The Samurai of Vishogrod and the Very Small Pogrom
Excerpted from The Samurai of Vishigrod: The Notebooks of Jacob Marateck, retold by Shimon and Anita Wincelberg. Copyright 1976 by The Jewish Publication Society of America
By Bryna Kranzler - Blog: http://xsnerg-accidentalanarchist.blogspot.com/
Email: xsnerg "at"gmail.com (replace @ by "at" to avoid spam)
I am currently editing my grandfather's diaries based on his youth in Vishigrod and his experiences as a Jewish officer in Czar's army during the Russo-Japanese War. His stories were written in Yiddish in 28 notebooks that he had hoped to publish, but he died the very day that he and my mother were to begin working on them.
After my grandfather's death, it took many years to translate the notebooks and extract his stories as they had been written as a stream-of-consciousness in 1904 and 1931. “The Samurai of Vishigrod”, which my parents published in 1976, is based on the first 16 notebooks. While I was originally going to see to it that the stories from the remaining 12 diaries were published, I realized that, in order to have the deserved impact, the stories needed to be read in the context of what came before them, so I have taken it upon myself to re-edit the first volume and, combined with what would have been the second volume, create a cohesive narrative about life for an orthodox Jew in Russian-occupied Poland in the late 19th century. His story continues through his adventures in Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Siberia and Manchuria, and Harbin, China.
Attached is a chapter from "The Samurai of Vishigrod," which bears the same name. When Josh told me that you maintained a website for people whose roots were in Vishigrod, it was this chapter that I thought of sending you because it offers a good flavor of what it was like to live in Vishigrod in the 1880s-1890s. There are several other tales set in and near this town that I'm sure your readers will recognize, and which may be of interest to you at a later date.
Shortly I expect to begin blogging about the process of bringing these stories to publication (which may include other excerpts from the text), and at that time would greatly appreciate it if you would link it to your website; I would also like to do the same for you. In the meantime, I will be interested in hearing about any reactions to this first story that you receive from your readers.
The Samurai of Vishogrod and the Very Small Pogrom
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 lob 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 passer-by, 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, sulphurous 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.)
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 employer 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 everyone - 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, heartened 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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Last updated November 20th, 2009