by Shimon Camiel
SEPTEMBER 1921 - OSTROLENKA, POLAND
Zelig, the troublemaker--the mazik--sneaked out of the synagogue,
unnoticed during Yom Kippur prayers. He breathed in the fresh air. He
had escaped from the musty stuffiness of the house of prayer with its
mumbling and chanting of praise to a God he had ceased to believe in.
The cruelly cramped, hard wooden benches had tortured his legs and back.
He stretched out and took in the sweet breeze of Polish autumn. Birch
trees in the park rustled, the murmur of the Narev River rippling only a
short distance away. Now for freedom and adventure! Yes, adventure.
Today was the day. He had planned it for months--dreamed about it. The
ultimate mischief--the greatest mazik caper possible.
Zelig was thirteen years old.
A short run to the meat market a few blocks east of the synagogue
brought Zelig to the scene of his potential crime. He glanced around
furtively to see if any of the town’s Jews might observe him--but of
course not. During Yom Kippur, they all prayed in the synagogue--at
best--or, at worst--shamefully hid at home with the shades drawn. In
Ostrolenka, the Day of Atonement fell on doubters as well as believers.
Zelig approached the butcher--an enormous, red-faced Polack with arms like legs.
“Dzien dobry panu,” smirked the giant. “Welcome, Dear Sir.” He eyed the
dark, round-faced Zelig. “What the hell does this Jewish kid want here
on his holy day?”
“I want some bacon.”
“ Yes, bacon.”
“What for, you little Jew boy.”
“For my cat.”
“Your cat eats bacon?”
“I want to give my cat a present, Pani. I have money.”
“Psha kref, cholera,” cursed the butcher. “Now I’ve seen everything. A little Kikie Miecki buying bacon for his cat.”
But he relented and took Zelig’s money, slapping a few strips of raw bacon into yesterday’s newspaper.
Zelig grabbed it and took off.
“What next?” shouted the butcher at the other butchers: “Do you know what just happened…”
Zelig headed fast for home with the taboo package burning under his arm.
Up in heaven, God’s all-knowing eyes followed the boy, sensing a
commandment about to be violated.
Zelig arrived at the family home on Berl Yoselevitch Street and went
around the backyard and sat down in the shade of a pine tree. He opened
up the package of bacon and sniffed its fat, smoky aroma. He folded it
back up in the newspaper, pulled a matchbox out of his pocket, elegantly
scratched up a light and flipped it onto the newspaper under the tree.
Shunra the cat arrived.
He said aloud: “Smells good, eh, Shunra?”
The cat meowed and stared at the flames.
“Wait till I taste this bacon--we’ll see if there is a God,” said
Zelig, biting his lip. The pungent bacon aroma filled the air.
He peeled a hot strip of the abomination out of the ashes of the
newspaper, stinging his fingers as he poked the salty piece of treif
into to his mouth.
“NO LIGHTNING BOLT!”
“NO GOD! IT’S ALL A FAKE!” he yelled to high heaven.
Shunra backed away and left the premises for safer ground over by the river.
Zelig downed another strip of bacon, wiped his face with a piece of
unburned newspaper and sauntered back, full of feigned innocence, to the
OSTROLENKA, POLAND: FIVE YEARS LATER
Zelig’s oldest brother, Abe, stepped down from the train. A horde of
rowdy, Jewish carriage drivers advanced toward him, reaching out for his
baggage, tugging at his sleeves, each one pointing toward his own
four-wheeled droshky cart.
“Wait, wait, Goddam it, take your hands off my suitcases--hey you!” he
shouted in Yiddish to a cart driver in line--a Jew with a ratted beard, a
dusty black coat, and mended pants with soiled ritual fringes dangling
down from the corners of his garment.
“Put my bags on your droshky,” commanded Abe. “I need to go to Ostrolenka.”
The driver hoisted the suitcases onto his wagon, and Abe dropped into the seat next to him.
“Dio,” barked the droshky driver. The ancient horse jolted forward with
his cargo, down the dusty road into Ostrolenka only a few miles away to
the west, where the towers of a Catholic church loomed statuesque in the
far distance. Hop vines lined both sides of the road. Abe recognized
the lobed leaves and green flowers of the hops. In his boyhood Yisroel
Chmiel, his father, used to take him to the fields to buy the dried
flowers from the peasants to sell to the local brewery. His own family
name, Chmiel, meant hops, in the Polish language.
The soothing clip-clop of the horse’s hooves tranquilized Abe after his
long trip from America to Poland. The road passed by rows of wheat and
vegetable gardens, by a group of farmers toiling in the fields, filling
their buckets with freshly picked crops and by children picking hops off
the vines. The bucolic scene took him back to his childhood days, those
carefree times before the Great War. In those early years, his life
centered on the family home, the little town square, the green forest
and the murmuring of the river.
Half asleep now, Abe mused about how his family and old friends in Ostrolenka would react to his homecoming.
He figured they would gather together in the park next to the river just
as they used to: the pretty girls on blankets, the young men standing
in back of them. They would listen to him brag about America and he’d
tell them about Louisville with the Ohio River running by the race
track--and, oh yes, his war medals from soldiering in Panama and the
racing magazine that he published and what a good businessman he’d
become. Yes, he would tell them all those things…
“Where is a Jew coming from? inquired the droshky driver, jolting Abe out of his drowsiness. “And who is he visiting?”
I’m visiting the Chmiel family, Reb Wagon Driver, do you know them?”
“Yes, I know them. They’re having a wedding here in a few days. Say,
aren’t you Avramele Chmiel? The one that went away to America? Aren’t
you the son of Reb Yisroel Chmiel?”
I’ve taken your father, Reb Yisroel, to the station many times when he
goes to Warsaw, Bialystock, or Königsberg on business. How happy your
parents will be to see you.”
“Listen,” Abe said, “promise not to tell anyone along the way who I am. I
want to surprise my parents—farshtais?--you understand? If anyone asks,
tell him or her that I’m an English gentleman on a hunting visit.”
“Of course, Reb Avramele, you can count on me. Mum’s the word.”
“What did you say your name is?”
“Chaim Shraiter, Reb Avramele.”
“Here, Chaim,” Abe reached into his pocket and pulled out two fat
cigars. “I have a ten-cent cigar--Lantzman--fellow countryman, straight
from Louisville, Kentucky. One for you and one for me.”
He bent toward the driver to give him a light, but the driver said he preferred to chew his wonderful prize.
“Kentucky, America, Oy veyz mere, I’m in heaven,” Chaim sighed and spit out some tobacco juice.
Now, simple houses of clay and wood appeared on both sides of the road.
White lace curtains hid behind half-opened wooden shutters. In front of
one rustic dwelling, little boys played with sticks, under the shade of
a birch tree. A shawled woman sat on the steps, nursing her baby in the
warm August sun. More modest dwellings appeared--a few with two
stories. The rural road transformed itself into a paved street. It
bordered Ostrolenka, his birthplace.
“Oy, so many years and I’m back here in Ostrolenka,” said Abe.
The droshky turned into a street the Jews called Shul Street. The Gentiles called it Kiliscaga Street.
“Some things have changed and others haven’t,” noted Abe, as the wagon
clicked over cobblestones into the heart of the town. The old wooden
synagogue had ceased to exist. Only an open lot full of weeds marked the
site of the place where Abe (then Abramale) had stood, uncomfortably,
on the bima (the ritual platform), chanting his Bar Mitzvah blessings in
front of the congregation. He had already started on the path of an
nonbeliever by then.
“The old synagogue burnt down by artillery in the Great War,” offered Chaim sadly, “but look next door.”
A proud new synagogue, white and grand, graced the corner lot where once the tumultuous marketplace stood.
As they turned the corner into the town square, Abe saw White birch
trees lining a lush park that displayed comfortable benches, a verdant
lawn, and a kiosk- a pleasant surprise. The town hall, reconstructed
after the Great War, sported a new clock, a red brick façade and an
ornate, iron-grated balcony. The flag of Poland flew above its tower,
almost the height of the church steeples just a few blocks away. In
every direction, paved streets led to rows of substantial two-story
dwellings with red roofs, white plaster walls and even sidewalks,
confirming that Ostrolenka had fast become a city to be reckoned with in
this northeast corner of Poland.
The eyes of passersby on the street focused on the droshky and its
foreigner in the white linen suit. The clock tower above the town hall
showed the hour of six o’clock.
“Who is this man who looks so foreign, yet so familiar?” said Moshe
Rappaport, strolling past the new firehouse with his friend Yankel
“He smiles like someone who is glad to be here. What a sheyne mensch,”
said Shoshana Levitus, one of Ostrolenka’s most eligible maidens,
sitting under the birch trees with her cousin, Feige Freidman.
“They’re all sheyne menschen to you,” said Feige.
“What’s this? A Jew in a linen suit with a cigar?” marveled Reb Yankel
Cohen, crossing the street on his way to the synagogue, for evening
A few of the townspeople, filled with curiosity, followed behind the droshky as it turned left into Berl Yoselevitch Street.
As he approached his parents’ house, Abe’s heart began to thump and his
body shook. He fought back oncoming tears. He saw movement on the other
side of the wooden gate--the flash of a blue shawl –then a female arm
carrying a metal tray.
“Open up, someone is here,” shouted the driver.
The gate latch raised, the heavy portal swung open, and the droshky
moved through, halting inside the courtyard. Abe turned his face away to
hide, holding onto the surprise for as long as possible.
The Chmiels poured out into the yard to see who had arrived and why so
early for the festivities. Abe proudly stepped down from the cart.
Rivka, Abe’s mother, a tiny woman with a jet-black orthodox wig, stood
on the front stairway, struck dumb. She raised her hand over her head.
Mein Gott! Her voice shook and rose. Mein Zinele iz gekumen fin America--my son is here from America.
She waved rapidly, then collapsed to her knees on the steps and pressed
her hands to her bosom. Abe ran to her, hugged her, clasped her tiny
hands and kissed her.
His sisters, Blüme and Chana, cradled their wailing mother. Then Abe’s
two brothers, Daniel and Zelig, crushed him, embraced him, and sobbed
“Oy, Gevalt,” said Moishe, the droshky driver, as he removed the baggage from his cart, “such a simcha--a happy occasion.”
Suddenly, Mother Rivka, as if surfacing from a dream, called out: “Where
is Yisrael, my husband? Go, someone, and bring him here, now!”
Zelig, now eighteen years old, took to his legs and ran toward his
father’s workshop on Melikarska Street, a few blocks away. As his
strides propelled him down the street, he thought about how many years
had passed since this mysterious older brother had fled Ostrolenka for
the new world, according to rumor stealing his mother’s jewels to cover
the cost of a steamship ticket to the United States. Zelig was only a
toddler when Abe’s scandalous deed occurred and remembered nothing about
He arrived at full speed into the workshop.
Yisroel Chmiel and his brother Ephraim sat in the back lot smoking long
Russian cigarettes and plotting another business venture. This
discussion involved a load of silk smuggled across the Polish-German
“What are you so excited about, my goychik?--my little gentile.”
“Papa,” yelled Zelig, “the other goychik is here. He’s come back for the wedding!”
“What other goychik? His Uncle Ephraim winked--well knowing that Zelig might be up to another of his tricks.
“The one from America,” said Zelig.
“Yes, your son is here. He’s at the house right now!”
“Ephraim, we have to go. A great miracle has happened!” said Yisroel, and he dashed down the street.
“Zelig,” puffed Ephraim as they raced down Melinkarska Street, “so help
me this better not be more of your trickery. I won’t forgive you this
Meanwhile, at the Chmiel household, relatives, well-wishers, and the
curious shouted out the news: “Abele is here, Abele is here. He’s
wearing a straw hat. He’s rich as Midas. Look--he’s like a gentile now. A
famous man. A movie star. Look at the big cigar in his mouth!”
Yisroel, Ephraim, and Zelig dashed into the courtyard. Abe heard his
name shouted out over the noise of the crowd, and he rushed toward his
father. They met and hugged as two bears, shouting for joy, bursting
into tears, clutching together, spinning in a circle. Then, regaining
composure, they walked arm in arm, up into the house along with the rest
of the family, all of them barely believing the miracle of Abe’s
Inside the house, Yisroel intoned the ancient blessing for a returning
loved one: “Baruch HaBah”-- Blessed be those who return.
The rest of the Chmiels closely gathered around Abe and repeated, “Baruch HaBah.”
After a while, the family poured into Father Yisroel’s upstairs study
for refreshments: cakes, cookies, a huge plate of herring slices with
onions, and, of course, bottles of vodka.
Brother Daniel said, “L’chaim” and signaled the others to raise their
drinking glasses. And down the vodka went, followed by a jolt of the
salty Baltic herring.
No one mentioned anything about family jewels that Abe may have stolen
to finance his escape from Ostrolenka so many years before.
An hour later, Rivka motioned all of the Chmiels into the dining room
where an enormous, bountiful meal awaited. “Es, es “she encouraged the
eaters. Shem-sach-nisht--don’t be shy--eat more, and more. Mother Rivka
served more appetizers of chopped herring, chopped liver, gefilte fish,
and meat blintzes. Then came a gigantic brisket, a prune tzimmis, sweet
and sour cabbage, more vodka and schnapps, compote, and a hot glass of
tea to finish off the meal.
After the evening meal, more Chmiels arrived--cousins, aunts, second
cousins, and third cousins. They greeted the long-lost Abe from America.
More vodka poured out without the traditional Jewish restraint. Three
of Ostrolenka’s most notable rabbis arrived to bless the occasion and to
sip some vodka. Abe’s frail grandfather, Yitzhak, appeared, and his
sons, Yisroel and Ephraim, helped him to a seat in a corner, his long
patriarchal beard wet with tears and schnapps. Abe lifted up little
nieces and nephews, some shy, some not so shy, all of them getting their
first look at an American, eye to eye.
The relatives finally departed, eager to spread the word around town
about the miraculous events of the day. And a more serious topic of
discussion opened up for the immediate family: the state of the Jews in
Poland, the worst and better of things, the previous and coming trials
Yisroel, the patriarch of the family and an optimist, thought that
things were ‘less bad’ than they had been under the Czar’s rule.
“After all,” he said, “the Polish government is not any worse than the
Russians. Maybe a little better. Yes, there are many anti-Semites in the
government, and much corruption. On the other hand, General Pilsudski
is back in power. He promises to make things better for minority groups
including the Jews, and to clean up the corruption. Maybe he is a man we
Wolf--twenty-five years old, recently married, thin lipped and
noticeably sour, scoffed: “How long do you think Pilsudski will survive,
Papa? He’s not the Messiah, you know. He doesn’t love Jews. He’s
already had one prime minister assassinated, and someone is sure to get
Pilsudski as well. Then the serious anti-Semites will come after us
again. We need to get out of this place before it burns under our feet.
There’s no solution for us here.”
Daniel, the middle brother and a leader in the local Zionist youth group
said, “We must prepare to go to Palestine where we can be masters of
our own fate. There’s no future in Poland.”
“Eight Jews, sixteen opinions,” sighed Yisroel. Then, trying to return
to the joyfulness of the occasion, “How about another schnapps?”
Rivka and her eldest daughter, Blüme, kept the food coming. Of the women
of the house, only Hanche, the youngest, seemed interested in the
political discussions. She quietly nodded or shook her head as the men
touched on each issue. Sixteen years old, too thin by her mother’s
standards, with a serious and intelligent face, Hanche watched her
brothers carefully. Her unmoving eyes hid her own seething, political
Late that night, in the aftershock of Abe’s surprise appearance, after
the enormous meal served up by Mother Rivka; after more tears shed than
in the last flood of the Narev River; after the Patriarch Yisroel had
forgiven Abe for his past sins; after the last bottle of schnapps had
emptied; after all but two of the exhausted family members collapsed in
their beds worn out, overfed, and a little shikker, (Jewishly drunk,)
after all of this, Abe and his eighteen-year-old brother Zelig decided
to take a walk through the streets of Ostrolenka.
“Tell me about America,” said Zelig, as they passed through the empty town square.
“Zelig, you would love America.” Abe said. “Where I live, in
Louisville, the Ohio River runs by—and is ten times as wide as the
Narev. Everything is big in America. Where I live, we have the Kentucky
Derby at Churchill Downs racetrack. It’s the most famous racetrack in
the world. I was there in person only a month ago. Thousands of people
from all over America come just to watch those horses run around the
track. And guess what? Your brother Abe picked the right horse to win.
Oy Gevalt, did I win! It paid for my entire trip to Ostrolenka! What
luck I had!
“Abe, how far away is America? Was it a long trip?”
“Yes, it was a long trip, Zelig. Five days on an ocean liner across the
Atlantic to Hamburg, then two days on the train to Warsaw. But I had a
great time. The ship was full of important people and beautiful women.
It even had a swimming pool. It is one of the biggest ships in the
They turned left off the old square and made their way down Shul Street.
“And there are beautiful women in America, Abe?”
“What do you know about women?” laughed the older brother.
“I’m eighteen now.”
Nu, Zelig, are you still a virgin?” (A big wink)
Zelig blushed and came close to bumping into Shul Street’s only
fireplug. Next they passed the front of the great Beit HaMidrash
synagogue--a two-story brick edifice almost a block long, with three
ornate, pagoda-like roofs looming one above the other toward the sky.
Two new streetlights majestically illuminated the synagogue.
“What was it like here during the war, Zelig?”
“Which war are you talking about? The Great War against the German Kaiser or the little one against the Soviet Communists?”
“The Great War.”
“I was only seven years old then, Abe, so I don’t remember much. I
remember a time when we lived in the cellar under the house. Then there
was a time when we had to run away into the forest. Armies passed
through Ostrolenka--one after the other. The Russians, the Germans, the
Bolsheviks and finally, the Polish army passed through our town. I
remember fires. I remember the synagogue burning down, the town hall
tower burning in flames. We were lucky that our own house was spared.”
“Now I understand why things look so different,” said Abe. “Well, at least you got a new synagogue out of the deal.”
“Yes, but I don’t go there very much.”
“I don’t pray anymore at all. What are you? A Socialist now?”
“Not me, I’m not political. But some of my friends are. I don’t want to
change anything. I just want to get out of here before things get any
“Listen, Zelig, the time has come. You must get out of this place. I
smell big trouble coming here: a pogrom, maybe even another war--nothing
good for the Jews. I just have a hunch, you know, just like I had when I
bet on the horses at Churchill Downs.”
“Where would I go, brother? They say you can’t get into America now.
It’s closed to Jews and other poor people. Should I go to Palestine?”
“No, not Palestine. You should come to America,” said Abe. “My plan is
that our whole family should leave Poland and get as close as they can
to America--at least Cuba, maybe Mexico, it doesn’t matter. From there, I
can work on getting you into the United States. I know some people that
may be able to help. Big shots in Kentucky. Maybe even a Senator.
People that I know from the track. Anything is better than staying in
here in Poland. And Palestine is still too dangerous and too primitive. I
say sell everything and come to the New World.”
“But Papa and Mama will never leave Ostrolenka. I’ve already talked to
them about it. They think they wouldn’t be able to lead a Jewish life in
America. Also it would be hard to leave great-grandfather Yitzhak
“Who would go from the family?”
“Right now, just me, Abe. If things get worse, maybe Wolf and his wife
will leave. I think Hanche, as she gets a little older, will want to go.
I think you’re right. It’s a trap here. Maybe if I make it to America,
the others will follow.”
Soon, the two brothers were back to Ostrover Street and the town square.
The Chmiel house was dark. Zelig and Abe quietly mounted the stairs
hoping not to wake anyone. They carefully stepped over the orange and
white cat sprawled unconscious on the doorstep. Mother Rivka opened the
door holding a finger over her lips. The two young men tiptoed inside
with the cat, suddenly alive, stealing in behind them.
“A gutte nacht kinder,” said Rivka with a motherly but worried tone in
her voice, Zelig and Abe still children in her mind, coming home too
late at the night.
“Go to sleep. A big day awaits us tomorrow,” said Rivka. “Your brother Daniel is getting married.” She sighed.
Gutte nacht Mamale, said Abe and Zelig, obediently.
Next morning, in the light of day, Abe inspected the changes that had
taken place in the Chmiel house over the last fourteen years. Storage
sheds now lined the high wall of the courtyard where the outhouses used
to stand. The two apple trees in the back of the courtyard seemed
smaller and newer than those of fifteen years ago. An electric wire
stretched from the roof to the light pole. Some things hadn’t changed:
the pump handle, the wash basin, a small wooden table with four wooden
chairs around it--all the same, but smaller than before. In fact,
everything looked smaller.
It was Monday, June 20, 1926, by the Gentile calendar and the 15th day
of the month of Tammuz in the year 5685, according to the Hebrew
calendar. Jewish Ostrolenka hummed with talk about the big Chmiel
family wedding that would take place in the late afternoon in the
courtyard of the great synagogue. News of the wedding filtered through
the community like the Narev River breezes. Relatives and friends living
as far away as Bialystock, Lomza, and Warsaw had packed their
suitcases, bought their train tickets, boarded their coaches, and were
on their way to Daniel and Haya’s wedding in Ostrolenka.
At the Ostrolenka terminal of the railroad, the droshky drivers waited
and upped their price to transport the guests from the train station to
town. The Polish Railways train from Warsaw came hooting around the
bend. The cart drivers finalized their bargaining tactics. The
stationmaster, a rabid anti-Semite, placed himself in the doorway to the
station, scowling harshly, and glanced at his fine pocket watch as if
the damn Jews might cause a delay in schedule. The train arrived. The
crowd of relatives and friends in their finery descended to the platform
clasping wedding gifts. Children scrambled out of the gleaming black
carriages and pranced around the platform. Their mothers shouted after
them lest they climb under the train, run off with the Gypsies, or
The men argued with the droshky drivers,
During the morning hours of the wedding day, a soft breeze blew,
carrying the scent of honeysuckle off the river. On the town hall
flagpole the red and white banner with its Polish eagle triumphantly
fluttered and snapped. But by eleven o’clock the air stilled and the
temperature soared. The Polish flag drooped in defeat. Sunday’s bells of
St. Andrzej Bobula chimed, announcing the end of early mass. The
worshippers exited mournfully from the modest chapel, pondering the
horrible death of their patron saint so vividly portrayed in the sermon.
“Oy Gevalt,” a hot day,” complained one of the old Jews resting on a bench next to the Narev River bridge.
Polish and Jewish boys fished under the bridge--not together, of course, for the two faiths rarely mingled, except for a fight.
At the Chmiel residence, Mother Rivka and the other women of the family
continued preparations for the wedding supper. Haya, the bride, her
grandmother, her mother, and her sisters, would soon appear. Sometime
during the morning, no doubt, the grandmothers would supply Haya with a
no-nonsense lesson about her duties on the wedding night.
The Chmiel males headed for the Town Square, their presence neither
needed nor wanted in the house during the prenuptial doings. The men
found benches, lit cigarettes and pipes, said their oy’s about the
weather, talked a little business, and argued politics—a little this, a
A few minutes after noon, a rich Jewish family from Warsaw drove across
the Narev Bridge in a chauffeured motorcar, rattling over the wooden
planks and chased by a crowd of children. Both Jewish and Gentile kids
screamed with joy and wonder at the shiny black sedan. The old Jews
sitting on the bench near the bridge stared in horror and amazement at
such a monster entering Ostrolenka.
“What have we come to now?” they asked each other.
A few red-faced, old Polish men sitting on a bench on the far side of
the square also stared at the sedan. One muttered, “What have those Jews
come to now?”
The grand motorcar halted in the middle of the square. The owner of the
car, one Yakov Finkelstein, born in Ostrolenka but now prospering in the
silk business in Warsaw, lit a long cigar and, with the aid of his
Polish chauffeur, imperially descended from the back seat.
The other out-of-town guests gradually arrived, transported by the
droshky cart drivers. More cigarettes were smoked, more business and
“How’s the gesheft--the business, Yankel?”
“Don’t ask. How’s yours?”
“I’m making a living.”
“How about you, Shmuel?”
“Well, it’s not so much that it’s good to have money as it’s bad to be without it.”
“You’re right, poverty is no disgrace, but it’s also not a great honor.”
“You know what they say,” said Moishe, “the world stands on three things: money, money and money.”
“Anyway, burial shrouds are made without pockets,” commented Chaim.
Abe Gurwitz arrived on the scene.
“Look,” said Yankel, there’s Abele Chmiel--now we call him Mr. Abraham Gurwitz--the rich man from America.”
“Look at that linen suit! It must have cost him a lot of gelt. Look at
that gold watch chain, Oy, America! Wouldn’t I give everything to be in
“God loves the poor and helps the rich.”
“Eh, it’s easier to earn money than to hold onto it.”
“I’ll bet every young woman’s mother is wanting a match with Abe,” said Moishe.
“Yes, but they say he has a woman in America, a shiksa, a Gentile woman,” said Chaim.
“I heard she’s a movie star,” commented Shmuel
“I heard that she’s a black woman from Panama,” added Moishe, quietly.
“No, who told you that?”
“His brother Zelig.”
Precisely at 5:00 p.m., Mendel Greunberg, the photographer, set up his
camera in the Chmiel courtyard. The men on the town square benches
finished their shmuzzing and entered the courtyard of the great
synagogue. The older men had dressed in long, heavy, black coats with
white shirts buttoned up to their Adam’s apples. The younger men wore
dark fedoras, modern suits, and black ties. Yakov Finkelshtein sported a
shiny gold watch on a chain and had chosen a striped tie--the latest
fashion in Warsaw. The older women donned modest, dark dresses, which
dropped down to no-nonsense shoe tops. Some of the younger girls, to the
dismay of their mothers and older sisters, sported dresses with
plunging necklines and bare arms--Oy Gevalt. All the men had their
heads properly covered, but their headwear ranged from the old fashioned
black yarmulke-- worn by grandfather Yitzhak--to Hassidic black shtreml
hats ringed by fox tails, and all the way to Abe Gurwitz’s outrageous,
white-banded Panama hat. More droshkys and wagons poured into
Ostrolenka, filled with Jews from the neighboring towns. The square
itself became a solid mass of people. Guests arrived from Lomza,
Mishnitz, and Ostrova. Cats lurked on the courtyard walls. Little
mischievous boys in knickers ran through the crowd pulling the hair of
shy little girls who clung to their mother’s skirts. Gentiles snickered
from across the street, watching the arrivals and clucking their tongues
with annoyance at the Jewish commotion.
Daniel, the bridegroom, appeared with a group of his men friends--all
wearing wide, black Fedoras with plain black bands. The broad brim of
his hat concealed Daniel’s thin, delicate, scholarly face. Daniel felt
beads of sweat forming on his forehead--soon sliding down into his
collar. Yisroel, his father, wore a well-tailored black suit, a narrow
black tie, and a broad-brimmed hat, all signs of cautious modernity. He
had closely clipped his reddish beard. Yisroel’s aged father Yitzhak
hobbled his way into the synagogue courtyard, aided by two of his
cousins. The old man sat painfully down on an old chair in the corner,
watching with the serene face of age and nodding his head at the
sanctity of the occasion. The old man knew the angel of death hovered
not too far away. He might not live to see the rest of his grandchildren
married. He looked out at the gathering crowd. “Oy,” he lamented,
needing only the one Yiddish word to express his feelings of happiness
about the wedding, but tempered by memories of the sad past of the
Jewish people. He stroked his silvery beard and again nodded his head in
Wolf Chmiel and his wife Devorah arrived. She had chosen a strange
outfit, a Polish version of the flapper rage in America. Her shocking
garb consisted of a long red and white dress checkered with silly
upside-down triangles wrapped with a pinkish feather boa down to her
ankles. Rivka, her mother-in-law, newly present on the scene, stared at
her daughter-in-law as if Devorah had committed a mortal sin.
The fresh Narev River breeze awoke from its afternoon nap, mercifully
cooling off the wedding guests. The sky softened its glare as a few gray
clouds flowed into view from the direction of Lomza, hinting that a
crisp evening might be on its way.
Rabbi Burshtine, the President of the Jewish Court of Justice in
Ostrolenka for the last twenty years, arrived with an entourage of pious
Jews from the synagogue’s Board of Governors. The gathering crowd
parted to allow the revered rabbi and his colleagues to pass by. The
Rabbi was a tall man, somewhat bent from a lifetime of leaning over the
pages of sacred books. A silvery beard--bifurcated in the old style--
flowed from his high red cheeks and down over his chest like a waterfall
sweeping around a great stone--evoking comparisons with the great
Moses, our teacher. He wore a long dark, felt coat both in summer and in
Directly behind the Rabbi and his colleagues, a line of young yeshiva
boys toted chairs and a long table from the inside of the synagogue,
setting them up at the edge of the courtyard. The time had come for the
signing of the marriage agreement.
Rabbi Burshtein, with a modest sigh of pleasure, regally sat himself
down at the table. Reb Yisroel Chmiel sat next to him on one side, and
the father of the bride, Reb Yitzhak Levi, pulled up a chair on the
other side. The three men leaned their heads together to discuss the
payment of the dowry, the details of the trousseau, the bridal price
and, most important, the husband’s duties and obligations for support of
his future bride. Other dignitaries, including Yakov Finkelshtein, (of
the great automobile), were invited to sit at the table as witnesses.
One of the boys brought the Ketubah--the marriage agreement written in
the Aramaic language. The dowry price had been agreed upon a month
before the wedding. Reb Yitzhak Levi and Reb Yisrael Chmiel had settled
at $2,000.00, to be paid in American dollars--cash only. While the
witnesses watched, Reb Chmiel counted the greenbacks, all in small
denominations, one by one, onto the table for all to see. Yisroel Chmiel
stuffed the dowry dollars into an ornate-lacy pillowcase and sent it
off with one of the boys to be guarded by the rabbi’s wife inside the
synagogue. With the business end of the nuptials settled, the time had
come for the wedding ceremony itself.
While the men of the family handled the financial end of things, the
women, inside the synagogue, busily attended the bride. Along with the
last minute preening effort came a flurry of advice about the wedding
night and other personal matters best not discussed in public.
Back outside, Rabbi Burshtein read aloud the long text of the nuptial agreement:
“On the second day of the week, the fifteenth day of the month of
Tammuz, in the year Five Thousand Six Hundred and Eighty Five since the
creation of the world…Daniel, son of Yisroel of the family Chmiel, said
to this maiden Haya, the daughter of Sarah of the family Levi: ‘Be my
wife according to the law of Moses and Israel, and I will cherish,
honor, support, and maintain you… And I here present you with the
marriage gift of virgins, two hundred silver zuzim, which belongs to
you, according to the law of Moses and Israel; and I will also give you
your food, clothing, and necessities, and live with you as husband and
wife, according to the universal custom.’ And Haya, this maiden
consented and became his wife. She brought to him from her father’s
house a trousseau--in silver, gold, valuables, clothing, furniture and
“And thus said Daniel, the bridegroom: He has taken upon himself the
responsibility of this marriage contract, the trousseau, and the
addition made to it, according to the restrictive usages of all marriage
contracts and the additions to them made for the daughters of Israel,
according to the institutions of our sages of blessed memory. Everything
is valid and confirmed.
Attested to: Reb Ephraim Chmiel witness.
Attested to: Reb David Gutman witness.
Attested to: Abraham Vilozney witness.”
Zelig and his pal Mottle, bored by the medieval goings-on, perched
themselves on the courtyard wall, wryly commenting on the scene.
“Do you think that Haya is a virgin?” asked Mottle, with a smirk on his lips.
“All the Jewish girls here are virgins,” Zelig smirked back. “Thank God
for our Polish washerwomen and housecleaners. Otherwise all of us Jewish
boys would be virgins too.”
Mottle, a much more modest and careful young man than Zelig, playfully
shushed his friend. “Careful, Zelig, Rabbi Burshtein might hear you.
He’ll tell God to cut your shmekle off.”
Their conversation then moved on to more serious issues.
“Zelig, I’ve got to tell you something.”
“What? said Zelig, surprised by his friend’s suddenly ominous tone.
”I got a draft notice.”
Gevalt! Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
“It came only yesterday in a telegram, and since it was Shabbas, we didn’t open it until today.”
“What are you going to do? Are you going to the army?”
“I don’t know. I’m frightened. You know what the Polish army is like for us Jews.”
“Yes, I know,” said Zelig. They beat Jews, give them the dirtiest jobs,
and humiliate them. All the officers are anti-Semites. You won’t be able
to take it. You’ve got to get out of here. When do you have to report?”
Zelig weighed the problem in his mind for a moment: “Why does this have
to come in the middle of my brother’s wedding? What will I do when my
draft notice comes? I’m the same age as Mottle. It’s sure to come. I
couldn’t take it. I couldn’t face those sadistic bastards.”
“We’ll both leave Poland together and soon,” Zelig whispered.
Upstairs in the synagogue, Haya, the bride-to-be, sat majestically in a
large chair with her female attendants grouped around her, the chair
strewn with flowers as befitted a bridal queen. Several of her best
girlfriends danced around her and sang Hebrew melodies, most from the
Song of Songs written by an earlier bridegroom, King Solomon himself.
“May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
For your love is sweeter than wine…” they sang.
Haya blushed in her modesty.
“Delicate is the fragrance of your perfume,
“Your name is oil poured out,
“And that is why maidens love you.”
Haya blushed again. The dancers’ arms undulated, discreetly hinting at
the pleasures awaiting the bride. The dancers paused, and the bride sent
them out to the courtyard to invite Daniel and his male entourage into
her presence for the unveiling ceremony. The two mothers stood guard on
either side of the bridal throne. Daniel shyly approached his bride and
lifted the veil from her face as Jewish bridegrooms had done for
centuries, some say to avoid the patriarch Jacob’s error when he was
tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. From the back of the room,
Rabbi Burshtein chanted the blessing first invoked upon the matriarch
Rebecca in biblical times.
“O, sister, may you grow into thousands of ten thousands.”
The wedding canopy appeared, rising above the crowd in the courtyard,
supported by four wooden posts held firmly by four honored guests--the
cloth made out of a full-sized prayer shawl that had once belonged to
the maternal great-grandfather of Reb Yosef Levi. All of the guests and
onlookers stood waiting under the stars to see the procession. Two of
Daniel’s male friends and two of Haya’s brothers made their way through
the crowd so the males of the bridal party could move forward toward the
huppah. First, they gently nudged a path for Daniel, his father, and
his father-in-law. Daniel now wore a kittle over his new suit--a short
white linen robe with a white belt, worn at various religious ceremonies
as a symbol of purity.
Next, it was Haya’s turn to walk the path to the huppah. Dressed in
white, veiled, accompanied by both her mother and Daniel’s mother and
followed by her attendants, she carefully descended the steps of the
synagogue and walked, head bent, through the pathway toward the bridal
canopy. The crowd parted to give the bride more room to pass by. She
heard a murmuring wave of appreciation of her beauty, her modesty, and
her dignified steps toward the huppah. She felt the warmth of the
families, old and new, her friends, and the townspeople, all praying in
their hearts that she and her beloved Daniel would have many children
with only happiness, only tranquillity, only a good life. Soon she stood
under the wedding canopy. The light of early evening waned, and in a
short time, darkness fell. Candles, torches and moonlight now
illuminated the huppah. More candles flared within the crowd. Haya saw
her beloved Daniel only dimly behind the protection of her veil.
Rabbi Burshtine began the marriage ceremony, greeting the bride and groom with the Hebrew words from the book of Psalms:
“Blessed are you in this house of God.
“Who is mightier over all?
“Who is blessed over all?
“Who is greater above all?
“Blessed are the bridegroom and the bride.”
Haya, helped by her attendants, made seven circuits around Daniel,
warding off any evil spirits that may have gathered in the dark corners
of the courtyard.
Rabbi Burshtein raised a silver goblet from a small stand next to him.
Slowly and elegantly he blessed the wine and then replaced it on the
stand. Reb Levi then handed the goblet to Reb Yisroel Chmiel and then to
Daniel, who drank the sweet wine. The goblet then passed to the mother
of the bride, Fayge-Rachel Levi, who, despite her sobs, managed to pass
the wine goblet to her daughter. Haya sipped modestly from the cup.
Rabbi Burshtein continued: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, King of the
Universe who has made us holy under your commandments and has ordered
us concerning sexual matters, forbidding us to those who are merely
betrothed and allowing us to those who are married through the rituals
of huppah and betrothal. Blessed are you who makes your people, Israel,
holy through huppah and kiddushim.”
And now Daniel prepared to acquire his bride. Great silence reigned in
the courtyard, the only sound a nightingale viewing the wedding from a
nearby tree, twittering and clucking in her own tribute to the wedding
“By this ring you are consecrated to me, as my wife, in accordance with
the traditions of Moses and Israel,” said Daniel in the fresh clear
Hebrew vowels of Daniel’s heroes, the brave Jewish pioneers in far-off
Palestine. He placed the plain gold wedding band on Haya’s finger. She
had become his and he had become hers.
All of the women in the courtyard wept like the Narev River itself. Even
the birds and the cats wept. Even a few men wept. Perhaps even God and
his angels blew their noses and wept. The moon wept. Zelig, although not
a weeper, wept for his brother, his new sister-in-law, and for himself,
now faced with a determinable time of departure from Ostrolenka and his
family. Would he ever see them again?
The ceremony continued with the seven wedding blessings. The Jewish
custom required that an honored guest, rather than the Rabbi, chant the
blessings. Reb Ephraim Chmiel, Yisroel’s brother and the bridegroom’s
uncle, received the honor. He stepped forward under the huppah. Reb
Ephraim chanted the first blessing.
“Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech HaOlam, Borai Pri HaGafen.”
“Blessed is the Lord who has created wine.”
“Baruch Ata Adonai, EloHayanu Melech HaOlam, she HaCol Barah Lichvodo”.
“Blessed is the Lord who has created all things for His glory.”
“Blessed is the Lord who has created all human beings.”
“Blessed is the Lord, our God, who created human beings in His own
image, in his own likeness and who prepared for us a perpetual
relationship. Blessed is the Lord who created humanity.
“As a barren woman dances with joy when her children are united within
her. Blessed are you our God when Zion herself rejoices with her
“Lovers will rejoice as You rejoiced when You created us in the Garden
of Eden so long ago. Blessed are you our God who brings happiness to
this bridegroom and bride.”
Reb Ephraim chanted the final blessing.
“Blessed are You our God, King of the Universe, who has created joy and
happiness, the bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and
delight, love and fellowship, peace and friendship. May we soon hear, in
the cities of Judaea and in the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of
happiness, the voice of joy, the voice of the bridegroom and of the
bride, the jubilant voice of other bridegrooms from under their huppah
and young people from their wedding feasts.
“Baruch Ata Adonai, MeSameach Hatan im HaCalah. Blessed are You our God, who makes the bridegroom rejoice with the bride.
Reb Ephraim, with his tenor voice, its soft and humble tone resounding
from the depths of his heart, sensed the fragility of the times. Yes, an
aura dominated the surroundings. This simcha--this marital happiness,
indeed this beloved community--would never be the same again.
Abe Gurwitz-Chmiel had the honor of placing a wineglass--wrapped in a
cloth napkin--near the foot of his brother, Daniel. Daniel lifted his
right leg and plunged it down, reducing the glass to shards. Some of
those present heard, in the crunch of the glass, the fall of the Temple
in Jerusalem. Some heard that all humans still live in a broken world.
Some heard, in the breaking of the glass, that Daniel and Haya would be
forever changed as man and wife. Some heard that nearby demons, who
might threaten the new couple, would be frightened off. Other, less
moderate people, said that the broken glass represented the breaking of
the bride’s hymen.
But everybody did agree, the breaking of the glass signified time to eat.
The bride and groom headed for a small room in the back of the synagogue
sanctuary, to sit quietly together after the intense experience,
breaking their daylong fast with delicate sweets baked by Mother Rivka
and Fayge Levi. The rest of the crowd made for the feast.
The courtyard became a banquet hall for all of the Chmiel and Levi
relatives. Tables groaned under platters of gefilte fish, tureens of
golden chicken soup, loaves of hallah bread and enormous serving dishes
of chicken, katchke (duck), goose, beef, chicken, kugel, kasha,
tsimmis--all of the earthy wonder foods a hungry army of Polish Jews
could want. The fathers of the newlyweds poured out the slivovitz, the
vodka, and the vishniac, the wine, into waiting glasses.
“L’chaim, L’Chaim, L’chaim!” Long life to the Daniel and Haya! Many children! All the best! L’Chaim and more L’Chaim.”
Glasses raised, filled, and raised again. Forks stabbed the mounds of
fish. Red and white horseradish flavored the air. Plates filled up with
brisket. Broiled chicken and carrot-filled, sweet tsimmis co-mingled and
plunged into voracious mouths. Kids sneaked sips of wine behind their
parents’ back. Daniel, without his kittle, and Haya, still in her full
wedding dress, joined the feast. They sat at the head table, looking a
little solemn, delicately sipping their soup, nodding to the toasts of
A klezmir band tuned up its fiddles, accordions, and clarinets. They
began with a slow waltz that had a taste of gypsy melodies. Daniel and
Haya rose and made their way to the open space surrounded by the dinner
tables and shyly prepared to dance. As is traditional, they did not
directly touch each other. Each grasped the end of a single white
handkerchief. Avoiding each other’s eyes, they moved slowly, elegantly,
modestly, around each other, as if floating through a space made
holy--somewhere between feeling the presence of God and sensing the
physical loving that would soon be theirs.
A comic entertainer (Badchan) materialized, a little late, because of a
prior engagement in the nearby town of Mishnitz. He wore a battered top
hat, a checkered coat, and outrageously comical red pants. As he moved
through the crowd toward the dancing couple, the klezmir band shifted
away from the slow waltz, and the accordion took up a boom ta boom boom
beat. The violin shifted into a full, gypsy mode. Feet began to tap
under the dinner tables. The violin sang higher and faster, the
accordion fanned in and out. The Badchan led Reb Levi to the dance floor
to replace Daniel at his end of the handkerchief. Father and daughter
“Reb Yisroel!” commanded the Badchan, and Daniel’s father replaced Reb Levi.
Bum ta bum bum. Bum ta bum bum, played the klezmir.
As the beat rose and intensified, the time came for Haya to let go of
the handkerchief and make her way to where a circle of women gathered
and danced. Abe Gurwitz took the end of the handkerchief and danced with
Yai Lai Lai Lai Lai, Lai, Lai they sang. The circle of men grew wider
and the dance became wilder--that is, Jewish wilder, still tempered by
respect for God, fueled by wine but without drunkenness, muting the
happiness just short of ecstasy.
Boom ta boom boom, boom ta boom boom.
