The interruption of my schooling early in 1915 by my accident in Brisk was thought to be only temporary. I felt bad about losing the spring semester, but consoled myself with the prospect of returning to the Tamarin school in September. I even hoped to make up for the lost time by studying the advance parts of my textbooks and taking the examinations in the subjects covered during the spring term, and perhaps being "skipped" to the next grade. But the occupation of our territory by the German army in the summer of that year, with all the catastrophic consequences it brought about, also put an end to my formal education.
I was twelve years old then and, like most of my contemporaries, burning with a desire for knowledge. The seeds planted by Zhuk and the two years in Brisk were -not the only stimulants of this yearning--it had existed for a long time and affected adults as well as the youth, as evidenced by incidents I remember from my early childhood. Culture, education were eagerly sought by all, but the means of acquiring them were even more limited than the means of earning a living.
Public opportunities for cultural activities in the shtetl were almost nonexistent. They had to be contrived, individually or collectively. Two Yiddish newspapers, Haynt and Moment, arrived once a week from Warsaw on a collective subscription. Upon their arrival groups would gather to hear the headlines and the important current news read aloud, discussions and arguments immediately developing about each event.
Everybody had an opinion and did not hesitate to voice it. For instance, a report that the Tsar was visiting a provincial city might evoke the following comment:
"Why does he have to go there? That town is a hotbed of you know what! He is taking a big risk, I tell you!"
"Ah, don't worry, he's got plenty of Cossacks and gendarmes to protect him!"
"Is that so? His grandfather Alexander also had plenty of Cossacks, but they did not save him from the bomb. If I were in his place I'd sit in the palace in St.Petersburg and not look for trouble."
Similar discussions were carried on about political or social scandals, bankruptcies, audacious robberies, natural disasters, and especially items concerning Jews. And everybody remained agog for further details until the papers arrived the following week.
When the subscribers, each in his turn, were finished with the newspapers, they were passed on to friends and acquaintances, some of whom would get it weeks later since each reader went through the contents in toto, not skipping even the advertisements. The lapse of time did not matter. What we craved for was a glimpse of the outside world, some means of understanding the political, economic, cultural and scientific currents from which we felt isolated, but which we knew to be of great importance not only to Tsars and Emperors, not only to nations and metropolises in the abstract, but to affect the lives and fortunes of the people dwelling therein, including ourselves as individuals, buried though as we were between the forests and swamps in the backwoods of the world.
To a person living in the last quarter of the twentieth century, who gets his newspaper daily at a corner store, our obsession with such a thing may seem strange or even ridiculous, but we did not have radio or television with instant reports of world events even as they are happening, no telephones, no automobiles to take us rapidly from place to place, no visitors from distant towns or countries. The two-week-old newspaper was the only window through which we could get a look at the world beyond our immediate horizon.
Three events that stirred up our community during my childhood stand out vividly in my recollection. One was the death of Tolstoy in 1910, when I was barely eight years old. He was greatly respected and admired by Jews not only as a writer, but also for the humanitarian idealism he espoused in his later years, which brought him into conflict with the reactionary hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. I can still see small groups of people standing in the market place, with sad expressions on their faces, talking about the "groisser mentch" (great man) or "sheiner mentch" (fine human being). Many young people donned tolstovkas , long shirts worn over the trousers which Tolstoy affected as a symbol of simplicity, with black armlets as a sign of mourning.
The second event was of much greater importance and created universal consternation among Jews and right-minded non-Jews alike. This was the Beilis affair, which happened in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. Mendel Beilis, a Jew, was arrested in 1911 on the accusation that he killed a twelve-year-old Christian boy in order to use his blood in baking matzoth. This vile calumny was not new. It was used by Jew-haters during the Middle Ages to incite the ignorant populace, and thousands of Jews were murdered in Western Europe in mass attacks on the ghettos, despite the lack of proof and even judicial acquittal of the accused. Those outrages were ascribed to the barbarism of the Dark Ages, but that such an accusation should seriously be made, and by an official government agency, in the "enlightened" twentieth century came as a shock. The accusation was at once taken up by the notorious reactionary and anti-Semitic Black Hundred organization, which started a vicious campaign for vengeance against Jews, with the slogan: "Beat the Yids and save Russia!" The horrible prospect of the reoccurrence of the pogroms which had shaken the Pale of Settlement within recent memory stirred the deepest fears in the Jewish communities. Fortunately, there was a great outcry not only in the world press but in a large segment of the Russian press as well, and public protests were made by European, American and Russian intellectuals and official leaders. A noted Russian lawyer, Vassily Maklakov, offered his services to the defense and played a prominent role in the protracted and acrimonious trial.
