Fire in the Town, 1914

By Yitzhak Wolpe, as told to David Wolpe

First published in the 1950 anniversary book, Keidan Sick Benefit & Benevolent Society of Johannesburg.

1.

It was 1914, late spring, just a week after the holiday of Shavuot. The air in our small town was light, sunny and fragrant. To us children the days were like giant, blue-speckled flowers with burning golden centers. And the nights, filled with sweet, intoxicating breezes, would rock us to sleep amid silver dreams.

It was on one such night—whether it was after Shabbat, or else just an ordinary Wednesday, I can’t now recall—that the comfortable fabric of my dreams was ripped asunder by a familiar but frightened voice:

“Wake the children, quick! Yitzhak … Itsikl, get up! My child, the house is on fire!”

Mother stood by my bed, looking pale, her blue eyes tearful.

Keidan’s center from the Neviazhe bridge after the 1914 fire.

I bolted up and sat, confused, on the edge of my bed, not knowing what was happening. Through the windowpane a dreadful light flapped crimson wings, clawing at our windows with a menacing blackness.

“What is it, Mama?” I stammered, barely able to cry out.

“Take the little children and run with them to Grandma’s! Father and I may still be able to save something.”

I was not yet twelve years old, but suddenly I found myself thrown into adulthood. There was danger. I had to help. I had responsibility … a job to do … duty! In that instant I became a grown-up. Fear left me. I quickly put on my short pants and jacket, and stood ready, no longer terrified by the flames climbing in at the windows. Now I know that on that night my fate was sealed, and the course of my later life set. From that night I became an independent person. And in our home, life was never the same again.

My smallest brother, Elimelekh, still an infant, was still lying in bed. The next oldest, Avraham, was also still a small, helpless child. Mother packed up both children and entrusted them to my care. I left the house with them. It was a mild summer midnight. As long as I live I won’t forget that night.

The neighboring house was engulfed in flames and smoke; it crackled like a dry pile of kindling. Jews cursed and ran around like poisoned mice, back and forth; women moaned and writhed – it appeared the town had gone completely mad.

Through the tumult and confusion I strained with all my senses not to lose my little brothers. The horrible scene was reflected in their eyes, and in my childish heart there was only sadness. The house of our neighbor the tar dealer was burning like a torch, and the air turned sharp and biting from the tar smoke. I ran with the little ones to the middle of the market square, where we fell, exhausted, to the ground.

The fire had spread among the other houses. Women ran around holding small children in their arms, and men carried bundles of bedding. There was much wailing as everything was already enveloped in flame. My little heart grew heavier as I waited nervously for Father and Mother to arrive. The flickering light of the fire was reflected in my brothers’ innocent faces, like the wings of a trapped bird…

I gathered up my courage and waited. Waited and watched over the little ones, like a faithful dog watches over his master’s property. In my childish head was only one thought, repeated endlessly: Nothing must happen to the children!

Part of the old town after the 1914 Keidan fire.

So we stayed and waited for a long time in the middle of the market square, while the fire devoured one house after another. With me then was one more stunned and confused person, my older sister Esther. But mother had entrusted the children to me, and I felt it was I who carried the responsibility for them. And indeed, the children remained safe.

Only in the morning, when daylight flooded the smoking ruins of the town, was I able to read in Father’s sad face and Mother’s weeping eyes what an enormous tragedy had occurred. I ran out into the street, but was forced to come back immediately because the scene in the street oppressed me fearfully: Our house, the workshop, the store and warehouse had been wiped out, without a trace. But the fire had been put out here, right by our shop; everything beyond it remained intact. Father and Mother had saved only a little merchandise from the store before the fire reached it.

From then our troubles began, one after the other, linked in a chain, like a punishment from on high upon our family.

2.

Right after the fire we moved in with my grandma Leah, my mother’s mother. Such a pious woman was hard to find even in those days. She was a saint who asked for nothing in this life, a woman whose heart held nothing but goodwill and mercy for all, strangers as well as her own kin. She gave charity anonymously, and devoted herself to raising her children, instilling in them a spirit of goodness and honesty. I still recall how proud it made me, even as a little boy, to hear people speak of my grandma’s virtues. More than once I heard it said that such a fine woman, a woman without a mean bone in her body, came along once in ten generations, and I was fortunate to be in her presence daily.

