Thursday, February 25, 2010

Adventures in the Polish Underground

When my grandfather got out of the army (actually, after he escaped from Siberia), he returned to Poland where he joined the Polish Revolutionary Underground (to free Poland from Russian control). This is how my grandfather described his first assignment as an 'agent' for the Polish underground:

"One morning, I was summoned to the Bristol Hotel. This, to be frank, was a place ordinarily a little out of my class. Its lobby, I saw at a glance, was so densely populated with Czarist agents, you could throw a stone in any direction and not hit one person who still spoke Polish, let alone Yiddish. My assignment was to make contact with someone holding one end of a broken match; I would carry the other half. After confirming that our pieces fit together, the man was to say to me in Polish, 'Excuse me, sir, can you give me a light?' To which I was to reply, 'What brand of cigarettes, sir, do you smoke?'

"It did no good to point out that such a dialogue would be hard to mistake for a casual exchange between two normal human beings. To make things worse, I had been given a piece from the wrong match, meaning that both of us would arrive carrying a half with no head on it. My handler agreed there may have been a slipup, but it was too late now to alter the arrangements.

"So picture, if you will, two shabbily dressed strangers circulating in the crowded lobby of this elegant hotel, stooping over from time to time to gaze at what another person may be holding between his fingers.

"After sweating through I don't know how many minutes of this little minuet, my contact and I finally noticed each other's peculiar behavior and sheepishly flaunted our headless matches. We then recite our stilted passwords and manage to walk out together, all without for one moment arousing the suspicions of our excellent police force. Or, at least, without being arrested on the spot."

Having thus met his 'handler,' my grandfather received his first assignment:

"In the street, my fellow-plotter, a jittery young man with bad skin, kept looking over his shoulder. Half a block away, feeling it finally safe to talk, he said, 'Are you prepared to go on a mission?'

"At first I wondered if this were yet another password, or possibly a trap. But he repeated himself so impatiently that I assumed he wanted a straight answer, which was, 'I don't know. What kind of a mission?'

"He yanked me into a doorway. 'I can't tell you.'

"'Then I'm not going.'

"'Delivering supplies,' he said grudgingly.

"'Supplies of what?'

"Scowling with annoyance, he mumbled, 'Ammunition,' in a tone that let me know I had no business asking such an idiotic question.

"You might say that this task should have sounded harmless enough to someone of my background. But I knew of several comrades who were arrested while transporting such goods, and with very little fuss, sentenced and shot.

"But my contact allowed me no time for reflection. He snapped, 'Wait here,' and vanished across the street.
Trapped, I loitered in plain sight of the Bristol, straining to look invisible and braced, at any moment, for a heavy hand to fall on my shoulder.

"Instead, I saw a tall young woman make her way daintily through the traffic. Flustered, she stopped near me and looked around. This, I assumed, was my new contact since one would had to be blind in both eyes not to have spotted her instantly as a man in a poorly fitted horsehair wig. Nor was he too cleanly shaven.

"I tried to lose myself among the passing pedestrians, hoping this person would not be able, in his pavement-trailing skirt and high-heeled boots, to follow me.

"But the creature in the wig, having spotted me and caught up with me. Smiling through smudged lips, he motioned coquettishly with his finger. Resigned, I allowed him to capture my elbow and summon a droshky. We climbed in, and he directed the driver to a certain number on Shliska Street. The driver cracked his whip, giving no sign of having noticed that his orders came from a woman with a rather hairy voice.

"We pulled up at a shoemaker's cellar where my guide/contact, with all the nonchalance of a commercial traveler on an expense account, ordered the droshky to wait, just as though we had not been warned time and again that some cab men also served as police informants.

"A minute later, I staggered back out into the street hauling two valises so heavy one of the handles promptly came off in my hand; my load crashed to the pavement.

"At this, the shoemaker turned white and then became hysterical. Hopping up and down, he cursed my clumsiness and consigned me to the seven depths of hell. I realized I was not carrying mere bullets but a more nervous kind of merchandise, like dynamite or even homemade bombs, the kind we cozily call 'dumplings,' some of which had been known to go off at inconvenient times.

"Still in his wig and padded dress, my guide ordered our driver to take us and our luggage to a windowless shack deep in the woods outside the city where, to my relief, a refreshing businesslike couple took delivery of the goods."

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Third Death Sentence

I have no other way to explain it other than to surmise that it must have overlapped with the second one, ie, that two death sentences had been imposed at the same time.

Recall in The Second Death Sentence that my grandfather both fell asleep on guard duty AND lost his rifle after having not slept in a week. As my grandfather noted, "The penalty for sleeping on guard was the same as that for, losing one's rifle: death. About my only comfort was they couldn't kill me twice.”

I guess this is comparable to what today judges intend when they sentence someone to 'three consecutive life terms.'

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I will be out of town for a week, so there will be no new posts during that time.

