“Wandering” by Mina Smoler was originally published as “In vogl” in a 1961 issue of the literary journal Kalifornier shriftn (California Writings) and appeared the next year in Smoler’s second and final book of short stories, Tsebrokhene tsoymen (Broken Fences). As the title suggests, Tsebrokhene tsoymen explores the dramatic convergence of characters traditionally kept apart or marginalized—including a striker who finds herself behind bars in a women’s prison, a Jewish youth who is rescued in the desert by a Palestinian boy after escaping from a ma’abara camp, and a radical woman who ends up at a grand ball for the deposed Russian aristocracy in San Francisco.
In “Wandering,” Smoler shows how a simple misunderstanding can have terrible consequences for someone like Duvid, the protagonist, a newly arrived immigrant without much money or family to rely on. Without giving away too much of the ending, this story surprised me with its sensitive, unstereotypical depiction of Tom, a Black teenager stuck on a Georgia chain gang.
Unlike some other leftist Yiddish writings of midcentury America, which tend to subsume Black history and struggle in a “color-blind ” exchange of shared oppression, Smoler’s story unambiguously calls out Jewish racism and the disproportionate number of Black people found in Southern prisons and chain gangs. Although the story is dark and troubling, it has much to say about Jews, whiteness, and respectability politics in the United States — Joseph Reisberg
“The handsome ‘green’ bachelor”—that’s what twenty-year-old Duvid’s cousins called him when they first caught sight of him. He was a tall, distinguished, sturdily built man. Strong, with deep blue eyes, soft and daydreamy, long, dark lashes, and a forest of thick brown hair, dispersed in interlocking curls. His longish, energetic face was smiling and bright.
A few evenings later, after all the interrogations about family, friends, and neighbors, his cousin finally broke the good news that a sewing machine had been arranged for Duvid in the shop where he worked—a machine right next to his. His cousin would teach him how to be a women’s coats operator. Duvid smiled politely, as was his manner, but a strange unrest gnawed at his heart. He found he could not speak a single word. Feeling tired, he went to his room.
Duvid didn’t even consider the job. It was very clear to him that he had to start searching for his own way in life . . . It was hard to imagine that he, with his tall, agile body and strong, broad shoulders, should go to work hunched over, his arms and legs pinned between stifling walls. Besides, he remembered his childhood in the village, where as a five-year-old he was already working full days in the field. He could clamber up the haystacks like a squirrel, hiding beneath the bales.
He had loved working outdoors ever since he was a child. He wasn’t scared of frost or snow. His father, with barely concealed pride, would smile into his thick beard and point him out now and then, saying to his mother, “Look, our little one is growing big and strong like an oak in the forest.”
In the morning he kept things brief with his cousin: he wouldn’t be going to the shop with him. He would go out looking for work beneath the open sky, work more suitable for him, for his height and dexterous body.
His cousin stared at him, amazed. Soon enough, vexed, he started hurling out complaints: some nerve for a little “green” brat, if that’s how he repays his older, more settled relatives for their loyalty. It hadn’t been so easy for him to arrange the job for Duvid; he had barely persuaded his boss to let him have the machine right next to his.
But when his cousin saw that he wouldn’t get anywhere with Duvid, he shouted, “I’ll have nothing more to do with you. You can go!”
In a gloomy mood, Duvid wandered around the filthy, narrow streets of New York’s East Side. He knew going back to his cousin’s was impossible. He patted the wallet in his breast pocket, the little bit of exchanged currency he had brought from home. The address of the man he had met on the ship also brought him a little comfort. Maybe he could rent a room from him and it would be more comfortable there. He set off to find the man.
His shipmate’s sister, a woman in her early middle age, received him very pleasantly. Yes, her brother had told her about his new friend. Misha had wanted to pay him a visit, but he was already working long hours; her husband was teaching him how to be an operator in a men’s garment shop. Perhaps Duvid would like to wait here until her brother came home from work that evening? There were books to read in the front room, she said—implying she already knew a little about him.
Her good-natured face expressed the delight she felt in the company of this stately young man with his agreeable, smiling eyes. A mother’s sudden wish made her shiver: she did have a grown daughter. Maybe . . .
Duvid thought about his shipmate, Misha, the eager university candidate with his skinny, sunken chest, who would soon bury his flights of fancy here in a shop. He explained to the woman that he was looking for a room, and did she know of somewhere to find work outdoors? The woman was delighted to help him with something. Yes, she knew of a room, right there across the hall. Her neighbors, a nice family, were looking for a boarder. And she’d go bring up an English newspaper, where he could choose “whichever job he wanted.” The woman was surprised when Duvid could read the minuscule help-wanted ads himself. “You sure know your English,” she said, impressed. “You’ll be able to hold your own here.”
Duvid found what he was looking for: help wanted digging ditches and laying water pipes. Good wages in the town of Brunswick. The woman was again delighted. She knew where that was! A woman from her hometown lived there and paid her frequent visits here in the city. It was only an hour away by train. Duvid couldn’t hold out any longer and asked her to arrange the room for him. Maybe he would return that night.
In better spirits, with the newspaper clipping in hand, he inquired at the employment office right away. Things went smoother and speedier than he expected. The man on the other side of the window passed him a sheet of paper to sign and slid a train ticket into a long envelope. Duvid reached for his pocket to pay. “No need,” the man said with a smile. “They’ll take it out of your wages once you’re there.” He hurried Duvid along, because the train was due to leave the station in a half hour.
Once on the train, Duvid pressed his face to the window, not wanting to miss the sight of the region just outside New York. Villages, towns, giant factories flew by; he followed it all greedily, barely able to breathe from the excitement. Later, when broad green fields unfurled, his whole being was swallowed up by the surroundings. He recognized the same blooming barley, rye, and buckwheat that covered the Ukrainian steppes; the same breezes bending the tall, thick stalks, looking from afar like soft, fluid waves. The train raced, and his unsatisfied glances sped behind over the endless fields, and he was amazed by all the rich abundance.
A touch on the shoulder woke him. The conductor asked him to show his ticket again and let him know that the train would stop for twenty minutes at the next station. If he didn’t have any food with him, he could eat lunch there. Duvid bolted upright and stammered a few questions: Where was he? How long had he been traveling? He only needed to travel for an hour and get off at Brunswick! From Duvid’s mutilated English, the conductor understood he was dealing with a “greener.” Once again he inspected the long ticket and the sheet of scribbled-on paper. He looked at Duvid’s despairing face with a broad, pitying glance. “You made a mistake, buddy. That town by New York is called New Brunswick, but your ticket is for Brunswick, way down south. You’re going to be on the train two days and two nights. You’ve already gone three hours. If you have enough money for a ticket, we can send you back.”
Duvid looked at him somewhat confused, like he wasn’t comprehending what was being said to him. The conductor understood his bewilderment: He probably didn’t have any money for the way back, right? He spoke to him with gentle fatherly words, saying that actually it didn’t make much of a difference where he worked; he was already on his way to a job; he wouldn’t be able to find work in that other town anyway; there was a depression on in the country. New York wouldn’t miss him for six months.
Duvid’s despair began to ease. Maybe the conductor was right—he could just go back whenever he wanted to.
At dawn on the third day, the conductor showed Duvid off the train. A figure with a browned, wrinkled face and uneasy, watery little eyes was waiting for him. He introduced himself as the foreman of the project. His name was Bill. He sized Duvid up and down curiously. Then he stroked Duvid’s shoulders, a satisfied expression on his face. This set Duvid on edge. It made him remember the merchants at Anton’s, the horse dealer in his village, who would stroke the lustrous hides of the horses’ backs just like that and inspect their teeth. It made him want to open his mouth up wide and tell the foreman, “Here, why don’t you have a look at my gums too?” He felt an urge to give him a kick, just like Anton’s horses would do.
As was his nature, Duvid’s fiery temper burned off quick, and he waited to see what would happen next. But all the same he was not happy with this first encounter. Wordlessly, he followed the foreman to a little restaurant nearby, where two other workers were waiting, residents of a neighboring town. Bill ordered Duvid grits with white bread and black coffee, not asking if that’s what he wanted. Then he showed him to the only store on the only commercial street in town. Duvid came out wearing different clothes—tall boots with thick soles, blue work pants, and a blue overshirt. With a growing suspicion, he wondered why the foreman was paying for everything.
A small, deep-bedded wagon like a casket, pulled by a single horse, was waiting for them on a side street.
The road was dusty, stretching between rows of hills and barren wilderness. On one side a sparse forest; on the other spread a wasteland full of stones and sharp, wild grasses.
A mile further into the wilds he saw several workers holding pickaxes beside a mound of broad-mouthed iron pipes. Duvid set himself to the hard labor. He wasn’t scared of the work. He knew he would soon get used to it. Every new job was difficult at first.
* * *
It was finally the weekend. His hands could do the work mechanically. But a silent protest roiled in his heart. Thoughts jumbled around in his mind of how to find a way to free himself from this swamp. The provisions were inedible: every day the same spiced beans and salted pork, which he wouldn’t even touch. His dirty sleeping cot, soaked through with other men’s sweat, made him choke with disgust.
Bill, the foreman, sniffed out Duvid’s dissatisfaction like a skilled bloodhound. He warned him straightaway that he shouldn’t dare play any stupid tricks until he worked the whole term the company hired him for.
The workers from the nearby towns, who only worked summers, gradually told Duvid that many of the ones brought from far-off states ran away before their time was up, and the ones who were caught were sent off to the chain gangs. Then it would be years before they were set free—if they even survived.
It was a burning hot July day. The sun blazed its thousands of sharp beams, stabbing into the half-naked bodies of the workers, and rivulets of sweat scalded their burnt-up skin even more. Duvid collapsed to the ground, curling up into a ball. Bill ran over, felt his forehead and neck like an experienced doctor, and happily called out, “Nope, it’s not heatstroke!” Duvid’s face was twisted up with pain. He weakly stammered that he was having terrible stomach pangs. “Maybe a little heat cramp,” the foreman quietly sifted out from between his teeth.
Duvid was brought back to the barracks. Bill gave him two teaspoons of bitter liquid from a bottle and murmured something to John, the cook and only kitchen worker. John had his own shepherd dog, who never left his side; he was with him the whole day in the kitchen, following him in and out as he carried food to the tables. He slept outside the door of John’s sleeping quarters, and if someone went out at night he made such angry noises that John would stumble out half awake and wait at his threshold until whoever it was returned to the barracks. Duvid was constantly running outside. He told John it was because his stomach was troubling him.
John was busy preparing dinner. Suddenly he remembered he should check on Duvid. The cot was empty. He ran to see if he was in the outhouse but didn’t find him there. And then John realized the trick Duvid had pulled.
Quickly, John saddled up Bill’s horse. After hearing the report from the scared, out-of-breath cook, Bill’s cloudy eyes blazed, like sparks flying from an anvil. He mounted his horse. Told John to follow with the cart. “From here we can still catch the sly dog in the middle of the woods,” he said, his voice trembling with rage.
Bill was not mistaken. Duvid had already run halfway down the road. He reckoned that he could hide until dark and then try to reach somewhere overnight. The wish ran through his mind: maybe even a train station. Duvid was barely able to catch his breath, so he slowed his pace. But suddenly his heart started to leap in his chest. A cold shudder passed through him. He heard a horse’s galloping hooves. He peered all around, looking for somewhere to run to.
“Stop! Or I’ll shoot!” a wild, menacing voice rang out like thunder. Duvid wasn’t able to move an inch anyway. He felt like his legs had been lopped off.
Sitting on his horse, his revolver pointed at Duvid, Bill waited until John came with the cart. Then they threw Duvid into the back of the wagon like a bound sheep, his hands tied behind his back. The cook led the horse back to the barracks, and Bill took the wagon deeper into the forest.
It was already late at night when Bill stopped outside a massive building. Feeling numb and as if he were miles away, Duvid watched the guard fuss over the chains on his legs, locking the rings around his ankles. He couldn’t even remember how he had gotten into the striped uniform. He could only feel a cold horror when he caught sight of the sinuous green stripes. They reminded him of the green snakes from his village, which he was still deathly afraid of. Had been afraid of ever since their neighbor’s son, his friend Mitka, was bitten by one. They were both seven years old. All of a sudden he saw Mitka again, swollen like a balloon, his eyes rolling back, his mouth open, gasping so strongly for air. His mother tearing him out of bed with a wail. Duvid had wanted to help him breathe.
Finally he stood before the warden, a tall, bony man with strict brown eyes, who stared at Duvid for a while as if considering something. After some contemplation he said to the guard, “You’ll show him to the kitchen in the morning. He’ll work there and tend to the sick.”
The guard led him to the far side of the long barracks, to a small area divided by a low partition where several white arrestees were sleeping on narrow iron cots with sacks of straw for their bedding. He fell into his bed tired, worn-out, the chains rattling on his legs.
He didn’t know how long he was asleep. He could only doze off a little because he heard the loud dry coughs and pained sighs that came from the other, larger room, where the Black prisoners slept. An overwhelming desire took hold of him to pluck himself from under his covers and bring some water to the coughers. He started to get out of bed, but an angry grumble came from the next cot over. “Easy there, newbie, you’ll get used to our night music. Just let us sleep; we have to get up soon anyway.” So Duvid lay there with his eyes open for hours, as if in a nightmare.
In the morning, in the kitchen, Duvid’s eyes were dazzled by all the legs going by with shining chains dragging behind them. The foreman, a young, slender fellow with narrow shoulders, also in chains, showed Duvid how to mix the yellow dough and fill the deep steel kettles. Duvid shuddered when he saw worms as he poured out the cornmeal. The brown beans were mixed with sand. His whole insides were turning. He felt sick to the point of vomiting. No, he wouldn’t take a single bite of the food here. It would be better to starve.
Already in those first days, Duvid was thinking of who he could turn to for help. But he couldn’t decide on anyone—no, even his cousin wouldn’t do. He would first have his vengeance, lording it over him, making him out to be a good-for-nothing. And he knew Misha, his shipmate, was poor, and it would come between him and his sister, who was responsible for his present misfortune.
The days crawled by. Of the coughing, feverish inmates he served, he was most drawn to the young boy Tom, with his gentle, haggard child’s face and big, black, fever-glazed eyes. Because of his light brown skin, the flushed red spots on his protruding cheekbones stuck out all the more. He coughed up drops of congealed blood. Duvid gave Tom every bit of the little free time he had—sat beside him, rubbing his paled, emaciated arms. Duvid held back from asking Tom what crime had brought him to this hellhole. Because what if the crime was so bad he was ashamed to say it?
But Tom opened his heart of his own accord:
He was from a faraway town. He was his mother’s only son. His sickly father had died of heart disease. In town he had worked in a store selling iron farm tools and metal kitchenware. He was sixteen years old then, just out of high school. His job was in the lower part of the store, unpacking the boxes of merchandise, arranging them in the right places, cleaning, delivering orders. His white boss never stopped praising him. He was a speedy worker. He also managed the inventory all by himself.
His boss would remark on this to his sixteen-year-old son, who was a wayward boy, a terrible student in school—always raising hell with the other kids who were just as spoiled as he was.
The boss would steadily lecture his son and praise Tom as an example to follow.
It happened on a Saturday evening. And he had left work so happy! His wages were in his pocket, and the boss had given him a gift to bring to his sick mother: a stone pot meant to keep food warm longer. He was walking with a dancing pace, whistling a happy tune. The walk home was long. He had to cross a desolate area strewn with garbage to reach the “Black belt.” Suddenly he felt a sack go over his head, and fists began pummeling him . . . He fought back as best he could, his arms and legs flailing. He heard someone shout and fall to the ground. In that moment they let him go. He tore the sack off his head. He saw his boss’s son and another boy standing over a third, who was lying on the ground, rolling from side to side, groaning and crying and clutching his sides. Tom understood he had laid the boy flat with one kick. He started to run until someone slammed a stick onto the back of his neck—he was knocked senseless, could still feel some sort of dull pounding, but he was sinking deeper and deeper . . .
When he opened his eyes he was already handcuffed in a police wagon. They brought him straight here. He’d been here six months. His mother didn’t know where he had gone off to, and maybe she wasn’t even alive anymore. Hot tears gushed down his sunken child’s face. “And I,” he continued weakly, “won’t live long either.” In another two weeks he would turn seventeen. His mother had celebrated his birthday every year. It had been so cheerful in that house! If she was still alive, she should at least know where his bones would lie.
They both retreated into silence. Duvid had no words to say. He struggled with gloomy thoughts about the world, about people with so much wickedness. Hoping it would bring some consolation, he asked Tom for his mother’s address.
“Don’t write it down,” Tom warned, “because if they find it on you, they’ll beat you for it! Remember it by heart.” Duvid repeated the address several times, to make sure he would remember. Duvid already knew how they could beat someone to death there. A man had been brought in with his whole backside bloodied. He had thrown himself from side to side, as if convulsing from heat.
And so three whole weeks went by. Duvid sustained himself with a few picked-out beans and a lot of water; he lost a lot of weight.
The warden appeared one morning. He assessed Duvid with a severe, pitiful stare. “Say, you look skinny as a rail. Why aren’t you eating?”
Duvid gave him a questioning look. Straightaway the warden slunk off.
One evening Duvid was preparing dinner in the kitchen with the little strength he had left when the guard walked in and called him to the warden’s office in an unusually polite tone.
There he encountered three stodgy Jews dressed in expensive clothes. One was a tall man with a bulging stomach, a little beard, and a wide-brimmed hat, like a shul attendant from back home. They looked at his chained legs, and all three glanced at each other with horrified expressions. Duvid’s heart jumped in his chest.
Everything happened so fast. He was free again, in his own clothes and shoes. With waddling steps the three Jews led him out of the massive, gray building. Only when he was outside did he remember he had to say goodbye to Tom, he had to see him one last time . . . All three of them yanked him back as if their fingers were made of steel. “What’s with the boy? Is he crazy?” they said to each other, holding him tight under their arms.
Once in the carriage they turned to him with complaints: Why didn’t he let the Jewish community of town know that he ended up on a chain gang because of a stupid mistake? Didn’t he have any relatives in the country? Really, he had to wait until the warden let them know that a young Jew was stuck on the chain gang, and they should come rescue him?
“There are other people there,” Duvid said, weary.
“Don’t compare yourself to those savages!” the man with the little beard nearly screamed. Duvid didn’t have the slightest inclination to get into a debate with them. He sat there silently, his heart numb and his face gloomy. He was really free now! Thinking this, he searched deep inside himself for the joy he should have been feeling. But he couldn’t find any happiness. Misery and sorrow trickled into his heart instead, the feelings of someone who had gone plummeting down bottomless chasms, someone who had already wandered a long, painful road.
The Jew with the beard suggested that Duvid should stop in town, and they’d give him easy work in a store.
“No, no! Take me straight to the train. I need to go back to New York. I’ll send you back the whole sum you gave away for me.” The Jews saw they wouldn’t get anywhere with him.
New York, New York . . . He laid his face in both hands, and for the first time in three weeks the stoppage loosened and tears filled his eyes. The three Jews looked at him wordlessly. They wanted to comfort him but decided to let him cry himself out—maybe it’d make him feel better.
In a rush of tears, Duvid found hope that things would be different from now on.
And with renewed spirits, he dreamed about that colossal city, New York.
Mina Smoler was born in 1898 in present-day Kam’yanyi Brid, Ukraine. After immigrating to the United States as a young woman, Smoler became active in garment workers’ unions, even getting arrested at a strike in 1932. Later, after moving to Los Angeles, Smoler published stories in the Morgn freiheit, Kalifornier shriftn, and other Communist-aligned periodicals and was involved in the Emma Lazarus Jewish Women’s Clubs, as well as numerous reading circles and book committees. To the translator’s knowledge her work has never before been translated into English.
Translator Joseph Reisberg was the 2022–2023 Applebaum Family Fellow in Bibliography and Translation at the Yiddish Book Center. He is currently a PhD student in Jewish languages and literatures at Johns Hopkins University. His poems and translations appear or are forthcoming in Jewish Fiction.net, The Adroit Journal, and The Loch Raven Review.