Properly, I ought to begin this account by telling when I was born. But — I am ashamed to admit it — I do not know. You see, I was only a Jewish girl, and in my day and time, in the place when I was born, female births were not recorded. With a boy, it was different. The Jewish community and the Russian Government collaborated in observing his birthdays. The Jewish community had to know when he would be 13, so that he could then be confirmed in the faith of his fathers; while the Russian Government wanted to know when he was 21, and a year or two later would not do at all — because they wanted him for the army. But a girl! It was enough if one reckoned that she was born some time before the “big fire,” and, after that, one could begin checking off the places where she had lived — at Sarah Rifke’s one year; at Yankel Hirsh’s five years; at Sarah Nachman’s three years — and if one happened to miss a place or two, what did it matter? Could it hurt a girl to be a few years younger?
Therefore I must… count my years as pleases me. I was born more than 60 years ago, and the world into which I was born was — then as now — bad for the Jews. My birthplace was Yanesok, in Lithuania.
My father was a poor man, a petty merchant. He had a reputation as a scholar, which meant that he spent most of his time in the synagogue when he should have been earning a living. I was the youngest child of many, and therefore I know nothing of my parents when they were young. An older sister… once told me that they were formerly well off, but when I remember them they were desperately poor, and for the rest of their lives they remained so.
My mother was, I think, an interesting woman. In those days she was slightly in ill-repute as a modern. She spoke a number of languages quite well — German, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian — and she was well-read, but in her day, especially in the villages, it was better for a woman if she concealed her knowledge.
When I began to grow up she told me something of her past. She was born in Jacobstadt, which is a town in Courland, near the German border. Her mother died in childbirth, and she was reared by a stepmother. Her father was a dayan, which is to say he used to assist the rabbi in judgments involving Jews, and these judgments were accepted as legally binding by the Russian law courts…. His second wife, my mother’s stepmother, ran a tavern that was patronized by both Jews and gentiles. Jacobstadt at that time was a fine and handsome town, and a large military garrison was stationed there. My mother’s beauty attracted a number of young officers to the place, and they used to chat with her and pay her many compliments. On that account her father was in great haste to get her married off, and married off she was when she was only 14.
Each year, as the custom was, my mother used to give birth to a child, but by the time I was grown, there were few of them left. Some had immigrated, far overseas, and some had died, and my mother was old and sick with grief over them before her time.
I have never made up my mind whether the women in those days were heroines or animals. When the time came to give birth to a child, an old woman was called in, a midwife. She made small ceremony about the affair. The prospective mother was ordered to lie down in bed, and soon after there was a cry of pain and the wailing of a child. Mazeltov! And the very next day you could see the mother sitting up in bed, supping of a huge bowl of groats, and looking smugly innocent of the whole business, as if not she were intended.
Nor was there much trouble taken with the new arrival. An old dress would be torn into strips and bound tightly around the baby’s body, hindering all movement. It would then be placed into its cradle — a wooden box hanging by four ropes from the ceiling — and one of the other children, hardly much older, would be assigned the task of rocking it, and of tending to it thereafter. When we lived with Yankel Hirsh, Meishke, his apprentice in the cobbler’s trade, 10 years old, used to sleep with one hand resting on the cradle. And if the baby so much as whimpered, the boy’s hand would automatically begin rocking, without his waking from sleep. And if the newborn child cried excessively, the second Mrs. Hirsh, a short, fat woman, everlastingly big with child, would take a little bread and sugar, chew it into a pap, and stick it into the infant’s mouth. And all would be peaceful again.
As for the other children, they wallowed about undisturbed on the floor, smeared with dirt, and with other things as well. Children were cheap in those days. Therefore people could afford to have them often.
At the time I begin my story, I was the only child left at home. A married sister, many years older than myself, lived elsewhere in the village. So that my mother and I were drawn closely together, and she would sit and talk to me for hours, not as to a child, but as if she had found in me a good friend, who could understand her, in whom she could confide. And I did in fact understand her, and the words she used to speak to me are still engraved in my heart.
I remember even the German and Russian songs she used to sing for me, in a low voice, because it was forbidden a woman to sing aloud. But even when she sang under her breath, it was sweet and sorrowful, as if a lost soul was weeping that could not find its place of peace. Tears would come to her eyes, and then I would throw my arms around her and say: “Mother, you will see. When I get married I will take you with me, against everybody in the world!”
And my mother would kiss me and laugh bitterly. Now I understand her bitter laughter. Time serves no one’s convenience. As a child I suppose I was as other children. I played, I cried. Life was bitter around me and I knew nothing about it.