Caucasus and Lithuania

Once more I left behind, without a single thought, the medical degree; to reach it would have required only weeks, no longer months or years. The train brought us to Rostov on the Don, the route on which I had been denied travel ten months earlier. And possibly it was for the better. At that time, in October or November 1919, an epidemic of typhus exanthemus (Flecktyphus) reaped a grim harvest in the terribly overcrowded trains, and many of the escapees did not reach Rostov.

We reached the station of Mineralniy Vody, from which a short sidetrack leads to Kislovodsk, the place where the revolution of February 1917 found my father, myself, and Alexander. Now it was all very different. For two nights we slept on the floor of the station or its platform, during which people would be awakened and required to show their identification. Finally there was a train that carried Armenian refugees toward the south. We traveled in the crowded boxcars, changing trains somewhere. My mother, used to comfort, never complained. Some years later my father recalled that I had made a step of my back for my mother to get out of the boxcar. This was all self-understood and did not require any effort on my part. A train on a short track took us to Vladikavkaz. Upon arrival we obtained two rooms in a hotel, but after a few days we were told to move to a more permanent place. All we had eventually was a single room for the four of us (for Alexander was with us) with a kitchen and a yard, in a rather primitive building with a ladder instead of a staircase.

It was from Vladikavkaz that Janovsky, who reached it several months before, had written to tell us a few details about the group of halutzim, or pioneers, that assembled there and waited for a chance to reach the other side of the Caucasian ridge and from there to proceed to Palestine. Now Janovsky came to us, and sat next to the window in a dark corner, his face framed by white hair and a white beard; his boy, also silent, stood next to him. One of the first men we got to know was Lichtenstein, a local cobbler who was an active Zionist and interested himself in the halutzim. Then we got to know the group, too. Many of them were from Rostov, some from the mining region of Donetz, and a scattering from other places. Altogether, counting those who arrived after us, there were thirty or forty souls.

The oldest travelers were a bearded man, Ratner, and his wife, the sister of his first, deceased, wife. He had an estate in the land of Israel, in Rishon le Zion. Winter in Vladikavkaz was moving in rapidly, and it was cold in the unheated dwellings; it happened that I took Mr. Ratner, a sturdy octogenarian, to a place where I knew pieces of lumber could be purchased—cuts left by a maker of wooden soles for shoes. I would fill a large sack with the wooden pieces, lift it on my back, and carry it to his room to use to fuel their little stove. These stoves were usually placed in the middle of a room so as to have heat also from the smokestack. Ratner promised to offer me wine from his vineyard in Rishon when we should reach that goal of ours. It was highly improbable that such old people as they would make it, but the day did come when I was offered a glass of wine by the Ratners in Rishon le Zion. Fate was not as merciful to many others.

The town of Vladikavkaz, later renamed Ordzhonikidze, lies at the foot of the Caucasian ridge, and the river Terek, emerging from the deep gorge of Daryal, rushes through the town. The main street runs on flat land, but in front of it rises the wall-like ridge, here dominated by the snow-covered Kazbek. The Voyenno-Gruzinskaya Doroga (the Military-Georgian Road) crosses the ridge, starting from Vladikavkaz and running to Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, on the other side of the Ridge. This road is famed all over the world for its wild beauty: a gorge runs alongside, and mountains rise above the road and the gorge. Snow covering the road and avalanches of snow falling on it from great heights cause the road to be closed in wintertime; yet that winter the Red Government tried to keep the passage free—but not for the usual mortals. The would-be emigres had congregated here to wait and wait for a miracle, or plan to travel afoot over the snow-covered slopes of the Kazbek when even the road was perilous for travel.

The bulk of the group rented, or more properly, occupied, a space on the main street and worked on farms somewhere close to the town. The leader of the group was a dedicated man in his middle or late twenties; he and Mina Janovsky, a girl of about twenty, with a kind and dreamy face and curly black hair, intended to marry. There was Nahum Karpovsky, a well-organized youth, but a little dry for a halutz—a bookkeeper; Raia, an exalted girl, tall, with sparks in her greenish-gray eyes and a crown of hair; Kulkin, a youth of small but athletic stature and a daring spirit; Vinnik, a simple soul, not handsome, with a deep furrow above his nose, a good worker; and many others. They called themselves Hapoel baderekh, or “laborers on the way.” In large dormitories they lived, they cooked and ate, and spoke of the land of Israel, and sang Hebrew songs.

