Fastov the Pogromed

⁠—Our little company slowly trudges along the unpaved, dusty road that runs almost in a straight line to the marketplace in the center of the city. The place seems deserted. The houses stand vacant, most of them windowless, their doors broken in and ajar⁠—an oppressive sight of destruction and desolation. All is silent about us; we feel as in a graveyard. Approaching the marketplace our group separates, each of us going his own way to learn for himself.

A woman passes by, hesitates, and stops. She pushes the kerchief back from her forehead, and looks at me with wonderment in her sad old eyes.

“Good morning,” I address her in Jewish.

“You are a stranger here,” she says kindly. “You don’t look like our folks.”

“Yes,” I reply, “I am not long from America.”

“Ah, from Amerikeh,” she sighs wistfully. “I have a son there. And do you know what is happening to us?”

“Not very much, but I’d like to find out.”

“Oh, only the good God knows what we have gone through.” Her voice breaks. “Excuse me, I can’t help it”⁠—she wipes the tears off her wrinkled face. “They killed my husband before my eyes.⁠ ⁠… I had to look on, helpless.⁠ ⁠… I can’t talk about it.⁠ ⁠…” She stands dejectedly before me, bent more by grief than age, like a symbol of abject tragedy.

Recovering a little, she says: “Come with me, if you want to learn. Come to Reb Moishe, he can tell you everything.”

We are in the market. A double row of open stalls, no more than a dozen in all, dilapidated and forlorn-looking, almost barren of wares. A handful of large-grained, coarse salt, some loaves of black bread thickly dotted with yellow specks of straw, a little loose tobacco⁠—that is all the stock on hand. Almost no money is passing in payment. The few customers are trading by exchange: about ten pounds of bread for a pound of salt, a few pipefuls of tobacco for an onion. At the counters stand oldish men and women, a few girls among them. I see no young men. These, like most of the able-bodied men and women, I am informed, had stealthily left the town long ago, for fear of more pogroms. They went on foot, some to Kiev, others to Kharkov, in the hope of finding safety and a livelihood in the larger city. Most of them never reached their destination. Food was scarce⁠—they had gone without provisions, and most of them died on the way from exposure and starvation.

The old traders surround me. “Khaye,” they whisper to the old woman, “who is this?”

“From Amerikeh,” she replies, a ray of hopefulness in her voice; “to learn about the pogroms. We are going to Reb Moishe.”

“From Amerikeh? Amerikeh?” Amazement, bewilderment is in their tones. “Did he come so far to find us? Will they help us? Oh, good God in Heaven, may it be true!” Several voices speak at once all astir with the suppressed excitement of sudden hope, of renewed faith. More people crowd about us; business has stopped. I notice similar groups surrounding my friends nearby.

“Shah, shah, good people,” my guide admonishes them; “not everybody at once. We are going to see Reb Moishe; he’ll tell him everything.”

“Oh, one minute, just one minute, respected man,” a pale young woman desperately clutches me by the arm. “My husband is there, in Amerikeh. Do you know him? Rabinovitch⁠—Yankel Rabinovitch. He is well known there; surely you must have heard of him. How is he, tell me, please.”

“In what city is he?”

“In Nai-York, but I haven’t had any letter from him since the war.”

“My son-in-law Khayim is in Amerikeh,” a woman, her hair all white, interrupts; “maybe you saw him, what?” She is very old and bent, and evidently hard of hearing. She places her hand back of her ear to catch my reply, while her wizened, lemon-like face is turned up to me in anxious expectation.

“Where is your son-in-law?”

“What does he say? I don’t understand,” she wails.

The bystanders shout in her ear: “He asks where Khayim, your son-in-law, is?”

“In Amerikeh, in Amerikeh,” she replies.

“In Amerikeh,” a man near me repeats.

“America is a big country. In what city is Khayim?” I inquire.

She looks bewildered, then stammers: “I don’t know⁠—I don’t recollect just now⁠—I⁠—”

Bobeh,36 you have his letter at home,” a small boy shouts in her ear. “He wrote you before the fighting started, don’t you remember?”

“Yes, yes! Will you wait, gutinker?”37 the old woman begs. “I’m going right away to fetch the letter. Maybe you know my Khayim.”

