Sunday, June 15, 2014

In tribute of my father

I wrote this story the way I imagined my father seeing his journey, when his family escaped into the depth of Russia as a small child:

"There he sits, pressed in between bundles and things that keep rattling around him, on top of a horse-driven wagon. Looking up at his parents he can sense something big, something fearful and unspoken casting a shadow over them; and they bend their heads together over him and his sister. He can see an endless line in front, an endless line in back – horses and wagons, wagons and horses as far as the eye can see – all advancing towards the same gray, unclear horizon, all escaping towards the same destination: Unknown.

The sun rises in front of the wagons, and sets behind them. Towns appear and disappear. Rivers pass by, then forests, brick houses, motels. In Minsk they stop. He finds the three-story hotel quite fascinating at first, especially the curved rail of the staircase, which is meant, no doubt, for sliding down and yelling at the top of your voice. Of course, landing down on your butt, he finds out, is an entirely different matter – and so is the harsh, unforgiving look cast down at him by the hotelkeeper.

They settle down for the night. In the rented room, his mommy blesses the Sabbath candles. Her hands are tightly clasped, her eyes closed. And early the next morning they mount the wagon again, and the journey goes on in the dim light, guided by nothing but an instinct to survive, farther and farther away from home.

Squinting at the rising sun, Zeev finds it more and more difficult to keep his eyes open. His mind is going numb listening to the wheels as they spin and turn, beating incessantly against the mud. Cold rain starts coming down at him, sheet after sheet, and streaming in the same direction is the wet mane of the horse. Its head keeps bobbing up and down, up and down in front. When will it end? Where can they go?

Many days pass by – he cannot count them any more – until, one evening, as they travel along the river, a big town comes into view, closer and closer against the smoky blue backdrop of the Ural Mountains.

This, his daddy tells him, is Saratov."

My father was born 1912, and the story above is how I imagine the story of the family, escaping their home on the eve of World War I, which started on August 1, 1914 with the German declaration of war on Russia. Always an army town, the fortress of Brisk was now flooded with Russian military personnel, and many private houses were requisitioned to accommodate them. Late in July 1915, with the installation of new hospitals in town, it became clear that the front was fast approaching Brisk De-Lita.

Rumors of evacuation were heard and the Russian army was to fortify the east bank of the Bug River; but when the German army captured Warsaw on August 4, the Fort Commandant gave the civilian population in Brisk three days to evacuate. Imagine the panic amongst the Jews, who owned most of the businesses, when they had to abandon their belongings and flee for their lives.

When the German army marched into Brisk on August 25, it was a town without people, but with a great abundance of merchandise in the stores. And on the eve of Yom Kippur, the 18th of September, they entered Slonim, a neighboring city, and pressed on into Russia.

By that time, the family was already far away from the frontline. A long, dragged out journey had begun.

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