One day there arrived a young man who called himself Gibori. Small in stature, with nervous ticks, he told a story of persecutions, wanderings and escapes. He knew perfect Hebrew, having come from the land of Israel. I had already met him briefly in Poltava where he gave a few Hebrew lessons to my uncle Israel. He thought himself followed by the Cheka, and more than once jumped from a train. He wrote poetry and sang a Hebrew song about the wind. After escaping from Vladikavkaz he was heard of here and there, and finally several years later made news by living in a cave in the outskirts of Jerusalem and having a Yemenite bride and followers.

Should I tell in advance the story of each of the members of the group, I would commit an error against the biographical character of the story: I could not know their individual destinies, as they would come to pass in succeeding years and decades. The members of the group Hapoel Baderekh and those who did not belong directly to the group were awaiting a chance to cross into Georgia, then outside of the Soviet Union and communist domination; month after month passed. Alexander took a job, since without it he would hardly be in the graces of the local soviet administration, and so did many of the others stranded in Vladikavkaz. He and I would chop firewood to heat our place, and a neighbor, the wife of a communist, would express to our mother her liking for us, young fellows, working so handsomely. We slept all four in one room.

In Vladikavkaz I wrote “Thirty Days and Nights of Diego Pirez on the Bridge of Sant Angelo"—a poem in prose in Russian. Pirez, a marrano (a Jew from a family forcibly converted to Christianity), born about 1500, was high in the court of Portugal. He returned to his Jewish faith, impressed by the arrival of David Reubeni, who claimed to be a royal prince of a Jewish kingdom in Arabia, and an ambassador to Christian princes, the pope included, with the mission of finding allies for a war of deliverance against the Arabs and Turks who had penetrated to the outskirts of Vienna. Among the many unusual experiences of Diego—who upon circumcizing himself took the name Solomon Molcho—was a thirty-days-long vigil on a bridge across the Tiber, close to the Vatican; a death sentence from the Inquisition from which Pope Clement VII saved Molcho by having another prisoner burned in his stead; and finally a death by fire, after being condemned by Charles V, the emperor, to whom Molcho had traveled together with Reubeni, trying to convert him to their plans. I wrote—with no notes or books before me—three or four pages for each of the thirty days and nights of the vigil. The first four days I had already written in Kharkov, but all the rest I wrote in Vladikavkaz.

Once I read my poem in prose to Ierahmiel Krupenin, a youth from the northern Caucasus who arrived in town after us. He knew and loved my cousin, Njuta Rosenblatt. Knowing that I was her cousin, he was friendly to me. Once I went with him and Selig Rivkind, an unusual youth from the group, to the snowy slopes of the mountains rising over the city, and sat there and read from the Bible that I carried with me in my breast pocket all these years—the Hebrew Old Testament.

Once, trying to find the way out of Vladikavkaz, I went to the palace on the hill in which was the office of the chief of the military-political police, a kind of political governor of the area. He was a young Jew from Siberia. He knew very little of Jewish problems and was interested in what I would say. And I, like some Solomon Molcho going into the den of the powerful to plead for his people, pleaded the case of young and old who strove to reach their ancestral home in the land of Israel. I even invited this feared chief to come to the place where the majority of the group lived, and see for himself; they intended to go to the land of Israel and live there in a commune. It was a risky thing that I did, but I was full of faith and kindled something in him, too; he was not a scheming man, and he was impressed by me. Two or three times I visited him, and on one of these errands I took with me Nahum Karpovsky, one of the members of the group.

At the same time we looked for another means to proceed on our way. My father told me that some family whom he by chance met was about to depart on the road to Tiflis, having bribed their way, and that they were ready to tell me with whom to do it; so I visited them—there were two couples, rich people trying to leave Russia. They introduced me to the police officer who had arranged the trip for them, and told me that their diamonds would be secreted in the tires of the lired automobile. A few days later, going up the staircase of the palace of the military police to see the police chief, I found the two men sitting on a bench. I approached them, but they told me to go and not to talk to them because they had been arrested, and the same would happen to me should I be seen talking to them. In their plight they thought of my safety; they had been trapped by a provocateur.

