Translated by Abraham Boyarsky
The wheels of the train clattered with relentless monotony as if to dispel the gloom of the dilapidated limestone huts which lay scattered along the empty late autumn fields. At night the cold wind blew through the broken windows, carrying with it from time to time smoke from the panting engine. The biting wind swept across the steppes, heralding another Russian winter, the third winter for those who had survived the exile in the labor camps of Siberia.
They had been traveling for five weeks and still no one knew where and when the train would stop. There was relief in every face to be heading further and further away from the cursed camps where so many corpses had been left. More than one of those who now thirstily gulped the air from the surrounding fields, and with childish joy read the signs of the unfamiliar train stations, bore the symptoms of disease which would soon consume them.
They only knew that each passing station marked their progress south where the sun would melt away the memories of the long Siberian winters. And perhaps, in the confusion of war, one would be lucky enough to escape to the free world across the border which was so close to here.
But Bluma wasn’t bothered by the long journey. She considered herself to be the most fortunate passenger on the train: not one member of her family was missing. She held her four smaller children in her arms and continually checked their foreheads to see if they had caught a chill from the broken windows. Her gaze wandered from them to her older daughter Gitelle, to Chaim, the Yeshiva student, and to her husband Hersh-Leib, who had once been the ritual slaughterer of Christinapol. For the first time since they had been torn from their home, Bluma experienced a sense of calm and security.
Hersh-Leib was oblivious to everything around him; he was either absorbed in a holy book or reciting psalms, almost as if her were still in his little eastern Galician town. Meanwhile the train moved on through the dusty wasteland. A full day might pass before one saw a hut. Here and there rust-colored splotches lay on the broken ground, and beyond them ran white lines, tracing and ancient sea.
The children gathered around the broken windows and gazed somberly out at the desolate plain. There was no real vegetation, only the low prickly bushes that appeared from time to time. The children, who had grown accustomed to the Siberian climate and the howling of hungry wolves in the night, absorbed it all with a sense of discovery and fear. When for the first time they saw camels munching the hard desert brambles their eyes widened with astonishment.
Mummy, Mummy, what are those? They shouted, tugging at her dress. Bluma didn’t know the name herself, so she tapped her brow as though it were a box from which the word would spring out magically.
It’s a kind of work horse with a hump. It had to pull heavy loads for such a long time that two mausoleums grew out on its back.
Chaiml, who tried to emulate his pious father, was perusing a holy book the entire time, but now and then he couldn’t contain himself and threw a glance at the window. This time his glance lingered on the strange creature, which he had only seen in pictures.
Dummies! he called to his sisters and brothers. That’s a camel!
A camel! A camel! the children’s voices rang out. We’ll tell everyone at home that we saw a camel!
Don’t shout so loud, you’re not alone here. The word home touched her. She murmured to herself: Let it be G-d’s will to return us safely to our home.
On the train was a certain Itzik Radamer, who had escaped from the Germans to Lemberg. From there the Russians had sent him away with other Polish citizens to a labor camp in Siberia. Itzik used to wander through the cars entertaining the passengers with gossip.
It’s rumored that they’re going to let us all out through Persia, he said one day to a group huddled around him. We’re being sent to a gathering point so that we’ll be in one place when General Sikonski gives the command. You all probably know that the headquarters of the Polish Army is in Buzolok, which is not far from here.
What does Sikorski need Jews for? Bluma asked, a worried expression on her face.
Go play with Sokiorski! My dear auntie, you’ll see what kind of soldiers he’ll make out of us. Even the Russian Army needs Sikorski; when he grew stubborn and demanded that his army be transferred to England, they gave in to him.
How do you know all this?
“Such questions are better not asked, retorted Itzik, offended that his credibility was being questioned. If one lives, one sees! He terminated he discussion abruptly.
Itzik was very friendly with the conductor and knew in advance where and for how long the train would stop. He was the first to jump down from the high cars when the train drew in at a a station and the first in the queue for boiling water, clutching his big patched kettle which everyone admired and coveted. He enjoyed trading with peasants who lined up coarse salt and poured it into the knotted sleeve of his jacket. Further on, where salt was more expensive, he exchanged it for rice, tomatoes and eggs. The profits were shared with the Uzbek conductor. They spoke in broken Russian, but when it came to commerce they both understood at a glance.
