The Dance Master

 


Photo: Louise Klein

The Dance Master

By Anne (Hannah) Viderman

Translated from Yiddish by Sonia Gollance

 

When I was a young girl, my brother came home one day with the news that he was going to study dance with a Romanian dance master – a deserter from the Romanian army. He suggested that I also go to the dance master to learn how to dance.
 
I declined this pleasure, telling my brother that dancing didn’t interest me.
 
A few weeks later my brother came in with a tall, broad-shouldered young man, whom he introduced as the Romanian dance master. The stranger pressed my hand so firmly that I scarcely restrained myself from crying out in pain.
 
“Come to my class, I’ll teach you to dance!” The guest addressed me without ceremony.
 
“I’m not interested in dancing,” I answered him, but he began trying to persuade me that dancing was a very important art, that a girl must know how to dance, that a person who can’t dance was in his opinion hardly a person at all! And at that moment he took hold of my brother, and they set off in a wengerka.
 
Truth be told, I had never seen such dancing! Even in the movies I hadn’t seen anyone dance as nicely as the Romanian dance master. I was captivated by what I’d seen. My mother also stood and stared as if she were spellbound.
 
When he finished dancing, this fellow began to tell stories that even a child could tell were preposterous, completely made up, and with more holes than a sieve. What’s more, it was obvious that he knew it too, since no one believed him in his stories. But he spoke, narrated, talked nonsense to the point that it was terrible to see and hear how a grown man could make himself look so foolish!
 
My mother gave me a look that asked, “Who is this nuisance?” And I looked at her as if to answer: “Why are you asking me? Ask Mayer – he brought him, not me!”
 
When he finally left, my mother turned to Mayer: “What kind of pest did you bring into my house? Obviously this young man’s some kind of lunatic. If you bring him here again, I’ll throw you both out!”
 
“I didn’t bring him, he brought me. He’s teaching me to dance. When I was heading home he said: ‘I’ll join you, I heard from my students that your sister’s very nice. I want to meet her!’ What was I supposed to say? ‘I don’t want you to meet her?’” my brother answered in his defense, and he added: “I didn’t know he’d be so annoying!”
 
Once, when my brother was at the dance hall, Papa sent me to fetch him. The dance hall was at Golda Gitsi’s, not far from us. There I encountered a packed house with young men and women dancing; things were really in full swing!
 
The dance master danced with Leytsi Berezin. A young blond beauty and, as I watched, she made a false pas – he gave her a kick that must have cut to the quick.
 
At this, my appetite for dance completely vanished, if it had ever even existed.
 
I left with my brother, and the dance master followed us. I thought: What’ll I do if my father sees him walking with us? I told him: “You forgot about your class.”
 

 

“It’s nothing, they’re already used to it,” he answered and continued walking. We entered the house; he followed. My brother sat down with his teacher, and the dance master with me. It didn’t take long until he began telling stories: how girls fell in love with him, how they committed suicide because he didn’t return their love, and so forth and so on. My father sat at the table, but didn’t look at the dance master, just at me! Clearly he's afraid that I'll take those girls as an example, I thought. Yet suddenly I noticed that he was holding in his laughter with great effort – a sign of his keen sense of humor.
 
Finally the guest left.
 
“What kind of pest did you bring home? Where did you find this character?” asked my father, scolding and laughing so hard his eyes teared up.
 
My brother made excuses again: “I didn’t encourage him; he doesn’t wait for an invitation. He visits lots of other houses, where they don’t like him very much…”
 
A few weeks later a little girl walked into our house and said to me: “The dance master asked you to call on him!”
 
My parents looked at me in surprise.
 
I looked at the little girl with astonishment and asked: “Who are you?”
 
“I’m Hersh Blecher’s daughter, and the dance master boards with us.”
 
“What does the dance master want with me?”
 
“He’s sick and can’t visit you, but he begs you to come!”
 
When I arrived at the dance master’s, his landlady told me that she had little children and was scared they’d catch typhus from the sick man: “You know it’s very contagious and I have little children. I told him to send for you and beg you to do something for him. He says you’re his best friend…”
 
I entered the room where he lay in bed and saw that he was in a bad way. His face was flushed, his eyes were teary, and he trembled feverishly.
 
“You have to help me, I don’t have anyone here. I’m sick and all alone. My landlady is scared I’ll infect her children. You’re my only friend, first God, then you.” And he began to cry.
 
Before me I saw a lonely, unhappy man. A human being who, somewhere in Romania, had a mama, a papa, sisters, brothers, but he couldn’t write to them, nor they to him. In that moment, they didn’t even know where to find one another! 
 
What was to be done with him? Who’d want to allow a typhus patient into their house? As if it wasn’t bad enough, he told me, that he didn’t own even a single kopek.
 
“I’ll see what I can do,” I answered him, and went home and told my parents the story.
 
“First find a room for him, somewhere where there aren’t any children. After that you’ll figure out what to do next,” advised my mother.
 