Zelig and Abe danced. Yisroel and his brother Ephraim danced. Wolf and
Daniel danced. Yakov Finkelshtein danced with Rabbi Burshtein. Zelig’s
friend Mottle danced with his father Chaim Shimen. Soon, all the men,
except for the most ancient souls, formed a line of dancers reaching
halfway around the courtyard--dancing, shouting, singing--their happy
voices blessing the newlyweds to God on high:
Ay yai, ay yai, ay yai yai yai …into the long hours of the night.
THE SMUGGLING BUSINESS
A few days after the wedding, Zelig and Abe strolled through the town square, talking, schmoozing about this and that:
“Zelig, what do you do for work?”
“You don’t know, Abe?
“Papa told me you work for him. But he wouldn’t tell me anything more about it. Is it a secret?”
Zelig smiled wickedly. “I run a bordello. You know, a whorehouse. Papa is the owner, and I run the towel concession.”
“Yes, and the Rabbi comes and blesses the girls every Thursday. And we make a special pork roast for him when he comes.”
Abe finally caught on to the joke.
“So, where is this bordello, my brother?”
“In back of the church, on Ostrova Street.”
Abe grabbed Zelig by the arm and pressed hard.
“Ouch, not so hard,” protested Zelig. “OK, I’ll tell you what I really do.”
“I’m the Chief Rabbi of Ostrolenka.”
More pressure on Zelig’s arm.
“OK, OK, Abe, Dayenu, I’ve had enough.”
“Tell me now!” Abe commanded, applying even more pressure to Zelig’s arm.
“I GIVE,” groaned Zelig.
They sat together on the bench overlooking the Narev River as it flowed down toward Warsaw.
“I’m not supposed to be telling you this. But as long as it stays in the
family, I guess it’s kosher. I smuggle shmattas (rags).”
“Well, not rags exactly.”
“How? Where? Tell me how you do it?”
“It’s like this,” Zelig began, “Papa has the guards bribed on both sides
of the Polish-German border--it’s only a few kilometers north of here,
you know. I can cross whenever I need to do some business on the other
side. OK, now I’m in East Prussia. I take a horse and buggy through a
forest until I get to a Kurpie village on the German side.”
“Who are these Kurpie people?”
“They’re some kind of tribe. I don’t know where they originally came
from. Most of the men work as hunters, or they collect honey, or they
are foresters. The women make textiles--nice ones--you should see how
they dress, beautiful shmattas, The women wear big red skirts and green
vests. They make hats out of black velvet—czolkas, they call them.”
“And the men?”
“They wear long brown or gray coats, white linen pants--just like
yours--but baggy. They put red sashes over the pants and they tie
leather thongs around their legs. Very colorful. Very nice people,
quiet, don’t bother anyone, can’t read or write--need money.”
Nu, asks Abe, anxious to get on the details of his father’s smuggling
business, “these Kurpie costumes, are they worth smuggling?”
“No, of course not. We smuggle our merchandise to Warsaw. Who would buy peasant costumes in Warsaw?”
“We smuggle silk. We buy silk in Germany. A German merchant brings the
silk to a place near a Kurpie village. We get a bunch of the men and
women to wrap their bodies with as many layers of silk as they can and I
mean wrap--all the way from their feet up to their tucheses, and then
all the way up to their necks. Then they put on their peasant
clothes--the bog coats and the wide peasant dresses. And then we take
the Kurpie people over the border to Poland. The customs officers don’t
look twice, because Papa has bribed them all. Anyway, it looks just like
a bunch of peasants going over to visit their relatives on the Polish
side--the border cuts right through their territory.
Next, I take them to the railway station in Ostrolenka. I buy each one a
ticket to Warsaw. I get on the train with them and off we go. In two
hours we’re in the North Station in Warsaw. If there are any customs
agents at the train station, all they see is a bunch of yokels coming to
town. I lead them to a certain warehouse in the Jewish quarter and the
Kurpies undress and unwind the silk. Then back to the train. I buy them
baskets full of sweets and flowers to make it look like the visit to
their Polish relatives really took place. We get off at Ostrolenka; I
take them over the border and pay them off. That’s all there is to it.
Do you know how much smuggled silk goes for in Warsaw?”
“Five times what it used to cost, only a year ago. Last year there was a
tariff war with the Germans. The Polish currency came down by almost
ten percent! Of course, the rich ladies in Warsaw still needed their
silk stockings. We just help them out a bit.
“I can imagine how you help them out,” said Abe looking down at the river.
A Polish kid fishing near the bridge hauled in a huge trout to the applause of the passers-by.
“Sounds too easy,” Abe thought” What’s the bad side of these smuggling expeditions?”
“That’s just it! Papa is a genius. We’ve never been caught. Who would think to look under the Kurpie women’s skirts?”
“How are their legs? Did you ever peek?”
“Once, I did,” Zelig confessed. “Believe me, it’s nothing you would want
to experience. The worst thing about it is that they are all sweaty
from being wrapped up in the silk. By the time we get to Warsaw,
especially on a warm day, the silk is soaking wet. And the Kurpie’s
aren’t much used to bathing, anyway.”
Oy, what a Jew has to do to make money these days,” said Abe.
THE GREAT WAR
Later on, in the coolness of the summer evening, Abe, Zelig, Wolf and
Daniel--the four brothers--sipped tea and talked over old times in the
courtyard of the Chmiel house. They finally found a time for a serious
family talk. Papa Yisroel came down from the third floor apartment and
joined his boys. Mother Rivka remained upstairs, treating herself to an
early sleep, worn out from the mighty, weeklong effort of marrying off
her second son.
“A real simcha–delight, a gift from God,“ said Rivka as she collapsed
onto her bed. “Thank God the wedding is over, and now only four more
matches need to be made, only four more weddings to be planned.”
A gentle breeze off the river rustled through the leaves of the apple
tree. A pair of pigeons rubbed their soft heads together atop the back
wall of the courtyard. They cooed at each other but kept their eyes on
Shunra, the cat, stalking through the bushes. Rivka slept upstairs,
dreaming about her future grandchildren.
Abe, still sporting his linen suit, wanted to hear about the important
events that had occurred during his fifteen-year absence.
“The biggest trouble,” began Father Yisroel, “happened during the Great
War. When the war first broke out, we weren’t so bad off. The Russian
army used Ostrolenka as its main base. Ostrolenka was only about fifty
kilometers from the front but, at first, not much was happening. In
fact, business was good. Life was almost normal. A few people in
Ostrolenka made a lot of money buying surplus goods from the army and
selling them to the rest of us, when food was in short supply. Our
family also did a little business supplying the Russian officers with
boots and uniforms. Once in a while, we could hear some guns going off
beyond the East Prussian border, but with the czar’s army here in town,
we felt pretty safe. The Russian offensive seemed to be going well.
"But after a while, the Germans made a counterattack and, Oy Gevalt! did
the Russian army get it. Wounded soldiers began crossing the Narev
Bridge--hundreds, maybe even thousands of them--some walking, some
carried on stretchers, some marching as fast as they could, some running
in a panic. I stood on the balcony and watched them, and a soldier
yelled up at me, 'The Germans are coming. They’ll kill all you Jews
"The people of Ostrolenka ran out of their homes and shops, leaving the
doors open. Most went out with nothing, children looked for their
mothers, horses went crazy. Everyone ran down the Lomza road or headed
for the forest. Then the shelling got closer. There were some big
explosions. A few shells fell right into the town square. Then there was
“My God, what did you do?” asked Abe.
“We didn’t panic. You know that I was in the Russian army even before
you were born, Avraham. I knew the Russians. Their troops often ran away
if they were surprised, and yet, for some reason, eventually, they
usually stopped and fought back. A Russian officer, who turned out to be
a Jew, rode through the town and told us that we shouldn’t run away,
things weren’t so bad. Because he was Jewish, the people listened to him
and turned back to their homes. I’ll never forget this man. He had a
long beard and looked like a Cossack, but he was Jewish with a black
horse and a blond mustache.”
“I remembered him too, Papa,” said Wolf. “He yelled at us in Yiddish. He
stopped and leaned down to give me a piece of sugar. He even wanted to
know my name.”
“Nu, everything settled down a bit. Sure enough, the Russian army held
its ground and the Dietchen--the Germans--pushed on to another front.
Their troops failed to advance. A few times the Germans flew their
airplanes over Ostrolenka and dropped bombs. Four or five people were
killed, but our family was fortunate, none of us were harmed. Later in
the year, the Russians started conscripting our people to build
fortifications. They left me alone because I had already served in the
army. I decided to spend my time building a hiding place for the family
under the house. I knew that, sooner or later, the Germans would try to
cross the Narev and I didn’t want us to be caught up in the confusion.
You can see over there by that little door, where Wolf, Daniel and I dug
the hiding place. From under there, we tunneled a secret passageway
into the basement of the house. Then we stacked sacks of potatoes and
prepared. In this hiding place--we called it the little cellar--we also
stocked cans of mutton, along with enough water to last for a few
“Sure enough,” Papa continued, “a year to the day after the beginning of
the war, on August 1916, the Germans renewed their offensive. The
Russian army retreated from Ostrolenka. Order broke down, and, of
course, on the way out, the Russian soldiers robbed and brutalized us
Jews. Many of our neighbors fled into the forest. It rained shrapnel
inside the town. The Russian officers ordered the entire population to
leave the city. German Zeppelins and planes bombed from above. Some
people, especially the poor, left without anything. Others quickly
loaded their wagons and headed east to Lomza and even to Bialistok. Many
of the Jews that ran away couldn’t survive the difficulties along the
road. There was panic, chaos, bedlam, horses bolting, Cossacks trampling
civilians in their rush toward safety. My friend and teacher Reb
Moshe--the old one--died on the road, carrying his bedding on his back.
The Russian soldiers torched the city. This all happened on the day of
Tisha B’Av--the ninth day of the month of Av-- when we mourn the
destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
"But by then, we were safe in our underground shelter.
"The Germans crossed the river and entered our town. I took our family
down into our shelter and waited a week or so to see what the Germans
would do. We had only mutton and bread to eat and plenty of water to
drink, and we survived. I even had a few bottles of schnapps down
"Oy that mutton in the cellar!” Zelig interrupted. “I can still smell
it. Just thinking about it makes me want to vomit. I tell you Papa, I’ll
never eat mutton again in my whole life.”
“What did the Germans do, Papa?” asked Abe, as he pulled a pack of Camel
cigarettes out of his pocket. He extracted one of the perfect white
cigarettes, poked it into his mouth, fished a matchbox out of his pants
pocket, deftly struck the match and applied it to the evenly cut tobacco
at the tip of the cigarette. All this in a series of sophisticated
movements not learned in Ostrolenka.
“What is that?” asked Yisroel.
“A manufactured cigarette,” answered Abe, showing off the picture of the dromedary on the front of the pack.
“Let’s have one,” said Yisroel. “I’ve heard about such things, but I’ve never seen one. ”
Abe handed the Camels over to his father, to Wolf, and then to Daniel.
Wolf smelled the Turkish tobacco. Zelig wanted one too, but Abe waved
his finger, no.
“Not good for young boys,” he said.
Zelig made a note to try one later--when no one was looking. Abe produced a box of matches, and the three adults lit up.
“Ah,” said Wolf, the second son.
“Ah,” said Daniel, the quiet brother.
“Ah,” said his Papa Yisroel, looking at the picture of a camel on the package. “America!”
Three columns of smoke drifted up toward the darkening sky.
“The Germans,” continued Papa Yisroel, blowing thin smoke from the
aromatic cigarette, “turned out to be less bad than the Russians. When
things had quieted down, we all came out of the cellar. We smelled ashes
and, when we looked around the town square, we saw that most of the
buildings were without roofs or burnt down to the ground. The synagogue
was destroyed. Only the shell remained. But someone had managed to save
the sacred Torah scrolls.
"For the next few years we were ruled by the German military authorities.”
“What were the Germans like?” asked Abe.
“Decent people in general--for soldiers. They were busy with their war
against the Russians, so they didn’t bother us much. They allowed us to
rebuild what was destroyed. A Jew from America--I can’t remember his
name--came to visit, and gave us money to build a new synagogue--since
the old Shul was totally destroyed. Five thousand American dollars, it
cost. There were even some German Jewish soldiers who came to pray with
us. Little by little those that had fled came back, and our town, our
shtetl, began to live again. Stores opened. We managed to cobblestone
the main streets. The German soldiers helped us establish a soup kitchen
for the poor. Soon we could hear again the sounds of yeshiva students
being taught by Reb Ephraim--chanting the Talmud and continuing our
Jewish way of life.
"Our troubles started again only two years after the Great War when the
Bolshevik army and the Polish army came through the town--one after the
other. But that’s another tale of woe.”
Yisroel yawned and, instinctively, the other three boys yawned in sympathy with him. The cat was already asleep under the table.
“Let’s go off to sleep now, boys,” Yisroel said, thinking how this had
been his sweetest evening in many years, “We can finish our stories
On the way up the stairs to the apartment Yisroel said to himself, “What
simcha! What happiness! All my boys here at home. We have peace, full
bellies and American cigarettes. Yes, peace, but down deep in my Jewish
soul, I suspect that it won’t last for long. He sighed.
“A gütte nacht, my children.” said Yisroel Chmiel to his boys.
The next Friday evening--after sundown prayers in the synagogue and
after a serious Mamma Rivka Sabbath dinner--Papa Yisroel resumed his
tales of troubles and turmoil.
“After the Great War, we had the next war--maybe not so ‘Great,’ but
still bad enough for us. This time it was the Bolshevik red army against
the army of the new Polish State. Of course, there had to be a battle
in Ostrolenka again. Why should we be passed over? Who started this war?
I can’t really say.
"After the Bolshevik Revolution there was a big mess. Nobody knew where
the border should be drawn between the new Poland and the new Russia.
The Ukrainians wanted their own independence. The Poles wanted a big
piece of Russia, and the Bolsheviks wanted to liberate the whole world
from capitalism. Why not settle the whole thing on the bank of our Narev
"So in the beginning of August 1920, the Red Army showed up in
Ostrolenka. What an army! They had more guns than they had pants.
Everyone wore a different kind of uniform. Their horses looked like
skeletons. Only the officers had boots. For the first time in my life I
saw naked soldiers walking through our town.”
Zelig interrupted, “What I remember, Papa, is that some of the naked
soldiers found some felt cloth when they broke into the clothing store,
next door. I was spying on them from our balcony. They were inside the
store for a long time with Mordecai--the tailor--and his wife. When they
came back out, they were wearing felt uniforms. It was a hot day and by
the time they marched off, they were scratching their chests and their
tucheses as if they were on fire.”
Papa Yisroel continued without comment: “A few of our Jews were happy to
see the arrival of the revolution here in Ostrolenka, but most of us
just stayed out of its way. The Polish army was retreating toward
Warsaw, and the Bolsheviks were in a hurry, so all they had time to do
in our town was to loot everything in sight. But, of course, this was
only to be expected. Our biggest worry was that one of our sons would be
drafted into the Polish army or into the Red army. A plague on both of
them. Sure enough, the Bolsheviks rounded up all of our young men in the
town square. An officer--with one of those Mongolian caps decorated
with a red star--stood up on a box and gave a long speech, talking about
the Great Revolution now taking place, how the capitalist leeches in
Warsaw would be punished, how the workers would triumph, and how the
revolution would roll into Germany and all of Europe. He asked for
volunteers, but nobody offered to go with him and his naked army. So, of
course, he started pointing out the boys he wanted. His lieutenants
rounded them up, and off they went to fight for the Bolsheviks. Our Wolf
had the bad luck to be chosen. I was looking out from our balcony, and I
saw him under guard with the other boys, over near the bridge. My heart
was pounding, but there was nothing I could do. I was helpless. Your
mother was screaming. The other children were crying. It was all
happening before our eyes, but there were too many soldiers around to
try and rescue him.
“Then, God sent an angel. A Red Army officer with a grayish blond
mustache approached Wolf and looked straight at him. He said something
to Wolf, and Wolf nodded. The officer waved his hand to one of the
guards, and Wolf and the guard walked out of sight. A few minutes later,
Wolf appeared, climbing over our back wall. I ran down the stairs. He
was shaking like a leaf.
“Wolf, tell your brothers what the Russian officer said to you.”
Wolf grinned and took up the story: “He asked me if I remembered him
when he passed through Ostrolenka during the Great War. ‘Aren’t you the
little Yiddishe boytchik who got a big piece of sugar from me? Isn’t
your name Wolf?’ It was the Jewish cavalry officer, then fighting for
the Czar, now fighting for the Revolution. He was the one that kept us
from running away in a panic from Ostrolenka during the Great War--the
one who spoke Yiddish. I remembered him. Then he just said to me, ‘Go
home, Wolf. This war is not for you, no matter who wins. Go home, go
back to your family.’
“And then the guard brought me back to you, Papa,” continued Wolf with a fat tear running down his cheek.
A couple of nights later, Mamma sat Abe down to listen to the story of
how Papa had rescued brother Daniel, during the Bolshevik/Polish War.
She asked Hanche to tell the story because she knew the details better
than anyone else in the family. The young girls began: “It all started
when the Red Bolsheviks came back through Ostrolenka with the Polish
army chasing after them. Papa and I watched the Bolsheviks re-crossing
the Narev Bridge. Of course they passed right under our balcony, but
they didn’t even have time to say, ‘Goodbye, see you later.’ They didn’t
even have time to call us dirty Jewish capitalists. They didn’t even
have time to loot our shops. They left as naked as they were when they
headed west toward Warsaw. Later, we heard that the Bolshevik army had
lost at least 100,000 men on their way back to Russia.
“ It was quiet for a while. We all stayed inside our houses until we
heard the Polish cavalry crossing our bridge. They wore khaki tunics
with high collars and, on their heads, service caps with white bands and
black peaks. Each cavalry soldier had a lance and a carbine rifle. I
remember the clink of their sabers as they rode into our town. Behind
them, we heard a rattle of machine-gun carts coming across the Narev.
They moved the machine-guns onto the middle of Ostrova Street--in case
the Bolsheviks would try to counterattack.”
Abe looked at his sister in wonder. This sixteen-year-old baby did seem
to know the terms: cavalry, machine guns, sabers, lances… “Looks like we
have a new generation of Chmiel women here,” said Abe looking over at
his father. “She even knows about counterattacks.”
Hancha continued without comment and without hesitation.
"The machine guns were mounted on Tachanki horse-drawn carts. Soon there
were about a hundred Polish soldiers with their horses in the town
square. Someone took down the ragged Bolshevik flag and ran up the red
and white Polish flag. Even a few tanks, French ones I think, rolled
into town. Three Polish airplanes, Spads, flew over Ostrolenka, heading
toward the fleeing Russians. We weren’t sure how the Polish troops would
treat us. Papa was the first one to go outside. Daniel went with him.
They talked to some of the soldiers who were resting under the trees in
the park. Father shook the hand of one of the officers, and I watched
him send Daniel back into the house to bring some food and drink out to
the soldiers. Mama and I stayed inside. Wolf and Zelig went down to talk
with the cavalry troops, right under our balcony. A few of them--the
ones with beards--I recognized as Jews.
“When all of the soldiers were over the bridge, the machine-gun carts
were moved aside and the cavalry moved on to the east. The others
stacked their rifles in the square and had a rest. One of the soldiers
told Wolf that the Polish Army needed to move fast to attack the
Bolsheviks. This was because the Poles were outnumbered and couldn’t
form a defensive line. Always offense! Always keep the enemy off
“Then a terrible thing happened. We heard a knock on our apartment door.
Papa opened it up, and two Polish soldiers came in. One of them, a
sergeant with a beard, obviously a Jew, asked Papa his name.
“ ‘Yisroel Chmiel,’ ” said Papa.
“The sergeant said to Papa, ‘Pan Chmiel, with my apologies, but we have
orders to mobilize all the young men over eighteen years of age to help
us build fortifications. I see that you have two boys here. My orders
are to take these boys with me. We will do them no harm, and I hope they
will be back soon. But our army is moving very fast. We will give your
boys uniforms and good food and I personally will look after them.
Please boys,’ he motioned to Wolf and Daniel. ‘Come with me now.’
“Papa sized up the situation. He understood that he had to bargain fast.
‘This boy,’ he pointed to Wolf, is sick, just getting over the
influenza. Let him stay here. The other boy, Daniel, is stronger--even
though he’s younger. Take him to build fortifications. I’m sure the
Polish army doesn’t want a sick boy who could infect the others. What do
“To all of our surprise, the soldiers looked at each other for a moment
and then nodded. The gentile soldier pulled a red and white armband from
his greatcoat pocket, put it on Daniel’s arm, and led him outside.
“I started to cry. Don’t forget, I was only nine years old.”
“Mama looked over at Papa. She must have been thinking that Papa had
gone crazy to send either boy--Daniel or Wolf--with the Polish army,
without doing something. Maybe Papa should have fallen on his knees and
begged the soldiers not to take them, or screamed, or barred the door,
or yelled for help. And why had he chosen Daniel instead of Wolf, who
was older and stronger?
“Why hadn’t he told the soldiers that both boys had influenza?
“But Papa gave Mama a quick look and a wink, and Mama immediately understood that he had a plan.
“I was too little to understand, and so was Zelig. We were both crying.
Blüme caught Papa’s look too, and figured out that he had something up
“ ‘Don’t worry, stop crying Hanche and Zelig, don’t worry Mama, I’ll
have Daniel back soon enough,’ he said, and none of us doubted it. We
all knew that Papa would never fail us.
“ ‘Your Papa is a man of gvura, a brave hero,’ said Mama Rivka. “Who else would---
“Mama, you asked me to tell the story to Abe. Let me continue!”
Hanche rolled her eyes and continued: “Papa waited until the next day
and then, early in the morning, he woke up Zelig and told him to hitch
our best horse, Barak, to a wagon. Mama and I watched from the balcony. I
saw Zelig climb up on the cart. Papa put a big burlap sack into the
back of the wagon, climbed up next to Zelig, and off they went. Mama was
crying again, wringing her handkerchief.
“Papa, Zelig and Barak turned onto Lomza Road and, when we lost sight of
them. we went back into the house. Mama pulled all the curtains shut,
took off her shoes, and sat on the floor, as if she was sitting shivah,
the prayer ritual for the dead. She sat there for four days. Blüme took
care of her. Wolf took care of business matters. I spent most of my time
sitting on the bench in front of the house, looking down Lomza Road,
waiting for Papa, Zelig and Daniel, straining my ear to hear Barak
bringing them all back alive. All that time, I knew that everything
would be all right in the end. Nothing could happen to my brothers and
“On the fifth day, I heard Barak’s hooves clip-clopping into town from
the east. They were back! Papa, Zelig, and Daniel came into my view.
Behind them, it looked as if all the little Jewish boys in town were
skipping and shouting down the street, waving handkerchiefs, spinning
around in joy. Papa spotted me running down the street toward him. I
dashed past Barak, and Papa scooped me up onto the wagon. I looked back
at our house, and I saw that Mama had pulled the curtains open and was
standing on the balcony weeping, this time with joy. Her children and
her husband were home.”
“Nu,” says Abe, barely holding back a few tears as Hanche paused in her
story. “How did Papa get Daniel out of the army? Go on, don’t leave me
“Well,” continued Hancha, “Zelig and Papa left Ostrolenka, and, just on
the outskirts of town, they turned up a path through the forest where
old Pan Roman Poplawski had his little vodka factory. The Bolshevik and
Polish armies had pretty much bought out or stolen Pan Poplawski’s
supply of vodka, but Papa knew that there was always a hidden stash
available if the price were right. Papa left Zelig with Barak and the
cart. He followed Poplawski into the woods. They returned with a wooden
box full of bottles of 90 percent potato vodka. Papa paid with gold
pieces. The new Polish currency wasn’t worth the paper it was printed
on. He threw a blanket over the bottles of vodka and off they went to
the main road.
“As they headed west, they soon came past the battlefields. The two of
them could hear artillery and machine guns in the direction of
Bialistok. From his own experience in the Russian army, Papa figured
that Daniel would be far in back of the frontline. The Polish cavalry
was moving fast, and there were heavy casualties among the Bolsheviks.
“Sure enough, within a few hours, he had found Daniel, digging shallow
graves for the dead Bolsheviks and deep graves for the Polish
cavalrymen. A sergeant had been left in charge. Papa had a short talk
with him. Then, the sergeant turned and ordered one of his men to unload
the vodka. Daniel was called away from his work, and the sergeant then
wrote out a brief document stating that Daniel was underage for the
Polish army, and that he was sending the young man back to his home town
with Pan Yisroel Chmiel, a loyal citizen of the Polish Republic, and a
reliable anti-Bolshevik leader of the city of Ostrolenka.
“Our Papa was pretty shrewd, eh?”
Abe, Mamma Rivka, Hanche, Daniel and Shunra the cat, relaxed on their
chairs in a shaded corner of the courtyard. Abe’s visit to Ostrolenka
would end in a few days. Mordecai, the tailor next door, had cleaned and
pressed the American Chmiel’s renowned linen coat.
Abe had savored each moment with his family. He wondered if he would
ever see them again. Maybe they would all decide to come to America as
he had planned, but his father Yisroel still hoped for a new Poland--a
more decent place to live, under General Pilsudski. Mother Rivka didn’t
care anything for Marshal Pilsudski, but she would never leave her
extended family. Daniel remained committed to train Jewish youth to go
to Palestine, but found it hard to imagine that he, himself, would go.
Wolf contemplated leaving, but his pregnant wife and her ill parents
make it less than a reasonable time to leave Ostrolenka. Zelig and
Hanche, on the other hand, loved the idea of going to America, and the
young and adventurous duo felt pessimistic about the future of Jewish
life in Poland.
“Perhaps, at least,” Abe thought, “the two of them may join me.”
Many other obstacles stood in the way of saving his family: The United
States, formerly a beacon of freedom for the oppressed of Europe, had
closed its doors to all but a trickle of immigrants. And, of course,
there was always the question of money. Even though Abe had done well in
his Louisville business, he hadn't done that well. He still wanted to
marry and have a family of his own. On the latter issue, Mama Rivka had
launched an interrogation.
“Nu, Avraham, what about a huppah for you. Why don’t you stay a little
longer and find a wife here in Ostrolenka? We raise nice girls here, not
spoiled American Jewish girls. Look how beautiful Haya, Daniel’s new
bride, looked at her wedding. What do you think about the Guttman girl? I
saw you looking at her during the wedding. She’s a bit thin but she has
a pretty face. She’s smart. She knows how to cook. She even speaks a
little English. Now, she’s busy with the Bundist movement--the
Socialists--but if you suggest she go with you to America, she’ll forget
her politics. Why don’t you go see her?”
“Mama, she’s a baby. She’s Zelig’s age.”
“Zelig is eighteen now and so is Elka Guttman. And you are only
twenty-nine. There’s another thing,” she told Abe almost in a whisper,
“a thing that I don’t want you to repeat to your father. I think we are
heading for hard times. The Polacks don’t love us. They never did. There
isn’t enough work for people in Poland and, sooner or later, the Jews
will be the ones to lose their jobs. There will be nothing for us to do
here. Any Jewish girl you take with you to America will have a better
life. Who knows, it may save her life. I see a darkness coming. I had a
dream last night that I don’t want to tell you about, but I will say it
wasn’t a good dream.”
Abe had sat quietly, not responding to the explosion of words pouring
out of his mother’s mouth. He couldn’t remember her, ever before, daring
to talk about such things. His mother’s lips thinned as she talked. A
chill crawled up his arm. Mama Rivka had seen something, all right.
But, thought Abe, as far as marriage goes, well, he wanted an American
girl only, not a greenhorn--not a village girl. Maybe, when the time
came, he would consider marrying that girl, Hanna, whose father owned
the yardage shop in Louisville. She spoke perfect English, in spite of
her coming from Odessa.
“She’s classy and what a body.” he muttered under his breath in English.
Vos zogn? (What did you say?) asked Rivka.
“Yes, too many obstacles,” he muttered to himself and closed up the suitcase.
Soon after Abe left Ostrolenka to return to America, Zelig and his
friend Mottle plotted their exodus from Poland. A lot of questions had
to be dealt with. How would they break the news to their parents? How
would they make their way across the border without being caught by the
border guards and arrested as draft deserters? How would they finance
their journey? What about passports and visas? And which way would they
go? North? South? East? West?
Zelig decided to tell his father about their intentions.
“Why take any chances,” figured Zelig. “If the news gets out, there
might be a malshin (an informer) somewhere in the community who could
expose the plot. Not that any Jew in the town would ever squeal on any
other Jew but who knows? The consequences could be disastrous.”
Both Mottle and Zelig had heard about Polish military prisons where the
wardens and guards taught a harsh lesson--terribly brutal for the
Gentile prisoners, but even more brutal for any Jew. Mottle agreed to
the strategy of informing Yisroel Chmiel.
Heart in mouth, Zelig waited for a moment when no one else was in the
house except his father and then told him about Mottle’s draft notice.
Yisroel sat down heavily upon the couch and stroked his beard. He sucked
his upper lip inside his mouth and stared hard at his youngest son
standing before him. A silence descended in the room.
“When must Mottle report to the army?” asked the father in a low voice.
“January first,” his son replied.
More silence. More lip sucking.
“You must go from here, the both of you, as soon as you can,” said the father.
“I know,” said the son.
“I will prepare the way for you as best as I can. You will not be able
to get a Polish passport because you are of draft age. I will find a way
to get you across the German border. Then you must go to Königsberg to
take a ship. I will arrange your passage to America.”
“But Papa, the United States is closed to us now.”
“Yes I know, Avraham explained this to me before he left. He said that
you should go to Cuba first and then he will help you get into the
United States. Abe and I have already talked about this. We already had
plans for you. But we didn’t know it would happen in such a short time.
It is good you came to me and told me.”
“She knows also. She has been preparing clothes for you. Haven’t you
noticed the way she looks at you, lately? She doesn’t cry in front of
you, but she knows what is coming. We both know there is no future for
you here. We have plans for the rest of you to leave as well. Not all at
once, but slowly, slowly, one part of the family at a time. Blüme,
Daniel, Wolf, Hanche--”
“What about you, Papa? What about Mama?”
“I don’t know about us yet. But you must go. There is nothing for you
here. You’re not married. You will soon have a draft notice. You must
“I will,” said Zelig, trying to look sad, but inwardly elated.
Only a few weeks later, early on an autumn morning, Zelig and Mottle
mounted their bicycles and sped out of Ostrolenka along forest paths
leading north toward the German border. The two boys wore Polish Boy
Scout uniforms, impersonating teens on a nature trip. Zelig and Mottle
pedaled fast--bicycling out of their life in Poland--bound for America.
Zelig led, constantly increasing his speed. He wanted to get out of
Poland fast--no need to look backwards. He tasted freedom and adventure.
Mottle lagged a bit behind, glad to escape the draft, but reluctant to
leave his family and friends—and the only life he’d ever known. He felt
his own roots tearing from him with each pump of the pedal. On the
other hand, Zelig had long since detached himself from his own roots.
“Perhaps,” Zelig made a mental note, “somewhere, sometime, I’ll miss my
family, but not now, not yet.”
They sped north, tires crunching fallen leaves. Sunbeams filtered
through the forest treetops. Boy Scout neckerchiefs bobbed on their
chests, while slim hairy knees plunged the pedals down, right, left,
right, left, speed, more speed,
“Poland is behind me," Zelig exclaimed," and now to freedom, and a new life!”
Mottle panted painfully behind him. “How far?” he gasped.
A Kurpie peasant village appeared at the end of the trail through the
forest. There, a guide waited to smuggle the two boys across the German
border. Their baggage would await them at the Hamburg Line warehouse in
Königsberg. Money and tickets to Cuba awaited them in a Jewish tailor
shop in the port city. The hidden hand of Yisroel Chmiel had seen to
“Hurry up,” Zelig shouted back to Mottle.
In Ostrolenka, in the apartment on the Town Square, Mother Rivka mourned the loss of her youngest son:
“First Avraham, now Zelig, soon Wolf.” She wept in a dark corner of the
bedroom, sitting on a pillow on the floor as if mourning the dead,
dabbing her eyes with a tired old handkerchief.
Blüme tried to console her.
“Mama, Zelig will write--as soon as he gets to Cuba. He’s with Mottle.
They’ll take care of each other. Abe will get them into the United
States. We will go to visit them-- maybe to live there. Maybe we will
all live together in America. And like father says, maybe things won’t
be too bad here. General Pilsudski---“
“General Pilsudski can go to hell,” cursed Rivka.
The anger in her own words frightened her. She hunched over, pounded her breast, and sobbed into the handkerchief.
“I will never see Zelig and Avraham again. Never again.”
Zelig learned one thing about himself while crossing the gray Atlantic
from Vigo Bay, Spain, to the port of Havana, Cuba. He and the turbulent
waves were quite incompatible. With the ship under way, Zelig’s
queasiness turned into nausea and his nausea into seasickness. He
retched his way from one end of the cabin to the other. His shipmate,
Mottle, on the other hand, seemed immune to the effects of the pitching
and rolling of the vessel. Mottle soon abandoned Zelig to spend his time
on deck, braving the cold spray and blustering winds to find respite
from Zelig’s puke.
Shy Mottle met a nice Jewish girl from Warsaw who paced the deck with him, ignoring the salt and spray.
She asked him his name.
“Mmmottle,” said Mottle
“My name is Beatrice. Are you going to Cuba?”
“Yes,” he answered, even though it seemed obvious to him that everybody on this ship was going to Cuba.
“Me too,” she said. “My parents are asleep in their cabin. I thought I would come up on deck for some fresh air.”
“My friend Zelig is seasick. I need fresh air too.”
Beatrice studied Mottle’s face
“Poor young man, this Mottle, so far from Poland and his family,” she said to herself. “He has honest eyes, but sad and shy.”
She wore a blue beret bought on the wharf in a Spanish port. He noticed
her green eyes. Freckles covered the sweet bridge of her nose. In a
burst of courage Mottle said, “Shall we walk together?”
And so it began. Over the next few days they endlessly strolled the
decks or sat down close to each other in slightly damp deck chairs,
holding hands, watching the sun set in the west. They kissed. They
hugged. She, being a sophisticated Warsaw girl, thought she might take
Mottle to a more private place, in some corner of the ship. But Mottle
proved too naïve--too shy.
In the wretchedness of his cabin, Zelig remained below for the next ten
days until the ship’s horn announced that land had been sighted. He
groped his way to the deck, gaunt and pale. Inside of his skull, a giant
fiend pounded away with hammer and nails. Zelig squinted at the sunny
blue light of the outside world, made his way onto the lightly rolling
deck, saw Mottle and Beatrice walking hand in hand and then raced toward
the rail to heave again--not that he had anything to heave. As Zelig
managed to raise his head toward the horizon, he saw a thin line of
ARRIVAL IN CUBA
A tall, rounded stone tower poked its head above the horizon--the
lighthouse of the Castle of Tres Santos Reyes Magos de Morro--Cuba’s
tallest monument, part of the fortresses guarding either side of the
entrance to Havana Bay. Below the tower, red, white and blue flags of
Cuba fluttered on flagpoles. The bay opened its arms in greeting, but
only conditionally because of past troubles with English invaders,
French pirates, American imperialists, and other uninvited guests.
The ship docked at the first of three terminals on the Havana side of
the bay. There, the passengers—those rich enough to have valid visas to
enter Cuba-- disembarked and went on their ways. The rest of the
immigrants, those without papers, had to remain on board for the short
excursion to the other side of the bay, where Cuba’s version of Ellis
Island--Camp Tiscornia--awaited its more humble arrivals.
But at last they were in America, albeit not in the United States of America, the final goal of most of the passengers.
Once on shore within the camp, Zelig, Mottle and Beatrice found cots not
too far from each other in an enormous hall--a structure with naked
girders and a tin roof. The cots, hundreds of them in narrow rows on a
concrete floor, crowded together with little chance for any privacy and
with a great risk of illness from the coughing, sneezing, and other
miseries at close quarters.
One could buy food in the camp, but only at prices that seemed
astronomical for the poorest of the immigrants. There at Tiscornia, each
refugee had to undergo a health examination before entering Cuba.
Mercifully, the medical personnel at the camp detained only a few people
who had serious infectious diseases, such as trachoma or tuberculosis.
The authorities predicted an average waiting time at Tiscornia--less
than three days--even faster, if you could pay a little money. Those
suffering from serious illnesses faced dire consequences, including
deportation back to the home country. If your home country was Poland
and you were Jewish, this was not a good thing to have happen.
Mottle and Beatrice’s temporary incarceration became a blessed reprieve
for their shy little romance. Although Beatrice’s cot was near her
parents, Mottle’s cot was not far away.
The first night fell. The lights went out inside of the dank building. Zelig began to snore.
Mottle almost drifted off, but thoughts of Beatrice filled his head.
Moments passed before he finally succumbed to sleep, sighing wistfully.
In his dream, sweet lips caressed his forehead. Then he realized that he
was not dreaming. It was Beatrice.
* * *
“Well,” said Zelig the next morning, mazel tov, you did it.”
“What?” said Mottle.
“What you’re smiling about,” Zelig replied with an evil grin. “I wasn’t
that much asleep. You better keep it quieter the next time.”
“Keep what quieter?”
“There’s no use playing so innocent. I’m going to start calling you Lover Boy from now on.”
Late during the next night, Beatrice visited Mottle again.
“My Mottle," she whispered, “we are leaving tomorrow morning. Papa has
paid a bribe to one of the officials. But we have to take all of our
things and go before the first light. I don't know where in Havana we
will be. Will you look for me when you get out of this place?"
“I will,” Mottle assured her, “I will find you wherever you are.”
“Good,” she said, “now move over a bit.”
In the morning, Beatrice and her parents departed.
FINDING A HOME
That same day, the Cuban authorities decided to let most of the
Tiscornia detainees continue along their way to Havana. A ferryboat
transferred them across the bay with their meager baggage and, with no
further ado, they found themselves out in the waterfront square--the
Plaza San Francisco. The square was jammed full with pushcarts, mule
drivers, pimps, prostitutes, stevedores, stray cats, neighborhood
children, old ladies selling cigarettes, policemen eyeing new
immigrants, dogs pissing on a tall statue of a lion, drivers with their
mules offering their services, Cuban gentlemen sipping coffee at outdoor
tables, and customs officers smoking cigars, and stamping permits. The
odor of crude oil and tobacco plants abounded, along with the sharp
smell of urine. After the depressing silence of Tiscornia, the hubbub of
the plaza--though chaotic, was refreshing.
Mottle tried to spot Beatrice in the snarled scene--in vain. She must
have left hours before, disappearing with her parents into the cramped
streets of the old city. Would he ever see her again?
Zelig sat on his suitcase, not quite sure what he should do next.
Then, a white-bearded ancient and his mule rescued the two boys. A Star
of David conspicuously dangled down the old man’s open, sweat-stained,
“Come, landzmen (countrymen),” the muleteer commanded them in Yiddish,
“I’m Elijah, and I am going to take you to your new home."
Was this Elijah the Prophet or an emaciated Moses leading Mottle and
Zelig into the Promised Land? Before they could respond, the old man
lifted their meager baggage and smacked the mule’s rump. The cartwheels
began to rattle over cobblestones toward a narrow alleyway.
“Hurry up, you two boys,” yelled Elijah, “I don’t have all day. More Jews are coming in on the next boat.”
Given no other choice, Zelig and Mottle ran after their belongings.
"What is your Mule's name," Zelig asked?
"Bilam," said Elijah, "just like the ass in the Bible."
Reaching the end of the alleyway, Bilam and his driver turned right into a crowded thoroughfare.
“This is Inquisition Street.” Elijah pointed out the street sign as if he were leading a grand tour.
"Just the right street name for a synagogue, eh? But there it is,” he
said. The mule cart bumped past a small building with the Star of David
on its door. A withered sign in Spanish and Hebrew announced the
presence of a Jewish community: Union Hebrea, Chevet Ahim.
“A sach Yidden aqui--lots of Jews around here,” Elijah informed the
boys, half in Yiddish and half in Spanish. Three blocks down Inquisition
Street, the mule and the cart lunged to the right, onto Acosta Street.
There, they mingled with more cats and dogs, and more Cubans of all
colors. More young Jewish boys, like themselves, sat on the curbs
smoking cigarettes, and telling jokes. They lusted at the mulatto and
black girls, who shamelessly flaunted their glorious skin, their legs
and their wonderful bottoms. But they also passed on information to
their friends about how to survive.
“We’re almost there,” Elijah announced. “Let’s get you a drink before I show you your place.”
Everyone but Bilam sat down at a small café. The tiny tables filled the
narrow sidewalk and spilled out into the crowded street. The day was hot
and muggy--like most days in Havana. All of them, mule driver, mule,
Zelig and Mottle--needed something to drink.
The waiter eyed the group, knowing full well they would not be paying customers.
“Tres vasos de agua fria”, Elijah called out, wiping his beard with a small napkin.
The waiter sighed and brought a tray with three cups of cold water.
"Amazing," Zelig thought, "how a Jew could sit himself down in a Gentile café and so brazenly order cold water.”
Elijah smiled. Zelig and Mottle gulped down the cool liquid. Of course,
Zelig hadn’t yet learned that the Cuban law required water to be served
gratis to anyone asking for it.
As the three of them finished their refreshment and stood to continue
their odyssey, Elijah had the chutzpah to pour the rest of his glass
down the mule’s throat. He returned the empty glass to the table with a
smirk. The waiter scowled.
Elijah led the two boys and Bilam through the crowds of people, and past
more mules and their cargoes, through a narrow gate leading into a
shabby and antiquated four-story slum. The balconies of this ancient,
rundown edifice overflowed with young men like Mottle and
Zelig--immigrant boys with eastern European faces, dressed in raggedy,
sweat-stained clothing--hairy legs draped over the edge. A hundred
versions of Zeligs and Mottles who had arrived a few hours, days or
weeks earlier, all with the same two questions in their minds: “How do I
get to America from here?” and “how will I eat today?”
Inside and upstairs, Mottle and Zelig found two horribly stained
mattresses propped up against the wall. They pulled them down, squeezing
the verminous, lumpy "beds" to the floor, further crowding the five
other mattresses in the tiny room.
Zelig paid Elijah a few pesos, and Elijah and his mule headed back down Acosta Street to search for more Jews to save.
Their first home in the New World. A little crowded, but still a place to sleep.
