Excerpt from On the Road to Uman
Yekhezkel Keitelman was born in Poland in 1905 and immigrated to Brooklyn in 1951. During World War II, he was evacuated to central Asia and later spent time as a refugee in US-occupied Germany. His work has been published in numerous Yiddish periodicals, including Forverts (the Forward), Undzer veg (Our Way), Vilner tog (the Vilna Daily), Hemshekh (Continuity), and Eynikayt (Unity). This semiautobiographical short story, set in Uzbekistan near the end of World War II, tells of an unlikely relationship and the character’s struggle with intimacy amid the hardships of war and displacement.
Like all cities in Soviet central Asia, Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, has parts both old and new. The new is bright and shiny, with boulevards, parks and monuments, theaters and museums. The old carries on only through God’s mercy; it has mazes of tiny, stinking lanes, strewn with bundles of donkey manure mixed with straw.
Winter is crueler than summer, each day wet and gray, with heavy winds blowing down from the hills or across the adjacent wilderness. Winds that blow from the days of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, sands that mask a thousand civilizations, hiding the spoor of wanderers who seek a taste of water and blades of grass for their sheep. Breezes so ancient they accompanied our Patriarch Abraham on his trek from Chaldee to Canaan in search of his God.
Fierce is the heat of Tashkent in summer, but it is nothing compared to its cold in winter: incessant rain, falling lazily, a little at a time. The cold bites into one’s bones, the old city turns to mud. This is where I lived during the war.
I worked in a factory that produced rope for ships. Rope making was torture. Each segment was forty-six meters in length, fat and hairy, formed of interwoven strands. My task was to catch each rope as it was spit out by a machine, then wind it around a spool. It burned my hands and sent out clouds of dust.
I lived in a flat with three Russian women in an old apartment building that surrounded a courtyard ruled by huge gray rats. The other apartments were occupied by women whose men were either in Russian prisons or at the front. Some of those women worked alongside me at the rope factory. After hours they’d parade before the railroad station, arm in arm with soldiers. There’d be visitors to their apartments: smugglers, thieves, and war-wounded; they drank, cursed, and spat blood. My three women had neither visitors, husbands, nor children.
Our cobblestoned yard stank of old Russia, of czarist days. Women gathered there by night, their faces marked by the reddish sores of the later stages of syphilis. The windows in the flats were mere slits in a wall, dark and hopeless. Two of my three women were sisters: short, broad, and bowlegged, with features lacking joy or hope. Zina, the third, was a full-fledged Russian, a Cossack, tall, thin, and ill tempered. She worked for the Tashkent Trolley Trust as a streetcar driver. Alone now in the world and in her thirties, born a decade before the Bolshevik Revolution, Zina had endured the fanaticism, hunger, and plagues that were befalling Russia. Now, her youth knocked out of her, her face showed hopelessness and weariness.
When Zina arrived home from work, well into the evening, she threw herself onto her bed fully clothed. Her yawns brought to mind creatures of the desert. Yet when she was fully awake and had groomed herself and combed her radiant brown hair, her eyes shone bright blue like a girl’s, giving her a charm she’d keep a lifetime. I moved in with these women almost against my will, having been sent there by the head of my firm, a Ukrainian Jew who pitied me and gave me work. He’d found me living in the street and starving after a severe illness.
My first days in the apartment, the women were beside themselves. Anyone who knew wartime Russia knew what it meant to have a man around. They’d look into my eyes; they’d share with me whatever little morsel they had. The rooms lit up, and the sisters would not stop laughing and teasing. One worked in a lumber mill and would sneak home some wood. How the walls would brighten when warmed by our stove. The three women would sit me down before the fire that I might drink in the flames. My face took on normal color; my eyes glowed. It felt like home.
However impoverished I was, they were even worse off. Ill-clad and ill-fed, they looked like ravens dragged in from the cold. When they disrobed, they hung the rags they wore on nails hammered into the door of their bedroom. The walls were naked, one blankly facing the next; the women stared at them. The three women slept on two metal beds. How they cared for these! The energy they put into this care seemed a substitute for the verve of unrealized hopes and dreams. Their bedroom was immaculate. Atop a dresser stood framed photographs of young men. In glass vases at the windows were paper roses. Little curtains graced the windows. A cuckoo clock hung from the wall on the sunny side of the room.