She moves heavily away. The others ply me with questions, about their relatives, friends, brothers, husbands. Almost everyone of them has someone in that far-off America, which is like a fabled land to these simple folk⁠—the land of promise, peace, and wealth, the happy place from which but few return.

“Maybe you will take a letter to my husband?” a pale young woman asks. All at once a dozen persons begin to clamor for permission to write and send their letters through me to their beloved ones, “there in Amerikeh.” I promise to take their mail, and the crowd slowly melts away, with a pleading admonition to wait for them. “Only a few words⁠—we’ll be right back.”

“Let us go to Reb Moishe,” my guide reminds me. “They know,” she adds, with a wave at the others, “they’ll bring their letters there.”

As we start on our way a tall man with jet-black beard and burning eyes detains me. “Be so good, one minute.” He speaks quietly, but with a strong effort to restrain his emotion. “I have no one in America,” he says; “I have no one anywhere. You see this house?” There is a nervous tremor in his voice, but he steadies, himself. “There, across the way, with the broken windows, paper-covered, pasted over. My old father, the Almighty bless his memory, and my two young brothers were killed there. Cut to pieces with sabers. The old man had his peyes38 cut off, together with his ears, and his belly ripped open.⁠ ⁠… I ran away with my daughter, to save her. Look, there she is, at the third stall on the right.” His eyes, stream with tears as he points towards a girl standing a few feet away. She is about fifteen, oval faced, with delicate features, pale and fragile as a lily, and with most peculiar eyes. She is looking straight before her, while her hands are mechanically cutting chunks of bread from the big round loaf. There is the same dreadful expression in her eyes that I have recently seen for the first time in the faces of very young girls in pogromed cities. A look of wild terror frozen into a stare that grips at my heart. Yet, not realizing the truth, I whisper to her father, “Blind?”

“No, not blind;” he cries out. “Wish to God⁠—no, much worse. She has been looking like that ever since the night when I ran away from our house with her. It was a fearful night. Like wild beasts they cut and slashed and raved. I hid with my Rosele in the cellar, but we were not safe there, so we ran to the woods nearby. They caught us on the way. They took her from me and left me for dead. Look⁠—” He takes off his hat and I see a long sword cut, only partly healed, scarring the side of his head. “They left me for dead,” he repeats. “When the murderers had gone, three days later, she was found in the field and she has been like that⁠ ⁠… with that look in her eyes⁠ ⁠… she hasn’t talked since.⁠ ⁠… Oh, my God, why dost Thou punish me so?”

“Dear Reb Sholem, do not blaspheme,” my woman guide admonishes him. “Are you the only one to suffer? You know my great loss. We all share the same fate. It has always been the fate of us Jews. We know not the ways of God, blessed be His holy name. But let us go to Reb Moishe,” she says, turning to me.

Behind the counter of what was once a grocery store stands Reb Moishe. He is a middle-aged Hebrew, with an intelligent face that now bears only the memory of a kindly smile. An old resident of the town and elder in the synagogue, he knows every inhabitant and the whole history of the place. He had been one of the well-to-do men of the city, and even now he cannot resist the temptation of hospitality, so traditional with his race. Involuntarily his eyes wander to the shelves entirely bare save for a few empty bottles. The room is dingy and out of repair; the wall paper hangs down in cracked sheets, exposing the plaster, yellow with moisture. On the counter are some loaves of black bread, straw dotted, and a small tray with green onions. Reb Moishe bends over, produces a bottle of soda from under the counter, and offers the treasure to me, with a smile of benign welcome. A look of consternation spreads over the face of his wife, who sits darning silently in the corner, as Reb Moishe shamefacedly declines the proferred payment. “No, no, I cannot do it,” he says with simple dignity, but I know it as the height of sacrifice.

Learning the purpose of my visit to Fastov, Reb Moishe invites me to the street. “Come with me,” he says; “I’ll show you what they did to us. Though there is not much for the eyes”⁠—he looks at me with searching gaze⁠—“only those who lived through it can understand, and maybe”⁠—he pauses a moment⁠—“maybe also those who really feel with us in our great bereavement.”

