The year was 1919. The Russian civil war was raging and our town, Olevsk, was constantly under fire. Regimes changed almost daily between the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian secessionists under Simon Petlura, whose troops spread terror and mass slaughter among the Jews of the Ukraine. We had to spend most of the time in a dugout, which served as shelter from the flying shrapnel and cannonballs, or risk being killed.
Amid the horrors of that time, one image is deeply etched in my mind: the tragic end of our friend Avram Greenspan, my father’s best friend, who lived in a nearby town. He was loved by everyone, especially by us children whom he taught many games and Hebrew songs. One afternoon, after spending hours in the shelter, he thought it was safe to venture out for a breath of air. But while he was walking toward our house he was spotted by a Petluravite who ordered him to stop. “Stoy Zid!” Avram knew instantly that those words (“Stop, Jew!”) were the last ones he would ever hear and knew what was coming next. He was right. He covered his ears, a shot rang out, and poor Avram fell dead on the spot. It was a gruesome sight, the body lying there for days, ripped apart by pigs. We could not even give him a proper burial.
Under the circumstances we knew we could not remain there. We had to leave to save our lives. But where to go? The nearest country to be considered was Poland. But obtaining a transit permit was out of the question. As for transportation, you could only dream about it. We were desperate, hoping for a miracle to get us out of this inferno alive.
And the miracle did happen through the initiative and resourcefulness of my grandfather, Yisrael Freilachman. He had once been the official registrar for both the Jewish and non-Jewish population and was greatly respected in the community. Knowing some of the authorities, he appealed to them for help. They responded by offering him a freight car on the train for himself, his entire family and their possessions. When he heard the word possessions, he exclaimed, “No possessions! I want souls!” And thanks to his noble gesture, nine more families were promptly included in the venture. The only possessions he allowed were Aunt Ania’s dental equipment: the chair, the drill and some other instruments.
My grandfather was not an ordinary man. Noble and erudite, he was a man of the old school and yet quite modern. He was my guide to literature, as in many other things. If he met me on my way home from the library and saw a book under my arm that appealed to him, he would tell me to leave it with him and to get it back after he read it. I had to obey. How can you say no to your zeyde? It could have been written by Guy de Maupassant, Stefan Zweig or Arthur Schnitzler — not in the original, which we could not read, but translated into Hebrew. Zeyde also introduced me to the writer Avraham Mapu, the first modern Hebrew novelist who wrote in the language and style of the Bible. And I still chuckle when I remember listening to an argument between him and my grandmother when she made fun of him saying, “Romanalakh, gib im” (romances, give him).
The ride on the train was uneventful, and aside from being physically uncomfortable, we were quite happy and spent the time rather well. You could see Uncle Aaron surrounded by the men reading aloud from the newspaper. The only thing I couldn’t understand was when he kept mentioning a “Papa.” I wondered whose Papa he was talking about. That was when I first learned of Rimsky Papa — the pope of Rome. As for myself, I was sitting in the corner on the floor playing games with my new playmate, Beba, who was about my age.
The train was traveling at a very slow pace, stopping briefly at every station. Nobody paid particular attention to us. As we neared the Polish border, a high-ranking officer approached extremely rudely. We were interrogated and subjected to verbal abuse. He peppered us with stupid questions: “Where are you from?” and “Why couldn’t you stay there?” We were worried that he would not allow us to continue. But he finally let us go on.
After all the brief stops we came to the station of Povursk, where we were told we would stop for 30 minutes. My mother took the opportunity to get off the train to look for some food. We were all half-starved. After a while she returned carrying a small package. When she unwrapped it, my eyes almost popped out. I saw a loaf of bread and a herring wrapped in newspaper. I had forgotten that such food still existed. We had been subsisting on a diet of tea sweetened with saccharin, in which we soaked all kinds of bread. We had a sack full of what the farmers probably used to feed their livestock. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get some molasses as well.
This bread was completely unfamiliar to me. It was a rye bread, a kind I never saw since all we had was either black bread or challah. My mother proceeded to distribute the food by giving each one of us a slice of freshly baked rye bread and a chunk of herring.
I am an old woman now. If any gourmand would ask me, “What was the best meal you ever had in your lifetime?” I would say, without the slightest hesitation: “It was when I was given the slice of freshly baked rye bread and that chunk of celestial herring.”