SAINTS FOR SALE
September 1, 1926
Dear Papa and Mama,
Mottle and I are now in Cuba. The weather is very hot here. I saw today,
for the first time, a black man. Mottle and I are living in a very nice
house. Everything is fine and don’t worry. Here is a picture of the
President of Cuba, Mr. Machado. Regards to my sisters and brothers, and
to Shunra, our little cat. Your loving son, Zelig
“Look at the legs on that one,” Zelig pointed out to Mottle. The two
Ostrolenka boys sprawled out on the park bench in the Plaza Vieja.
“You think she’s Jewish?”
“Who cares? She has those bedroom eyes. And the tuches, Oy Gevalt. If only…”
“I’m hungry,” complained Mottle. “We didn’t eat anything today yet.
Remember your mother’s gefilte fish, Zelig? Don’t you wish we had a
plate of it here on our bench?”
“Don’t forget the horseradish,” they chanted in unison.
They had been in Cuba a week, without jobs, without passports, without
money for a good meal---or even a bad meal. The two young immigrants had
to sleep in a miserable corner of a room in a crowded apartment with a
bunch of other young immigrants on their way to a new life. During the
day they had to be outside--rain or shine--because another shift of
immigrants, who rolled cigars in a nearby factory, slept on the
mattresses during the daylight hours. So, they had settled down in the
Plaza Vieja, near the main square of the City of Havana.
“Here’s the problem, as I see it,” said Zelig, looking up at Mottle.
“We don’t know any Spanish. The Cubans don’t know any Yiddish. We have
no merchandise to sell, and there are too many peddlers on the street as
it is. We don’t know anybody here except Moishe Shlafmitz and the other
Jews in our room. And they’re just as poor as we are.”
“Nu, Zelig,” I already know we’re poor,” mourned Mottle, “but what can we do?”
Zelig pondered for a minute.
“But, Mottle, we have assets too. Look, you know how to paint nice
pictures. And I know how to sell merchandise. The question is, what can
you paint and what can I sell?”
“Maybe my shmuck?
“If I could sell your shmuck by its length, Mottle, we wouldn’t make anything at all.”
They both laughed at this remark, and their levity helped to deaden
their hunger for a few minutes. Zelig's growling stomach prompted a more
“Mottle, I saw a peddler over in front of the Cathedral. He was selling
pictures of Catholic saints. The Gentiles coming out of the cathedral
were buying them like mad after they came out from their prayers. Why
couldn’t we sell them some of those Christian idols?”
Mottel thought about this idea and commented: “They might like to buy
such things, and maybe I could paint such things. But there are a few
problems. We don’t have any money to buy paintbrushes and paint--not to
speak of frames, glass and God knows what else we’d need in this
business. Now if we were in Ostrolenka, I would know how to get such
things. But we’re in Cuba now.”
Zelig’s mind flitted elsewhere, as the sumptuous behind of a Cuban black
woman undulated past the bench. He slapped his own face twice,
punishing himself—first, for lusting at all, and second, for lusting
after such a woman when he had no money to offer her.
“Her tuchus looks like two little boys fighting under a blanket,” he
agonized and then returned to deal with his business partner’s
Right now they needed to make some money. How to spend it would come later.
“Don’t be so negative, Mottle,” said Zelig, “there’s always a way to
make a few dollars.” My father Yisroel always said to me: ‘az me ken nit
vi me vil, tut men vi me ken If you can’t do what you want, do what you
“And my father used to say to me: Az de mogn iz lydik, is der moykh
oykhet leydik. When the stomach is empty, the brain is also empty”
Zelig answered, “And my grandfather, Ephraim, used to say, Az me ken nit
aribergeyn, geyt men arunter. If you can’t go over, go underneath. So
let’s go! I have an idea.”
Zelig led Mottle down Calle Muralla, where he had detected several Jewish-owned stores.
“Paintings saints on wood, Eh?” said Chaim Dakowski, now Señor Jaime
Dakowski--the proud owner of a tailor shop at the nearby corner of
Avenida Compostela and Calle Muralla. Isn’t that a Gentile business?
I’ve only seen such paintings in front of cathedrals. What would two
young Jewish boys be doing in the saint trade?”
“Making a living, Reb Dakowski, we only need a little bit of a loan to
get started. My friend Mottle here is a well-known artist. The Gentiles
at home were always asking him to paint pictures of their holy ones.
Mottle, tell Mr. Dakowski about your famous picture of Saint Andrez
Bobula that you made for the famous great cathedral in Ostrolenka.”
“Oh yes,” said Mottle weakly, for he had sworn to his father that he would never tell a lie.”
“But now you’re in Cuba, not in Ostrolenka,” said Dakowski as he lit up a
Cuban cigar and settled it in the corner of his mouth. “I don’t know if
you’ll be able to get away with selling such things here. We Jews have
to be careful not to stand out too much. You know the saying, ‘Beser a
yid on a bord, vi a bord on a yid--better a Jew without a beard, than a
beard without a Jew.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Dakowski,” said Mottle. “Zelig here comes from a very
successful merchant family in Ostrolenka. He can sell a painting to a
“How much?” said Dakowski, brusquely getting down to business.
“We need only a small loan,” said Mottel. “Just enough for some art materials.”
“How much?” repeated Dakowski, impatiently.
Mottel finally broke out of his reluctance to ask for favors: “We need
some brushes, some canvas, a little wood for framing, a little oil
paint, a little linseed oil to mix with the paint, a little turpentine
to clean the brushes, a little varnish, a little paint, red for the
blood, some blue—“
“Enough, enough,” said Dakowski, “I see that the both of you are full of
chutzpah. Do you think you’re the only Jewish boys that have come in
here asking for a loan? I don’t believe either one of you about your
famous paintings and your great sales experience, but I don’t care.
Here’s five American dollars for you to start your meshugane business,
just to get rid of you two. Maybe you’ll sell a picture to the Pope
himself. Get out and don’t bother me anymore. I’m busy myself trying to
scratch out my own living. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that I got
off the boat here with nothing. Just like you boychiks.”
Zelig took the five dollars in his hand, secretly vowing to do something
for Dakowski someday--perhaps he'd send him a hundred dollars from
America after he got rich.
“And don’t bother to return the money…like we say in Yiddish: tsum
shlimazl darf men oykh hobn mazl. Gei Gezunt Even when you’re unlucky
you need some good luck. Go in good health. And here’s two nice cigars
for you maziks to keep your spirits up.”
The two boys gleefully dashed out with their fortune and their cigars.
Dakowski stuck his head out of the store and yelled, “…and don’t take any wooden pesos.”
“What does that mean?” asked Mottle.
“I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”
THE LIVES OF SAINTS
Within a few days, Zelig and Mottle finished the first stage of their
commercial venture. Mottle had produced a masterpiece based on the
pictures of the Polish Saint Andrez Bobula, whose image was carried by
Polish Catholics on Easter Sunday processions back in Ostrolenka.
Mottle’s Bobula wore a ceremonial miter with green crosses, a black head
strap, and purple vestments. The Saint’s white beard streamed long and
forked. For a touch of realism, Mottle portrayed the holy man as having
only one arm. In his martyrdom, Mottle remembered, Saint Bobula had
endured unspeakable tortures at the hands of savage Ukrainian peasants,
who had hacked off the poor man’s right arm with a butcher knife. In
Mottle’s rendition, crimson blood flowed in a torrent from poor Saint
Bobula’s mutilated limb.
The appearance of the portrait of Saint Bobula caused a stir among the
devout women on their way into the front of the Cathedral. Mottle had
arranged, with the help of a Cuban gentile friend of Dakowski, the
printing of a number of small pamphlets in Spanish about the Polish
martyr and, with Zelig’s excellent sales pitch, the whole venture became
a smashing success. Zelig and Mottle continued to paint and hawk Saint
Bobula images through the following few weeks. But then, capitalism
being what it is, other competing, depictions of the Saint Bobula’s
martyrdom began to appear, produced by Cuban artists. Zelig and Mottle
had to move on to other Saints--and just when things had improved enough
for them to eat two meals a day.
The saints business turned into a more complicated undertaking than they
had originally anticipated. The initial success of the Saint Bobula
paintings occurred because the Saint was a novelty, previously unknown
in Latin America. Mottle’s graphic depiction of the poor holy man’s gory
death was also a big selling point. However, the two Jewish boys lacked
knowledge of any other martyred Polish Saints, equally dramatic. What
could they possibly know about such non-Jewish historical matters? They
didn’t even know or care very much about their own religion.
Then, Zelig had one lucky breakthrough, resulting from a rum-laced
conversation with a Sicilian immigrant to Cuba who treated him to a
Mojito cocktail at a bar on O’Reilly Street. The Sicilian knew something
about the dramatic martyrdom of Saint Agatha of Catania, a third
century Sicilian woman whose breasts were severed onto a plate by the
order of the Roman Emperor Decius. Mottle’s next paintings sold even
better than St. Bobula. However, overall sales decreased to the point
where the two partners had to cut back to one meal a day.
They now slept in better quarters--a humble rented room in the back of
Dakowski’s store, with one narrow bed, one light bulb and an arthritic
table. A rat sometimes frequented this abode, searching for crumbs, but
politely left by a secret entrance as soon as either of the boys came
in. At least they didn’t have to share this room with ten or twelve
other Jewish refugees in an environment of cigar smoke, dampness, dirty
laundry, TB bacilli, coughing, and sneezes.
A few weeks later, when the calendar on the wall showed January 1927,
Zelig had a revelation. He woke up in the middle of the night with a
brilliant concept in mind. He reached over and shook poor Mottle out of
his dream about Beatrice.
“I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” Zelig howled as he pulled Mottle by his ears.
“You got the rat?”
“No, I got an idea.”
“We’re going to America, Zelig?”
“No, no, we’re not going anywhere. I just figured out how we can market our goods.”
“Listen, Mottle, we don’t have to worry about finding new Saints anymore. We’ll have as many as we want.”
“We’ll make them up, Mottle. We’ll invent their names. We’ll give birth
to our own martyrs. Most of our customers don’t even know how to read.
They don’t know any geography except for their village and the streets
of Havana. They won’t know Poland from Romania. And we won’t have to do
our business in front of the church anymore.”
“Who are these customers?” Mottle asked, now fully awake.
“Who else? Nafkes, …Prostitutes”
“Prostitutes? They need pictures of saints?”
“Of course they do,” said Zelig. “These poor women, they need all the
luck they can get. Do you understand me? They’re all young women from
the countryside, far away from home and their families, just like us.
Their clients beat them up all the time. Their pimps abuse them. They
have no way of fighting back. No one to protect them. Our paintings will
sell like mad there--in the bordellos. Who knows, maybe our paintings
will even give them a little hope. Maybe, when they look at our martyrs,
they’ll see that things could be worse. And just think, we can even
work nights when the rest of our competitors won’t be around. Get up!
Let’s get to work!”
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE CUBAN REPUBLIC
While Zelig and Mottle planned their entrance into the Cuban business
world, other important events were brewing in the Cuban Republic.
President Machado had decided his present four-year term would not be
enough for him to finish his personal and political agendas. He would
soon announce that an additional six-year term would be of great benefit
to the people of Cuba--especially those who had taken the trouble to
line the pockets of the president.
The largely North American-controlled sugar industry suffered from a
chronic nervous disorder, brought on by the appearance of labor unions
and public demands for a more diversified economy. "After all," said
these troublemakers, “how much sugar cane can one eat without suffering
from malnutrition, hunger, disease and other miseries?"
On the other hand, General Machado was of the opinion that the time
might soon be ripe to cut back on his popular reform programs. There
might be street protests and general strikes. Order had to be maintained
for the good of the Cuban people. The dangerous communist and socialist
parties had only recently, disrespectfully, portrayed the general and
his followers as nothing more than thieves, cutthroats, mafiosos, and
other nationalistic parasites on the backs of the workers.
“Such lack of respect,” said the General. "It’s intolerable! And most of
their leaders are goddam Jews anyway. Oh yes, trouble is brewing in our
Cuban paradise. We are only a hundred miles away from the shores of one
of the mightiest nations on earth, the Estados Unidos, that same
behemoth that had liberated Cuba from Spain only twenty- eight years
before. We don’t want to antagonize our powerful neighbor, do we?”
Another thing mulled around in Machado’s mind as he thought of his own
and his country’s future, “Just when we are beginning to build our
tourist industry, the last thing we need is any kind of disorder. We
can’t live on sugar cane alone. We have to bring those Yankees over to
our casinos and our nightclubs. We need more investment in our
racetracks and in our hotels. Those tourists aren’t going to come here
if there are labor strikers and revolutionaries here. I better come down
hard on those troublemakers before they fuck everything up here. Goddam
sons of bitches! Maybe I need to shoot a few of those reds!"
THE GESHEFT (The Business)
Zelig, the marketing director, began to lay out his sales plan. Through
Dakowski, he made a contact with an idealistic Cuban Jew by the name of
Señor Bris, known for trying to help the many poor Eastern European
Jewish prostitutes in Havana. Bris visited the young ladies often and
tried to help them find less humiliating and dangerous ways of making a
living. Although he had not quite succeeded in directing nice Jewish
girls into other professions, he persisted in his work. One of his
mitzvahs (good deeds) involved aiding these mostly illiterate girls; by
writing letters home to their parents--in Yiddish of course. Bris would
compose letters for these fallen women, reassuring their parents in
Hungary, Poland, Rumania, and Russia about their good jobs at the bank,
their successful promotions, and their modest public behaviors.
Bris invited Zelig to accompany him on one idealistic foray into the
brothels. Thus, Zelig gained entrée to a number of bawdy houses on the
infamous Calle Pajarito, in central Havana, by passing as just another
lascivious customer. He promised the Jewish girls a small percentage of
the profits from the sale of each of Mottle’s saints purchased by the
non-Jewish prostitutes. In this manner, a market system developed, one
that pleased the manufacturer (Mottle), the sales manager (Zelig), the
advertising consultant (Jewish brothel workers), and the customers
(prostitutes needing hope and salvation). The profit of this economic
miracle now paid Zelig and Mottle’s rent, plus two meals per day. Even
Mr. Dakowski benefited by getting his rent on time.
“And who knows,” Zelig said to Mottle, “maybe we can get into the nafke business ourselves.”
“This idea of yours may be going too far, Zelig,” said Mottle. “Maybe we
shouldn’t sell our pictures in such an immoral place. These women are
prostitutes and you know what happens in such places. I think the Jewish
law is very strict about this type of business.”
Zelig gave Mottle a puzzled look, arms outstretched and palms turned up.
“Oy, Mottle, so now we are to become saints ourselves? I tell you what.
From now on I’m going to stop calling you Lover Boy and start calling
you Moshe Rabeinu--Moses our Rabbi. You, Mottle, will be in charge of
religious affairs in the brothel. Just be sure you don’t touch any of
those girls. You might lose your holy purity. C’mon, let’s get to work
on this idea. We still have to eat.”
“All right, all right” Mottle threw up his hands and burst into laughter. “We do have to eat. But just be careful what you eat!”
Mottle soon began to create his martyred Saints for sale to certain
women of Havana. Zelig’s friend, Dr. Jesus Maria Lopez of Havana, a
local alcoholic, kindly composed a brief history of each of the Saints
for the benefit of the few girls who knew how to read. The boys sold
eleven of the martyrs on the first day and eagerly deposited their
bonanza in the safety of the Banco Nacional de Cuba.
In the evening, they got drunk on rum and smoked premium cigars. They
roared with laughter, reading from Dr. Lopez’s descriptions of each of
the bogus Saints:
St. Zelig of Ostrolenka: Struck by lightning on the Narev Bridge
St. Mottle of Lomza: Died of heat prostration wearing a hair shirt
St. Maimonides of Mishnitz: Head and fingers cut off by the Galicians
St. Hanche-Rachel of Brooklyn Beheaded by pagan Swedes
St. Dakowski of Degania Beheaded by pagan Lithuanians
St. Nudnik of Nova Scotia Eaten by a Polish whale
St. Shlimazal of Bialystock Rolled on coals by pagan Greeks
St. Curva of Blat Patron saint of herring fishermen
St. Shunra of Knackwurst Choked on a fish bone in Africa
St. Moses of Bulrushes Impaled by Rumanian atheists
St. Antonio Schlafmitz of Pinsk Drawn and quartered by Atilla the Hun
Everything went well with the new business. Calle Pajarito and its
ladies of the night (and even the ladies of the day) turned out to be a
gold mine for the sale of saints. With their increase in net worth, the
boys now had the ability to sit in a coffeehouse rather than on a park
bench. On a good day, they could even afford a tasty meal at a
restaurant on San Ignazio Street, in the Havana Vieja. A Polish Jew
owned it, and the menu boasted European style black bread, lox, herring,
and dill pickles.
One morning in late September 1927, Zelig and Motel sat in their
favorite outdoor eatery, enjoying the sea breezes; tearing at the hot
bread; sipping strong café con leche; and reflecting on the past,
present, and future of the world.
“What do you think, Mottle? Shall we stay in Cuba? It’s such a beautiful
place. Such beautiful people. Palm trees; always summer; not too much
anti-Semitism; girls with long, slender brown legs. Is it the garden of
“I’m not so sure about the anti-Semitism, Zelig. Yesterday I heard that
the Porra-- the secret police, locked up some Jewish peddlers on
Villegas Street. Dakowski told me that President Machado gave the police
orders to make trouble so that the gentile store owners will support
him for reelection. Sounds like Jew-baiting to me, just like in Poland.”
“So what are you telling me, Mottle?”
“I’m telling you that we need to move on. Remember, our plan was to go to America and bring our families over to a safe place.”
“On the other hand, Mottle, it’s not so easy to get an America
visa--even if you have relatives in America, as we do. The American
President Coolidge has decided he has enough Jews in his country.”
“Who’s talking about a visa?” Mottle softened his voice. “I heard that
for $150, there are fishermen willing to smuggle you over to Florida. “
Zelig sipped more of the bitter coffee and pondered that information for
a moment before responding. “I think you’ve got a point, Reb Mottle.
Even though we are now making a living, we shouldn’t forget that we
promised to bring our families to America. Problem is, I haven’t heard
anything from my brother Abe. I wrote a letter to him in Kentucky, but I
didn’t get an answer. And, there’s a lot to think about. What happens
if we hire a smuggler to take us to Florida and we get caught? Do they
put you in jail in Florida? Do they send you back to Cuba? Or maybe even
I don’t know,” said Mottle, “but we gotta do something.” For a second,
he thought of Beatrice, his first love. How would he ever find her
again, if he went to Florida?
INTERLUDE: LOS ANGELES
In Los Angeles, California, Zelig’s Aunt Hinkie heard a knock on her
door. Cautiously, she peeked out between the curtains of her apartment
and saw a young man in a blue uniform.
“The police?” she said to herself in Yiddish.
“Western Union,” said the young man on the other side of the door. He knocked again.
“Vestern vus?” she asked suspiciously, through her double locked door.
“Western Union! Post! Telegram!” the man shouted back.
“Oy Gevalt!” said Aunt Hinkie--for her, a telegram could only be bad news.
She opened the door a crack, one eye looking out at the postman.
“Mrs. Hinkie Ginsburg?” asked the man.
“Yo”, she said, “ich bin Ginsburg.”
“For you.” said the postman, as he pushed his clipboard up to the screen
door. The old lady pulled the clipboard into the screen door, and
scribbled her Yiddish signature-- returning it back out to the mailman
who then handed her the yellow envelope.
“Tenk you very much,” she said, slamming the front door in the poor
mailman’s face. She waited until the man’s footsteps disappeared, and
then she threw a shawl over her shoulders and hurried out the door,
descending the steps onto the busy sidewalks of Soto Street. Her
daughter, Byrdie, lived only a block away. Byrdie would open the
envelope and tell her the inevitable bad news.
“Gevalt,” she murmured all the way over as she walked down the sun-drenched street in Boyle Heights.
“Mama, it’s not bad news at all,” said Byrdie as her mother nervously waited for translation.
“It’s from your brother-in law, Yisroel Chmiel, in Ostrolenka.”
“He wants us to help his son Zelig to get into the United States.”
“Zelig’s brother Abe is in Louisville, Kentucky. He asks that we all help Zelig to come here.”
Byrdie paused for a moment, then, asked, “What is Zelig like?”
“Zelig?” said Hinkie, “Zelig iz a mazik--a mischief maker--det’s who Zelig is.
“We have Abe’s address.” said Byrdie, “We can write him a letter. Abe has Zelig’s address in Cuba. So we can make a plan.”
“A plen…” said Hinkie, in English. She savored the word. “A plen. Gut, machen a plen.”
After a flurry of communication in Yiddish, all of the relatives in the
United States proceeded to make their plans. They would create a fund
to bring Zelig through Mexico--to Baja California. Then, an American
bride (Jewish of course) would be found to bring him into the United
ON TO MEXICO
A few weeks later, a visiting American Rabbi from Los Angeles brought
Zelig a fat envelope of greenbacks. His brother Abe and his cousins had
lost no time in building the fund.
Mottle watched, as Zelig counted the money, bill by bill, and tossed
each onto the bed in their room behind Dakowski’s tailor shop.
“Five hundred dollars. A fortune,” said Zelig. “How far is Mexico from here Mottle?”
“Maybe a thousand miles.”
“Let’s go, Mottle, you and me together. There’s enough here for both of us.”
“Zelig, don’t you know any geography? America is a big place. My
relatives are in Florida. That’s clear across the world from where your
relatives live. We have to be realistic. I’ve got enough money to pay
for a smuggler to take me to Florida. My family will take care of me
from there. We have to split up now. We have to go our own ways. We’ll
each find our own way in the Goldene Medina--the golden country. Then
we’ll meet again. Maybe we’ll go into the saint business again in
America, coast to coast, eh Zelig?”
Mottle and Zelig hugged and kissed and began to prepare to go their
separate ways. They shed a few tears of parting. The boys signed their
business over to Dakowski. They gave the girls at the bordello a few
pesos each and even left a little bowl of milk for the rat.
Dear Papa and Mamma, I hope you haven’t forgotten your son, Zelig. I am
leaving Cuba now, to go to Mexico. I was able to make some money selling
some merchandise to some nice Jewish ladies. Abe, Auntie Hinkie, and
other relatives have also sent me some money—five hundred dollars! I
will write you when I get to Mexico. Hope everything is all right in
Ostrolenka. Say hello to my sisters and brothers. Also give to Shunra,
our cat, my best regards. Your son, Zelig
A few days later, Zelig--with the help of Dakowski--loaded his still
meager baggage onto a stevedore’s cart. As they approached the Port of
Havana, a little man with a big, half-chewed cigar clenched in the side
of his mouth, carefully eyed Zelig’s battered suitcase with its Polish
and German identity shipping labels.
“Hey, Lantzman, where are you going? To America?” the cigar chomper called out.
Zelig replied in Yiddish, “Where are you from?”
“From Poland, just like you.” The man pulled the wet end of his cigar
out of his slobbery lips and flicked the ash onto the side of the cart.
“Where are you going?” he repeated.
“To Mexico,” said Zelig.
“Mexico, wonderful. Just right! Want to do a favor for me and make a
little money on the way? Mr. Piepsch is my name. Kim arien--come over
here. I want to talk to you about something.”
Zelig, at first, felt a little wary of Piepsch. After all, the Jews in
the north and central sections of Poland including the people of
Ostrolenka, looked down their noses at the oddities and the
provincialism of the Galicianers, but this man--this Piepsch--seemed, at
least, a well-dressed Galicianer. His black shoes glinted brilliantly
in the Havana sun, as if someone had continuously shined them since
their creation. Piepsch wore a linen suit and a wide red tie with a
picture of the Morro Castle Tower. His enormous pocked nose bent
obscenely. His fingernails needed cleaning--at least by Mama Rivka’s
standards, but he had a benevolent smile and radiated optimism and
“Come here, young man. I have a proposition for you,” said Piepsch.
“Nu?” said Zelig, carefully alert for some kind of monkey business.
“You are going to Mexico, am I right?”
“I have a cousin, Ephriam Czyzyk in Mexico City. Maybe when you get to
your destination, young man, you will need somewhere to stay? Or do you
have relatives of your own there?”
He waited for Zelig’s reply.
“Ah,” continued Piepsch, “I understand you, my boy. You are distrustful
of Galicianers and you don’t have any relatives in Mexico. Come on, we
Jews all have to trust each other over here. We’re not in Warsaw or
Krakow anymore. Where are you from anyway? From Bialistok I would guess.
Or maybe Lomza?”
“From Ostrolenka,” said Zelig, amazed by how close this man had come to guessing his town of origin.
“Listen, boytchik,” said Piepsch, getting down to business. “I want to
send my cousin’s wife, Sarahle, a little gift. Could you take it to
Mexico City with you?”
“Why maybe, boytchik? Why not ‘yes.’ You’ll need a place to stay in
Mexico City. It’s a big place, not like Ostrolenka--not even like
Havana. Listen, I’ll give you twenty American dollars if you do this
little favor for me. Why shouldn’t you be rewarded for this mitzvah,
this good deed? It could be a big opportunity for you. My cousin Ephraim
Czyzyk is a big shot in Mexico City. He knows important people, like
the Chief of Police and government ministers. Maybe he could even fix it
so you could be a Mexican citizen. Aren’t you tired of walking around
with no papers, no contacts, and no money? Believe me, I went through
the same troubles that you are having. Nobody wants poor Jewish refugees
in their country. Take my advice: get to know some people who can help
you, like my cousin Ephraim. I only ask that you take a little gift to
Sarahle. Don’t be so suspicious.”
While Zelig thought this over, Piepsch lit another cigar and smiled at the young fool.
“A ripe one,” Piepsch thought to himself and let a loud fart.
“What do I have to do?” asked Zelig, thinking how he could use the extra
dollars to pay for his fare from Veracruz to Mexico City.
“Now you’re talking.” Piepsch smiled and showed a rack of gold teeth. “Wait for me. I’ll be right back.”
He returned with a small, tightly-wrapped wooden box.
“Here is my cousin’s address in Mexico City. When you get to the train
station, just ask for a taxi and go to Ephraim’s house. Ephraim will
pay for the taxi fare, plus he’ll give you another twenty dollars. Just
knock on the door and you’ll become a part of the family. They’re used
to having guests like you, hungry Yiddishe boys looking for a new life.
You can stay in his house until you find a place of your own.”
Piepsch put the little package in Zelig’s hand.
“That’s it?” asked Zelig, still unable to believe his luck.
“That’s it. It’s nothing. Just a simple gift for Sarahle. What is your name again?”
“Just do me a favor, Zelig,” said Piepsch, jamming an American
twenty-dollar bill into Zelig’s coat pocket. “Please keep this little
package in your pants pocket until you get to Mexico City. Most of the
Mexican people are good people, but there are also some gonifs that will
steal anything. They can steal your underpants off while you are
wearing them. Know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean,” winked Zelig, knowingly.
“Good boy, Zelig. Ah, such a nice name. I have another cousin with your
same name who went off to Palestine. Nu, it looks like your ship is
getting ready to leave. Thank you very much for doing this little favor,
my young man. Hang on tight to Sarahle’s present and go in good health,
Gai Gezunt. My regards to the family.”
Another opportunity opened for Zelig.
Zelig arrived in the Mexican port city of Vera Cruz on a steaming,
unmercifully hot day--hotter and wetter than any of the days he had
experienced in Cuba. The ship docked and the passengers disembarked.
Within a very short time, Zelig found himself in the city square with
his ragged suitcase, a stash of American dollars sewn into his pants,
and the present for Sarahle, Mr. Piepsche’s cousin. He sat on his
suitcase, jaw cupped in his hand, waiting for a plan to evolve.
“Donde vas?” asked a gigantic shadow standing above him.
Looking up, Zelig saw an enormous black man with powerful muscles protruding out of a torn undershirt.
“Donde vas?” the man repeated, pointing at the red cap on his head.
“Ciudad Mexico” said Zelig, in his Yiddish accented Spanish.
In a flash, the porter tossed his bag into a cart--as if it were
fluff--and Zelig was forced to chase after the porter, in the direction
of the railroad station, only a few blocks away.
“De donde es usted?” “Where are you from?” the giant yelled back at him,
bumping the cart across the cobblestones of the port district.
“De Polonia,” Zelig answered.
“Jesús María, another pendejo Judio refugee,” the porter mumbled to
himself, “I’ll be lucky to get paid at all by this cabron. I know his
kind, they come here without a centavo in their pocket.”
“How much will I need to pay this schvartza tuchas--this black ass, for
helping me with my baggage?” mumbled Zelig, almost out of breath.
The porter, waited with the suitcase while Zelig bought a one-way ticket
to Mexico City. He had worked around the port enough to know that the
new immigrants sometimes made a break for the train without paying. “Got
to keep an eye on this bastardo!”
But, to the porter’s surprise, Zelig paid him generously--enough so,
that the porter, suddenly charmed by the Polaco immigrant, accompanied
him to the platform for the train.
“Buena suerte--Good luck, ” said the porter, handing over the suitcase.
“Adios,” said Zelig, and the two shook hands. As the porter left, Zelig,
having never before touched a black man, looked down at his hand to see
if there might be a black mark on it. The porter, for his part,
descended from the train, looking at the palm of his hand. “First time I
touch a Jew,” he said to himself, making the sign of the cross.
A blast of steam, a piercing whistle, a sudden jolt, and the steam
locomotive numbered 10016 of the Mexican Railway System crept out of
Vera Cruz. Mexico City lay one hundred eighty kilometers to the West.
Zelig loved trains, especially the gradual but heavy thrust of speed as
the locomotives left the stations behind. But it turned out that
“creeping” described the pace of this particular train.
He gazed out the window at green bamboo huts, dark, dusty children, sad
fields of corn palm trees, with no breeze to rustle their leaves,
flea-infested dogs sleeping in the middle of dirt streets, worn out
women wielding ragged brooms, and old men sitting on broken chairs,
blankly watching the train plod by. Within a few minutes of this dismal
scene Zelig faded into the slow rhythm of the train’s wheels and fell
into a deep, soothing, snoring sleep. His tired body demanded a respite
from leaving his friends in Cuba from the voyage to Mexico and his
inevitable bout with seasickness, from the heat of the day, the chaos of
disembarkment, the stress of finding a way to the train station, and
the fears--rational and irrational--of arriving in another unknown land,
with no friend Mottle to commiserate with. He slept and snored with
the rhythm of the wheels clacking over Mexican rails. He slept through
the hours, unaware of the gradual climb up through the low hills of
Veracruz state and the approaching views of the high mountains, tipped
with snow even in the midst of summer. His dreams transported him back
to the countryside of Poland and his village of Ostrolenka on the banks
of the Narev River, back to the fields of hops, their tendrils searching
out support, and the rows of wheat bending in the sweet caress of
summer. He dreamt of the droshky carts and their bearded drivers
clip-clopping through narrow forest lanes, over ancient wooden bridges
with fresh rivulets of water bubbling underneath. Sinking deeper into
sleep, he dreamt about himself as a child, dozing in the back of a cart
loaded with fat bags of wheat, on the back of the cart, dreaming.
By the time he woke up, eight hours had passed.
“I see you are from Poland,” remarked the man sitting opposite Zelig. He
wore a white linen suit, a black bow tie and a straw hat. At first
Zelig thought he was still dreaming and that his brother Abe, in his
linen suit and black bow tie had magically appeared--perhaps to surprise
Zelig as he had surprised the Chmiel family at Daniel’s wedding in
Ostrolenka. But no, Zelig closed his eyes again, seeking more sleep.
Maybe Abe had come to accompany him to Mexico City. But no, the man
spoke Spanish and Zelig was no longer dreaming. And the man in a linen
suit was still asking his question.
“How do you know I am from Poland?”
“I see the labels on your suitcase.”
“A small town, not far from Warsaw.”
“And where are you going?
“I am on my way to Mexico City,” said Zelig to the stranger sitting
across from him. He wondered, who is he? What does he want? A policeman?
Zelig tried, ever so discreetly, to feel if the two bumps in his pants
pockets--his wallet and Mr. Piepsch’s present to his cousin--were still
“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the man in the linen suit. He
leaned forward and shook Zelig's hand. “I am Francisco Gallego, a
traveler like you.”
“I am Zelig Chmiel, and where are you going?”
“Oh, very far from here, señor--very far from here indeed. I live in the
territory of Baja California, in the town of Tijuana in the northwest
of Mexico. I am returning from a visit with my family in Vera Cruz.
Zelig, fully awake now said “You’re from Baja California? That is
exactly where I need to go. I have family in California. Please, Señor
Gallego, I need to ask you a question.”
“Please ask señor, we have a long trip to make together until we come to
Mexico City. We can talk for--he looked at his watch--the next eight
hours and ten minutes. And what is your question, Señor Zelig?”
“ How can I get to Tijuana from Mexico City?”
“Primera cosa,” first thing, explained Gallego, “there are two
obstacles in your path. One--the lesser of the obstacles, our President
of Mexico, Señor Callas, has decided to restrict immigration of
foreigners to Baja California. The second obstacle--the larger one, the
railroad track from Mexico City to Baja California crosses into the
United States--at Nogales, Arizona and goes to Yuma, Arizona. Only then
does the train pass back into Mexico. And I am assuming you do not have
the documents to enter the United States.
“Unfortunately correct,” said Zelig.
“Señor, you cannot go through the American border,” warned Gallego. The
American border police might put you in jail. So you must travel another
way. You will take a train to the Mexican City of Guaymas on the Golfo
de Mexico, or, as the norteamericanos say--in their arrogance--the Gulf
At Guaymas you will transfer to a ship that travels to ports in the
north of the gulf. That ship goes as far as a place called La Bomba, on
the Rio Colorado, the Colorado River. From La Bomba, you can take a bus
to the capital of Baja California territory, Mexicali. From there it is
an easy one day trip to Tijuana.”
“It sounds very difficult. What about the Mexican authorities?”
“No problem, Señor Zelig. If you travel alone, peacefully, quietly, you
will not be bothered. We Mexicans need to build our population in Baja
California so the norteamericanos will never steal it away again. There
are already several Polish families in Baja California. I know some of
them. And many of them have already become citizens of Mexico.”
“But I’m not really a Polaco, I’m a Jew. Does that make any difference?”
“No, no Señor Zelig. We Mexicans have no antisemitismo. In fact, all of
the Polacos I know in Baja California are Jews. You’ll feel right at
home. Here, I give you my address in Tijuana. Everyone knows me there.
Just ask around when you get there.”
Zelig sighed with relief. Now his way was clear, and he had a friend at the end of his journey through Mexico.
“One more thing, Señor. If we are going to be friends, and if you
someday want to be a Mexican citizen, you have to learn to perform a
little custom.” He pulled two shot glasses, a bottle of a clear liquid,
a saltshaker and a lime out of his valise. Gallego opened the bottle
and poured the mysterious beverage into the glasses.
“Watch me, Zelig, and do as I do.”
Señor Gallego licked the back of his hand, poured salt on the licked
area (as if healing a wound), squeezed a bit of lime juice on his
tongue, tossed the beverage into his mouth, and bolted the entire
mixture down his throat.
“Now we will drink together, to our new friendship,” said Señor Gallego,
raising his glass and motioning to Zelig to raise his. Zelig performed
the ritual of the salt and the lime juice and waited for the command.
Down it goes!
Zelig swallowed. “Jesus Christ!”
“We call this drink mezcal,” explained Gallego.
They finished the first bottle and moved on to a second one. Only then
did Zelig notice the worm floating near the bottom of the bottle.
A GIFT FOR SARAHLE, THE GALITZIANA
“Mexico City! Estacion Central de Buenavista, Central Station!” shouted the conductor.
Zelig awoke suddenly with the taste of mezcal still in his mouth and a
serious headache. The train had jerked to a stop. Passengers gathered
their belongings and struggled down the aisle toward the metal steps at
the end of the railroad car. Señor Gallego had disappeared and,
instinctively, Zelig plunged his hands into his pockets. You never know!
But his twenty-dollar bill and --thank God--Mr. Piepsch’s small present
to his cousin rested safely in his right-hand pocket and the wad of
dollars from his relatives in the United States still sewn into his
Mexico City, the sprawling capital of the Republic of Mexico with its
millions of inhabitants, awaited him, but not with bated breath. Here,
Zelig’s status was that of a lowly ant, disembarking into a gigantic
anthill, or perhaps just another fly in a mountain of flies, one little
minor Polish-Jewish immigrant among the crowds of mestizos, Creoles,
Spaniards, and indigenous, impoverished tribal peoples--not to mention
Chinese and Japanese settlers. As for Jews, who would even notice them
in Mexico City?
At this point in his odyssey, Zelig had but one simple task: he must
find his way from the train station to the house of Mr. Czyzyk, cousin
of Mr. Piepsch, the good-natured Jew from Galitzia, who had asked for a
little favor. In return, Zelig would receive a generous sum of cash and
a place to stay during his first days in Mexico City. All this had been
guaranteed by Mr. Piepsch under the condition that Zelig safely
deliver Sarahle’s little gift.
A cab driver scooped Zelig up from the train station. Zelig showed him
Czyzyk’s address, and the cabbie delivered him to an apartment building
on Colorado Street in the city’s central district. The cab driver waited
for his fare, while Zelig opened an iron-grilled heavy gate and knocked
on the massive, carved wooden door. He heard the click of a woman’s
high-heeled shoes approaching from inside the house. Sarahle, herself,
opened the door a cautious crack. She saw Zelig’s Jewish face and opened
the door a little wider.
“Who are you?” she asked in Yiddish.
“Zelig Chmiel, from Poland and from Cuba. I have a present for you from your cousin Mr. Piepsch in Havana.”
The door opened a little wider, and an elegant hand--well covered with gold
rings--poked its way out.
“Give me the package, please,” she demanded firmly.
The present passed into Sarahle’s hand. She quickly unwrapped the
package, carefully opened the lid of the small wooden box and peered in
at its contents. Zelig caught a flash of light emanating from the box,
instantly aware of what he had just seen.
“Oy Gevalt,” Zelig said to himself--DIAMONDS! A batch of them, big ones, glinting in the sunlight.
Sarahle counted the gems, very carefully, in the Yiddish language,
dropping them one by one into the pocket of her housedress. She eyed
Zelig warily, as if he were about to grab at her bosom.
“Ayns, tsvay, drei, feer, feenf, zehks, zeebn, ahkht, nein, tsehn,” she counted.
Sarahle backed up a step and then slammed the door in Zelig’s face.
Stunned, Zelig knocked on the door again but heard only the receding
click of the woman’s high-heeled shoes hurrying into the back of the
dwelling. He knocked again and again. Nothing changed.
The taxi driver poked his head out of the side window of the cab.
“Hey, Señor, what about my dinero--my money?”
Zelig stood by the door another frozen moment, deaf to the cab driver’s
impatience. It dawned on him that he had been royally screwed-- used to
smuggle a fortune in diamonds into Mexico for Piepsch and Czyzyk. What
if the customs inspector in Veracruz had caught him? What if someone had
killed him for the gems? He had taken all the risk upon his own poor
head. In return, he had received no money, no hospitality, nowhere to
go, no twenty dollar bonus--nada. Realizing the driver might choose to
speed off with his baggage, Zelig retreated to the car and sat down next
to the cabbie, still in his bewildered silence.
“Donde vamos?” asked the driver, surmising a problem from his passenger’s hapless face. “Where to?”
“Find me a cheap hotel,” moaned Zelig, barely coherent, mentally kicking
himself for not inspecting the little package. “I could have at least
taken one little diamond for myself, if I had known. Too late!”
As the cab took off, Zelig glanced out the back window. On the second
story of the apartment building he saw a man’s pink, porcine, round
face, framed in the window-- probably Chyzyk himself crudely smiling and
gloating over his wily triumph.
“God damn Galitzianer bastards,” muttered Zelig.
BACK IN BUSINESS
Only a week after Zelig’s humiliation by the evil Czcyk and his
Galitzianer cousin, Zelig--resilient as ever--found a way back into
business again. During his stay at the Oso Negro Hotel on Jesus Maria
Street, he met two Jewish prostitutes, Rachel and Leah, both from
Rumania. Beyond their exceptional physical charms, they turned out to be
bright and ambitious women, who had adopted the oldest of professions
only long enough to find more respectable jobs. The two nafkes--women
of the street--had noticed their illiterate female colleagues lived far
away from their places and families of origin. This sad situation,
Rachel and Leah realized, caused great misery to those displaced girls.
The poor women’s isolation from their family connections, made them
more and more vulnerable to those abusive clients and pimps whom they
had to serve.
“What a mitzvah, a good deed, we would be doing,” said Leah, “if we could help connect our girls with their families.”
Zelig, Rachel and Leah discussed plans for their new business. The three
of them concocted strategies in an outdoor café on Netzahualcoyotl
Street--a street known for its many casas de mala nota (a gentler word
As they talked, the trio watched the sunset over the rooftops of Mexico
City. Zelig, having sworn off liquor--after guzzling the mezcal--drank
soda water. Rachel and Leah sipped gin.
“It seems to me,” said the blonde, elegant, and stylishly thin Leah,
“maybe we can help the other girls correspond with their parents, just
as Rachel and I do with our families in Europe. Here Zelig, look at
what I am sending to my Tatte and Mame--for instance.”
Leah showed Zelig a letter she intended to send to her own parents, who lived in a small town in the Rumanian highlands.
August 10, 1928
The weather here is very nice and the people I work with at the bank are
very friendly. I am living in a very nice boarding house with many
other nice girls and making good money. I hope to be able to bring all
of you to Mexico soon. Say hello to little Jacob and my dear older
sister Rebecca. I love you and miss you.
Your daughter, Leah
“Isn’t that beautiful? Rachel asked. With her napkin, she dabbed at a
tear forming in the corner of one of her dark brown eyes. Her soft,
Mediterranean skin and gigantic breasts melted the hearts of the passing
“It is beautiful,” Zelig agreed, “but how can we make a living helping your girls?”
“Volume,” explained Leah.
“Volume?” asked Zelig.
“Sure, we’re not going to sit around the bordello writing a new letter
for each girl. We need to create form letters and sell them in bulk to
these unfortunate women of the street. We can make money selling the
postage stamps too, buying them from the mailmen at regular price and
then charge a little extra to stick them on the envelope. And of course,
we can make a profit on the envelopes too. Most of the girls don’t even
know where the post office is, anyway. We’ll be doing them a real
service. Leah beamed as her ideas rolled out in a stream.
“Yes,” said Rachel, “it could be a good idea. But what about the cops
and the pimps who will soon enough get wind of what we’re up to? They
might want a cut too, damn them!”
“We can explain to the putañeros—pimps--how the girls will be more
content with their situation and will also have more work time to earn
money. That would please the pimps’ greedy, slimy souls.”