In this atmosphere of impatient waiting we lived through the end of 1920; in front of us stood the towering wall of the Kazbek, with the river Terek tearing and foaming through the town. The unusally good pears bought at the market and the food cooked by our mother kept us alive and healthy. One of the girls in the commune, Raia, had an exalted dream and told it to all: she saw me as a High Priest in some magnificent hall, someone to whom was entrusted the deliverance of the Jewish people. Rivkind, years later, told me of the strong impression my father and I made upon him at our visit to the group, when he first saw us.

By January 1921 I had decided to go back to Moscow and to seek there a chance to get out of Russia. This decision was taken in view of the fact that the Soviet regime was about to occupy Georgia.

I made my long travel to Moscow, leaving behind my parents and Alexander. It took several days. In the meantime Daniel’s little daughter, born just before we left Moscow in September 1918, had grown into a charming child; I wrote for her long nursery rhymes about a cat and a goose, and she learned them by heart; by heart she could also narrate long poems read to her by her nurse. I slept with the child in her room, which had been our boys’ room when we went to school. Only two rooms in the apartment were left for my brother and his family, and soon I moved in with Moshe Halevy, my cousin, who was a member of the cast of Habima, the Hebrew theater, then a kind of miracle, performing in Moscow.

Years earlier I had been one of the first two onlookers of Habima’s first production. Now Habima was working on ha-Dibbuk; Moshe was competing with the director, for the role of a prophet in a messianic piece: both ended up playing the role.

Daniel told me of a great tragedy: Avsey, a brother of Moshe and our favorite cousin, had been killed by the Cheka during the years we were away. When in 1918 uncle Israel left Niznij Novgorod, he entrusted the business (factory) to his manager Zirlin, who had once worked for my father and loved us children, and to Avsey. This Avsey was very handsome. At the age of seventeen he had come from Mstislav to Moscow to work for my father. He was crazy about opera and introduced Daniel to this operamania. He would work during the day, managing the little factory as a trusted relative, and go to the opera almost nightly. Then he went to study in the conservatory of Petersburg, and there was a long affair with a Russian girl. When on a visit to Moscow he would receive four or five letters from her every day; then, when we were in the Ukraine, he decided to leave her and to marry the daughter of a competitor, a rich family in Nizhnij. Zirlin was arrested. Instead of fleeing, Avsey stayed and tried to release the man, but was arrested too. Daniel in Moscow was alarmed and arranged that a demand be sent to Nizhnij to bring Avsey to the capital, but on the day arranged for his marriage he and Zirlin were shot. Avsey was then about 30 or 31.

I slept on the upholstered chairs put together at Moshe’s room. He told me of Khana Rovina’s love for him; she was then in the sanatorium, and I urged him, out of compassion, to go to see her there.

At Daniel’s house I was once witness to this little scene. A couple of guests were visiting, among them Vladimir Mayakovsky, the famous poet. Genia, Daniel’s wife, always had people of name or distinction among her acquaintances. Daniel was playing with them in some card game. During the game Mayakovsky announced that the “bank” was his, and threw the winning card on the table—face down. Daniel lifted it, put it with the rest of the cards, and shuffled them; after a little while Mayakovsky, who knew that Daniel had seen the card, called to resume the game, and pushed back the pile of cash he had grabbed before, saying it was a joke. Later, when the guests left, I asked Daniel the meaning of the thing: why did he not announce the fraud when he saw it? He answered, “He was my guest at my home.” This Mayakovsky was deified, especially in later years, as the Bolshevik poet; in the end he killed himself.

I did not stay long in Moscow. It was a successful visit. During thirty days I passed thirteen medical examinations, and thus obtained my degree. The exams were spaced two or three days apart, but in a few cases there were two on the same day. There was very little to eat; it was the year of hunger, the winter of 1920-21. I studied in Moshe’s room, went afoot to the clinics at the Devitchie Pole, a distance, and there drank a sort of “tea” made of carrots or other vegetables, with a little jam for sugar—there was nothing else. But at the abandoned Okhotnyi Riad in the center of Moscow, where once the most unusual delicacies filled the stores on both sides of the sidewalk, a solitary figure would sell me a quarter pound of butter from under his overcoat, and I would eat it in slices, without bread. But I passed all the exams.

