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With a Cheerful Countenance

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Chaim Schwartzberg

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Additional clarifications are provided in parenthesis ( ).  

WITH A CHEERFUL COUNTENANCE

For some reason, many people think that in the small town there grew only pallid-faced, tender-hearted children, with the signs of the exile recognizable in their appearance and manners.   There may be a certain amount of truth in that, but not the entire truth.  I remember my childhood, in general, with a cheerful countenance, from which I arrive at other conclusions.  Indeed, my childhood in Vladimirets, and that of many other children who were my age, already was confronted with the signs of revival and the return to Zion.  The renewal of the Land of Israel became a source of awakening and change of values for us, and its signs were felt also in our daily lives.  The surrounding nature drew our hearts.  We saw beautiful trees and ploughed fields, and we knew not only that their beauty did not endanger us and because of it we were not incurring the death penalty, but also that it was an important factor in forming our spirit and independence.  The Bible was also already a factor of new life for us.  In it, we found signs and examples of people who were healthy in body and spirit.

For example, I had a great love for pigeons, because of which I knew great suffering.  My parents regarded this negatively, along with other Jews, who would say that it was not appropriate for a Jewish boy to be occupied with such things.  But when I wanted to find justification for this love of mine, I remembered the dove in the Bible, which the righteous and innocent Noah sent from the ark to see if the waters of the Flood had dried up.  I remembered the hero Shimshon [Samson], who trapped 300 foxes and tied torches to their tails and sent them out into the fields of the Philistines.  Was there such a great difference between dogs and foxes? I wondered.  And why did my parents regard with resentment the dog that I bred in our yard?  Indeed, in this animal I saw an important weapon in our war with the non-Jewish children, who bothered us and embittered our lives.  These thoughts certainly were shared by other children, whether a few or many.

Thus, we began these occupations with the best intentions, and who can estimate how much we suffered because of them.  To set up a dove-cote in the yard, in a high place on the roof,  from which white doves would fly out into the skies of Vladimirets, was an idea that greatly fascinated me  and drew my heart from the time I was a young boy.  But the matter never materialized.  My parents and older brothers had the upper hand.  After many attempts to arrive at my purpose, and after many failures, I was forbidden to do so and I was forced to cancel my opinion in favor of that of my elders and to be satisfied with sending wishful, longing looks at the roofs of the gentiles, or at Leibel Lopata's roof next to the gralnia [whiskey factory], above which the lovely pigeons flew.  I would look at them with hopeless yearning.  Once, I disappeared from home for hours.  I went to the yard of the guard of the gmina (township), who also had a dove-cote.

In a short time I began to beg my parents to allow me, nevertheless, to buy a pair of pigeons.  I would beg them, in my heart relying on the Bible, as I already explained.  But besides the basic objection, the price of a pair of pigeons was relatively high – about two and a half gold coins, a not insignificant amount.  I began to save small coins, until I accumulated the required amount, and finally I bought a pair of white doves from the guard of the gmina.  At first, this project was conducted in secrecy.  I hid the doves in a crate in the yard, so that the family wouldn't find out, but the secret was revealed and a series of moral rebukes and explanations began.

"This is something for shgatzim [non-Jews] and not for a Jewish boy," my father would rebuke and reprimand me.  From time to time, my parents would tell me about the dangers involved in breeding pigeons or dogs: 

"Whoever takes care of pigeons and dogs, his brain becomes stupid and cannot absorb his learning."

But little by little, the family became used to my hobby, and with the help of my good friends Yankele Kaufman, Benjamin Sharfstein and Hershel Smoliar, we began to prepare the attic as a home for my winged creatures.  Sometimes Shmulik Shostak, Avrahamel Beider, Michael Wischnia, and others, also came to enjoy the delightful and lovely birds.

After some time, we began to build a real dove-cote.  We took apart crates in the yard and gathered building materials.  We took apart and built, built and took apart, until the dove-cote was finished.

Eventually, the birds multiplied and I already had five or six pairs in the attic, but this multiplication was limited and hindered, because our fondness for the pigeons was so great that we frequently would touch their eggs and chicks, thereby causing their deaths.  The cats also contributed more than a little help in doing this. 

Another angel of destruction existed in the skies of Vladimirets – a predatory bird that the goyim called a shulak.  I would fearfully look at the skies of the town and see this bird of prey sailing and hovering very high in the heavens, and suddenly it would dive downward in a straight line, falling like a stone, not a living thing.  It would fall on one of the doves, grab it in its claws and carry its booty with it on high.  So the dangers were many, and I was obligated to stand guard and find means of protection against them.

