34. Under a False Name
Molodetchno, summer 1915.
In the House of Study and in the market square, circles of Jews gathered together to read the latest bulletins, the new military decrees from the higher authorities. The bold Russian letters seemed to stab right at your heart: they were calling for a fresh mobilization, of young 18-19-year-old "red tickets", who were needed to replenish the thin ranks of the Russian Army, which had everywhere, on all fronts, in East Prussia, in Galicia, and in the Carpathian Mountains, left behind mountains of corpses.
People read over the new orders again and again.. Those who couldn't read the strange Russian letters stood about with their ears pricked up, hoping to pick up from an "educated mouth" the meaning of those words, words that screamed and made your blood run cold. It was soon understood, that they were calling up the second sons, the third sons, even the fathers. People went home devastated, as though they had been hit over the head with a board. When mothers heard the dreadful news, they wrung their hands over the new decree. A new cry arose, a wailing from dozens of Jewish homes. Because soon another son, a father, a provider, would be sent away to that place from which very few came back again.
My name was among those of those who were called up. For this, I had my father to thank. He was registered in the town of Tchekhonovitz, a village in Poland, by the River Bug. My father, like all the Jewish fathers in those days, didn't consider it important to register his children according to their birthdates, but simply wrote down any date, give or take a year or two....in this way, it often came to pass, that the older became the younger, and the younger - the older.
And even thought according to my true birthday, "a day after Yom Kippur", I shouldn't have been required to report for duty before the autumn of 1918....according to my Russian passport, for which my father himself had to travel "all the way to Poland", I was already an adult, before the year 1915 had drawn to a close.
Shouldn't this young, 17-18-year-old boy with his thick, curly head of hair, have been glad to let himself be led like a lamb to the slaughter, to lay down that fine head of hear on the altar.....for this evil empire, for this land of pogroms?! No and no!!
My hatred of that cruel Tzarism had recently begun to burn even more strongly in my heart. This was not only on account of the previous tragic pogroms, expulsions, the Beiliss case, and the recent expulsions...rather, the biggest reason was that this military Tsarism had brought down its bloody knife against my own family. This was the infamous death sentence, which the Russian military courts in the Grodno District had imposed on my relatives, a father and son from Byalistok, and a brother from Brisk, by the name of Zaltzman. They were big contractors, who were responsible for installing the water supply for the Grodno fortress. As the result of a false accusation, all three of them had been hung.
This dreadful event cast a fear of death over the entire Jewish population. The infamous "Black Hundreds" and the anti-semitic Russian presssoon threw themselves on this news like a pack of vultures, screaming out headlines on every page, accusing all Jews of being "traitors, "German spies", "enemies of Mother Russia"...
This travesty of justice, which claimed the lives of my own relatives, I could under no circumstances forget about. Wherever I went and wherever I stood, there would appear before me the face of the happy, cheerful Zaltzman of Brisk, with whom I had in happier times eaten meals...and now, in my mind I saw him hanging on the gallows with a frozen smile on his dead face.
And there was nothing sadder for me than the thought of their poor mother, Dvosheh, who had a reputation throughout the regions as a very clever woman, a woman of courage. Every summer, she used to come down to the village from Bialistok to visit her parents' graves. We children used to look forward to her visits all year long. Because she would always bring us a present, a large bag of the famous, delicious Bialistok "pletzels" with onions and poppy seeds, whose taste I can still feel in my mouth to this day. And now I couldn't stop thinking about my beloved Aunt Dvosheh. She appeared before my eyes sad and forlorn, wandering about like our "Mother Rachel", weeping bitterly over the loss of her dear children, two sons and a grandson, who were all three in one day cut down in such a dreadful manner.
How could I take the part of such a "Motherland", which was to us Jews much worse than an evil stepmother?
