Excerpt, The Little Russian

Excerpt, The Little Russian – Prologue

May 1897

The girl stood on the platform and stared at the wire that stretched out before her. She was young, not much over fourteen, but the body of a woman strained against her ballet costume. She wore dirty pink tights that bulged at the knee and a cardboard tiara that sparkled in the sun. The tulle skirt was torn in several places, dropping sequins on her tights and slippers. Her mother stood directly below her, cranking a barrel organ that alternated between two popular songs.

“It is time to begin, maideleh,” she called up. “They’re waiting.”

It was market day and the air smelled of rotting fruit, manure, and sweating horses. Jewish housewives, still clutching their checkered winter shawls, strolled up and down the aisles of stalls. Over by the rag dealer, women pulled on worn dresses over their clothes. If they liked their reflection in the little mirror hanging on the stall, they kept it to themselves. Better to bargain the price down.

The girl looked out on the crowd that had stopped to watch her. She took a breath and with arms outstretched stepped onto the wire. She paused and waited for the wire to stop bouncing and then took another cautious step. One boy in the back was not fooled by her trepi­dation. He knew it was all part of the act. He had seen her performance earlier on his way to school and knew she only appeared frightened to win the sympathy of the audience. Soon her confidence would appear to grow as her tricks became increasingly more difficult. In the finale, she would execute a perfect handstand and finish with the splits, her legs delicately balanced on the wire, her arms held high in triumph.

The boy knew he needed to get going. School had let out nearly an hour ago and he was expected at the Chernyi Griaz, a billiards club on the edge of the shtetl that filled with officers from the Zhitomir regi­ment during the summer months. He went there to play chess and satisfy the bets of those who chose to put their money on him. They called him the wonder boy.

Nobody knew how good he really was. He was always throwing games to keep the odds interesting and the opponents coming. In truth, there was only one man in town who could legitimately beat him, and that was his father. The rest he simply managed, but always in a believable way. It was important to give the impression that he was fallible, a mere human being, although he didn’t believe it for a minute. At fourteen, he was anything but humble. Even so, he hid his pride well, knowing that it could get him into trouble. It was impor­tant to hide his light under a bushel, as his mother would say. This was an American saying that the boy’s older sister had written in a letter home. You don’t have to hide your light under a bushel in America, she wrote from Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Here you don’t have to be afraid to stand tall.

Stand tall was another American saying. But Rice Lake, Wisconsin, was a long way from Little Russia. “In the Pale, if you are a Jew, it doesn’t hurt to slump a little,” his mother would caution. A kluger gait tsu fus un a nar fort in a kareteh, she said in plain Yiddish. A wise man walks on foot and a fool rides in a coach.

The girl took halting steps forward and backward, gradually becom­ing more graceful, more self-assured, extending a leg out behind her, holding the difficult pose with nothing but air beneath her. The crowd clapped and several peasant boys hooted and whistled. When she appeared to lose her balance, they gasped and froze in disbelief. In the next instant, she steadied herself and there was a great sigh of relief. The boy knew this too was part of the act.

During the finale, the girl executed a perfect handstand, her legs extending straight and stiff over her shoulders, her hands firmly grasp­ing the wire. When the crowd pressed forward to get a better view, someone pushed the rope spinner, who stumbled against the shoe peddler, who tripped and fell against a peasant eating a meat pie. The young man had come to town to buy a scythe handle. He pitched for­ward and spilled the pie all over the blouse that his mother had embroi­dered for his name day. When he saw what had happened, he turned on the shoe peddler, shouting and cursing at him. The poor man was so frightened he didn’t know what to do. He stood there paralyzed, which infuriated the muzhik all the more. Soon the young man was beating the Jew with his brand new scythe handle, unmindful of the blood that mixed with the gravy on his shirt.

There were those who tried to help the shoe peddler, but they were beaten back by the other muzhiki. There were shouts and screams all around. The boy couldn’t see what was happening and tried to push his way through, but the throng was too thick. When it thinned, he found the shoe peddler, his shoes still hanging around his neck, lying dead in a pool of blood. The peddler’s children were standing nearby, dry-eyed, watching their mother sob over the body of their father. Women from the town had gathered around her, trying to coax her away, but the widow preferred to sit in the road, rocking back and forth.

