An Encounter, 1905
By Yehoshue Perle
(Excerpt from a novel, The Golden Peacock)
Translated from Yiddish by Shirley Kumove
A trade school opened in town a year ago. Since it was hard for young Jewish men to get into the Russian gymnasiums (high schools) and the Russian trade schools only accepted the candidates of their choice, young Jews began streaming in to this school from all over Lithuania and Russia. They immediately put on the school uniforms with brass buttons and the caps with gold crowns.
A new source of livelihood opened in town. The new students, old as well as young, had brought with them not only their curly black heads and the rolling rrr's on their tongues, but also books and money. A lot of Jewish homes, especially those with daughters, took these students in, providing them with room and board.
The town took on a different look and a different smell. In the evenings the boulevards were full of smart uniforms, and the girls in town stopped speaking Yiddish and began conducting their love affairs in Russian.
It was a hot, blue-skied summer. Shayndl leased the Yanishev orchard again. Last year she ended up with a profit and she hoped that this year the Eternal One would help her once more. This would surely happen because now a better sort of person would come to her orchard. Actually, they didn't start coming right away but began gathering in the neighbouring woods.
Bit by bit, they started coming. It seemed like they grew from under the corn and from behind the poplar trees, shuffling with uneasy steps under the hot sky and disappearing into the darkness of the forest.
Runners were assigned to the highways. They lay among the grain or under a tree, ostensibly for no reason, but every one of the young men and women who went out to the Yanishev orchard had to identify themselves to these runners, and only then would you know that these were one of our own, one of the "brothers and sisters," as they were called.
Before the "brothers and sisters" came along, husbands and wives would go strolling along the highway on Shabbes afternoons. So did brides and grooms, and children too. They brought challah1 and flasks of tea and would enjoy the day until the sun began to set and they'd have to go home to make havdoleh.2
But when the schoolmates from town also chose the highway leading to the Yanishev forest, Jewish husbands and wives stopped coming. Many of the brides and grooms who used to come to Luzeh's Bavaria in earlier times, or just liked to gather in somebody's house to pass the time with tickling and drinking Bavarian beer -later joined up with their schoolmates and not one of them became a runner and pointed out where the encounter took place.
People avoided these khevreh3 in town. They knew that this kind of behaviour was tainted with criminal activity, you could be sent to Siberia, shot or hanged. This "plague" had come from deep inside Russia, from Moscow, St. Petersburg and even Warsaw. It came slowly, leisurely. There was whispering in the study house, in the shoemakers' alley, in a tradesman's workshop, but what exactly was going on, no one rightly knew.
Suddenly, almost overnight it could be said, young people carrying sticks began to be seen on Lublin Street. Most of them were from the poorer class of people. Among them were ordinary girls - seamstresses, dressmakers or just plain servant girls without caps on their heads. They spoke quietly, whispering from mouth to mouth. They ran apart, came together again, ran apart once more, and gathered together again at the Voyl Market on Warsaw Street, or at the Circular Market where the workshops of the craftsmen were located. They sang such songs as, "Arbet un noyt" ["Work and Need"] and "Oy hemerl, hemerl, klap" ["Oy Hammer, Hammer, Strike"]. These songs swept through Lublin Street and scattered the hems of Jewish kapotehs,4 even forcing shops to close.
The town guards couldn't manage and a new Police Commissioner arrived, swarthy, bearded, with a wife who was an apostate. He was a fiend, this Police Commissioner; he was determined to stir things up and wipe out this "plague." He ran through the streets like a wild boar, and Jews began to understand that something was really beginning, and only the Living God knew what would happen here.
It actually happened when the trade school opened. The students with their curly heads, their smart uniforms, their rolling rrr's and the Russian language that they spoke so fluently and so elegantly - they were the ones who brought this plague.
Meanwhile, Jews had a source of livelihood from these students. They even thought of them as prospective sons-in-law, but they'd have been happier if the whole affair wouldn't even have gotten started. The swarthy Police Commissioner, the town guards, and the gendarmes dragged out of their beds at night not only the imported students, but also local young men. They took Oyzeh, the wine-dealer's son. They went to the Tsimberkovitches inquiring about their oldest son Yontsheh who was a quiet young man and, it seemed, never bothered a fly on the wall. Last week they banged on the door of Hirsh-Layb Green's house looking for young men, and all night long they ransacked the house of the teacher of sacred texts, and also the place where the Lithuanian students were billeted, carting some of them off to city hall. The whole town thought that the khevreh would take note of this action and lie low, but the more the Police Commissioner and the gendarmes ransacked, the more the ranks of the khevreh grew. Children from respectable homes who were already educated, and even engaged to be married, also came, as well as non-Jewish young men, real Hamans, who earlier had made everyone tremble before them.