Furthermore, the fate in those days of the Jewish soldier in the Russian Army was even more tragic than the burdens of the civilian Jewish population in the towns and villages. They demanded his flesh and blood, yet his sacrifices were as welcome as a gift from a leper. In the eyes of his fellow-soldiers and commanding officers, he was reckoned as a slacker, a coward, a traitor and a spy. Every step of the way he was taken advantage of, abused and despised.
Jewish soldiers from the front who were passing through Molodetchno told horrible stories, that made your hair stand on end: "The Russian Army is carrying out unspeakable cruelty against the defenceless Jewish population; they are plundering Jewish property; Jewish towns and villages are being burned to the ground". In Poland and Galicia, Jewish bodies hang from trees and telegraph-poles, dressed in long, black gabardines with white socks on their feet, with signs saying, "This is what we do to Jews, the spies and traitors".....
I resolved: "No matter what!"...under no circumstances would I go to serve this Russian Czar, this Enemy of Israel , who instead of conducting a war against the Germans, had instead begun to carry out a war against us, weak, helpless Jews, as though we were his real enemy?
No! I wouldnít go!
Everyone started trying to figure out various methods or subterfuges, to save me from falling into the fire. My auntie, the cantorís wife, wanted no less than I should "make a mistake", an accident, cut of a finger, "make a hole in my ear", smash a knee so I wouldnít be able to bend my leg. She had a "doctor", a quack, an operator, a good friend, who was willing to do whatever it took...
I, however, the "object under discussion", didn't want to hear or think about such things. I argued: "If I have to live as a cripple, Iíd be better off dead!"
Several young people from the village, among them some good friends of mine, were preparing to flee, with their mothersí blessings, to the great city of Vilna, which was expected to fall to the Germans in a matter of days...in this way, they should be saved from falling into "Gentile hands". At that time, nobody knew that over there, under the German occupation, there was waiting for them a much worse Hell: hunger, forced labor, German-Junkerish discipline. Without knowing it, they were fleeing from water into fire.
I didn't go to Vilna for a number of reasons. The main reason was perhaps...no, why do I say "perhaps"...certainly, on account of my dear friend Hershel, who had run off to Vilna. Before his flight, he made me promise to keep watch over his Batya....a beuatiful, dark-eyed refugee. He begged me that I should look out for her and protect her, and not let her out of my sight. I promised to carry out his wishes.
His Batyeh all but died from longing for her beloved Hershel. And to ease her sorrow, I used to read for her beautiful, interesting Russian novels and poetry. I spent whole days with her, on long walks behind the village. We would watch the silver moon disappear behind a dark cloud...and then, as though by a miracle, it would re-appear from the other side, just as bright and silvery as before. The same thing would happen, I tried to assure her, with her Hershel. More than once we sat there together all night, immersed in a conversation from the heart, until the rising sun told us it was morning.
I ask you...how could I have left the beatiful Batya R. "in Godís hands", and run off to meet the German, that he should capture me? No, that I simply couldnít do...
One day my aunt, the cantorís wife who was "as smart as a man", came up with a brand new scheme. They would get for me a false passport, which should make me a year younger. But where to get such a document? This was not such a big problem - leave it to auntie...for such things, you could count on her to find an solution.
And so one Saturday night when my uncle had just come home from the House of Study, my auntie sent him packing: she gave him some provisions for the road, and stitched a few ten-rouble notes into his breast-pocket. My uncle, an umbrella in his hand, quietly slipped out of the house, and caught a train all the way to the village of Boyd (Budeslav), in the Province of Vileyka, to meet his aquaintance, the Jewish "mayor", to purchase from thim the "real good".
And a few days later, my uncle, Menakhem Dolinsky, returned with a happy smile on his face, as though he had just won the lottery, and quietly said to my auntie and me:
"Iíve brought it, knock on wood..."