But then Father became terribly sick. Our misfortune had dealt him too hard a blow; the colossal exertion and stress during the fire had ruined his health, and in a short time left him wrecked in body and spirit. He needed to be taken to a major specialist in a large city, or so decreed the doctors of our little town. There he had to remain several weeks in a clinic, under the constant care of the medical professionals there. And quite miraculously, Father returned to health and became himself again.

But a new affliction already awaited our family. On the very day that father left the hospital, as we awaited him with happy hearts, war was declared, the Great War of 1914. And right away, before he even had a chance to get home, he was obliged to report to the military. That was the order: to immediately report for duty in whatever district one happened to be at the time.

We had hopes at first that Father, following such a serious illness, would not be taken from us. But we all were bitterly disappointed, as Father was quickly drafted and mobilized. He had been born in St. Petersburg and spoke a fine, polished Russian, and that proved his undoing. The army needed educated men like him immediately, the military commission declared, and they dispatched him straightaway to Grodno.

On Mother’s shoulders descended the burden of making a living and at the same time caring for five small children. We children felt as though we had been robbed of the precious and beloved thing we called Daddy. Our longing for him doubled and multiplied with each passing day. We didn’t exactly know what it was that had torn our father from us, but we heard the grown-ups talking of something called a war, and we came to understand that this thing, war, was to blame.

Consumed with the daily chores and troubles, Mother no longer had time to care for us, and we were left suddenly without the warmth and tenderness that other children enjoyed. As the oldest, I, a twelve-year-old, was suddenly launched into a new life, the tough life of a grown-up. I was appointed head of the household.

Like an apple grows ripe in the sun, so did I, in a short time, grow ripe from troubles. Childish games and pastimes ceased to interest me. Our life turned joyless as I earnestly took up the functions of household head, who had to worry about his little brothers. Carrying responsibilities that were greater than my years strengthened my spirit and energy, and in some ways tamed and replaced my childhood yearnings.

Mother had it very hard. But the stress and loneliness never made her bitter, and she never was heard complaining about her fate. No task was too difficult if it was for us, and she never appeared jealous or held a grudge against the neighbors whose lot was far better than ours.

With the little bit of merchandise that had been rescued and a little saved-up cash, Mother restarted the business. She would stand in the store until late in the evening, while I stayed in the workshop, keeping an eye on the children. In the quiet hours when they played or slept, I would help with the sewing. Our workshop and our living quarters were together. We had a cap factory, where we sewed hats and other fur goods. Learning that trade well as a young boy gave me a certain self-confidence in later life.

By then I understood what a war was, and that Father probably would not be coming home soon, and I accustomed myself to a stone-hard life, devoid of ordinary childish joys and hopes. Late at night, tired, I would fall asleep with sorrow gnawing at my heart; I knew that we lacked the love that other children had, but Mother’s pale blue eyes, moist with gratitude, gave me quiet comfort.

“My child, my Itsikl,” she would say, “you’re my only support now. My beloved child, may the Lord reward you with happiness and success in your life.”

That small bit of mother-love sustained me in those days.

3.

That life made me an old child, with a sense of judgement and responsibility. I came to understand that working more meant earning more, and earning more meant living better. One had to exert oneself, so we contracted to sew for the military, and I became a little entrepreneur. This didn’t come easily to me, because all the businesslike calculations required years of experience. And very often I would find myself feeling helpless and inferior, not knowing how to handle our problems. That deeply affected my mood and spirit.

I also had to do the hard housework – carrying water from the nearby river, cutting wood and lighting the oven, putting the children to bed and rocking them to sleep at night. We more than filled up the little house, so I had to sleep with my brother Avraham above the stove …

Nearly a year went by. The river behind our home dried up. Outside it turned warm, and mild breezes blew. With the coming of spring our souls grew lighter, and it seemed to me that new hope would sprout for our family.

