Wind, Snow, a Completely Darkened Forest, a Frozen River, and Me in the Middle of It All

Ravitch’s autobiography, Dos mayse bukh fun mayn lebn (The Storybook of My Life), comprises three volumes, each of which contains numerous short chapters that can stand as independent memoirs. “Wind, Snow, a Completely Darkened Forest, a Frozen River, and Me in the Middle of It All” is drawn from the third volume (I. L. Peretz Publishing House, Tel Aviv, 1975), which covers Ravitch’s life in Warsaw between 1921 and 1934. In this chapter, he refers to the Warsaw Literary Association, a stand-in for the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists. Ravitch was executive secretary of this organization from 1924 to 1934.

This must have taken place in the early 1920s. It was related to the explosion of secular Jewish culture in Poland. (These days, explosions are a daily occurrence. They no longer frighten us.)

Worn out from wars and revolutions, Jewish youth all over Eastern Europe yearned for modern world culture and especially for modern Yiddish culture. They wanted to seize and devour the new culture of the entire world, and especially Yiddish culture. There was little time—a shortcut had to be found. The best short - cut was to learn less from books and newspapers and more from the lips of those creating that culture.

Obviously entire Jewish towns couldn’t travel to Warsaw to learn about modern culture, but the individuals creating Yiddish culture in Warsaw could go to these towns and give lectures. Especially on weekends, when everyone was free. A speakers’ bureau to organize this cultural work was established close to the Warsaw Literary Association and the editorial offices of the Literary Pages.

The trains were extremely undependable between the two World Wars, there were few buses, and towns were often ten or fifteen kilometers from the train station. But disseminating modern culture was, after all, sacred work.

And besides, the speakers earned a little money from the lectures.

And so I was asked to give a lecture in one of those towns. (The towns were all the same.) The topic? When I think about it after so many years, perhaps as many as fifty, I shudder. The topic was “the difference between expressionism and impressionism in all seven areas of artistic expression.”

*

Twilight. Friday. It’s bitterly cold, and I’m sitting in the waiting room of the Warsaw East Train Station. A loud voice announces that the train will leave in one minute. I race to the train and we’re off. The lecture will take place the next evening. The train is almost empty, and I’m as tired as a stone, if a stone could feel. I wait just long enough for the conductor to show up and check my ticket. Then I sit myself down, and before I know it, I’m asleep. I’m sleeping, but at the same time, I’m on guard. For some reason, the conductor puts out the oil lamp, and it’s as dark as the Egyptian plague of darkness. To calm my fear of the pitch-black darkness, I take out my pocketknife, open the largest blade, wrap it in a handkerchief, place it next to my head, and go back to sleep, a little less frightened.

A half hour passes. I hear rustling near the bench I’m lying on. I open one eye and see (inasmuch as you can see in such darkness) two hooded shapes swaying back and forth over me. I hear (inasmuch as you can hear in the racket of the third-class section of an old train) the two shapes muttering some kind of prayer over me. And I think (inasmuch as you can think in such a state of fear) that I have to act quickly. It’s me or them. I grab the pocketknife and point it as though I’m about to stab someone, and I jump down from the bench, prepared to fight for my life. I stand there clutching the pocketknife in my fist, ready to attack, but there’s no one there. I’m alone in the wagon.

I can’t even think about sleeping. But what were the two shapes wearing hoods like the crusading knights and swaying over me? They were, quite simply, the lapels from my coat, which I’d hung on a hook opposite me.

*
My watch has managed to catch a little light from a passing train and in-forms me, “Three o’clock.” A quarter of an hour left. I’m to go into the station where a peasant will be waiting for me with his wagon. He’ll take me to the town where I’m expected to give a lecture the next evening on the topic of expressionism, etc.

I arrive. The peasant takes my satchel with my lecture, leads me to his open wagon, helps me climb onto the bale of straw, suggests I lie down, and covers me with an old fox pelt. “Good night,” he says. “Go to sleep.” He’ll wake me in two hours when we get to the town. My friends will be waiting for me.

I follow the good peasant’s advice except the best advice of all, to sleep. I pass a sleepless night, one of the most difficult of my life. But I’ll just tell you about two incidents.
 

*
 
I’m lying on my back, looking up at the sky. I count the stars. Do I have anything better to do? One . . . ten . . . a hundred . . . a thousand . . . a million . . . a billion
. . .

Suddenly I hear a chorus of singing voices. Where is the sound coming from? It feels like the trees and stars are all singing along, and the song is coming closer and closer. I lift my head from my pallet, hoping to ask the good peasant what’s going on. He nudges me with his whip and whispers, “I can’t tell you now. Play dead. Go to sleep.”

After a few minutes, the singing is very close to us, and then it’s right next to our wagon. The peasant stops and greets the group cheerfully. “I’m sure you want to know who’s with me. An old, sick teacher from a village not far from ours. He’s more dead than alive. Let him sleep in peace.”