“I got an idea,” said Zelig, catching the excitement. “What if we make
photographs of the girls, dressed in nice clothes, with something like a
bank or a jewelry store in the background? We put a photo in with each
letter to the parents with a little note saying: ‘Papa, Mama, look, this
is where I work.’ We would need to find another partner with a camera,
maybe one of those Mexicano photographers who set up over on the Zocalo
plaza. We could line up the new girls, say once a week, and the
photographer’s would come over and take the pictures.”
“What would our expenses be?” asked Rachel.
“Not too much,” estimated Zelig. “Two or three nice dresses, the
photographer’s fee, a used typewriter, envelopes, stamps, paper…”
“Zelig, you haven’t been long enough in Mexico,” said Leah. “The biggest
expense is the mordida, you know, the money we need to pay off the cops
and the pimps just to stay in business. That could be very expensive.”
Gevalt, I never thought of that. That might make the whole project impossible.”
“Don’t worry, Zelig. Leah and I have certain assets that no man can
refuse. Not even a policeman. You just get a hold of the typewriter and
some stamps and we’ll take care of the rest. A deal?”
“Just one more question,” Zelig smirked.
“Nu?” said Leah and Rachel in unison.
“Would you mind giving me a look at those certain assets you say you have?”
“Nothing doing,” said Leah. “This is a business deal only.”
Oy, what a chazer, a pig, you have become, Zelig,” said Rachel. “Just
like the rest of the men. Are you going to become a pimp too?”
“So how much?”
“For you, three dollars.”
ZELIG AND RACHEL
Rachel stared at the dusty suitcase parked on the floor of Zelig’s bedroom. “Why don’t you unpack that thing?”
Zelig rolled over in bed, facing away from Rachel’s glorious, Rumanian, Jewish nakedness.
“You don’t want to talk about it, eh? Why not? I won’t steal your
precious treasures. I just want to look inside. What’s in there anyway?”
“Women. Why do women always want to poke into my things?” growled Zelig.
“You can talk to your other girls that way. I’m your business partner,
mi querido, my love. You better be careful with me or I’ll up my price
here in bed.”
“Go to sleep.”
“No, first you tell me why you won’t open that suitcase. Then I’ll shut up and go to sleep. Understand?”
“I can’t tell you what’s in my suitcase. What’s in there is private.”
“Where is it from?”
“My shtetl, Ostrolenka.”
“Is it empty?”
“Then who was it who packed the damn suitcase, anyway?”
“Ah, You have a mother, Zelig. You never told me you have a mother. I
thought maybe you fell out of a tree. What? Are you ashamed to be
talking with a whore about your mother? What are you waiting for? Open
it up. Don’t be such a baby. Rachel moved closer to Zelig, enveloped his
back with her bed-warmed body, wrapped her arms around him so he
couldn’t move away, and bit his ear--not so gently.
“Ouch, Goddam it.”
“Why not, mi amor?”
“Because I can’t…”
Rachel raised her head to peer at Zelig’s face. She sensed his deep
sadness, sensed Zelig was about to weep, and put her cheek next to his.
“Now I understand, my little Zelig. That suitcase--and whatever is
inside it--has become your shtetl. It’s your home like you have left
behind--just like the rest of us. And you haven’t said goodbye to it
yet. You’re afraid to show it to me. Yes, my Zelig, you’re afraid of
whatever is in there, because your soul may still be in there. Your
mamale must have packed it with some of her mementos, eh? Maybe
something from your father is in there, too. Maybe the souls of your
whole family are in there too. Your brothers and sisters, and that cat,
Shunra, you talk about so much. Poor Zelig. Poor boy, wanting to become
a man but still missing your mother and your goddam cat.”
Zelig turned, put his face on Rachel’s shoulder, and quietly wept. She
moved him down to her breasts, embraced him and held him tight, feeling
the wetness of his tears on her flesh. Then she shed a few tears for her
family, so far away, in a far-off corner of Rumania. Then she thought
of Leah and the other girls in the casa de mala nota, all suffering from
the same sadness, their families across the sea, their future so
tenuous, their lives so dangerous, their world so cruel.
Soon, Zelig slept, his head between her breasts.
Now, for this brief moment in her time, Rachel felt fulfilled and
tranquil--maybe even motherly. She nodded her head a few times and she,
too, fell into a deep slumber.
A LETTER FROM MEXICO
Early in the evening, Hanche returned from the post office and dashed up
the back porch steps into the Chmiel house on the Ostrolenka town
“Look, Mama, another letter from Zelig.”
Mama Rivka clasped the letter to her bosom, before handing it back to her fourteen-year-old daughter.
“Read it to me.”
Hanche read the letter to her mother, stumbling a few times on the Mexican words Zelig had inserted.
Hanche soon finished.
“He doesn’t say very much, Mama, does he?”
“You know Zelig. He’s not much of a writer.” Rivka, took hold of herself and dried her cheeks with a dishtowel.
“Mama, he made a lot of spelling errors too.”
“He never liked school very much.” She sighed. ”But, Hancha, he does
know how to make a living, and that counts for something. He was never
going to be a scholar anyway.
Changing the subject, Rivka asked her daughter: “What is a Señor? Is this the kind of business he is in?”
Hanche smiled at her mother’s ignorance of the Spanish language.
“Señor is the same as we say Reb or the Polacks say Pan. A gentleman, Mamele.”
“My Zelig is a gentlemen already?”
Papa Yisroel’s heavy steps could now be heard, coming up for his evening meal.
Hanche ran out to the back balcony. “Papa, a letter from Zelig!”
Yisroel Chmiel hurried up the rest of the stairway, kissing his youngest daughter on her forehead as she passed by.
“What good thing are you cooking Rifkele?” he asked. He guessed at kreplach soup and boiled chicken.
“We have a letter from Zelig,” said Rivka.
“I’m very hungry. Hancha, why don’t you read me the letter while your mother brings the food?”
More footsteps could be heard on the back stairs.
Daniel yelled: “Papa, Mama, it’s me, I heard there is a letter from Zelig.”
As he reached the top, his sister Hanche gave him a quick hug, almost knocking off his black yarmulke.
“Daniel is here,” she shouted to her mother in the kitchen. “He heard about the letter, too.”
“Do they know about this letter in Warsaw yet?” quipped Papa Yisroel,
settling into his armchair and lighting up one of his favorite Russian
Mama Rivka chuckled, “Hanche, make a place for Daniel at the table.”
Next, but with quiet footsteps on the stairs, Wolf Chmiel arrived with his wife, Devorah.
“We heard there is a letter from Zelig,” said Wolf. “What does he say?”
“Mama, two more places, Devorah and Wolf are here.”
Devorah headed for the kitchen to see how she might help.
“Sit down and eat, shem-tsach-nisht--don’t be shy, there’s plenty of food,” shouted Rivka from the kitchen.
By now it had turned dark outside. A few street lamps, newly installed
by the Polish government, shed their dull light on the town square.
Shunra crept out of the shadows below the Chmiel house and poised
herself at the foot of the stairs. The cat listened to the sound of
Yiddish voices above, scanned the conversation, getting a feeling for
the tone of voice—and also detected the salty, tangy odor of kosher
chicken boiling in a pot.
Father Yisroel made the blessing over the bread: “Blessed is the Lord
our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”
While they ate the steaming chicken soup and dumplings, Daniel asked for
the honor of reading Zelig’s letter to the rest of the family:
Mexico City, Mexico
September 22, 1928
Dear Papa and Mama,
Beloved parents: I am now in Ciudad Mexico, the capital of this country.
Everything is going well here. I have enough to live on and I am saving
money to that I can soon go to America. I own a small gescheft on Jesus
Maria Street with two hard- working partners, both very professional.
Business is good, even though I had a small bit of trouble with a couple
of Galitzianers here in the cuidad. But that is now in the past. Here
is a picture of the Zocalo, the main square in Mexico City where my
partners and I meet many of our customers. I hope that you have not
forgotten you son, Zelig. Please say hello to my sisters and brothers.
What about the cat?
Your son, Señor Zelig Chmiel
ZELIG AND LEAH
“Did you ever have a cat?” asked Leah as she re-buttoned her bra in
front of the mirror and watched Zelig still languishing on the bed.”
“Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know why. There’s just something catlike about you that I can’t put my finger on.”
“You just finished putting more than your finger on me, Leah.”
“And yours on mine. Which brings me back to my question about the cat.”
“Maybe I purr when you stroke me?
“No it’s not that, it’s something about the way you move around all the
time. Never satisfied about where you are. Always curious. Always
looking for someone else to amuse you and never quite getting there.
I’ve got it!” she said. “You’ve got shpilkes!”
“Shpilkes. Don’t you know what shpilkes are?”
“Isn’t Yiddish still my mother tongue, Leah? Of course, it means pins.”
“It does, but since you’re from Poland, I’m not sure if it means the
same thing as in our part of the old country. Where I come from, in
Rumania, shpilkes means someone who just can’t settle down--who sits on
pins. We Rumanian Jews wander around a lot more than you Polacks do, you
know. We tend to be a little unsettled. Maybe because we lived too
close to the gypsies. Oh sure, most of us end up marrying, settling down
and having children just like most other people. But some of us, like
Rachel and me, and like you, develop an addiction to wandering ways,
even when they haven’t been driven out, or even when they have a nice
home and a settled family. Sometimes our type comes back from their
wandering. Sometimes not. They get this itch. You know what I mean?”
“So, you think that I have shpilkes?”
Zelig slid off the bed, still in his naked state, hugged her from
behind--feeling her body, still warm from lovemaking. He cradled her
“What do you think my shpilkes are telling me to do again right now?” asked Zelig.
“Your shpilkes aren’t going to do anything for me right now. I’ve got to
go back to work writing letters home for the other girls of the street,
and I have no time for your romancing. I’ve had my entertainment for
the day. But let me tell you one thing, Zelig. I have a hunch that you
are about to leave your beautiful business partners, Rachel and Leah.
You can’t fool me. I understand cats and shpilkes and I know when people
get that itch. You too will soon be on your way to the West--to Baja
California, to Los Angeles, to your family, to more adventures, more
women, more crazy businesses, and to who knows what. So take hold of
yourself, partner, we still have to make some more money before each one
of us goes off their own way.”
She squirmed out of his grasp and continued.
“Get dressed and don’t think about sex so much. It’s four in the
afternoon and our siesta is over. Think of your parents and brothers and
sisters. They think you are out earning a living. Put this damn thing
to sleep for a while,” she said, giving his shmekl a tender tug.
The redhead, fully dressed now, except for her shoes, turned to Zelig.
“Hasta luego,” she said and out the door she went.
“How is it women can read your mind?” Zelig said to the mirror.
“Adios Rachel, Adios Leah, my two loves. Adios Piepsch and Cyzyk, my
betrayers. Adios to the great mountains, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl.
Adios to the poor prostitutes on the streets of Mexico City. Adios to
the evil putañeros--the pimps. Adios, great square of the Zocalo,
Chinese cooks, fire-eaters, musicians, gardens of Chapultepec and the
great metropolis of the capital city.”
Zelig prepared to leave the capital of Mexico on a night train to
Guadalajara, continuing his journey to far off Baja California and the
border of the United States—a three night and three day journey into the
Zelig settled into a Pullman compartment--a goodbye gift from Leah and Rachel, his former business partners.
He propped his feet onto the empty seat opposite him and lit up a Cuban
cigar-- also compliments of the girls. He blew smoke rings at the
compartment window, as the train slowly eased out of the Central
Station. He imagined himself as one of the rich tycoons, or one of the
Latin lover boys in the movie theatres in Mexico City. But then,
wistfully, he reminded himself that his adventure had only just begun,
and what seemed like a big wad of dinero in his pocket might be only
enough to pay his passage to that mysterious destination called Tijuana.
“Oh Abe, my brother, I hope you will be there when I need you.”
He dozed off into heavy darkness and then into a sleep that grew deeper
and deeper, blotting out even the soft tick of the greased wheels on the
He dreamt a short and sensuous dream featuring Rachel, Leah, Beatrice
(his friend Mottle’s lover) and a few lush, dark, Cuban women from
Pajarito Street. The dream event took place in a dance hall in the old
city of Havana, with Zelig the only male in the dimly-lit room. The
women danced with him, one by one--rumbas, tangos, waltzes-- each woman
vying for her turn with Zelig in his white linen suit, shiny expensive
shoes, Panama hat and a black tie. On one of his swings across the dance
floor with Leah, he caught a glimpse of his mother Rivka and his sister
Hanche, seated on a balcony hovering above the dance floor, smiling
benevolent smiles, both of them clapping for Zelig and his beautiful
partners. He nodded in their direction and signaled that he’d be right
up to visit with them--after the next dance. The orchestra finished with
a waltz, which he danced with Beatrice, and then Zelig headed for the
balcony to visit with his mother and sister. He searched for the steps
to the balcony but found none. Rivka and Hanche smiled down
enigmatically but said nothing. Hanche lifted the family cat to show
that Shunra also enjoyed the music and the dancing. The balcony, Rivka,
Hanche, and the cat faded away. The Latin music resumed.
A flood of light jolted Zelig awake. Telegraph poles zipped past the
compartment window, blurring as the train hurtled on. Poor shanties on
bare earth rushed by the window. A dusty child waved a ragged
handkerchief at the passing train. Pale green fields ended at a bare
hillside. The sun scowled down from its noonday height.
Zelig fell asleep again. This time he dreamt he was a little boy
crossing a field of hops, making his way with difficulty through a
seemingly endless jumble of ripe berries and vines. The tangling
tendrils of the hops made his progress through the field slow and
difficult. The sky began to darken. Perhaps a rain was on its way. The
plants grew taller, the vines stickier, the clods of plowed dirt softer,
harder to pass. He wasn’t quite sure where he attempted to go. He knew
only that he had little chance of reaching his destination--or any
destination at all, for that matter. Then, he suddenly remembered he
could fly. He moved his arms, finding that he now had the great feathers
of an eagle attached to each of his arms. He took to the air. Below
him, on the edge of a great field of hops, his father and mother stood
along a dirt road in silence, looking into the field but saying
nothing, as if in mourning--a stiff hopeless mourning, without tears,
without motion. The winged Zelig instinctively knew that he could, if he
wanted, swoop down to where his parents stood motionless. Instead, he
chose to ascend further into the ever-darkening sky, flying so high that
he could catch only a last glimpse of his father and mother still
standing immobile, frozen by the road. Each held an unlit candle in
their hands. Zelig, about to soar even higher, unable now to turn back
even if he wanted to, suddenly, felt the presence of death--not a
peaceful death but a violent, brutal, humiliating death--but not his own
death. As he launched himself further into the sky, he realized the
oncoming deaths were of his mother and father. Someone, or something,
had cast them wounded, but alive, into a mass grave. A lightning bolt
fired across the sky, and then. . .darkness.
“Guadalajara!” shouted the conductor, and the train bolted to a stop,
jolting Zelig out of another leaden, dream-filled sleep. But this time
he had no memory of his slumbering. Just a dull ache in his jaw attested
to the dark nature of his dreams. He fumbled for his bags. He had only
a short time to change from the relatively luxurious coach of the
Mexico City Guadalajara Express, to the much more modest train that
would take him to the West Coast of Mexico. He gave a hefty tip to the
porter--this time an unsmiling, gaunt Mexican Indian. The scream of the
locomotive’s whistle gave Zelig mere seconds to hop into the rusty-green
coach. He found a place on a surprisingly comfortable compartment seat
with just one occupant sitting opposite him, an obviously Eastern
European man--wearing gleaming white shoes, black socks, and a light
blue guayabera shirt. From deep down in his pupic--his
bellybutton--Zelig sensed the man was a Jew.
“Halo, landsman,” greeted the red-faced man, extending a two-fingered
shake to Zelig’s hand. “Vus machts a yid?” What is a Jew like you doing
“I’m going for a train ride.”
The man opposite him thought that one over.
“To where? To Warsaw?”
“No, not to Warsaw,” said Zelig, “I’m on my way to see the Pope in Rome.”
“Is he also a Jew now?”
“No, but the Pope’s mother is.”
“His mother, hmm. Who are you to know the Pope’s mother?”
“Who are you?” Zelig retorted.
“I’m like you,” the man said. “A poor Yid looking for a place to hang his hat. Let me introduce myself. Call me Yankel.”
“Yankel, call me Zelig.” They shook hands again, this time Yankel used all five fingers.
“Where are you from?” asked Yankel.
“From a small town. You wouldn’t know it.”
“Ostrolenka. I know that town. Near Lomza. I think I went through that
place with the Polish army in 1920. A miserable place, as I remember.
Everything burnt down.”
“And where are you from?”
“Near Krakow, a small village by the name of Oswiecim. Just a little town. You know it?”
“Oswiecim? No, never heard of the place,” said Zelig. So you must be a Galitzianer?”
By now the train had picked its way out through the suburbs of
Guadalajara. The sky had barely darkened, even though Zelig’s
wristwatch, another generous gift from Leah and Rachel, read seven
o’clock. The days stretched in late summer.
Yankel and Zelig, happy they had each found a fellow Jew so far from
home, sat for a moment in silence, listening to the train swiftly
passing over the flat plain. Mountains loomed in the western distance,
not high enough for snow--not like the dramatic mountains around Mexico
City--but serious mountains, nonetheless.
“Want a schnapps, Zelig?”
Yankel pulled out a bottle of tequila, carefully unscrewed the top, and passed the bottle over to Zelig.
“Drink a little, it can’t hurt you. L’Chaim.”
Zelig glanced quickly inside the bottle to make sure no worm floated in its bottom.
“L’Chaim,” said Zelig as he took a modest swallow of the liquid dynamite. He handed it back to Yankel, who took a mighty gulp.
“Ah, a mekhaya.” (It lifts the dead the from the grave.)
The conversation resumed.
“Nu, Zelig, where are you really going?”
Zelig explained his itinerary: “From Guadalajara to Guaymas on this
train. From Guaymas by ship to La Bomba in Baja California, and then
from La Bomba to Tijuana near the American frontier. From there to
America! And what about you?”
“I’m going, with the help of God, to a place called Hermosillo. My
cousin in Mexico City has a Mexican business partner in a dry goods
store there. My job is to keep my eye on his partner.”
“Your cousin doesn’t trust his partner?”
“My cousin doesn’t trust his own mother.”
“Maybe later, I’ll try to go to the USA. Maybe not. I hear there’s money
to be made in all of the mining towns in Sonora and Nayarit States.
Maybe I’ll eventually find a Mexican woman and settle in one of those
places. I don’t know. My cousin says that I have shpilkes and that I’ll
wander for the rest of my life. Nu, I’m not so sure that he’s wrong.”
“Why would you want a Mexican woman instead of a nice Jewish girl?”
Yankel sighed and sipped a little more from his tequila bottle. “What do you know about Mexican women?”
“Not much, but a beautiful Rumanian woman told me that I too, have shpilkis, so we are alike.”
The plains of Jalisco ended. Mountains filled the horizon and the train
began a steep, slow decent into the barrancas, deep gullies that lead
the train down into the tropical coastal areas of the Sea of Cortez.
Zelig kept Yankel entertained with his stories about his work with the
prostitutes-- in Cuba and in Mexico City--story after story, with and
“Once, when I was selling a painting of St. Agnes on Pajarito Street…..blah…blah…blah
“Once when I brought Leah and Rachel with me to the Sephardic synagogue on Republica De Bolivia Street. . .blah…blah
”Once, when I tried to get even with one of your Galitzianers named Czcyk . . .”
Somewhere in the middle of Zelig’s “once when” stories, Yankel dozed
off. The Galitzianer’s explosive snoring soon rattled the windows.
Passengers, strolling down the aisle, peered into the cabin to find the
cause. After a few minutes of Yankel’s music, Zelig made an escape out
of the compartment and he sought out someone interesting to talk to. A
few compartments down, he discovered a Catholic priest sitting alone,
smoking a pipe and staring out into the darkness. Feeling brave, thanks
to Yankel’s tequila bottle, Zelig decided to interview the holy man.
He slid the carriage door open and, full of chutzpah and good cheer, sat himself down across from the priest.
“Is it possible to sit with you awhile, Padre?”
Con mucho gusto, said the priest, “I would be very grateful if you did.
It’s such a long train ride and where are you going young man?”
“Where are you going?” he asked Zelig.
“To Tijuana, Baja California. And you, Padre?”
“Not quite as far as you.”
“My mother lives in Los Moches, a small mining town not far from here.
I’m afraid she is not very well, and I want to visit her before it is
too late. And you, my son, what are you going to do when you get to Baja
“Well, I will continue my journey to my brother who lives in Los Angeles.”
“Nice city,” said the priest. “It used to be part of Mexico, you know. I
suppose you are going to try to cross the border into the USA, probably
without any documents, eh?”
“How did you know?”
“Oh, we priests are pretty good at guessing things. God knows we hear
enough stories about where people are going. I suppose, by your accent,
that you are not a Mexican citizen either.”
“Where do you think I’m from, Padre?”
“My guess is, young man, that you come from somewhere in Eastern Europe
and that you are a Jew running away from persecution, looking for a
“On the nose.”
The priest looked smug, “What is your name young man?”
“Zelig, what does your name mean?”
“And are you a happy young man?”
“I think I am, most of the time.”
“Are you religious?”
“Do you have a family back in your country?”
“Are they religious Jews?”
“I’ve never met a religious Jew. What are they like?”
“My father wears a cap--something like the one you priests wear, Padre.
My mother cuts her hair short and covers it with a wig. On certain
occasions we celebrate Jewish holidays. We read from the holy books in
the holy language--or at least my father and my brothers do. My parents
don’t work on the Sabbath. That’s about it. Many other people in my
family are very religious, but for me, I’m more modern.”
“So what do you have in common?”
Feeling a little pressed by the priest’s probing questions, Zelig
decided to toss him a dart. “What we have in common is that where we
come from, we are all hated by most Christians. Even the priests
persecute us--and they are supposed to be holy men.”
“I don’t want to persecute you, my son, I just want to understand more about your people.”
“What, for instance?”
“I wonder why your people killed Jesus Christ, one of their own.”
Before Zelig could think of any kind of a response, the train slipped
out of the darkness into the glaring lights of a large railroad station.
“Los Moches!” called the conductor, and the priest stood up and gathered
his bag. “I’m sorry we couldn’t have talked longer,” said the priest.
“Sorry, my tuchas,” muttered Zelig.
Zelig leaned over the rail, preparing to vomit up his breakfast. The
Gato Prieto, a medium sized draft vessel plying the Gulf of California,
approached the mouth of the Colorado River en route to the port of La
Bomba. After a smooth sail to the harbor of Santa Rosalia, the sea
turned rough. About halfway up the gulf, the sky-blue water changed to
an ugly, silty, brown, and the Sonora shore to the east was nothing more
than a thin series of ugly mud flats held together by bermuda grass and
pickleweed. Beyond this pitiful strip of green, bare sand dunes showed
their naked backs to the sea.
The pitching and rolling of the Gato Prieto, combined with intense heat
and Mexican food, joined forces, making his stomach turn inside out and
outside in. Finally, he heaved last night’s dinner over the rail.
“Señor Zelig, you OK?”
“What is Gevalt?”
“Ah, Señor Lechuga, I’m so miserable.” Zelig straightened off the rail
and addressed his new Mexican friend. “I’m sick. My stomach is ‘shit,’
‘mierda muy mala.’”
“Poor man,” said Jesus Lechuga, dressed in his clean white linen suit
and a straw skimmer hat. It was a bad idea to eat those mariscos, that
seafood, last night. I should have warned you.”
“But there was nothing else to eat, Señor Lechuga, just the mariscos and the tortillas.”
“And the tequila.”
“Yes, and the tequila.”
“Anyway, Señor Zelig, this is our last day on the water. Tomorrow we
will reach La Bomba port, in Baja California. You will feel better when
your shoes are on dry land. Please excuse me for asking, where is your
“And what will you do there?”
“I have relatives in Los Angeles, California. They will help me to cross to the American side of the border.”
“Sometimes that can be very complicated,” said Lechuga.
“I hope not,” said Zelig.
“Do you know anyone in Tijuana?”
“No one, nadie, I don’t even know where is this Tijuana.”
“Hmm,” said Lechuga. “Excuse me if I ask. Do you have money to stay in a hotel in Tijuana?”
“Enough for a few weeks. My family sent me some money when I was in Mexico City.”
“Hmm,” said Lechuga again. “Well, maybe I can help you, if only a little
bit. My brother is meeting me in La Bomba. We can bring you to my
mother’s house in the city of Mexicali where my brother, Isaac lives.
You can stay with us until you make arrangements to go to Tijuana. Do
you have some baggage?”
“Bueno,” We will take you and your belongings to Isaac’s house where you
can rest and eat food. Then we will help you get on the train to
Tijuana. Esta bien?”
“Thank you Señor. That would be very helpful.”
“Are you hungry, Señor?”
Zelig’s face turned green at the thought of food.
“Excuse me,” he said politely and turned toward the rail again.
The following morning the Gato Prieto entered the delta of the Rio
Colorado, just in time to catch the incoming tidal bore. The captain
warned the passengers inside the ship, to get a fast grip. Zelig feared
for the worst. Indeed, suddenly the ship commenced rushing down a narrow
desolate channel--virtually surfing behind the crashing, foaming tidal
bore. Some of the more adventurous passengers stood outside on the deck
having a good time, hanging on for dear life in much the same way as
children on a roller coaster. But Zelig didn’t dare to peep outside.
After a few hours of wild plunging and wobbling, the Gato Prieto rounded
a curve in the river, and four small wooden shacks appeared on its left
bank. La Bomba! The ship’s whistle tooted and the Gato careened past
the “port” only to take a sudden, agonizing U-turn in the middle of the
river. The Captain pushed the throttle wide open. It roared above the
thunder of the river itself and the ship lunged toward the shore.
The anchor dropped. Crew members tossed two hawsers ashore and several
giant Indians made the ship fast, until it rested by the riverbank. The
ship’s crew placed a few precarious planks between ship and shore and
the passengers disembarked as fast as they could. Zelig made his way
across the planks and jumped down to blessed safety.
Without actually acknowledging the existence of a God, Zelig surprised
himself by muttering the ancient Hebrew blessing of the rescued:
“Blessed art you, Eternal God, King of the universe, who has been
gracious to me.”
(Had a minyan of Jews stood by the shore in La Bomba, they would have
responded: ‘May the One who spared you continue to grant you all that is
But in La Bomba, no minyan, appeared, only a few Mexican boat
passengers, and the smiling brother of Señor Jesus Lechuga, motioning
toward an ancient ice-cream truck, parked next to the riverbank. A
crude sign on the side of the truck offered Helado (ice cream) for sale,
with a picture of a gigantic cone getting licked by an even more
Lechuga’s brother backed up to the area of stacked luggage taken from
the ship. A larger and younger version of Jesus emerged and began
slinging baggage into the back of the truck. Jesus pointed to Zelig’s
trunk and up it went, as well. Isaac Lechuga extended his hand to
Zelig: “Con mucho gusto, I’m Isaac.”
“Con mucho gusto,” said Zelig in return. “ I am Zelig.”
The introduction over, Isaac climbed outside and cranked up the starter
of the antiquated, wood-framed vehicle. The motor grudgingly awoke out
of its siesta, backfiring as Isaac hopped behind the wheel and deftly
shifted into first gear with only a tiny bit of grinding.
A dirt road full of dry ruts, led west. A strong, arid wind blew over
from a range of desert mountains visible on the far horizon to the west.
The truck bounced through the ruts, baggage thumping around in a clumsy
dance in the back. Zelig winced, fearing the back door of the truck
might pop open, and his few possessions would distribute themselves over
the bleak desert sands of Baja California.
By the time the ice-cream truck turned right onto the main road to
Mexicali, the windshield was covered with dirt and squashed bugs. Isaac
navigated by putting one foot on the running board, peering out the
blinding, Sahara-like dust, while praying to his God that his beloved
ice-cream truck would not disappear into a gigantic pothole. About
thirty miles short of Mexicali, they passed into a green oasis,
stretching north and west, for as far as the eye could see. Irrigation
canals fanned out to endless fields of shrubby plants with downy white
“What is that?” asked Zelig, suddenly energized by the sight of green plants and rich soil. “ It looks almost like Poland here.”
“Es algodon,” cotton, Jesus explained. “The land here is very rich, muy
rico. Before, it was a desert. But now, the Rio Colorado gives us water
to irrigate. Look over there, far away. You see those mountains? They
are in the Estados Unidos, the United States.”
“America!” said Zelig.
“But Señor Zelig, don’t forget, Mexico is America too. And all the land
on the other side belonged to Mexico, until the gringos took it away.”
After about an hour of driving, the green fields ended, and the
tree-lined city of Mexicali appeared. They passed a cemetery, a baseball
field, a brewery, the Governor’s Palace, and a church. Isaac geared
down and stopped in front of a small house shaded by two fig trees. The
ice-cream truck’s motor rested and the front door of the house opened. A
gray-haired, plump Mexican woman--the mother of Isaac and Jesus--rushed
out and enveloped both Lechuga brothers at once. Then, without
formalities, she embraced Zelig as well.
“Bienvenidos, Señor.” She welcomed him as a long lost cousin. “Esta in su casa.” you are in your own home.”
The Lechuga family’s hospitality soon warmed Zelig. Isaac took Zelig
for a jaunt around town in the ice-cream truck. Mexicali was no Mexico
City, but the capital of Baja California held many interesting sights.
They visited first the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a major
religious landmark. While Isaac lit a candle for his recently departed
father, Zelig sat on a bench. The dark, incense-filled environment of
the Cathedral reminded him of the Church of Saint Andrez Bobula in
Ostrolenka. He thought about his friend Mottle and his saintly
“Where are you Mottle? In Havana? In Florida? Back in Ostrolenka? And where am I? The end of the world?” Zelig mused.
Next, Isaac drove Zelig to the imposing new Colorado River Land Company
building where Zelig enjoyed the colorful balcony murals that honored
the great heroes of Mexico. They stopped at the German-operated brewery
and downed a few samples of Mexicali beer. Next they visited a tequila
“Wet the rim of the glass and dip it in salt, Señor Zelig. Then squeeze a little lime juice into the tequila.”
“Oh don’t worry about showing me how to do that, Señor Lechuga. For that, I’m already a Mexicano.
Zelig and Isaac returned from the city tour to find that Mama Lechuga
had prepared a banquet for the three men. She proudly waved her hand
over traditional Mexican foods spread in red, white, and green splendor
across the table. She took great care to pronounce and describe in a
simple way for Zelig.
“Aqui, sopa de pollo” She pointed to a rich chicken soup. It didn’t look
like Mother Rivka’s chicken soup in Ostrolenka, but it had a familiar
“Aqui, tortillas de harina.” She showed Zelig a stack of slightly-singed
patties of wheat-flour bread keeping their heat inside a large bowl.
“Aqui, chiles rellenos.” She stretched her arm out over the green
poblano peppers stuffed with cheese, dipped in egg whites, fried, and
baked in salsa.
“Muy, muy, bien.” said Zelig, his eyes savoring Mama Lechuga’s delicacies. “Nothing here I couldn’t eat,” he said to himself.
“Y por final, aqui esta carne de cordero,” proclaimed the woman with
obvious pride, showing a mountain of grayish chopped meat covered with
red and green peppers.
“What is this meat?” asked Zelig, hoping for pork—a taste he had acquired in Mexico City.
“No, no Señor Zelig,” Jesus Lechuga consoled his guest. “We know that
you are a Judio, a Jew, and you don’t eat puerco. We would never feed
you puerco. Your God would never allow us to do that.”
“Cordero is Mutton,” Jesus explained.
Zelig hated mutton--the result of long confinement in the basement of the Chmiel home during the First World War.
“But what else can I do,” he thought, and bravely ate his mutton.
HINKIE HEADS SOUTH
The same man in the same blue uniform stood on the same porch and pushed the same doorbell.
“Mrs. Hinkie? Western Union again.”
(Auntie Hinkie’s English vocabulary had greatly increased since her last encounter with Western Union over a year ago.)
“You haff something for me?”
“Yes, a telegram.”
She unlocked the front door, opened it a crack, and cautiously scanned the tall, uniformed man tapping his foot on the porch.
“Could you sign this please?”
“Tenk you, Sir,” she said, signing the form on the messenger’s clipboard
with a proud flourish. After all, Auntie Hinkie was an American now.
Within a few minutes, Hinkie made her way to Byrdie’s house. (It’s one
thing to know a little English, but quite another to read a whole
Byrdie saw her Mom coming up Soto Street full speed, waving a yellow
envelope. She opened the door, and Hinkie swooped in and plotzed down
into an armchair.
“Mexico,” she puffed to her daughter. “Zelig!”
“Open the telegram, Byrdie. Ven is he coming? Careful, careful don’t
tear it. Nu, what does he say? He needs money? Ver in Mexico is Zelig?
Is he healthy? Nu!”
“Just a second Mamele, let me get this thing opened first.”
Hinkie took out her handkerchief and nervously twisted it around her fingers.
“Call Abe in Kentucky,” commanded Hinkie.
“Wait, wait, let me read the telegraph first.”
Arriving Sunday Train Tijuana Mexico May 28
“Call Abe!” Hinkie barked at her daughter as if the Czar’s Army had
forced the Narev Bridge and threatened to fall upon Ostrolenka.
"Long distance? What’s the hurry, Momele?”
“Ve haff to go to Mexico,” said Hinkie. “Ve haff to do it now. Abe von't
be able to come to meet his brother. You and I, ve have to meet Zelig.”
“But Zelig won’t be in Tijuana until the 28th of the month, four days from now.”
“Ve should go now, I tell you,” insisted Auntie Hinkie.
Byrdie dialed the long distance operator and, miraculously, Abe's wife,
Hanna, picked up the phone in Louisville. Hinkie grabbed the phone away
from her daughter.
“Abe,” yelled Auntie Hinkie. “Zelig is coming. Your brother comes to Tijuana. Ve heff to go there.”
"This is Hanna, Auntie Hinkie, Abe's at work down at the racetrack. What happened?"
"Zelig comes," Hinkie yelled into the mouthpiece.
"Ven vat?" puffed Hinkie, handing the phone back to Byrdie.
“Zelig is coming to Tijuana on the twenty-eighth,” explained Byrdie, “we received a Western Union telegram.”
"Ve should go now," Auntie Hinkie repeated. "Maybe Zelig vil come
earlier. I don’t trust these new things—telephones--Vestern Union. How
do they know ven Zelig is coming? Maybe he made a mistake--the man. Ve
got to go now. I feel it in mine bones. Zelig comes.”
“Shh, Mama, let me talk. Hanna, what do you think we should do?"
"You'll have to go to Tijuana. Abe and I can't leave the business right
now. We're right in the middle of the racing season. We'll come as soon
as we can.”
“OK," said Byrdie, "we'll find a way. We’ll go in a couple days. We
should trust the Western Union man. After all, this is America--not
Poland. When it says the twenty-eighth--it’s the twenty-eighth.”
ON TO TIJUANA
On the eighteenth of May 1929, Isaac Lechuga and Zelig climbed into the
ice cream truck. The rest of the Lechuga family waved goodbye.
“Adios Zelig,” they called out, standing on the porch.
“Goodbye, Lechugas, mi familia,” he called back to them.
“Hasta luego!” they responded. “Que vaya bien.” (a good voyage).
Isaac started up the truck and off they went. At Avenida Reforma they
turned right, headed for the border’s crossing point. Two flags--the
green, white, and red of Mexico and the red, white, and blue of the
USA--faced each other across a wide gap in a chainlink fence. Two
uniformed, American border guards peered into the truck.
“Mr. Lechuga,” said one. “Long time no see. Selling ice cream to the gringos today?”
“No, Officer Jim, not selling.” He winked. “But here I have a couple
chocolate Helado bars for you and your friend on this hot day. This is
my friend Zelig. I’m taking him to the railroad station. He’s going to
Tijuana, for the first time.”
“OK, thank you, Mr. Lechuga,” said the border guard. He turned to Zelig.
“Look out for the pickpockets on the train. Some rough characters ride
that thing. And you should stay away from the card games too. See you
More gear grinding and the truck lunged into the small town of Calexico, California, USA.
“Just like that? I get on the train and go to Tijuana?”
“Just like that,” says Lechuga. “Even though you are now in the USA, we
two countries have an agreement about transportation from our valley to
the Pacific coast. The Americans own the train, but they could not build
their railroad tracks without going through Mexico. No one will ask
where you’re getting off until you until you reach the last station in
Mexico--Tijuana. Then, you have to leave the train and the gringos will
continue to San Diego.”
“But the border police didn’t even ask for any papers.”
“Do you have any papers to show them?”
“Then what’s the problem?”
A few blocks further north, Isaac turned into a dirt parking lot next to the train station.
“You see that window over there? That is where you buy your ticket to
Tijuana. And now I say goodbye to you, Señor. Please, if you come back
our way, understand that you have a home in Mexicali and a family called
the Lechuga family.”
“I will, Isaac.” The two of them shook hands. A porter hoisted Zelig’s luggage onto the train. They shook hands again.
Zelig watched the old truck bumping back toward the border, bringing the joy of ice cream to the children of Mexicali.
Only one railroad ran out of Calexico to the West Coast ports of Baja
and Alta California, respectively. After only two years of service, the
railroad line through the Colorado Desert and the Laguna Mountains was
fraught with hazards and frequent delays. The railroad seemed designed
to have a mind of its own. Its path squirreled back and forth between
Mexico and the USA, with little regard for the borders drawn on official
maps. Leaving Calexico, a person could be fooled by the smooth ride
through the green fields of alfalfa and cotton, fat with the artificial
climate brought in by the Colorado River. But before long, the train
passenger would understand the true meaning of “desert” and
“desolation.” Only a few decades before the completion of the railroad,
dry skeletons of foolish adventurers--immigrants, gold seekers and
bandits--could be seen, fried and desiccated in the 120-degree heat.
Only one railroad, The San Diego and Arizona Eastern had, since its
completion in 1919, dared to offer transportation over the rugged
mountains from the Imperial Valley of California to the West Coast port
of San Diego. And now, in the year 1929--thanks to the dauntless
railroad tycoon Mr. John Spreckels, his engineers, his Mexican and
Yankee workers, and the pliable Mexican government--the completed
railroad had conquered a thin pathway through the wilderness.
“As green as the first wheat in Ostrolenka,” Zelig said aloud to
himself, nose against the freshly-washed window. Zelig had mixed
feelings about that day’s portion of his odyssey. On one hand, he would
be reunited with his family--with his brother Abe and with his Auntie
Hinkie. Perhaps Abe had already found a way to bring Zelig over to the
United States? Perhaps, then, he could settle down in Los Angeles, open
up a business, marry an American woman—maybe a blonde. And maybe he
would find a way, along with Abe, to bring the entire Chmiel clan to
safety in the United States.
On the other hand, he thought about his adventures through Cuba and
Mexico, discovering new worlds free of attachments, free of rules and
regulations, plenty of women--lusty women, beautiful women, busty women,
gentile women, Cuban women, Mexican women…
Zelig placed his nose up to the window and watched as the scenery began to look parched and bleak.
“Do you speak English?” asked the American man in the seat opposite him.
“How about Spanish?”
“I speak Spanish. But not so good.”
The conversation shifted to Zelig’s not so good Spanish and the ancient language of gestures.
“Going to San Diego?”
“No. Only to Tijuana.”
Zelig nodded his head.
“More or less. I will look for a job. And you?”
“I work for the San Diego and Arizona Eastern. Going home for rest and
relaxation,” the stranger winked. “To my wife, of course.”
Zelig forced a smile. “What does this stranger want from me?” he asked himself.
The conductor, dressed in a black uniform with gold buttons on its sleeves, announced an approaching station: “Seeley!”
No one waited at the Seeley station. Zelig looked at his watch. 8:00
a.m. The sun had begun to make its presence felt, and the
passengers--all male so far--began to remove their coats and hats.
“Dixieland,” the conductor announced the next stop. Again, no one got on
or off. The temperature rose. Zelig and the stranger rolled up their
“Is it hot in Tijuana?”
“No, no, Mr.…what did you say your name was?”
“Mr. Mottle,” Zelig lied--only to protect himself, of course.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Mudhole,” said the traveling companion. “My
name is Potz, John Potz, from beautiful San Diego, California. Tijuana
has very nice weather-- not far from the ocean. When we get out of this
godforsaken desert, you’ll see how nice California is. And the people in
Tijuana are very friendly--nice girls too,” he added.
They both thought about nice girls for a bit, and then the Conductor announced the next stop: “Coyote Wells!”
A domed mountain stood majestically to the south. Again, no passengers embarked or debarked.
“That’s Signal Mountain,” offered Potz. “In the old days, people
crossing the desert used that for their compass, especially during
sandstorms. Over there, on the other side of the train, you can see the
Superstition Mountains. People say there’s gold up there--maybe the Lost
Pegleg mine itself. Yep, lot’s of gold in them hills. Sure would like
to get my hands on some of that…” he rattled on.
Zelig’s traveling companion had turned into a nudnik. He thought about
how to escape this unwanted conversation. He would prefer a nap.
“Are you a Christian, Mr. Mudhole?”
“No, Señor, I am not.”
“What are you?”
“A Mohammedan,” Zelig chose at random.
“How interesting. Can you ride on a camel?”
“Dos Cabezas station,” sounded the conductor. But once again, no one was there to board the train.
“How does this train make any money?” asked Zelig.
“It doesn’t make any money right now,” said Potz, “But the future is
bright. They’re building a big casino near Tijuana and all the rich
folks from Arizona and other regions of California will be coming to San
Diego. Mr. Spreckels, our boss, is no dummy--you can bet on that!”
The train slowed as it began to worm its way up a steep series of bare cliffs studded with gigantic boulders.
A reddish and rocky wasteland surrounded the dwarfed train in every direction.
“It looked like pictures of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Bible,” thought
Zelig. “Can I ask you a personal question,” asked Mr. Mudhole.”
“Sure. What next? A personal question, why not?”
“Have you ever thought about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal
savior?” The American pulled a blue-covered book from his jacket
pocket. “Now, I know that you don’t read English but..”