Itzik used to roam through the cars holding his kettle and distributing candy to the children. Now and again he would force a tomato or a dried fish into someone’s hand and hurry away. He was fond of boasting about his finely furnished home in Radam, where he had a big business, but he never mentioned his wife or children who had remained there. In the evenings, when his memories festered like a badly healed wound, he walked around more talkative than ever, as if trying to convince himself and others that nothing affected him.
Now we’re heading for Tashkent and from there to Fergana, Itzik informed the passengers one evening.
Where is Fergana? Bluma asked.
You mean you never heard about the Fergana Canal which the Russians had built through the wilderness? I even read about it in the Polish newspapers. The snow that lies in the Pamir Mountains melts in the summer and is passed through the canal to irrigate the desert. It was a great idea. What I didn’t know though was that it had been built by exiles like us, like you and me.
Itzik didn’t make it to Fergana. While the train was stopped in Tashkent, he slipped through the lines of security officers and disappeared.
Bluma sat on the hard seat thinking about the strange name Fergana. She had never heard of it before. If in her little town someone had told her that one day she and her family would be on their way there, she would have spat three times to the left and three times to the rights, as her grandmother’s long live her memory used to do.
In Christinapol Bluma had virtually forgotten that she had a name. The children called her mummy; the village housewives, who had great respect for piety, used to refer to her as the ritual slaughterer’s wife, and Hersh-Leib addressed her as a stranger, indirectly. He used to say: Maybe the food should be served first? or Tomorrow morning it shouldn’t be forgotten that I need a clean shirt and underwear because I’m going to Beltz for the Sabbath.
In Christinapol, Hersh-Leib was renowned as a scholar and a man of great piety. He was a ritual slaughterer who enforced the laws of kashruth far more rigorously than the other slaughterers. As a result, the butcher disliked him. He’s going to make paupers out of us, they whispered among themselves, because they knew that Hersh-Leib was capable of finding a blemish even in the most flawless cattle. They therefore drove their cattle stealthily, at night, to the neighboring villages where the ritual slaughterers understood that a Jewish butcher also had a right to earn a living.
Hersh-Leib was never a big breadwinner. To make ends meet Bluma was compelled to open a kiosk where she sold soda water and candy to the Gentiles. During the summer she used to chase away the Polish youths who enjoyed stealing from right under her nose, and in the winter her hands were always blistered from the cold. On the Sabbath and holidays she walked to the synagogue in her beautiful dowry dress, her head high, in her bearing generations of pride and dignity. One of her children carried the thick, worn prayer book. In the synagogue, mothers sat their daughters down beside her and asked her to keep an eye on them, so that they wouldn’t lose their place during the services.
All that was until the third day after the New Year in 1939 when the Russian Army occupied Christinapol. The Jews breathed a sigh of relief during the first few weeks: as bad as it was with the Bolsheviks, it was certainly better than living under the Germans. At least one was assured of one’s life. At first, little changed in the town. Only the shelves of the shops became emptier with each passing day, the soldiers and officers of the Russian Army took the liberty of sending home huge bundles of clothing and food. Before long, bread, sugar and other staples became scarce.
Since it was prohibited to slaughter cattle privately, Hersh-Leib spent the whole day in the synagogue. Besides, most of the cattle and fowl were requisitioned by the Army. The horses were sent to the collective farms in Russia.
Around Chanukah time, a rumor spread through the shtetl that former Polish officers, priests, wealthy industrialists and even ordinary law-abiding citizens were being transported out of Lemberg, a city not far from Christinapol. Nobody knew where the Russians were sending them. A few weeks later, the cobbled streets of Christinapol rumbled under the heavy wheels of army trucks. People ran to their windows and cleaned the frosty panes to see what was happening.