That afternoon the muzhiki sent a delegation to deliver an ulti­matum: five thousand rubles by morning or suffer a pogrom. Women panicked when they heard the news, grabbed their children, and ran home. Shopkeepers shuttered their windows and bolted their doors. The men gathered at the volunteer fire station to deliberate. It was a large loft over the butcher shop, with a makeshift stage at one end and a stack of wooden folding chairs at the other. Under the exposed trestles, men rubbed their beards and paced up and down, while they searched in vain for a way to save their town.

The boy sat at the back and watched his father, the starusta, the head of the town, conduct the meeting with his usual composure, giving the floor first to the butcher, then to the water carrier, letting everyone have their say without comment.

“I say we fight,” said Yankel Schneider, the blacksmith and a well-known hothead. “We have the numbers and we’re strong. We could give them at least as good as we get.”

“But they have guns,” said Dr. Mikhaeli, the town doctor. “We don’t. And even if we did, we wouldn’t know how to use them.”

“What is there to know?” said Yankel, irritably. “Just point and shoot.”

The baker wanted to call in the army. But the water carrier laughed at him. Everybody knew the army wouldn’t lift a finger to help the Jews. The grain merchant offered a hundred rubles to stop the catas­trophe. Others pledged five or ten depending on their circumstance.

As the afternoon faded into night and the kerosene lamps were lit, the boy grew impatient waiting for his father to unveil a plan. He knew his father would have one. He lived life in the same way he played chess, quietly, patiently, taking his time, following clearly laid-out paths to assured ends. The boy was confident that this crisis would be no exception.

But what the boy didn’t know was at that very moment the local muzhiki, at least twenty of them, had arrived in the town square with carts loaded with empty potato sacks, brought in anticipation of a rich bounty torn from the shops and homes of the Jews.

There were other men there too, leaning up against the buildings in the dark, mingling with the crowd, talking to them about how the Jews had grown rich off the labor of the peasant, how they had cheated the peasant in ways he’d never even know about, how they bled him dry, and laughed at him behind his back. These men were not peasants. They were outsiders from the north, Great Russians, artel workers, who wore visor caps, belted gray tunics, black leather jackets, and swords at their sides. They were members of the Alliance of Rus­sian People, the Black Hundreds, as they were known throughout the empire, and they had come to organize the pogrom.

Eventually the muzhiki grew bored with them and began talking among themselves, playing cards and passing around a bottle of vodka that was soon empty. They wanted more, but the Jews owned all the taverns and had locked them up. Someone cried out Chernyi Griaz! and there were shouts of agreement all around. The crowd rose up as one undulating mass of thirst, filled with excitement and anticipation, and set off down the main street toward the billiards club.

When the proprietor Joseph Bokser and his two sons saw the mob coming, they blocked the doorway to the storehouse and shouted at them to go away. But when the mob threatened them with clubs, pis­tols, and swords, Joseph Bokser ordered his sons to stand aside and opened the door himself.

Cradling bottles of vodka in their arms and stuffing still more into their empty sacks, the mob fanned out into the other streets. Ostap Shevchenko and his three sons tore the shutters off the mercantile store and smashed the windows with the handles of their rakes. When he hopped over the jagged glass and stepped into the store, he found racks of greatcoats, heavy boots, fur hats, and work gloves—every­thing he had always wanted but could never afford. He shouted to his sons to start stuffing the potato sacks with everything they could find.

Shloime Lazar, the proprietor of the hardware store, was cowering in the dark behind his shuttered windows. He had been expecting this for years. He had invested in new shutters reinforced with iron bars and gone all the way to L’vov to see Rabbi Levi Israel, a miracle rabbi, who had blessed his prayer shawl and told him that it would keep him safe from the Cossack sword. When he heard his shutters give way to the axes of the muzhiki, he went out to meet the pogromists with his own axe in hand. They surrounded him and cut off his right arm with one tremendous blow. His axe clattered to the floorboards along with most of his forearm and hand. As he lay bleeding to death, his last thought was for his wife and three daughters, who were upstairs hiding under their beds.

With the first screams of the pogrom, the men in the volunteer fire station clamored down the narrow staircase, pushing and shoving one another, frantic to get to their families. “Stay with me,” the boy’s father said to him as they ran out of the building. “Stay close.”

Outside, people were running in all directions, women screaming and clutching their children, shots fired, the sound of shattering glass. The boy saw a muzhik throw a screaming baby out of Judah Altman’s second-story window. At the corner, he saw several figures run out of the main shul and down the wide steps carrying half-empty sacks. One of them was Tadeusz Zawadski, a boy from his form at school, who held a Torah crown and a silver candelabrum. Their eyes met in the dim light of a street lamp. A ripple of shame crossed the other boy’s face before his eyes went dead and he moved on.

