I hail from a town, which has made a great name for itself in the world; everywhere, in every corner of the Diaspora, its name is known and stories are told about it, hundred-year-old Chelm stories.
It was a small town, a poor, and, it is said, a foolish one. As in the stories – Chelm fools, or as they are also called, Chelm sages. But there is no wise man whose wisdom is such as to be as famous in the world as the stupidity of Chelm, with the mere exception of King Solomon himself.
Most stories revolve around the needs of the community; almost everything becomes a common cause, everyone is a busybody in communal affairs and assemblies are held. Assemblies are held about everything and problems breed problems. There is a rabbi, there is a parnes khodesh. But Chelm, the Jewish Chelm, is a democracy as old as its stories, the oldest democracy in Europe: if anyone has anything to say, an assembly is summoned and he is given the floor, and a story, which is in part a dream, unravels: every word in it is plain reality, but how it happens – only in dreams can events happen such as those in the story, which already in the very old days warned against bigots and wretched fanatics, who are capable of destroying everything in order to achieve their goal.
Such a warning is seen in the story of the beam which was needed to build a new beys medresh. It was a very long, very heavy beam, and when it was carried breadthways, the street was too narrow; when it was to be carried lengthways, those who stood on its left, rear side pushed forward, while the others insisted on their right to be the first to arrive with the beam to the new holy place; and as a result, after a boisterous gathering on the spot, the left end was chopped off to stop those ones from making a fuss. However, as there were still two ends, the right end was also chopped off and that was it, no more privileges. Then, the left one again, and the right one, but seeing that there would soon be nothing left of the beam, they razed the street, tore down the walls, demolished the houses and carried it, the beam, across the ruins –equally breadthways.
And, it was written down in the pinkas that no matter how much you cut a beam, it still has the right end and the left end.
The twentieth century, however, came to us a little late. It had, so to speak, kept a distance to begin with. I mean here, of course, mainly the technological progress of our century. Why it was that way is a chapter in itself. There was one factory with a whistle, an iron foundry. No Jews worked in it, but not because the Jews did not want to cast iron. The Jews were artisans; they tailored and cobbled, built and painted. They were wool-spinners, hat-makers and watch-makers. There were contracts, markets, and they stood with tea stalls in the streets: tea with snacks for the peasants who traveled with their peasant women to town at the end of the summer for a festival. The Jews wished one another the following: a good day and a good year, go safely, may you come upon a kosher find.
They did what they could: recited a psalm, studied a chapter of the Mishnah, or just popped into a Hassidic prayer house. But as for casting iron, this they did not do.
But we still had the whistle: as soon as the whistle from the factory was heard, the inhabitants of the Jewish homes glanced at the wall clocks, took out the pockets watches, opened their covers and looked: this one’s clock was a little fast, that one’s was behind by a couple of minutes, or had stopped. Good that the Polish workers went to lunch and to work by the whistle.
What also whistled, with an entirely different meaning, was the train. True, the station was a distance away from the town’s center. But the people heard it and understood very well: when a train, a far-away, unfamiliar one, whistled as it sped past, “O-ho-ho, it is dawning in Pińczów already!” – It took with it a piece of one’s heart. Sometimes, the whistle came almost as close as the postman. Quite often, in the night, it caught up with you like the mooing of the oxen in the slaughterhouse.
I remember when I saw the train for the first time: how mightily the locomotive puffed, I even started to inch backwards in terror. I was calmed down, but that same moment the locomotive’s eye – so big, round and red – lit up, and how this eye, all bloody and fiery, took a look, a staring look at our ancient town.
It was explained to me that it was the distance; the train, I was told, came from as far away as Warsaw and had been running all the way; but every time, long after that, when I heard people say, “the twentieth century”, I saw the bloodshot eye of a locomotive, heard the boiling inside it, heard it seething, hissing and puffing, and leaking water between its wheels.
Once, it had to be at that time, that a large, most outlandish lamp was brought over.
Whoever saw the lamp believed afterwards everything they heard and did not see with their own eyes.
The town had of course gas lamps for lighting at night. These were four-sided lanterns, wider at the top and narrower at the bottom, on low posts, and inside, between the dirty panes, small oil lamps with pot-bellied sooty glass sides were burning. And if it still was not light enough, first, it is for darkness that God created night. Second, every lamp that burned in a house gave light for the street, too. Every house was a light in the night – unless there was no money for lamp oil. Most importantly, however, there were the skies. The town had skies with stars, within a hand’s reach: our stars were bogged in mud.
But the light of the new outlandish lamp, which was hung in the middle of the market, was said to have been so great that standing quite far from the lamp, it was possible to read a letter, count money, even thread a needle. At daytime, people went to gape at the lamp, what it looked like. At night, they came to see how it burned.
I asked Father to take me along.
It was a cool summer night. To get to the market from our street, one had to go up some steps because the market and the main street were on a hill, which was a valley compared to a higher hill, also with steps leading up, where, at the very top, the churches stood.
Our steps emitted a Jewish groan. We came across some other people who were going to look at the lamp. It was dark, but people recognized one another by voice. We talked in order to know who was going. One voice said he had seen the lamp burning already yesterday when it was being tested. Another voice said that in Lublin, such lamps had long been burning in every street, and it said it as if to comfort someone who sighed, but we could not say who it was: sometimes it was this one, another time, someone else.
Having reached the upper street, we saw a tall, dusty paleness over the roofs: we walked faster, faster and – there it was!
Our eyes were momentarily dazzled as if the full moon had descended from the skies and remained hanging on a tall post by the side of the marketplace. No, the moon is round. The lamp was longish like an egg, and the blinding light was bluish, like a duck’s egg.
Oh, the skies had laid an egg, the Chelm skies had laid a huge duck egg, and it was hung on a tall post by the side of the market.
It was monstrous.
My eyes could barely take it. And all around there were people, so many that I moved closer to my father so as not to lose him amid this bizarre sight, but they could be seen only from the front, only their lit parts. The Jews were standing at some distance, in a very wide half circle opposite the lamp and looked in silence, while the pale blue light lay silently on their bearded faces, on fragments of their dark kaftans. The light was like daylight of an day in the world to come.
I heard someone speak, but when I wanted to see who it was I saw that everyone was silent. And the silent Jews looked cold and pale, cold and pale like the living dead.
I tugged my father by the pocket of his kaftan: let’s go home.
And when we turned around to go, I stopped dead before the darkness, as if I had suddenly gone blind.
Pitch-black darkness fell upon us. Where were the houses? There was no sign of windows, of stars – a night without skies. I only felt the lumpy ground beneath my feet.
Never, never had our town been so dark.
My Father held me by the hand, but I was shivering and could not walk. I heard a child crying. I was sure that somewhere here was the menace Volodya, who would always throw stones at us Jewish boys from hiding places, and now I sensed his presence before my eyes with a stone in his hand, but did not see him.
My teeth were chattering. I wanted to shout “Mommy” and felt ashamed in front of my Father. His big hand was warm, and his voice, which said, “Come, don’t fall, come, come, don’t fall,” – his voice was as warm as his hand.
A song that seamstresses used to sing, “Cold and dark as in the grave,” came from somewhere, and I could not forget the silent Jews in the half circle opposite the lamp at the marketplace.
The song, quiet and drawn-out, “Co-o-old and dark as in the gra-a-ve”, did not let me forget that the Jews were pale like the dead and spoke with silent faces as the dead spoke in the great synagogue before midnight until the rooster crowed and they were gone, back to their rest.
Never, never had our town been as dark as in the night when we saw the great light.