BREACHING THE WALL
1 .Brest Litovsk
The inclusion of my parents in the category of those who could "afford" to send a child to study in another city was an overstatement -- "manage" would have been a more appropriate term. I doubt if my father, despite his epithet "Shleime der kremer", would have been able to cover the full cost of my study and residence away from home were it not for the generosity of my mother's sister Henye and her husband Osher Kagan, who lived in Brest Litovsk and graciously offered to take me in as a member of their family.
Brest Litovsk, called Brisk in Yiddish, was then an important garrison city of fifty thousand inhabitants, about half of them Jews. Situated on the river Bug (Boog), a tributary of the Vistula, it was an industrial, commercial and shipping center, as well as a key railroad and highway junction. The city was a military stronghold, and its fortress was considered by the Russians strong enough to withstand the onslaught of any enemy from the West.
Brest had three formal boys' schools: a Gymnasia (Gymnasium); Realnoye Uchilishche (Science High School); and the Yevreyskoye Uchilishche Tamarina (Tamarin Jewish School). The first two were subsidized by the government and were practically out of bounds for me, because of the ardent competition for the few places available for Jewish students. It was rumored that without a substantial "gratuity" no Jewish boy could gain admission, regardless of his accomplishments. Consequently, after successfully passing the entrance examinations I was enrolled in the Tamarin school as a third year student, thanks to my studies with Zhuk. This school, though fully accredited, received no government subsidy and was maintained by the Jewish community. Though admission was open to all, the enrollment was almost one hundred percent Jewish ,since the gentile boys had no problem other than scholarship in entering the other schools which, needless to say, were considered much more prestigious. The city also had a Gymnasium for girls, attended mostly by the daughters of the large number of garrison officers, the higher police, railroad and administrative officials, and the local gentry.
2. The Big City
Brisk opened new vistas for me. I will never forget that first train ride, accompanied by my father, and the arrival at the railroad depot. We started out in the early morning of a hot late-summer day as passengers aboard the town's only means of transportation- a large four-wheeled wagon drawn by a team of brown horses. It had only one bench, a hard wooden board up front spanning the width of the wagon, serving as seat for the wagoner and one of the passengers, sometimes with a small child squeezed in between them. The other passengers, as many as six or even eight, had to find room inside on the thick layer of straw covering the bottom, sitting on their bundles or valises and jockeying for the best position to enable them to stretch their legs. The travelers were not picked up at their homes, but had to trudge with their belongings to a designated location on the market place. For most people travel was a rare event, so family members came along to say a last "fohr gesunt" (travel in health), and to give some final advice and admonition. My mother, grandfather (the other one was in America), both grandmothers, and assorted other relatives and friends were also there to see me off-just think of it: Yankele was going away from home for the first time in his ten-year life, to study in an "official" school in a mysterious big city, and will not be seen for six months, until Passover, and maybe not even then, but in June when the school year is over! Thus a goodly crowd was gathered at the departure scene, busy with kissing, hugging and wiping tears, the wagoner meanwhile shouting for everybody to get on board. Then came a concerted rush to climb into the wagon, with bickering about places, location of luggage, and what not. Finally all passengers were ensconced more or less comfortably, the driver flicked his whip, and the wagon began to move with a clatter of its iron-rimmed wheels over the cobblstones, accompanied by a waving of hands and handkerchiefs, and final shouts of good-by.