A police investigation early in the case established that the slain boy's mother was consorting with a gang of common criminals, one of whom was her lover. The latter was suspected of being the murderer because the boy was a hindrance to the liaison, but no definite proof was obtained. The police report was suppressed by the prosecutor on orders of higher authorities, but the several defense lawyers, aided by public opinion, succeeded in entering this evidence into the proceedings. On cross-examination they extracted an admission from the original accuser, the prosecution's star witness, that he really did not see Beilis at the place where the body was found, as he had previously testified. The case was tried before an all-Christian jury which unanimously acquitted Beilis in 1913, two years after his arrest.
One can understand with what eagerness and trepidation the newspapers' arrival was awaited in the Jewish communities during those two years, and how every word relating to the trial was weighed and measured for any significance it may have on the outcome. This affair demonstrated the power of public opinion even against such an autocratic regime as that of Tsarist Russia. If the world had reacted in the same manner against the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s, millions of their victims might have been saved from the gas ovens. But this time there was silence. None of the world's rulers, including President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and the Pope, raised their voices in vigorous protest. Worse yet, the "democratic" and "humanitarian" countries, including the United States, shut their gates and would not admit those Jews who managed to escape to France, Holland and Belgium, and were left there to be rounded up by the Gestapo and shipped in cattle cars to the extermination camps. The British Government, in the most perfidious act of all, refused to allow the entry of the refugees into Palestine, despite the importunities of its Jewish residents and their readiness to take care of all newcomers; and despite the Balfour Declaration's promise to establish a Jewish "National Home" in the land. True, there were many individual Christians in Europe who, even at the risk of life, helped the persecuted Jews to escape or to hide, and one nation, Denmark, stands out as a shining example of virtue and humanity. Led by their valiant King Christian X, the Danes, though under Nazi occupation, refused to surrender their Jewish citizens for deportation and saved all of them by transporting them secretly to Sweden, which of course could not have been accomplished without the cooperation of the Swedes. The rest of the world stood silent, inactive, or even connived with the murderers. And so six million Jews and untold numbers of other innocent human beings went to their death in a barbaric orgy surpassing anything that took place even in what we self-righteously refer to as the Dark Ages.
Then came the outbreak of war in 1914. The fateful events leading up to it, beginning with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo, naturally shocked the people of our town as elsewhere, heightening the impatience with which the newspapers were awaited and giving rise to heated discussions. Strange as it may seem, there was no great apprehension.
Temporary economic difficulties and restrictions were foreseen, but no major disruptions since we were several hundred miles away from the German border and did not expect the fighting to reach our area. The Russian troops were marching to war as if to a picnic, confident in the strength of their numbers. "My ikh shapkami zakidayem! " (We will smother them with our caps) was the war cry. With the mighty British dreadnoughts--I remember pictures of them in an illustrated Russian magazine, Niva--and the vaunted French army as allies, Germany was expected to be vanquished in a matter of months. Little did we, or anyone else for that matter, suspect that the war would drag on for over four bloody years; that it would topple the crowns of Russia, Austria and Germany; and that within one year the German army would be in our town. Until that happened life continued in a fairly normal way, up to the time we were shaken out of our fool's paradise by the roar of the cannons.
To end in a minor key with the newspapers, I recall a news item that was making the rounds somewhat surreptitiously--the discovery of a cure for syphilis, Salvarsan, known then as Six-Hundred-Six. Not that the Jews were overly afflicted by this malady, but there was pride in the fact that the discoverer of a remedy for this age-old scourge was a Jew, Paul Ehrlich. There was even a humorous and rather risque' ditty recounting the trials and tribulations of a would-be Casanova, until A Jew named Ehrlich then arose And prescribed a healing dose Of ointment Six-Hundred-Six.
There was of course no library in town, and the few books possessed by individuals were treasured like Holy Writ. Like newspapers, these too made the rounds among friends and acquaintances, those on the bottom of the list waiting for months before getting a chance to read them. They were read not just for entertainment, but for the thoughts and ideas expressed in them, explicitly or implicitly. Accordingly, even more than the newspapers, books were discussed, analyzed and argued over ad infinitum.
There was no question of choosing what to read--we read everything that was available. The books were in Yiddish or Russian, most of them originally written in those languages, but quite a few were translations from foreign languages. Despite the haphazard course of our reading, or perhaps because of it, the literature we so avidly absorbed was of considerable extent and diversity. It included poetry, novels, plays, history and short stories, ranging from the classics to what were then modern writers. We had no modern Hebrew books, only some magazines containing short items and poems.