“Carriso Gorge,” bellowed the conductor, but not before Potz had
assaulted Zelig with several verses of the New Testament (English
The valiant engine wound its way upward toward more hellish vistas. The
locomotive puffed harder, groaned and complained as if about to slip
backwards from whence it came (God forbid). With a final moan, it
reached the heights of the Laguna Mountains. There, the train stopped
with a jolt, in front of a few miserable wooden shacks perched on the
lip of a chasm. Some American and Mexican workers, looking exhausted and
dressed in sweaty rags covered with a thick layer of grime, boarded the
train. They collapsed onto the wooden seats and fell into wheezing,
“Railroad men, Mr. Mudhole, the great American railway men. No men like
‘em. They spend two months out here pushing or dynamiting boulders and
digging out landslides. Live in those shacks. Crawl down a cliff to get
drinking water. Then, they go to San Diego for a week’s rest. Worst hard
labor a person could do. Hot as the devil out here. Now to get back to
talking about Jesus.”
A blast of steam from the engine, and the tedious journey began again.
The train resolved--against all reason--to cross an immense, wooden
trestle. Most of the passengers averted their eyes from the view out the
Zelig looked out and, to his horror, found the San Diego and Arizona
Eastern westbound had seemingly launched itself into the sky with no
land whatsoever in sight, Gevalt! Zelig pulled his head in, heart
thumping, trying to be brave, but wanting to scream.
God help us! The train had become a high wire act—with no net.
Zelig said to himself, the prayer for the dying: “Shma Yisroel Adonai
Eloheinu, Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Let me
live, and I swear that I’ll never eat bacon again”--the second time that
week Zelig had prayed to his God.
And, mercifully the trestle merged with the solid earth, and the train
passed slowly into a long tunnel hacked out of solid rock. The conductor
ordered the passengers to close any open windows. A blast of steam and
soot shot past the outside of the train and into an unclosed window in
the back of the carriage. Ashes and steam burst into the back rows of
“Goddammit,” yelled the conductor, “shut the window you idiots.”
Then, suddenly, they emerged from the tunnel into the bright light of
day. A hint of green appeared in the distance. The mountains softened.
“High Pass Station,” shouted the conductor.
Noting Zelig’s white knuckles and colorless face, Potz soothed his new friend.
“Relax,” Mr. Potz said, “from here it’s all downhill to Tijuana and the
border. Now getting back to Jesus, in First Corinthians...”
“Excuse me, Señor,” Zelig explained, “according to our religion, at this
time of day we Mohammedans have to take our naps.” He leaned against
the upholstery, closed his eyes, faked a sleep, and then fell into a
He found himself in a darkened tunnel, floating slowly, gently,
restfully, down. Around him, in his descent, he heard muffled
shouts--the voices somehow both familiar and alien. Falling further into
sweet oblivion, he could discern other beings floating down with him.
Hovering in the dim air, Zelig watched a jumbled, shadowy pageant of
images--he himself in the center, the others passing before him,
walking, upside down—right-side up. Some of the shadowy beings gaped at
him. Others paid him no attention. Jesus appeared dressed in a black
coat and holding an enormous pocket watch, a conductor’s hat pulled over
his crown of thorns. “Ostrolenka Station!” The porcine face of Mr.
Chyzyk, twisting his many rings, tumbled by, embedded in a yellow
balloon. Abe Gurwitz and Shunra the cat dropped by to watch racehorses
drifting in the yellow light around a ghostly track. Auntie Hinkie hung
motionless, twisting her handkerchief, tearing up a telegram. “Garcia,
Garcia, next stop,” someone said in the distance, “Garcia Station.” Mama
Lechuga deftly slaughtered a sheep in the murky depths of Papa Chmiel’s
courtyard while Rabbi Burstein of Ostrolenka sold raffle tickets to the
Polish troops, on their way to Tijuana.
“Agua Caliente, Agua Caliente, Mexico next stop.”
Zelig stirred from his sleep, pulling himself out of the deep cavern of
his dreams. He opened his clouded eyes, squinting until the harsh images
of the train’s interior appeared. He focused his eyes on the suitcase
containing all his worldly goods. The suitcase looked intact, and Mr.
Potz had disappeared.
“Tijuana, customs and border inspection for the United States,” shouted the conductor.
Zelig attempted to smooth his wrinkled white pants and sweaty hair, a
wasted effort, and rose to depart the dust-covered train compartment and
move into the next chapter of his odyssey. He looked out the window and
saw a wide valley and a shallow, brown river. Across the river, low
bluffs lined a few rows of wooden houses.
“Gevalt, I almost forgot. Abe and the rest of the family. They’ll be
here waiting for me,” he muttered aloud, and his heart suddenly pounded
with the anticipation of a joyful reunion.
BIENVENIDOS A TIJUANA
Zelig followed the few Mexican passengers down the metal steps and out
into bright daylight. He looked around for his brother Abe. But Abe was
nowhere to be seen. He walked over to the other side of the tiny
station, but saw only a whitewashed shack, and a couple of Mexican
policeman and railway workers sitting on benches in the shade. Zelig
squinted into the doorway. No Abe, and no Auntie Hinkie.
He looked down a short series of steps, where taxi drivers and donkey
carts offered transportation to the main street of Tijuana, but saw no
Zelig, one suitcase in hand, paced nervously around the outside of the
station house, keeping an eye on his other baggage--now sitting near the
little shack. “They will be here, they will be here,” he mumbled to
himself. "Just a few more minutes and they will be here.”
He stopped for a moment and looked out toward the town of Tijuana, over
the river toward the West. He could see a large Mexican flag and a few
rows of modest two-story buildings. The retreating sun shimmered in his
eyes. He continued his nervous, circular march around the dilapidated
One of the policemen approached him.
“Señor, can I be of help?”
“No, gracias, just waiting for my family to pick me up.”
“Your family lives here in Tijuana?”
“No, they are driving from Los Angeles to meet my train.”
“But the train is already here.”
“Maybe they are just a little late.”
“Maybe,” said the policeman. The other men sitting on the bench nodded their heads.
“But Señor, what if they are unable to come? Los Angeles is a long way from here. Maybe they had a flat tire.”
“They will come for me.”
“Why don’t you sit with us?” the policeman offered,
“No, thank you.”
An hour later, Zelig still paced, completing many laps around the
railroad station. The policeman and the others continued to watch his
suffering. A few stars gradually appeared in the darkening sky.
“Señor,” said the policeman, getting up and standing in Zelig’s path.
“It will soon be dark, and we will have to be going into Tijuana. Your
family, I think, will not come tonight. Maybe they will come tomorrow,
quien sabe, who knows, or maybe the next day. You better go somewhere
and come back to the station tomorrow. Do you have a place to go in
“Do you have some money for a hotel?”
“I tell you what,” said the policeman. “Why don’t you come with me to
the carcel-- the police station. You can stay the night in the jail. No
one will bother you there and you can come back to the train station
tomorrow to wait for your family.”
“Don’t worry, Señor, you won’t be behind the bars of the jail. We
policemen have some cots for the night watch, and you can use one until
“Come on,” urged the policeman. “We are all amigos here, aren’t we?
Even you with your accent. We don’t let anyone sleep outside in our
streets. It would be a big verguenza, an embarrassment, for us if you
had to sleep outside. In just a few minutes the night guard will arrive
and we will take you to the carcel in our new police car. Esta bien?
Darkness had settled in by the time they reached the jailhouse. A kind
jailor provided some tortillas and beans, after which Zelig fell asleep
like a stone, snoring on a cot provided by the hospitality of Tijuana
The next morning, Zelig arose from his cot in the jailhouse. The kind
jailor offered to store his suitcases in the jailhouse, for the time
being, until he could find his relatives. Zelig thanked he jailer for
his hospitality and made his way into the dusty streets of Tijuana.
In the year 1929, the population of Tijuana consisted of some 11,000
people mostly Mexicanos, but with a sizable group of non-Mexican
extranjeros, as well. The international border--only a small distance
away--and the traffic it produced had provided conditions for a boom in
the local economy. North American tourists crossed into Mexico by the
hundreds each day, most of them escaping from the annoyance of the
United States prohibition laws. Real estate developers, both Americanos
and Mexicanos, had busied themselves with a variety of projects. Hotels,
bars, whorehouses, gambling houses, and curio shops for the gringo
tourists lined the main street—Avenida Revolucion. The greatest
attraction of all had but recently opened: the fabulous Agua Caliente
Resort with its superb Tijuana-arabesque architecture. The resort drew
high-society guests lured by the Jockey Club and its racetrack, golf
course, gardens, restaurants, and--above all--a casino, where the money
of the winners and losers flowed back and forth like waves in a sea.
Zelig proceeded down the Avenida, walking in the direction of the
railroad station where, hopefully, his relatives would be awaiting him.
He passed by the notorious hotel and bar--called the Red Mill in
English, the Molino Rojo in Spanish--where drinks led to the pleasures
of an elegant bordello. But Zelig, as a newcomer in town, failed to
recognize this future utility. He passed a row of shops--one with a
barber pole rotating red, white and green colors. A barber stood looking
out his shop window, scrutinizing passersby whose hair looked overly
ripe for cutting. He spotted Zelig and rushed out to block his way.
"Hello lantzman," greeted the barber in Yiddish. "To where is a Jew heading?"
Zelig stopped in his tracks.
"Come in here. I want to talk to you.” He summoned Zelig into the interior of the shop—as a spider welcomes an insect.
“I think I know where you're from." said the barber.
"How do you know?"
"Because we were both at Mount Sinai together. What is your name?"
"My name? My name is Zelig."
"Yes, and you are from Ostrolenka?"
"From Ostrolenka? How do you know?"
" Do you know a lady named Hinkie, from Ostrolenka?” asked the Barber.
"Do I know her? She's my aunt!"
"Listen to me, Zelig, my name is Rabinowitz. I'm from Bialistok--not so
far from Ostrolenka. Your Aunt Hinkie sent me a telegram a few days ago
asking me to keep my eyes out for a young Jew who doesn't know his way
around. That's how I spotted you. She said that you're due to arrive
here around the 28th of the month but, maybe, you might get here a
little earlier. Nu, you'll see your Auntie soon enough. I guess I'm in
charge of you between now and then. Where did you sleep last night?"
"In the jail."
"I think we can do a little better for you tonight. You're coming to our house for dinner and sleep.”
Zelig, overwhelmed, could not contain the tears of joy and relief that
spurted forth. Rabinowitz handed him a tissue from a shelf behind the
"Here, wipe your tears. It's all right lantzman. I know exactly how it
feels to be at the end of the world and to find friends and family. We
take care of each other, don't we? Here, poor man, take another tissue
and get up on my barber chair. A shave and a haircut. wouldn’t hurt."
* * *
Back in Los Angeles (days before) Aunt Hinkie and her daughter Byrdie
had prepared for the long journey from Los Angeles to Tijuana. Zelig’s
aunt had traveled no more than a few miles away from her house since her
own arrival in California ten years before. Hinkie was not a great fan
of automobiles, nor did she care much for Mr. Zaks, the man who had been
hired to convey the old lady and her daughter to Tijuana.
"Don't worry, Momma.” Byrdie soothed the old woman as she gently pushed
her into the back seat of a new motorcar belonging to a friend, Mr.
Zaks. Zaks himself looked forward to the long trip south to San Diego
and the Mexican border, pleased for the opportunity to escort the two
ladies in his luxurious Model A Ford.
"Don't worry, Mrs. Ginsburg,” said Zaks. “I'm a good driver. Vunce I
drove clear across the United States in an old shmata (rag) of a car.
Now that I have this new Ford sedan, ve'll be in Mexico in no time!"
“Hmmph,” said the old lady. "You sit next to Zaks, ” she commanded
Byrdie “and tell him to step on it. I vant to see mine Zelig.”
It took Zaks five hours to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego and
another two days to fix the Ford's radiator in San Diego. Hinkie was
beside herself. She was now late to meet Zelig’s train.
Oy Zelig, Oy Gevalt Zelig, how will I ever find you?" she moaned
incessantly, while wringing her handkerchief and watching Zaks and the
mechanic trying to repair the radiator.
"Do me a favor," Zaks said to Byrdie. "Take your mother to a hotel. She's gonna drive me crazy!"
"It's your fault," said the old lady. "You're stupid! And your car isn't worth a nickel. I never did trust a Galitzianer."
Byrdie hurried her mom down Market Street to a small hotel.
"Are there any Jews in this place?" asked Hinkie.
"I'll find you one, Mama, but for right now, just keep your mouth shut."
Two days later with the new radiator installed and paid for, Zaks drove
the two ladies south to the international border. A bridge led over the
Tijuana River and onto the Avenida de la Revolucion.
"Now what?" said Zaks.
"Look for a barbershop," commanded Hinkie from the back seat.
Sure enough, they found a barbershop on the first block of the avenue.
“This is it,” said Hinkie. “Pull over.”
"Zaks parked diagonally in front of Rabinowitz's shop.”
Rabinowitz was shaving his friend Mr. Camacho when Auntie Hinkie strutted in.
"I'm Hinkie. You are Rabinowitz?"
“Vere is mine Zelig?" asked Hinkie.
"He's at work."
"Already at vork?"
"Yes, Mrs. Hinkie, I found him a job already. A nice man, your nephew."
Nu, vere is he?"
"Walk down the block. You'll see him."
Mr. Camacho smiled, even though he couldn’t speak Yiddish.
Hinkie and Byrdie rushed down the street. They ran past a young man,
standing against a wall, selling chewing gum out of a tray. Seemingly
half asleep, he murmured: "Chiclets?"
"Zelig!" Hinkie cried and enveloped her nephew. She crushed him, and the boxes of chewing gum dumped into the street.
“Oy, Zelig,” she wept. “Ve found you. Ve found you. All the way from Ostrolenka and ve found you. Oy!”
Byrdie and Zaks tried to introduce themselves, but Hinkie clung to
Zelig, bathing him in her salty tears. Her kisses covered his eyes and
his cheeks. Her freckles and white hair were all Zelig could see under
"Mama, let him breathe."
Zaks rescued the Chiclets from the street, and Byrdie managed to
separate her mother from Zelig before she smothered him to death.
Byrdie pushed Zelig and the old aunt back toward the barbershop,
suddenly realizing that this passionate reunion had become a spectacle
for all of the goyim now gathered on the sidewalk. Rabinowitz spotted
them coming back down the Avenida and quickly pulled a bottle of tequila
out from under the cash register.
"Let's have a schnapps," said Rabinowitz. "We need to celebrate."
And so they celebrated: Zelig, who had rejoined his kin; his aunt who
had rescued her nephew; Byrdie, who gained a new cousin; Rabinowitz, who
had saved another Jew; Zaks whose expert driving skills had brought
these happy people to their destination, and thus, reinstated the honor
of all the Galitzianers. Even Mr. Camacho celebrated with schnapps and
received a free haircut, as well.
At the height of the festivities, Auntie Hinkie began to cry. She
blotted her tears with a barber towel. The two shots of schnapps the old
lady had downed had reminded her of how, when Jews celebrate--even in
the best of times--they always leave a taste of sadness, a remembrance
of the fall of Jerusalem, a silent kvetch advising all that trouble
might always be brewing around the corner.
When things cooled down a little, Auntie Hinkie remembered she had left some important items out in the car.
“Bring the box from the car, please, Mr. Zaks.”
Zaks headed out to the car and, with some difficulty, brought the heavy load into the barbershop.
“Slaves we were in the land of Egypt,” mumbled Zaks, under his breath.
“Open the box,” the old lady commanded.
Once open, Hinkie took over the unpacking.
“For you, Zelig, velcome from your family here in the New Verld.”
Out poured a cornucopia of gifts: four pairs of socks from Cousin Chaim
Shapiro; a pair of perfectly good shoes from Cousin Moishe in Boyle
Heights; two boxes of Passover Matzos from Cousin Julius, the grocer; a
wristwatch from Yankel Fischel, the hat maker; a prayer shawl from Rabbi
Gezuntiet of Fairfax Synagogue; a new Gillette razor, courtesy of Third
Avenue Owl Drugstore; a nice blue and white embroidered hankie from
Mrs. Schaztman, Hinkie’s next door neighbor; a shoeshine kit from the
Margolis Boot Repair; two brand new pairs of underwear from Epstein the
florist; and a jar of homemade apricot preserves from Mrs. Gonzales,
across the street from Byrdie’s apartment.
Zelig thanked Auntie Hinkie profusely.
Their mission accomplished, Auntie Hinkie, Birdie, and Zaks
stayed the night at Rabinowitz’s house on Fourth Street in Tijuana
before departing for Los Angeles to tell the story of their adventure to
the rest of the relatives.
Zel had a job, and Abe would come soon and help sort out his brother’s next steps.
Zelig’s Chiclet business limped through its first week of operations
with only a few sales. Zelig thought back to the glorious days of
selling pictures of saints to the prostitutes of Havana, and to his
literacy campaigns among the whores of Mexico City. They had afforded
him good food and adequate lodging. But this job brought little more
than a few pesos and a lot of aggravation. This forlorn, dusty hole of a
remote village in Baja California had brought him closer,
geographically, to his goal of reaching the USA, but thus far he had
been unable to make a living. For the time being, he could sup at
Rabinowitz's house, but sooner or later he would wear out his welcome.
What to do? What to do?
On Sunday, he took his little yellow boxes of candy-coated gum to the front of the Foreign Club gambling hall.
"Chiclets, Señorita? Chiclets, Señor? Chiclets, Señora, bien para los dientes--good for your teeth."
"No, no, go away," said an American tourist.
Zelig held the boxes up toward the tourist's nose.
"Only five cents!"
"Get the hell away from me," said the American.
"Four cents," said Zelig
The tourist gave him a shove, turned his back, and went in to the Foreign Club mumbling, "Goddam beggars."
Someone tapped Zelig on the arm. He turned and saw an American boy with a shock of curly, golden hair falling over his forehead.
"You want Chiclets?" asked Zelig, using one of his few English phrases.
"No." said the boy.
"Then what do you want?"
The blond boy grinned broadly. “My papa wants to see you and he let me do the surprising. See?”
With that, he pointed to a man in a linen suit standing across the street.
They met halfway across Avenida Revolucion--Zelig and his brother Abe.
They embraced at a full run, hugging in the midst of the afternoon
traffic. Chiclets scattered onto the street. Cars blew their horns. The
two brothers spun in a Hassidic dance, in the middle of the Avenida--out
of control, ecstatic.
The golden-haired boy tried to lead them toward the sidewalk in front of the Foreign Club.
"Papa," little Freddy yelled at Abe, "you gotta get out of the street! The two of you'll get run over!"
Zelig and Abe continued their dance on the sidewalk. A crowd of curious
bystanders gathered. Mr. Rabinowitz popped out of his barbershop and
practically dragged the two brothers inside.
They could barely speak to each other without crying. But it was of no
use. They had not seen each other for more than five years--not since
Daniel's wedding in Ostrolenka. Now here they were—together, on the
other side of the world.
A few minutes later, at the Rabinowitz's home just a few blocks away,
the barber's wife served some peppermint schnapps and spice cake in the
living room. But normality continued to evade the brothers. Zelig and
Abe remained in a swoon, unable to speak, pinching each other's arms.
They took turns swatting their foreheads with their hands in disbelief.
Little Freddy had never seen his father in this helpless state. Zelig
snatched Freddy into his arms and hugged him to his chest, until the boy
managed to wriggle out of the trap. Then, mercifully, the schnapps took
hold. Abe and Zelig began to produce coherent sentences and to breathe
"How?" asked Zelig.
"Easy," said Abe. "We got in the car, Freddy and I, and we came.
"All the way from the other side of America?"
"A week. We heard from Byrdie that you were in Tijuana. I took Freddy. We came. Didn't we, Freddy?"
"Papa, tell him how fast you went! He drove two hundred miles an hour, all the way across the country, Uncle Zelig."
"And you’re here," said Abe. “You look well. You're OK?”
"I'm OK, Abe. But I need to get a decent job. I can't just live here at
the Rabinowitz's. I need to get a room somewhere, and I need to find my
way across the border.
"Hmm," said Abe.
"What do you think?"
"Well, here's what I think. I've been considering. You know, in America
now, things are very bad. We had a stock market crash. Bankers have
jumped out of the windows of skyscrapers. There are long lines of people
everywhere with nothing to eat--lucky to just find a bowl of soup. In
Louisville, where I live, business is so terrible, I don't know if I can
keep my store open. It's the worst time. Maybe we should wait a while
before you come over to the USA. Maybe it's better to stay in Mexico for
a few months, just to see what happens. I brought you some money. I
think it’s enough to get you a place of your own, Zelig. Pay the rent
for half a year. All this is temporary, right? We want you with us,
right? I'll start to work on your papers, but we shouldn't rush things. I
don't want to see you in the breadlines. If things get worse in
Kentucky, we too may have to leave--Hanna, the kids and I--and go to our
relatives in California. Who knows what will happen? I'm giving myself
another year before I decide what to do. Worse yet, some people are
blaming the Jews for all this mess.
“Yes, Zelig, for now, you need to stay here in Tijuana. Rabinowitz,
here, tells me they are opening more gambling houses in this town.
People are coming down here for a good time—rich people, even movie
stars. Better stay here until things settle down. In the meantime, you
might find a nice Jewish girl, one who lives on the other side of the
border. Maybe one with some gelt in her family. Like they say in
Ostrolenka, you can love a rich one just as well as a poor one!”
The following morning, Abe and Freddy departed for Kentucky, and Zelig
had a serious wad of cash to put into the still-solvent Bank of Mexico.
He rented a small house near a little park, and he bought new clothes.
His spirits were up, way up, buoyed by the all too brief reunion with
Abe. He felt hopeful and decided to drop the humiliating Chiclets
business and try for a more serious occupation. He hustled and, a few
days later, he found a new job--with a little help from a cousin of
Rabinowitz. He would make a bit more money washing bottles at the
Foreign Club gambling house.
"What do you hear from your brother Zelig, Wolf?"
"Not much. What do you hear from your brother Mottle, Yankel?"
“Mottle is somewhere in America. Maybe he's a millionaire by now."
"A millionaire? How much money does he send back to your family?"
"Not a penny. What about Zelig? Is he a millionaire, too?"
"Not from what my Aunt Hinkie writes. We got a letter from her a month
ago. And she said that Zelig is washing bottles in a gambling house."
"Can you make a living that way in America?"
"He's not in America. He's in Mexico."
Mottle's brother smacked his hands over his cheeks. "Oy vay, He could do better here in Ostrolenka."
"Not much better," said Wolf. "In case you haven't noticed, we have a depression here in Ostrolenka too.”
"So how's your business?" asked Yankel
"Just like your business, collapsing."
"Still working for your father, Wolf?"
"Do I have a choice? I have to feed my wife and my daughter."
Wolf silently pondered his predicament for a few seconds. Could he trust
Yankel? He had to talk to someone. "Yankel, I’ve got to tell you
something, but you have to keep it under your hat. Can I trust you?"
"You can trust me, Wolf."
"I'm leaving my wife. And I'm leaving Ostrolenka. I'm feeling trapped. I
can't breathe here. You asked me if Zelig could survive washing
bottles. I would do anything if it got me out this place. I've been
putting some money away, and I have just enough to buy a ticket on a
"Not to America. America is closed.”
"Honduras? Where is Honduras?"
"Doesn't matter, just far away from here."
"And your wife?"
"And your daughter?"
"Promise me, not to tell anyone."
"Can I go too?"
"Why would you want to go, Yankel? Your family's business is doing all right."
"Why? I don't know why. Maybe because I'm living in a country full of
anti-Semites. Maybe it’s because our business is not doing as well as
you think. In fact, we are going broke. Maybe it’s because Poland is a
police state. Maybe because the Polacks beat the shit out of me when I
was in their army. Maybe because General Pilsudsky, our great president
and protector of the Jews, barely tolerates us, and when that old man
goes--he can't live forever you know--then we'll be thrown out of this
country or reduced to animals. Nothing good is going to happen here for
us Jews. Time to get out! Don't worry. I won't tell anybody, but I'm
going with you!"
ZELIG’S RISE TO FAME
"Hey, Zelig, are you done in there?"
"Si, Señor Gomez, I'll be out in a minute."
Zelig snapped his suspenders over his shoulders and donned his bellhop's jacket with the Agua Caliente crest on its pocket.
. "So look at me now." He studied himself in the ornate, full-length
wall mirror in the casino’s plush bathroom. “Two months ago I was
selling Chiclets on the street, then I was a bottle washer in the
Foreign Club, and now I'm an assistant bellboy in the Agua Caliente
Casino. Who knows what could happen next? Buy a car? Sleep with
Margarita Florez? Own the casino?”
"Hey you, bellboy,” said Zelig’s boss, Mr. Gomez. “Take this up to Miss
Harlow's room. And don't forget to knock on the door and wait."
"How long do I wait this time, Señor Gomez?"
"Until she tells you come in. What the hell do you think?"
Zelig picked up the silver tray with the champagne bottle and bucket of
ice, and made his way gingerly up the stairway to the Jean Harlow's
luxurious suite of rooms overlooking the swimming pool.
Zelig tapped on the door.
"Your champagne, Señorita Harlow."
The movie star's voice came from the suite’s inner room. "Get the
champagne, Paul honey," she said. “And if it's that kid named Zelig,
give him a good tip. He's a Jew-boy just like you."
The door opened and Paul waved Zelig into the room.
As he placed the tray on a coffee table, Zelig heard Miss Harlow humming
in the bedroom and smelled a hint of her expensive perfume.
Paul pulled a dollar out of his bathrobe pocket. “Thanks. Are you really a Yid?"
"OK, lantzman," said Paul. He peeled off another buck and stuck it into
Zelig's lapel pocket. "Come see me in Hollywood someday."
As Zelig turned toward the door, he was treated to a quick view of Miss Harlow’s reflection in the bedroom mirror.
Later, he discussed the Harlow matter with Gomez.
"I saw her naked!"
"Jesus Maria, what did she look like?"
"I only saw her from behind. But I could tell you she has a great cula."
"Jesus, Maria y Jose. Next time I better take that bottle up there myself."
Zelig worked hard and enjoyed bell hopping in the casino. He even had
some time for being a lover boy with the Mexican girls and gringo
He was really beginning to like this job.
Then, one night he had a stroke of luck. During a big, poolside, party,
his boss told Zelig to walk around the inside of the casino and keep on
eye on things.
No one was gambling, and everyone was getting drunk outside. Walking by
the card rooms, the baccarat tables, the ‘21’ tables, the big roulette
wheels, and the small roulette wheels, Zelig spotted something black
underneath one of the tables. He bent down and picked up a wallet filled
with probably a thousand American dollars. He nearly had a heart
attack--a fortune if he put it in his own pocket. He decided to turn the
wallet in to the manager of the gambling hall. But then, he thought
about the guy who was the manager of the gambling hall, Mr. Jones, a
gringo--and a real bastard. Jones liked to go over to the Molino Rojo
brothel and take one of the girls up to the room to beat her up. If
Zelig turned the wallet in to Jones, he would for sure steal it for
But, at that late hour, the offices would be closed. He’d have to take
the wallet back to his room behind Rabinowitz’s house and wait to the
next day. Worried some goniff might steal it from him on the way home or
when he went back to work, he wrapped the wallet up in a piece of paper
and strapped it around his leg. They'd have to cut his cojones off to
The next day, when he arrived back to the casino, he went straight up to
Mr. Crofton's office on the third floor. It was early in the morning
and his secretary hadn’t arrived yet. A light came from under the door.
Zelig pulled his pants down and unstrapped the wallet—thanking God Mr.
Crofton couldn’t see what he was doing. Then, he pulled his pants back
up and knocked on the door.
“Who's there?’ Crofton asked.”
“It's me, Zelig, Mr. Crofton,” said Zelig.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I work here Mr. Crofton,” Zelig said.
“Well, then come in then--if you have to.”
Zelig entered sheepishly.
“I found something in the casino last night. I need to give it to you,” said Zelig.”
Zelig handed him the wallet.
Mr. Crofton looked at the wad of American dollars stuffed inside of the wallet, and his eyes bugged.
“What did you say your name was?” asked Crofton.
“My name is Zelig.”
“You found this last night? Where?”
“Under the small roulette table,” he said.
“Anyone see you when you found it?”
“No. The casino was empty, except for me.”
“Did you take any of the money out of it?”
“Oh, no, Mr. Crofton, I wouldn't do that!”
“Why not?” he said.
“It would be stealing.”
“Doesn't everyone steal around here?”
“Hmm. Sit down young man.”
Zelig sat down in the big brown armchair across from Crofton.
“Where do you work in our casino?”
“I'm a bellhop.”
“I don't remember seeing you before,” said Crofton. “ I've never anyone
who would pass up a chance to stick a hunk of money like that into his
own pocket--especially if no one else was around. I tell you what. I
need more honest people like you around. And the most important place is
at the roulette tables. Do you know how to run a roulette table?’
“No,” he said.
“Listen, Zeligo, or is it Zeliga? Or Zelig? I've just met you, but I
know a good man when I see one. I'm going to have you trained to run
that big roulette table in the front of the casino. You're going to make
a lot of money, starting today--starting right now, in fact. “
Then, Crofton pulled a big roll of dollars from his pocket and put a
fifty in his hand. Then he wrote a long note and stuffed it into an
envelope, handing it to Zelig.
“You take this down to the pit boss and tell him that Mr. Crofton wants
you to become a croupier. Tell him I said you to need to learn the whole
roulette business from start to finish. I'll keep my eye on your
progress. Okay? And good luck on your new career.”
“OK, Mr. Crofton, whatever you say.”
* * *
Four months later, a Mr. Goodman of Beverly Hills (previously known in
Ostrolenka as Chaim Osher Gedanke) presented himself at the front desk
of the Agua Caliente hotel. Since squeaking into the USA through Ellis
Island, just before President Calvin Coolidge slammed the door shut, Mr.
Goodman had done well. He now had a nice car, a house only a few blocks
from Beverly Hills, a gentile wife, a mistress, and, rumor had it, some
connections with the Jewish mafia. Goodman asked to see his cousin
The hotel clerk replied, “Ah yes, Señor. He works in the casino. I will get him for you. It’ll be just a few moments.”
Mr. Goodman waited. He wore a fancy fedora and an expensive linen suit.
Minutes later Zelig appeared, looked at the visitor, and opened his arms to embrace Chaim.
“Nu, cousin Chaim, what a surprise! But who the hell is Goodman?”
“I changed my name when I came to America. So what’s new?”
“Come,” said Zelig, “I’ll show you around the place and we’ll talk
about the family, and then you’ll tell me how you came to get those
fancy shmatas you’re wearing.”
Zelig took his cousin on a tour of the plush resort. He showed Chaim
Osher the luxurious card rooms, the roulette tables, the grand ballroom,
the ornate Moorish rugs, the elegant food in the restaurants, the
gigantic swimming pool, the lush semi-tropical gardens, and even the
private airstrip nearby--where the rich and famous deplaned from
“Gevalt, Zelig, what a palace!” said Chaim Osher, in Yiddish. “This
place is ritzier than Rothschild’s castle. It’s even ritzier than the
goddam czar’s palace—may his name be cursed.
“ I’ve got to hand it to you, lantzman. How the hell did you land a big
job in this place? The last thing all of us relatives in L.A. heard
about you is that you were stuck selling Chiclets by the border gate.”
“That was before I got to know Mr. Crofton?” said Zelig.
“You know Crofton? Isn’t he a big shot in the movie business? And doesn’t he own this whole damn gambling house?”
“He and his partners.”
“Golly,” said Chaim Osher, showing off his American English, “how did a
refugee from Ostrolenka get to know a mogul like Crofton?”
"It was like this," Zelig explained. "When I got to Tijuana, I was
selling Chicklets on Avenida Revolucion. I barely made enough to eat one
meal a day at that job. Then a friend of mine--Rabinowitz the
barber—found a job for me at the Foreign Club, washing bottles. Not a
very good business but better than Chiclets.
“Then I found a job at the Molino Rojo, the Red Mill, waiting on tables.
It was an interesting place, but I decided I didn't want to work where
prostitution was going on. It broke my heart to see how the pimps
treated the ladies. One of the girls there told me I should try for a
job as a bellboy over at the Agua Caliente Casino. Her uncle, Mr. Gomez,
was the boss of all the bellboys there, so of course I got the job.
“Then some of the guests in the resort, mostly the women, began to take a
liking to me, so I started making good tips, and I even had a few
shtups with some of the ladies."
"Who with Zelig?"
"Oh, just some small-time actresses. You wouldn't know them. Once I got
it from a big star, a blonde, one of those shiksas with the long legs.
Maybe you want to guess who it was, but I really can't tell you.”
"Jesus, Zelig, you must really have what it takes," Chaim Osher salivated.
"Anyway, I still wasn't making much money. You can’t live just on tips
and love, you know. But that was before I got to know Mr. Crofton,” said
Zelig. “And then I got a big break.”
“Believe it or not, it was a simple case of honesty. I found a wallet
loaded with money and, instead of keeping it, turned it in to Crofton.
He thought such a loyal employee should be advanced and sent me off to
train for croupier.
"Nu, Cousin Osher, what do you think about that kind of luck? I tell you
what. Let's go have a good dinner at the Molino Rojo. I'll introduce
you to some of my new friends."
“Mazal Tov, Zelig. Just for that, it’s my treat.”
ABE LEAVES KENTUCKY
Abe and Freddy returned to Louisville. Business was good--considering
the crash of the stock market. The horses still ran at Churchill Downs
and the jockeys still needed their uniforms.
But suddenly, in the autumn of 1930, the economy lurched downward. One
of the jockeys slipped Abe a tip about the racetrack’s pending closure.
Who could afford to play the horses with banks failing right and left?
"What will become of my store?" mourned Abe. "Who will buy the jockey outfits--my stock in trade? How will I feed my family?”
Abe and Hanna had produced another baby, born just when the largest
bank in Louisville bit the dust. Time for serious decision making.
Abe's self-published Handicap Sheet--the Shed Row News--went under.
Peggy, the Shetland Pony purchased for little Freddy’s a fourth birthday had to be sold.
"OK," Abe said to Hanna, as Freddy sobbed over the sale of his pony, "Let's get the hell out of here."
He sold both the house and the shop to a Jewish immigrant from Galitzia,
Glantzshpiegal by name, who wanted to change the shop to a more
practical business for the times--a hock shop. Abe and Hanna jammed
their possessions into the back seat of the Model A Sedan, leaving just
enough room for Freddy and baby Reva.
"California, here we come," said Abe, and they motored down Second Street heading for places west.
"Vot a meshiga, a nut," remarked Glantzshpiegal in his Galitziana
accent, as the Gurwitz family disappeared in the distance. "He sells me
his store for gurnisht--for nothing--and runs avay to de vild vest. Dis
stock market crash vill be all over soon enough. I feel it in mine
As the family drove somewhere through Texas in a snowstorm, with the
kids sleeping soundly in the back seat, Hanna decided she wanted to know
more about Abe's younger brother Zelig.
"Zelig? Oh, he's the mazik in the Chmiel family," said Abe. "I remember
once he pulled on a horse's tail, and the horse gave him a swift kick in
the head. Almost died and still has a scar from the horse's hoof.
"Another time, my father Yisroel, felt like killing him. Zelig went to
heder, to religious school. He didn't like school, period, and he hated
the melamed, the Hebrew schoolteacher. Anyway, this tyrant had a big,
white beard and a stick. He used the stick a lot, mostly on our hands
and on our tucheses.
"Anyway, he used to take little catnaps while the children did their
lessons. One day, Zelig waited for the melamed to fall asleep. He went
outside the heder and brought in a pail of glue he had hidden away,
before school. The old man snored like a bear, with his beard spread out
across the table like a dirty old prayer shawl filled with knots and
bugs. Zelig tiptoed up to the old man’s table and very carefully, very
quietly, poured the glue from the bucket across the melamed's beard.
Nothing could wake up the old fart when he was asleep like that. Then,
Zelig took the glue can back outside, returned to the classroom, sat
down, and made it look as if he were studying—which, actually, he never
"After his long snooze, the melamed woke up and found himself glued to
the top of the desk. The poor guy couldn't move. He yelled for help, but
Zelig and the rest of the kids just laughed. Finally, another melamed
from the school had to cut the old man's holy beard off with a pair of
scissors. The Principal figured out, right away, who was to blame, so
Zelig took to his heels. With all the teachers running after him, Zelig
ran down the main street of Ostrolenka, laughing like a maniac. At last,
he got cornered and had to climb up a telegraph pole. Zelig stayed up
at the top of the pole and, finally, they had to call Yisroel, our
father, to order Zelig to come down. When he did come down, my father
grabbed him by the back of his coat, shook him real good, hauled him
into the house, and took his belt strap to him--and how! Zelig wasn't
laughing so much after that but everyone in Ostrolenka busted their guts
at the melamed whose cut-off beard still stuck to the tabletop.
“Anyway, Hanna, that's what my brother Zelig was like as a kid, and my
guess is that he hasn't changed very much. What a mazik! You'll see! Oh,
I forgot to tell you something. The reason my father Yisroel was so
angry with Zelig was because my father was the superintendent of all the
Jewish schools in Ostrolenka!"
"No wonder your father wanted to kill him," said Hanna.
They drove on through the Texas plains in the cramped Model A. When Big
Spring, Texas, rolled by, Freddy began poking at his baby sister, Reva,
who rode above his head in a mini-hammock.
"Be a good boy, Freddy," said Abe.
"When do we get to Los Angeles?" asked Freddy.
"A couple more days."
"Can I have some more candy?"
"Give him some more candy, Hanna."
"He's had too much already."
"C'mon, give him one more candy, poor kid."
Hanna broke off half a Hershey bar and handed it back to Freddy.
Freddy devoured the chocolate. A short time later, the boy puked all over the back seat.
A NICE JEWISH GIRL
Mr. Crofton had taken Zelig under his wing. Zelig entered the glamorous
life of hobnobbing with celebrities, flirting with fine women (and with
not so fine women), smoking expensive Cuban cigars, and savoring
gourmet dinners in the Foreign Club--a giant step from Chiclet hawking
and bottle washing.
He had purchased a shiny, new roadster. Now he could cruise down Avenida
Revolucion. Better yet, he could travel across the border to San
Diego—thanks to Mr. Crofton, who had arranged a special border-crossing
pass for him. Zelig lived in a beautiful bungalow on the grounds of the
One day, Chaim Osher came to visit again. He brazenly strode into the gambling hall.
“Hey, Zelig, what’s new, Lantzman?”
He clapped Zelig on the back.
“Chaim Osher, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m on my way up to talk to
the big boss. Why don’t you wait around for an hour or so and we’ll
have a little shmooz in my bungalow. Play at the roulette table and lose
some of your money while you’re waiting.”
“What if I win?”
“Then you’ll take me to dinner again. Come over to my place in about an hour.”
A half hour later, Chaim appeared at Zelig’s door. He walked in without knocking.
“Jesus,” said Zelig, what if I had a woman in here?”
“Then I’d watch,” said Chaim.
“Looks like you’re taking me to dinner, Zelig,” said Chaim, pulling out an empty pocket from his suit.
Chaim strolled around Zelig’s ritzy apartment, “I see you have a cat. What’s the cat’s name?”
“Lover Boy, huh,” he stroked the spoiled cat lying across his knees. “Why didn’t you give the cat a nice Jewish name?”
“The problem is, the cat is a gentile,” Zelig explained to his cousin.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he has good manners, and he has a pedigree.”
“Oy, what an anti-Semite you’ve become, Zelig. Worse yet, you go out
with all those gentile girls--shiksas--hanging around your neck. What
would your mother Rivka have to say about that?”
“Who are you to talk about shiksas. You’re married to one,” said Zelig.
“Well, let’s just say that my shiksa is Jewish by injection.”
They both had a good laugh at that, winking their eyes at each other, just like old times.
“Any Jewish girls in sight, Zelig?”
“Actually, there is one.”
“A nice girl. Lives in San Diego.”
“What’s her name?”
“Where did you meet her?”
“At the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. She was eating lunch.”
”What does she look like?”
“Pretty face, green eyes, good legs.”
“That’s all you can say, Zelig?”
“She’s American born. From San Diego.”
“Is she intelligent?”
“Not too smart if she hangs out with you. How about money? Are her parents rich?”
“I don’t know.”
“She must have big knockers then.”
How is she in bed?”
“I don’t know. She’s a nice Jewish girl. I’m going over to her parents tonight.”
“Oy, gevalt,” said Chaim Osher. “What do you hear from Ostrolenka?”
“Not much. My brother Abe lives in Los Angeles now. Wolf is in
Honduras--has a little store in a place called La Ceiba. Nothing from
my father and mother. What do you hear from your folks, Chaim?”
“They write, once in a while, but only about their tsorus--their
miseries. Everyone who can afford to leave Ostrolenka is getting out.
But what country wants to take in a bunch of Jewish refugees--except
maybe Argentina or Uruguay.
“And how is Poland doing?”
“Your friend Marshal Pilsudski is not quite as anti-Semitic as the
previous government. But things are only going to get worse when the old
dictator dies. The Polacks would like to throw out all of the minority
people--Jews, Ukrainians, Germans--but there’s nowhere to throw them.
It’s a Gehenum--a hell on earth, and it will only get worse. We should
do everything we can to get our families out of Poland.”
“As soon as the economy gets a little better, we’ll see about getting
the rest of our family out.” said Zelig. “My boss, Mr. Crofton, helped
me buy some Agua Caliente stock and, in a few years, it ought to be
worth a lot. By that time I may be a citizen of the USA. Then my brother
and I will start bringing them over.”
“You’re lucky to be in Mexico, working in this palace. Things are really
getting bad in the United States. Don’t even ask me about the stock
market crash. I’m wiped out.
“Anyway, Zelig, before this whole world falls apart, why don’t we enjoy
life a little? You want to go down to the Molino Rojo tonight?”
“No, I told you. I’m going over the border to visit Jeanne.”
“Are you in love with her?”
“No, but she’s a very nice girl from a good family.”
“Then, what is she doing hanging around with you, Lantzman?”
“Maybe she likes my cat.”
A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE KLAZKIN FAMILY
Jeanne’s parents, Anna Margolis and Isaac Klazkin, were both born in the
City of Dvinsk, part of the Russian Empire. The city later became part
of the Latvian Republic, which later became the Latvian Soviet Socialist
Republic, which later became German-occupied Latvia, and later yet
became the Latvian Republic. Turmoil and adversity frequently visited
this small corner of the world. Invading armies easily made their way
over the flat, green Baltic plains. The local people had little chance
to live a quiet life without recurring calamities.
The Jews, of course, were blamed for many of these troubles.
Anna Margolis, as a young woman, had hoped that one day things would
change for the better. The reigning czar might die and perhaps a more
liberal one would take his place. The Messiah might appear or, better
yet, the Socialist revolution could triumph. But after the failure of
the 1904 uprising and the ensuing bloodbath by the czar’s Cossack
troops, Anna lost heart. She, as thousands of others, had fled her
homeland for the New World.
