Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Samurai of Vishigrod, and The Very Small Pogrom

One of the challenges of editing the diaries is deciding what to omit so that the book can be of an appropriate length. As I've decided to focus the story line on the many occasions on which my grandfather got into trouble and/or sentenced to death, that leaves several chapters/stories that I will not be able to use in the book but have other value of their own, so I have decided to include in this blog certain stories that won't make it into the published version of the book.

Below is one chapter that gives a feeling of what it was like to grow up in the (largely Jewish?) town of Vishigrod, Poland during the 1890s. The story is probably a little long for the blog, which should feature much shorter entries than I have been providing, so I will break it up into two entries:

"One of the legendary heroes of my childhood was Yonah the messenger. At that time, he was already in his sixties, yet a man of such vigor still that I can hardly begin to picture what he must have been like in his youth. "Being a hero, at least in our corner of the world, was not exactly a full-time job nor, even on a part-time basis, a profession on which a man could feed his family. And so, in his everyday existence, Yonah was simply a part of our "postal service," which, in its own way, was as curious a feature of life in Vishogrod as the man himself.

"For ordinary mail we had an ordinary letter carrier, a man named Yudel, who could neither read nor write, and therefore cruel tongues, quite overlooking his more serious infirmities, called him "Blind Yudel." But we also had two special messengers available for the delivery of telegrams, money, or urgent communications which, you will be surprised to know, often happened more than once a year.

"Of course, even the regular mailman came so rarely that one day, when my brother Avrohom and I were locked in alone in the house and heard a sharp knock on the door, we crawled under the covers in terror and, unaccustomed to the sudden warmth, fell asleep.

"The next day, in case evil spirits should come knocking again, our mother stayed home with us, keeping warm by sitting huddled over a bucket of live coals between her feet and looking, may she forgive me, less like a mother than like a pile of rags.

"Sure enough, in the midst of howling winds, there was that knocking again, only embellished this time with a dry, ghostly cough.

"My mother shrank with fear, and my brother and I covered our heads with the blanket. Only Itteleh, the butcher's wife, who was visiting with us, held on to her wits. She picked up a cleaver, went to the door, and screamed, "Demon! Unclean Spirit! Back to your resting place!" (As you can see, in Vishogrod we knew how to deal with the Powers of Darkness.)

"Only this time, a plaintive voice outside replied, "I'm Yudel the postman. Let me in, I'm freezing."

"As it turned out, the letter he'd been trying to deliver to us for the past week was actually for someone else. But no one, of course, held that against him—an illiterate Jew, after all, being as uncommon and as deserving of pity as any other kind of cripple.

"Yudel got no salary from the government. Recipients paid him two kopeks for a postcard and three for a sealed letter, and sometimes even four, if it came all the way from Warsaw. A letter from Warsaw normally took several weeks, during which time Ignatz, the Pole who drove the postal wagon with its two dying horses, plodded staunchly through oceans of mud and somehow crossed rivers largely lacking in of such conveniences as bridges or ferries. Thus, who could blame Ignatz if sometimes he decided to make a little stop for recuperation at a wayside inn, empty a bottle or two, dally with one of his mistresses, and, as often as not, return to Warsaw without delivering the mail because he'd forgotten in which direction he was headed?

"Anyway, when God helped and the mail finally did arrive, Reb Yudel would put on his uniform, consisting of a shapeless cap with a green band, proudly pin his father's medal (from the Russo-Turkish War) over his breast, and commence to march (that is, marching with one foot and dragging the other) down the main street with an air befitting a man who was, for the moment, not only an arm of the government, but also entitled to the respect due the son of a decorated soldier; for Vishogrod, like any other little Jewish town, not only had its share of otherworldly talmudists and starving merchants, but its heroes as well. About one of whom, I will have more to say in a moment.

"Now since Yudel, through no fault of his own, almost invariably misdelivered the mail, some well-meaning people suggested that my father, who was at that time without employment, and not only could read and write Yiddish and Hebrew but also knew Polish, Russian, and a bit of German, should become the town's letter carrier.

"Others, however, quickly pointed out that the job had not only been in Yudel's family for generations, but why should he be penalized for the undeserved misfortune of being illiterate?

"The question actually was academic, because my father would never have violated the biblical command against trespassing on another's territory for any amount of money. He was, in fact, far too proud a man to have accepted such a menial position for pay; nor would my mother have wanted him to. (When there was no hot food in the house for Shabbos, and we seemed in imminent danger of having one of our neighbors share their meal with us, my mother would leave a large pot of water boiling in the kitchen Friday afternoon, so that no passerby, God forbid, might suspect the Maratecks were going hungry.)

"But what was to be done? People did like to get their own mail, even though, more often than not, it was bound to contain only more bad news. Didn't a letter go through enough suffering and uncertainty before it reached town without also being abandoned to the incompetence of Blind Yudel?

"But leave it to Jews to find a solution. A clearinghouse was established in the synagogue and, by common agreement, whenever anyone received a letter addressed to someone else, instead of returning it to the uncertain fate of Reb Yudel's dubious mail pouch and perhaps hurting his feelings besides, he would bring it with him to evening prayers and place it on the pulpit. Any time a few letters accumulated, my father would mount the pulpit after the final kaddish and read off the correct names. This satisfied all factions, although of course it overlooked the fact that this brought my father not one kopek closer to making a living.

"But what about telegrams, packages, rabbinical documents, or letters with money inside? For this responsible job we had, as I said, not merely one messenger available, but two.

"The lower-grade "special deliveries" were made by Moishka, a little man with a scraggly, sulfurous beard and, between us, a man of middling intelligence, that is, neither a great genius nor a small fool. (They tell that once he was sent with an urgent letter from Vishogrod to Novydvar, an all-night journey, and he came back with the letter undelivered because the man to whom it had been addressed was still sleeping when he arrived.)

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