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When the enemy is your brother

The war in Ukraine recalls Avrom Reyzen’s story about a Jew who’s worried that ammunition he’s helping create might kill his own brother.

When the war started, I thought about how many people I know – especially current and former Yiddish students of mine – who live in Ukraine or Russia. Avrom Reyzen’s story “The Brother’s Bullets” came to mind. It was published in 1917 at the height of World War I.

The story starts with a certain irony that’s common in Reyzen’s work: “It was never easier for Davidson to get work than this moment. He went right into the office of the big munitions factory” and got a job right away. When he was asked where he was born, he replied that he was an American citizen, and showed his papers. Almost as an aside, the narrator adds that it visibly disturbed the manager that he came from Galicia (a region of the enemy Austro-Hungarian Empire) but he gave him the job anyway. It becomes clear that this aside will soon become the focus of the story.

The narrator explains how the city outside of New York, where the factory was located, grew from week to week: “Thanks to the munitions factories which produce thousands of instruments of death every day, the city became more alive.” At first, Davidson could only think about the prosperity that the factory brought the town, and his own good luck at getting the job. “He often forgot that these very bullets were made to penetrate human heads and hearts, and put a living young man to his death.” That is, he never thought much about it until he received a letter from home that informed him that his younger brother had gone off to war; from then on, whenever he looked at or held a bullet, “he was convinced that that very bullet could very well hit his brother.”

Reyzen’s readers understood the reference: During World War I, the United States and Galicia (Austria-Hungary) were on opposing sides, the former on the side of the Allies, and the latter – on the side of the Central Powers. After receiving the letter, Davidson took to hiding bullets in his pocket, and with each bullet he hid, he “felt he was rescuing his brother from certain death.” Later, he couldn’t know for sure which bullet would hit his brother, so he began to grab two or three at a time. One day, the foreman saw what he was doing and asked: “What are you stealing the bullets for?” The foreman grabbed the bullets and tossed them back into the boxes.

Because of this bitter epiphany, Davidson goes to a bar after work and drinks three glasses of brandy, but it doesn’t help. He runs back to the factory, but detectives intercept him and ask him where he was going. “‘I left my brother’s bullets there!’ — he cries out — ‘let me in! I’ve got to save my brother!’” When the policeman ask him if he intended to blow up the factory, Davidson replies: “I just want to get my brother’s bullets out, I made them specially for my brother.” Davidson bursts out laughing with the laughter of those whose hearts are consumed with regret – the bitter regret of knowing that you are an unwilling participant in the possible murder of your own brother.

I was reminded of this story when the war broke out. Russia and Ukraine are so close to each other in many ways. Many people in one country have family and friends in the other and are forced to be at war with their loved ones, and even take up arms against them. We, living here in the United States, are relatively far from the danger, but it still feels emotionally close to me. Just as Davidson originally thought nothing about the human lives that were ended by his bullets, I would read the news every day about the horrible things happening in the world: murder, hunger, wars; but they didn’t touch me personally, like the tragedies playing out now in Ukraine and Russia. I’ve spent time in both countries, three times in Ukraine.

As a reader of Yiddish literature, the names of the places in the news are also familiar to me. Even Kiev, which we’re told to call Kyiv (the way that Ukrainians pronounce it), has been pronounced like Kyiv for years in Yiddish. The city Mykolaiv, where 12 people were recently killed in an attack on a government building, is the “shtetl Nikolayev” from a well-known song of the same name. And the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, in which an airport was bombed a few weeks ago, is what Jews used to call Stanisle — a city that appears in Melech Ravitch’s memoirs, “The Storybook of My Life,” one of my favorite books, and a work which I often read with my students. Every once in a while you hear the name of a city or town mentioned in the news, and even if it may be unfamiliar to ordinary Americans, we Yiddish speakers perk up, recognizing it as the name of a Hasidic Rebbe’s court, or a work of Yiddish literature.

Thanks to my current and former students from Ukraine, I’m hearing what’s happening there first-hand. There’s a student from Kyiv in one of my Yiddish Zoom classes this semester, who came to the first lesson shortly before the war began; but right before the second lesson, she emailed me that, unfortunately, she couldn’t come, but would listen to the recording of the lesson. By the third class, the war had broken out, and she didn’t show up. I wrote to her, and after a bit more than a week, she wrote back and actually apologized for not being in touch! (I’m sure she had more important things to do than to answer my email.)

After that, she did come to class and agreed to answer questions from the other students. “I understand, people want to know,” she said. We listened with bated breath. When we asked how we could help out, though it was clear that we could do very little to change the overall situation, she suggested that we send medicines. Every day she stood in different lines for four hours in order to pick up medication for the elderly, and was not always able to get what they needed.

At the time she still felt safe in Kyiv. We all worried for her. The words “zol zi got ophitn” (May God protect her) came out of my mouth, a mouth not accustomed to saying these words. In life, we never know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, but the fear that a student might not show up to class because she was, God forbid, killed in a war, is new to me, and it troubled me deeply. In the end, she left Ukraine through Gagauzia, Moldova and is now in Berlin, where she can hopefully return to class in the near future.

I also think a lot about people I know in Russia, where you can see “the human face of war” even more. I don’t need to ask my colleagues or former students from Russia if they support the war — I’m sure they don’t. I feel like Reyzen’s Davidson. The enemy can be very much like you, even have the same worldview, and only fate alone turned them into enemies. Not long after the start of the war, I wrote to a former student from St. Petersburg to see how she was feeling. This is what she wrote:

“Dear Sheva, thank you for reaching out — it’s really important (believe it or not) to know that people of the world don’t unanimously write us off as militant swines (and friends don’t, and they get in touch and say as much, but the general attitude is definitely not very friendly). We are not militant swines — and within our svive, including (in particular) the Jewish one the feelings about what’s going on are quite unanimous. Surprisingly, the togteglikh part of life is still very normal: you don’t feel any tensions or hostility in the streets, quite the opposite, people are unusually friendly and supportive, irrespective of their views (that they don’t voice, but that can differ)… Oh yes, McDonalds is closed. It’s not that I miss it, but it’s a sad sign, especially when you think about 200,000+ people countrywide who will be left without a salary in 3 months, when their compensation packages run out. The economy will certainly collapse. If, however, this collapse will help to stop the hostilities, we can live with this and go back to planting potatoes and cooking rice — our generation has the necessary skills acquired back in the 1990s. And, when you think about the sufferings of the people in Ukraine, you tend to forget that your cup of coffee is more expensive than before and you can’t use your iPhone to pay for it. I wish, morning and night, that the hostilities stop and people stop dying. On both sides. Once this happens, I will happily start planting potatoes in my gortn and watch with my usual sense of humor what else our stupid government might invent to make the situation inside the country even more absurd.”

When I asked her if she felt safe, she answered: “About feeling safe — well, yes and no. Nothing bad has so far happened either to myself or to any of my immediate friends. But now almost anything you say in good faith (like, writing to you and saying that a war is a war) can technically be turned against you. And yes — we can’t complain, because we’re not being bombed. Sometimes feeling safe means feeling ashamed for your safety.”

If you think the enemy is the enemy, and that they’re all the same — think again. The enemy can be someone you know well, a dear friend or even your own brother. If I were in Davidson’s place, I would steal bullets myself so that they don’t end up killing my brother. I might even, as the policeman in the story feared, blow up the whole munitions factory.



Sheva Zucker is a Yiddish instructor and the author of the Yiddish textbook, “Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature & Culture”

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