One method was to fill what was lacking by buying new pigeons.  But we also had another way – we would go, I and a few friends, outside the town with a few pigeons in our hands.  We were sure that these pigeons were accustomed to us and their home, and if we freed them they would return home, even from far away.

In the field, we would approach the place where the goyim kept their flocks of pigeons.  We would throw a rock at them and confuse them, and at the same time, we also freed our own pigeons, which, of course, returned home.  In this way, one or two of the pigeons belonging to the goyim would accompany them and would remain in our dove-cote.

It was not in vain that my parents taught me that these birds would interfere with my studies.  Indeed, they were right in reprimanding me.  Not only that – the pigeons also caused us actual damage.  My parents were crop merchants.  More than once, the pigeons finished off many seeds that were in the sacks, causing us a significant loss.  I now must confess my sins.  When I saw them doing that, I did not try to move them away.  On the contrary, I would contentedly look and see how they ate and enjoyed themselves.

One summer, I wanted to move the dove-cote from the attic of the house to the attic of the stable, and that brought about the end of my flock, all because of bloodthirsty cats.  The roof of our house was covered with tin, and the cats were unable to climb it.  But the roof of the stable was covered with wooden shingles, and the cats easily walked over them to the dove-cote.  Many of the pigeons were strangled to death, and many of them scattered in fright, even deserting the eggs that they were setting.  The pigeons that remained alive no longer entered the dove-cote, and only sat on the edges of the roof, always on guard against danger.

That summer, my flock was completely eliminated.  And this is what happened:  Among the remaining pigeons, there was in the flock one rare homing pigeon that I bought from a Pole.  All of the pigeons were afraid of people, and whenever someone would approach them, they flew away.  But this pigeon – it was a dove of kindness, intelligent, kind of heart and of eye, and it was very friendly to humans.  It even came into our house.  It would stand on my head or my shoulder and peck its food from my hand.  And thus I would walk around with it in the streets of Vladimirets, and the children would gather around me and look at the wonder with shining, curious eyes.

One morning, that same summer, I wanted to see the pigeons flying on high.  I threw something at them to disturb their rest, and they rose from their place.  Among them was the homing pigeon, my favorite.  They flew higher and higher.  At that moment, I suddenly saw the predatory shulak appear high in the sky.  Amazed, I looked at him from afar, and my heart predicted that he was plotting to harm one of the pigeons.

And indeed, my heart was not wrong.  The bird of prey was trying to harm the homing pigeon, and it, with its great awareness, escaped with various acrobatics in flight.  But the shulak closed the paths to safety, until the homing pigeon disappeared on the horizon, the bird of prey in pursuit.  I waited half an hour and longer, and my pigeon did not return.  I understood that its fate had been determined.  I didn't know what to do.  My heart was pained, and I found no comfort.

"If only I had trained the pigeons to rest?!" I rebuked myself.  If only… 

The death of the homing pigeon caused me deep sorrow and I did not have the strength to take care of the flock again.  Thus, their end arrived.

The fear of the shgatzim, the children of the goyim who lived at the ends of the streets and blocked off to us the way out of town to the fields and forest – this was a uniting factor among the lads, children of Israel.  We knew that we could overcome the children of the goyim only with our combined strengths.  Indeed, this danger did not lie in wait for us on every street.  For example, it was possible to walk in the direction of the Sucha Wald and the Barg Wald with almost no concern, and also to the train station, but not toward the Viyezha.  You must know that the matter of the Viyezha was not trivial.  This was the tall tower that the Polish regime built, at a distance of several kilometers from the town.  It was a wooden tower that was several tens of meters high.  There were stairs in the tower, up which it was possible to climb to the top.  From there, one could look over the entire area and be up in the heavens for a short time – at a height where only birds can reach.  And who could waive such enjoyment? 

All of the youths were drawn here.  But the trouble was – in order to reach the tower we had to pass through the most dangerous street of the goyim.  The head of the rioters, whose name will be remembered here in defamation, was the youngest son of the Polturak family, who lived next to the hospital.  He always threatened us and called out to us:

"Ya, Hitler na vas," in other words, "May Hitler come upon you."

This was in 1932-1933, during the rise of Hitler.  He would gather other gentile youths and incite them against us, and they would block the road to the tower from us.  Our wars with them involved throwing sticks and stones and no more…

I possessed enmity toward the Polturak boy, toward this little oppressor of Jews.  More than once, I had thoughts of revenge against him, how I would surprise him with my hard blows, beat him and rout him.  As is written [in the Bible].  And behold, once such an opportunity was given to me, and indeed, I did not neglect it.