Her husband to be, Isaac Klazkin found his way to South Africa and then
to the United States. He and Anna met in Hartford, Connecticut. They
married and set out for San Francisco. There, Isaac found work as a
carpenter. Jobs were plentiful after the city’s devastation by
earthquake and fire. The young couple decided to start a family. Anna
gave birth to two children, Jeanne and Harry, within two years. But
then, as so many overexposed and underpaid laborers of his time, Isaac
contracted tuberculosis. With no cure available, doctors recommended a
warmer climate. The family relocated their poverty to Southern
California, hoping the dryness and warmth might create a miracle.
They arrived in San Diego in 1910. Poor Isaac. No miracle occurred, and
he coughed out his life in 1915--only a few years after the birth of two
more children, Lena and her younger sister Clara. Anna spent the
customary seven days in mourning, then bravely set out to work. She
bought Jake--an old horse--and an even older wagon and drove them
through the streets of San Diego, buying up old rags and selling them to
a local junk man.
“Old clothes and rags,” she would call out--a small woman but with a
strong voice. Jake kept a steady pace up the dusty hills to Brooklyn
Heights, down to Broadway, and over to the warehouses and commercial
centers of the city.
“Old clothes and rags!”
At times, when unable to pay the rent, she and the children found
themselves evicted--their meager possessions piled on a cart pulled by
Jake the horse. Somehow, though, Anna always found another place,
usually in an even poorer neighborhood. A few times they had to skip out
before the final notice. But as Anna persevered in her sales, they
achieved a little stability. Eventually, she managed to afford the rent
of a small cottage near the corner of Twenty-Fifth and ‘L’ St., not far
from downtown San Diego.
The children flourished, in spite of their poverty. They learned to take
care of themselves, seeing Mom only in the late afternoon when she
returned with Jake and the cart--sunburnt and weary from the long day’s
work. As she approached the house, the younger children would run
toward her with outstretched arms, while Jeanne and Harry-- more
reserved than the younger girls, stood in the background, containing
During the days, the girls played dolls and jacks with the neighborhood
kids. Harry watched the motorcars go by, always longing for the day when
he might own one.
In the long summer months, they often ate on a little porch, watching
the passersby on Twenty-fifth Street. Anna, after her long day of work,
made dinner--sometimes a good bowl of borsht, accompanied by day-old
bread from the Italian bakery next door. And often, Mrs. Ragapolis, the
Greek lady across the street, supplied the family with avocados and
On Friday nights Anna would prepare gefilte fish--not “God forbid” the
sweet Galitzianer type, eaten by the Krychiefsky’s, two doors down, but
the tart, Litvak kind. She made her own khrain--the strong, Jewish
horseradish that brought tears to eyes and made noses run. The smell
and taste of the khrain brought Anna home again, to Dvinsk, back with
her family--back with her Bubbie and Zaidie, back to her lost friends,
back to the gentle God of those good times in the old country, and back
to the Sabbath nights in her parents’ house.
After dinner, on warm summer nights, the children remained outside until
late. Harry often scuffled with the neighborhood boys in Huck Finn type
adventures on the rolling hills and canyons--trapping tarantulas,
garter snakes, horn toads and lizards. In the spring, they scooped
polliwogs from the shallow ponds after the rains. The somber Lena and
sassy Clara camped out on the three steps of the back porch, playing
with their self-manufactured dolls created from sticks, ribbons, and
rags. Sometimes they all walked up the hill to the little park to watch
the sunset over the grand view of San Diego Bay, Coronado Island, Point
Loma, and the Silver Strand.
Still, the Klazkins lived in poverty. The children wore torn and patched
clothing. Toes poked out of shoes. Money was scarce and sometimes food
One evening there was a knock on the door of the Klazkin house.
“Mom, there’s a lady at the door,” said Jeanne.
“Tell her to come in,” Anna responded from the kitchen where she busily washed the dishes.
An elegantly dressed woman in a starched white blouse, long blue dress,
and polka dot bow tie entered the Klazkin front room. Anna came out of
the kitchen and almost dropped her dishtowel at the sight of the courtly
stranger--obviously not Mrs. Schultz from next door, who usually came
in for a glass of tea at this time of day.
Oy, a Gibson girl,” thought Anna.
“Good evening, Mrs. Klazkin,” said Mrs. Blochman in her perfect American voice.
“Goot evening,” answered Anna in her best try at an American accent.
“I am Mrs. Blochman, a social worker, Mrs. Klazkin. I work with Temple Beth Israel.
“Yes, the Jewish temple on Laurel Street.
“Please, sit down, Mrs. Blochman. How can I help you?”
“Mrs. Klazkin, I have come to your house to see how I can help you.”
“By me, everything is okay, thank you, Mrs. Blochman.”
“Very good, Mrs. Klazkin. I don’t like to intrude on anyone, of course. I
heard from ladies in our congregation that your husband, Mr. Klazkin,
passed away a few years ago. I wish to ask if there is anything I can do
for you and the children. I was told you have four children at home and
that you might need some help. We have a women’s group at our temple,
committed to aiding newcomers with special needs.”
“Aiding? Special needs?”
A rush of little squeaky shouts and laughter interrupted the
conversation as Lena and Clara clamored up the front steps and plunged
into the front room, both of them in their bare feet.
“Look Momma,” Lena shouted, her muddy hands cupped around a hidden object. “We got a worm!”
“Lena dug it up,” Clara added.
Jeanne, spying from the kitchen, while drying the dishes, hustled out to
shoo her sisters and their worm out of the room and down the steps to
“What beautiful girls you have,” said Mrs. Blochman, in her politest voice.
“I have a gootlooking boy, Harry, too,” said Anna, as if nothing had happened.
With a deep breath, Mrs. Blochman continued her mission: “Mrs. Klazkin,
you may know that many of the women in our temple arrived here in San
Diego not so long ago ourselves. Our own families were refugees from
Germany. Now that things are better for us, we want to extend our
assistance to others, maybe with some help with clothing or food for the
kids or adults, or anything else. Please, may we help?”
“Det’s very nice of you, Mrs. Blochman, but I couldn’…”
“No buts, Mrs. Klazkin, we would love to help make your life a little
easier. We know you work hard in the rag business and that you must be
very tired when you get home each day. I beg you, let us help. Let us do
a mitzvah, a good deed, for you and the children.”
Later that evening, Anna walked down to Mrs. Krychiefsky’s house. As
usual, the Krychiefsky children and several nieces and nephews filled
the living room. Anna pulled Mrs. Krychiefsky over to a corner and
whispered her account of the visit from Mrs. Blochman. She spoke in
Yiddish so the children would not overhear.
Anna asked, “Who is that lady from the temple?”
“I don’t know, maybe Krychiefsky himself could tell you when he gets home. He gets around town more than I do.”
“And I vonder what are they up to? They vant us to go to their temple. Maybe they’re missionaries in disguise?”
“God forbid, Anna. They don’t want us to go to the temple. They’re all
rich people--society people. They’re all Deitches (Germans). They’re
Jews like us, but you know, they pray on Sunday and not even in Hebrew.”
“Not even that. In English.”
“Gevalt, dey talk to God in English?”
“And the women and the men sit together when they go to pray in their shul. Did you know that?”
“Dis, I don’t believe!”
“You say the Deitche woman wants to help you with clothes and food?”
“Should I do it? I don’t feel so goot about it.”
“Look Anna, let them do it. Even though they’re Deitche Jews, they still
need to do mitzvahs for others. It’s in all our blood, you know. You
Litvaks do it. We Galitzianers do it. Let them do it too. And, after
all, you and the children could use a little help.
A few days later, Mrs. Blochman returned with Mr. Blochman in his big,
shiny motorcar--arms filled with dresses for the girls and Anna, a new
suit for Harry, bags of flour, a gallon of milk, and even some bags of
oats for Jake.
“There’ll be plenty more after this,” said the portly Mr. Blochman, “don’t worry, Mrs. Klazkin.”
“How can I ever repay you?”
“Why, later, when you’re able, just go help other people as we have helped you,” answered Mrs. Blochman.
Overwhelmed with the unexpected and much needed bounty given by these
strange German-Jewish benefactors, Anna stepped out into the backyard
and allowed herself to cry. She shed a few tears of happiness, a few
tears for her dead husband Isaac, and a few tears for her heavy burdens.
Then, using her apron for a handkerchief, she carefully dried her eyes
and went back into the kitchen.
“Jeanne,” she called, “help me make a good borsht tonight and we’ll send some over to old Mrs. Schultz next door.”
A few years later, Anna Klazkin married George Shelley, a San Diego
businessman, formerly of Lithuania. George Shelley was twenty years
older than his bride and had nine married sons from his deceased wife.
Fortunately, his sons had long since grown up and left the house. True
to his history of fecundity, George Shelley and his new bride begot a
baby girl, Gertrude, in 1920. Then, George and Anna moved the family to a
middle-class neighborhood. George brought Anna’s aged parents to San
Diego. Harry grew up into a handsome man, totally involved in the
culture of the automobile, oblivious of the females around him. Jeanne
and Harry had jobs in the boomtown economy of San Diego. Lena (now Lee),
and Clara (now Claire), entered San Diego High School. Gertrude
attended elementary School. Anna operated her own “Mom and Pop” grocery
store, and Mr. Shelley retired to his rocking chair, smiling at his good
fortune. His attractive wife, his healthy daughter, and his
stepchildren all basked in the beautiful San Diego climate, with
majestic palm trees lining the streets--a world away from czarist
repression, disease, and hunger. He felt they lived in Paradise, unaware
of the gray clouds that approached over the economic horizon.
July 11, 1932:
Dear Diary: I’ve met a guy named Zelig from Tijuana. I bumped into him
at the U.S. Grant Hotel Grill. I was eating a ham sandwich and he was
staring at me across the room. After a few minutes, I winked (forgive
me, Mom) and he came over to talk to me. He’s really handsome. And he’s
Jewish. He lives in Tijuana, and he’s a croupier in the Agua Caliente
gambling house. He asked me for a date. I told Mom about him, and she
asked me to invite him for dinner. He’s coming over tonight.
July 16, 1932:
Went to La Jolla with Zelig and had a soda, then drove back to the beach
and ate chicken dinner. Zelig isn’t a bad dancer. I like him quite a
July 18, 1932:
Zelig came over and ate at our house again. Mom really likes him. Went
for a ride and then to see “White Cargo.” It was fair. Had a malt and
drove around a little. Got home about 11:30. Zelig had to dash.
July 23, 1932:
Zelig took me to lunch at Del Prado Tea Shop. Went to Lemon Grove. Came
back and ate at Jewish Restaurant. Saw Lon Chaney in “The Unholy Three.”
Zelig is sure keen.
July 25, 1932:
Went to the beach with Zelig and danced. Had lunch with him in Balboa
Park and then we drove out to Sunset Cliffs. Came after me at 5:OO and
had supper with him. Sure had a nice day.
July 26, 1932:
Sure have been setting a pretty hard pace with Zelig--no sleep--out
every night and having a grand old time. Good kisses. Hot damn.
August 4, 1932:
Zelig came for me at noon and we ate in the Jewish Restaurant. Came for
me after work. We went for a ride to Lemon Grove. Ate supper at Golden
Lion--keen steak-- went out to the beach and didn’t get back until four
September 21, 1932:
Haven’t seen Zelig for several weeks. Guess he ran out of gas.
OCTOBER 1932: ZELIG AND HELEN
Zelig had every intention of continuing his relationship with Jeanne,
but events unfolded changing his plans. His Cousin Byrdie in Los Angeles
had decided to make a shidduch (a marital match) for Zelig.
“Who is this girl?” asked Zelig over the telephone.
“A nice girl. A friend of mine. You’ll like her,” said Byrdie.
“What does she look like?”
“Good looking, red hair, knows how to cook a little bit, intelligent. What more do you want to know?”
“How about the parents?”
“Nice people. They own a fabric store in the garment district. How does that sound to you?”
“Good. Bring her down here.”
“Zelig, you schmuck, you can’t expect an elegant woman like Helen to come to you.”
“That’s her name? Helen?”
“No, her name is Eleanor Roosevelt. What else do you want to know?
Anyway, you get your tuchus up here and I’ll arrange a meeting for the
two of you, Farshtais?”
“Farshtais,” said Zelig.
On his next day off from the Casino, Zelig drove north to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles to Byrdie’s mother’s house.
“We’re making a shidduch for you,” said Auntie Hinkie.
“I thought you were in charge,” Zelig said to Byrdie.
“She is, but I get a percentage,” said the old lady.
“All right, all right, it’s your business,” said Hinkie.
“So how is this going to work?” Zelig asked Byrdie.
“You’re going to pick Helen up at her mom’s house on Brooklyn Avenue.
Then, you’re going to take her to dinner at the Ambassador Hotel,
“The Ambassador Hotel? It costs a fortune to eat there.”
“Don’t worry,” Byrdie explained. “My cousin Stanley works at the hotel
and he’ll give you a big discount on the price. Just ask for him when
you get to the restaurant—he’s the accountant. Your table is reserved.
Pick up Helen at six-thirty and be at the restaurant at seven, And you
don’t try any of your monkey business on her on your first date. She’s a
nice girl, not like your girlfriends down in Tijuana.”
“What’s her name again?”
Aunt Hinkie scowled, “Helen Dakowski. For God’s sake don’t forget her
name. And buy her a corsage before you show up at her house.
“No monkey business,” Hinkie added.
“Please, Mom. Don’t interfere,” said Byrdie
“Okay, Okay, nobody listens to me anyway. I’m just an old lady.”
Next evening, Zelig picked up Helen in his roadster. Smitten by her
green eyes, beautiful lips, and Miss America legs, Zelig thought, “She
hardly looks Jewish.”
Zelig and his date drove off. Mrs. Dakowski, Helen’s mother, stood at
her front window watching her daughter disappear down Soto Street. “Oy,
Gevalt,” she mumbled to herself for no apparent reason. “Mine poor
On their way to the Ambassador Hotel, Zelig felt a tinge of guilt about
Jeanne Klazkin, down in San Diego, but then Helen moved over a little
closer to Zelig and the guilt disappeared.
They arrived at the famous hotel, where one valet opened Zelig’s car
door and another opened the door for Helen. With ladylike care, she
gracefully slid out of the car, but not before Zelig and the valet both
managed to catch a quick glimpse of her magnificent legs.
“Caramba!” said Zelig.
At their reserved table, Zelig ordered a bottle of champagne. They
chatted for a while, and then he ordered Chateaubriand, surrounded by
whipped potatoes and vegetables and served on a wooden plank.
At first, Helen seemed a little nervous with all the attention showered
on her, but after the second glass of champagne, her demeanor relaxed,
and she devotedly listened to Zelig’s stories, about his glamorous job
at Agua Caliente—the movie stars and the millionaires, the big shots and
the gamblers. Zelig gazed into Helen’s eyes and Helen boldly gazed
back. After the third glass of Champagne, she kicked off a shoe and
rubbed her stockinged foot--ever so delicately—up Zelig’s trouser leg.
By the time the cherries jubilee arrived, Zelig was a goner.
In the next few weeks, Zelig and Helen frequented L.A.’s fashionable
nightspots, eating together, holding hands, staring into each other’s
eyes, oblivious of the world around them. They kissed at the Santa
Monica beach, watching the sunset, and they smooched at the Griffith
Park Zoo--in broad daylight.
They paraded the sidewalks of the Jewish Boyle Heights, walking hand in
hand. Zelig and Helen smiled at mutual acquaintances along the way, the
passersby kveling at the twosome, the men looking over their shoulders
at Helen’s beautiful figure.
Sometimes the couple ate sumptuous family dinners cooked by Hanna, or by Auntie Hinkie, or by other Ostrolenka lantzmen.
Zelig drove back and forth from Agua Caliente. Sometimes he would stay
overnight at Abe and Hanna’s. Then, he would drive south to Tijuana just
in time to work the roulette wheel at the evening shift. Then he would
return, again, racing through the night to be in Los Angeles, just to
spend time with Helen for a few hours.
Of course, Zelig yearned to make love to his sweet Helen, but both of
them had agreed they would wait until their fast-approaching honeymoon
October 18, 1932
Dear Tatte and Mamme,
I hope you are all well. Good news to you from your faraway Zelig. Next
month, I’m getting married to a beautiful, rich, Jewish American woman.
With her help, I will soon be able to be a legal immigrant to the United
States. The woman’s name is Helen. She comes from a good family. Her
parents come from Warsaw. We plan to live in San Diego, California, a
place that is close to my work in the casino in Tijuana. We will get
married by a judge in Los Angeles. The wedding guests will be Abe and
Hanna and their children, Freddy and Reva, and Cousin Byrdie and her
husband Yankle and Auntie Hinkie, of course. It will take place at Chaim
Osher’s villa in Los Angeles. Wish all of you could be here. I think
back to Daniel’s wedding in Ostrolenka, only five years ago, the last
time when we were all together. Now I have to get back to work, but I’ll
let you know when we are married. Hope that things are better in
November 8 1932:
Dear Son Zelig,
Your mother and I are very happy with the good news that you will soon
be married. We were worried that you would not find any Jewish girls in
America or in Mexico. Give regards to all of our family over there and
to the family of your wife-to-be. We have only one worry about your
marriage ceremony and that is about making a marriage by a judge and not
a Rabbi. If you are able, please try to make a change for our sake and
have your wedding sanctified by a Rabbi.
Your Father and Mother
Yisroel and Rivka
The nuptials were set for November 29th, a Thursday.
Two days before the wedding, Mr. Crofton called Zelig into his office.
“Zelig,” he said, “I have some bad news to tell you. The President of
Mexico, Lázaro Cardenas, has just made a decree that all employees in
Mexican gambling houses have to be native-born Mexican citizens. So, I’m
going to have to let you go--not that I want to--but because of this
new law. You are my best and most honest worker in the casino, and I
have enjoyed having you as an employee. Here, in this envelope, you will
find five hundred dollars.”
He removed the money and counted it all in twenty-dollar bills.
“I hope this will be enough to give a good start in your new life, and I hope that we will always remain friends.”
Zelig couldn’t believe his ears. What tsorus, with the new
responsibilities of marriage on the way. But Zelig could do nothing
about it. He thanked Mr. Crofton for the money and went back to his
cottage to pack his bags. Zelig had been saving to buy his own store
someday. But even with Crofton’s $500, Zelig wouldn’t have enough money
to buy anything right now. He hoped Helen would understand. Somehow
they’d make new plans…together.
The morning of the wedding Zelig woke up and drove north to Abe and Hanna’s house in Boyle Heights.
“Nu, Zelig, how’s it feel to finally get yourself married?” asked Abe.
“Good,” said Zelig, “I can hardly wait.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Hanna, sniffing something not so kosher in Zelig’s reply.
“C’mon, Zelig,” said his sister-in-law. “You can’t fool me, something’s wrong.”
No use trying to hide it, Zelig confessed he had lost his job in Caliente. A tear ran down his cheek.
“Oy, Gevalt,” said Hanna.
“Don’t worry, brother,” said Abe. “Your bride is a good woman. She’ll
help you out and I, too, will help you as much as I can. C’mon, Zelig,
chin up. We Chmiel’s always find a way. Here, have a schnapps. Let’s get
this wedding over with. Then we’ll solve the other problems.”
The schnapps helped to settle Zelig’s nerves, and soon the group headed
for the wedding site. They arrived to a cheery greeting: “Welcome,
Chaim Osher proudly opened the door to his Beverly Hills mansion and
enveloped Zelig with a bear hug, almost crushing his cousin’s
boutonniere. Abe got the next hug, followed by Hanna, Freddy and little
A statuesque blonde, standing behind Chaim Osher, took Zelig’s arm and marched them all into the salon.
“This is my little wife, Patty,” explained Chaim.
“Yeah,” she smiled. “I’m his shiksa all right. Let me take your coat,
Zelig. My, what a handsome guy you are. How about a drink?”
“Why not?” Zelig ogled the lovely woman.
“Now, Zelig,” warned Chaim, “save some of that for your bride.”
The door chimes rang, but before anyone could open the door, Auntie Hinkie strode in, with her daughter Byrdie close behind.
“Zelig, so I was right about you and Helen. A good shidduch—a wonderful match,” said Byrdie.
The doorbell rang again and a bearded gentleman in a long black coat entered the foyer.
“Welcome, Rabbi Schatzman,” greeted Chaim Osher’s wife.
“Tenk you,” said the Rabbi. He looked around and exclaimed under his
breath, Oy, such extrevagant surroundings. Just like Baron Rothschild’s
“So, ver do you vant me to put the chuppah?”
“The what?” Chaim Osher’s wife had never had the pleasure of organizing a
Jewish wedding ceremony. Chaim and his gentile wife had been married
by a justice of the peace in Yuma, Arizona.
“Excuse me,” said the mild-mannered Rabbi, “ve need to set up the chuppah—de marriage canopy.”
“Oh, over there in the salon would be fine.”
“Byrdie, please come over here and help Rabbi Schatzman,” said Chaim’s wife.
Byrdie rushed over and guided the Rabbi to the salon.
“Where’d you find that old goat?” Abe asked Chaim Osher.
“A relative of my banker. This Rabbi doesn’t cost much and he won’t drag out the prayers.” Chaim Osher winked.
The door chimes sounded again.
“Come in, come in,” said Chaim Osher as he opened the regal door.
Mrs. Dakowski entered, followed by her beautiful daughter.
“May I help you remove your coat, Helen,” asked Chaim Osher. But Helen’s mother did the honors herself.
Everyone in the room oohed.
“My God, what a knockout,” Zelig muttered. Abe and Chaim Osher both
uttered, “Oy gevalt, oy gevalt, oy gevalt.” All three studied the great
“One of the women standing nearby whispered: “How gorgeous she is, in that blue chiffon.”
“Such tiny feet,” observed Reva.
“I wonder where she bought those shoes?” Byrdie whispered to Hanna.
“Look at your future husband, Helen,” Mrs. Dakowski whispered in Helen’s ear, “so handsome and elegant. I had no idea.”
“Oy Gevalt,” said Auntie Hinkie, standing next to Zelig, “a real
knockout. Zelig, vat you think? You’re gonna have a nice bride, eh?”
But Zelig, enraptured, couldn’t say anything at all.
“You should excuse me,” said Rabbi Schatzman, poking his head out from the salon. “First ve have to make the chuppah.”
“Everyone into the salon, please,” Patty ordered. “The Rabbi is waiting.”
“Sit down, sit down,” said Chaim Osher to the guests, pointing toward the semicircle of folding chairs.
“Who’s going to hold the chuppah?” asked the Rabbi. Ve need four strong men.”
Abe Gurwitz volunteered, snatching up Freddy along the way to where the Rabbi stood, holding the still folded prayer canopy.
“Are you thirteen years of age?” the Rabbi asked Freddy.
“You bet he is,” Abe lied.
“Okay, gentlemen,” said the Rabbi, “ve need von more mentch to hold up the chuppah.”
“Oy Gevalt,” said Hinkie. “We don’t have another man?”
“Maybe one of the women?” suggested Patty.
“Oy, Gevalt,” said Hinkie, slapping her forehead in horror.”
“Don’t worry,” said Chaim Osher. “”I’ll take care of this. Be right back.”
He dashed out the front door.
“Vot now?” said Hinkie.
Minutes later, Chaim Osher rushed back, bringing with him a nice looking man in his fifties.
“This gentleman, Mr. Mayer, my neighbor next door, will be kind enough
to hold the chuppah with us,” Chaim reported to the Rabbi.
“Are you Jewish?” the Rabbi asked the man.
“Good enough,” said the Rabbi. He unfolded the wedding canopy and handed each of the bearers a pole.
“Raise up de canopy, please, and bring the bride and the groom to the chuppah.”
Hinkie and Byrdie gently nudged the bride and groom under the white and blue cover where they faced the Rabbi.
“Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech HaOlam, Borai Pri HaGafen. Blessed
is the Lord who has created wine,” chanted the Rabbi in a soft and
“Baruch Ata Adonai, EloHayanu Melech HaOlam, she-HaCol Barah Lichvodo.
“Blessed is the Lord who has created all things for His glory.”
And the Rabbi continued in Hebrew: “Blessed is the Lord who has created all human beings.
“Blessed is the Lord, our God, who created human beings in His own
image, in his own likeness and who prepared for us a perpetual
relationship. Blessed is the Lord who created humanity.”
Zelig, standing under the canopy, gazed past his comely bride. He found
himself transported to another wedding, far in his past, a wedding in
Ostrolenka. He watched his mother, Rivka, and his father Yisroel, as
they stood around a chuppah in the cool night air. The perfume of the
autumn breezes wafted off the Narev River. Daniel and Haya stood
listening to the saintly Rabbi Burstein conducting the holy service. The
fragile wineglass broke. Daniel and Chaya, married. “Mazel tov,” they
“Zelig, for Christ sake, put it on her finger,” whispered Chaim Osher. Zelig fumbled for the golden ring.
“Blessed are you in this house of God,” continued the Rabbi Schatzman:
“Who is mightier over all?”
“Who is blessed over all?”
“Who is greater above all?”
“God almighty is blessed over all.”
“Blessed are the bridegroom and the bride.”
“Zelig, break the glass and kiss your wife,” whispered Chaim Osher.
“Mazel tov,” they all said, as Zelig regained his wits and stamped down hard, shattering the wineglass.
A few hours later, after the wedding guests had departed, and after
Helen had returned home to prepare for their honeymoon trip to Santa
Barbara, Zelig and Chaim Osher sat alone in the billiard room, sipping
“Well, it’s over, Chaimke. Thanks for everything. It went well, don’t
you think? Jesus, I had my doubts, at the beginning. It’s a good thing
you were able to find a fourth man for the Chuppah.”
“Chaim, who was the shmuck, anyway?”
“You don’t know who that was?”
“It was Mr. Mayer, from next door.”
“Mr. Metro Goldwyn Mayer.”
“Oy Gevalt,” said Zelig, “I should have asked him for a job.”
After the wedding, the couple climbed into Zelig’s roadster and started
up the coast for San Francisco. Zelig had decided not to tell Helen
about the loss of his job until after their honeymoon. Why cause Helen
to be unhappy on the first day of their marriage? They drove up the
beautiful coast highway in the direction of Santa Barbara to spend their
first night together in a romantic seaside hotel. As they drove north,
Helen leaned her head on Zelig’s shoulder and talked about their new
life together, about having children and about how they would bring the
rest of Zelig’s family over to America to share their good life--as soon
as economically feasible. Zelig decided to take advantage of Helen’s
apparent easygoing mood and go ahead with sharing his tsorus with her.
“Helen, I have to tell you something, my darling.”
“What is it, Zelig, my dear, my husband, my love?”
“ It’s just a little problem and, with your help, we can get over it.”
“Yes, together we can do anything. What is your little problemtchick, my Zelig?”
Zelig gulped and confessed: “I lost my job at the casino. The President
of Mexico decided that only Mexican nationals could work there. Mr.
Crofton gave me $500 dollars and sent me on my way.”
Her head jumped off his shoulder as if a Cossack on horseback had grabbed her by her lush red hair.
“What? You lost your job? And you went ahead and married me without telling me about it?”
Helen’s face turned as red as his mother’s borsht. Her eyes bulged out like a dragon.
“How could you do such a thing? You are a lying bastard, Zelig.” She
spit and shouted at Zelig at the same time. “Stop this car right now.
Right here at this gas station.” Zelig thought she was going to be sick,
so he pulled into the gas station. To his surprise, she jumped out,
grabbed her suitcase, and shook her fist at him.
“You are a gigolo, Zelig Chmiel, you shmuck! I thought you had a good
job and some money. Do you expect me to live without any security? To
make my living dusting other people’s furniture?”
Zelig got out of the car and tried to reason with her, but her face
reddened to the point where he feared she’d burst a blood vessel.
Helen waved down a taxicab and shoved her suitcase into the back seat.
As she got in, she yelled even louder, “Zelig, you bastard, you skunk.
I’ll have my brother-- the lawyer--get this marriage annulled. Gey in
drerd arayn--go into the earth and die,” she screamed.
In the early spring of 1933 Zelig showed up at Jeanne’s place of work on
Broadway and sat down, humbly, at her desk. Unsmilingly, Jeanne looked
him in the eye. “Well, if it isn’t the stranger. Mom and I were talking
about you just last night. What are you doing here, Zelig?”
“I came to apologize,” he gulped.
“Jeanne, I’m really sorry the way I treated you. You know about my marriage?”
“What about it?”
“I’m not married any more.”
“How long were you married for?”
“Just one day. And, not even all night—if you know what I mean.”
“That’s too bad. Better luck next time.”
Zelig got up and made a move toward the door.
“Where are you going so fast, Zelig?”
“You can’t just come barging into my life, say you’re sorry, and then
leave. What about my feelings? Have you thought about me at all? I loved
you, you jerk. And maybe I still do. I felt really bad when I heard
you’d lost your job in Agua Caliente. I know how you loved working in
the gambling house. Sure, I was angry when I heard about your marriage
and all. But the truth is, I never got over you. Not really. So, what
are we going to do about it?”
Dumbfounded, Zelig felt a surge of relief. He still had deep feelings
for Jeanne and had sensed, all along, that she was the right woman for
him. He walked back to her.
“I’m thinking about going into business with my brother Wolf. He’s
opening a store in La Ceiba—a city in Honduras. I won’t be leaving for a
month or so. Maybe, by then, I will have talked you into going with
“Where the hell is Honduras?”
“And in the meantime, you’re working?”
“Oh yes, I have a temporary job as a waiter in the Foreign Club. Would you be interested in dating me again?”
Jeanne beamed. “Darn right I would. Tell you what. Mom is making up a big Passover dinner for tomorrow night. Can you make it?”
“You bet,” said Zelig, fighting a tear in his eye.
“When do you plan to go to Honduras?”
“Probably April. My brother Abe is going along too.”
“I tell you what, Zelig. I just might go with you, you shmuck.”
Zelig arrived early at the house on Dale Street. He rang the bell and
Jeanne’s thirteen-year-old sister Gertrude opened the door.
“Hey Zelig, haven’t seen you in a coon’s age,” said Gertrude.
Jeanne charged out of the kitchen and embraced Zelig with all her might. She looked at Gert.
“Gertrude, What kind of talk is that, coon’s age? You have to be more polite. Zelig’s the honored guest at this Seder.”
“Gee, I thought the honored guest was Elijah the prophet,” Gertrude skipped back toward the kitchen.
“Sorry, I’m a little early,” said Zelig to Jeanne.
“The earlier the better,” said Jeanne.
Zelig embraced her and kissed her passionately.
At that moment Mrs. Shelley came out to the porch.
“Oy Zelig,” she commented, “so nize to see you again. Come inside, boychick, and you too, Jeanne.”
“I tell you vot,” said Mrs. Shelley rethinking her request, “Better de
two of you sit out on de porch. Maybe greet de guests ven dey come, ha?
But don’t sit too close to each other, OK?” She chuckled and went back
into the house, muttering, “love birds.”
Zelig and Jeanne looked at each other and giggled.
“Lee, Claire, Gertrude, go on mit setting the Seder table.
The three younger sisters obeyed, but not before snickering at the tender romance evolving outside.
They covered the long dining room table with a white cloth and
meticulously arranged the place settings. They moved Zaydie’s easy chair
to the head of the table.
“Phooey,” Lee said, as she positioned her grandfather’s old Passover armchair and pillow into its place.
“Can’t Mom get Zaydie a better throne?”
Claire shrugged. “He doesn’t want a new one,” said Claire. “He needs it
tonight because of the ‘reclining’ thing—y’know. He has to recline all
during the Seder.”
“I don’t know.”
Next, the sisters brought out the Hagaddas--the traditional prayer books--one for each of the guests.
When Mrs. Shelley came into the dining room to check on their progress,
the two girls had just finished laying out the Passover plates. “Girls,
hurry up mit the Seder table. You tink ve got all day?”
The three sisters moved on with their work, putting the best
candlesticks on the table, a wine cup for each member of the family, and
a special goblet for Elijah the prophet.
Claire brought out a pitcher of water and a small bowl. She placed them
on a little table next to the window where the men in the family would
perform their hand-washing ritual during the Seder. Lee carried out the
heavy, round Seder plate with its display of shank bones, roasted eggs,
horseradish, and the sweet Charoset—a delicious concoction of chopped
apples, cinnamon, nuts, and wine. On the table directly in front in of
Zaydie’s place, the girls arranged the embroidered napkins provided for
the rite of hiding of the Afikoman matzos, needed by the end of the
“Table’s ready, Ma,” Claire hollered.
Mrs. Shelley came out of the kitchen to inspect her daughters’ work.
“Ver’s Zaydie’s special Yarmulke?”
“On his head, Mom. We just saw him coming out of his room with it on.”
“Ho-kay,” said Grandma. “And Lee, tell Jeanne and Zelig to come in from
the porch.” With that, she marched back into the kitchen to taste the
In the meantime, Harry and Julia arrived in their old Chevy coupe.
Julia, a vegetarian, carried an enormous bowl of California fruit:
oranges, apples, pears, raisins, and dried dates.
The rest of the extended family, Anna Shelley’s two younger sisters,
Glicky and Eva, and their children, showed up on foot. They lived only a
few blocks away. The kitchen overflowed with female family members
while the men remained in the living room safe from the chitchat and the
fluttering about. Lee organized the place sitting:
Anna Klazkin Julia
Klazkin Harry Klazkin
Jeanne Klazkin Zelig Chmiel
Elijah the Prophet
Lee Klazkin Claire Klazkin
Aunt Eva Reisman (Anna’s sister) Julius Reisman
Harold Reisman Mildred Reisman
Aunt Glicka (Anna’s sister) Uncle Milton Rawdin
Irving Rawdin Gertrude Shelley
Zaydie took his place at the head of the table. The old man wore his
white kitel robe, according to tradition--the very same one that he
would wear when he died. Anna Shelley said the blessing over the
candles, weaving her fingers in the light, as daughters of Israel have
done through the ages.
Zaydie, holding the traditional wine cup in his hand, chanted the
Kiddush blessing in his old-world, Ashkenazi, Hebrew: “Baruch ato
Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha-oilom. Borai pri a gofen. (Blessed art thou, O
Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life and has
preserved us and enabled us to reach this season.)”
Everyone present said: “Amen.”
“Blessed are thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has chosen
us from all the peoples and exalted us above all nations and sanctified
us with thy commandment,” he continued in Hebrew.
All of the males of the family washed their hands as a ritual of purification.
“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us
in life and has preserved us and enabled us to reach this season,”
The Seder ritual continued with the four questions, chanted by
Gertrude—the youngest family member. She read from the Hagaddah:
“Wherefore is this night distinguished from all other nights? On all
other nights we may eat either leavened or unleavened bread, but on this
night--only unleavened bread; on all other nights we may eat any
species of herbs, but on this night--only bitter herbs; on all other
nights we do not dip even once, but on this night-- twice; on all other
nights, we eat and drink, either sitting down or leaning, but on this
night--we all lean.”
Gertrude sat down, her major task completed. She started fidgeting,
mumbling: “When is this night going to be over. I want to go out with my
The rest of the Seder ritual revolved around explaining four questions about the various symbols at the table.
At this point, Zelig lost interest in the ritual and focused on Jeanne,
sitting opposite him. What a beauty. What blue eyes. What a sweet smile.
Jeanne looked over at Zelig. This is the one I want. The hell with anybody else.
Grandpa Shelley sat quietly through the ritual. He had given up his
orthodox upbringing long ago, but enjoyed the long Passover ceremony--up
to a certain point, when his mind drifted on to more current events.
Every day, he had routinely read his two newspapers: The San Diego Sun,
and the Daily Forward—a Jewish Socialist newspaper in the Yiddish
Only a few days ago, he had read a speech by the Nazi Captain Goering,
the Minister of the Interior of Prussia, declaring: “The police are not a
defense squad for Jewish stores. They tell me that I should call on the
police to protect the Jews. Certainly I shall employ the police and
without mercy whenever German people are hurt, but I refuse to turn the
police into guards for Jewish stores. The nation is aroused. For years
past we have told the people, ‘You can settle accounts with the
traitors.’ We stand by our word. Accounts are being settled.”
Grandpa reflected: “Same old hate for Jews. What kind of a God allows this to happen?”
After the long Seder, after the great feast of traditional Jewish food,
after the last glass of sweet loganberry wine, after the last singing of
“Chad Gad Yo,” Zelig and Jeanne managed to find some privacy back out
on the front steps of the house in the darkness.
“You know, Jeanne, the whole adventure with the other woman happened
only because I was desperate to get into the United States so I could
begin bringing my family over from Poland. Abe talked me into marrying
this woman, but all the time I longed for you.”
“My Zelig,” said Jeanne, “I don’t care about all of that. I just want to be with you the rest of my life.”
“Want to marry me?” Zelig said to Jeanne.
“Why not,” she said. “I do love you, you big jerk.”
Zelig and Jeanne decided, on the spot, to get married in May, just as
soon as he returned from a trip to see his brother Wolf, in Honduras.
Since it would be a short trip for Zelig, Abe insisted on going along
too. He didn’t want to miss the fun. Things were moving fast!
“Too fast,” said her sister Lee. “Are you really going to do this? What if he doesn’t ever come back from Honduras?”
“I’ll go after him,” said Jeanne. “Nothing will get in my way.”
“Wait ‘til Mom hears about that.”
“Don’t care. I’ll be married to Zelig in May. You watch.”
WHY NOT HONDURAS?
A month later, Zelig and Abe were in La Ceiba, Honduras, busy helping
their brother Wolf set up shop for his new business. During a short
break, the three brothers retired to Jose Chinchilla’s Café for beers
and had a discussion about their respective futures.
“Nu, Zelig,” said Wolf. “What do you think about staying in La Ceiba with me?”
“I think I would like it,”
“But I’m engaged to be married to Jeanne next month.”
“Invite her down here,” suggested Wolf.
“Ah, she’d never come to live here. She’s an American girl, you know.
They’re not used to places like this. Too many mosquitoes and nowhere to
“What do you think, Abe?”
“I tell you the truth,” said Abe. “I couldn’t bring Anne down here.
She’s not so adventurous, you know--needs her comforts, and she doesn’t
speak Spanish like Jeanne does. Also our business is doing pretty well
in Los Angeles. No, I couldn’t do it. But Jeanne might, even though her
Mother--Mrs. Shelley--would try to stop her.”
“So?” said Zelig.
“Try it,” said Wolf. “I think we could make a lot of dinero down here.
Maybe later we could all move to the U.S. But I hear depression is very
bad up there, especially for new immigrants. Why don’t you send a letter
to Jeanne and see if she wants to get married down here. There’s no
Rabbi here, but we could hire Sandoval, the mayor, to do the ceremony.
And when Abe gets back to Los Angeles, he can soften Jeanne up, tell her
about how beautiful Honduras is and how rich you and I could become.
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” said Zelig.
1933: ZELIG AND WOLF
“Damn it. Hold the ladder straight.”
Zelig pounded another nail into the shaky roof of the Chmiel Hermanos
General store while Wolf balanced the old ladder. The temperature in La
Ceiba had soared to high nineties and the humidity, as usual, reached
one hundred percent.
“Damn it,” Zelig hit his thumb on the next nail stroke and immediately climbed down the ladder. “Too damn hot!”
“Let’s go get a beer,” suggested Wolf--the older, quieter, and thinner version of his brother Zelig.
The two brothers went over to the little bazaar on Calle Uno--facing La
Ceiba’s waterfront. They took a seat at the bar in Mr. Jose Chinchilla’s
café. Jose opened two icy beers and placed them on the wobbly card
Quietly sipping cerveza and enjoying the coldness of the bottles, they
took in the beauty of La Ceiba: parrots in the palm trees, peacocks
preening in entry courtyards, the gentle river running into the
Wolf talked of enjoying the fragrance of the tropical nights, especially
when shared with a certain comely Honduran girl. She had fine legs,
jet-black hair, and cinnamon-brown skin. He had told Zelig how he had
already embraced her once under a Ceiba tree and she’d had “Yes” in her
“Well, I hate to interrupt your daydreaming, but—I forgot to tell you earlier.
I got a letter from Abe. He had a good trip home. I hope he didn’t get angry with me for staying in La Ceiba.”
“You’re a big boy now, Zelig,” replied Wolf.
“Nu, Wolf, we better get back to fixing the damn roof. They say a storm is coming tonight.”
“You know, thinking about my Clementina, makes me think. … ” said Wolf,
indifferent to the supposed storm, “maybe I should marry her.”
“Papa would kill you,” said Zelig.
“He’s a long way from here,” said Wolf. And what are you going to do
about that woman in California? Will she also be angry with you because
you decided to stay here in La Ceiba? And will she want to come here?”
“She says she will.”
“What will she do here?”
“She’ll keep me warm.”
“You think it is ever cold here in Honduras? And if it does get cold, we
have plenty of hot women around here. Just look at that one going by.
Her name is Pepita.”
“Is she Jewish?”
“Of course not. But what’s wrong with a nice shiksa? Did you ever see legs like that on a Jewish girl?”
They both laughed.
“How about another beer, Zelig?”
“We should go back to work.”
“You haven’t gotten used to the Honduras style yet. What’s the hurry?”
“All right, one more beer.”
“What do you think your chances are of getting into the United States?” asked Wolf.
“Because of your girlfriend?”
“What do you think my chances are?”
“Do you like American girls?”
“I don’t know. What are they like?”
“I don’t like complicated women. I left one of those back in Poland.”
“Then you better not chase after an American girl, which wouldn’t happen here anyway.”
While hammering nails into the broiling roof of the Chmiel Hermanos
store, Zelig decided to set a date for Jeanne’s trip and their wedding.
He’d write to her that very night.
ON HER WAY TO HONDURAS
Jeanne left from Union Station, in Los Angeles. A mob of people met her
there to see her off: Mom; sister Lee and her latest boy friend Morrie;
young bratty Gertrude; Jeanne’s pals, Tillie and Flo; Zelig’s brother
Abe and his wife Hanna; Zelig’s cousin Byrdie; and Zelig’s Auntie
Hinkie. They were all there, most with mixed feelings about Jeanne’s
Mom: “She’s nuts, dis daughter of mine, running off to Honduras just
because Zelig sent a telegram. I like him, but he should come back to
Sen Diega to marry mine Jeanne. Keep the family together.”
