Leo  Melamed:

Escape to the Futures

 

The Mission

(pages 20 - 26)

 

Two weeks had passed since the Russians took over Bialystok, and still no word from my father. A restlessness set in, and life, as I had known it, had unraveled. Although my mother valiantly tried to mask her desperation from my eyesight, she was too emotional a person to hide the truth. In front of me, there were smiles and chit-chat throughout the day, but at night and behind my back the mood was somber. There were whispers and questions. How, my mother wondered out loud to Aunt Bobble, o of Bialystok was limited. The war had changed all normalcy, trains and depots were being monitored by Russian soldiers and its secret police. Even for a child, the atmosphere of repression was fully evi­dent. In her reassuring manner, my Babba told us not to worry. But we did.

I don't know what time it was, but night already had fallen when a loud knock on the door came. It was Chaike London, a neighbor who lived sev­eral blocks from us and a close friend of my parents who would visit from time to time. She was one of the few neighbors with a telephone. After a brief exchange in hurried tones, my mother rushed out with Chaike. I watched them through the window as far as a thin crescent of moonlight above the trees allowed me to see. They vanished into the darkness.

My father had made contact. He called Mrs. London to alert my mother. Within an hour my mother had returned with the news: my father was safe. She had talked to him. And, as expected, he had a plan. He had made the only decision he could. He couldn't return to Bialystok, not with his track record of opposing Communism and now, no doubt, he was con­sidered a fugitive from the Russian regime. Over the years his views had been extensively expressed in speeches and articles under his byline in the Bialystoker Shtime, our city's Jewish newspaper.

My father was born to Gimple and Faygl Melamdoyich on January 2, 1904. Gimple was a carpenter who at an early age was killed when he acci­dentally fell from a scaffold. They had two sons and a daughter. My father's younger brother died as a teenager. My father was reared in a typically reli­gious environment. From youth, his left arm was frozen at the elbow as con­sequence of a severe bout with smallpox. But the infirmity was unnoticeable and did not prevent him from being extremely capable with his hands. He had inherited his father's dexterity and craftsman's skills. Isaac Moishe Melamdovich's life changed dramatically upon becoming a member of the Skif, the Socialist youth organization of Central and Eastern Europe, and the precursor to his eventual membership in the Yiddish Socialist Bund. The Bund, which remained his lifelong ideal, gave his existence purpose and direction. Although on the outside he appeared small and fragile, inside he had tensile vitality and the cachet of a banker who takes the long-term in­terest-bearing view. He was an excellent speaker who had more than a touch of dramatic flair. His voice was strong and assertive. It projected no doubts about his views or opinions. An independent man in thought and deed, there would be no compromise in my father's life at this juncture or any other. Looking back, I see a man striking a heroic pose, a man defending his beliefs in an effort to avoid the shackles he perceived as clamping down on him. He wanted no part of the barbarians from the east or west. His in­stincts were accurate, his resolve unflappable. No one, not from Germany or Russia, least of all some commissar or commandant, was going to run his life - or his family's. He was, after all, independent, emancipated, an intel­lectual, a nonbeliever, and a Bundist.

The Bund, the party of the Jewish proletariat, was a socialist Jewish labor organization that evolved in the late nineteenth century when the Czar ruled Russia with an anti-Semitic hand. Anti-Semitism had deep roots in Poland, too, often forcing Jews from their villages and hamlets to urban centers. And while many relocated and many more abandoned their religious lives, all clung to their Jewish identity. The Bund movement be­came the bridge from the past to the future. It also served to bring my par­ents together.