I set out in the shtetl to look for a room, but the typhus epidemic raged, and everyone was focused on their own troubles. In nearly every house there was a sick person or two, in almost every house people were sitting shiva.
 
Finally I convinced the people who rented out the space for the dance class to take him in. They were an older couple, and distantly related to our family. They couldn’t say no and agreed to let him stay with them.
 
I returned, hoisted the sick dance master’s arm over my shoulders, and half-carried him to my elderly relatives. If that wasn’t hard enough, the deep mud and pouring rain made it even worse.
 
After Golda lay the patient down in bed with her husband’s help, I went to the committee which had been established in the city to provide doctors and medicine for the sick. Straight away, I received money for a doctor and medicine for my patient.
 
My mother turned to me with the following words: “You already did your part; now the committee members should take care of him.” I promised her I wouldn’t visit him anymore, since I knew the disease was very contagious.
 
A few days later, our relative Golda Gitsi’s dropped in and said the dance master was doing very poorly today, and he’d called for me from his bed.
 
My father exchanged glances with my mother.
 
“You must understand, though, that it’s dangerous for Hannah to visit a typhus patient. After all, it’s a very infectious disease, and we also have little children,” my mother answered her.
 
“But he won’t take his medicine, he just says I should fetch Hannah!” Golda answered.
 
My father exchanged another glance with my mother. I took my coat and made for the door.
 
“Where are you going?” asked Papa.
 
I said nothing for a moment, but I gained courage: “I’m going to the lonely invalid who asked me to come!” I answered, and looked him straight in the eye.
 
“Do you want us all to get sick, God forbid?” asked Mama.
 
“No, we won’t get sick. We’re more likely to catch it if we don’t take pity on a lonely invalid,” I answered, and left with Golda.
 
“Don’t stand close to him, have mercy on us!” Mama shouted to me.
 
“Put on your galoshes,” Papa yelled after me.
 
When we entered, the sick man turned his head away, like a capricious child, and wept.
 
“Why are you crying?” I asked him.
 
“You left me all alone, and you didn’t come visit,” he answered.
 
The old woman gave him medicine, but he wouldn’t take it. “She wants to poison me,” he complained.
 
“Why would she want to poison you?” I asked.
 
“In order to inherit his great fortune!” Golda answered.
 
I burst out laughing, and Golda joined in.
 
The sick man looked at us and twisted his lips into a smile, like on the face of a freshly exhumed corpse. I remembered how marvelous he’d looked when he danced happy and healthy and my heart ached for him.
 
At this time, one of the rich men in Outshitza, Dovid Gelman, came down with typhus and a professor from another city was brought to him. I asked the community to send the professor to my dance master as well. And they granted my request.
 
The professor examined the patient thoroughly and… gave up. It turned out that, besides typhus, he also had smallpox. Additionally, his lungs were infected, according to the professor.
 
My parents shouted at me that I shouldn’t visit him anymore. Even if I didn’t contract typhus, certainly I’d catch smallpox. But I did as I thought was right. I was sure his end was near and considered it my duty to do everything I could for him. But he proved the professor wrong and his condition improved. One morning, when I came in, I found him sitting there fully dressed and looking as well as anyone else.
 
I came home and told my parents with great joy.
 
“Do you know why we’re practically the only family in the shtetl that didn’t catch typhus? Because I helped someone who had no one else, and if you’d forced me not to visit him, it would’ve certainly turned out differently!”
 
Several years later, when I was in Bessarabia, I heard acquaintances talking at length about some dance master who was known to be a liar. Among the whoppers they recounted was a story about how, when he was sick with typhus and smallpox, a girl took him under her wing and rescued him from all his troubles.
 
This convinced me of the truth of the proverb, “Nobody believes a liar, even when he’s telling the truth.”

         

Translation copyright © Sonia Gollance
Published with the permission of the author’s daughter, Esther Klein (née Widerman).

This story is from Umetiker shmeykhl: derinerungen, dertseylungen, briv, monologen, humoreskes, felietonen (Sad Smile: Memories, Stories, Letters, Monologues, Humorous Sketches, Feuilletons), originally self-published by Anne Viderman in 1946.

Anne (Hannah) Viderman (the author) (1899-1994) was born in the town of Oushitza in Podolia (now Stara Ushytsya, Ukraine), fled Russia with her family during the Revolution, moved to Bessarabia and Romania with her husband, and immigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1924. She published regularly in Der Keneder odler (The Canadian Eagle), Canada’s leading Yiddish newspaper. She also published two collections of short stories, humorous sketches, and memoirs: Umetiker shmeykhl (Sad Smile) (1946) and Alte heym un kinder yorn (Old Home and Childhood, 1960). Two of her autobiographical articles from Umetiker shmeykhl were published in English translation as “A Fiddle” in the 2007 anthology, Arguing with the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers.

Dr. Sonia Gollance (the translator) is Lecturer in Yiddish at University College London and author of It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2021). A 2020-21 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow, her translations have appeared in In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and the Language, Literature & Culture section of the Yiddish Book Center’s website. 



 

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