After about an hour's bone-jarring ride over the cobblestones we reached the chaussee where the ride became much smoother and much easier on us and on the horses. Some stops were made on the way for refreshments, which everybody brought along, for attending to natural functions, and much needed stretching of our cramped bodies. The horses too were fed, watered and given a spell of rest. By late afternoon we arrived at the nearest railroad station, Linevo, where we were to take the train for Brisk. Father bought a third class ticket for himself and a half-fare ticket for me, and we settled down to wait for the train in the absence of information about the exact time of its expected arrival. It was a long wait, at least for me, anxious to see a real locomotive pulling a string of cars, which I theretofore saw only in book illustrations. I hung about the rails outside hoping to catch a glimpse of the approoching locomotive. Finally there was heard a steady rumble and we noticed a light which became brighter and brighter, coming at us with great speed. We all moved away from the rails for fear of being "sucked in under the wheels" as someone warned us. Within a few minutes the engine, puffing plumes of black smoke and pulling several cars behind if, slowly came to a halt with a hissing and clanging. We made our way to the third class in the rear and settled down for the trip.
Third class meant sitting on bare wooden benches running the length of both sides of the car. Luggage was stowed underneath the benches. A lantern at each end provided just enough light to pick one's way through the outstretched legs and protruding bundles in the narrow passageway. We managed to find seats, but people entering at subsequent stops had to stand or sit on their belongings in the passage. The passengers were a motley assortment of black-caftaned Jews with dangling earlocks, others in European dress like ourselves, some gentile townsfolk, and a few peasants. They were all men--women were not much given to travel in those days.
I was keenly disappointed that we traveled at night, having looked forward to taking in the sights on the way, though it probably would not have been possible to see anything anyway through the smudged and smoke-blackened windows. Tired out by the long day's events I fell asleep leaning against father, awakening to the comings and goings when we stopped at a station. Once during the night I was roused while the train was in motion--a conductor in uniform, carrying a lantern, was checking the tickets and questioning some not-so-young-looking persons about their half-fare tickets. He was also shining his lantern underneath the benches looking for "rabbits", the Russian father at break of day as we were approaching our destination, Brisk. Here I found enough to make my eyes go round. The station itself was the biggest structure I had ever seen or even imagined. The roof, even loftier than in our Great Synagogue at home, was supported on the inside by crisscrossing steel girders. Tremendous plate glass windows were looking out on the wide covered platform leading to the trains; and On the opposite side facing a wide square where scores of cabmen lined up their elegant-looking one-horse carriages. There were brightly lit and gaily decorated shops inside the station, and rows of comfortable wooden benches for waiting passengers. Outside were the hooting and puffing locomotives, the long lines of cars clanging and bumping into each other, porters with numbered brass plates across their chests trundling handcarts laden with trunks and valises, and hawkers offering cards with names of hotels or lodginghouses, loudly extolling their virtues. And the crowds! Where did they all come from? Officers in resplendent uniforms, ladies in gowns of every hue in the rainbow and flower-bedecked hats, civilians in fine suits or frock coats carrying silver-headed canes, all intermingled with police and railway guards, uniformed young students, ordinary townspeople and even some peasants. All this was beyond anything I ever imagined. term for stowaways. He found none in our car, and I fell asleep again to be roused by father at break of day as we were approaching our destination, Brisk. Here I found enough to make my eyes go round. The station itself was the biggest structure I had ever seen or even imagined. The roof, even loftier than in our Great Synagogue at home, was supported on the inside by crisscrossing steel girders. Tremendous plate glass windows were looking out on the wide covered platform leading to the trains; and On the opposite side facing a wide square where scores of cabmen lined up their elegant-looking one-horse carriages. There were brightly lit and gaily decorated shops inside the station, and rows of comfortable wooden benches for waiting passengers. Outside were the hooting and puffing locomotives, the long lines of cars clanging and bumping into each other, porters with numbered brass plates across their chests trundling handcarts laden with trunks and valises, and hawkers offering cards with names of hotels or lodginghouses, loudly extolling their virtues. And the crowds! Where did they all come from? Officers in resplendent uniforms, ladies in gowns of every hue in the rainbow and flower-bedecked hats, civilians in fine suits or frock coats carrying silver-headed canes, all intermingled with police and railway guards, uniformed young students, ordinary townspeople and even some peasants. All this was beyond anything I ever imagined.
