Chaper 2 of the The Accidental Anarchist
As summer dwindled to an end, a familiar pall of fear began to descend upon our village. Soon it would be the fifteenth of September, a date that struck terror even in the breasts of mothers who were still suckling their sons. For on that day, all young men of military age became subject to immediate conscription into the Russian army.
Do I need to paint a picture of what it meant in 1902, particularly for an Orthodox Jew, to be pitchforked into the Czar’s army? Our parents’ terror was due only in part to the knowledge that we would be exposed to the traditional dangers and discomforts of military service, but also that we would be subjected to the mercies and whims of superiors who would as soon torment a Jew as scratch themselves. (Such inconveniences were not exactly unknown, even in Vishigrod, among one’s own, good Polish neighbors.)
But what Jewish parents dreaded most was the prospect, amply shown to be true, of returning soldiers who, within less than four years, would come home coarsened, brutalized, Russianized and with scarcely a spark of human (that is, Jewish) feeling left in them. Thus, every home rang with heated family conferences, all dedicated to the search for some means by which an innocent child could be preserved from the fatal clutches of Vanya’s army (A nickname for ‘Ivan;’ used as a general term referring to all Russians).
For the rich, there was no problem: they bought their way out. For the poor, however, there was only one avenue of escape: self-mutilation. And since there were any number of equally frightful possibilities to choose from, long evenings of consultation took place.
My Aunt Tzivia strongly recommended a man who would draw out all my teeth. Feibush, the bath attendant, held that the surest remedy would be for me to blind myself in my right eye, without which one cannot aim a rifle. And my Uncle Yonah, never at a loss, knew a man skilled in the art of severing a tendon at the knee. Had I accepted even half the suggestions offered to me, I should not only have escaped military service, but would have ended up a cripple such as the world had never seen. None of these schemes, I am glad to say, found favor with my parents.
Although no one had bothered to ask me, I hadn’t the slightest intention of maiming myself. In fact, the prospect of becoming the Czar’s eydem oyf kest ( Yiddish: Supported or ‘kept’ son-in-law) for three years and eight months did not strike me as the world coming to an end. I hadn’t spent but a short time back in Vishogrod before I became eager for more thrills. I longed only to be sent to the front lines and earn my share of adventures and medals before it was all over and I was obliged to return to Vishogrod and put the humdrum remainder of my life into some matchmaker’s hands.
When we prepared to leave our home town – I, full of idiot enthusiasm, and my friend since boyhood, Chaim Glasnik, with a prophetically long face – his mother seized my arm in two trembling hands and pleaded with me to stay close to her son so that we might protect each other. She swore that, if anything happened to him, she would not survive him by even one minute. By the time she was done, my eyes were drowning in tears, while Glasnik merely stood to one side squirming, pretending that she was someone else’s mother.
Too tearful to speak, I simply nodded my agreement. When I felt comfortable exercising my voice again, Glasnik and I pledged to each other that, should either one of us not return from the war, we would take each other’s parents into our own home and “honor and support them all the days of their lives.” So inspired were we by our generosity that we went further, adding that, if either of us returned to find ourselves orphaned, “My father will be your father, and my home will be your home, for all the days of your life.”
On the appointed day, in such a downpour as might have swamped Noah’s Ark, I was accompanied to the meeting place not only by my near and distant relatives, but also acquaintances who seemed to have come solely for the purpose of adding their tears to the puddles made by the rain. As I said my goodbyes, I stood tall and upright, trying to look older than my face, which only sparingly released those quills of manhood. But anyone would have looked taller than Glasnik whose head seemed poised in advance of his body, never quite certain where it wanted to be.
In that gloomy spirit, we climbed into one of the open wagons with the other 21-year old boys from our district who hadn’t found a way to avoid serving in the Czar’s army. My soldier’s baggage consisted primarily of a canvas-covered box that my mother had filled with bread, herring, chicken fat, and sausages. (Those who did not intend to touch Vanya’s unclean food until they have absolutely no choice had to stock up on such things).
As our wagon prepared to depart, my father, alone, expressed his sorrow by remaining mostly silent. But it was only his three parting words that continued to ring in my ears long after the cart had taken me away. All he said was, “Be a Jew.”
To read chapter 1 click here: The Accidental Anarchist – Chapter 1