Though Yiddish was spoken universally by European Jews for several hundred years, Yiddish literature of any significance did not develop until the second half of the nineteenth century. Despite its importance as a lingua franca Yiddish was disdained by the educated, who referred to it as "jargon" or more charitably as "mamme loshen"--literally: mother tongue, but carrying the connotation of woman-talk. The occasional books that appeared were aimed at the uneducated, mainly women, who did not know Hebrew which was the exclusive medium for scholarly writing, contracts, official documents, and important correspondence. In the mid-1800s arose the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement which inter alia brought the acceptance of Yiddish as the recognized language of the people. This led a number of writers, who theretofore used Hebrew or the languages of the countries in which they lived, to turn to Yiddish as their medium.
The first to gain prominence as a modern Yiddish writer was Sholem yaakov Abramovich, generally known by his pen name Mendele Moher Sforim. His works are permeated with compassion for the poor and underprivileged, and he castigated the leaders of the Jewish establishment for exploiting the people and enriching themselves at their expense. Mendele may be compared to Charles Dickens in the way he exposed the callousness, greed, and hypocrisy of the wealthy upper crust of society. His books became very popular and led to mitigation of some of the evils he brought to light. We had several of his works, the one best remembered by me being Di Takse (The Tax), dealing with the impost levied on meat by the city fathers ostensibly for charitable purposes, but actually for lining their own pockets, to the detriment of the poor who could no longer afford to have meat on their table even for the Sabbath.
Next came the universally beloved Sholem Aleichem, the pseudonym of Sholem Rabinovich, who has been dubbed "The Jewish Mark Twain." In a series of novels, short stories and monologues he depicted Jewish life in the shtetl and in the large cities through the adventures of a gallery of ludicrous but sympathetic characters whose names became bywords in Yiddish speech. His humor was so infectious that it brought gales of laughter even when reading the many tragic situations which fill his books. His writings were aptly referred to as "laughter through tears." While Sholem Aleichem's works have been translated into many languages, much of the piquancy of his humor is lost in translation because of the impossibility of conveying in a foreign tongue the idioms and malapropisms he put into the mouths of his characters. Even so, enough remains to make a reading of his translated works rewarding. Witness the tremendous world-wide acclaim of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" based on Sholem Aleichem's unforgettable character Tevye the Milkman.
Most of Sholem Aleichem's works were available in our town and were read privately or in groups, providing a welcome lighthearted counterpoint to the weighty literary fare we otherwise were immersed in. We also had some short stories of Yitzhak Leib Peretz whose searching writings reflected a rather pessimistic outlook; and the works of two outstanding poets: Hayim Nahman Bialik and Shimon Shmuel Frug. Some of their poems were in Hebrew and in Russian, as well as in Yiddish, and a number of them were set to music, becoming great favorites among the songs of the time.
A much greater variety was available to us in Russian literature. First and foremost, as I am sure it is to the present day with any Russian reader, came the two great poets Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. Every young student in Russia knew by heart and delighted in reciting short poems and excerpts from longer ones by these two masters of lyric poetry, unexcelled since their tragic deaths in duels in 1837 and 1841 respectively. I cherish the possession of two volumes of the complete works of these poets, in,beautifully illustrated editions of pre-World War I, and still delight in rereading for the hundredth time some exquisite verses and experiencing the same thrilling sensation as when I hear a great artist's rendition of a familiar aria from an opera or a favorite passage from a concerto. So Pushkin and Lermontov we read, recited, sang, and plagiarized for versified missives to girl friends.
Of the Russian prose writers we read Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gogol and some less prominent authors. The discussions following the reading of each book revolved not so much around the story or plot as around the ideas and views of the writer. There was, for example, a lively debate about Tolstoy's disparagement of both Napoleon and Kutuzov in War and Peace, and his theory that chance has more to do with the outcome of battles than the military "genius" of the commanders. Sanin, the hero of Artzybashev's novel by that name, whom the author modeled as an amoral Nietzschean "superman", caused impassioned arguments about ethics, egoism versus altruism, and human nature in general. Pushkin's novelette The Captain's Daughter fascinated us not for its engaging love story but for the intriguing character of Pugachov, the brigand leader of the peasant uprising in Eastern Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century. And so it was with other works, except poetry, which captivated us with its sensuous pictures of nature, appeal to human emotions, and sheer beauty of language. In poetry form and imagery took definite precedence over subject matter.
