We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.
—W. H. Auden
H was a short, erect, barrel-chested man with slightly bowed legs, close-cropped gray hair, and liquid, protruding eyes whom I got to know fairly well in Boston in the 40’s and New York in the 50’s. He had come to America from the Ukraine shortly after World War I, but had never reconciled himself to life in the fabled land. He was not alone in that respect, of course. A line in a popular song of the 20’s, Die Greene Kuzine (“The Greenhorn Cousin”), cries plaintively, “A khaleriya oyf Kolumbuses medina!” (“A pox on Columbia, the gem of the ocean!”).
But H. did not complain. A quiet, indeed timid, man, he rarely spoke of the past. It was only from his relatives that I learned that H. had actually served in the Czar’s army, and that that experience had been the high point of his life. In Boston, I was told with amusement, H. never missed a military parade.
That was intriguing. I had heard family tales of young men who had fled the country when called up, or, if inducted, had deserted as soon as they could. Ivan’s military service, the terrible priziv, was a dread prospect for Russian Jews, who could anticipate particularly cruel and unusual treatment.
Yet here was H., who looked back on that usually horrendous experience with a kind of nostalgia. I have always been a memoir buff; I approached H. and suggested that he put down on paper the story of his life.
H. readily agreed. He did not need much persuasion—his life was dull enough. He had retired from the family business many years before on a small sinecure (he was no asset, and his brothers and sister had been glad to buy him out). H.’s English was hesitant, but he was fluent and expressive in Yiddish. A man of sensibility in the mold of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, at the family dinner table his laugh was hearty and quick. There was more than a touch of delighted malice in his hoarse, deep voice as he recounted the foibles of townspeople in his shtetl. So I looked forward to a bright and lively account of an unusual life.
Several months later, shortly before his sudden death, H. presented me with a Yiddish manuscript. I glanced through it and was disappointed. H. was not a professional writer, and, like most people, he spoke more freely and vigorously than he wrote.
Shortly afterward, I went abroad on a lengthy foreign assignment. H.’s memoirs gathered dust in the warehouse where I had deposited them with the rest of my household effects. But recently, on my return to Washington, relieved of official duties, I decided to go back to H.’s memoirs. Perhaps I could find vital matter in those stiff lines. I had been fond of the dead man, both for himself and for what he stood for—a man of my father’s generation. The testament of his troubled life, however stilted in expression, deserved considered reflection.
* * *
I was born in a small town [shtetl] in the Kiev district of the Ukraine, in the southern part of Russia. The town was ringed about by wide fields and by villages, each of which was many times larger than the town itself. Far from any railroad, it was, in effect, cut off from the rest of the world.
The classic setting. Isaac Bashevis Singer describes his fictional town of Goray as suffering from the same isolation and encirclement two centuries earlier, in the last quarter of the 17th century: Goray lay “in the midst of the hills at the end of the world.”
What is novel in H.’s shtetl is its smallness, in comparison with the fields and villages roundabout, as well as its relative inaccessibility—“far from any railroad.” For anyone brought up in the Jewish neighborhoods of large American cities, the realization of the actual fewness of Jews in relation to the larger city and country can come as a shock. In complete innocence, we assume that our neighborhood is not only a world unto itself—it is the whole world, in miniature. We do not think of ourselves as a small people.
Then again, there is Jewish mobility. Nathan Glazer has remarked that there appear to be more Jews than there really are because Jews move about so much; they seem to be wherever you look, wherever you go. Frank Alpine, in Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, expresses this misapprehension: “There are more of them than anyone knows.”
This was far from true of the Jews in the shtetl where H. grew up at the end of the 19th century. They were forced into immobility by the ghettoization of a restricted Pale of Settlement, excluded from government schools by discriminatory laws, and often kept from their own religious schools by sheer poverty. With a few bleak lines H. sketches a picture of the consequences of this poverty, and how the shtetl endured—and transcended—it. During the long Russian winters
rarely did one see people in the street, for many people had no warm clothing. Small children could not go to school. People sat in their cold houses, whimpering and waiting for God to come to their aid. For it was their piety and faith that gave people the strength to endure the hard times and to hope for better ones.