Around Passover our family was destined to grow larger: We were getting a new little brother, and we children took the news with great rejoicing. This brought a new division of labor among us; my sister, still then a little girl, had to take over Mother’s duties in the shop. It was pitiful to observe such a dainty creature dealing all day with the village peasants, who were typically drunk and coarse. My authority as head of the house broadened, with vastly increased responsibiilties: Watching over the children and acting as both nanny and tutor, besides helping with the sewing; carrying water and tending the fire, all as before. Still, that year, I would sometimes steal a few minutes late in the evening to read a storybook. I had had to give up my schooling early – there was no time or opportunity for it – but reading was for me like a glimpse into a beautiful, carefree world, each book a magic land to be discovered. Dead tired, I would fall asleep late by the weak night-lamp and creep above the oven to my “bed.” Awakening in the morning, I would try to recall the stories and in my childish way, fantasize about their further course …

Passover came and went. And again the blooming blue days and nights of silver graced our poor little town, like a magic charm hanging overhead. For reasons I couldn’t then comprehend, our baby brother didn’t have his circumcision on time, and it was already getting toward Shavuot again. Mother said: “Already a year since our great misfortune! Perhaps, my little joy, you will bring luck to our home?” And her tear-streaming eyes beamed at the baby’s face, which was already red from crying.

The days were restless. Jews bustled about, whispering assorted rumors of pogroms and harsh government decrees that were occurring in other towns and villages, and were likely to make their way here as well soon.

The air became dense and black, laden with heavy clouds. Our little town filled up with soldiers, who took over market and the surrounding streets when the military barracks ran out of room. The Jewish houses became sad and cheerless as hordes of booted, bearded, cursing Russians spread fear among the people. Here and there the Cossacks assaulted Jews, taking their money and merchandise, and issuing “assurances” that the time was soon coming when they would make an end of the “zhids” … Jews sat in their houses as if on hot coals, and waited for salvation.

No salvation came. Instead, there came an order from the military high command, that within three days, all Jews had to leave Kovno province.

“What are we to do now? How can we travel, for who knows how long, with a baby not yet circumcised?” Mother’s grief burst out, and she ran around madly seeking advice from rabbis and others.

Despite all the confusion, when word got out that the circumcision was still to be performed, all the women of the town gathered at our house. As I recall it, each one asked that the baby be named for a near relative or friend, suggesting that the namesake had been of such merit that his heavenly worth would help us survive our ordeal.

“Such righteousness will help us all, Chaye-Libe my dearest! … Name him after my grandpa, do you hear? He was a holy man, a saint!” Thus did the women argue their cases, each trying to convince my mother of the great merit of their sanctified uncles or aunts. But Mother was not impressed.

The honor was finally given to Sara-Leah, a cousin of granny Badanes (father’s mother), who named the baby after her husband. The circumcision was performed two days before we left, in haste and fear amid the boxes and bedding. Our things were already packed for the journey, and there we were, having a celebration – but quietly, secretly, lest we arouse the curiosity of the gentiles and the thieving Cossacks. And so we quit our little town carrying a new little brother who had a new name – Yisrael.

We traveled different paths, however. Because of the baby’s recent circumcision, Mother had to travel with all her children on the train that the government had prepared to evacuate the Jews. It was a terrible hardship, traveling right after a circumcision in a crowded rail carriage, with no water or medications to be found. Upon my back fell the responsibility for the few poor possessions we had left. There was no one else to rely on but me, the oldest in the family, so we hired a cart, on which we packed up all the household items and the merchandise. And down the highway, through towns already half-abandoned by Jews, I and the wagon driver ventured off, exiles in the world. We dragged ourselves through the heat and dust to Vilna.

I had just turned twelve years old, but I was already the family guardian.

It was three days before Shavuot. The fields made me drunk with their sweet spring smells. I lay half-slumbering, my insides rocking back and forth with the goods and my heart repressing tears. I felt lonely and lost, but I knew that I had to watch over the property that had been entrusted to me. I understood that this was all we had, and from this we had to earn our living until Father returned from the war.

On the road we had to stop, hide in the woods or drive out of our way in order to avoid the villages, where gentiles were known to have robbed Jews. Because of the fear of thieves our short trip took much longer, and Mother was beside herself with worry. Eventually, however, our long wanderings ended and we came safely to Vilna, and Mother greeted us with tears of joy.

Translated by A. Cassel.[1]

[1] This translation incorporates a second version of the story, which appears under the title “Di Opgebrente Heym” (The Burned-up Home) in the book “Heymen, Khaloymes, Koshmarn” (Homes, Dreams, Nightmares) by David Wolpe, Johannesburg, 1987. Where names and details differ between the two versions, we have used the later one.