Strict Justice (Mides ha-din, 1929) is one of Dovid Bergelson’s (1884–1952) most innovative and experimental works, both stylistically and thematically. Already acclaimed as one of Yiddish literature’s most important modernist authors, Bergelson broke new ground in this text, unflinchingly confronting the death of the shtetl and the birth of a “new, harsher world” created by the Russian Revolution of 1917. After spending much of the 1920s in Berlin, Bergelson eventually settled in the Soviet Union and became one of that country’s most prominent Yiddish intellectuals. Like many of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia, Bergelson was later accused of anti-Soviet crimes and was executed by the regime he served on August 12, 1952.
Zubok, one of the agents in Kamino-Balke’s special section, was playing the accordion. Sitting across from him, the investigator Andreev, a lady’s man, tall and fair skinned, tapped the heels of the polished boots encasing his thin, stretched-out legs. While he tapped along to the rapid beat, the little lamp shone from its place on the table next to the hot iron stove. He made loud hissing noises through his nose, sounding just like a gramophone. Imitating a gramophone was a special skill of his.
The third man—Igumenko, a sailor short in stature—was restless; the whole time he kept running out to the dark snow-covered courtyard to check whether the horses that had already been saddled were still there and whether the night’s storm had stopped. Now he sat quietly off to the side. Pretending that a bench was a horse, he demonstrated how one would ride it. He took a puff from his short-stemmed pipe and gave a hint of a smile, using only a crease on his left cheek, and that crease had the following to say:
“I’ve seen things like that before. You’ll have to do better if you want to impress me.”
And in the middle of the room danced Marfusha, the homeless shiksa who cleaned the office and who always, after they sent her out to a special room to search and examine each woman they arrested, would return with burning cheeks and eyes downcast in shame, as if she had done something indecent and masculine in that room.
“No,” she would answer, shrugging her shoulders apologetically. “I didn’t find anything.”
Now she was dancing to the sounds of the accordion—dancing at length and almost without breathing, as if a dybbuk were dancing inside her.
Those assembled in the room knew that Marfusha had a strange weakness: she would dance like this until, sapped of strength, she would faint. Zubok, the agent, was the one who detected this weakness, which manifested itself whenever the melody set her in motion—as if it were tickling under her arms and forcing her to laugh.
Every now and again Zubok would play a few chords that signaled he was about to stop playing. A couple of quick movements more and Marfusha was compelled to stop dancing. But a moment later he continued, and Marfusha once again sprang to her feet and was carried across the room.
Suddenly something came over Marfusha. She stopped dancing. Her hair tousled, her bosom heaving, she remained standing in the middle of the room. Her wet, shiny lips began to tremble and her glazed eyes turned toward the other side of the room, fixing on the wall with sheer horror; she had the eyes of a person who has lost her mind.
The accordion stopped.
Andreev bit his lower lip as if he had accidentally stepped on someone’s foot, his eyes asking, “What? Again, so soon?”
And three pairs of eyes turned to the wall on which Marfusha’s gaze was fixed in fright.
“Shhh!” Zubok whispered. “Shhh! Listen! Listen!”
From the wall came a series of dull, hard thuds, which sounded distant as they began, as if they came from deep inside the earth. But the longer they continued, the more persistently they landed on the wall and the more clearly their origin appeared: the boss, who had fallen ill, was signaling from his room that it was already ten o’clock—time for Zubok, Igumenko, and Andreev to get on their horses and head out toward the border to patrol the snow-covered roads.
“He’s not asleep,” sighed Marfusha. “Oh, God . . .”
Her madwoman’s eyes were still fixed on the wall as if on a holy icon. Her moist lips quivered as if in supplication that began in fear.
“It’s been three nights in a row.”
But in exasperation, the sailor Igumenko had already sunk his head into his shoulders.
“What a pity,” he said, clenching his teeth. “What a nuisance.”
And he turned away from the wall, annoyed.
