From My Childhood Years
By Peretz Hirschbein, translated by Leonard Wolf
Peretz Hirschbein (1880–1948) was one of the most prolific, popular, and versatile Yiddish writers of the first half of the twentieth century, of the same generation as Sholem Asch, Joseph Opatoshu, and Avrom Reyzen. He grew up in a large, impoverished family beside the rural water mill his father operated in Grodno province. In his lyrical Mayne kinder-yorn (My Childhood Years; 1932), Hirschbein describes, with wide-eyed wonder, life at the mill, local superstitions, his family’s struggle amid harsh winters and poverty, his reluctant first steps as a Torah student, his mother’s anxiety over her many children who died young, and her fiercely protective love. He eventually discovered Yiddish storybooks and then the wider world—his first steps to becoming a beloved Yiddish author.
Special thanks to Jessica Hirshbein, daughter-in-law of Peretz Hirschbein, for bringing this translation to our attention.
Chapter 1: First Steps
My memory carries me back over forty-nine good—as well as bad—years, to a time when I could walk under a table by simply bending my head. To a time when, though I was just beginning to form words, I was still able to speak to my mother in sign language. I can still see my taciturn, good father snatching his skullcap from his head to take a swipe at me for having committed some petty crime whose nature I could not understand. I remember how such acts roused my father to terrorize me and the other members of the household as I remember how sweet my tears were when I was punished, and how my mother gathered me into her arms and quieted me with kisses.
It was the time in my life when I was too young to know that I should stand back from the bank of the stream that turned the wheel of our mill so that God forbid no evil spirit would pull me in. I remember, too, the anxious looks that followed me to the water’s edge, and the terrible attraction it had for me. We all drank from the river—my father out of a pitcher, my mother out of a pot or pan.
The mill went rattle-rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle-rattle. What was it that made those noises to which I listened, amazed? Large wheels and small in motion; the shaking and banging of bolting pans and sieves.
My father, my brothers—occasionally my mother and sisters too—were dusted with flour. So I felt compelled to take flour from a sack or from a corner of the mill and turn myself white like everyone else. And that was one more provocation to my father to take a swipe at me with his skullcap, producing more outcries and tears. How delicious it was to wipe them away from a face smeared with flour, to sob until I was overcome by sleep and my mother put me into a wooden cradle she rocked as she sang “Raisins and Almonds.”
Again I see the expanses of moist, green meadow that every year produced so much uneasiness in my heart, because it was then that the adults took off their winter boots, rolled their trousers above their knees, and went rambling barefoot across the springtime fields while I, longing to join them, gazed after them. I had no idea then that the time would come when I, too, would join them in search of a horse or a cow that had somehow disappeared, or that I would be sent to gather dry oak branches for the kitchen stove or sorrel for my mother who needed it to cook the tasty borscht she had promised us.
I remember when I regarded the tall alder trees that grew in the vicinity of the mill and the wide-spreading willows mirroring themselves in the stream over which they leaned as no different from my brothers and sisters, or my father and mother. I envied the trees their height and their strength, and I wanted to be big enough to put my arms around them.
I wanted to peer like them into the water. Only later would I be tempted to climb about in their parental branches. By then, I understood which trees welcomed climbing children—the ones that bent low and spread their branches and those that had branches that did not scratch.
But that was later, when I was no longer supervised so carefully, when I was able to talk and had learned to carry water from the river for my mother, who did not protest even in winter if I slipped out barefooted to the frozen stream beside the house.
I remember too the red rooster with his armored feet who, in the days when I went about wearing only a hand-me-down shirt, often pecked me in the stomach. I was afraid of that rooster. He would stretch his neck out, flap his wings, and utter his cock-a-doodle-doo right in the house where the barnyard fowl were welcome. The duck scared me, too, with his “quack, quack” as he chased after me, snapping at my feet.
I can remember the time when there was happiness at home because the peasants were coming to our house. They were different from ourselves and spoke a language I could not understand. They came in horse-drawn wagons loaded with sacks of wheat they put on their shoulders and carried into the mill. At such times, my silent father beamed and my mother turned cheerful. She kissed us children and sang, wanting us to sing along with her.
The mill was always in motion, and there was flour dust and the noise of turning wheels and hissing water everywhere. The dust covered us and it covered the long garments of the peasants who brought their wheat to us in their wagons.
Why was I unable to understand their language while everyone else in the family could?
I remember that those festive visits of the peasants took place when it was no longer cold and we could see out of our unfrosted windowpanes. I would climb up on the bench on which I slept and, looking out the window, see that what had been winter snow was now covered with soot. Outdoors, there were rivulets murmuring everywhere, and fresh breezes blew or whistled through the trees.
I still remember those spring days, when my long nursery shirt seemed oppressively warm; when I yearned to run out barefooted to dance in the puddles outside the window and to watch the peasants who had brought the wheat that set the mill wheel turning. Those strangers loved to grab me and toss me upward, high, high, till it seemed that any minute my head would strike the ceiling. I was scared and could not understand what was so funny, though I remember that my father and mother laughed even as some huge fellow with a hairy, prickly face tossed me up and down. Eventually I cried and put my hands out toward my mother, who took me in her arms and tickled me till I laughed, to the delight of everyone.
I remember something else that brings tears to my eyes.
Here’s what happened: my father and brothers, fully clothed, waded into the stream where they caught fish, which they brought back into the house, where they shook them out of a sack onto the floor. There was one long fish, lying among smaller ones, that kept opening and closing its mouth. I managed to put my finger into that mouth just as it closed. I shrieked and tried to pull my finger out, but I succeeded only in dragging the fish about. At my outcry, my mother appeared and pried my bloody finger from the fish’s mouth.
I remember being conscious too of the smells of spring as the trees around the mill turned green and bloomed. My older brother and sister came back from the woods bearing blossoming branches. They put the blossoms to my nose and I inhaled. Ah, the sensation!
I recall envying older people who knew everything and were permitted to do everything—who could pick up an ax and cut a tree down with it, or who could use a knife to cut into a huge loaf of bread from which I was given a morsel.
Slowly I became aware of the out-of-doors and became a part of it. I learned to talk and to call things by their names. For some time I’d had words at the tip of my tongue, but now I could say them at need.
Then there was my grandfather, my father's father, who was to become my friend, almost a playfellow.
When I grew bigger, I was sent by my mother to fetch water from the stream or by my father to bring a piece of wood in to fuel the kitchen stove.
Spring, summer, fall, and winter. The mill where I was born and where I lived until my twentieth year. How much I remember, and how hard it is to tell it all, and—how pleasant.
Leonard Wolf (1923–2019) was a teacher and critic of English literature as well as a poet, and the author, translator, or editor of over twenty books. He had a particular interest in Gothic horror and vampire literature and edited Wolf’s Complete Book of Terror and Blood Thirst: 100 Years of Vampire Literature. He translated Isaac Bashevis Singer and many other Yiddish writers into English and also translated from English into Yiddish, as with Vini-der-Pu, his celebrated version of A. A. Milne’s classic. Wolf is also the subject of an affectionate memoir, The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See, by his daughter, feminist writer Naomi Wolf.