Monday, October 11, 2010

In The Beginning

I have no excuse, save for the ignorance of youth and a desire for grand adventure, which may have been one and the same thing. Consequently, the seemingly minor decision I made to end my education before the age of thirteen led me down a path from which each future choice was misdirected by the previous foolish one.

Not that I didn’t have a loving family to guide me, particularly my older brother, Mordechai, who had seen me risk my life repeatedly but was unable to convince me to make at least one sensible decision. There was simply too much fun to be had.

The result was that, in a little over ten years, I went from being a yeshiva student, a baker’s assistant, and labor organizer, to a corporal in the Russian army during the war in Manchuria (in which the men under my command wanted to kill me, simply for being a Jew, as much as the enemy did, simply for being in the way), to a revolutionary. For my efforts, I earned my first two death sentences, which was a little more excitement than I needed.

This limited my curiosity as to whether my end would come from freezing or starvation, from Japanese artillery or Chinese bandits, and whether it would be today or tomorrow. From my experiences with the comically inept Russian army (at least, it would have been comical had our lives not been at stake), I learned that, no matter how terrible it was for anyone to be in the midst of a war, it was a hundred times worse being on the losing side.

Still, I was slow to put into practice the lessons from my youth and, following the war, became a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Czar. This got me involved in amateur spy missions that would have gotten a Hollywood screenwriter fired, but got me sentenced to death for the third time.

As a result, I traveled the width of Russia, from Petersburg to Siberia, where my adventures were to have come to an end. But even if my record wasn’t clean, my conscience was; everything I did was done with the most honorable intentions.

And ultimately provided enough excitement to last a lifetime.


I grew up at a time when most of Russian-occupied Poland was living in poverty. Hence, it was not unusual for a child to leave home at the age of twelve to get a job to support the family. The only alternative was studying in a yeshiva.

Spending one’s days indoors, rocking over a book of the Talmud and arguing about the minutiae of Jewish law was never a profitable occupation, but it was the only “trade” in the Jewish community that really mattered. It also wasn’t entirely impractical. There were rich Jews who wanted their sons to study with learned men, and were willing to pay good salaries to have one as a private tutor. Sometimes, one even heard that the tutor had gotten to marry a rich man’s daughter.

When it was my turn, I looked at the professions being learned by my friends. None exactly made my mouth water. And since I wasn’t a fan of hard work, I decided to follow in my brother, Chayim’s, footsteps. He hadn’t been interested in learning a trade, either, but became possessed by the crazy idea that he would become a great scholar. Since our parents could not support him, he went off to another village where the boys survived on the generosity of the equally poor householders who had been shamed into providing meals for the boys. Under those circumstances, as you can imagine, some hosts ‘forgot’ their obligations.

I, too, wanted to become a scholar, but unlike Chayim, I was unable to adjust to eating only every other day; starving I could do from the comfort of home.

Which was why I ran away from the yeshiva after barely a week. Unfortunately, I had neglected to tell anyone about my plan to return home, which resulted in no small amount of confusion.

Shortly after I was discovered ‘missing’ from the yeshiva, a boy about my age was found to have drowned. Using good Polish logic, the authorities put the missing boy together with the dead boy, and wiped their hands of both cases with remarkable efficiency. Consequently, my parents were notified of my death, and they sat shiva for me for the first, but not the last, time.

One would think that, after my return from the dead, my parents would have been overjoyed to have me home. But it wasn’t long before they reminded me that, having closed the book on the life of the mind, I needed to find a job.

But the limited exposure I’d had to the outside world when I ventured beyond my small, provincial town of Vishogrod  made me realize that there was a bigger world out there just waiting to be discovered.

Even at thirteen, the great world drew me like a magnet with its promise of new experiences. I wanted to go far away, perhaps as far as Warsaw, which I pictured as a vast, modern metropolis, glittering with golden opportunities. Conveniently, Warsaw was where my older brother, Mordechai, worked as a baker. When I told him that I was sick to death of Vishogrod, he said he could get me a job as a baker’s assistant. Coming from a state of perpetual hunger, the prospect of spending my days in a large, modern bakery, with its delectable smells and the unceasing availability of something to eat, gripped my imagination and wouldn’t let go.

