eyelids. “The jackal whines when he is hungry, any fool is fool enough for despondency, and only the wise man rends the veil of being with laughter... What has the Jew studied?”
“What does the Jew seek?”
“Reb Mordkhe,” said the tsaddik, shaking his beard, “let the young man take a seat at the table, let him eat this Sabbath eve with other Jews, let him rejoice that he is alive and not dead, let him clap his hands when his neighbours dance, let him drink wine if he is given wine...”
And Reb Mordkhe scurried over to me—a timeworn jester with turned-out eyelids, a tiny hunchbacked old man, no taller than a ten-year-old boy.
“Oh, my dear and so young a man!” said the ragged Reb Mordkhe, winking at me. “Oh, how many wealthy fools I have known in Odessa, how many poor wise men I have known in Odessa! Sit down at the table, young man, and drink the wine you won’t be given...”
We all sat together—the bedevilled, the liars, the loafers. In the corner, moaning over their prayer books, stood broad-shouldered Jews who looked like fishermen and apostles. Gedali dozed against the wall in his green frock coat, like a gay little bird. And suddenly I saw a young man seated behind him, a young man with the face of Spinoza, with Spinoza’s mighty brow and a nun’s sallow face. He was smoking and quivering, like a fugitive captured after a chase and brought back to prison. Ragged Mordkhe crept up behind him, snatched the cigarette from his mouth and ran back to me.
“That is the rebbe’s son, Ilya,” Mordkhe rasped, approaching me with the bleeding flesh of his mangled eyelids. “A damned son, the last son, a disobedient son...”
Mordkhe shook his fist at the young man and spat in his face.
“Blessed be the Lord,” Rebbe Motale Bratslavsky’s voice rang out, and he broke bread with his monkish fingers.
“Blessed be the God of Israel, who has chosen us among all the nations of the earth...”
The rebbe blessed the food and we sat down at table. Outside the window horses neighed and Cossacks shouted. The desert of war yawned outside the window. The rebbe’s son smoked one cigarette after another amid the silence and prayers. When the supper was over, I was the first to rise.
“My dear and so young a man,” Mordkhe muttered behind my back and pulled at my belt, “if there were no one in this world but evil rich men and poor tramps, how would holy men live?”
I gave the old man money and went out into the street. Gedali and I parted ways and I walked on to the station. There, at the station, on the agitprop train of the First Cavalry Army, I was awaited by the glare of countless lights, the magical glimmer of the wireless, the stubborn running of the printing press and an unfinished article for The Red Cavalryman newspaper.