Had I succeeded to leave by way of the Caucasus, I would not have become a doctor. During the same month I managed to achieve something else, which had actually been the purpose of my travel: to obtain a permit for my parents to leave Russia for the land of Israel. This was among the first such permits given. I found some protection. There was a distant relative, of the same name, working in the political police; I saw him at his house. The incident that made us leave Moscow in September 1918, when the Cheka looked for my father because of his Zionist activities, had apparently been lost in the files. Several weeks later Chaim Bialik, who too came to Moscow to seek a permit obtained it as well. One more thing I achieved: I went to the University (Kommercheski Institut) in the technical department where Alexander had studied before his arrest, and reinstated him, obtaining permission for him to renew his studies and matriculate again. With these achievements I traveled again to the Caucasus, a journey of some days; I hardly remember this passage.

My father was daily awaiting me, often at the window or the glass-paned door of the humble place where we lived on the second floor, a ladder serving as the outside stairs. Finally I came. I did not boast of my achieved degree, so that months later my parents were surprised to hear from me that it was in my possession. Actually I did not take out the degree until close to my own departure from Russia—otherwise I could have been drafted as a military doctor. But my father I found with a bandaged head. The day before my arrival an automobile had knocked him down on the street; he was wounded in his temple. I went with him to the clinic of the town hospital, and when the dressing was taken off to be changed I felt a faint spell and had to sit down.

During my absence from the Caucasus the family of Janovsky, father, daughter and son, and Yania (Jacob) Zipelson, the daughter’s husband-to-be, went to the mountains with guides who promised to take them over the Caucasus to Tiflis in Georgia. Even on the Military-Georgian road travel in winter was hazardous, but to go over the snowy slopes of the Kazbek was foolhardy. Yet the greatest danger was in the treacherous Osetin guides. It was agreed between Zipelson and Janovsky and their friends that should they succeed in crossing into Georgia they would send a note back with their guides. After several days a note did come, written by the hand of Yania, but it was hardly reassuring: it was obviously written under coercion: its contents were not as agreed beforehand; thus they sought to warn their friends, and a certainty of the disaster that befell them at the hand of their guides gripped the hearts of those who waited behind. Had I then been in the Caucasus, I probably would have opposed their going, an old man and a young boy being in the group.

Yet soon after I returned the other youths desired to follow Janovsky’s example: one was Eliezer Finkel, the other by the name of Melodist, a tall and friendly youth. I remember the evening in the hall, the group gathered around the stove, these two, and a bearded Menshevik by the name of Mintz, leaving the Soviet Union for political reasons. Mr. Lichtenstein found them guides who would take them that night into the mountains. Possibly I tried to dissuade them, but it was too late to change their hearts. After parting with us they left, and went into the night. A year later when the bulk of Hapoel Baderekh reached Palestine in a round about way, through Europe, they found a heartbreaking letter from a sister of Finkel—please, oh please write us a single word that you are alive. But this letter awaited Finkel, and he was no longer alive; Melodist, I believe, was the only son of his mother, and how much must she have loved this fine youth.

Despite my father’s wound we decided to start on our trek back from the Caucasus. His bandage, we trusted, we would be able to change at some stations where there were ambulance rooms. We found such an occasion on a train to which a salon car was attached—actually the car that once belonged to the Tzar’s Prime Minister Stolypin (assassinated in Kiev in 1911). Under the conditions of the time this was very fortunate. But our itinerary was not clear to me: the permit for my parents to go abroad had only a thirty-day force, and though after my return from Moscow I remained only a few counted days in the Caucasus, it became obvious that should my parents travel to Germany via Moscow, the permit would expire before they would be able to cross the border. Thus when the train remained standing for an hour or so at a station from which a side track was running toward the Black Sea port of Novorossijsk, I went through a spell of indecision. Having wandered with my parents for two and a half years, I was afraid to send them off on their own to Constantinople: they would have to find their way alone to the land of Israel, without knowledge of Turkish, French or English. And so I decided to take the risk of going via Moscow and applying for an extension of the permit, in the hope that this time, too, nothing would be uncovered that would trap my parents in Russia. But the indecision repeated itself at another station from where, again, a railway line ran to the same Novorossijsk. Many years later I traced to these events the indecision I would often experience before going on travels.