Next I knew we were in a droshky, one of those cabs that were lined up in the square, luxuriating on the soft leather seats during the ride into town. Just beyond the square we crossed a high arched bridge from which the city could be seen spread out as far as the horizon. We proceeded noiselessly on the rubber-rimmed wheels, except for the clip-clop of the horse's hooves on the smooth pavement (what a relief from the clatter of the ironbound wagon wheels at home!), along a wide boulevard lined with shady trees through which gleaming shop windows could be seen on both sides, the sidewalks already heavy with pedestrian traffic despite the early hour never before had I seen such sights.
We were warmly received by aunt Henye and uncle Osher. They occupied an apartment on the ground floor of a four-storied brick building, one of a group of similar buildings forming a rectangle on all four sides of a huge cobblestoned court, the entrance to which was through an iron gate on the street side of the court. This gate could be locked if necessary, and the entire compound gave the impression of a prison or fortress. It may have been built that way deliberately, to prevent entrance to undesirable elements or to provide a place of refuge during disturbances, such as riots or pogroms. The apartment comprised an entrance hall which also doubled as a pantry, combination kitchen / dining room, parlor, and two bedrooms: one occupied by uncle and aunt and the other one by their two children, a girl and a boy, together with their maid Andzia, who was needed because aunt helped uncle out in their business. I was assigned a sleeping place on the sofa in the parlor. There wos no toilet in the apartment, everybody using a group of communal toilets in the far corner of the court, the waste from which flowed into a metal covered sump. Once a month the "gold diggers" came to empty the contents, and during this operation all doors and windows were shut tight in a rather vain effort to keep the stench out. There was also no running water, which had to be purchased from a man who brought it in an enormous wooden barrel on a two wheeled horse drawn cart. These conditions were disappointing after the glamour of the boulevard, but were more than made up for by the warmth and kindness I found a true home away from home. Uncle and aunt operated a specialized delicatessen store--gastronomicheskiy magazin--patronized by the garrison officers, government officials, and otherwise wealthy people who could afford the high price of the mostly imported foods. Men in uniform or well-tailored civilian clothes, often accompanied by their elegant ladies, would drive up in carriages to purchase corned beef, salami, and small sausages, all brought in from Worsaw; cheeses imported from Holland and Switzerland; chocolates in decorated boxes tied with silk ribbons, called bonbonyerki, from those countries and from Vienna, Austria; English biscuits in enameled metal tins; various kinds of canned and smoked fish; and choice fruit in or out of season. This was as different from our krom as day is from night, but the greatest contrast was the absence of bargaining the customer either paid the price or asked to be shown something else. What also surprised me was their apparent disregard of the occasional malapropisms perpetrated by uncle or aunt, whose Russian was far from accomplished perhaps they did not expect anything better from mere tradespeople.As for me, the daily sandwich aunt prepared for my school lunch gave me a taste of these exotic foods for the first time in my life.
Another taste of the big city's "high life" was given me by uncle Osher's brother, a young man-about-town, who invited me to a konditerskaya (icecream parlor) where I was served an enormous portion of icecream, of several varieties, in a tall silver dish resting on a doily covering another silver plate. That was the kind of luxury not even imagined in Shershev, where icecream came in only one flavor and was sold as a small filling between two wafers for one kopek, whereas the serving to which I was treated cost fifteen kopeks! Such extravagance was beyond my puny allowance.
3 . Student in Uniform
Upon enrollment in the Tamarin school I was fitted out with a black uniform, complete with shiny silver buttons; and with a military-type cap decorated with light blue piping and a silver badge of the school's coat of arms above the gleaming black visor. I was as proud as a peacock when I strutted down the street in this getup, especially so when I returned home for the holidays and was admired openly by grownups and boys; and what was more important, covertly but unmistakenly by the girls. Yes, I was already becoming quite interested in girls--after all, I was already eleven going on twelve!
