Monday, December 7, 2009

The Samurai of Vishigrod, Part II

"But the other messenger, the only one who was trusted with money or with parcels of sufficient value to attract robbers, was Yonah, known even to our gentiles as "Yonah the Iron Man." Yonah, although already blessed with enough grandsons to make up a minyan in at least two synagogues, was, not to exaggerate, another Samson. Perhaps not quite as strong or as violent, but, on the other hand, also the last man in the world who would have let a Philistine wench lead him around by the hair?

"They used to tell how, one day, Eisenberg the lumber dealer sent Yonah to Warsaw with an astronomical amount of money to deposit into the bank there. Yonah tied on his two big bags of money with a rope and tucked his payess into his cap (after all, though he surely wasn't ashamed of his earlocks, why go out of your way to look for a fight with some ignorant peasant, when you were being paid to save your energies for quite another sort of trouble?), and, carrying the bag with his tallis and tefillin, two loaves of bread, and a dozen onions, set off on foot, armed with nothing but a stout stick.


"Anyway, while he was pacing along briskly through a dark forest in the middle of the night (sleep, of course, being out of the question), refreshing himself with a piece of bread and onion, and keeping himself company by reciting the Psalms in a voice as pure as thunder, he was halted by an armed robber. What we Americans would call a holdup man. Carrying an immense revolver that seemed to be fairly bursting with large lead bullets eager to be discharged, he told Yonah to hand over all the money he was carrying or else he would shoot him down on the spot, absolutely without mercy, like a dog.

"Fortunately for Yonah, the bandit was a Jew (for what other kind of bandit would even talk about such a thing as ‘mercy?’), so that it was possible to discuss the matter in a civilized way.

"Yonah explained that he was certainly ready to hand over the money. After all, it wasn't his own. But there was his reputation to consider. Knowing him as a fearless and powerful man, his em¬ployer surely would refuse to believe that Yonah would have given up such a sum of money without at least some signs of a struggle.


"What better way to prove that he'd been overpowered by a man with a gun than to be able to display an actual bullet hole in his coat? It was, after all, a small enough favor to ask for the sake of preserving one's reputation as an honest man.


"The bandit, being, as I said, Jewish, understood Yonah's predicament perfectly and sent a large, well-aimed bullet through Yonah's coattail, which was accommodatingly open.


"You know the outcome. Jewish bandits in Poland didn't have six-shooters. The demonstration bullet had emptied the gun. At which point, Yonah felt it safe to deal the foolish bandit a small tap—which left him lying unconscious with a generously bleeding nose.


"So Yonah continued on his way, loudly resuming his recital of Psalms where he'd left off, while the poor bandit, once he recovered consciousness, yelled after him in deep reproach that he never would have believed a God-fearing man capable of playing such a low trick on a fellow Jew. (And, though I now suspect that the whole story is pure legend, this was at least the sort of thing they told about him. What I mean is, true or not, do they tell such stories about you?)


"Of course, all this is merely to set the stage, as it were, for the story I meant to tell.



"In our neighboring town of Bazenova, a rumor had gone around that on the coming market day "a little pogrom" was going to take place. I don't know how it was where you came from, but in our part of Poland, all rumors had one characteristic in common: the bad ones were never false.

"Now by a "little pogrom" I take it that they meant it was to be essentially a civilian undertaking, without cavalry support or firearms, or that sort of thing. Still, for a stallkeeper, with only a basket of eggs standing between him and total starvation, even an infinitesimal pogrom was a thing, given a choice, one would prefer to do without. No such choice being available, a delegation was dispatched hastily to our Rabbi with a plea for help. That is to say, a plea for Yonah.


"Now on market days, even in the best of times, the hordes of peasants let loose in Bazenova were something of a hazard. And not only did the people of Bazenova have no one fit to mention in the same breath with our Yonah (while we in Vishogrod actually were blessed with a number of other good Jewish ruffians as well), but their entire police force consisted of two men, the younger of whom would never see seventy again, while the other, when he had to go up one step to enter a store for the policeman's customary reason the world over (that is, with his hand open in front of him), a kindly passerby would have to seize his elbow and give him a little boost. Upon the shoulders of these two ferocious guardians of the law rested the protection of Bazenova's Jews against a mob of drunken, bloodthirsty peasants.


"On the other hand, it must be admitted that Bazenova's Jews never dreamt of protesting this situation, as it is a well-known fact that the older and feebler a policeman gets, the less energy he has left over for hitting Jews.


"So our Rabbi ordered that, under Yonah's leadership, a dozen of our "men of valor" were to drive out Tuesday morning and lend the benefit of their experience to Bazenova's embattled Jews. (In later years, when my wanderings took me to Japan, I found that this sort of arrangement used to be traditional there, too, although the defenders they used, called samurai, got paid for fighting. I never could understand why, since the Japanese villagers were not Jews, anyone should want to attack them.)


"So on Monday night, the eve of market day, Yonah and his men set out, with God's help and the Rabbi's blessings, in two wagons drawn by teams of horses furnished by our town's richest Jews. As people in those days were usually too poor to own rifles or machine guns, their entire arsenal consisted of stones, clubs, and fists.