Thus we reached Rostov; we lived in the railway car for several days. The car was out somewhere on the very numerous tracks of the Rostov terminal. For over three days we waited for a train for Moscow. I went to town where by chance I met Yuza, my cousin, the son of my uncle Feivel. In 1919 they had succeeded to run away from Kharkov to Rostov, the route I tried then so unsuccessfully to go with my parents. On the way they experienced typhus—it was then a dreadful journey. Soon Feivel found my parents in the railway salon car—I was again away—and came to see them, after some seventeen months. He sat there in the car, sad, and asked the forgiveness of my parents for the way they had been treated in Kharkov, that night when, after seeking shelter from the rain, we slept on the floor of their mansion.

After three days of waiting I learned that a train set up at the platform was to leave for Moscow in a few hours, and I again arranged a salon car for my parents and berths for Alexander and myself. I transferred my father and a part of our belongings, and went back to transfer my mother, but I could not find the car on the sidings. There are several hundred sidings in Rostov, and all were blocked by the rolling stock, almost all of it boxcars, in the near-paralyzed traffic of Russia. I was frightened: the car with my mother in it had been moved away. I looked around and searched, and could not find it. I asked somebody and was told that it must have rolled away to Bataysk, across the river Don. After years of travel, during which I carried my parents through all perils, I had lost my mother. In the condition of Russia then, this would mean a parting forever. She would be helpless, and how could we proceed to Moscow without her? My father and Alexander were already in the train awaiting departure. I ran toward Bataysk. There are several stations, I read later, seven kilometers distant from Rostov. But could it be seven kilometers that I ran? I came to a railroad bridge over the river Don—I believe it was the longest bridge in Russia. An armed guard stood at the entrance and would not let me in, but there was another bridge close by. I climbed over barbed wire, in view of the guard, and ran over this bridge, waving to the soldiers that guarded it some papers I had in my hand, as if a permit, and I reached the other side at Bataysk. There stood a lonely train, very long, packed with refugees, mostly orientals, who sat and also loitered in front of the cars of the train. I ran and cried: “Mama, mama!” I ran to the end of the very numerous boxcars of which the train was composed and there was not the car I looked for, nor my mother. Time was running out; in the meantime my father’s train would leave without my mother and myself. I ran back to Rostov in the hope that I would find her there. This time I headed for the railway bridge; on this side, too, the sentinel would not permit me to enter it, but I waved my papers, and shouted at him: “Shoot!” and ran onto the bridge. With every step I had to touch the crossbeam under the rails: in between was the blue of the river beneath. A single false step and I would be flying to the depth. The kilometer-long bridge and a thousand steps in running, and not once did I slip: perhaps the fact that I was under great stress kept me from a false step, as if I were on “automatic pilot.” On the other side of the bridge the guard that had not let me in let me out without shooting me, and soon I was again on the Rostov terminal sidings. I cried again “Mama!"—and suddenly saw her at the door of the car that had apparently been only slightly transferred to another track. With the rest of the strength in me I took my mother and the belongings still with her, which I loaded on my back, and ran to the train at the station. The train was still there. I lay myself on the upper berth, my shirt as wet as if taken from a pail of water. There I remained, unable to stand up.

The train moved. On the lower berth was a famous socialist, a military hero; years later, if I remember right, he was put to death in one of the purges. The travel was not short. It was around the time of Passover. Finally we reached Moscow.

In Moscow my parents came to know their first grandchild—Lenochka. The few weeks in Moscow until the permit was renewed (and this happened without a hitch), my parents lived in a rented room in the building complex where Daniel lived, and where we had lived for many years.

Came the day, and all three of us were at a station seeing our parents off in a very comfortable Pullman car, almost empty; direction: Riga, the capital of the newly-independent republic of Latvia. After the train left we three sat on a bench. It had taken me from September 1918 to late spring or early summer 1921 to achieve this.