Evenings we’d gather in the little kitchen. I slept there in an alcove; it was lit by an electric light that would periodically flicker as if about to go out. So long as there was a fire in the stove, our flat was warm and cozy. Once it went out, the flat was freezing and the walls showed water spots. Zina, more than the others, fussed over me, endlessly filling my cup with hot water from the kettle.
After I had lived with them for a while, the two sisters took a dislike to me. I overheard them gossiping to one another in Armenian, which I did not understand, but the meaning was apparent. At the same time, the other residents of the building took to making fun of me; my decrepitude must have mirrored their own. My skull was shaved to the bone; cracked glasses, tied to my ears by strings, lay on my nose. “He’s here just to toy with us,” they’d call out. “A walking corpse.”
The younger dwellers of the apartment house were especially cruel. Girls stuck out their tongues when they saw me, or spat. My pallet in the kitchen was my only refuge. There, without book or newspaper, friend or acquaintance, where all I heard from the outside was the pelting of rains—there, in the seclusion of my thoughts and dreams, although in fact no better off than a mouse in a hole—there I had a world. Nearsighted as I was, I just stared at the ceiling. My fantasy having free rein, it mattered not that I was a refugee driven ten thousand miles from home, a mere fish in a bowl.
Hypnotized by pelting rains—my only stimulation during long hours in bed—I conjured up my lost home in Poland and grew faint, suspended between living and dead. How blessed I felt to have so much time to myself, and Zina to look in on me. After work, as soon as she saw me, she would light the stove, sweep up, and bring me some food.
Nighttime felt as though a new Ice Age had overtaken the earth. The cold gave me no peace; I could not sleep. I would toss and turn. But when Zina came in, however late, she would cover me with her overcoat. The more hunger, suffering, and oppression hit me, the more affectionate she would be. How many times did she run her hand over my head with a smile that warms me till this day? Taking upon herself a task that only a woman can, she saw to the enhancement of my appearance: she washed and ironed my tattered shirts, a labor born of love that permeated my skin when I donned those rags.
* * *
When only she and I sat before the fire, she never tired of hearing about my family. What did my wife look like, she wanted to know: “Curly hair, really? Thick brown hair? How lovely! Light-skinned, you say? I love light skin on a woman.” She wondered whether my wife was tall or short, smacking her lips in glee when I answered “of middling height.”
Very slowly, winter retreated. A touch of sun alighted upon a window pane. I threw on my rags and ran outside. Although rivulets ran over the streets and a sharp wind tore across, on my hand I felt the breath of spring. Days grew longer. I longed to do everything I used to do at this time of year. But I was older. I felt my isolation through and through. A blast of youthful energy did not mask the fact that I was growing weaker by the moment.
Life was closing in on me at home and more so, outside. Hunger prevented my taking a step; my skull grew soft as a rag, and my ears did not stop ringing. I’d hear someone calling out to me; when I would turn around, no one would be there. I’d be strolling and I’d hear my wife talking to me—or my daughter, or my mother. I’d smell long-forgotten aromas from my childhood. I’d experience something and believe I’d been through it before.
One afternoon I came home and saw four or five full sacks. I opened one—rice! My heart felt as if it would break out of its cage. I rubbed a hand over my eyes: Was this not a dream? Soon Zina was in the room, unusually groomed and decked out. She casually announced that the night before, she and the two sisters had taken the rice from a warehouse to which her trolley made deliveries. “Tonight we’re throwing a party; the whole street is invited. Our rooms will be packed. Whatever happens, happens—that’s Comrade Stalin’s problem.” Zina broke out in a Cossack’s peasant laughter.
Before long there was a knock at the door. Zina answered and a bunch of women pushed their way inside: Zina’s comrades in contraband. From under their shawls they produced bottles of brandy, herrings, breads—goods our home had not seen for so long and that would cost a fortune if purchased at market.
I knew the dangers this posed; it was like summoning a wolf from its lair. A wink in the wrong place from one of our starving guests would bury us all in a Soviet dungeon.