There is compassion in this sketch, and appreciation of the sustaining faith of the pious, though H. himself is not-persuaded of the efficacy of passive whimpering and waiting for divine intervention. But he is equally skeptical of those who leave the country (not just the shtetl) to seek their fortunes elsewhere, in America. He recalls those who had come back to lord it over the stay-at-homes, and assesses with cool calculation the folly of emigrants
who saved up a few dollars and came back to their families. The dollar went very far in Europe at that time; in their American clothing they looked like millionaires. But in a few years they spent or lost their capital in unsuccessful business ventures. They were able to make a slight change in the lives of a few people, but in the long run they were as poor as before, as ragged, as hungry.
There is, of course, envy here and rue, as well as malice. For H. himself had not dared to chance emigration. After his release from the priziv, he was at a loss. He could not find his bearings. He analyzes his quandary—one he was to remain in for the rest of his life:
Paradoxically, instead of being as delighted at the termination [of military service] as every other other Jewish soldier was, I was indifferent to liberation from military servitude—in fact, I was quite unhappy. . . . I had really nothing to return to, no proper home. . . . My father was poor and not making a living; my younger brothers were in America, and my younger sister was preparing to join them. . . . My prospects were far from glowing, and I had no idea what to do with my life. To this day I cannot understand why I so stubbornly refused to emigrate to America like the other young Jews. The land that I found it impossible to leave [Russia] was like an angry stepmother; its anti-Semitic laws had done me immense injury, depriving me of the opportunity to earn a decent living.
“Russia was like an angry stepmother.” The plain fact is that Mother Russia did treat her Jewish children abominably: they were indeed stepchildren, second-class citizens. And the image is particularly apt because so many young Jews like H. were literally orphaned in early childhood. In one of the most moving passages in the memoir, H. recounts his mother’s last hours and her burial during a snowstorm.
Indeed, the orphan metaphor is a staple of Yiddish and Hebrew literature of that period. Some of the best writers (notably Chaim Nachman Bialik) used it brilliantly to characterize the sense of isolation and irrelevance that afflicted his generation. His Ha-Masmid, the orphaned yeshiva student whose talmudic candle burns feebly day and night “in a corner of the Exile,” became the classic expression of the straitened religion of a once-rich society, now abandoned by an indifferent world.
Bialik was able through his art to transmute the dross of years spent in isolation and need into a golden affirmation of traditional and historic values: into Zionism, as a reassertion of the identity of nation and faith on the soil where they had originated. H. had no such talent and no such particularistic perspective: his sympathies were secular and grandiose. He believed in a social revolution from which Jews, like other oppressed people, would benefit. Judaism for him was limited to the narrow “fanaticism” of the shtetl, which, however hopeful for its pious devotees, was unworthy of a modern young man. Besides, he could not commit himself, directly and actively, to any cause outside himself. He could and did dream—he dreamed a good deal—but it was of a nebulous “better world a-coming.”
H. dreamed, but his feet were stuck in a quagmire of “unending, tedious, and boring despair.” Awareness of his inertia only increased the despair. His life had no meaning. He was angry and full of hate, but
I knew deep in my heart that hatred [of the czarist regime] could accomplish nothing, that my duty as a young man and as a Jew was to become active in the [revolutionary] struggle. But I was not a man of action, and the realization that I did not have the courage to help in the movement, like other people I knew, brought me to despair.
Once again, H.’s lifelong anguish at his inability to act forcefully and effectively was not unique. It was part of the general malaise that afflicted shtetl Jewry. Even Bialik, a fulfilled artist one might think (indeed a culture hero in his own day), is said to have lapsed into the same syndrome of anxious apathy in his last years, though they were spent in Zionist Palestine.
It was not that the shtetl lacked models of Jews who overcame the limitations of Russian life and triumphed over them. Thus, H. speaks admiringly of figures like his maternal grandfather, who, though barely literate, made his way in the Gentile world by shrewd, opportunistic manipulation of absentee landlords. But he, like the famed millionaire Brodsky, was an exception. The memoir is replete with derisive anecdotes about learned but foolish, bigoted, vain, and—most important—improvident shlemiels.