In front of the bakery they found the battered body of the baker and his wife. The old man’s skull had been caved in. His wife’s face had been laid open and one eye was missing, the socket black with blood. The sight made the boy’s legs wobble and his stomach turn. He gaped at the hole where the eye should have been and turned away to vomit. His father pulled him into the shadow of a doorway, put a protective arm around his shoulders, and said, “Listen to me. We will get your mother and head for the woods. I know a place. We will be all right. But I need you . . . do you understand? I need you tonight.”

The boy wiped the vomit away with the back of his hand and returned his father’s gaze. His face was a mask of endurance. “Yes, Tateh,” was all he said.

Before they had gone a dozen steps the boy heard more shots; this time they were closer, maybe even in the next lane. They ran on, tak­ing shelter first in one doorway and then in another. They stuck to the shadows, relying on the night and their intimate knowledge of every alley, doorway, and basement to stay hidden. A goat ran by with blood streaming down her flank, her swollen udders swinging wildly as she plunged off down the street. A cardboard tiara lay crushed and filthy in the gutter. Up ahead, three or four peasants in the middle of the road came toward them. They were shouting and singing a tuneless song. A straggler followed behind, drinking vodka from a bottle, and shooting his pistol through apartment windows. When he ran out of bullets, he crouched in the street to reload.

To avoid them, the boy’s father forced open the widow Yehsohua’s window and climbed in. The boy tumbled in after him and landed on the floor. When the old woman saw the two figures in her front room she screamed and ran to the back of the house. They ran after her and found her standing in the kitchen, stabbing the air with a butcher’s knife, her wispy gray hair standing out in tufts about her head. She screamed in Yiddish, “Get away! Get away or I’ll kill you.”

“Chainke,” the boy’s father whispered furiously, trying to quiet her. “It’s me. For God’s sake, stop screaming!”

The old woman stopped. She stared up at them and then burst into tears. “Ah, es iz ek velt!” it’s the end of the world, she sobbed and sank to her knees. “They’re coming. The Cossacks are coming!”

“Calm down, Chainke. It doesn’t help to make such a racket.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“Then keep quiet, woman.”

He went to the window and looked out on the alley behind the house. It was dark and deserted. Satisfied, he forced the window open and stuck his head out to get a better look around.

“Where are you going?” she cried, struggling to her feet.

“We can’t stay here. We have to get home.”

“No!” she cried, grabbing hold of his sleeve. “You can’t leave me here all alone. You have to take me with you.”

“Stop it now!” he said as he disentangled her fingers. “You want to bring them down on our heads? Stay here and keep the lights off and don’t make a sound. They won’t come for you. You’re an old woman with nothing to steal.”

But she wouldn’t be comforted and kept pleading with him not to leave even after he swung one leg over the sill and lowered himself to the ground. The boy was about to follow when he heard footsteps coming down the alley.

“Stay inside, son. Get down and keep her quiet. No matter what happens, don’t move, farshtaist?” The boy nodded to show he under­stood.

The footsteps grew louder, punctuated by the sound of a tambou­rine, and then, from out of the gloom, a husky voice thick with drink asked, “Hey, who’s this? A zhyd? It is a zhyd. Hey, Yasha, I found a zhyd.” It was two drunken muzhiki—one of them carried a tambourine, the other a sack of pots and pans thrown over his shoulder.

The boy peeked out through the torn curtains and watched as they circled his father, giving him a little shove and a poke with the tambou­rine. “It is not a zhyd, you horse’s ass. It’s the starusta. Hey, want to join our party, Your Excellency?”

The boy’s father shook his head and declined the offer of vodka, but the man insisted. When he refused a second time, the big one with the tambourine grabbed his head and held it while the other one pried open his mouth and poured the vodka down his throat.

The boy slid down below the sill and lay there panting and nau­seous. His heart battered against his chest while the room swelled and contracted like a living thing. In the next instant he felt the warm flood of urine, and tears spilled down his cheeks. His gaze fell on the knife that lay glinting on the floor near the prostate figure of the widow Yehsohua. She moved it away and held a finger to her lips. He didn’t argue with her; his hands remained limp at his sides, his legs useless, his eyes fixed on the dull handle of the knife.

Outside a bottle smashed against the building. The two men were arguing about where to find more vodka. When the boy looked out again, he saw them dragging his father off, a tambourine keeping time with their footsteps. As they began to fade into the gloom, the boy thought he saw his father look back once, only once, before they shoved him out to the street.