"Blind Folye"

A short story

From the 1920s until World War II, the Yiddish reading public in Poland enjoyed an exceptional feast of noteworthy literature. Many of the talented authors who produced this bounty are today unknown, and their work has not yet seen the light of day in English translation. Froyim Kaganovski (1893–1958) is a prime example of just such a writer. He produced more than thirty works in fifty-four publications—books, novellas, journals, and newspapers—primarily in Yiddish and Polish. Throughout a lifetime of forced wandering between Poland and Russia, he wrote continuously and, perhaps, obsessively.

This story is from Kaganovski’s 1928 collection Figurn (Figures). Tales like this one provide a unique view into the bustling life of the modern, fast-changing Jewish population of Warsaw, a city that in the period between the two World Wars had the largest population of Jews of any city outside of America.


The street still remembered Folye of thirty years ago, when he was a well-known poultry dealer at the marketplace. He was a man of importance then, and a rich man as well. He was considered a hero because of his great strength and was called “Folye the Giant.” He could lift even the heaviest wagon up onto his shoulders. There wasn’t a single soul in or around the Iron Gates neighborhood or the marketplace who did not know Folye.

Everyone still remembers the times he came home on leave during his service with the grenadiers in Moscow. The girls of the Iron Gates threw themselves at him! And when he married Mendel the Butcher’s daughter, Rikl the Doll, the whole town was drunk for eight days running.

On Saturdays, when the young couple went strolling down the avenues, or to the park on Bagatela, or to the Eldorado Theater, the other women threw them envious glances, wishing they had such luck.

Rikl the Doll was the neighborhood beauty. She was tall and slim, rosy-faced with long, brown hair. Even at that time there was talk of the police chief being so in love with her that he would follow her around in his carriage. Young men would fight over her with knives while she looked down on the market from her balcony, flashing them her doll-like smile.

The couple lived together comfortably for a few years. They had no children, so their business grew more and more successful, and the street murmured that they lived like magnates.

In the midst of all this, Folye suddenly became ill and began to lose his sight. They desperately sought out every professor, every doctor, and every Jew with a bright idea. But nothing helped. Within a very short time, the illness drained him of his fortune.

He could soon be seen wandering in the marketplace with bandaged eyes. He seemed suddenly, overnight, to become old and thin, but he still possessed those mighty shoulders and that proud head. Rikl the Doll led him by the arm. Folye could no longer accomplish much; nevertheless, he still traded and was able to evaluate poultry by feel and touch.

The women wept when they saw Folye on the street, and people began to reproach Rikl the Doll: “Too much of a doll to take goods to the market.”

But Rikl would not hear of doing business. As before, she appeared elegantly dressed, and her beauty tore up the street.

As for Folye, things went from bad to worse. Good friends still supported him and gathered together a few rubles. Then he went into the hospital for a long time. It was then that Rikl began to leave the house at night. There was talk of her being seen in the faraway streets, among officers and generals. A good friend who visited Folye in the hospital informed him of his wife’s affairs. Folye heard him out but remained silent, simply holding his head higher and stiffer.

But that very Saturday evening, when everyone was standing around their gates and couples were out strolling, there was suddenly a great hullabaloo, people running every which way.

Folye appeared in the street in a gray hospital gown, his eyes bandaged. He ran to and fro like a wild ox, roaring and bellowing, slippers on his feet. Scores of people ran after him. He went upstairs to the flat where he and Rikl lived. The door was locked. Rikl the Doll was not at home.

“Let me at her! Give her to me, and I will tear her head off! Folye still lives!”

With a single stroke, he tore the door from its hinges. He felt his way around every corner. He smelled everything that was in the apartment. He detected the scent on her clothes. He tore down the chest, neared the bed, and pounced like a lion. Before anyone could stop him, he had made a complete shambles of the entire house. He shattered the chest and tore up the bedclothes. The neighborhood strongmen were called in, but even they could barely contain him.