One day, I saw that the little Amalekite [Little Evil One] was walking past our house.  This was late in the afternoon, while I was sitting outside near the house.  I let him go a short distance away and began to follow him, until I caught up with him next to the pool of rainwater that served as a washing place for domestic animals.  I saw that at the moment he saw me, all of the strength and bravery he wore on the street of the goyim left him.  I jumped toward him and rained several punches upon him, on his head and face, and I was not satisfied with that.  I pushed him into the dirty water and went a short distance away from there, but I could see very well how he got out of this "bath," wet and weeping.

I knew that he would not let this pass quietly, and that he would take revenge not only upon me, but also on the rest of the boys, with the help of his goyish friends and their watchdogs.  We also had a dog in our yard and I used to take him outside the premises of our house.  I could, therefore, protect myself from them, but the other children suffered greatly from this youngster.

Indeed, my dog was a weapon in my war with the shgatzim, our sworn enemies.  And just as I suffered a great deal because of the pigeons, so I suffered because of the dog.  I could not understand why people regarded me so negatively.  What, for example, was the advantage of a horse over a dog?  I looked for reasons to justify it, and remembered a fact from my studies, that when the Jews left Egypt, no dog barked.  In that I found proof that the bad attitude toward these animals was not justified, and when I heard from someone that when dogs cry, it is a sign that the Angel of Death is coming to the city, and when dogs laugh, it is a sign that Eliyahu Hanavi [Elijah the Prophet] is coming to the city, for me it was proof that this animal was blessed with sense and sensitivity and love for the people close to him, and that we were ungrateful.  In general, a creature that is able to cry and to laugh deserves a different attitude.  If I requested to tell how many difficulties I experienced because of this love of mine for animals, I would not be able to do so.  I didn't always know how to answer the rebukes of those who contradicted me, but in my heart I felt that I was not doing anything bad.  But this matter, just like the matter of the homing pigeon, finished with an ending that wasn't good.

Since there had already been instances of robbery in our yard, and I had proved with signs and wonders that a dog would guard the yard and would be a benefit to the house, the silent agreement of the family was given.  At that time, I received a small puppy from Yehoshua Bik, who also had a dog in his yard.  The puppy was very small, but in a short time he grew to be a huge animal – his head was like the head of a fox, narrow and long, and his neck was thicker than his head.  He indeed was a good watchdog.  With pride, I saw how the goyim were afraid to come to the yard, and I had to tie him to a chain to protect them.  Because of the build of the dog's head and neck, I had to order a special harness that was composed of several straps that were worn on the dog's entire body, and tying this harness was a special operation that only I knew.

But I did not intend the dog only for guarding the yard.  The guarding was only a means for getting the agreement of the family.  Like Shimshon the hero in his time, I also wanted to send the fire of my revenge on our Philistines, in other words:  the goyim – and I wanted to do this with the assistance of my "fox."

I remember one incident that ended in misfortune.  I had a friend whom we called, for some reason, "Yankele di tcharapacha," in other words, "Yankele the turtle."  To this very day, I do not understand how they attached the name "turtle," which symbolizes slowness, to this Yankele.  Yankele was a symbol of agility and courage.  He would accompany me wherever I went, and he was a wonderful advisor as to how to fight against the shgatzim.  That day, we decided that it was worth it for us to begin an offensive attack and bring it into their territory.  Of course, the dog was also a partner in this operation.  When we arrived at the street of the goyim, Yankele began to excite the dog to attack them, and because Yankele was brave, he ran ahead, first in battle, toward the shgatzim; by doing so, he drew the dog after him.  The war was at its peak.  The shgatzim threw rocks and I threw rocks back at them.  And meanwhile, in the heat of the battle, Yankele tripped and fell, and the dog certainly became confused and saw the fallen as one of our enemies – he leaped on my friend and sank his teeth behind his ear, causing a deep wound…

Indeed, the shgatzim ran away.  But I and my friend, our hearts were no longer given to war, but to the wounded.  We had to hide the matter from Yankele's parents, and first of all, to run to the Bas' pharmacy.  There, I bought a small bottle of iodine, and we secretly gave first aid to Yankele.