The boss was new, young, tall, and mean, with a bandage on his neck possibly indicating an infection and a harsh, hoarse voice that suggested its owner had just had a molar pulled out by the roots. If you tried to convince him of something, he would be silent and wouldn’t even look at you, but as soon as you thought you had him persuaded, he would suddenly explode, and with great annoyance and irritation say, “Chto vy? Shutite? What, are you joking?”
No one knew where he came from or how he used to make his living. From the beginning there were rumors that he was a former magnate who owned some mines and lived in a palace. Then suddenly the story about his former wealth was completely abandoned, but not the connection to the mines. He had been a worker in the mines all his life, people said now, and the toxic gases under the surface of the earth had made him ill with the infection on his bandaged neck. Comrade Sasha had brought him to Kamino-Balke to run things. She was young, as big as a man, widely respected, and held a high rank (she was the one who had the previous boss fired for negligence). The air of silence that surrounded him and his heavy, immense figure weighed on everyone, stifling them, and the only hope was that after long years of work in the mines he had somehow become ill with a mysterious and serious disease and wouldn’t last long.
When he removed the bandage, it turned out that the hard swelling on the side and back of his neck was not that large at all. But now and then in the middle of the day, his face and eyes would turn yellow, as if someone had stuffed a dish full of saffron and fed it to him. And then he would lie in his room with the shades drawn and suffer excruciating pain. You wouldn’t hear a thing from him on these occasions, and everyone would breathe freely, like under the old boss, and each of them was his own master and could do as he liked.
But it became clear that even during the harshest spasms of pain, he was paying close attention to everything that was taking place at Kamino-Balke, to make sure everyone understood that he, Filipov, was now in charge, that he issued orders.
“Well?” Igumenko asked irritably. “Are we going or not?”
They had one last smoke and took a good look at each other.
One look said to the second on the subject of the new boss:
“A sick carcass.”
“We’re not going to make a single arrest at the border.”
“A pox on his throat.”
“Let him go patrol the border.”
All three were filled with resentment as they started to put on their coats, tie the ear flaps of their hats, and file out, one by one, into the stormy, cold weather.
From the other side of the door, little by little, the dissatisfied and endlessly rehearsed sounds began to die down. This was the sailor Igumenko cursing for all three of them: “Rrrom . . . terribom . . . rrrom . . . terribom!”
* * *
In the snowy Kamino-Balke courtyard surrounded by trees (this was the round courtyard of a former monastery out in the open) stood a post with a lamp that was eternally extinguished.
An eternal spirit—a wind—swirled around the post, rattling the remaining pieces of the broken windowpanes.
Around the post were three horses, saddled but without their riders. The cold reins slapped against and stung their flesh.
The snow flew around, dusting the horses; it came from the corner where a group of crooked church spires with broken crosses stood, gloomy and abandoned. No one crossed himself in their presence anymore.
The snow formed plumes under the horses’ bellies; it fell as if through a thousand sieves—only in the dark nighttime pallor, it was hard to know whether it was falling from above or below.
“A nasty, nasty snowstorm,” called out the investigator Andreev to his horse, even though he was still far away from it. “Raz, dva, tri! One, two, three! Raz, dva, tri!”
Like a man flinging himself into cold water, he leapt into the air, landing with his belly on the saddle of his thin, black horse. He dexterously gave himself a shake, found the stirrups, and knocked out a verse from Pushkin:
Over the earth a storm is prowling,
Bringing whirling, blinding snow . . .
“Well, what?” he muttered lazily as he looked around, and stuck his hand back in his fur-lined glove. “Are we going or what?”
“Rrram tararam, rrram tararam!”
With that the sailor Igumenko marched around his little horse a few times—like a Jew circling the synagogue on Simchas Torah—until he finally threw himself on top of it. The horse was already somewhat addled.
“Screw you,” he said after a pause. “What are we waiting for?”
He took a breath with difficulty. “Lead on, Andreev.”
“All the way to the little wood.”
Now they rode out of the courtyard, three dots of the Hebrew vowel segol, and at the apex of the segol rode Andreev.
Unable to resist finishing the verse, he cheerily added:
. . . Like a beast I hear it howling,
Like an infant wailing low . . .
He was mild mannered and the most relaxed of the little group.