See you again, soon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Yiddish Version of the Russian Word for Devastation

I thought it would be worthwhile to define a term that I, at least, assume ‘everybody’ knows. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term, “pogrom,” refers to “an organized massacre of helpless people; specifically : such a massacre of Jews.” It is a by-product of anti-Semitism. Etymologically, 'pogrom' is a Yiddish word, taken from the Russian word for “devastation.” It is characterized by "an attack, accompanied by destruction, looting of property, murder, and rape, perpetrated by one section of the population against another."

The reason I draw attention to this is because my grandfather’s notes refer to a particular pogrom - - the “Syedlitzer” pogrom (ie, taking place in Syedlitz, actually spelled Siedlce). It was because of this incident that my grandfather felt the need to “stand up for the honor of Jews,” an act that resulted in his first death sentence. Once I learned the correct spelling of the town's name, thanks to Ada Holzman, I learned that this was one of the largest pogroms in Russia, resulting in 200 arrests; all were expected to be sentenced to death.

According to The London Times of September 1906, "The courts will be composed of officers who participated in the pogrom, and to whom an opportunity will thus be afforded of disposing some of the most damning evidence against themselves and the authorities above them." Is any more proof needed that anti-Semitism was not only not discouraged but institutionalized in Russia?

But I have one problem with this information: My grandfather was drafted in 1904, and the Russo-Japanese War took place in 1904-1905. Yet the Siedlce pogrom, to which he refers as his reason for standing up for Jewish honor (which got him sentenced to death the first time), didn't take place till after the war. However, quite a few other pogroms took place between 1903-1906: Kishinev, April 1903; Gomel, September 1903;
Smela, Rovno, Aleksandriya, Fall 1904; Feodosiya, February 1905; Melitopol, April 1905; Zhitomir, May 1905; Odessa, Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Kishinev, Simferopol, Romny, Kremenchug, Nikolayev, Chernigov, Kamenets-Podolski, and Yelizavetgrad -- 64 towns in total, November 1905; Bialystok, June 1906; Siedlce, August 1906.(There had also been, in 1904, a pogrom targeting Jews in Limerick, Ireland).In many instances, it was clear that the government and/or the police had encouraged these pogroms.

The only way I can explain this discrepancy of dates was that he set down most of his stories in 1931, during the Depression, after having told them for 25 years. Siedlce must have been foremost in his memory, so he attributed his need to stand up for the honor of the Jewish people to that particular incident, whereas it could have been due to any number of incidents before then.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Joke from the Russo-Japanese War

The Czar is so concerned over the morale of his men, he asks his Minister of War, “Do you suppose I should personally visit the front?” To which the General responds, “Your Highness, that won’t be necessary. The front will soon come to you.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Bittersweet End

I find myself overcome. Both with sadness and joy, not because this is a milestone in the process of publishing the diaries, but because of the beauty and sadness with which the last chapter left me. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that my grandfather survived, that after the multiple death sentences and escaping from a Siberian prison camp, he made his way back home (or rather, almost home, as javascript:void(0)it was deemed too dangerous for him to return to his home, Vishigrod. Instead, he went to Warsaw where he had not made quite as many enemies). Along the way, we become almost intimately acquainted with the colorful friend with whom he escaped from Siberia, and shared the adventures over the last few months of running and hiding. Only to have this remarkable individual, whom my grandfather alternately loved and hated, die two days after they arrive home.

As I said, it was not safe for my grandfather to return to Vishigrod where the police my demand and scrutinize his false passport. In fact, nowhere in all of Poland or Russia was deemed safe for a person of his background, not just a convict, a revolutionary,an anarchist, but also a Jew. The only place the family felt it was safe to go was America. But lest he fall into the hands of a “whiskey-guzzling, cigarette-smoking American woman of uncertain ethics,” it was decided that he must be married, first. Therewith begins the comical process of specifying desirable characteristics, reviewing photos (I didn’t know they had been in wide use then, then being 1906?), rejecting almost all of them, and only reluctantly agreeing to meet a few.

The story of adventure and intrigue now becomes a love story as my grandfather became possessed by the need to thank the girl who had picked up his note at the train station, which led to his having his death sentence reduced to permanent exile to Siberia and a life of hard labor. Considering the length of time it took to reach his particular Siberian prison camp, and then the time it took him to make his way back across some six thousand miles, I was surprised to learn that only one year had passed.

The love story proceeds with all the usual and some unusual obstacles. “What, after all, is a love story without some towering obstacle to test the young couple's dedication - - be it jealousy, a misunderstanding, or the collision of heedless youth and immoveable old age - - that essential staple of Yiddish melodrama?

The only thing I will add to this story is that I am named for the girl who had saved my grandfather’s life.

Having finished the minor edits on all the chapters of my grandfather’s diaries doesn’t mean that the book is done. Next begin the process of seeing where I might make cuts that will preserve the essence of the story while editing it such that the story never slows down.

Now I must solicit quotes from “thought leaders” and investigate the different self-publishing options. I think I’ve already identified the book jacket designer I want to work with but feel it’s only fair that he base his quote on the criteria of the publishing venue I plan to use. (None of this is as fun as the writing or editing, but that’s the way it goes).

Stay tuned, as I’m eager for my blog followers’ reactions to three potential titles for the book, which will be posted along with the cover design when available.

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