Short Stories from the Balkans/A Pogrom in Poland

2784742Short Stories from the Balkans — A Pogrom in PolandEdna W. UnderwoodJoachim Friedenthal



HIGH and clear rang the cantor'’s voice. It was as if with musical fervor it tried to reach heaven itself, to plead that a door be opened and mercy granted, to plead that an ear be made sympathetic, to plead that the suffering in the heart of Jehova make it tremble with pity.

Never so splendidly before sang Reb Chajim’s voice, sang the ancient melodies of the Day of Atonement. The voices of the men joined with it. With heaven-storming power they rose to heights of melody and then sank to depths again, as the pain of despair increased within them and opened up their measureless grief.

The men stood in their white grave-clothes as was proper. The silver embroidered prayer cloth they had thrown over their heads to cover themselves in the torturing hour in which, there above, the great judgment was made. Now would be decided whether they would be inscribed in the Book of Life, or cast into outer darkness. And in that outer darkness perhaps now armed Cossacks were standing and caring nothing at all about the Atonement and the Book of Life. Praying, the men stretched their arms above their heads, storming the footstool of Almighty God, wrestling for His grace, because once He had set them free.

And long centuries prayed with them. Long centuries which had weighed heavily upon the backs of these Polish Jews, and bent them; long centuries of want, disgrace, persecution—the persecution of the wanderer—and the curse. And the long centuries seemed to rise up again on these holy days, rise upon the bent backs, and stretch up toward the God of Righteousness, with the heaven-storming arms of prayer, and to ring out boldly in the voice of the cantor, to announce their woe.

The women, according to the old custom, sat apart, upon the horse-shoe curved balcony fronting the altar. Here the women wept softly. Somtimes a sob was heard and it cut tragically across the gentler melody of tears. And they wept long just as they do by the graves of their dead. Each one had a grave within. Reflected grief from the melancholy of this hidden grave was visible in the wide, hopeless sorrow of the eyes. Even the eyes of the young women and girls were veils of grief. They all hummed together the ancient songs of Israel. Perhaps the meaning of the ancient words did not penetrate their minds at all and only the melody made them holy. Sometimes it was as if the antique words of Israel became life because their hearts hung upon them with such faith. But if a glance wandered away from the meditation it was sure to fall upon the stony face of Rivkele Kalischer. She had fled from Klodova to her mother. Rivkele Kalischer was not praying with the others, although her lips kept moving.

Her lips framed these words: “Hanged! Because they would not change a three ruble note!” Her glance was dull and dead. It pierced the light-filled Temple and saw the picture that was engraven upon her soul. It was Friday evening, three weeks ago. Two men swing in the wind like phantoms—from the balcony of her own house. And for four and twenty hours she, and all the rest of the Jews of the neighborhood, were forced to see, because they were forbidden to close their doors or windows. There they had stood and looked upon the distorted features and the swinging dead men. And they were obliged to read, too, the piece of paper pinned upon them by the Cossacks: “Hanged! Because they refused to change a three ruble note!

Refused! Had she not peacefully prepared the evening meal, said the prayer, lighted the candles, set out the Shabbes’ bread, covered it with an embroidered cloth, while across in the Temple she listened to the singing: “We greet thee, Shabbes, beauteous bride!” Then the men came from the Temple. They stopped to talk a bit together. Her husband and brother-in-law were among them; she heard their voices beneath the door. Just then a troop of Cossacks rounded the corner. There were questions and curses. Her heart trembled. There were blows from whips. A kick threw the door open. A cruel voice called for a rope. She did not understand at first. What did they want with a rope? Then a kick sent her across the room. The Cossack struck her across the face with a knout. “A rope! A rope!

And the Cossacks hanged them on the balcony. The Shabbes’ candles were still burning and the bread was waiting for a blessing. The woman recognized in the dead men, her husband and her brother-in-law. And she read the words aloud: “Hanged!” Her face became like stone and she could not look away from the balcony where they were swinging; for four and twenty hours she could not look away.

Night came. The tall candles burned lower. The air was heavy with the breath of praying men. It came, the great hour of the falling of judgment. And there was not one among the men who was not wearing the sacred robe in which to appear before his God. Many an one seemed scarcely to be recognizable, his features had changed so under the reverence of prayer. And it really seemed as if in the hearts of these men who had been faithful in so many wanderings—even in the money lender—there was hidden a priest. But among none of them could be found the descendents of the Macabees who had arisen in wrath and slain their enemies. And no one breathed with the soul of Samson, whose mighty shoulders shook down the temple of the Philistines. Not one of them prayed that one day he might be the master of those Russians who scorned him and persecuted him, who took away the power of his eyes and the freedom of his body, and make to fall and crash about their heads the mighty palaces of power, even if he himself perished with them. Every one prayed for his own life. And there was fanaticism in the prayer.