Lee: “Oh how romantic! God, I wish I had the guts for such an adventure:
a handsome man, the tropics, getting away from San Diego. But, I’ll
probably end up with Morrie, or one of the other guys here in town. Mom
would never let me get away with it. But Jeanne is the eldest, she
always gets what she wants. Usually nice girls from San Diego don’t go
so far away from their parents, especially to primitive countries where
they don’t even speak English. And where is Honduras, anyway?”
Claire: “I’m going to find me a guy like that too. Hot damn.”
Gertie: “Hope she knows how to keep her knees together til Zelig
promises to marry her, but knowing Jeanne, she’ll probably be pregnant a
week after she gets to Honduras.”
Abe: “That rascal Zelig. He better make Jeannie an honest woman. And she
better bring him back to the USA, make him a citizen, and build a
future. No future down in Central America. I know. I’ve just been down
there. It’s a rat hole.”
Hanna: “Jeanne is really gullible. First, Zelig treats her like a rag.
Then he comes into her life like he owns it, and now asking her to join
him in a strange place with no promise of marriage—all very improper.”
Tillie: “Jeanne is a brave girl. I would never have the courage to travel all that way alone.”
Flo: “Who knows what’s in her path?”
Auntie Hinkie: “Oy Gevalt! Honduras, vat next?”
Determined, Jeanne sought out Zelig, her love, in far-off Honduras. She
had never ventured east yet--out of California, or south--except for
short forays to nearby Tijuana, Mexico. New Orleans, the first step on
her long odyssey, and her final stop in the United States, seemed a
world away from her home on Dale Street.
The Southern Pacific Railroad’s latest streamliner propelled her into
barren Arizona, through mysterious New Mexico, and on to the huge state
of Texas. Crossing into Louisiana, her freckled nose glued to the window
of the railroad car, she saw--for the first time--a land of abundant
water: broad rivers, marshes full of crocodiles (only in her
imagination), and finally the rain-soaked streets of New Orleans.
When the train station appeared, Jeanne descended into the arms of Rabbi
Bienstock, with his black overcoat and orthodox beard, the long arm of
Anna Shelley reaching out to somehow protect her daughter in such
foreign, goyishe, places.
“Ve haf been expecting you,” greeted the Rabbi, taking her by the arm.
“Velcome to Niu Orleans.”
She noted a whiff of the tropics in the air.
A porter brought Jeanne’s luggage and stowed it onto a waiting cab. The
Rabbi tipped him generously and climbed in next to Jeanne.
“Jung Hotel,” commanded the Rabbi.
He turned to Jeanne. “Your hotel iz only a few blocks away, so ve’ll be
there shortly. I vill escort you to the Registration Desk and den be on
mine vay. Let me know if you need somting.”
The bellhop took Jeanne to her second-floor room. It had a lovely view
of the Mississippi River. She unpacked and then headed for the lobby to
send her telegrams. The first to Zelig, over on the other side of the
Gulf of Mexico, said, “ In New Orleans…stop …Kisses Jeanne.” And the
second, to her mother: “Arrived safe…Jeanne.”
She had brought her diary with her on the trip and had conscientiously
continued her journaling. Every evening, she sat cross-legged atop the
bed and noted her reflections of each day’s events. One entry, dated
December 8, 1933, read:
Friday, up at 8:30, breakfasted and wrote two letters, helped clean
shrimps for gumbo. Met Madeline—my new friend at the Jewish
Temple--after she returned from school--ate gumbo till couldn’t hold
anymore. Temple at night. Hope the Rabbi doesn’t find out I ate shrimp.
After two extra delays due to storms on the Gulf of Mexico, on December
17, 1933, Jeanne said goodbye to her friend Madeline, the Rabbi and his
wife.. The banana boat to Honduras sailed at noon with room for only
“A nice group,” said Jeanne in her diary, “I sang for them to the accompaniment of two guitars, to bed about 12 p.m.”
December 18, 1933: I feel kind of dizzy--pretty rough water--had
breakfast and lunch in bed--got up for dinner. Played cards with George
December 19, 1933: Feel OK--George has been playing his guitar and we
sing and have a nice time--like this boat even though it is small--what a
beautiful moon. George held my hand and kissed me. But of course, it
was only an innocent kiss. To bed about 2 am.
December 20, 1933: Won’t be in La Ceiba till tomorrow. Took snaps on
board---danced with Billy. The Spanish fellow played his guitar.
DECEMBER 20, 1933, OSTROLENKA: TALKING ABOUT THE EXODUS
In spite of the zero degree cold, Yisroel and his son Daniel took a
shpatziren, a thoughtful walk, along the edge of the river. Yearly, the
frozen Narev River became a vast skating rink for the good citizens of
Ostrolenka but, on this day, only fallen leaves skirted the empty ice.
The two Chmiels walked alongside each other, in mourning.
Hanche, the youngest Chmiel sister, had emigrated to America.
Each month more Jews left the town. Shops closed, never to reopen.
Parents kissed their children goodbye, and husbands departed, swearing
to bring their spouses to America--to Argentina, or to Uruguay: “Give me
a year until I make enough money to come back and get you.”
Among the younger generation of Chmiels, Abe had long ago departed.
Zelig and Wolf lived in Honduras, and Hanche had now gone to Washington,
D.C., with her new husband. This left only Blüme and Daniel to linger
in Poland--she in Warsaw with her husband and Daniel in Ostrolenka.
“Nu, what will be? What will be?” asked Yisroel.
“I don’t know, Papa, only God knows.”
“Leftkovich is gone. Cousin Rachel is gone, Finkeshtien, Velozni--all of
them--to the Holy Land. Mordecai Alterman is in America, Tsukerman and
the Gedankes in Brazil. The Exodus from Egypt.”
They strolled on, past the fish market, past the bridge leading over the
river, and down the boulevard, hands clasped behind their backs,
thoughtful, thinking about the past and the uncertain future, their
tracks embedded in the snow.
“And what do you think of our ‘wonderful’ Polish government,” asked
Daniel. “Have you talked to your friend Marshal Pilsudski, lately?”
“Oy,” said Yisroel, “Perhaps he’s still a good man at heart, Daniel,
perhaps he is not yet corrupt like the others, but it doesn’t matter
anymore. He’s an old man, sick, hiding from public life. They say he has
a cancer. There is nothing left of him, poor man.”
“And when he goes?”
“The Colonels will take over,” Papa said. “Even now, most of his cabinet
are soldiers, and all of the government is run by Jew haters and
“So what do we do, Papa? Ask Abe, Wolf or Zelig to bring us to
America? And even if we could do this, what would our life be like in
Honduras or California? We don’t speak the language. There is no Jewish
life for us there and probably no kosher food. What would we eat? For my
brothers, it’s not a problem, but for us, since we still keep the laws
of the Torah, how could we exist?”
“Good question,” said Yisroel Chmiel.
“Perhaps we could go to the Holy Land, to Palestine, Papa.”
“We could, but there is great turmoil there too.”
“Papa, maybe there is no good solution, but we’ve got to consider what
staying here might be like. Our German neighbors now have a fascist
maniac as their leader, and the Poles are leaning that way as well. It
can only get worse.”
“Maybe the Messiah will come in the meantime.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“No I don’t, my son. You’re right, we’ve got to start thinking seriously about leaving.”
“But Papa, you must know one thing. My wife and I will never leave without you and Mama. I promise you that.”
“Daniel, my son, it’s getting very cold here.” Yisroel pulled the side
flaps down from his cap to warm his ears. “Let’s go to my house and
have a schnapps and some fresh herring together--good? And let’s not
bother your Mama too much about what we have been talking about.”
“All right, Papa, whatever you say.”
CARMEN AND MARIA
Business had its ups and downs in La Ceiba--caused by fluctuations in
the fruit market, the bloodshed of the military revolutions, and newly
imported plant diseases. The entire north coast of the nation had become
a North American colony owned by the Standard and United Fruit
Companies. Once slumberous villages found themselves quickly converted
into bustling port cities. These new happenings transformed jungle and
brush into plantations. Progress hovered in the tropical air. But,
unfortunately for most of the Hondureños, the benefits went to rich
capitalists in New York rather than to the desperately poor natives.
Along with the American entrepreneurs and the Honduran peasants a small
sprinkling of foreigners crept into the port cities. Palestinian Arabs,
Eastern European Jews, Lebanese, and Chinese--all looked for safe refuge
from persecution and a chance to make a living. Earlier in the century
they would have followed Emma Lazarus’s “Tired Poor and Huddled Masses”
knocking on the door to the United States. But for now, as for the last
seven years, the Depression had shut the doors. In Honduras, the gates
remained open to the needed skills of strangers—at least when the banana
market fared well.
“Did you hear about Wolf’s brother?” asked María.
“What did he do now?” said Carmen--who knew Zelig only too well.
“He’s going to get married.”
“Married? He has been here only a few months and he’s already ‘married’ to half of the women in La Ceiba.”
The two women tittered as they sat on a bench in Parque Bonilla, enjoying the late-afternoon breezes.
“Look,” said María, “here he comes now--that Zelig, walking with Pepita, his latest one.”
“Where’s he going with her?”
“His usual place, over by the river.”
“Look at the shoes that puta wears--those high heels, I wish I had a
pair like that. But I don’t have a rich Mexicano like Zelig to buy them
for me,” pouted Carmen.
“Don’t worry, she paid a price for them.”
“When are they getting married?”
“Pues María! He’s not going to marry Pepita. He’s bringing a norteamericana--una Judia from California.”
“Because he is a Judio, a Jew you know,” (she crossed herself).” Those kind only marry among themselves.”
“When is the wedding?” asked Carmen.
“Pues, she’s already here in La Ceiba?”
“No, no, she’s coming in on the afternoon ship.”
“No me diga! She’s getting off the ship and putting the ring on at the
same time? These people are crazy. What kind of a woman can she be?”
“It’s the truth, I tell you, Carmen, Señor Wolf’s girlfriend,
Clementina, arranged it all. She knows Zelig and how he is with women.
She made Wolf promise to arrange the wedding muy pronto, otherwise
Zelig, in no time at all, would be hunting around for his other loves
and shaming this poor little Judia. You don’t know Zelig, but I do.”
THE WEDDING IN LA CEIBA
Jeanne received a rousing welcome at the La Ceiba wharf. She gave a
hearty handshake to George and then hurried down the gangplank into
“I’ve missed you so much,” she said, eyes filled with tears.
Zelig kissed Jeanne unabashedly, and the dockworkers, already busy at
loading bananas onto the ship, clapped and cheered at the spectacle.
“Jeanne, this is my brother Wolf.”
“A pleasure,” said Wolf.
Jeanne gently hugged her brother-in-law to be, bestowing a trace of
April Violets perfume on his cheek. “I’m delighted to meet you, Wolf.
You sure do look like Abe. A bit older and a little thinner perhaps, and
darker. You must get out in the sun a lot. Nice tan.”
Wolf’s limited English vocabulary seemed to hinder his comprehension of
Jeanne’s greeting, but in response he gently placed a bouquet of pink
orchids into her palms.
Carmen and Maria stood at a distance, blushing and staring at the sleek,
busty, freckled woman who smooched Zelig again and again in full view
of the port workers.
“Right in front of the whole city of La Ceiba,” said Carmen in disgust.
That same evening, Zelig and Jeanne were married, and what a night it was!
Jeanne’s Diary: December 22, 1933: My ring is beautiful. Yellow gold! I
was married tonight. We had a nice crowd over. Had a beautiful
cake—sandwiches, and liquor. Everybody felt good. The mayor was there
too. After the party we went to the park and drank with friends. All of
Zelig’s friends were yelling out in the streets: vivan Zelig y Jeanne.
Had a look at the marriage document, all in Spanish, of course. And
decided to have it translated and then I’d save it here, in my diary.
Acta Macta Matrimonial
“In the city of La Ceiba on the twenty-second day of the month of
December in the year one thousand nineteen hundred and thirty-three, I,
Señor Livio Bartoli Sandoval, the Alcalde municipal of this city and its
environs has established that at the eighth hour of the night, at the
habitation of Señor Zelek Chmiel situated on Seventh Avenue, between
Republica Street and San Isidro, in the city of La Ceiba, with the
objective of celebrating the civil marriage of Zelek Chmiel and Jennie
Klazkin, the first of age twenty-seven years, bachelor, merchant,
native of Ostrolenka, Poland--at present a citizen of Mexico--
legitimate son of Srul Chmiel and of Rywka Chmiel--at present residents
of Ostrolenka, Poland--and the second, of twenty-six years of age,
unmarried woman, bookkeeper, native of San Francisco, California,
USA--legitimate daughter of Theodore Klazkin, deceased--stepdaughter of
George Shelley residing in San Diego, the State of California, United
States of America, have petitioned this community through the Secretary,
according to the reading of Articles 97, 98, and 99 of the civil code,
to undergo the act of matrimony. If this is your desire, I declare the
two of you in a state of matrimony under the law, as testified by these
gentlemen: Don Rodolfo Glaser, married, Don Ernesto España, divorced.
All gentlemen of legal age and of this community, with all the
signatories authorized under this agreement--Livio Bártoli, Zelek
Chmiel, Jennie Klaskin, R. Glaser, E. España, Rafael Carias Herrera.
Saturday, December 24, 1933:
Today, we went to the dance at the men’s hall. Wore my green formal. Had
a keen time--four highballs. Zelig gave me his gold wristwatch. Danced
with Zelig’s friend. I got kind of dizzy and Zelig dropped me home. Fell
Sunday, December 25, 1933:
Went down to the boats and saw them load bananas. They sure look
beautiful. They are so green and fresh. Then we went to the beach. The
water is so warm. Went to the park at night. Walked a blue streak. Went
up to the Club Ceibaño. Some music--like a jungle band. Back to the
park. Had wine.
January 7, 1934:
Got up at 10:30. Bathed and had breakfast. Went to the beach. Shot dice
and went bathing. Came back and had dinner. Went to the beach at night
with Oscar. Listened to a fellow play mandolin and another fellow sing.
January 14, 1934:
Got up at eight. Feel pretty weak. Had breakfast and came home and
straightened up a little. Played cards with Zelig and had a fight with
January 20, 1934:
Up at nine. Ate across the street. Went to dance and had a keen time.
Wore my velvet dress. Only danced about four dances with Zelig. Met some
nice tourists from New York. Had about six highballs. Home at 2:30am.
January 24, 1934:
Made borscht today.
A LETTER TO SISTER, LEE
MERCADERIAS EN GENERAL
LA CEIBA, HONDURAS, C.A.
May 3, 1934
We received your letter yesterday. It took seventeen days to get here and then it came thru Tela.
Zelig and I went to the dance at the mess hall on Saturday. We met some
tourists from New York (Jewish) and they sure were nice. They looked
wealthy. We got home about two thirty. We borrowed this typewriter from
the people next door. I’ve almost forgotten how to type. We have a
kitchen now and do we have fun trying to think of what to cook. Zelig
helps me cook and wipes the dishes and cleans the pots for me!!!
Tell your friend Lou not to think that there is a gold mine here in
Honduras. Business is very bad here. In good times there is money to be
made, but not now. Wolf and Oscar, the rug merchant next door, left this
morning for the countryside to try and sell some merchandise.
We have electricity but no gas. Our stove is a kerosene stove, but it
looks like the gas stoves in the States. It cooks well, but awfully
fast, and you have to watch things. We’re having fried potatoes,
hamburger steaks, salad, and tea for lunch. We had chicken soup
yesterday. We had the chicken picked and cleaned at the market. The lady
next door roasted some corn and gave me an ear, and was it good!
Zelig has a little shagits (gentile) that he is a godfather to--that is,
he feels like one to him. The poor kid hasn’t any parents and sleeps
out on the beach, so we give him something to eat whenever he comes
around, and sometimes Zelig goes out to look for him. He really is a
cute kid and it does your heart good to see him eat. The boy said
yesterday that he never in his whole life ate such chicken soup before.
Zelig wants to buy a dog—so I guess we’ll have one soon. We have a nice
cat-- named Shunra. Zelig likes that name because of his cat in the old
I don’t know if there will be a dance this weekend as the boat isn’t in
yet. I wore my velvet dress to the last one and got a lot of comps on
it. Guess I’ll wear the grey one to the next dance and the white to the
next and then I’ll have to start all over again. I only got to dance
three or four dances with Zelig at the last time because the other girls
cut in. And there are good-looking girls here. So here I am in Honduras
with my darling and I am very happy. I hope the coming years of our
married life will be as happy as the first few weeks!
Lots of love,
MAY 4, 1934: A LETTER FROM POLAND
Jeanne walked to work with Zelig and then headed for the La Ceiba Post
Office, only a few blocks away, to see if any mail had arrived.
The postmaster, Carlos, greeted Jeanne with a huge smile on his face.
“Buenos Dias, Senora Chmiel.”
“Buenos Dias, Señor Lopez. “Cómo está usted?”
Continuing in Spanish, Jeanne asked, “Any mail for us, Señor?
“Not so much as usual for you, Señora. Only one letter, but with an
interesting estampilla (a stamp) this time. I believe it is from the
country of Polonia.
“Oh, how wonderful, my husband will be very happy. It is probably from his family.” She loved talking to the postmaster.
She hurried back to the Chmiel Hermanos Store. On the way she bumped into Carmen.
“Buenos dias, Señora Chmiel”
“Buenos dias, Señorita Carmen. How are you?”
“Very good and you?”
“And how is Señor Zelig?”
“Very good” (I need to get going).
“And your health?”
“Good, Señora, very good. Just a little tired.”
“Tired? Oh Señora, we know that you are not so used to our weather here.
You must stay at home on days like this. It is too hot for someone like
you. You must take care of yourself.”
“Oh, but I do need a little exercise,” said Jeanne, wanting to get out
of the conversation and over to the tienda, and realizing she had made a
mistake talking to Carmen on the street. However, it would not be
polite to rush off.
“The heat is not so different from where I used to live in California.
It’s just that I’ve had a little cramping. Maybe I’m not used to the
food yet. Anyway, Señorita, please excuse me, my husband is waiting for
me in the store. I have a letter for him from his parents—a letter from
“Pues” of course,” said Carmen, “I understand. Very nice to see you again, Señora.”
“Hasta luego,”” said Jeanne politely.
Jeanne hurried to the store, almost tripping over a stray mutt, who
seemed to have settled for the day under the shade of a jacaranda tree.
She found Zelig inside, up on a ladder, trying to replace a burnt-out
light bulb. But even on tiptoes he couldn’t reach the outlet.
“Goddamn it,” he muttered.
“Zelig, come down. Here’s a letter from Poland. Maybe it’s from your parents.”
Zelig hurried down the ladder and in a second had the envelope in his
hands. The postage stamps pictured two stark-blue portraits of the
Polish hero, Jan Sobiesky, busily slaughtering the Turks at the Battle
“Yes, it’s from Ostrolenka, all right,” he said.
Zelig’s stubby fingers struggled to tear the letter open without ripping
its contents. His father’s Yiddish handwriting appeared. Zelig spread
the letter out on the counter next to the cash register.
“Call Wolf,” he muttered to Jeanne.
Jeanne dashed out toward Wolf’s house over on Calle Once, again narrowly missing the sleeping dog.
Ostrolenka, April 2, 1934:
My dear sons, Wolf and Zelig,
Many months I have not heard from you or your families. Your mother and I
are very worried about you living in such a dangerous place as
Honduras. We read in the Warsaw newspapers about a revolution going on
in Honduras, all the time fighting and shooting. Also we are afraid for
you because of the snakes and wild animals and other such dangers.
Mother Rivka is healthy, thank God, with only a little grippe last
winter, but now fine. Daniel and his family are fine, as well. Blüme and
her husband are making a living in Warsaw but their gesheft--their
business--is not so good. Maybe it will get better.
Here in Ostrolenka, the situation is bad, but better than in times
before. Our President Pilsudski still gives us Jews some protection
against our enemies. But the problem is that he is very old and very
sick. When he dies, God forbid, we do not know what will happen. The
Colonels who will rule after him hate our people. And now, the little
crazy man and his friends next door to us in Germany begin to persecute
their Jews with great brutality. And some of the Poles side with the
maniac. It is a horror.
How is your bride, Jeanne, getting along in Honduras? Does she miss her
mother and the rest of the family in the United States? Please take good
care of her.
Please write to us--our two grown-up boys, and Jeanne. Wolf, how is your
gesheft? Have you found any nice Jewish girls in Honduras? We are
worried about the three of you. Your parents,
Yisroel and Rivka.
MERCADERIAS EN GENERAL
LA CEIBA, HONDURAS, C.A.
May 8, 1934
Everything is fine down here in La Republica de Honduras. It’s been
raining hard all day. I’m still running around trying to get papers
organized for Zelig, in case we decide to return to the United States.
Went to see the American Counsel about Zelig’s entrance to the
U.S.—everything is okay with them now that we are married.
Talked to a banana boat captain who said that we should head for
Galveston, Texas--less problem with immigration. A ship’s captain we
know is friends with a few of the officials who work in the Galveston
customs house. Zelig’s brother Wolf left for San Pedro Sula to sell some
merchandise. Sure hope he returns with some cash. Business is terrible.
We received a letter from Zelig’s folks, at last! Things don’t sound
too good there. Bought a colander. Had a fight with Zelig and then made
up. Last night I went to bed about seven because I felt punk. Maybe it’s
a baby? Oh, yeah, Zelig bought a parrot today. How are things in San
Diego? Sisters? Harry? My old boy friends?
MERCADERIAS EN GENERAL
LA CEIBA, HONDURAS, C.A.
May 15, 1934:
Wolf came back from his trip. Didn’t sell hardly anything and left
merchandise in San Pedro Sula. Why? We don’t know. I went to the
hospital for a checkup. The doctor told me that I have malaria and gave
me some medicine. Well, why not, almost everyone else down here has it
too. I also got medication for my bloodsucking sand-fly bites. What a
life! After the hospital, went to the dance--stayed until three a.m.
Danced every dance-- one dance with three cuts.
MALARIA AND SAND FLIES
“Oy Gevalt, malaria!” Anna Shelley lamented to her youngest daughter,
Claire. “Ain’t it enough ve lost your fader from tuberculosis? And now,
mine Jeannie has malaria und send flies—vat are send flies, anyvay?”
“But, Mom, didn’t you read the rest of her letter? She went out dancing the same night.”
“Well, what can we do about it from here, Mom?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll have to figure something out. Oy, dat Zelig
better bring my Jeanne back here from Honduras, right avay. Yeah, I got
an idea. Ve go to Vestern Union and tell Jeanne to come home. Call Pop.”
Claire complied. “Pop!”
Her stepfather answered from his rocking chair on the front porch of the house on Dale Street, “What?”
George Shelley put down his newspaper and entered the front room. “What’s going on, Anna?” he asked calmly.
“Ve gotta go to Vestern Union right away. Ve send a telegram. Come
inside,” commanded Mrs. Shelley. “It’s Jeanne. She has malaria. Ve got
to bring her home.”
“But she’s in Honduras.”
“Don’t matter. You better go to Vestern Union and tell her to come back, right avay.”
The look in his wife’s eye gave him no choice.
“All right, Anna, I’m going.”
The old man took his cane and headed for the post office on 30th Street.
On the way, he thought about the chances of his stepdaughter in far off
Honduras dutifully coming home.
“Not Jeanne,” he said to himself. “She’s as stubborn as her mother.”
MERCADERIAS EŃ GENERAL
LA CEIBA, HONDURAS, C.A.
June 15, 1934
Last night we left for a trip to Tela to watch a soccerball game between
Tela and La Ceiba--what a riot. We went on the banana train, packed
like sardines. Steaming hot in Tela and thousands of Hondureños swarming
like bees in the station. Tela won the game, ten to nothing and the La
Ceiba fans were furious. We went to a dance and it was jammed. On the
way back, some guys started shooting--probably drunk. Zelig and I hit
the floor, just like in a cowboy movie. Soccerball riots are nothing new
in this country. Sometimes revolutions start just because the losing
team gets pissed. When we changed trains it started to rain torrents and
we were all soaked to the skin. Got home at 5:15 in the morning!
Juanita, the salesgirl, clashed with Zelig—and he fired her. Had to
stay in the darn store all day. Went to bed early. Wrote letters. Hope
Mom didn’t have too much of a fit when I refused to come home. I love it
here, and I’m staying here until Zelig decides that we leave.
MERCADERIAS EN GENERAL
LA CEIBA, HONDURAS, C.A.
September 4, 1934
Dear Mom, Harry, Lee, Clara, Gertie and all the ships at sea:
Sorry we haven’t written for a long time. We stayed at a hotel in Tela
(another soccer ball adventure). There was a colored people’s dance here
in the hotel, and we watched the fun. Couldn’t sleep all night on
account of the racket--dance lasted until four a.m., and the drunks
afterwards lasted until about five a.m. My nerves bothered me in the
morning from taking so much quinine. On the way back to La Ceiba we saw a
dead man who was shot on the train. First dead man I ever saw. He took
three bullets. I guess you have to get used to this kind of violence.
Got home. Went to see Broadway to Hollywood at the club.
September 18, 1934:
Sister Lee’s wedding day today in San Diego. It’s four 0’clock. She’s
probably getting married as I write this. I shed a few tears. Really, I
don’t know why, as this is the happiest day in her life. Put on my best
outfit, the black skirt and the white blouse--even earrings! Had a
bottle of sauterne at dinner. I drank three-fourths of it myself.
Finished reading Of Human Bondage.
September 22, 1934
Right on time! Had to go to the commissary for Kotex and they were out,
so had to go to the hospital and was it hot! Had to pay a dollar a dozen
for them and luckily they sold them to me. Nine months married today!
Cleaned rooms. Checked laundry. Read. Went to movie at the club and saw
The Fire Chief and was it punk! Came home and a little dog followed me.
No one claimed it, so we took it in the house and let it sleep inside.
It’s a real cute dog—brown with a white collar but no name. Looked well
groomed—an anniversary gift. But dogs come and go in this town.
October 7, 1934:
We’re thinking about our trip back to San Diego. We might take a bus
from Galveston, Texas. Have travel itch. Still raining. Bathed Lady, the
dog. Zelig gave Lady a sock to play with and the two of them went to
the commissary for groceries. Lady tore Zelig’s shirt to pieces. I’m
going to fix both of them some day! Big dance at the club tonight. The
dog is sick so we gave her castor oil. Zelig bought a flock of puros and
we both had a smoke. Lots of rain. It won’t be long now until we’ll be
sailing home. We’ll pass the dog on to the neighbor.
October 16, 1934:
Sure anxious to leave. Leaving on Thursday. Going to surprise Mom and
the rest, and we will not tell them when we are coming. Don’t know
exactly anyway, as we are planning to stay a day or two in Houston. Sure
will be fun. Not going to buy a car--it’s cheaper by bus. Sister Lee
married almost a month now.
October 23, 1934:
Went on board the Santa Marta. Sure some boat. Bought some Milky Ways. Did some packing. Buying tickets mañana.
October 24, 1934:
Boat came in this a.m. Bought our tickets and went aboard. Not very big
boat but it should get us there. Think we’ll be the only passengers. Got
everything ready to leave. Went to hospital--Zelig had an examination
and a vaccination.
October 25, 1934:
Packed all morning. Zelig has a bad foot. Soaked it, but it’s pretty
bad. Said goodbye to everyone. Room is very nice and the officers are
too. Pulled out at one-thirty. Zelig and I both watched the lights fade
out. Adios, Honduras!
October 27, 1934:
Well, it’s a lot rougher than my last sea voyage; and we both are lousy
sailors but we managed to eat salami sandwiches and drink tea.
October 29, 1934:
At Galveston at six o’clock--off boat and through customs. Bought
tickets to California. Had permanent wave. Took the two o’clock
interurban to Houston. Checked in at the Milby Hotel. Shopped! Bought a
dress, two pairs of shoes and stockings, and two hats. Zelig got an
overcoat. Had supper in the Jewish restaurant. Went to see Six Day Bike
Race--rotten! To bed about ten.
November 1, 1934:
Changed trains at Yuma and we went through El Centro. Got into San Diego
at eight-thirty a.m. and phoned Mom. Was she surprised! She came for us
at the depot. Got cleaned up and phoned a lot of people. Tilly and I
went to town (Zelig went in the a.m.). Saw almost everyone. My head’s
going round and round. Zelig had chills so put him to bed. Ev, Helen and
Flo over, also Ruth and Harry. Sure good to be home. To bed at nine.
We’ll be moving to Auntie Eva’s house in a few days where there is more
room for Zelig and me.
Back in San Diego, Zelig borrowed brother-in-law Harry’s Ford and headed
south across the border to Tijuana to visit his old pals from his
casino days. First, he visited Mr. Crofton, still owner of the Agua
“Zelig, what a surprise!” He bounced out of his armchair and shook hands.
“Hello Mr. Crofton.”
“Sit down, my boy, sit down! I just heard you were back from Honduras.”
“Oh? From where?”
“News travels fast around San Diego, you know. Actually, I bumped into a
friend of mine in the shoe department of Marston’s yesterday, and he
told me that you had just arrived. How was business down in La Ceiba?”
“And how did you know I was there?”
“Oh, that’s just how little San Diego is--you know. My cousin Henry has some
stock in a banana boat, and he mentioned that he ran into you down there.”
“Business was not so good.”
“Yes, well it’s not good anywhere these days. I don’t know if you’ve
heard yet, but we might even have to close down Agua Caliente.”
“It’s the damn government again. President Cardenas is really putting
the screws on us. First, he made us fire all you people who weren’t
native Mexicans; now he wants to get rid of the casino altogether. Shit!
Anyway, Zelig, I do have some good news for you.”
“For me, Mr. Crofton?”
“Yes, for you. Maybe you remember that you bought some of our Agua
Caliente stock just before you left us? Well, we’ve just declared a
dividend and guess what? You earned fifteen dollars! Welcome home! You
can pick it up down in the cashier’s office.”
“Thanks a lot, Mr. Crofton.”
“Don’t thank me, Zelig, and you better cash in that stock as soon as you
can. There won’t be a hell of a lot more dividends, methinks.”
Zelig hurried out to pick up his dividend before looking up some of his pals. Next stop--the Molino Rojo.
“Hey, Zelig,” a familiar voice shouted from an area next to the bar.
Zelig recognized Zach Jones, previously the floor manager of the Agua
Caliente gambling hall. Mr. Jones appeared thoroughly loaded.
“How are you, Mr. Jones?”
“Out of a job.”
“I’m out of a job, too.”
“Great, how about a drink?” Jones waved the bartender over.
Zelig remembered Jones’s temper from the old days at the casino.
“No, thanks, Mr. Jones, just looking around for some of my old compadres.”
“Well, they ain’t here,” said Jones--disgruntled and soused. “They’re
all goddamn gone, all the old buddies, out of a job. No damn gambling
house. No damn money.”
Zelig walked away, “See you later, Mr. Jones.”
As Zel left, he heard Jones scowl to himself: “God damn kike, never
trusted him anyway. Stole that fat wallet from me, damn him. Gave it to
that bastard Crofton. Ass licker!”
Zelig drove Harry’s Ford over to Avenida Revolucion and parked in front
of Rabinowitz’s barbershop. Although his name still appeared on the sign
in the window, Rabinowitz apparently had sold out his business. The
present barber, a Mexicano, worked amidst wonderful odors of frijoles
that wafted from the back room, Zelig’s stomach growled.
“Por favor, donde esta Señor Rabinowitz hoy?” (Where is Mr. Rabinowitz today?)
“No está aquí, Señor.”
“Está en la casa?”
“No, no Señor, esta en el otro lado. Vive en San Diego ahora.” (He’s not here. He lives over on the other side, in San Diego).
“My God, everything is changing down here, and I’m gone only a year,” said Zelig with a heavy heart.
“Si, Señor” said the barber.
Zelig drove back to San Diego. Jeanne greeted him at the door of Auntie Eva’s house.
“Guess what?” said Zelig, “I got a dividend from Agua Caliente. Fifteen dollars!” He waved the check at Jeanne.
“And guess what? Jeanne responded. “We’ve both got jobs.”
They entered the house and sat down on Auntie Eva’s overstuffed couch.
“Mr. Krychiefski offered each of us a job.”
“Who is he?”
“Oh, he’s an old man who’s about to retire from his business. We might be able to get in on the ground floor of his operation.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“When we were kids, we lived down the block from him, over on Sixteenth
Street. That was during the time when my father died, and we were really
poor. His family used to help us out a lot.”
“And what kind of business does this Krychiefsky do?”
“Yeah, I know it’s not our piece of cake. But it’s better than nothing,
in this depression. You get to do collections in Tijuana and I’ll do the
bookkeeping in Krychiefsky’s store. We start next week, but we have to
buy a car first. Your dividend will make a good start.”
“Goddam it,” Zelig thought, “you have to have a heart of stone to work
in the collections business. But what to do? Jobs are really scarce.”
He said aloud, “OK, I’ll try it.” But he did not feel very enthusiastic.
A few days later Zelig, with big help from Mom and Mr. Shelley,
purchased a 1931 Chevy. No problem in choosing the right car. Jeanne’s
brother, Harry, knew every car in San Diego and its worth. The Chevy had
been repossessed from a once-affluent businessman. Jeanne and Zelig
started work the next day.
After the first week of collections down in Tijuana, Zelig began having
more trouble with his foot. An infection had nagged him since La Ceiba.
Jeanne took him over to the family doctor a few blocks away from Auntie
Eva’s, and the doctor told him to stay off his feet for a couple days.
When he returned to work, Krychiefsky announced that he had found
another man to do collections, so, Zelig lost his first job in America. A
few days later, Krychiefsky decided that Jeanne was too sassy for him
and he fired her too. Undaunted, she walked into the Holzwasser’s
department store and got hired on the spot.
MISSION BELL MARKET
Several months later, Zelig and Anna Shelley sat at the breakfast table enjoying
their gefilte fish and horseradish. Old Mr. Shelley slept soundly in the
back bedroom. By then, Jeanne had boarded the number-two streetcar for
her trip downtown to Holzwasser’s Department Store.
“Zelig, I haff a proposition for you.”
“I’m all ears,” said Zelig.
“Vel, you know I’m not so young as I used to be. Efter all, I’m now
almost fifty years old. Tank God, mit Mr. Shelley I don’t have to vork
too hard. And I vant to make more time for my charity vork--mine TB
vork--you know the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association. Also--mine
Zionist vork. Maybe it’s time that I stop vorking so much in the store.”
“So maybe you should go to vork our little store downtown mit your brother-in-law Joe. Vot you tink?”
“That’s very generous of you, Mom, but would it be all right with Joe?”
“I tink so. He’s a good man, vorks hard. The two of you should be OK. Vy
don’t you start tomorrow? You can be partners in the store.”
“Why not,” said Zelig, pleased at getting any job after almost a year of unemployment.
The next day he reported for work at the Mission Bell Market at Eighth
and “B” Streets in downtown San Diego. His brother-in law, Joe
Kaplan--Claire’s husband--initiated Zelig into the art of running the
“Keep your eye on the cash register,” warned Joe. “You have to be tough
about giving credit. Lots of hungry people around the neighborhood.
Don’t be too soft. Look out for the damn kids by the candy counter and
the little old ladies squeezing the produce. You got to especially watch
the San Diego High School kids, after school. They steal like bandits. I
like to pick the produce up real early so we get the best stuff. You
can come in around eight and work till five. Then Mom and I will take
care of the evening shift. That OK with you?”
“OK by me.”
“And Zelig, grocery work gets pretty dirty. No offense, but you better
get rid of that double-breasted coat and elegant tie. Tell you what.
I’ve got a camera in the back room and I’ll take a picture of you out in
front of the store in your fancy clothes. That way you can show the
folks back home, how you’re in business. Then you can get into something
more comfortable like a work shirt and the green apron over there.”
Zelig, a little embarassed, posed in front of Mission Bell Market--a rack of Nestle candy bars and LifeSavers in the background.
“Click” went the Kodak, and Zelig began the rest of his working life as a
grocer, liquor and wine merchant, and local man about town.
Life had improved for Zelig and Jeanne in 1935. The city fathers, in
their wisdom, promoted a California Pacific Exposition, drawing
thousands of tourists, creating demand for workers in the many exhibits.
Jeanne changed jobs again, finding work cashiering at the San Diego
version of Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theatre--part of the palm-lined prado
of the Exposition Grounds.
Zelig drove her to work daily, in his Ford, dropping her off in front of
the lofty California Bell Tower. They had moved to a modest bungalow in
North Park only a few blocks away from Mom and within walking distance
to her sisters and her aunts.
Zelig reached his twenty-seventh birthday on April 28, 1935. Joe Kaplan
decided to go into the automobile business, and Zelig became the sole
manager of Mission Bell Market.
During slow times in the store, Zelig stood out on the sidewalk,
stubbornly donning a suit. He would chew on a Cuban cigar, while
watching passers-by, noting especially the well-dressed women heading
toward the department stores and dress shops. He greeted people whether
he knew them or not, and at times, lifted babies from the arms of their
mothers and gave them little pecks. He shooed the ubiquitous pigeons
away from the sidewalk.
On one of those quiet days, a customer arrived. He welcomed her: “Hello,
Mrs. O’Reilly, You’re looking very beautiful today. What can I do for
“Hello, Mr. Zelig,” she responded, fluttering her eyelashes. “I need some nice juicy pears. Would you help me pick some out?”
He carefully wrapped the pears in a paper bag for the lady. “Is your husband’s ship still out at sea?”
“Oh, yes, he’s all the way out to Pearl Harbor, this time. Oh, I have a favor to ask you, Mr. Zelig.”
“Anything I can do for you.”
“I’m a little short on cash since my Larry shipped out. Could you extend a little credit?”
“Of course,” said Zelig, “don’t worry about it, you’re such a nice lady.”
She departed and Zelig muttered to himself: “Oy, what beautiful legs. I wonder if…”
SAVING THE CHMIELS
A few months later, Zelig’s brother, Abe Gurwitz, arrived, unannounced
as usual in the Chmiel family, walking into Mission Bell Market just
like any other customer. He gave Zelig a hearty clap on the back.
“Let’s go for a walk, Zelig. You got someone to watch the store?”
“Wait, Abele, I’ll go ask Mr. Guey--the Chinese laundry man, next door.”
Guey wasn’t there, but his nephew, George, had time on his hands and
offered to watch the store in their absence. The boy smiled up at Zelig:
“Least I can do, since you got me out of hock last week. Not to worry.
Enjoy your visit with your brother.”
“Keep your eye on the cash register, will ya?”
“Don’t worry,” said the boy.
The two brothers strode down ‘B’ Street, Zelig in his light,
double-breasted suit and Abe in his dark, double-breasted suit--two
natty brothers, so far away from Ostrolenka. They made their way to the
Brass Rail--one of Zelig’s many downtown hangouts. At the bar in the
plush darkened lounge Zelig ordered a Bacardi Carta Blanca Cocktail. Abe
ordered a Martini.
“It’s about Papa and Mama.”
“Oy, Gevalt, what happened?”
“They want to come here, to America.”
Zelig almost choked on his Bacardi.
“You okay, Zelig?”
“Yeah, I’m okay, just surprised. Papa said many times over how they’d never come here. What made him change his mind?”
“It has to do with that anti-Semite, Hitler.”
“Papa thinks that when Hitler finishes rearming Germany, he’ll go to war
with Poland. Last month the Nazis made a law that takes all rights away
from the German Jews. Just think what they might do if there is a war
with Poland and the Germans win!”
“What can we do?”
“We better get some money together and be thinking about how to handle the immigration officials. They could be a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Zelig asked.
“The problem is the Immigration Quota Law. Our cousin Levine, the
lawyer, will try to finagle something, but only 150,000 immigrants a
year are accepted. It’s easier to get in if you’re an Englishman or a
Frenchman, but if you’re only a Jew it’s very difficult. Farshtais?
The Department of Immigration is full of anti-Semites.”
“We gotta do something, Abe.”
“We’ll do the best we can, Zelig.”
The two brothers returned to the store. Zelig gave the Chinese boy a
quarter and sent him back to his father’s laundry. Zelig checked the
cash register and then walked over to Mr. Dixon’s shoe shop—two doors
down. Dixon offered to take the next shift at Mission Bell Market so
Zelig and Abe could drive over to the California Exposition grounds in
Balboa Park to pick up Jeanne at the Globe Theater.
They parked the car on the far side of the Puente Cabrillo Bridge and
sauntered across its dizzying span. Zelig, leery of heights, walked
carefully in the middle of the span. Abe, more daring, stuck close to
the edge of the bridge, peering down from time to time at the sheer drop
into the canyon below.
“I heard there’s a nudist colony in the Exposition here,” said Abe. “Have we got enough time to have a look?”
“Why not, it’s just down the Prado.”
They passed down the main thoroughfare, past the lush palm trees with
Moorish style exhibit halls on either side, past the House of Charm and
the House of Hospitality, and came upon a gate leading down into a small
The two Chmiel brothers paid the special entrance fee and descended into
an Elysian grotto, shaded by giant eucalyptus trees--their enormous
roots creeping down on either side of padded park benches. Zelig and Abe
lounged on a bench and lit their Cuban cigars, prepared to enjoy the
show. And there, just across a trickling stream, far enough to see but
not to reach, the naked female bathers frolicked together in a little
forest of pepper trees--some dancing, some reposing--all of them
buck-naked. The spectators, mostly male, savored the unabashed display
of bouncing breasts, tight white buttocks and shapely thighs. Nothing
escaped Zelig and Abe’s eyes.
“Ahh,” said Abe.
“Oy, vay,” said Zelig.
Moving back along the Prado, the brothers returned to the Globe Theatre
Plaza and found Jeanne patiently waiting on one of the benches.
“Ah, so that’s what kept you, my Zelig: a visit from brother Abe. What a nice surprise.”
She gave them both a hug and a kiss.
“Of course, I had to show Abe the Exposition.”
“Of course. So, how were the naked girls?” She grinned.
“Sheine Meidlachs,” laughed Abe, “nice girls, but not Jewish.”
“How so? All blonde?”
They all laughed.
Jeanne stopped by a phone booth on the Prado and called Mrs. Shelley to
let her know about Abe coming along for dinner; then they drove to her
As soon as Jeanne had called, Mrs. Shelley set the pot boiling for
chicken soup (mit matzah balls) and sent Gertrude out for more supplies.
By the time Abe, Jeanne, and Zelig arrived the kitchen windows had
clouded over with steam. The smell of Litvak Jewish cookery pervaded the
air. The three guests swooped in through the open front door and headed
directly toward the dining room. Mrs. Shelley charged out of the
kitchen and embraced Abe. Then, she pushed the guests to their places
at the table and sent Gertrude down the hall to fetch Mr. Shelley. As
usual, he sat quietly reading his Yiddish language newspaper--The
Forward--in his favorite chair in the back bedroom.
