The Great Fire
By Gina (Eugenia) Budman
Membership in the Free Society of Firefighter Hunters, our voluntary fire brigade, has always been a matter of honour, for all prominent citizens of Minsk. My sons, Samuel and Grigoriy, became members as soon as they turned seventeen. It was first organized in 1876 by my late husband, Lazar Braude, founder of The Braude Bank, the third biggest bank in the city. Lazar had once said that it was his duty to protect Minsk's commoners and the rich from such a great disaster that had destroyed our city more than once.
Today, on November 21, 1885, under the usual — for this time of year — half-rain-and-half-snow downpour, the mayor gave a heart-warming speech in front of a new fire station built near the center of Minsk, on the corner of Romanovskaya and Preobrazhenskaya Streets. All the current members of the Society were present, including Dr. Oskar Polyak, who sat proudly in his wheelchair, his burned hands gripping the armrests, his face wrapped in a fresh bandage.
His Excellency the Mayor, Alexander Alexandrovich Petrov, and his wife, had personally invited me to the celebration. The invitation was written by hand and came with flowers and a gift, but I’d hesitated responding until the last minute.
I had nothing against the mayor and his wife. They were good people. But it was difficult for me to see their son. The boy had grown since I’d seen him last. He was a student now, blond, clear-eyed and handsome in his stiff gymnasium uniform that made his chubby body slimmer and taller. He smiled to me when his mother, Anna Antonovna, pointed at me and whispered something in his ear. The mayor’s wife bit her lip and pressed both hands to her chest, bowing in my direction. I saw tears rolling down her plump cheeks. I stood in the second row with my own sons. Like little children, they held my hands on both sides, their shoulders warming mine. I gripped their hands, responding to their care. I nodded back to her and turned away.
In his low, booming voice, the mayor began to speak about the great fire of 1881. The fire, the mayor recited, without looking at his notes, had destroyed the Low Market Street, Yekateriniskaya, Koydanovsky, Tjuremny and Bogodelny Streets, 254 wooden houses, 488 outbuildings, 271 stores, 40 warehouses, and 8 government structures in the center of Minsk. Ten people died and over two thousand became homeless. When he counted these losses, his voice trembled and broke. The officer, who held an umbrella over his head, passed him a lace handkerchief with which the mayor patted his face. Alexander Alexandrovich praised Lazar, who died as a hero saving lives, including his son’s, and remembered my daughter who perished that day. He thanked everyone — God, the Tsar, our brave Firefighter Hunters, nurses, the troops stationed in our city and all the people of Imperial Russia for donating food, money and clothes. He promised, shaking his fist, that he'd never let a wooden building be built in the center of our city again. Dr. Polyak nodded so vigorously, his wheelchair clanking, that his daughters barely kept him from sliding down to the ground. The bandages around his inflamed eyes turned orange and wet.
With a wide theatrical gesture, Petrov stretched out his white-gloved hand, inviting me to join him. I shook my head no. His wife gave me a sad, encouraging smile. All eyes were on me, waiting. Alexander Alexandrovich stepped forward, bowed and gently took me by the elbow. Between the mayor and his wife, before the whole crowd, I stepped inside the new structure, as if I were a main guest of this celebration.
It was a one-story brick mezzanine, in the fashionable Art Nouveau style, with a roomy depot attached to it. Inside, the air was cold and moist and smelled of manure, wood and hay. Showing me the stable, the mayor, his breath steaming and wetting his moustache, proudly counted twenty-two strong horses and ten fire carts loaded with hatchets, water barrels, hoses and ladders. “Next time, we will be ready,” he assured me. I lowered my head. I walked alongside him, raising my black widow’s dress, trying to avoid yellow streams of horse urine flowing into puddles covered with thin yellow ice. I couldn't wait for the ceremony to end.
After the meeting, the mayor and his wife invited me to a celebratory dinner at their house. Anna Antonovna waited for me and motioned from her carriage to climb in. I thanked them but refused. I was content at home or in my bank, among its busy people, but had no business mingling with happy ones.
The morning of June 21, 1881 had been sunny and fresh. The windows of Tsippi’s nursery were open, letting in a cool draft and glittering summer dust. Tsippi was still in bed, her face screwed up and her mouth full of fish oil she threatened to spit out. She’d just recovered from the measles, and Dr. Polyak insisted on two teaspoons with every meal. My sons were at our summerhouse.
I was a wife of a decent man, a mother of three healthy children and an active member of Minsk’s Society of Fine Arts, Society for Helping Poor Unwed Jewish Mothers, and the Medical Society for Assisting Sick Prostitutes — of all denominations. I also helped Lazar at the bank. There was nothing else in my life I would have desired but for the next day to be as good as today.
Lazar was getting ready to leave. He put his jacket on, rubbed his shaved upper lip with his index finger (he had that silly habit when he was concentrating), collected necessary papers and reached for his cane, hat and gloves. That minute — it was about 10:30 — we heard the first fire siren. Shrill boys’ voices below our windows announced the news: “Zheznitsky's warehouses, on the corner of Koydanovskaya and Bogadelnaya, are on fire!”