We step out of the store. Across is a large vacant space, its center littered with old boards and broken bricks. “That was our schoolhouse,” Reb Moishe comments. “This is all that’s left of it. That house on your left, with the shutters closed, it was Zalman’s, our schoolteacher’s. They killed six there⁠—father, mother, and four children. We found them all with their heads broken by the butts of guns. There, around the corner, the whole street⁠—you see, every house pogromed. We have many such streets.”

After a while he continues: “In this house, with the green roof, the whole family was wiped out⁠—nine persons. The murderers set fire to it, too⁠—you can see through the broken doors⁠—the inside is all burned and charred. Who did it?” he repeats my question in a tone of hopelessness. “Better ask who did not? Petlura came first, then Denikin, and then the Poles, and just bands of every kind; may the black years know them. There were many of them, and it was always the same curse. We suffered from all of them, every time the town changed hands. But Denikin was the worst of all, worse even than the Poles, who hate us so. The last time the Denikins were here the pogrom lasted four days. Oh, God!”

He suddenly halts, throwing up his hands. “Oh, you Americans, you who live in safety, do you know what it means, four days! Four long, terrible days, and still more terrible nights, four days and four nights and no letup in the butchery. The cries, the shrieks, those piercing shrieks of women seeing their babies torn limb from limb before their very eyes.⁠ ⁠… I hear them now.⁠ ⁠… It freezes my blood with horror.⁠ ⁠… It drives me mad.⁠ ⁠… Those sights.⁠ ⁠… The bloody mass of flesh that was once my own child, my lovely Mirele.⁠ ⁠… She was only five years old.” He breaks down. Leaning against the wall, his body shakes with sobs.

Soon he recovers himself. “Here we are in the center of the worst pogromed part,” he continues. “Forgive my weakness; I can’t speak of it with dry eyes.⁠ ⁠… There is the synagogue. We Jews sought safety in it. The Commander told us to. His name? May evil be as strange to me as his dark name. One of Denikin’s generals; the Commander, that’s what he was called. His men were mad with blood lust when there was nothing more to rob. You know, the soldiers and peasants think there is gold to be found in every Jewish home. This was once a prosperous city, but the rich men that did business with us lived in Kiev and Kharkov. The Jews here were just making a living, with a few of them comfortably off. Well, the many pogroms long ago robbed them of all they had, ruined their business, and despoiled their homes. Still, they lived somehow. You know how it is with the Jew⁠—he is used to mistreatment, he tries to make the best of it. But Denikin’s soldiers⁠—oh, it was Gehenna let loose. They went wild when they found nothing to take, and they destroyed what they didn’t want. That was the first two days. But with the third began the killing, mostly with swords and bayonets. On the third day the Commander ordered us to take refuge in the synagogue. He promised us safety, and we brought our wives and children there. They put a guard at the door, to protect us, the Commander said. It was a trap. At night the soldiers came; all the hooligans of the town were with them, too. They came and demanded our gold. They would not believe we had none. They searched the Holy Scrolls, they tore them and trampled upon them. Some of us could not look quietly on that awful desecration. We protested. And then began the butchery. The horror, oh, the horror of it.⁠ ⁠… The women beaten, assaulted, the men cut down with sabers.⁠ ⁠… Some of us broke through the guard at the door, and we ran into the streets. Like hounds of hell, they followed us, slashing, killing, and hunting us from house to house. For days afterwards the streets were littered with the killed and maimed. They would not let us approach our dead. They would not permit us to bury them or to help the wounded who were groaning in their misery, begging for death.⁠ ⁠… Not a glass of water could we give them.⁠ ⁠… They shot anyone coming near.⁠ ⁠… The famished dogs of the whole neighborhood came; they smelt prey. I saw them tear off limbs from the dead, from the helpless wounded.⁠ ⁠… They fed on the living⁠ ⁠… on our brothers.⁠ ⁠…”

He broke down again. “The dogs fed on them⁠ ⁠… fed on them⁠ ⁠…” he repeats amid sobs.