And late that night, when everyone was asleep, we locked the doors and closed the shutters...with a small knife, my uncle cut open his breast-pocket, and with a trembling hand, pulled out the false passport, which bore the name of one "Itzko Moiseyevitch Taytsh", whose parents had at one time lived in the poor, muddy village of Boyd, and now...had long since gon off to America. And after giving me the passport, my uncle took from his pocket a folded-up piece of paper. And with a quiet, secretive voice, whispered to me:
Falik, this is your new family....you must memorize them to the last detail. Because, if the police, God forbid, should stop you and ask who you are, you must know what to answer; you must know your new "family tree".
I started in right away to memorize to the last detail this new "Book of Names"; the names of my new "family, with whom my fate was now inter-twined.
"And this is the name of my grandfather, of my grandmother, of my new father, my new mother, my new brothers and sisters; one brother, who is married, is so old; the second one is so old, and the third one so; and I, the youngest, am called by the name: Itzko Moiseyevitch Taytsh! Itzko Moiseyevitch Taytsh! Taytsh! Taytsh!"
I couldn't close my eyes all night. I tossed and turned, as though suffering from a high fever. Whatever I looked at wasn't mine anymore. The bed - not mine; the pillow, which my "real" mother had given me - also not mine. And no matter how hard I tried to learn the names of my new family, I still couldnít get them to stick in my head. It was as though my true name, which had been part of me since my birth, would under no circumstances permit that this new, strange person should come inside me like a dybbuk to take his place.
And there arose between myself and "the dybbuk" a struggle...I was overcome by a hatred towards this new, strange person who had taken up residence within me, so that from this point onwards, I would not be able to get rid of him; I would have to carry him around in my breast, with his name on my lips....this though gave me no peace...
To drive away these painful thoughts, which tormented me like swarms of flies, I began to think about that very object under discussion, my "alter ego" whose name I now bore. What, for example, could he have looked like, this 16-17 year-old boy, who was called by the true name of Itzko Moiseyevitch Taytsh? Was he also as tall and slim as I? Did he also have such dark-blue eyes like mine? And does he also have such a black, wavy head of hair like mine? And most important: what kind of character, what kind of soul does he possess?
What could he be doing there, in that free, Golden America? Are his parents - "my" parents - still alive? Without a doubt, I thought, he is better off than me. He must certainly be in the University by now...preparing himself to be a doctor, a lawyer, and architect, or even a judge. Over there, what do they know from false passports and phony names? Over there, they are "at home" while over here we are strangers, sojourners, unwanted.
For sure, I thought further, if I am ever fortunate enough to find myself in that happy land, I will first of all go to search him out, that Itzko Taytsh. I'll tell him that I had once borne his name. I had once been not myself, but instead....him! Now my name was Itzko Moiseyevitch Taytsh....
Yes, Taytsh, Taytsh is my name. Never mind that my own parents, in Zastavia, have already given me a name: I bid you now, former name of mine, "Falik Zolf", depart from me at once! Get out of me! Renounce me! Forget about me, and I will forget about you. No, you say? You can't leave me? Because you grew inside my bones, in my blood anhd in my flesh? You and I are one....one without the other cannot live. But have mercy on me; this is nothing more than a "conditional divorce"....we will be separated only for a stretch of time, until the troubles are past. Afterwards we will be re-united, we will be one body and one soul, just as we always were....
I barely made it through to the next morning. And with the first light of day, I rushed to the mirror to examine my face, to see if I really was still the same, or if possibly I had already begun to assume a new, strange form....yes, the eyes look different; there was something in them, something sad, uneasy...wandering about as though in a strange, unreal world. A cold shiver went through my body....
At about this time, my home town, my village of Zastavia (Kamenets-Litovsk), was occupied by the Germans. I felt altogether cut off. I was left with a strange passport, mit strange parents, whom I had never met, and whom I never would meet. And once more, it was time for me to take my suitcase and my pillow, which my true mother had given me, on the road again, and begin a new exile...to find for myself a new home, a new village where no one will know me; no one, God forbid, should know that I, a young boy, carried with me the dreadful secret of a double personality.
* * * RETURN TO HOME PAGE * * *TABLE OF CONTENTS * * * NEXT CHAPTER * * *