The group is in a good mood—the next day is Saturday and the day after, Sunday. They wish us well and continue on their way.

When they’re far behind us, the peasant nudges me again with his whip. “I’m sure you want to know who and what that was. I don’t know myself. Just good people. You can sleep in peace. Only an hour left. If something comes up, I’ll wake you.”

*
Sure enough, something immediately comes up. We’ve arrived at a riverbank, and the peasant consults with me. “This year, the winter started out cold. Heavy snow, biting winds. Our old river has already been frozen for a week.

To go around it to the wooden bridge would take an extra hour and probably more. But just look at our little river—truly a bridge of ice. My horses are small but strong. As easy as counting one, two, three, and we’ll get to town an hour early. Cross yourself, sir, and I’ll cross myself, and we’ll be on the other side.”

And he crosses himself, says something or other, strikes the horses with his whip, and he’s in the very middle of the bridge of ice. The horses trot in unison. Another lash of the whip, and we’re next to the riverbank. We need only one more minute of luck. But now we see that the horses are on dry land, but the wagon is still on the frozen river.

The peasant crosses himself again quickly—this takes only a fraction of a second. One second more, and I’ll be frozen with fear. That’s people for you, but the horses keep on going, carrying out their duty. They give one more tug, and the entire wagon is on dry land.

And then, at that exact moment, we hear the ice along the riverbank shift and crash into the water. But we’ve all been saved. The peasant thanks his God and says, “We have a good God, and God has a good son. Isn’t that true, sir?”

“Absolutely true. We have a great and good God.”

And I think to myself, “If you, my good man, only knew that God saved not just you and me but also tomorrow’s lecture about expressionism and impressionism, then you’d truly understand what a good God we have.”

Before I know it, we’re in the town.

Even though it’s not yet dawn, and the lecture is scheduled for Shabbos evening, several friends have come to meet the guest and take him to the inn and the bed that’s waiting for him.

The guest asks not to be woken before noon. He’s had a difficult night.

And now it’s Shabbos evening, and the large firemen’s hall is full to bursting.

Instead of one person on each chair, there are two.

The lecturer is barely able to push his way to the platform. The moderator welcomes him, and the audience applauds. The lecturer speaks, gets excited, and stumbles a little over his words. His topic is not an easy one. Its roots and branches encompass nothing less than all of world literature as well as all of Jewish literature.

In the middle of his lecture, the speaker stops for a minute. He wants to summarize, and he says, “Expressionism expresses the artist’s inner spiritual experience, and impressionism communicates the essence of an external experience—in literature, music, painting, sculpture, and theater. That, in a few words, is the core of my lecture.” And then the speaker asks if one, or even more than one person, in the audience would try to repeat the formulation about ex- and impressionism and in addition, interpret the topic in their own words. It’s quiet in the firemen’s hall. Everyone waits expectantly to see and hear what will happen next.

A young man stands up. He does exactly what the speaker has requested. And he’s not the only one in that town, on that particular night, who has understood.


*

A small group of friends accompany me to the inn. It’s bitterly cold, and we walk silently.

Now we’re in the inn, drinking tea, and strange words come out of my mouth, words that sound chauvinist, but they aren’t. “My good friends, show me another people in the world who would, in order to better understand im- and expressionism in art, brave such a wild, expressionist night?”

More than fifty years have passed since the evening in that town, and I still think about it. I haven’t stopped wondering.

MELECH RAVITCH (1893–1976) was born in Redim (Radymno) in eastern Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and died in Montreal, Quebec. A personal memoirist and a chronicler of the Yiddish literary world, Ravitch was also a poet, essayist, playwright, educator, and cultural activist. In the early 1920s he was a member of the loosely organized avant-garde literary movement known as Di khalyastre (The Gang). In Warsaw, Ravitch was active in interwar Yiddish literary publications and secular cultural institutions, including Literary Pages and the influential Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists. He traveled extensively and lived in Australia, Argentina, and Mexico before moving to Montreal in 1941, where he worked at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library for fourteen years and cofounded (and for several years directed) the Yidishe Folks Universitet (Jewish Popular University).

HELEN MINTZ is a literary translator, storyteller, and solo theater artist based in Vancouver, BC. Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse University Press, 2016), translated from the Yiddish by Helen Mintz, won the 2016 J. I. Segal Award for Translation, the 2016 Canadian Jewish Literary Prize for Yid-dish, and Honorable Mention for the 2017 Sophie Brody Award. Mintz was a 2014 translation fellow with the Yiddish Book Center. Her translations have appeared in In geveb, Jewishfiction.net, and Pakn Treger. Between 1993 and 2007, Helen toured four different one-woman shows in Canada, the United States, Germany, and Lithuania, sharing stories of Jewish women’s experience and redefining con-temporary Jewish women’s identity. Helen would like to thank Lazer Lederhendler for his feedback and suggestions for this translation.

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