Great and mighty is the River Ob. Swollen with long years of experience, it flows sedately, without haste, as if it knows what waits at the end of the journey to the Far North and chooses to linger, enjoying the fleeting pleasures of summer while they last, and though it never actually manages to warm up, at least it has a chance to play with the gentle pulses of the sunbeams before they disappear into the dense Siberian forest. The Siberians are so dependent on the river that they make the short name longer: Father Ob, they say – Father Ob, our provider and protector! But Father pays no mind to their pleas and flattery. He does as he pleases, when he pleases. Like a father, he provides nourishment, and like a father, he punishes with all his strength. Over the years, the locals have learned all his tricks. They know how to handle him even in the stormiest times when he rises up in a rage, lips foaming savagely as he breaks through the icy armor that has shackled him all winter and lifts ice floes as big as houses high into the air. In this season he is terrible in his madness. He overflows his banks, inundates and annihilates, uproots and destroys, and carries away everything in his path – trees, houses, rafts, lost cows. Then he sucks into his vortex the bravest and the most daring of the Siberians – not only the young, not only men – challenging them to pit their agility against his diabolical strength, to see who will conquer, who will end up with more. Not for the contest but for the spoils, they risk their lives by pushing off one by one in their pointy canoes – shliupkes, they call them, or tshelnokes – armed with ropes, chains, and long hooked poles for grabbing the precious building materials that are hard to come by any other way: beams, planks, rafters, logs, blocks, lumber of every shape and size. In pursuit of their prey, they stand up in their little boats, swaying and tottering in their battle with the terrible floes, and catching sight of them even from a distance can make your head spin.
To this region, a great barge transports the latest batch of deportees, who are known as “migrant-specialists,” a long, complicated name for women and children. The men, the heads of households, have long since been separated from them, and God only knows where they are and what’s happened to them. All of them on the barge are feeling seasick even though it’s the beginning of August, when the Ob flows quietly and calmly within its high banks. The river is so wide that those banks cannot be seen from the barge. They’re off beyond the horizon, the subject of fervent prayers. God in heaven, have you condemned us to wander without end? Will we never reach the shore?
After many weeks in the stinking boxcars with their narrow barred windows near the ceiling and a chamber pot in the middle of the floor, without a breath of air or a mouthful of food – after that, a remote Siberian collective farm called “New Way,” a settlement consisting of a few dozen houses, had been their first resting place. Here they’d been allowed to stretch their legs, take a look around, wash off, and fill their lungs with gulps of fresh air. They were even happy to work in the fields, trying their hand at hoeing potatoes without hitting either the potatoes themselves or, worse, their own feet. But before long the officials with the tight trousers showed up and ordered them to resume their journey. No doubt the genius in charge of things had decided it was too risky to put fresh migrant-specialists in contact with worn-out collective farmers.
For more than a week now, the barge has been moving slowly upon the Ob, on and on with no end in sight. People say the boat must not be moving at all, it’s just standing still, because all they can see is water and sky, sky and water. The barge is a matchbox in the void, its passengers crammed head to head like matches, along with their children, their elderly, their baggage. Some stay up on deck, others down in the hold. Debate rages over who is worse off – but what does it matter? They’re all miserable. As in the boxcars, they’re covered with lice, fighting over every inch of space, quarreling over nothing, their spirits low. They have no idea when, how, or even if they will ever get out of this place.
Then Shprintse comes up with a clever idea. Every morning, as people are struggling to emerge from their nighttime despair, she begins describing her dreams in minute detail. Gradually everyone quiets down. A crowd gathers. Carefully she dares to add a slight shade here, a bit of color there. People believe every word. Why would she lie? The familiar names and places she evokes with uncanny precision and the good omens she sees are a balm for sore hearts. Even when it all sounds a little suspicious, everyone goes along with her. No one challenges her. Shprintse has always been renowned for her eloquence, her rich, juicy language full of quotations and proverbs, her ability to describe situations so vividly you see them before your eyes. No one interrupts, no one protests that she’s exaggerating. Everyone is all ears, listening with pleasure and begging for more. All the stories end the same way: “Have faith, children, the God who led our forefathers out of Egypt will rescue us from this place, bimheyre-beyemeynu, speedily in our days, amen!”