In principle, my father had nothing against Warsaw, but he held to the belief that a boy’s only assurance of seizing his golden opportunity in life lay in having a skilled craft. So he arranged for me to work in a series of apprenticeships with various tradesmen in town. Why ‘a series’ of apprenticeships? Because I proved incompetent at even the simplest task. As a result, most jobs didn’t last a week; some didn’t last the day. At least one boss predicted that, before long, I would end up in front a firing squad, about which he wasn’t too far wrong.

Soon I found myself in Warsaw, working twenty to 22-hour days (and before yom tov, a full 24), something that Mordechai had neglected to mention in his infrequent letters. The only salvation was shabbos; without that one day of rest, none of us could have survived.

Having made such a fuss about needing to get out of Vishogrod, I could hardly turn around and go home. Nor did I have enough money to return, even if I wanted to. So, for the next seven or eight years, I worked as a baker’s assistant, and in a variety of other mindless jobs, not one of which had a future.

But what would have been the point of thinking about the future when, at the age of 21, I would be conscripted into the Czar’s army? In the meantime, work was simply a way to stay alive, and sometimes barely that. My sympathies, as I rolled from one deadening job to another, were with the exploited souls who were enslaved by their employers – not that the bosses had it much better.

Meanwhile, my young blood craved adventure. Aside from the revolution, which I personally felt in no position to start, I could try to improve the lot of the people around me. At the time there was no such thing as a “union.” Each worker was on his own. And merely talking about organizing workers was an engraved invitation to scrutiny by the secret police.

But by the time I was seventeen or eighteen, I was fed up with being powerless. So one day I went to the boss and told him that his three best clerks and I were quitting. The boss was furious. He accused me of being a Bolshevik, a hooligan, a nihilist, and a spoiled young man who’d never be satisfied with anything short of total chaos, anarchy, and the destruction of the social order.

I got angry, too, but instead of quitting, I called a strike, and demanded – and this was unheard of in Warsaw – a reduction of our working hours from twenty to twelve hours a day. I was in a position to do this because I didn’t have to worry about losing my job as I was approaching the age of mandatory army service. Which, after working 120-hour weeks and more, didn’t sound like such a bad alternative.

Our little strike spread throughout Warsaw as workers and apprentices began walking out and demanding a 72-hour week. Under the guidance of an experienced Bundist  who showed me the ropes, I managed to “unionize” over 3,000 workers in less than a month. The police harassed me at every turn, arresting me several times, and beating me up once or twice. Although they had me on their list as some sort of political troublemaker, they never figured out exactly what I was up to.

After such a fine start, the strike went off like a ship without a rudder. No one had any idea of tactics or negotiating positions. While I had a knack for agitating, making speeches and signing up members, I had none at all for strategy or administration. We also didn’t bother our heads with theories and ideology. We simply wanted to support the cause of oppressed workers.

As a result, the strike dragged on until, gradually, each boss came to some sort of quiet arrangement with his workers. It was like a husband and wife deciding it was better to live together in hatred than to have their self-respect and lie in the street. So one morning I awoke to find myself a strike leader without a strike to lead.

But even though we hadn’t achieved our goal of a shorter work week, at least we had shaken Warsaw to its very foundation, and given thousands of workers a sense of revolutionary consciousness.

And it gave an ignorant boy who, once upon a time, had set out for Warsaw to conquer the world, a taste of what he could do.

yeshiva: (Hebrew) Jewish educational institution at elementary or high school level, or beyond
Petersburg: As St. Petersburg was known at that time
Talmud: (Hebrew) Composed of Jewish law and commentary of the great rabbis from centuries past
Warsaw: Spelled, in Polish, Warsawa
Yom Tov: (Hebrew) Any holiday (literally, a "good day")
Shabbos: (Yiddish) The Sabbath

The book is footnoted, though I couldn't do that in this blog. There is also a Glossary in the back of the book

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