As Bundists, my father and mother leaned toward international social­ism and abhorred communism. They supported trade unions and a Jewish working class that had a sense of its own self-worth. By rallying the work­ing class, they and their colleagues argued, the stigma of shtetl passivity could be dissipated. Instead of religion, they believed in a secular and mod­ern Jewish culture based on Yiddish as the language of the masses. And while my parents were fiercely committed to Jewish national survival, they dismissed Zionism - the return of the Jews to their historic homeland in Palestine - as a utopian dream that could not serve as a practical solution for world Jewry. In the Bundist view, Jews must remain citizens of the country in which they resided and join in the universal struggle for the rights of working class-irrespective of their race, ethnicity, or religion. Instead of moving to Palestine, they advocated living in harmony and with equality within the world.

Although I didn't understand the entire Bundist movement until many years later, I was able to sense the intense feelings it generated in my par­ents. I will never forget being wedged between them standing rigidly erect at Bund meetings in Bialystok that opened with the Shvue, the Bund's an­them - an oath of allegiance. My mother held my hand tightly as she and my father sang, and I could feel the emotional choking that gripped both of them as they fervently swore never to forsake the battle on behalf of the working class. There among the mass of people with the decibels ringing in my ears, I knew something was going on, something big, something awe - inspiring, something eternal.

As an only child, they had taken me everywhere, and I was growing up quickly in an adult world. They brought me to the Bund meetings for a simple reason: I was being indoctrinated. I was the next generation being groomed to carry forward the torch, being prepared to enter the Skif. Alas, fate would not cooperate.

I was much closer to my mother, although everything my father did in life made an impression on me. However, he wasn't the kind of person you'd run up to, jump into his arms, and hug when he entered the house. My fa­ther didn't intentionally demand an arms-length relationship, it was just that, in this respect, his attitude reverted to old-world culture: bringing up a child was more the wife's obligation; the father's role was as a disciplinar­ian and a teacher. He was always the melamed, teacher,  and I, the pupil, which al­lowed me to grab the ideas of the man but never place my hands around the man himself. Thus, I don't recall having too many heart-to-heart conversa­tions with him the way some sons did with their fathers. He left the doting and nurturing to my mother. She was fully qualified on that score.

My mother, Chay Faygl Barakin, was born on April 16, 1902, to non­professional parents. Her father, Nachman Leib, after whom I was named, died in 1917. He was a Kashnik, a grain merchant who owned his own store. My mother once related how her father would use bags of grain as a shield to protect the family when it was rumored that the Cossacks were on their way for a pogrom. She was the youngest of three sisters. The other two, Sarah and Bertha, emigrated to America while my mother was still quite young. The three sisters were, of course, reunited when, after our nightmarish journey, we arrived safely to their open arms in Brooklyn.

My mother had set her sights on teaching from her early teens. She suc­ceeded in entering the Wilno Teachers Seminary, the most prestigious in­stitution of its kind, and graduated with honors on May 28, 1926. It was there that my parents first met. They were married in Bialystok four years later, in 1930. From her youth, my mother was an ardent member of the European movement for women's equality and rights and thus was a most likely candidate for the Bund, which espoused a similar philosophy. Like my father, Faygl Barakin left her religious shtetl ways of her parents, but re­mained devoted to the Yiddish cultural movement in Poland, immersed in Jewish literature and secular studies. Although an emancipated woman, in­telligent, well-educated, and outspoken, my mother was the gentlest of souls. Extremely sensitive to others' feelings and exceptionally perceptive, she was everyone's favorite teacher. To this day, adult men and women come up to me to say that they loved my mother, their lehrerke, teacher. It was no different for me or my children. My mother was always easy to talk with and come to with one's fears and needs. Lehrerke always understood.

 


Parents: Chay Faygl ne'e Barakin & Isaac Moishe Melamdovich, teachers and idealists.