Translated works were in one respect more interesting to us than original Russian or Yiddish ones--they gave us an insight into a world previously unfamiliar to us. Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris unreeled before our eyes an exciting panorama of medieval life in France, from the ruling nobility and clergy to the coarse mobs in the streets; and his Ninety-three brought vividly the passions, terror, and heroics of the Great Revolution. Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil revealed the hard lot of the Norwegian peasants in their struggle with the harsh and unfruitful environment, and their fortitude in facing obstacles put in their way by men as well as by nature. Henryk Sienkiewicz in his epic novel Quo Vadis took us to the catacombs of Rome and the earliest Christians stubbornly holding on to and dying for their faith in a sea of pantheistic heathenism. And with Graetz's voluminous History of the Jews we treaded the tortuous and torturous path of our own people as aliens in foreign lands, hounded by the spiritual descendants of those early Christians, and just as stubbornly holding on to and dying for their faith.
Not all the literature we absorbed in this random manner was so weighty. Other books I recall reading in my teens were Dumas's Three Musketeers; Ibsen's plays; Mayne Reid's tales about American Indians; Lessing's Nathan the Wise; and several Sherlock Holmes stories. All this reading and discussion no doubt influenced our thinking and outlook on life in subtle ways not readily traceable. But one book which definitely left a lasting mark on me was Robinson Crusoe, not only because of the hero's adventures as such, but for his ability to conquer the hostile environment and fashion his own "civilization" solely out of the materials that nature provided. To the present day I find great satisfaction in adapting apparently useless and discarded things to build and repair something useful, in a twentieth-century imitation of Robinson Crusoe.
All this reading was done during the war years 1915--1919, when we were completely cut off from the rest of the world. I suppose that schools were functioning in the large cities, but for me they were out of bounds. The books I read provided considerable knowledge and information, compensating in a way for the interruption of schooling, though in an haphazard and unsystematic manner.
The only bits of information from the outside we received during those years came from friendly German soldiers who were proud of the feats of their army. One such soldier periodically boasted about the cities they captured, stating: "Wir haben schon Riga eingenommen," or "Wir haben schon Vilna eingenommen. " (We have already taken Riga, we have already taken Vilna.) A Jew, tired of his bragging, asked him in Yiddish: "Nu, un a Misse Meshuna? (Horrible Death ?)" "Bald haben wir das auch" (Soon we'll have that too) was the answer.
One incident indicative of the state of the economy as well as of culture in the town, involving my father and the Russian priest, comes to mind here. Wrapping paper and paper bags, so freely used and wasted in American stores, was a convenience the storekeepers there could ill afford. Shoppers usually brought their own utensils or cloth bags for liquids and loose items like rice, dry beans, salt, flour, oil or kerosene. None of these items were packaged, but sold by weight and measure from sacks and barrels. Still, paper was needed occasionally, as when a customer forgot his utensil, and in such case old newspapers, pages from children's copybooks, or anything else available was used. One day I noticed father tearing a poge out from a fat printed volume. The book turned out to be an anthology in the Russian language, published about 1830, containing stories, poems, historical material, aphorisms, and much more. I was about fifteen at the time and like all other young people in town starved for reading matter, and here was my father destroying such a treasure! I got so angry that I actually yelled at him, the one and only time that I ever showed such disrespect toward him. In his tolerance and fairness he acknowledged at once his thoughtlessness and turned the book over to me. The book and several others had been given or sold to him by the priest, both men considering them of no value because they were old! Unfortunately all the others were already beyond redemption, and this was the only one salvaged. It gave me and my friends countless hours of pleasure as well as a lot of valuable information.
Some of the contents of this volume are still fresh in my memory. One is a poem in which the poet castigates the wealthy theater goers who shed tears watching Hamlet or similar tragedies on the stage, but turn away from the ragged and hungry beggar who stretches out his hand to them outside the theater entrance. Another is a story about a Flemish painter who could not sell any of his pictures.because the critics belittled his talent, and he and his family were starving. One day he stretched himself out on the floor, told his wife to cover him with a white sheet, light two candles at his head, then run outside disheveled bewailing his death. Townspeople gathered, including the critics, and noticing the paintings judiciously displayed about the room began re-evaluating them and started bidding against each other for their possession. After each and every one of them was sold, the "dead" artist threw off his sheet, stood up, and, recited the following couplet to the dumbfounded assemblage:
Talent is a gift from heaven,
But is rated by mere men.
Should you be gifted and desire
Your worth esteemed--expire!
The longest entry in the anthology was a translation of Xenophon's Anabasis The March of Ten Thousand. I do not know jf the work was complete or abridged, but it gave me and my friends a fascinating glimpse into a distant world and civilization then totally unknown to us. It aroused in me an interest in ancient history which has persisted to the present day.