I had many friends in the town.  We had many occupations and games.  On Chanuka, we played with dreidels [tops].  On Pesach, we played with nuts.  We collected stamps, and traded them – in these two occupations, my dear friends from school, Zelig Kaplan and Musia Grushko, were very, very close to me.  Zelig excelled in his beautiful handwriting.  I loved his handwriting, his rounded letters, which I regarded as being actual works of art.  Musia Grushko excelled in mathematics, and knew how to solve the most complicated problems.

Occasionally, there were quarrels and arguments among the children, after which came the berogez [anger], but in the end, we reconciled; we were merciful, children of the merciful.

In the winter, we would gather on the Poplaw,  the Sazhilka and the Krimovka, three small ponds at the edge of the town, whose waters were frozen over.  Here, we enjoyed skating on the ice on home-made skates.  These skates were made from wood with a metal bar underneath and a rope threaded through the wood that tied the device to one's shoes.  The skates were an indispensable product that was sold by the children of the goyim.  They assembled them themselves and sold them to the Jewish children.  The price varied between half a zloty to one and one-half zlotys, according to the quality.  In comparison, there were a few children who bought skates made of steel, with a nickel coating.  These were brought from the big cities.

Every afternoon, many children would come to skate on the ice.  At the beginning of the winter, on the first days of frost, we already waited impatiently for one of the ponds to freeze and be covered with ice.  Here, the water had frozen and was covered by a first layer of ice.  The layer of ice was not thick enough, but we already had no patience, and we had no strength to continue waiting.  We went out already to skate on the ice.  The ice would groan and squeak under our feet.  There was some worry that in a little while the ice would break, but nevertheless, we continued to run around on it.  Some years, we were lucky, but I remember one winter when we went out to skate on the Sazhilka and suddenly, the ice broke in one place and two children who had been skating together holding hands, fell into the cold water.  The crack in the ice was large and it got bigger and widened, and many other children also fell in, myself among them.  The ice continued to break – crack after crack, until the entire pond looked like a broken window.  The other children, who were luckier, stood around the pond and laughed, while we were shivering.  Not a single one of us came down with a bad cold, or even a chill, after that game.

If, in the winter, our game was connected to the ground, to the ice and snow, in the summer months, our direction was upward – that is, toward the sky.  Now, we would go out of the town to fly colorful kites.  Why out of town?  Very simply, because inside the town the kites would be caught on the telephone wires or the roofs, and outside, there were only wide open spaces without any barriers.  On the other hand, flying the kites outside the town was subject to the danger that the shgatzim would cut the kite strings. 

I remember one summer afternoon – I went out on the road to Dolgovolya with my colorful kite.  This road was wide, without any telephone poles or wires.  I took with me, from my parents' store, two balls of No. 10 thread for hand sewing, which was thicker.  I lay down comfortably in the fresh grass, and amused myself by sending "letters" to my kite, which was already flying very high.  A "letter" of this type was a piece of paper with one hole punched in it.  Through this hole, we threaded the piece of paper on the kite string, and it would be lifted all the way up to the kite.  Meanwhile, the day was ending and the shepherds began to return with their flocks from the fields and the nearby forest.  I was alone, and I knew that they would not pass by me without doing anything.  I hurried to gather the long strings into a ball and to get out of there, but they caught up with me before I finished the job.  They didn't harm me, they only wanted the strings.  These strings were a precious commodity in the eyes of the wives of the goyim, who couldn't afford to buy them in a shop.

The loss was not so great, because I could get other strings.  But the humiliation was not easy.  Again, the problem – Israel among the nations, and even a valueless matter like kite strings became a cause.

In the summer, the children of the town played dodge ball.  Later, the game of soccer became naturalized, and we played it in empty fields.  We spent many hours playing these games.  When we grew up and joined the various youth movements, we would go on hikes outside the town, and even to the villages Ozero, Kanonicze and Pechenki.

I remember that the parents of my friend Musia Grushko had a farm and a large orchard in Dolgovolya village.  Musia would try to convince us to go there with him, a distance of five or six kilometers.  He would coax us and told a lot about the wonders of the place, to entice us to go there.

We were enticed, and we went, and indeed, we were not disappointed.  We would come between the trees loaded with fruit – all kinds of pears and apples, to a guard hut.  The taste of those fruits is with me to this very day, especially the special taste of the light plums…

Memories, memories – all of them prove that our childhood was not oppressed – a magical light shone on all of our games and deeds.  It is true that at the edges of the town, in the gentile neighborhoods, hatred bubbled against us, but it also aroused us to stand up to it and defend ourselves, until the days came when the threatening storm rose and flooded…

 




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