 

Still, there was a strong bond between my father and myself. It is from him that I inherited my love for the Yiddish language, as well as his tena­cious commitment to ideals, responsibilities, and promises. My father also passed on to me an insatiable attraction to salty foods, particularly herring and sour pickles. The taste for pickles actually ran in my father's family; his uncle was a pickle farmer whose small tract of land lay just outside of Bialystok. My father sometimes took me there, and his uncle, whom I also called fetter, uncle, would take me out on a rowboat on a small lake to in­spect where his cucumbers were being pickled. Wooden barrels loaded with pickles, salt, dill, and other spices were sitting in the lake in their brine waiting to be perfected for the market. We would row out to those barrels, open their covers, and uncle and I would taste them to see how close they were to being ready. I became a pickle connoisseur at a very tender age.

But mostly my love for my father was based on respect and admiration. He was a man who deserved great deference, and, though he was an icon­oclast, in my eyes he was an icon. He was the smartest man I ever met. I saw him not just as my father; he was a somebody, an important person who had an ideal. He was devoting his life to doing something for the world, for the kehila - the community - and for Jews and for Yiddish. The "mission." He was a self-assured man, honest to himself, his family, and his friends, and his advice to me was pure and simple: live for the greater good, never turn away from your mission, or your back on a friend. Most of all, never forget you are a Jew. My father possessed what scholar Irving Howe would later attribute to the Bundists who came to America: élan, combativeness, and sophisticated conviction. But even more than Bundism, it was the rich body of Yiddish culture and the language itself, as it is embodied in Yiddish literature, songs, folklore, sto­ries and poetry, that became my father's first love.

With all its nuances and psychological subtleties, Yiddish was the language among Jews that immediately bonded them whether they were Poles, Russians, Latvians, Rumanians, Lithuanians, Germans, or from New York's lower East Side. There are few languages that can arouse humor and pathos with a single word, and Yiddish is one of them. Scholars estimate that only about 40,000 words were ever printed in Yiddish. You should hear Tom Sawyer with a Yiddish accent! To this day, in spite of Hitler's Holocaust, you can travel to the four corners of the world and still find someone to communicate with in Yiddish.

Yiddish, Mamme Loshn, "Mother Tongue," had become a language of the masses - 11 million people spoke it throughout the world before World War II. Hebrew remained the word of the Bible. In America, Yiddish had aroused political impulses that were harbored in class resentment. Many German Jews considered Yiddish a "low-class" language, a ghetto vernacular that held back Jewish assimilation. There were even those among second - and third - generation American Jews who viewed the Hasidic waves of immi­grants as a source of embarrassment. With their beards and long sideburn locks known as payess, garbed in black caftans and phylacteries, they were perceived as a group of Yiddish-speaking medieval throwbacks practicing an ancient religion in Hebrew. But the Bundists from Poland, Lithuania, and Russia had been the socialists and social democrats involved in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. And their language was Yiddish. They refused to use Hebrew, opposed Zionism, and behind a new Enlight­enment pushed for secularism. Most were agnostics.

Most important, they had a vision on behalf of humankind. My parents wanted me to carry this mission and the Yiddish torch, The notion of mis­sion would be reinforced several years later in Chicago when, as a 10-year old, I was taken by them to listen to one of the world's leading literature fig­ures and famous Bundists. The lecture was at the Labor Lyceum of the Workman's Circle on the West Side of Chicago, the largely Jewish section of the city. The speaker was Shloyme Mendelson standing before more than 500 who had gathered to hear the great man. Reputedly, he was an actual descendant of the great Moses Mendelssohn himself. Many in the crowd were Bundists, but mostly they represented a cross section of Chicago Yiddish-speaking "intelligentsia." There were teachers, doctors, lawyers, ac­tors, artists, writers, college students, laborers, lowbrows, middlebrows, highbrows - people who still lived in Yiddish, revered its literature, and be­lieved in the mission. The audience's attention was riveted on the speaker as if Mendelson had cast some kind of spell. In Yiddish, of course, the eloquent sounds of Mendelson's sonorous voice bounced off the walls and ceiling in a lecture that left an indelible impression on me.

"The only way to achieve immortality," he said poetically, raising his hand to the sky, "is to connect your life to something that transcends mor­tality." He paused for a moment. What was that something? I wondered. "And that something," he answered "is an ideal."