Respectable fathers and mothers wearing shaytls5 were ashamed and turned grey before their time. They screamed and they punished. They locked up their children's belongings in cupboards, but even without shoes, this plague went from door to door and, it shouldn't even be uttered, it banged just like death!
Lublin Street, the Circular Market and the boulevard were too crowded for the khevreh. The tailor, the shoemaker apprentices, the seamstresses, the hairdressers, Mendl Firsht's daughter, and the goyish and Jewish gynasium students, they already took up all the room on the beautiful boulevard with the chestnut trees that led to the train station. It was evident in the new garden. Last year, they crawled out of the Kopter Woods, but when the swarthy Police Commissioner arrived, the khevreh made for a hiding place in the Yanishev forest.
Young men and women lay spread out among the trees, quiet and busy, listening to what one of them, a Litvak, was saying. Just his talk alone, his beautiful voice that ran through the woods and hung from the branches, was enough so that you couldn't get tired listening to him because he was really right. It actually was so. One person had a lot and the other had nothing. Poor people were dying of hunger while the rich stuffed their bellies.
The air smelled of resin and of stacks of hay in the meadow. Birds fluttered quietly overhead. A squirrel with flashing eyes quickly scampered from one tree to another. It stopped, surveyed, and listened.
Shloymeleh, the tailor's apprentice, stole into the forest and lay with bated breath hidden in the grass. Later, he came running to Shayndl with a frightened face. "Things aren't good in the Yanishev forest!" He didn't like the whole business. Young men and women were spread out on the grass and a Litvak sitting on a stump was talking. Shloymeleh didn't clearly understand what the Litvak was talking about. He only caught that he was talking against the swarthy Commissioner, the police, and the wealthy men in town and, it should only remain between him and Shayndl, against the Tsar himself! From this kind of talk you could end up rotting away in prison! He couldn't understand why they weren't afraid, these lice-pickers, and why did they pick the Yanishev woods? Did they want to make him miserable, or what?
The orchard didn't matter to him, nor did his livelihood, or that Shayndl had become plump, nothing mattered. He never went to the woods again.
The fields were already cut and stubbled. The sun rose later and set earlier. The plums ripened and children got stomach aches. Even Shayndl was busy with her children.
People still kept coming to the Yanishev woods but they were more careful, spoke more guardedly, and the runners arranged themselves more densely. Talk reached the Police Commissioner's ears that the khevreh were gathering outside town, so he launched an attack on the Kopter woods, but he found nobody there. He was concerned about his honour because he was promised that he would become the Chief of Police. He knew that the leaders were Abrasheh and Yontsheh (Leo Finklestein's brothers). He actually fell on Abrasheh in the middle of the night and turned his house upside down. Even though he found nothing, he still held him under guard for two days. At the store he, the Commissioner, asked for sugar and "forgot" to pay the bill.
But there was one person, pockmarked, pitted Hersh-Laybeleh, who lived in the same courtyard as Yontsheh. He undertook to nab Yontsheh together with the whole khevreh. Hershe-Laybeleh had for a long time tried to get in with the khevreh, but since he liked to pick pockets and it was said of him that he'd sold Dobreleh to Buenos Aires, nobody wanted to associate with him. It was said in town that Hersh-Laybeleh was being paid off by the police. Otherwise how could he dress so well and have money to spend on the pastry baker's daughter?
It was Shabbes, the end of summer. The apples and pears, loaded with ripeness, fell off the trees all by themselves. A lot of craftsmen and intellectuals gathered in the Yanishev woods. A representative came from Warsaw to speak, and there was supposed to be a discussion. This time they didn't wait until after the meal but began gathering right in the morning. That Shabbes the weather was fair and cool. It had rained during the night and the fields smelled of camomile and mint.
Shayndl, who was still busy with the children's stomach aches, went out to the small wooden gate, where she saw Abrasheh and Rukhtsheh coming along, arms around each other just like a bride and groom. Yontsheh ran past them. Everyone greeted Shayndl with "Good Shabbes" and invited her to join them in the forest, but a faint rustle came from there and she became uneasy. She knew the Yanishev district like she knew her ten fingers, nevertheless she still felt like a stranger here. Or maybe it was because a flock of crows flew by cawing, or maybe because the clouds were becoming denser, or maybe... just because. Several times Shayndl observed a face peering out from behind one or another of the poplar trees. Dust rose up from the highway just like in the days when the goyim went on an "indulgence" (euphemism for rampage). In the middle of the field a person was running as if being chased.