“Let me at her! Give her to me, and I will tear her head off! Folye still lives!”

He went on cursing and ranting, determined to stay until she came home.

His good friends embraced him and tried to convince him: “Folye, let it go; forget her. God will help you; you’ll become a man again . . . and find another doll.”

After that, Folye went limp. He began to shake and sob like a child. They say that all the men wept with him when they took him back to the hospital.

From that moment on, Rikl the Doll was never seen again.

***

Thus began a chain of bleak years. In the beginning, some of the old dealers still remembered Folye. They would send over a basket of chickens for him to inspect, enabling him to earn a few coins. The women would deliver a bit of cooked food to his stall in the market. Little by little, however, they forgot him altogether.

But Blind Folye never forgot anyone. Even though his eyes remained in constant darkness, he always saw in his mind’s eye the whole neighborhood of the Iron Gates and the marketplace. He sensed each step, every house, every fence and corner of the place, and certainly every person. With his stick clutched tightly in his gnarled, outstretched hand and his head held high, he paced the crowded marketplace. The brightly moving world that he had lost was burrowed deep in him, astonishingly more vivid in his mind. He could recognize the voice of each and every person he had ever seen.

Amid the great clamor of the market, the loud cries and raucous noise of geese, hens, ducks, women, children, girls, and the many Jews buying and selling, was Folye. He arrived early every morning, together with all the dealers, butchers, water carriers, and draymen. He always appeared tall and straight, with a stiff head, as if carved from wood, and a broad, pale mouth with white, solid, healthy teeth.

Only his eyes were closed and withdrawn. Small reddish slits were seen where eyes had once been. Blind Folye leaned forward on his stick with pointed, alert ears and listened.

Once, the town porter approached, bent double under a heavy load. He passed Folye and shouted, “Good morning, Folye!”

“Good morning, Leybele, you sissy!” Folye responded.

Laughter broke out among the women and children. The porter stopped, still holding the load on his back. He thrust a coin into Folye’s hand. “Here, Folye, you deserve it,” he said. “Since you recognized me.”

Suddenly a carriage was heard rumbling over the jagged stones of the road toward Folye. Amid the noise, the wagon driver shouted down, “Folye, may the devil take your father!”

Blind Folye strained his ears, mumbled a moment, and cried out, “Motkele, you swindler! Toss me a tenner!”

The older dealers gossiped. “Look what can become of a man.”

And so he recognized each and every one. He never made a mistake. The crowd delighted in him and threw him its spare change.

The older dealers gossiped. “Look what can become of a man.”

“If only I had what he once had.”

“God punishes a man.”

Children with fingers in their wide-open mouths looked with fear upon the blind man, who mumbled wordlessly as though convincing himself of something.

All around him the noise of the market, of buying and selling, resounded. Merchants praised their products to the skies. The clamor rolled on and on, like a hail of stones.

An elegant noblewoman arrived to purchase goods, and the merchants were beseeching her from all sides. A soldier with a gold stripe running down the length of his trousers followed her with two large baskets. The noblewoman intended to buy a great deal. She smiled with her bright, blue eyes. She knew that “they cheat here.” Oh, she knew!

Suddenly the blind man’s stick began to shake. He tore his head up, jolted forward, and stumbled in his haste. He lifted himself by his hands, and a loud roar was heard: “Rikl . . . Rikl . . . my wife, Rikl . . .”

A crowd boiled around them, a thick, swarming knot of people.

And in the center of it all stood the soldier with the golden trouser stripe, holding the fainting noblewoman.


Bracha Beverly Weingrod will soon self-publish Jewish Warsaw Between the Wars, which includes twenty of her translations of Kaganovski’s short stories, mostly drawing from his 1928 collection Figurn. She thanks Gilda Gordon for her help in editing. Weingrod, an accomplished teacher, lives in Jerusalem and is also the translator of Dos Familien Kokh-Bukh, which she published under the title The Yiddish Family Cookbook.