The crash of a rifle butt resounded through Hersh-Leib’s house and the pungent odor of leather boots burst through the front door as the officers of the NKVD, the Russian Secret Police, entered and searched every corner and every crack in the house. The family stood gaping in shock. Bluma was the first one to shake off the numbing paralysis.
It must be a mistake, she mumbled in her broken Ukrainian. There are no rich people here, we’re only poor workers.
We have your name on this paper. Your husband is not a useful member of society; he serves the reactionary forces by feeding the poison of religious fanaticism to the naive masses. Get your things and let’s go!
They traveled for weeks in closed cars to the middle of a forest somewhere in Siberia. Each morning Hersh-Leib and Chaim went out with axe and saw to work. The guards howled with laughter when they saw Hersh-Leib’s axe dance in his weak arms and instead of striking the tree spring into the air. Having laughed their fill, they warned him:
If you don’t produce the required quota, you won’t get your portion of bread!
Hersh-Leib was never able to fill his quota. As a result, Bluma was obliged to go into the surrounding villages to exchange a shirt or some other piece of clothing for a little porridge and a few potatoes. Then she would go to the common kitchen and transfer to one of her own pots the doled-out cabbage soup. She mixed porridge and potatoes into the soup so Hersh-Leib wouldn’t suspect that it wasn’t kosher, she knew that he’s sooner starve than bring non-kosher food to his lips. Bluma took the sin upon herself. Let G-d punish me, she whispered to herself in the heavy darkness of night. But let them not get sick or waste away from hunger.
The sharp screech of iron cut through the train. The wagons shook and sighed to a stop.
Where are we?
Can’t you see? It’s written there: Gor-Tsakava.
How long will we be here?
The conductor said not less than three hours. A military transport has to pass.
The passengers who headed for the doors in the hope of getting hot water or doing a little shopping were stopped by the conductor. The Army commander had ordered that no one leave the train. Outside, the station militia didn’t allow anyone near the train. Uzbek peasants stood about with pots of milk on their heads and baskets over their arms, ready to exchange their foodstuffs for a shirt or a pair of pants.
Bluma approached the conductor and pleaded with him to allow her to buy milk for her small children.
I won’t run away. Can’t you see, my family is staying on the train, she pleaded, but the conductor looked at her angrily and walked away.
Give me the bottle, Mummy, said eight-year-old Rivelle. I’ll get some milk for us. Don’t worry, nobody will see me.
Bluma couldn’t make up her mind.
You can rely on Rivelle, said Gitelle. She won’t get lost, she speaks Russian as if she had been born here.
Just then little Joseph began to cry:
Mummy, Mummy, I want a drink! I want a drink!
Bluma pressed ten rubles into Rivelle’s hand.
But don’t go far, she cautioned her. Buy from the first one you see and don’t haggle with him, do you hear? Rivelle was already out of earshot, and in a moment she was on the far side of the fence separating the train from the station. Bluma watched her hold out her bottle while a veiled Uzbek measured off the milk with a glass.
Suddenly a shudder rippled through the cars; they swayed forward then backward, as if resisting the force that was pulling them away from their brief respite.
What’s happening? came the sounds of frightened people.
We’re moving! We’re moving!
It can’t be! Bluma screamed, falling against a window. We’re supposed to be here for two hours. In a moment, the cars yielded to the inexorable tug of the engine and the wheels turned faster and faster. The station was already out of sight, the stands and the peasants, everything. Bluma covered her eyes with both hands. But my Rivelle is still there! she moaned in shock.
A tumult rose in the car. Each person had a different suggestion for Bluma. Someone said that Rivelle had certainly jumped onto the last car and would soon make her way back through the packed cars.
What are we going to do? Bluma turned to her husband, complaint in her voice for the first time in her life.
We must have faith, he answered quietly, avoiding her eyes.
Meanwhile Gitelle and Chaim had searched all the cars. When they returned, sweating, faces lowered and smudged, Bluma understood poignantly that the child was not on the train. She ran to the door to jump off; she’d make her way back to Gor-Tsakava on foot. But the door was bolted from the outside. When the conductor arrived she implored him to let her off.