“C’mon Pop,” she said to her father. “Mom’s already put food on the table, and we’ve got guests for dinner.”
“I don’t want to eat any guests,” the old man quipped.
“C’mon. Everyone’s waiting.”
“All right, all right.”
Gertrude helped her father up off his chair and marched him down the hall to the dining room.
“Look who we have here, Pop,” said Gertrude.
“Abe, what a surprise,” said Mr. Shelley as he carefully sat down at his place at the head of the table.
Anna Shelley summoned her daughters. “Gertrude, Jeanne, come help me bring the food.”
The heavy platters of food began to arrive.
Mrs. Shelley served and tended throughout the rest of the meal.
“Don’t be shy, Abe! Eat! Shem-sach-nisht!--don’t be shy!” she commanded them all.
She presided over the meal without once sitting down herself, laying
down plates of roast chicken, taking plates away and replacing them with
even more high density foods: kasha varnishkas, potato kugel, boiled
potatoes, kishke, tsimmis, and a brisket. Who knew where all these
delicacies had appeared from?
After the meal, everyone sat down in the living room and began to discuss the problems at hand.
“Here is mine way of tinking about dis problem,” said Anna.” Money is
not the only ting. The main ting is the visas. And maybe von vay to get
around dis problem is to see if vee can bring the Chmiels to Mexico
first or maybe to Urugvuay, or even Honduras--possible also Tijuana. Get
dem to a safe place. Den, veel vorry about getting dem here to Sen
Diega or Los Angeles. De main ting is to get dem out of Europe.”
“Maybe France or Belgium,” suggested Abe.
“I don’t tink so,” said Anna Shelley. “I tink dat Europe vil be a
cemetery for the Jewish pipel. The anti-Semites are getting stronger,
not veeker. Polish government, from vot I read in The Forward is all
anti-Semites. France, Belgium, Hungaria, Austria, all dangerous. I tink
the whole business is gana blow up in Europe.”
“What about the Soviet Union?” asked Jeanne.
“Soviet Union is also bad for Jewish people. Not as bad as Poland. But a
Jew can’t live there unless he’s a Communist. And now Stalin is even
killing de Jewish Communists. No, vee got to bring dem here to dis side
of de ocean.”
“I think that will take a long time,” said Pop. “Four, five years at least.”
“I’m afraid, dat in four, five years, der vont be anyone to save,” said Anna Shelley
“God forbid!” they echoed.
Zelig said, “I think Mom is right. It will take a long time, even just
to get the visas. The immigration laws are very tight. Look at me. I
had to marry Jeanne to get into this damn country.”
Laughter tinkled into the solemn discussion as Jeanne swatted Zelig with a rolled-up newspaper.
“I wish I knew,” said Zelig. “So what do we do?” asked Abe.
ANNA SHELLEY TALKS WITH HER GOD
That night, after the family had mulled over their dwindling options,
Anna stepped into her tiny bedroom and began her discourse with
”I know I don’t speak to you very often and when I do it’s around
midnight when Mr. Shelley, my second husband, isn’t snoring, because
when he does, I can’t concentrate. But tonight is a good night. I can
speak without interruption.
“Tonight, I cooked a nice meal for my son-in law Zelig, Zelig’s brother
Abe, my daughter Jeanne, my dear husband George Shelley, my youngest
daughter Gertrude, and, yes, for me too. As you know, I prefer to be in
the kitchen, serving the food, enjoying their pleasure. They didn’t
leave much on their plates, either. Gertrude and Jeanne did the dishes.
“After dinner we talked about how to rescue Zelig’s family from Poland,
before it’s too late. We talked about plans, visas, countries, and
passports, where to go, this and that, all of us trying to help.
“Dear God, all the time we were talking, I knew we would not succeed in
our efforts and all the talk was useless. I tried to keep a positive
attitude, but I know it is too late. I don’t want to bother you about
the situation in Europe, about the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism.
The barbarity of things already taking place: the depression, the
invasion of Ethiopia, Jewish people fleeing from persecution in Germany,
the Nuremberg Laws. Maybe you know what is coming next? Maybe you
don’t. My guess is, there is going to be another world war, just like
the one that finally ended in 1918--thanks to you? Whatever happens
next, I fear, is not going to be good for the Jews; in fact it may be
the end of all of us. Who knows? In any event, I have a hunch that
saving my in-laws in Poland will not be possible. We here don’t have the
connections you have and our resources are meager, for business has not
been good. We don’t know any high people in power, being recent
immigrants to this country.
“The truth is, I was going to ask you to please spare the rest of the
Chmiel family, help bring them over to America--so they can enjoy their
children and grandchildren when the time comes to have them. But you
know what? I’m having many doubts about you. How come you don’t protect
the harmless and the righteous? Why do you let such misery touch our
lives? Where are you when the bombs start falling? Where are you when
people are starving? Anyway, thanks for listening to my prayer, although
I know it doesn’t sound much like a prayer. You have done some good
things for us in the past and I respect you for that.”
Early in 1936, Jeanne became pregnant--the baby due in October.
“What are we going to call this thing?” Zelig asked.
“This isn’t a thing Zelig. It’s going to be a baby, a boy or a girl.”
“How about a boy?”
“How about moving to a bigger place? This little cottage we’ve rented is as tiny as an ant.”
Zelig and Jeanne started searching for a two-bedroom house, somewhere
not too far but not too near the epicenter of the Mrs. Shelley’s
“I vant you in valking distance,” said Mrs. Shelley.
“But, Mom, we have a car.”
“Valking distance--you hear me!”
In July, Italian troops overwhelmed Emperor Haile Selassie’s ragged
Ethiopian army. Mussolini celebrated his bloody victories and so did all
the other fascist-leaning states. Spain came next and both Hitler and
Mussolini pitched in--ruthlessly bombing civilians and slaughtering
prisoners of war, and preparing for bigger wars, as the “civilized”
world looked on.
By September, Jeanne had grown too large for the cashier’s booth at the
Globe Theatre, and she had to give up her job. She helped Zelig at
Mission Bell Market until Mrs. Shelley commanded her to stay home, “like
a decent pregnant voman.”
On October 16, 1936, at 6:00 p.m., with the help of Zelig, Anna Shelley,
Auntie Glickie, and Mrs. Ronis--the Greek lady from across the
street--Jeanne left the cottage for the safety of the maternity ward at
Mercy Hospital. Her birthing pains seemed endless. Sister Margaret
peeped in at eight p.m. to console Jeanne and noticed a crucifix still
nailed up on the wall.
“Oh, Mrs. Zelig, I’m so sorry. We know that you are Jewish, but we
forgot to remove the crucifix. How unthinking we are. I apologize. I’ll
have Sister Nora take it down immediately. She is so much taller than I
“Please, Sister Margaret,” groaned Jeanne as another contraction passed.
“Leave your Jesus up there--I need all the help I can get!”
Her labor continued, with the pain increasing both in intensity and
frequency. Finally, at seven a.m., Dr. Huff arrived and delivered the
baby. “Right on time,” he muttered as he and the nuns practiced their
“Okay, Mr. Zelig,“ said Sister Margaret, “the doctor says you can go in now, but for goodness sake leave the cigar outside!”
Zelig peeked through the crack in the door and saw Jeanne in bed
holding the baby in the crook of her arm. He walked over and kissed her
forehead, still salty from the struggle of their baby’s difficult birth.
He looked down at the baby boy.
“Wow, big head on my son. And long legs. Looks like you delivered a tennis racket,” he joked.
Later on in the day, the nuns permitted the rest of the family to view the new baby.
“Oh, how beautiful he is.”
“He looks funny to me.”
“Looks just like Zelig.”
“Looks just like Jeanne.”
“I still think he looks like a tennis racket.”
Six days later, back at home on Landis Street, Zelig and Jeanne
discussed the process of little Stanton’s circumcision—due on the eighth
“How about just letting the doctor do it?” suggested Jeanne.
“OK by me, but you better talk to your mother first.”
“She’s not going to like it, Zelig, but if both of us insist, she’ll go along with it. She’s not that religious herself, right?”
“Yeah, but she’s a big shot in the shul. How is she going to explain to the Rabbi and the congregation?”
“We do want little Stanton to be circumcised,” said Jeanne,” we just
want someone competent to do it. I don’t trust the old mohel--the ritual
circumciser from Los Angeles. His hand shook when Claire had little
Philip circumcised two months ago.”
“OK, let’s go talk to Mom. The two of us will be a united front, just like the Spanish Republicans defending Madrid.”
Mrs. Shelley didn’t buy the idea. The popular front collapsed and little
Stanton went under the knife on a table at the Beth Jacob synagogue.
The shaky mohel did a bad job and the newborn had to return to the
Sisters at Mercy Hospital for repairs. From then on, all the extended
family members would have their male babies foreskins clipped by a
physician. The good news: little Stanton recovered without physiological
or psychological damage.
Because of the near disaster with the shaky mohel, Jeanne summoned
enough strength to defy her mother on the overprotective grandmother
“But, Mom,” she said, “Kansas Street is only a mile away.”
“No, no, too far avay,” said the undaunted matriarch. “How you gonna carry dis baby all de vay from Kenses street.”
“We have a car, Mom.”
“But Zelig takes de car to de store!”
“Then we have the streetcar, Mom. It’s only a five minute ride down
Thirtieth Street. I get off at your stop only two houses down the
“You vant to take de little boy on de streetcar. Full mit all the germs
from de oder people?” When Mom got angry her accent got worse.
“All right, all right, you’re soch a stubbern girl! Gey Gezunt--good
health to you. Go move ta Kenses Street. Maybe I’ll see you vonce in a
“Okay, Mom,” said Jeanne, pleased to have won a round from the matriarch.
“But vot if it’s raining, and vot if de baby catches a cold?”
On the international scene, the United States Congress, anxious to avoid
war, voted to prohibit the shipment of munitions to the both sides in
the Spanish Civil War. The obstacle to the success of this plan occurred
when Hitler, Mussolini, and other Fascists paid no attention to the
embargo. Nazi airplanes bombed the Basque town of Guernica, killing most
of its inhabitants. This air attack on civilians would be a harbinger
of the mass destruction of innocent men, women, and children in times
yet to come.
In Palestine, a Pan-Arab conference demanded the cessation of Jewish
immigration and the abandonment of the idea of a Jewish national
homeland. As an afterthought, the existing Palestinian Jews might become
a guaranteed minority within the Arab State.
Another door slammed shut for the endangered Jews of Europe.
LOS ANGELES 1938
Zelig and Abe’s communication system worked as follows: when one of them
decided he needed to talk to the other, he climbed into his car, drove
south (Abe) or north (Zelig) and showed up at the door. Both of them
reserved the telephone only for dire emergencies.
Early one Tuesday mid-morning, in Boyle Heights, Abe burnt his trash in
his backyard incinerator while his beautiful wife, Hanna, slept in, She
had played bridge, the night before, until two in the morning. Trixie,
the Pomeranian dog, had taken Abe’s place in the bed. A gentle breeze
blew across the City of Angels. Puffs of white clouds mingled with the
grey of trash burnings.
Abe poked at the ashes of the Los Angeles Times, and the Boyle Heights Gazette.
Zelig entered through the back gate.
“Nu, Abe, how’s things?”
“Zelig. What’s news?”
“Cousin Levine, the lawyer couldn’t get the visas for Papa and Momma.”
“The same as usual. Our government doesn’t want any more Jewish refugees pushing in.”
“How much money do we have, in case Papa and Mama get a visa?” asked Zelig.
“Well, as usual, business is bad. The Ostrolenka Benevolent Society here
in Los Angeles gave us a fifteen-dollar check. Maybe we have three
hundred dollars all together.”
“That’s not much, Abe. I’ve got another two hundred fifty dollars. My business is even worse since the Exposition closed.”
“How are Jeanne and Stanton?”
“Thanks God, every one healthy. How are Freddy and Reva?”
“Sleeping in bed.”
“Okay, Abe, I gotta go back to the store. Glad everything’s okay with you.”
Zelig returned south, back to San Diego, with a tight feeling in his
chest--thinking of his father and mother and his sisters and brothers.
He felt helpless as the chance of rescuing his family trickled away.
Yisroel Chmiel and his son Daniel took their Sabbath walk along the Narev river.
“Nu, Papa, now what do you have to say about our hero, Pilsudski?” said Daniel, on their Sabbath walk along the Narev river.
“Not much,” said Yisroel Chmiel, “he’s been dead for two years now, you know.”
“Yes, but his children still rule Poland don’t they?” said Daniel.
“I presume you are talking about the Colonels, my brilliant son?”
“Do we have any other political parties?”
“We do. Several of them, but they all hate the Jews.”
As the two of them walked across the metal bridge over the Narev, they
came upon old man Janus Prusky, preparing bait at his usual fishing
site--halfway across the river.
“A good morning, Pan Prusky,” said Yisroel.
“Also to you, Pan Chmiel. And also to your son.”
“How’s the fishing?”
“Not so good.”
“And how is your son in the army?”
“Very good, thank you--if you like armies. He’s in the mounted cavalry now.”
“Very brave of him, defending our borders.”
“Well, Pan Chmiel,” said Prusky, “we still have bad neighbors in every
direction, you know, Comrade Stalin over on this side, and Adolph Hitler
on the other. But I wish it were someone else’s son who was drafted.”
“Well, we need to move on, Pan Prusky, and let you go on with your
fishing. Good luck,” said Yisroel--not wanting to get too far into
politics with Prusky.
“Regards to your family,” said Prusky.
Yisroel and Daniel walked on across the bridge.
“Fucking Zhids,” mumbled Prusky, as he lowered the bait into the Narev.
“How many of their children will rise to defend our country?”
LAST WHISPERS FROM OSTROLENKA
28 August 1939
We send you for the new-year the best wishes to be healthy and strong
with your love-child Stanton for you to have a merry and happy year. And
pray to God for peace on earth because it is very bad, the situation by
us. It is close to a war. Zelig, if you remembered in the 14th year how
it was, so is today by us. Many people go away from Ostrolenka. We also
will go away, but we have not money. We do not know where we will go.
The love of God shows pity on us, dear children, for we are well. We ask
you dear, to answer us immediately. We wrote a letter to you. You did
not answer. We wish the best for you and for our love-grandchild Stanton
to be healthy and strong and for your Mother and for your Zeide, with
the best regards to all of your family. Also Daniel with his family and
Blume with her family, we wish you a happy Jewish New Year. The best
wishes and we ask you dear children another time to answer us
immediately. How is feeling Stanton? How is feeling your
Miss Jean and Mr. Zelig,
I translate for your loving parents Yisroel and Rivka. I ask you to take
my friend Abie best wishes for the new year with a merry and happy year
with many successes in your business with the best health with your
child! Your unknown friend, B. Zakelski
THE WAR BEGINS
On Thursday, the last day of August 1939, around the Town Square, Poles
and Jews congregated around the town square and whispered the latest
hearsay. Some rumors emanated from Radio Warsaw or Radio Berlin. And
some from just “other sources.”
“Did you hear? The German army has invaded Poland.”
“ Did you hear? The brave Polish army has pushed the invaders back where they came from, with heavy casualties!”
“Did you hear? French and British planes have bombed Berlin!”
“Did you hear? The gates of the Narev River dams have been opened so
that Ostrolenka and the surrounding towns will be saved from the
“Did you hear? German and Slovakian airplanes have destroyed Warsaw!”
“The Soviets have declared war on the Germans!”
“The Soviets have declared war on the Poles.”
“No, at the last moment the great powers have agreed to a cease-fire!”
The wave of did-you-hear’s found its way out to the villages along the
Narev River and east to Lomza where more rumors sprouted. Those Jews who
remembered the 1914 War, and who remembered the chaos and destruction
of the Polish-Soviet war, began to think about gathering their
belongings--just in case, of course. Perhaps it would be best,
temporarily, to hide in the nearby forests until the armies had passed.
The people of Ostrolenka huddled in their homes that night, sitting in
the dark, silently, each with their own private set of fears. The older
ones prayed, and the babies were strangely silent, perhaps due to the
apprehension marked on their parents’ faces.
The next day, early in the morning, the clear sky held only a few wisps
of clouds flowing south from the Baltic Sea. Silver airplanes appeared,
heading north. They soared too high to make out their markings. Our
Polish planes? Or the Germans?
“Papa, the Germans are coming,” said Daniel Chmiel to his father, on the
second day of the war. “Hitler’s army will soon be here, and they will
“We must prepare to leave.”
“Like in 1914?”
“Worse. Yes, it will be worse,” said Yisroel Chmiel. “The planes. It
will be as it was in Spain. We saw the pictures in the newspapers:
bigger bombs--tanks. We must all leave Ostrolenka-- now!”
Yisroel wakened Rivka.
“Rivka, it is time, we must go,” said Yisroel to his wife.
“When do we go? Where will we go?”
“Today. Where, I’m not sure. Somewhere to the East.”
Rivka shifted her eyes around the living room. What to take? Food? Yes.
Water, yes. Pictures of the children and grandchildren? No. Too many
pictures. Too little time. The cat? No. She must take care of
herself--like all cats. She will wait for us to come back. A prayer
book? Papa’s tallis?--his prayer shawl. Yes, of course. Money? If we had
money, we would be in America by now.
Yisroel stood out in the courtyard hitching Fivel, the horse, to his
cart, preparing for the exodus. His nephew Yehuda helped him load the
“Oy, Yehuda, I’m not as strong as I used to be. Too old to be a refugee again,” said Yisroel.
“Don’t worry, Uncle our family will stick together. We’ll help each other.”
A siren moaned off in the distance. German planes roared over the treetops.
The Raizen family across the street loaded their wagon, and harnessed
their horse. They packed some food, some clothing, a few blankets, and a
meager wad of Polish Zlotys stuffed into Pan Raizen’s boot.
“Children, up on the wagon!” yelled Reb Raizin.
“Dyo,” he shouted to the horse, and the Raizens, with their meager
baggage, left their beloved home behind and headed down Shulgass Street
eastward toward the unknown.
Yisroel and Rivka followed in their wagon, with Daniel and his wife and
children behind them. And behind them, more carts and wagons joined the
exodus. German planes flew high across the heavens again, this time in
the direction of Warsaw. The Chmiels cast one last glance at their
home--one last time. “Dyo!”
The long procession of Jews exited Ostrolenka.
Once out of town, long lines of wagons turned northeast or southwest,
trying to guess which way might offer safety. Some wagons turned toward
Lomza, others south toward Ostrova. Still others continued due east,
through the forests, in the direction of the city of Bialistok. Pots and
pans clanged. Fear painted faces a sallow white. The fragrant smells of
the forest, the good air, the calls of the birds at the tops of the
trees--all replication of a picnic outing, but it wasn’t a picnic
It was the beginning of the end.
That night, Rivka and Yisroel and Daniel’s family rested near the small
village of Trozyn. A Polish peasant family invited them to camp for the
night. The Poles brought food, blankets, and rush mats which the
refugees used for bedding, placing it under a pine tree. Other wagons
arrived in the late summer dusk, and the peasant family welcomed them.
From a nearby wagon packed with belongings, someone called out, “Yisroel.”
“Who is it?”
Feet crunched across the pine needles, and the voice said, “Ephraim!”
The two men embraced in the darkness.
“Everyone is all right? Is Rivka here?”
“Where are Daniel and his family?”
“They’re here with us.”
“She’s back in Warsaw.”
“Do you have news?”
“Only bad news. The Germans bombed Warsaw--both yesterday and today. But, thank God, at least we’re together now,” said Ephraim.
Yisroel rose before dawn and stepped toward the edge of the nearby
forest. The morning star greeted him from the sky in the east. A cool
wind flowed out of the forest, as Yisroel wrapped himself in his prayer
shawl to perform his daily morning ritual. Reverently, he placed a
small, leather, cubical box on his forehead--his tefillin. He tightened
the straps to keep the cube firmly on his forehead and continued the
preparations by binding his arm with a second cubical box. Being
left-handed, he placed the second tefillin on his bared right bicep.
Next, he took the leather straps hanging down from the cube, and
crisscrossed them down his arm. He finished by binding them tightly
around his fingers to form the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter of
God’s many, mysterious names. The tefillin and the tallis prepared his
spirit to better commune with his Maker.
He softly recited the morning prayer: “Baruch Ata, Adonai Elohainu,
Melekh HaOlam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’haniakh
tefillin--Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has
sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to wear tefillin.”
As he looked into the forest, only a few steps away, he saw a deer
looking out at him--silent, curious, unafraid, and perhaps mystified by
the strange ritual he had observed. Yisroel held his breath, savoring
this mysterious moment. The deer seemed to be nodding his head, as if
delivering a message:
“Yisroel Chmiel, this is not the end. You will prevail for a time. But then, well, we all must die.”
The deer slowly turned and melted into the forest.
Yisroel completed his prayer and returned to the clearing where the rest
of the family slumbered on rush mats and blankets. Daniel slowly rose,
and, as his father, showed his respect for God by donning tefillin. The
morning star flickered, as if to nod its head in respect of the prayers.
The Polish sky lightened and daylight approached.
“Can a deer predict the future?” Yisroel pondered and then turned toward
more practical matters: “Who knows what this third day of war will
bring?” he said. “We will need our God.”
The Chmiels continued their odyssey toward the east, farther away from
the progress of the German army, toward the town of Sniadowa. From
Sniadowa perhaps there might be a chance to find a safer place in the
thick forests of the Tsherbony-Bor, a woodland area where the family had
taken shelter during a previous war.
On the way to Sniadowa the thumping of many bombs bursting to the northeast sent deadly hints of the approach of the Germans.
Daniel, who sat next to his father in the first of the two carts, said: “It’s Lomza. Thank God we didn’t go in that direction.”
“Thank God,” his father affirmed. He kept to himself the fleeting
thought that perhaps God had indeed abandoned them. More thuds and
quakes--this time much closer than before.
At a fork in the road leading to Lomza, the Chmiels encountered three families and their wagons.
“Where are you going?” Yisroel asked.
“South towards Ostrova,” said one driver, his eyes red with fatigue mixed with fear.
“Why that way?”
“The Germans bombed Lomza. Everyone left the city. Many of those who
didn’t escape died in the rubble of their own houses. Maybe in Ostrova
it will be safer.”
They clattered on to the south, and the Chmiels moved on eastward. Late
in the afternoon they heard more bombing, this time very close by, from
the northeast and this time, resulting in tremendous ground-rolling
explosions, with fire leaping up in the sky.
“Probably only a kilometer away.” shouted Daniel.
A half-hour later, long lines of Jews and Poles appeared heading
west--mostly people on foot, some near exhaustion, some weeping, others
moaning in pain and carried on makeshift stretchers carried by their
“Don’t go any farther into the forest,” said one. “The Germans bombed
the railroad lines. An ammunition train blew up. Fire everywhere! Turn
back! Turn back!”
Thick smoke unfurled above the treetops.
German bombers roared over the sky in the northeast in the direction of Bialistok.
Farther down the narrow road, a unit of bedraggled, exhausted Polish soldiers joined the throng.
One of the soldiers faltered forward with the aid of a stout branch. Daniel asked him, “What shall we do?”
“How should I know?” the soldier answered, “It’s all chaos. I don’t
even know where we are. The German army is nearby. I’d tell you to pray
to Jesus, but you’re all damn Jews anyway,” he said and limped on.
“Here’s what I think we should do,” said Yisroel Chmiel. “I think that
we should turn our wagons around and return to Ostrolenka. Out here, we
make ourselves too vulnerable. The solutions that we tried in past wars
have failed us. We will turn back and hope for the best.”
The Chmiels returned to Ostrolenka, only to find the German army waiting
for them. To the family’s relief, their homes remained intact. A small
unit of German field troops barracked in the Town Hall, showed little
interest in harming civilians. Cautiously, stores began to open,
children returned to school, and hope reappeared in the streets of
Hope lasted only a few weeks. A special unit of the German Army appeared
in the town and immediately arrested most of the younger Jewish men of
the town—marching them out to the north toward the East Prussian border.
Even some of the older men fell into the dragnet—Ephraim Chmiel
disappeared along with his two sons Yehuda and Chaim. Then--another
paradox--things returned somewhat to normal, if the disappearance of
family members could be described as normal.
And then, a few weeks later, rumors floated about, suggesting that the
German army, having defeated the Poles, would agree to the return of
some Polish prisoners taken during the chaos of the first few days of
For once, a rumor came true. Freight cars filled with gaunt prisoners
from the concentration camps in East Prussia, arrived at the nearby
Jews and Poles alike lined the sidewalks, in silence, hoping they would
find family and friends. Yisroel and Rivka, along with the rest of the
Chmiels, stood in front of their house watching the prisoners led
between German guards into the main square of Ostrolenka. The
townspeople scanned the wretched men, looking for relatives among them. A
German military band set up on the steps of the Town Hall and callously
blasted out the SS anthem: Die Fahne Hoch, as the swastika waved from
the Town Square tower. A few of the young Nazi troops sang out their
Die Fahne hoch
Die Reihen fest geschlossen
Mit ruhig festem Schritt
Kam'raden die Rotfront
Und Reaktion erschossen
Marschier'n im Geist
In unsern Reihen mit
Raise high the flag,
The ranks are closed and tight,
Storm Troopers march,
With firm and steady step.
Souls of the comrades
Shot by Reds and Countermight
Are in our ranks
And march along in step.
Not so gently, the prisoners were forced to march in step with the
music, and to smile as if returning from holiday rather than the
brutality of the camps. A few of the local young men in this sad
procession managed to steal out of the ranks, and a few others found a
decent German officer who allowed them to rejoin their Ostrolenka
families. Ephraim Chmiel and his sons escaped in this manner and
rejoined their families after their month-long nightmare in a German
concentration camp. But the others had to move on toward the east,
passing through the town on the road to Bialistok.
The next evening, the Chmiel family met at Yisroel and Rivka’s house.
“What do we know?” asked Ephraim, a shell of his former self--his hands shaking, his eyes tired slits beneath a ravaged brow.
“All we know is that we are alive,” said young Yehuda.
Yisroel said, “What we know is that you must eat, rest, and then prepare for the worst.”
“The worst? What do you mean by the worst? Will the Germans kill us all? If so, why didn’t they finish us off in the camps?”
“I’m not a hundred percent sure,” said Yisroel, “but the rumors say that
Poland will soon be divided between Germany and the Soviet Union.”
“How will it be divided? Will we be the slaves of the Germans or of the Soviets?”
“I don’t know. Which would you choose, Ephraim?”
“The Soviets, of course.”
“Because they don’t kill Jews as a specialty.”
“What is their specialty?”
“Killing their political enemies. So our fate depends on where the new border will be drawn,” said Ephraim.
“Yes, and all we can do is wait and see.”
Ephraim mulled over his brother’s statement. He cupped his chin in his
hand, looked at Yisroel, and said: “Listen, brother, we cannot—will
not—‘wait and see’. I’ve already had enough experience with the Nazis.
You have no idea what they did to us in those camps: humiliation,
starvation, beatings and, in the end, murders. What barbarism! How many
men killed for nothing. May their memory be cursed.”
Shudder undulated through the Chmiel household.
“We all must prepare to leave our homes--maybe forever--and find some
kind of safety among the Soviets. For now, they are our only hope of
survival. Don’t delude yourself that anything better can happen.”
“So be it,” said Yisroel, with great sadness but agreeing with his
brother. “May God be with us. Now, brother Ephraim, we have to survive
and, God willing, we will.”
The holiday of Simhas Torah arrived and those Jews who dared to make
their way through streets lined with German sentries, proceeded to the
synagogue on Shul Gass Street. During the service, the worshipers
paraded around the synagogue seven times, carrying the sacred scrolls;
but muted, this year, because of the threat of recent havoc and future
tribulations. Each of the men of the congregation, in turn, stepped up
to the bima to chant the final portion of Torah reading.
In previous years on Simhas Torah, after the reading, the worshipers in
the synagogue would join in circles to dance and sing. The men would
pass the Torah scrolls one to another while the women danced with
upraised arms in a separate room. But on this night, in Ostrolenka, fear
and resignation to an unknown fate set a mournful tone.
Fathers escorted their small children to the bima to be blessed—each of
them covered with a broad, blue and white prayer shawl. In better times
the children giggled underneath the musty smelling, white tallises, but
tonight, even the children stood silent, subdued, enveloped in folds of
the prayer cloth.
The sad Torah service ended unsatisfied. The curfew imposed on Jews by
the invaders drew a dark curtain over whatever small holiday spirit
existed. By nightfall, the families had returned to their homes, the
streets empty except for a few armed soldiers. Behind the houses,
shutters closed, and only dim, flickering candlelight belied the
Toward midnight, the sound of heavy vehicles reverberated from near the
bridge over the Narev. They approached Ostrolenka from the south, with
motors muted--gears shifting carefully and as quietly as possible.
Slowly, the procession entered the town square—ever so cautious. The
vehicles eased to a stop and carefully parked along the curbs, motors
stilling. The soldiers in the back of the trucks, tired from their long
drive from the north, slept soundly--stealing a little rest before the
morning, when they would carry out their brutal mission.
Hauptman Thümmler--the German officer in charge of the Ostrolenka
operation scheduled for the crack of dawn-- lit a cigarette. His
Sergeant First Class settled down a few steps below him on the front
steps of the town hall and waited to begin the operation,
Thümmler commented: “You know, I don’t really relish turning these Jews
out of their houses in the morning. I even pity them. I met one of
those old bearded Yids yesterday, over by the town square, and he told
me about how friendly our army was toward the population when we were
here during the First War.”
The sergeant fumbled for a cigarette in his pocket, half-listening to
Hauptman and wishing he could have a little more sleep before things
“Here, take one of mine,” said the officer and continued, “of course orders are orders, and we must do what we must do.”
“If you will excuse my saying so, Hauptman Thümmler, I say good
riddance to all of them. From my experiences with them in my town, in
Bavaria, I concluded they are a bunch of parasites and can’t be trusted.
It makes me sick to even look at them. Let them all go to hell--or at
least over to the Soviet side, where the Soviets can do what they want
with them. These Jews have no roots in our Europe, they’re naturally
just a bunch of wanderers, like the Gypsies.”
“But what about the children?”
“They soon grow up to be like their parents, poisoning our European
civilization, coveting our Aryan daughters, taking over our livelihood,
counting their damn money, puffing on their big cigars. Picking their
Hauptman looked at his watch and then toward the eastern sky and abruptly stood up.
“Well, it’s time to go to work, Sergeant, whether we have sympathy for
them or whether we hate them. Orders are orders. Wake up the troops and
let’s get it over with.”
Abe Gurwitz liked to take a midday snooze before he resumed his meetings
with insurance clients in the late afternoon. Fortunately for him, he
had an office in his house, with an entire room filled with mounds of
miscellaneous papers, cigarette butts, pictures of Freddy and Reva,
insurance policy folders, and piles of unread Yiddish newspapers. When
Abe tired of pushing papers he awarded himself a long, sweet nap in his
bedroom upstairs. There he would lie sprawled out on his bed, the shades
drawn, blocking out the harsh rays of the Southern California sun. His
snoring produced an unabashed, glottal symphony interspersed with
whistling and lip buzzing.
During one such nap on a hot day in the summer of 1941, the telephone rang.
“Goddamit,” he mumbled, as his dream halted abruptly and dashed him
into reality. He fumbled for the telephone in the darkened room.
“Goddamit.” He picked up the receiver and untwisted the chord.
“Abe, speaking,” he grumbled.
“Abe, is that you? It’s Hanche, your sister.”
“Hanche, in Washington D.C.”
A phone call from so far away must be important. “What happened?”
“A telegram, Abe, bad news. Very bad news, Avramele.”
“Someone is sick?”
“The world is sick, my brother. Listen to me, we got a telegram from Papa in Lomza.”
“I’ll read it to you. Take a pencil.”
“Wait, I’ll get a pencil. OK--tell me.”
“It says: WE LEAVE STOP TELL BROTHERS STOP SIGNED ISRAEL CHMIEL
“What does this mean, Hanche? Leave? Leave where? Mama and Papa are in Lomza, in the Soviet Zone. They should be safe.”
“I’m not sure, I’m not sure,” she now wept over the telephone line.
After a silence, Hanche said, “I’ll try to find out.”
“All right, Hanche, call me when you know more.”
“Goodbye, Abe. Pray for our parents.”
Abe put the phone down carefully. He stumbled back to his bed, sat on the edge, his hands clasped over his face.
A FOREST NEAR STOLIN
Without prior notice and without mercy, they herded men and women--old
and young --out into the main square of the town. The Jews were ejected
from their ancestral homes without any belongings, without food, without
horses and wagons, without prayer books and religious articles, without
family treasures, without photograph albums, without cats and dogs,
without cash, without blankets.
They went into exile with only with the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet.
The Soviet troops, across the demarcation line, tried their best to find
temporary housing and sustenance for the refugees, but the sheer
numbers of this exodus overwhelmed them.
Only after weeks of tribulation, Yisroel Chmiel, Rivka, Daniel and his
wife and children, Blüme and her husband and children, and other members
of the extended family found a place of refuge where they could begin a
meager existence. At first, they lived in a dank and crowded apartment
in Bialistok. Then, they were shipped by freight car to the remote town
of Stolin, near the Far Eastern edges of what used to be Poland but now
had become part of the Soviet Union.
For a while, Stolin seemed a relatively safe place, even though life
there was very difficult. They suffered hunger and cold, in the winter,
and plagues of mosquitoes from the nearby marshes in the summer. But at
least they remained alive, together with their families and friends,
protected under the Soviet rule.
But in early June of 1942, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and,
within a few weeks, their army routed the unprepared Red Army. Those
troops who survived retreated into the interior of the Soviet Union.
Others were captured or subsequently murdered by the German army.
Anarchy broke out. Bandit groups ravaged the region, causing even more
suffering. They robbed and terrorized the local population.
Later on, German troops arrived in Stolin. The Jews of Stolin, including
the Chmiels, immediately tasted the harsh whip of the German
army--forced into manual labor from dawn until midnight, working on
roads, cutting trees in the forest, building fortifications-- without
rest, and without enough to eat. Old people worked alongside the young,
and women labored alongside the men. But still, somehow, most of the
refugees remained alive.
Later in June, rumors spread about massacres of the Jewish population in
the larger cities in the area. A few Jews, who had escaped the
executions, arrived in Stolin to tell their tales of horror.
One survivor, who had escaped from Pinsk to Stolin, stated the following:
“They herded us up like animals into a clearing in the middle of a
forest--like animals, you hear! In the clearing, the soldiers forced
Polish and Ukrainian conscripts to dig a giant pit. A line of machine
guns faced the pit. They made us stand in a line stretching back into
the trees. The soldiers lined up fifty or sixty people--men, women and
children--at the edge of the pit. An officer gave a command and the
machine guns fired. The line of dead and dying people fell into the pit
and then the next group was called. The machine gun continued to mow the
Jews down until the pit filled or until there were no more Jews to
kill. I escaped through the forest--the only one to remain alive. Jews
of Stolin! Run away, anyway you can. Stolin may be next!”
Most of the Jews of Stolin refused to believe that. Many thought of
reasons why Stolin might be spared. Perhaps the Germans killed only Jews
living in large towns or cities. Perhaps the Jews of Stolin might be
preserved by a miracle. Or by luck. Or by an act of God. Perhaps the
Soviet army would soon make a counteroffensive. Perhaps. Perhaps.
On the first of July 1942, regular German army troops, not the SS,
entered the little ghetto of Stolin. The soldiers didn’t look like
murderers. They looked like nice, healthy German boys from farms and
villages. But, taught to obey their orders, they herded the Jewish
population out, into the streets--family after family. The sky was blue,
the weather crisp. Blackbirds cawed in the trees.
The soldiers beat the Ostrolenka refugees, along with other Jews from
Stolin, and then lined them up and marched off to the nearby forest—men,
women, and children alike—a long line of martyrs about to be murdered.
The barrels of the German machine guns overheated from the rain of
bullets that tore into the victims --- the gun crews had to cease-fire
frequently so their weapons wouldn’t melt. Near midnight, the Chmiel
family faced the machine guns. They shouted their good-byes to each
other in the roar of the shooting. Some tried to say the prayer of death
before they died: “Shma Yisroel Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Ehad, Hear O
Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One”--before the bullets began to
pierce their bodies.
EPILOGUE: JULY 1998
Family by family they pulled into the parking lot of the Shefaim Resort
Hotel on the coast of the Mediteranean Sea, a few miles north of Tel
Aviv. A banner stretched across the entrance of the hotel: Welcome
Chmiels, Hamiels, Camiels, and Chamiels to Kibbutz Shefaim - Enjoy Your
Reunion - Blessed be your coming - Bruchim HaBayim
As each family member entered the lobby, a team of greeters--all Chmiels
of one family-tree branch or another--helped the guests write out name
tags, color-coded by nationality and written in Hebrew, English,
Spanish, German, and Portuguese. Due to the linguistic rules of each of
the home countries, there were at least four ways of spelling the
original family name.
The guests flowed into the dining hall. Everyone mingled, greeting old
family friends and newly discovered relatives. Conversations opened up
in all four languages. Argentineans introduced Americans to Israelis,
Uruguayans to Germans, Israelis to Brazilians. And if they didn’t know
any of the above languages—they tried Yiddish, or French, or Polish, or
mixed them all up.
The cacophony grew as more relatives arrived. Waiters, attempting to
seat the guests at their tables, nervously eyed the clock, but the
Chmiels wanted to talk, to discover new cousins, to laugh and weep. The
food could wait.
Such were the conversations:
“Hello, I’m Reva Camiel from California, do you speak English?” said a
dark sixtyish woman, who could have easily passed for a Yemenite—but for
“Solomente Español, Señora, soy de Uruguay. De Montevideo,” the hefty blonde woman responded.
“Bueno, Como se yama usted?” said Reva, fluent in Spanish because of its widespread use in Boyle Heights, California.
“Yo soy Reva Camiel.”
They embraced--two women with fathers from Ostrolenka.
“Do you speak English?” asked Frances, Hanche’s child--born and bred in Washington, D.C.
Mah? the young Israeli soldier replied.
“Lo yodea Anglit--I don’t know English.”
“Ken, Ken, Chmiel--yes, yes, a Chmiel,” said the youngster in Hebrew.”
“Ken, Saba sheli,” yes, my grandfather, Chamiel” he blushed.
“Shimon, come over here and translate.”
Tri-lingual Shimon Camiel talked to the soldier in Hebrew and then led
the two of them toward an enormous family tree--thirty feet long and
eight feet tall, mounted on the back wall of the dining room. He pointed
at two places on the Chmiel map and showed Frances how she related to
her Israeli third cousin, Eliezer.
Naftali Camiel, age thirty and not long out of his service in the
Israeli army, eyed a shy dusky beauty with long, ropy, black hair,
seated alone at the dinner table. He approached her. “Shalom,” he said.
“Shalom.” She smiled, revealing sparkling, straight teeth.
“Are we related?” he asked.
“Probably not, I’m a Moroccan. But my husband is a Chmiel.”
“Oh well, welcome to the reunion.”
After dinner, the Chmiel reunion moved into a larger, more comfortable
hall with chairs organized in rows, and a small stage at the far end.
Each national group volunteered one representative to come up to the
stage and explain how their family came out of Ostrolenka to foreign
Yehuda Chamiel began. He described the tearful separation from his
parents and his aunts and uncles in Lomza, how he and his brother,
Chaim, set out on a dangerous odyssey through Russia and Iran until they
reached the relative safety of Palestine.
Alicia, from Uruguay, took her turn--describing her long odyssey to
safety initiated by her parents--leaving Ostrolenka in the early 1930s.
The family had wanted to immigrate to Argentina. They pooled their
meager belongings, bought a ticket to Argentina, traversed the Atlantic,
and promptly got off at the first port in their New World. Problem was,
after debarking, they found themselves in the tiny country of Uruguay,
and not in Argentina. Because they had no documents or passports, years
passed before they could travel anywhere outside of Uruguay--essentially
losing contact with all of their relatives.
Next, Reva Camiel (Abe’s daughter) told about her father’s odyssey. Abe
had run away from his parents Rivka and Yisroel, changing his name to
Gurwitz at Ellis Island (inspired by the man in line before him).
Shimon (previously Stanton) Camiel recounted his father Zelig’s wild
odyssey, through Latin America. Zelig had passed away in Del Mar,
California in1987. His wife Jeanne passed on in 1996.
Jack Camiel from Santa Barbara, California told his own odyssey--how his
father Wolf and mother Clementina had sent him from Honduras to his
Uncle Zelig in San Diego, California, so he could have a better life, a
good education, and the benefits of American citizenship.
Chaim Chamiel, born in Ostrolenka--a Hebrew poet and writer of religious
literature--asked all the Chmiels to say a Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer
for the dead, in remembrance of the destruction of the Jewish community
of Ostrolenka. For most of the Chmiels, the prayer evoked memories of
missing grandparents, mothers, fathers and children who perished in the
forest of Stolin or in other similar massacres. Chaim began the chant in
his high, melodic voice, and the rest of the gathering joined.
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmai raba.”
“Magnified and sanctified be the name of God…May He establish His
kingdom during the days of your life and during the life of all the
house of Israel, speedily, yea soon; and let us say, Amen.”
“Y’hay shmay raba m’vorach l’olam ulmai ulmaya--May His great name be blessed forever and ever.”
After chanting the Kaddish---a moment of silence, and then a lone, high,
soft melodious voice came from somewhere within the assembled people.
Batya, the oldest Chmiel in attendance, sister of Chaim Chamiel and
Yehuda--a woman in her late eighties, had softly begun to sing a Hebrew
melody. Gradually, her voice strengthened and her rhythm increased. She
sang a song of life and hope for the future, soon joined by the rest of
the almost three hundred and more Chmiels in the Kibbutz Shefaim banquet
Am Yisroel Hai
Am Yisroel Hai
Am Yisroel, Am Yisroel, Am Yisroel Hai
The people of Israel live on.
The people of Israel live on.
Then Batya beckoned to all: “Come and dance,” she called. “Why be so sad? We are alive! Our families are here! We are alive.”
Am Yisroel Hai
Hands joined. A circle formed. An accordionist appeared. Young and old
hurled themselves into the rhythm—into the whirling steps of the hora
Am Yisroel Hai.
“Dance! Dance!” called Batya, “the night is still young.”
And here’s to the world of tomorrow.