In this way she gets the day off to a good start – though not for long. Soon enough, the privation and crowding take over. Yet even when tempers fray, the Jews of Zguritse stick together, a little apart from the others. Interestingly, the peasants from the neighboring villages also stay close by, not quite mingling with the Jews but not letting them out of sight either. They recognize their faces from the Thursday market, their language is familiar, and beyond that, they believe that in times of need it’s good to stick with a Jew, because a Jew will always come up with a way to get by. So they stay close, and if asked politely they’ll even “lend” a handful of cornmeal for a pot of comforting mamaliga. Foolish peasants! They don’t realize that in this case everyone is in the same predicament, that the weight of the unknown presses equally on them all, and that all they want is to get out of this hell, off this barge, as quickly as possible, it doesn’t matter where, any place where they can feel the earth under their feet.
On top of everything else – the pimple on the boil, as they say – there’s the old lady. Having lived for nearly ninety years in Zguritse, Madam Garber has chosen the barge as her deathbed. Back at the collective farm, it was obvious that her time was drawing near, and now it’s clear she won’t survive for more than a day or two. So be it, a person doesn’t live forever. But suppose she closes her eyes before the barge gets to shore – will the officials demand that she be thrown overboard? Anxiously they beg God to have mercy, to delay her last breath and allow her a proper burial. On account of Madam Garber, in fact, their group is first off the barge when they finally drop anchor in the godforsaken place with a sign atop a pole: Kiprushka.
If the chemical works in the forest where they’re headed is a living hell, Kiprushka is the antechamber. The settlement is long and thin, ten or twelve houses along a brook with the same name. It’s like the neck of a bottle; once you’re inside, it’s hard to get out. Maybe Kiprushka doesn’t deserve such a bad name – the settlement itself is not to blame for the fate of the deportees – but in the eyes of these dejected people, everyone is at fault. The settlers are Old Believers – robust Russians with red beards and even redder fat cheeks, who won’t allow the new arrivals to enter their houses or drink water from their precious cups. Anyone who complains, hoping to arouse a little sympathy, receives the same answer: “privyknete, you’ll get used to it.” They tell how they themselves were brought here ten years ago, in the first deportation, which they refer to as the raskulatshivanye, the cannibal times. They were dumped in the forest, which was then totally uninhabited, and left to survive however they could. Many died, but the youngest and healthiest got to work chopping down trees and building houses, and today they live quite well, with a cow, a pig, chickens. Thank God, they say, crossing themselves, they have nothing to complain about. They won’t allow themselves to be deported again, they say with a laugh. To hear them tell it, they’ve been blessed with good fortune.
Meanwhile, the deportees sit on their bundles under the open sky, swatting at mosquitoes and wishing they had something to eat. The dry bread is hard to swallow even when they wash it down with hot water. Now the Moldavians turn out to be not so foolish after all. With no help from the Jews, they come up with the idea of planting themselves on the settlers’ doorsteps and crossing themselves until they’re offered something to eat. What can the Jews do? They can’t kiss the mezuzahs on the doorposts – there are no mezuzahs. Instead they trade a new shirt or a pair of trousers for a bowl of potatoes, some onions, a little milk, and they make a fire and cook dinner. After they eat, as if it were Rosh Hashanah, when Jews empty their pockets into a flowing stream, they go down the hill to the brook, take off their clothes, and drown the lice in the water.