Someone approaches us. It is the doctor who had ministered to the sick and wounded after the last pogrom was over. He looks the typical Russian of the intelligentsia, the stamp of the idealist and student engraved upon him. He walks with a heavy limp, and his quick eye catches my unvoiced question. “A memento of those days,” he says, attempting a smile. “It troubles me a good deal and handicaps my work considerably,” he adds. “There are many sick people and I am on my feet all day. There are no conveyances⁠—they took away all the horses and cattle. I am just on my way now to poor Fanya, one of my hopeless patients. No, no, good man, it’s no use your visiting her,” he waives aside my request to accompany him. “It is like many others here; a terrible but common case. She was a nurse, taking care of a paralytic young girl. They occupied a room on the second floor of a house nearby. On the first floor soldiers were quartered. When the pogrom began the soldiers kept the paralytic and her nurse prisoners. What happened there no one will ever know⁠ ⁠… When the soldiers had at last gone we had to use a ladder to get to the girls’ room. The brutes had covered the stairs with human excrement⁠—it was impossible to approach. When we got to the two girls, the paralytic was dead in the arms of the nurse, and the latter a raving maniac. No, no; it’s no use your seeing her.”

“Doctor,” says Reb Moishe, “why don’t you tell our American friend how you got crippled? He should hear everything.”

“Oh, that is not important, Reb Moishe. We have so many worse things.” Upon my insisting, he continues: “Well, it is not a long story. I was shot as I approached a wounded man lying in the street. It was dark, and as I was passing by I heard someone moan. I had just stepped off the sidewalk when I was shot. It was the night of the synagogue pogrom. But my mishap, man⁠—it’s nothing when you think of the nightmare in the warehouse.”

“The warehouse?” I asked. “What happened there?”

“The worst you can imagine,” the doctor replies. “Those scenes no human power can describe. It wasn’t murder there⁠—only a few were killed in the warehouse. It was the women, the girls, even children⁠ ⁠… When the soldiers pogromed the synagogue, many of the women succeeded in gaining the street. As if by some instinct they collected afterwards in the warehouse⁠—a big outhouse that had not been used for many years. Where else were the women to go? It was too dangerous at home; the mob was searching for the men who had escaped from the synagogue and was slaughtering them on the street, in their homes, wherever found. So the women and girls gathered in the warehouse. It was late at night and the place was dark and still. They feared to breathe, almost, lest their hiding-place be discovered by the hooligans. During the night more of the women folk and some of their men also found their way to the warehouse. There they all lay, huddled on the floor in dead silence. The cries and shrieks from the street reached them, but they were helpless and every moment they feared discovery. How it happened we don’t know, but some soldiers did find them. There was no pogrom there, in the ordinary sense. There was worse. The Commander himself gave orders that a cordon of soldiers be stationed at the warehouse, that no pogrom was to be made, and that no one be permitted to leave without his permission. At first we did not understand the meaning of it, but the terrible truth soon dawned on us. On the second night several officers arrived, accompanied by a strong detachment, all mounted and carrying lanterns. By their light they peered into the faces of the women. They selected five of the most beautiful girls, dragged them out and rode away with them. They came again and again that night⁠ ⁠… They came every night, always with their lanterns. First the youngest were taken, girls of fifteen and twelve, even as young as eight. Then they took the older ones and the married women. Only the very old were left. There were over four hundred women and girls in the warehouse, and most of them were taken away. Some of them never returned alive; many were later found dead on the roads. Others were abandoned along the route of the withdrawing army⁠ ⁠… they returned days, weeks later⁠ ⁠… sick, tortured, everyone of them infected with terrible diseases.”

The doctor pauses, then takes me aside. “Can an outsider realize the whole depth of our misfortune?” he asks. “How many pogroms we have suffered! The last one, by Denikin, continued eight days. Think of it, eight days! Over ten thousand of our people were slaughtered; three thousand died from exposure and wounds.” Glancing toward Reb Moishe, he adds in a hoarse whisper: “There is not a woman or girl above the age of ten in our city who has not been outraged. Some of them four, five, as high as fourteen times.⁠ ⁠… You said you were about to go to Kiev. In the City Hospital there you will find seven children, girls under thirteen, that we succeeded in placing there for medical treatment, mostly surgical. Everyone of those girls has been outraged six and more times. Tell America about it⁠—will it still remain silent?”