In August of the same year it was planned for me to meet my parents, who would take the train in Riga and travel over Latvia to Germany: I would join them in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, and accompany them to the German frontier in Virbalis or Eydtkuhnen. This also came to be and I spent a few hours with my parents whom I had not seen since the spring, when my brothers and I brought them to the railway station in Moscow and saw them off to Riga. My mother looked healthier and happier than I had seen her in many years. The stamp of deprivation from the years of wanderings in the Ukraine and the Caucasus during 1918-1921, amidst civil war, as refugees and with no household, were now all but erased in the healthy atmosphere of the seaside resort where they had spent the summer. My father, however, had had some fearful moments or worried days when the Latvian authorities questioned their right to enjoy a temporary residence in that republic; possibly he was even concerned that they might be returned to Russia, probably an exaggerated fear. But their friends in Riga—an engineer whom we met in Kharkov, in the Ukraine—helped them to solve the bureaucratic difficulty. Now on the train, leaving Latvia, both of my parents seemed relieved and eager for a new leaf in life having Russia behind and life in the land of Israel before them. The stations of Virbalis, the old Russian frontier town, and of Eydtkuhnen, the German town on the other side of the state frontier, were familiar to me from several crossings, when at the age of 12 and then at the age of 14 our parents took us to the Baltic sea resort of Krantz near Koenigsberg. On one of these neighboring stations I parted with my parents who continued to Berlin. Waiting for a train to take me back to Kovno I looked over the small paperbound books on the rack and bought myself a copy of a book—I do not remember whether in German or in Russian—on the Theory of Relativity. I spent two months in Kovno and obtained documents to enable my two brothers and their families to leave Russia, should they wish to do so.

Now I had to think how to make my way to the land of Israel. I made several efforts. Returning to Moscow, I registered as of Lithuanian origin on the ground that my mother was born in Grodno. Eschelons with repatriates were then leaving Moscow and going through various steps, and I was registered with one eschelon. At the Lithuanian embassy in Moscow I had to receive a permit. I was asked whom I knew in Grodno, and I named the familiar Jewish names, and so was declared acceptable by the Lithuanians. Daniel was with me at that legation and asked advice whether he too should leave Russia; I did not influence him to do so, and for that in later years I blamed myself. But his wife was too much of a Muscovite, and strong-willed, too.

Alexander renewed his studies and did not consider leaving. He was in love with the sister of Genia, and for that reason he also had not left with us that September, three years earlier; but she was admired by a few others, one of whom she married, and died young several years later from measles, complicated by pneumonia.

Thus I was to part with my brothers at the age of 26, they being 27 and 29. They never saw our parents again. With Alexander especially we had been very close. He did not envy me in anything, and was proud of me; and since our early childhood there was an unusually fine relation between us two. Daniel was older, more precocious, and only when all of us were students in the universities did the relation become comrade-like; but his marriage again made a difference.

One day somebody appointed to my eschelon told me that that very day the eschelon would be leaving. I hurried home, to Daniel, and left for the Briensk railway station. I do not remember whether Alexander came to the station to see me off—I left in a hurry, when he was not home. It seems to me that he found out still in time and came. The eschelon was put in many boxcars and the train slowly left. The Russian frontier was in the town Sebezh. Crossing into Latvia the “refugees” were interrogated by a Lithuanian commission visiting the train. I saw a group of Jews who were denied entrance, and they stood immobile; they had come from Siberia or some other distant place. I went to them and led them back to the members of the commission that they should reconsider the decision. At this point I was also regarded as one to whom entrance had been denied, and I was turned back, too. Then I hid myself among the sacks and valises in a boxcar. Immediately upon my arrival in Latvia, all emigrants to Lithuania were called out to attend an evening meeting where communism was denounced and Jews were attacked (verbally); when the inmates of the car where I was hid returned, I heard the repeated word “zhid” (Jew). In the morning, possibly it was still Sebezh, I left the boxcar guarded by the military as if for some needs, and from the bushes headed over a large field into the town.

I succeeded to make my way to Riga, capital of Latvia, and from there to Tallin, capital of Estonia. Then a ferry took me to Stockholm. After about six days in Stockholm, I started on the last leg of my journey—toward Berlin.