Shayndl began to feel a cold sweat over her whole body. A large shadow over the fields moved out from the side of the highway. Shayndl ran into the forest screaming: "Khevreh, save yourselves! They're coming!"
The trees in the forest quivered as if in confusion. A torrent of rain came pounding down not so much from the sky but as if rising from the earth itself. They ran into the fields, trampled over people, hid behind fence posts, behind stacks of hay and behind peasants' stables. Yontsheh and Abrasheh were screaming: "Khaveyrim don't run! Khaveyrim stay calm!" but it didn't help.
A shot was heard that sounded like a double echo. Another shot echoed three times. Fire spurted and cracked into the woods and it came out of the woods too. The peasants quickly drove the fowl into their huts, banged the stable doors shut, and placed crucifixes in the windows.
The Police Commissioner himself shot Yontsheh and Abrasheh. The bullets flew around their heads lodging in the trees. Yontsheh and Abrasheh fell, got up again, shuffled, and crawled on all fours. From behind fence posts, the peasants came out with pitchforks challenging and detaining those trying to run away.
Yontsheh and Abrasheh were led away, hands tied together one to the other with peasant rope. Also led away were several gymnasium students and seamstresses, Rukhtsheh between Elkeleh Firsht and Zelda the seamstress. Elkeleh and Zelda were silent and held their heads high, but Rukhtsheh was weeping: she knew nothing. What did they want of her? She didn't know anybody here. She flailed away at herself.
Some rescued themselves in Shayndl's orchard. Others lay in the ditches until nightfall and nobody knew what had happened to them. Nobody even knew what had happened to Shayndl.
Shloymeleh ran to the forest. Together with Shloymeh they called out Shayndl's name; Shloymeh calling out "Mama." The trees didn't answer. Here and there pieces of challah, bits of paper, a girl's slipper, a collar and tie lay scattered. They found Shayndl lying in a ditch, splayed out, face up, her wig coiffed as if nothing had happened. Only her hands were folded over her belly; actually, not hands at all, but two pieces of congealed blood. All of Shayndl was swimming in blood.
Shloyme's wailing and lamenting didn't help, nor did his curdled scream. Shayndl no longer had anything to do with them. Not with them and not with the whole world.
It had nothing to do with Itsheh the Carver either: he lay at the other end of the forest, face up, hands and feet spread out. Both he and Shayndl were taken away to have autopsies performed. They found the bullets in Shayndl's belly and in Itsheh the Carver's back. There were no funerals. They carried both bodies out at night, loaded them onto a ladder-sided wagon, and took them out past the Yanishev orchard to the cemetery.
Rukhtsheh saw Abrasheh for the last time on a white, snowy day in winter. He was taken out of the jail together with Yontsheh, Bernard Birnbaum the Bookkeeper, and Zelda the Seamstress. They were being sent off to Siberia.
A (Russian) song wafted out of the closed wagon:
Solntse vskhodit i zakhodit a vtyurmyeh moyay tyemno...
The sun rises and sets but in my prison it's dark.
The Police Commissioner went out into the street with two policemen at his side as usual. They didn't stop searching; they ransacked and beat people black and blue. But the Police Commissioner still didn't become the Chief of Police. Maybe he was waiting for his important new rank, but the dark decree also waited for him.
A Purim sun was shining. No matter how hard and how bitter the situation, Jews didn't stop sending each other Purim gifts. In the middle of a bright day, the swarthy Police Commissioner, a real Hummen harusheh, Haman the Tyrant, went out strolling with his apostate wife. With them was Shmi'el Mekler, a blond Jew who already knew that the Police Commissioner was going to be upgraded to Chief of Police. He had brokered a new house for him. The Police Commissioner liked this broker because he spoke Russian poorly and was a big fool, so he, the Police Commissioner, with his mouth full of healthy, white teeth and his abundant beard, liked to make fun of him.
Two well-dressed young people, sporting fur collars, strolled by and they quietly advised Shmi'el to get lost. Either Shmi'el didn't hear or else he didn't understand. Two other young people, also well-dressed, sidled right past Shmi'el and murmured to him in Yiddish, as if they were talking to each other, that an accident had taken place at Shmi'el Mekler's house. The broker stopped in the middle of talking. He wanted to see who had said this, but the speakers had vanished.