Madam Garber has been installed in a room belonging to one of the Russians. It took tearful entreaties and a sum of money, but at least now she has a roof over her head. She lies on a bed of straw and waits for death. Her two daughters, themselves getting on in years, sit on either side in silence. What is there to say? Besides, they’ve been quarreling for years and are not on speaking terms. It has something to do with an amber necklace – or is it pearl? – and possibly something else that one of them, but not the other, received for her wedding. It’s all ancient history by now; they’re both rich – rich enough to be deported. But the injustice can’t be forgiven, they’re still angry and want nothing to do with each other. Sheyndl, the older one, is miserable because she didn’t manage to bring any valuables with her from home, like other people, and now she has nothing to trade. Her children are old enough to have helped, but they didn’t, and now they carp at her as if it’s all her fault and point out that her sister, their aunt, is walking around with a big bosom, no doubt hiding all of Grandma’s jewelry in her blouse. So the two sisters sit by the bed, sulking, and no one tries to intervene; it would be a waste of breath. Even when their mother finally breathes her last, the two remain silent. But now others take over, lowering the body to the floor, boiling water, washing the corpse and wrapping it in a white sheet, placing candles at her head.
Escorting a person to his eternal rest is always a sad occasion, but at the same time, there’s something about the cemetery full of relatives, the burial society with its traditional ceremony, the eulogies full of praise, the loud wailing – all of this is bound to make some of the mourners feel envious of the dead person, especially if it’s a rich dead person with a magnificent funeral. Now imagine the sorry huddle of women and children who are performing the rites for the dead for the first time in their lives. They have no choice – there is no one else to do it. They lower the body into the ground and cover the grave. Then they look at one another, wondering what to do next. They hang their heads in embarrassment. The silence goes on for so long that it begins to grate on the ears, suggesting a disrespect for the dead and for whatever sense of self-worth remains inside them.
Esther feels it in the very core of her being. She looks at the women around her who are staring into the freshly dug grave as if they’re trying to figure out who is worse off, Madam Garber or themselves. She sees the peasants watching from a distance. Her heart aches for the fathers so far away, for the helpless mothers, for the boys and girls who will spend the best years of their lives in misery in the forest, for those who will end their days in the taiga, for everyone around her, and all at once she forgets who she is. She forgets that only men are permitted to say the prayer for the dead. She lifts her head and begins to recite the blessing the way her father would have: “El mole rahamim, God full of mercy, who dwells above…” Everyone is shocked. “Give rest on the wings of the divine presence, among the holy, pure and glorious who shine like the sky, to the soul of … Madam Garber…in heaven …” Suddenly she stops. She shrugs.
Shprintse, her mother, knows why she broke off: because of the word “Madam,” which doesn’t belong in a Jewish blessing. “It doesn’t matter, my child,” she says, loud enough for everyone to hear, “it doesn’t matter. If the Lord can allow us to be exiled to Siberia, then he’ll have to learn some new languages, not just the holy tongue.”
Hearing the words “exile” and “Siberia,” the crowd erupts into a terrible wailing.
The ice has broken. Esther breathes more freely. She can’t remember the rest of the prayer for the dead. She doesn’t know any more of the words. But it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.
YENTA MASH (1922-2013) grew up in Bessarabia, a region once renowned as a lively polyglot area and a flourishing center of Jewish culture (now in Moldova). In 1941, she and her parents, along with other “bourgeois elements,” were exiled to the Siberian gulag by Soviet forces. There she endured seven years of hard labor. In 1948, she settled in Kishinev, where she worked as a bookkeeper. In the 1970’s she immigrated to Israel, where she published four volumes of fiction and essays. Her work won praise for its high literary quality and its vivid exploration of little-known aspects of the tumult of the 20th century.
About the Translator:
ELLEN CASSEDY won a 2016 PEN/Heim grant for her translation of stories by Yenta Mash, the first ever awarded for a work translated from Yiddish. She and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub are the co-translators of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (Mandel Vilar Press/Dryad Press, November 2016). She is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, which won several awards and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. She lives near Washington, D.C. Visit her website: www.ellencassedy.com.