I could see heads around me, including my parents', shaking in agree­ment. If one connected to an ideal, a paragon, a movement - a mission - and devoted one's life to it, Mendelson explained, the ideal's inherent immortal­ity would carry one with it forever. Certainly the founding fathers of Amer­ican democracy had felt that way. Why shouldn't the Bundists?

Perhaps it was my father's single-mindedness to carry out the mission that got us to America. Windows of opportunity for escape were shutting tightly in the late fall of September 1939, and it looked like we weren't going to get out of the trap that Europe represented for Jews. My father's mission then was to save the family, and his first rule was to keep us to­gether. In a world that was gearing up for genocide, where people were re­duced to survive by how clever they were, to stay ahead one had to plan each move with the worst possible scenario in mind should things go wrong. Instinct became more important than intellect. Decisions had to be hard and quick. To stay alive, who knew what kind of Faustian bargains were going to have to be made? Years later, the insanity of the Holocaust would bring to memory a story by Peretz called the "Joy Beyond Measure," in which God trades the world to Satan in order to save a Hasidic rabbi. Perhaps that's what happened: for a brief crazy moment, Satan ravaged what he could before he lost it. And in the wake, the Jews who remained emerged stronger and more resolved than ever to carry on the tradition and culture.

The day after my father's telephone call, the information he had acted upon became public knowledge. The border between Lithuania and Poland was to be closed that very evening as my father had told us. The Russians were returning Wilno to the Lithuanians. There was no time to lose. If we were going to reunite, my mother and I would have to leave Bialystok that very day for Wilno. After that the borders would close. Lithuania repre­sented a haven for my father. We packed frantically but lightly because my mother was sure we would be returning in a few days.

We said goodbye to my two grandmothers and aunt, all of whom es­corted us to the depot, and boarded the night train. It was to be the last train out of Bialystok. We were becoming nocturnal creatures moving with ease in the dark. It was strange: Darkness, once a child's fear, now represented safety. It was daylight that European Jews feared more. We were running from darkness into darkness; our world was being turned upside down and we had to adjust, to move in shadows, through blackened corridors, along lightless streets, down murky roads.

The scene at the train station was pure bedlam, a madhouse of people loaded down with suitcases and bags, jostling and shouting. Where were they all going? Jews from small towns were fleeing to big cities, and Jews from metropolitan areas were in flight to rural villages. In reality, most of them would end up moving in concentric circles facing the same fate once the wheels of the Nazi death machine churned into high gear.

The train was packed beyond capacity, forcing some to sit on their lug­gage or boxes. We were among the fortunate who actually had seats and I was privileged to sit at a window. The trip, normally several hours long, took all night. There was no normalcy. The train moved at a snail's pace, stopping incessantly for very long intervals. I would wake at each stop and peer out the window, although there was precious little I could see in the darkness. I sensed that for the adults each stop was nerve-racking since no one could be certain the train would ever move again. Sometimes, the en­gineer would use the train's piercing whistle, screeching at something in the way; other times, shouting and angry voices could be heard; once or twice, there was what sounded like gunfire, but most of the time the stops were filled with silence.

In the morning we arrived. The Wilno station scene was a duplicate of the bedlam we left in Bialystok. Indeed, one could not be certain we had gone anywhere until suddenly I saw my father. There was his face among the sea of people who were rushing about frantically trying to catch a glimpse of someone through the train windows. He was wearing his kapelush, hat, and for a split second I thought our eyes met. I shouted to my mother, but our train was still in motion, so that by the time I could point him out, he was lost in a crush of humanity. It was a scene that kept re­peating itself throughout the European continent.

 

1) Peace and War

 

2) Eluding the Intruders

 

4) Sugihara's Stand

 

5) The Bialystok Syndrome

 

Back to Bialystok's Memorial Web Site

 

Last Updated October 30th, 2003

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