However savagely still it had been during the months of my residence, the apartment now became cacophonous. Flames flickered under the cooking rice on each of the stove’s burners, sending steam and warmth up to the ceiling. The herrings sticking out of slimy butcher paper made my mouth water. Dressed up for their banquet, the women reached for the brandy, laughing and joking—especially at the expense of the only man now available to them. The air was thick with their talk. Their eyes flamed green and yellow—Tartars, Cossacks, Russians, and Ukrainians.
Evening fell. Outside, a quiet, starving Tashkent awaited spring. Inside, a bunch of women were throwing caution to the wind, casting off the heavy mood by preparing a wild party, a Götterdämmerung, just to show the world they could still get what they needed from life. Even if the police didn’t show up, who knows what the drunken revelers might get up to.
The table was moved to the middle of the kitchen. The guests seated themselves on my bed or on the few chairs we had or on an overturned water pail. Zina set out bowls of rice and we helped ourselves. This, shockingly, did not bring the expected relief from hunger. So unused were we to eating normal portions that the food stuck in our throats. We didn’t know what to do—spit it out or swallow. Instead of nourishing me, the food calcified in my insides; I grew nauseated and fatigued from the weight within me. Someone must have given me drink; I saw only black. The cord of life was being pulled from me. I saw an expanse opening between me and the others. A woman jumped onto the table and made a speech like a jester at a Jewish wedding.
The door flew open and neighbors burst in. They held out their hands and Zina poured rice into them. They celebrated and shrieked and slapped me on the back. An infirm old woman beat a tattoo with her crutches; I couldn’t take her noise. Everyone began to look the same. All this time I sat at the table, stuffing myself with rice and drink or biting off the head of a herring.
Then, a rumble from inside me, and I was filling the table with my rice. Someone smacked me in the head and I saw flashes of bright, then dark. I recognized Zina. She dragged me into the next room. My back felt very cold and something poured from my head—blood? Sweat? Rice? I lay upon her bed. I looked at her, she at me. A tear ran down her cheek.
That banquet sapped my remaining strength. Afterward I became quite ill. Unable to lift my head from the bed, I stopped going to work and slept, not knowing when was day and when was night. Zina must have been feeding me. From my hibernation, I detected her voice, speaking consolingly. Uzbek spring is very brief, turning soon to the glare of summer, yet inside the building it was cool—perhaps from my inner sadness.
After the big slumber, I found out big things had happened: the Nazis were being driven out. Sometimes I’d hear Zina calling, “Khaskl Lazarovitch, time for you to get back to yourself. Get happy! The Germans are getting kicked out!” What did I care? I had already lived through the extinction of my people; my personal existence no longer mattered.
That summer was therapeutic for me; I was getting back onto my feet. Zina ministered to me like a mother sparrow to her young, placing pieces of bread and spoonfuls of boiling water into my mouth. By day she’d open the door to the courtyard; I’d get sunlight plus a cool breeze coming from God knows where. The street was still: no children were cavorting there; the men had been gone for years. Little by little I’d test my legs by stepping outside. Neither the glare of the sun nor the freshness of the breeze gave me pleasure. I hated the sight of strangers passing by and the sight of the long avenues. At last I returned to my job.
One morning, Zina came to my pallet and proclaimed, “Khaskl Lazarovitch, it’s time for us to go our separate ways. The world is becoming a world again. Things are loosening up; the Germans are getting their skulls cracked open. You’ll be going back to your people in Poland. I’m out of here. I’m moving to a beautiful new apartment building.”
I got up and roamed the city till I found a new place for myself. Two days later I kissed Zina on the cheek, and we said good-bye to each other. That was our last contact with one another for some time.
One day, as I was strolling on the boulevard, a passing trolley rang its bell loudly. I looked up, and as if from a dream, Zina was at the controls. That was not the only day her trolley would pass by with a clang and a wave of her hand—a greeting I’d always return.
To this day, as I awake from sleep, I often hear the clang, and I wave my hand to the phantom who is no longer there in my bedroom.
Gershon Freidlin and Olivia Hibel are translators based in Pennsylvania.