"If I go into such detail over an incident at which, as far as can remember, I was not even present, it is perhaps to explain by, much as I loved my father, the person I most aspired to resemble when I grew up was Yonah, our "Samurai of Vishogrod."


"The men stopped overnight at a very decent inn on the outskirts Bazenova, and on Tuesday morning, Yonah and his band, after putting away a respectable breakfast of roast duckling and plum brandy, betook themselves, glowing with good humor, to the Market Square, looking to all the world like jolly merchants out for a nice bargain on a horse or a bushel of potatoes.

"The market was already crowded with peasants, and every-with the possible exception of the policemen, could sense that something was in the wind.


"Yonah sized up the situation in a moment. Like a good general, he divided up his little army into four companies, so that they could never all be surrounded at the same time, for the techniques of street fighting in those days were already beginning to outgrow the primitive methods of an earlier age.


"Yonah himself set up his command post in the attic of Shmuel the scribe. From here he was able to survey the entire square and gauge the exact moment at which an accumulation of "normal" incidents would flare up into a concerted, if still reasonably small, pogrom. As a strategist, he knew the importance of not putting your cards on the table too early.


"Here and there, little incidents had already begun to erupt. Some loaves of bread snatched from a baker. A basket of eggs robbed from Sheindel the midwife. In the widow Yetta's little store, some peasants broke the windows and emptied a sack of flour. When she protested, they beat her and told her that today they meant to finish off every Jew in town and take over their property, because the priest had told them Sunday morning that everything the Jews owned had been stolen from the peasants, anyway.


"Thus far, as you can sec, everything was quite normal, and someone less shrewd than Yonah might have suspected the whole thing had been a false alarm. But he knew from experience that a Polish peasant, unlike, say, a Ukrainian, has to work himself up to a real pogrom by gradual stages. And so, after listening cold-bloodedly to the dispatches coming in all morning, it took a little while before he decided finally that the time had come for his men to go back to the wagons and, in a manner of speaking, arm themselves. Favored by nearly all of them were clubs of plum-wood, hard as iron.


"However, since it was close to lunchtime now, and there was no telling how soon they would get to eat, they digressed long enough to take aboard another round of schnapps. Following this, with the cry, "Jews, for kiddush ha-shemn!" Yonah committed his little army.


"By this time, the pogrom had erupted in earnest. Goods were being looted by the armful, and even failure to protest didn't save stallkeepers, women and children included, from being beaten right and left. The noise was fantastic and the entire market boiled with flailing arms and clubs, collapsing stands and flying things, from bloody feathers to paving blocks.


"It took Yonah and his four companies some time to fight their way into the eye of the storm. By this time, the peasants had been gripped by the excitement of the thing, and their leaders were no longer bent so much on plunder as on the pure joy of bloodshed.

"Yonah himself had entered the market barehanded. Up till now, in fact, he had even retained his customary air of calm good humor. Until he saw one of his men go down with a spurting head, struck from behind by a paving stone. At this, he leaped up at an approaching wagon whose peasant driver had been running cheerfully over a row of stalls. He seized the peasant by the throat and flung him into the crowd. Then, with a voice like thunder, he identified himself as Yonah the messenger from Vishogrod, and warned the peasants to clear out at once.


"Those who knew him or had heard of his reputation instantly took their legs on their shoulders and fled, but the majority simply laughed at him.


"Yonah, still determined to give them one more chance (since by our law, even the owner of a rampaging ox is entitled to one warning), jumped down, tore the back wheels off the wagon, and lifted up the axle. However, those peasants who had remained were, by this time, far too flushed with vodka and thirst for blood to be impressed even by this performance. And so he began laying about him with the axle of the wagon. His little army, heart¬ened by his example, contributed their own modest share in his wake.

"Within a few minutes, the Market Square was a wilderness.


"Some of the peasants who were still on their feet escaped in such haste that they left horses, wagons, and even livestock behind them.


"By midafternoon, the Bazenova "hospital," that is, the Russian doctor's barn, overflowed with casualties. There were countless fractures, but no dead, as Jews, I may have mentioned earlier, are children of mercy. The defenders, too, carried back their share of wounds, both major and minor, but all agreed that the whole expedition had been very worthwhile.

"And who, by the way, do you suppose turned out to have been one of the first casualties? It was the younger of the two ancient gendarmes, who had stopped half a brick with the back of his head while running away.

"That was not quite the end of it. A few weeks later, an investigating commission arrived from the office of the provincial governor. Yonah, his fellow "samurais," and several dozen peasants were placed under arrest, on some trumped-up charge like disturbing the peace or "causing willful and malicious damage to cattle, property, and subjects of the Czar."


"But they were never brought to trial. The peasants were far too frightened for their lives to testify against Yonah. He, for his part, pressed no charges; he probably felt that they had already been punished adequately, and besides, the only pogroms in which the governor could be expected to take a meaningful interest were those which he had incited, himself.


"But for as long as I can remember after that, not even a very small pogrom ever took place again in Bazenova. The peasants must have passed on to their children and even their children's children the wisdom of not starting up with such a barbaric people as the Jews."




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