School was a serious business requiring a lot of work and application. The schedule of courses was heavy, with plenty of homework, and the standards were very high. We had excellent teachers, devoted to their task, but at the same time strict and expecting their students to aim for the highest rating, pyaterka (five), meaning excellent. The grading system ran from one to five, and although a troyka (three) was passing, any student receiving such grade disgraced both himself and his teacher.
And there was no way of cheating or faking. While the homework and routine tests were marked by the teacher, the term exams were conducted by a panel composed of the teacher of the particular subject; the education inspector; and either the principal, department head or another high official. Each examination consisted of a written and an oral part. There were none of the modern multiple-choice questions, so there was no guessing, since each question required a specific answer or explanation.
History Describe the causes and results of the Crimean War; Science Explain why a balloon rises in the air and an iron ship floats; Geometry Prove that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse
equals the sum of the squares of the two sides; Literature--Give a concise summary of Pushkin's "Poltava" ; and similarly for other subjects.
The written examinations, though hard, were not too much of a problem to the student who knew his subject--at least he had a reasonable amount of time to consider what the correct answer should be. Not so the oral exams--their mere setup was terrifying. Each student was called individually into a room where the three examiners sat sternly behind a table covered with green baize. Upon reaching the table he was told to pick at random one of several cards lying face down on it. The card thus chosen listed the question or topic of the test. Not only did the already tense youngster have to respond correctly to what the card required, but had to defend his answer against often tricky challenges of the examiners. One really had to know his stuff to pass under such conditions, and great was the jubilation when one received a four, not to speak of a five!
Most of the students at Tamarin had no problems with their studies. They were a chosen lot, who thirsted for knowledge and looked upon schooling as a privilege rather than as an onerous burden. The realization of the difficulties encountered in getting admitted, the sacrifices their parents were making in keeping them there, and the importance of education to their own future was an added incentive to make them try to succeed no matter how hard they had to work. Still, it was not all work at school, we had diversions too. Some of the classes were quite pleasurable, like the experiments in the science laboratory with its Bunsen burners, colored liquids, bubbling retorts, and the captive insects or frogs. I also liked the literature class with its poetry recitals, and the Ancient History class. I always was, and still am, fascinated by theories and facts relating to ancient peoples and the events that shaped their lives thousands of years ago, especially if they throw some light on my own distant forebears, the ancient Hebrews. But my special delight was the music hour. The teacher, a gaunt white-haired man named Ralbe, taught us patriotic and religious hymns and folk songs, assigning to the boys the soprano and alto parts and himself providing the bass, while at the same time beautifully playing a small harmonium. These sessions were so enjoyable that I learned the melodies of all the three parts, and can still sing them after the passage of more than sixty years.
There were no sports activities in the school its function was education, not recreation. The only time we had for physical activity was during the lunch hour, when we engaged in snowball fights, wrestling and general horseplay in the large school yard. We also played pranks not only on each other, but even on unpopular teachers. One of our favorite butts was a young woman who taught German. That was one subject no one liked, what with the boring syntax and the interminable sentences with their clauses, subclauses, and sub-subclauses. We could not blame her for that, but she was quite pedantic and totally uninspiring. I think though that we picked on her mainly because she was the only woman teacher in the school and felt unsure of herself among the men and boys. We sensed this weakness, and callously took advantage of it to make her life miserable. We wrote nasty things on the blackboard, broke the points on her sharpened pencils which had to be resharpened by penknife in the absence of mechanical pencil sharpeners, threw spitballs when she turned her back, and similar schoolboy pranks. With insensitivity often found in youngsters we perversely enjoyed her discomfiture, until a final cruel act perpetrated by some of the boys made us all feel guilty and ashamed. On a bitter winter day her overcoat was taken outside, its sleeves doused with water which did not take long to freeze solid, and then returned to its place just before the final bell. This apparently was the last straw, for the poor girl did not show up in class the following day. An investigation was started, with prospects of severe punishment, but the results are unknown to me because an accident shortly thereafter put an end to my attendance at that school.