Now the mighty trumpets of judgment rang out just as they will on the day of the resurrection, and the people, standing, answered seven times just as in the hour of death. Seven times they uttered that word in which long centuries tremble, in which to-day resound the battles and the sorrows of the race of Israel, the word which plunged them from victory and triumph to disgrace and exile, the word which recurs again and again, increasing in resonance and power as if the voice of the world had uttered it:

Hear Israel!—the Eternal, the one God—the eternally One!” And the shofar threw forth its fabulous tones just as on the Day of Judgment. It seemed to them all that the voice of God, just as when it had overthrown the walls of Jericho, had spoken; that it had pardoned their sins, and promised redemption and grace. And the people in the Temple trembled. The clang of the shofar had not died away when the voice of a boy was heard: “The Cossacks! The Cossacks! They have surrounded the Temple!”

The boy's voice fell like a sword. The cantor stopped his sweetest singing. There was silence. Then a babel of frightened questions. Voice fell upon voice. Arms shook in wild excitement. A body fell. A woman’s hand drew back the curtain of the balcony above. Someone shrieked: “We must hide.” Plunged from ecstatic heights of meditation, faces distorted, they tried to bend down and hide.

The voice of old Rabbi Zaddik fell upon them like a restraining hand. He told them to be calm and pray on to their God who would not desert them. He would be the one the Cossacks sought. They were all in the hands of God.

Then a man spoke whom they adored like a saint, because he was filled with the wisdom of the Talmud; they reverenced him as a judge in Israel.

Already Reb Chajim, at a signal from the Rabbi, had cleared his throat, and taken up the singing where he broke off; already the replies of the congregation were beginning, timid at first, when blows thundered on the door. It rang out like the thunder of Judgment Day. The words froze on their lips. Eyes swelled to bursting. But not a sound was heard. The men did not even turn their heads. The door was thrown open and Cossacks rushed in. One went along the central aisle to the altar. He asked if that accursed traitor Rab——

“Hear Israel, the eternal, the one God, the eternally One!" Then a voice in deadly fear interrupted the leader before he could finish his question. It came from the back of the room and filled the Temple with woe such as was never heard before. Then all together the voices called: “The eternally One” It was as if they were trying to throw up a wall of defense.

Angrily the leader commanded silence. And the wandering song stuck in their throats and trembled convulsively upon their lips.

The Rabbi spoke: “Sir, they are praying. Do you not see it? To-day is the holy day of the Jews.”

The officer replied that that was a matter of indifference to him. For traitors there was no holy day. He, Rabbi Zaddik was accused of aiding the Austrian troops. He went to meet them fourteen days before their entry and had given them information. That was enough.

The Rabbi replied that he went to meet the German and Austrian armies, but he went with a Polish officer and certain citizens; they went to beg the soldiers to spare the people.

“It’s a lie!” responded the leader. He likewise declared that there was a telephone concealed upon the altar which was to be a signal to the enemy. The Rabbi, and eleven others from the front seats—in order to make a round dozen—were to be hanged. “And the rest of you are to go at once into exile.”

A wail of such wildness arises that it does not seem to come from a human throat.

At the command, the Cossacks jumped to the altar, seized the Rabbi, the cantor, and grabbed blindly for the others.

“Have pity!—Not me—not me! My husband is innocent. Jacob—” thus they screamed.

The leader counted: “One, two, three, four, five—Bring me a rope!” Then a voice yelled from the woman’s balcony: “I’ll bring the rope—right away!” She swung her arms and beat her breast, and then leaped from the railing to the stone floor below. Still she gasped: “I’ll bring the rope right away!”

“Then merely the eleven,” said the leader sharply. “But quick—quick!” Upon the eight pillars the Cossacks quickly put up a scaffold.

While the women wept and cried for mercy, the men, dressed in their grave clothes, cowered in the comers and covered their heads in order to shut out the sight.

And now the congregation called aloud seven times—as in the hour of death—the ancient words of their faith: “Hear Israel! the Eternal, our God, the eternally One!”

That was their salvation, their consolation, their faith. And the shrieks of the dying deadened the voice of prayer—and the words of both were the same.

The murderers stamped upon the altar, broke the sacred shrines, threw the roll of the Torah upon the floor, and stole the gold and silver.

And still the Jews prayed on, the immortal death-prayer of their race for the eleven who were hanged. Then the Cossacks’ leader commanded silence; they should leave the city at once, because they had betrayed the city to the Germans. Upon the moment, just as they were, they should go, men, women, children, not one should be permitted to escape.

They begged to go home just for a moment. They had left babies in the cradle, they had left sick people. They had fasted since the day before; not a bit of bread had they swallowed, nor water. They begged to take a little food. Then the Cossacks laughed: “Search all you want to! Everything is burned! Everything is destroyed!” With their bayonets they drove them from the Temple. Outside they met other Jews in the same condition. About ten thousand men, women and children were driven from the city on the Day of Atonement.

For miles their cries extended. Groaning, the exiles were driven on through the night. To the Vistula they had been ordered, as they were driven through the gate—to the Vistula, on the left bank, but it would be better still if they jumped into the river.

A Rabbi from another Temple had saved the roll of the Torah; he headed the procession and carried it under his arm.

It was something ghostly to look upon, this white-clad procession of Jews in their death robes; it was like a procession of the century long sorrows of their race. About ten thousand living corpses wandered on through the night.

“Hear Israel! the Eternal, our God, the eternally One! Hear Israel!

  1. This is a story of the late war.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1938, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 62 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse