"Old Town"

Chapter One of The Strong and the Weak

Written by:
Alter Kacyzne
Spring 2016
Part of issue number:
Translation Issue 2016

Born in Vilna in 1885, Kacyzne is best known as a dramatist and a photographer who worked for the Jewish Daily Forward, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and S. An-ski’s ethnographic expeditions. A disciple of I. L. Peretz, Kacyzne lived and breathed the theater, and he adapted An-ski’s play Der dibek (The Dybbuk) for the classic 1937 Yiddish film version.

Alter Kacyzne’s only novel, Shtarke un shvakhe (The Strong and the Weak), which appeared in two volumes in 1929 and 1930, presents a cross section of Jewish life in Warsaw in the early twentieth century. It weaves together the private and public lives of aspiring men and women of letters, begrudging and committed laborers, and petty traders and forestry magnates. Kacyzne is sympathetic to these characters while not shying away from exposing the contradictions and ironies of their lifestyles. Centered around one commune in Warsaw’s Old Town, Kacyzne’s novel, like his photography, offers a sensitive and nuanced portrait of Jewish life in Warsaw at a moment of great upheaval and possibility. In 1941, Kacyzne was beaten to death by a Ukrainian pogromist in Tarnopil following the Nazi takeover of the city.

Here used to be the heart of Warsaw—this very labyrinth of narrow little alleys between high, gray walls. Now it’s an outlying area, an ancient growth on the body of the modern city, where blood flows differently and the pulse has a different beat.

The mokem—as Jews call the Old Town—has its own breath, its own air that doesn’t circulate with the air of the rest of Warsaw. The residents of the mokem also have a different look, both the Jews and the Christians. They’re withered, the residents of the mokem, as if the dust of past generations clings to them, pressed into the folds of their clothes and the wrinkles of their faces. And they’re gray. They carry with them the shadow of the tight alleys between high walls. They shuffle along the walls, along the narrow curbs, like children rubbing against their mothers’ knees. The mothers—the walls—are narrow and high and their knees are swollen. They’re broader at the base than above, the gray walls sliding down onto the narrow curbs in a slanted support so as not to fall over. There’s not a single gate here. Narrow, arched doorways with ancient grime lead from the street into dark, arched corridors. And by day through their gloom, and in the evening by the single lantern that hangs from an arch, the archways breathe out a terror and a warning to the cramped street: Beware, people! There are witches in this world! And evil spirits linger in every corner. And terrible people, even worse than evil spirits, are concealed in their hiding places.

Niches aren’t cut in the thick walls at the height of the first floor for no reason. Madonnas and saints stand in them, forged in their eternal watch. And no matter how old and neglected the walls, the Madonnas and saints gleam with the sky-blue colors of their freshly painted clothes, wearing fresh little crowns on their heads—a reward for their eternal watchfulness.

People walk, shadows on the shadowy street. And if a beam of sun breaks through the high walls, then the whole street breaks up into sharp corners and crooked lines. It seemed the street was disintegrating. It seemed the shadow people were running as fast as they could to save themselves, in rings around the Old Marketplace, to be restored there under the bright sun.

If the Old Town is the former heart of Warsaw, then the Old Marketplace is the heart of that heart.

The Old Marketplace is a big, four-cornered box. Its walls on all four sides are high—up to five or six stories—and narrow—only three or four windows. And all the walls are gray and all so similar. But no—they are different. Each wall has its own face, with the facade of a ruined aristocrat. They are great individualists, the walls of the Old Marketplace. What holds them together there, shoulder to shoulder, pressed tight and close? With furrowed brows they stare at the mermaid sitting on her pedestal in the middle of the paved square. The Warsaw mermaid is a witch, with shameless breasts and a twisted, scaly tail. With her shield and her sword, she enchanted the old, high walls with their Madonnas, with their saints, and the old stone individualists arranged themselves in four rows and sealed the square in a box.

The square had become a giant room without a roof, a communal room for the use of the residents.

Children chase each other around the mermaid. They can’t run too far—she’s enchanted them too. Old women sit on the stone steps of the pedestal counting the runs in their stockings and cursing their bad luck. One curses that her old man doesn’t earn anything, the second that her old man gets drunk and beats her, and the third is jealous of both of them: her old man has long since gone to the other side.

In the summery dusk, workers leaving factories come by in their shirtsleeves, with cigarettes in their mouths, to shoot the breeze by the mermaid.

Regular people. And a regular room, only without a roof. That’s why they can breathe freely.

Jews and Christians here feel closer and more at home than at other places. The walls have pressed them close together. Dire poverty oppresses everyone equally.

Jews and Christians here feel closer and more at home than at other places. The walls have pressed them close together. Dire poverty oppresses everyone equally. No rich folks live in the Old Town. And the shadows of past generations bind them together with a common secret.

In the square next to the mermaid two workers stopped in the dusk. They met on their way home from work and stopped to chat.

“So, got any work?” the taller blond man asked, and not for no reason, not just to have something to say. It mattered to him if his friend had work, and especially if he wanted to work.

The friend answered, after a short hesitation. “I’m telling you, Yisroel, you know my heart really isn’t in this work. What kind of business is it for me, Shayke, to paint flowered trim on houses on Franciscan Street? I’d like to trim the fat cats who live there. It sure was worth it coming to Warsaw . . .”

The blond clapped him affably on the shoulder. “Give it time. Krakow wasn’t built in a day.”

Side by side, you might think that only one of them was a worker—Shayke. He wore a thin shirt with pants that were made entirely of paint stains, a living palette. It was a wonder just how the guy managed to get as much paint on the back of his clothes as on the front.

Yisroel, on the other hand, looked polished. He even wore a white collar and tie, carried a cane, and on his finger—a gold wedding ring. And he didn’t just have gold on his finger. When he smiled, the sun caught his gold tooth.

“You have no patience, Shayke,” he lectured the house painter. “Warsaw is a bottomless pit. With patience and energy you’ll work your way up, little by little. Have you been to Ritov’s?”

“I’m just coming from his place.” Shayke looked in amazement at one of the high roofs, where a four-cornered patch of glass was set among the blackened shingles. “To hell with him. He has a girl there, a little model.”

“You went to his place looking like that?”

Shayke didn’t understand the question and looked at Yisroel, surprised. Seeing that Yisroel scrutinized his paint-smeared outfit, he thought and laughed. His eyes were narrow, and when he laughed only crooked slots with thin wrinkles remained.

A real Oriental, Yisroel thought.

“You think I need to change my clothes in his honor? Not in his lifetime. Who do you think Ritov is? Not a painter like me, huh?”

“Well, there’s a bit of a difference. That guy is a real big shot, a celebrity, a premier painter . . .”

“Psht, you’re also bourgeois, Yisroel, as I see it. Just because he’s got canvas and a studio and models, just because they write about him in the newspapers—I should change my clothes in his honor? I was working!” And Shayke, with pathos, beat his painted chest. It kicked up a thin dust, and Yisroel retreated with a smile.

“Did he look at your drawings?”


“And what did he say?”

“He really liked them.” Shayke squinted like a Chinese person and gave a little scratch under his hat. “Son of a bitch said I should keep my day job.”

“And you didn’t already know that?”

“Tell me, Yisroel, is work important to me?”

Shayke’s pitiful expression implored Yisroel to relieve him of the burden of having to work. Yisroel was sympathetic toward Shayke, even with his openhearted laziness.

“Grab a trowel, you Oriental,” said Yisroel with a flick of the hand. “If you become a painter of fine art then I’ll become a dancer. Of all your talents, you should stick with whistling.”

Shayke squared his painted feet and set his hands on his hips. “What’s that supposed to mean? Have you really heard a better whistler than me?”

Gold flashed as Yisroel laughed.

“Hold on, Yisroel.” Shayke became serious and pushed his hat back on his hair. “What have you heard about my poems? When’ll I see some words in print?”

Yisroel told him that his poems would be published in a coming issue of the party paper, but Shayke didn’t back down: “When?”

“You can’t just fill party journals with poems, you understand that. They need material. Today I’m going to Shmuel for an editorial.”

Shayke had no patience. His muse didn’t wait. He already had another poem in the pocket of his multicolored pants. But go show Yisroel, who hadn’t even published the first one? No, he wouldn’t show him.

He looked up in amazement again. A flame burned in his little Chinese eyes and his lips opened in a childlike smile. A kid stood high on a roof waving a stick five times taller than himself. A rag was attached to the stick. Waved, as if enchanted. Maybe he wanted to paint the entire sky over the Old Marketplace. And maybe he waved to the setting sun to make it come back. No, the black silhouette on the roof was conducting a flock of silver pigeons. High, high they circled, sparsely, in an airy, circular ritual. Little silver flowers shadowed by red clouds. He waved down—a smattering of black little rags. He waved up—again, silver flowers. Then they burned red.

“You know, Yisroel, at our place in the village the turkeys have already gone to sleep. They gobble to one another and tell each other their nightly dreams before sleep: Tyu-lyu! Tyu-lyu! Tyu! Lyu! Lyu-lyu-lyu!

Shayke whistled so accurately how the turkeys recounted their dreams that Yisroel had to laugh.

“Go get ’em, you poet! Shayke the Whistler, good night!”

Madeleine Cohen is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature with a designated emphasis in Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is managing editor of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.

Michael Casper is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Los Angeles.