4. End of an Epoch
Upon returning from school one winter afternoon I wanted to heat some tea on a portable benzene stove, and finding the chamber empty proceeded to refill it from a bottle. I had done this many times before without any untoward incident, but this time as I struck the match there was an explosion and flaming liquid squirted over me and on some of the kitchen things. I remember seeing the window curtains aflame and realizing that my own clothes were on fire. The thought of the danger to my two little cousins who were in the next room flashed through my mind, so I ran in the opposite direction, through the entrance hall and out into the court. The next memory is of my waking up, trying to open my eyes, and hearing my aunt's voice lamenting: "Oy, how will I face my sister? What will I say to her? Woe is me, I did not take care of her child!" As I stirred and tried to say something, someone exclaimed: "He is awake! He is coming to!" There ensued some commotion, but I apparently lapsed into unconsciousness again. because I remember nothing else. I was subsequently told that as I ran outside blazing like a torch a man smothered me with his overcoat and put out the fire. I do remember overhearing a doctor, sometime later, saying that my life was no longer in danger, but that he could not yet tell how much my eyesight was damaged. By that time I already knew that my face and left hand Were badly burned my lips were so swollen that they had to feed me through a tube, and my eyelids were pasted together and heavy like lead. After a while, as the bandages were being changed, pinpoints of light began penetrating and before long I began seeing other things through the chinks which were gradually opening wider and wider. When the doctor finally pronounced that my sight will be restored my aunt's joy had no bounds. She laughed and cried at the same time, would not let go of my good hand which she covered with kisses, and kept on repeating: "Oy Gotenyu, hartziker Tatenyu, ikh dank Dir un leib Dir far Dein gnod!" (Oh dearest God, heartiest Father, I thank Thee and extoll Thee for Thy mercy!) I was greatly relieved to learn that the children suffered nothing more than fright, and that the damage to the kitchen was minimal. The only permanent harm to me was a burn scar on my left wrist, which I still bear. I was apparently saved from worse injury, possibly from death, by the heavy uniform with its high stiff collar and the visored cap which I was still wearing at the time of the accident; but alas! . . . My beautiful uniform was completely ruined.
The accident happened during the winter of 1914--1915. By the time I completely recovered the second school term was well advanced, and additionally my parents insisted that I come home and take a long rest. So I returned to Shershev, hoping to resume my studies in September. But World War I had erupted in 1914, the Germans were advancing, and occupied our town during the summer of 1915, putting an end forever to life as it was. Since Brisk was a fortified city and was expected to be defended at all costs by the Russians, the civilian population was evacuated in order not to hamper the army in its operations. It was hoped that the fortress would withstand a long siege and thus stem the enemy's advance, but this turned out to be a vain hope indeed.
My uncle and aunt with their children were transported to Nizhni Novgorod, now known as Gorki, with only the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry with them on the train. I never saw them again because after the war was over our town fell to Poland, and a hostile border separated the two countries. During the nineteen twenties and thirties we received letters from them containing guarded hints about the miserable life they were leading. Then the letters ceased, apparently out of fear of the Stalinist terror. After the Second World War sporadic correspondence was resumed, and we learned that their younger son, Gerya, born in Gorki, was killed while fighting with the Red Army against the German invaders. Remembering auntls grief over my accident, I could well imagine how stricken she must have been at the loss of her young son, and my heart was full of sorrow for her and uncle. Within a few years we received word of uncle's death, and not long thereafter of the death of my beloved aunt, who treated me like a mother when I lived at her home. My parents were already in the United States, and we made various attempts to maintain contact with the two surviving children, Rosa and Nahum. We offered to send them packages of food and clothing, but they answered that they were not in need of anything, and made it quite plain that it would be better for them not to receive mail from the United States. The reason was left to our imagination.