This was his character: easygoing, lazy, but also quick and restless—the legacy of his noble stock. Somewhere deep in his throat there remained even now a few sounds of a young, pampered Junker.1
With these sounds he astonished those around him; this would happen mostly at night, when with a few shots from his Browning he would hold up a whole row of horses and wagons at the border. Whenever this happened, Zubok and Igumenko would curse mightily. Shrieking, yelling wildly at the shocked wagon drivers, they would create the impression that a whole regiment was cursing. If they happened to shake down the passengers, they did so not for themselves, and not for the law, but only for the joy of it—the bourgeoisie would have to empty their pockets.
Because of this Andreev would work separately and entirely on his own. Before the women in their rich furs, who slunk low in the wagon so that their wealth would not be seen, he would very politely bow and remove his hat and ask in a genteel manner:
“Does madam have any money?”
And when he was given money, he did not count it and did not haggle. He would bow again nobly and say, “Merci,” but in the manner of a real Frenchman, deep in his throat: “Me-gsi.”
As a rule, it was very difficult to enrage or get a rise out of him. And even now in the stormy winter night, it hardly bothered him that the new, sick boss issued angry orders. However, for the other two, especially Igumenko, it struck home.
Igumenko was fuming. He unburdened his bitter heart to his little horse. Earlier, while they were riding out of the courtyard, he had pulled all kinds of crazy stunts that he would have enjoyed playing on the new boss himself: he had punched the horse hard on the head, between its ears, and his feet unceasingly hammered out the rhythm of a certain curse on the horse’s belly.
Finally the three of them rode out into the nighttime wind.
Near them was a flat, level field, lost and endless, overshadowed by the snow, like a white desert. Here the storm flew in from the right and the left.
Large invisible hands merrily picked up whole heaps of snow and in a similarly merry way released them.
Andreev realized that laziness was a beautiful thing even now, when the wind was hitting him right in the face, breathing down on him with a whistle and burying his galloping horse in snow up to its belly—he understood that it was best to hunker down and keep his eyes shut, and to let the horse carry him wherever it wanted.
“I don’t see a thing.” He let the wind carry his message to his companions who had fallen behind. “All the roads are hidden.”
“Lead, lead,” a weak answer hastened him from behind. “Keep to the left.”
To the left there was less snow, but the wind was stronger. There, the gallop of the three riders changed into a fast-paced limp.
Over them was a broken, jagged sky, as if made from silent mountains; from the smoky clouds a young, limping moon hurried the riders along. The moon waddled toward the edge of the snow-covered forest, where the riders took cover from the nighttime storm and wind.
And somewhere far in the field, by the glimmer of the same moon, the air dreamed of the sleigh’s glide and the neighing of horses as they galloped.
Now, in the middle of the night, was the exact time—precisely then entire bands of wagons would set out, thievishly, along the snowy hidden paths opposite the forest. There travelers from the nearby town rode in the direction of the border night after night and wondered: “How strange. No one is paying any attention. Free as a bird.”
* * *
And this is how Andreev, Zubok, and Igumenko remembered one of these nights: a night of dreams and not much luck.
When they slept it off afterward, it was as if they had fallen sick. They couldn’t tell: “Did the night happen at all or not?”
All that remained of the night were bits and pieces that buzzed around their brains, dazzling their memories.
From the beginning:
The full brass moon with the face of a cadaver—it was swimming and floating above them. It had no eyes but wanted to see.
A little later:
The edge of the buried forest in the middle of a snowy, cold night. As soon as you got down from your horse, you felt you had to take stock of yourself.
This time the coach drivers from Golikhovke took their passengers to the border by a much closer road than usual: they rode through the forest.
But later: “Andreev, you milksop!”
Igumenko, with fire in his eyes, told it like it was. “What kind of an investigator are you, you . . . rrrom-terribom?”
Since they had agreed not to bring to the boss anybody they stopped at the border, this agreement had to hold.