The Police Commissioner and his wife stopped at Yankl Shlayser's clothing shop. The broker began gesturing with his hands and running toward home. Two droshkes6 drove past, helter-skelter. The Police Commissioner was infuriated by this daring, and began ordering the droshkes to halt, but at that very moment, there was a sudden explosion, smoke billowed, shutters and signs were torn off, the windows and balconies rattled, and doors banged shut. There were two dark holes in front of Yankl Shlayser's shop. Where the Police Commissioner and his wife had stood, there was nothing. A uniform without sleeves, a laquered boot, its bootleg torn, a woman's hat all lay scattered. A piece of an arm or leg fell down, it was impossible to tell which, from the balcony of the largest pharmacy. The Police Commissioner's abundant beard, together with his pearly white teeth, could be seen lying in the gutter.
The air smelled of sulphur and of flesh, but there was no longer a swarthy Police Commissioner or his apostate wife.
1 Challah - braided egg loaf eaten on Shabbes
2 Havdoleh - ceremony performed at the close of Shabbes
3 Khevre (khaveyrim pl.) - comrade(s)
4 Kapoteh(s) - long black gaberdine coat(s) worn by observant adult males
5 Shaytls - ritual wigs
6 Droshke(s) - horse drawn cab(s)
Translation copyright © 2010 by Shirley Kumove
"An Encounter, 1905" is a chapter of a novel by Yehoshue Perle called The Golden Peacock, and this chapter (called there a "fragment") is taken by Shirley Kumove from the Radom Yizkor Book.
Yehoshue Perle (1882-1942) was a Yiddish novelist, born in Radom, Poland into the family of a village hay dealer. His literary activity began in 1907, first under the influence of Noyekh Prilutski and later in the literary circle of Sholem Asch. Initially, his work consisted of poetry written in Russian, but then he turned exclusively to Yiddish, writing novels, stories, literary essays, sketches, criticism, and articles. His work appeared in most of the literary journals and publications in Warsaw of that time. Several erotic novels were published anonymously which he signed only with three stars and serialized in newspapers.
By obtaining forged U.S. citizenship papers, Perle was able to survive after 1939, both outside and inside the Warsaw ghetto and also in Bergen-Belsen. He fled Warsaw as the Nazis approached, going off to Soviet-controlled Lemberg where, until 1941, he was the chairman of the Writers Union. Later he went to Kiev, where part of his work about the plight of refugees was published. When Lemberg fell to the Nazis, he returned illegally to Warsaw, and until 1942 worked in a ghetto shop, remaining active in literary work. He was sent to Bergen-Belsen together with his son Lolek, where he led literary discussions and tried to lift the fallen spirit of his colleagues. On October 21, 1942, separated from his son, he was sent to Birkenau and, several days later, annihilated. Part of his literary output in the Warsaw ghetto was found after the war among the dug-out materials of the Ringelblum archives, and some of it was published in anthologies in 1951 and 1955.
Perle's creative writings include hintergasn (Back Streets) and di goldene pave (The Golden Peacock), which was published in the newspaper folkstsaytung in Warsaw in 1938. The novel, naye mentshn (New People) was published in the press, and was reworked into a three-act play called mentshn (People), staged by Ida Kaminska at the Novotshi Theatre in Warsaw in 1936. Mirl, a novel about a Jewish salon woman in Poland, was published in book form in 1921 and translated into Hebrew. Other writings include Under the Sun, a novel about the big city (1920), In the Land of the Vistula, a prose poem about Jewish life in Poland (1921), Sins, a novel (1923), and Nine o'clock in the morning. His story, "An Honourable Woman," received a prize from Der Tog newspaper in 1927. His masterwork, yidn fun a gants yor (Ordinary Jews), about Jewish life in Poland, was published in Warsaw in 1935, and received prizes from both the Bund and the Yiddish Pen club.
(This bio was written by Shirley Kumove.)
Shirley Kumove is the author of four books: Ordinary Jews by Yehoshue Perle (forthcoming, SUNY, 2011), Drunk From The Bitter Truth: The Poems of Anna Margolin, More Words, More Arrows, A Further Collection of Yiddish Folk Sayings, and Words Like Arrows, A Collection of Yiddish Folk Sayings. She is a contributing translator and author of Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, and From Memory to Transformation. She has written columns for The Pakn Treger, the journal of the National Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA. Additional articles, reviews and essays of Jewish interest have appeared in various journals and magazines. Kumove has lectured at many gatherings in Canada and abroad, and is presently at work on her memoirs. (She is indebted to two colleagues, Polish Translator Danuta Borchardt and Russian translator Marian Schwartz, for assistance with Polish and Russian words and phrases in this excerpt.)