Lazar’s face darkened. “The warehouses are filled with turpentine, tar and petroleum! The men are probably already there.” His last words to me were: “Go to your parents.” With this, Lazar hurried out of the house, slamming the door so hard its sound wave rattled our windows.
“To my parents’!” I ordered Tsippi’s nanny, and then ran after Lazar.
As long as I live, I will never forget that day. Cool summer morning turned blazing hot. I couldn't breathe. The pressure of sounds in my ears — claps, explosions, and crumbling — made me feel as if I went deaf. Wooden shacks, sheds and houses burned to the ground in front of my eyes. Black snow twirled in the wind covering the street. There were shoes, kitchen utensils, buckets, broken furniture, spilled bags of hay and seeds on the stone-paved street. I stumbled over alive, injured and dead chicken, geese and pigs.
Alexander Alexandrovich wasn’t in Minsk, and my husband and Oskar were the ones to manage the first attempts to contain the fire. Their fire horses had been useless. Scared of the flames, they rushed from one side of the street to the other, breaking carts, injuring people and themselves. Consequently, Lazar and his friends had to carry water barrels on their backs. Fire sparks fell on their clothes, lighting them up. Their hands and faces were bloody and black, burned. All of them coughed that hacking deep cough. When they turned on the pump, it took a while to start the flow — from the terrible heat water evaporated. By two o’clock, all the urban water supply had dried up, so Lazar and Oskar organized the delivery of water from the Svisloch-river.
Giving first aid to the injured and burned, I didn’t see that the fire had crept up to our block. By the time the fire fighters noticed it, the flames were already licking the second floor of the mayor’s mansion. We had thought that he took his family with him on the trip, but suddenly, a third-story window flew open, and a woman — a servant — looked out. In her arms she held a small boy. The woman leaned down, terrified and opened her mouth in a scream.
Lazar shouted something to her over the terrible noise of fire. It seemed the woman understood. She stretched her arms with the baby toward him. In that moment, I saw a mirror image of that scene — a servant and a child — in my own window across the square. I shouted to my husband, “Your daughter!” pointing to our baby, but he didn't hear me. Lazar placed his ladder against the wall of the mansion, where the fire was still small, climbed up and reached for the mayor’s child. I tried to get to my daughter, clawing and climbing through the rubbish that now littered our street, but I was too far away. In my peripheral vision, I saw Lazar handing the mayor’s boy down to Oskar, who carried him to the side street. I waved and shouted again. For one fleeting second, I thought his eyes met mine. But at that moment, a strong gust of wind ripped through the square. A tsunami of a fire wave rose up. In front of my eyes, it covered my husband and rushed into the window with my baby inside.
The mayor came back from Bobruysk by a nine-o'clock express train and assumed his post immediately. He ordered everyone to leave the burning center, extinguishing as much fire as was possible, and retreat to the river. With his lead, late at night, the fire was stopped at Commercheskaya Street.
After the ceremony, I came home. I took off my greatcoat and went to Lazar’s study. It was all mine now. I’d restored the old room as it was four years ago. I’d ordered replicas of his tall Viennese safe, carved cherry bookcases and heavy oak desk. I’d upholstered a new coach and chairs with the knobby English fabric resembling the old one. I’d recreated almost everything but the feeling of security and content I once felt in this room. No longer was there Tsippi’s nursery in my house.
I sat at the desk and rubbed my upper lip, concentrating. Lazar’s habit was now mine. There were piles of letters from the banks of Moscow and Persia to respond to and loans for factories, buildings and land to approve or reject. The Braude Bank was still the third-largest bank in the city, though now I, Sophia Braude, was its sole owner. I put my glasses on, picked up a letter opener and was cutting through the first envelope when the doorbell interrupted me. Among the voices in the hall, I recognized the one asking for me. Hesitantly, I got up and left the study to greet my distinguished guest.
It was her first time in my house — the Jews and the Russians were not that kind of friends —- but the mayor’s wife stood at the door, looking straight at me, not around, evaluating my wealth and my taste as guests usually do. She nervously gripped her white-gloved hands; her coat slid from her wide shoulders.
“My boy,” she said. Her voice and her lips trembled. “He could have perished . . .”
It took a while for her to start breathing again.
“Instead . . .” she kneeled, stretching her arms out to me.
In front of a maid, a cook and a coachman, the mayor’s wife was asking for my forgiveness.
A low sound came out of my mouth. It contained everything: the day of the fire and the four years that had passed without Lazar and Tsippi. I staggered.
Anna Antonovna quickly got up and supported me by the elbow, her arm steady and warm. She led me back to my study, away from the servants, curious and confused, who watched us.
We stayed there until the darkness fully covered Zacharievskaya Street. A maid brought us tea. We drank it in silence. I rocked in my chair, my eyes shut, reliving it all. She soundlessly cried. The fire crackled in the fireplace and flickered over our faces. Rain softly knocked against the windows, counting time. With the exception of Lazar, I have never felt this close to a person before. I knew she wouldn’t have changed anything — her husband and her baby were alive. But even though my loss was infinitely higher, she carried a great burden too: an unrepayable debt to me and Lazar, a Firefighter Hunter, who had lost his life saving her child instead of his own. The Great Fire tied us together for life in an unresolvable tangle of random luck, guilt, and grief: me and the mayor’s wife.