Only Andreev was completely obstinate and stubborn as usual (provided that he wasn’t drunk and too merry). When you talked to him it was as if you were talking to a wall. Things got to him more than to Igumenko or Zubok. After smoking a cigarette, he pulled in his head and his shoulders and let out the yawn of a man who used to be rich, a loud yawn, with a quiver. He still felt like catching a couple of coach drivers together with their passengers at the border. “You know what?” he said. “May the devil take him, the new boss!”
Agent Zubok looked at him with haughty, arched eyebrows, as he always did when assessing those who had broken the law. Only it didn’t matter to Andreev one bit. His eyes—the eyes of a half-slaughtered ram—looked oily after the yawn and answered Igumenko: “You are a swine, brother! It’s time you learned this already!”
The investigator from Kamino-Balke got bored in the middle of the night until he remembered that he used to be a Junker, and so he felt like he must do something.
He started promenading among the trees at the edge of the little forest to make it look as if he had lost something. He disappeared and came back immediately with the news.
“Well, one thing is clear: there is certainly a path here between the trees—there are fresh tracks from a sled.”
“A path? Where?”
“So, in a word . . .”
Much, much later:
A road appeared, a wily road—it had quite a nerve. It started out at the edge of the forest. It was narrow and hidden—no one had seen it before.
It was annoying that the thieving wagon drivers from Golikhovke came up with the idea to make it to the border precisely here, right under Kamino-Balke’s nose.
Igumenko was already in his saddle and pursuing the first of them along this road: “And so what?” he hollered. “Rrom—terribom.”
That night a wagon was sent out that strayed from the road, wandering along so lazily that it seemed to want to yield to the three riders and give them an easy shot at catching it.
A strange docile silence fell after the first holler to stop, as if the wagon were saying, “So, here goes. Thank God it wasn’t for nothing that I spent all this time trekking out here. The whole night I was certain it was going to happen exactly like this.”
Then the riders forced their way quite close to the little wagon and started looking at it and thinking it over.
A wretched little wagon from the nearby shtetl of Golikhovke, a simple wagon with a thirteen-year-old boy for a coachman and, inside, a young woman in furs holding a sleeping two-year-old child in her lap—a young woman who immediately confessed to everything.
They asked her: “To the border?”
She answered very quietly, her lips quivering just barely: “To the border.”
Just then her head tilted upward, and the eyes cast a look at the riders—strange eyes, each one of them with another woman deep inside, and each of those women with a little crucifix hanging on her chest.
She was a Christian.
“No, my dears,” she said. “You won’t do anything bad to me. I know: you won’t bring me to Kamino-Balke. I know your type, and I like it.”
* * *
The following morning, after sleeping in, they were in a bad mood, as if they had committed a sin together. Souls covered in soot needed to be aired out in the snowed-in courtyard at Kamino-Balke—aired out after the prank played the night before at the expense of the new sickly boss: to spite him, the woman was not arrested. She had a tail on her the whole night; she was followed around like a little goat pursued by a small pack of dogs—and so she made it back from the border and returned to the small shtetl nearby.
And now to all three this was no more than a dream recalled from the night before, a dream like the woman’s eyes—eyes with little crucifixes in their pupils: they stared with a beggar’s charm and issued sinful promises.
They promised the best of luck.
“Just a little longer, my dears. Just a little bit longer.”
She kept leading them all over the forest the whole night through. And finally she ended up tricking them, and in the gray morning light easily slipped out of their hands.
Now she once more clouded the memories of each of the three of them. The two large chests that she had with her in the wagon and her fine woman’s body wrapped in expensive furs—these things could be summoned up and recalled with a pang of regret and resentment:
“What a bitch!”
“Is there going to be another time when she packs her stuff again? Rrrom—terribom.”
Harriet Murav, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a 2014 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow and a scholar of Russian and Jewish culture. Her most recent monograph is Music from a Speeding Train: Jewish Literature in Post-Revolution Russia (Stanford University Press, 2011).
Sasha Senderovich , a 2014 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow, is assistant professor of Russian studies and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes extensively on Soviet and Russian Jewish culture.
1 Junker: a military rank for junior officers in pre-revolutionary Russia’s armed forces; abolished with the creation of the Red Army in 1918.