But H. is too intelligent to fall into the vulgar trap of assuming that all failures are, ipso facto, unsophisticated gulls. He perceives another kind of failure, very close to home: that of the secular, enlightened, modern man who loses out because he has no head for business—his own father (and, eventually, himself). He points out that there is a large element of luck involved, too—business conditions change due to outside forces beyond one’s control. And then there is one’s nature, one’s inner life, also beyond one’s control. Things are particularly difficult for a person like himself, soft and vulnerable. All these considerations combine to make one a shlimmazel—i.e., a born loser, one whose luck is consistently bad, who is always at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
H.’s luck turned sour very early. First the tragic death of his young mother, who preferred him to his brothers and sister. Then, his father, noting H.’s intelligence and intellectual interests, sent him off to the home of his own father, who was a wealthy man, in the hope that this grandfather would gladly subsidize H.’s higher studies. But grandfather turned out to be a highly eccentric, benighted, miserly provincial of the old school who disapproved of a secular education for his bright eldest grandson.
Still, H. did not give up so easily. He determined to work his way through the university, earning the fees necessary for a nonresident student by tutoring the children of Jewish provincials for half of each academic year, then returning to his grandfather’s house to study privately the rest of the year. He was making headway when suddenly he was called up for military service.
Surveying his life forty years later, H. might well have nodded in agreement with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s satanic dictum: “It is all chance and an event of nature.” His inborn nature was unalterably mild; his luck, consistently bad. But not always, not entirely. There was this one exception: the sergeant. . . .
H’s army experience began as miserably as predicted. He records the official czarist army policy as spelled out by the commanding officer dressed in a warm overcoat to a company of Jewish recruits shivering in meager summer cottons in the dead of winter.
“Stabbing every man of us with his malicious gray eyes,” the commanding officer addresses the neophytes in a bitter-cold voice: “I know that many of you are educated, intellectual, and competent, because that is true of Jews in general. They always want to know everything. . . . You people are too smart, too hostile to the government of Russia—and you are not to be trusted.”
The officer disclaims any “personal” bias. He is neutral when it comes to politics. But . . . “my duty is to tell you that all those freethinking ideas of yours, all those revolutionary notions that fill your heads will do you absolutely no good here; to the contrary, they will be a handicap to you during your military service.” He ends by letting the cat out of the bag: “Orders from the high command are to keep an eye on you people as a security risk.”
The commanding officer was not wrong. Jewish soldiers did have superior intelligence and they did apply themselves to beating the discriminatory system. But it was no use. The cards were stacked against them and they were repeatedly rebuffed:
Often a Jewish soldier would be assigned to a post that was outside the Pale of Settlement, to a place where he would ordinarily, as a civilian, be forbidden to live. He would make friends there, or fall in love with a local girl whom he wanted to marry. He would apply to the powers-that-be for permission to settle there on the grounds that as a soldier he had the right to live anywhere in Russia at the end of his military service. Invariably, such applications were denied. On the last day of his service, the Jewish soldier lost his right to free residence, and was sent back to the province of his origin, within the Pale.
H.’s description of the scene at the railroad station at the departure of Jewish conscripts reads like a script for a classic Eisenstein film: mothers agonizing over the separation from their sons; the brutality of the police; the inexorable movement of the railroad cars:
The crowd—parents, friends—that had come to see us off . . . downcast, weeping faces as at a funeral . . . the loud keening of mothers, desperately clutching their sons in their arms, pressing them to their breasts, refusing to let go . . . the powerful armed policemen tearing the young men from their wailing mothers, shoving them into railroad cars . . . the shriek of the locomotive whistle as the train moves slowly forward . . . the mothers running after the train, with outstretched arms, screaming their sons’ names at the top of their lungs. . . . The train has disappeared, a thick cloud of smoke covers the horizon and they keep running until they fall to earth exhausted, tearing their hair, sobbing. . . .
“Sobbing.” . . . Tears are frequent in the memoir. H. freely acknowledges weeping on many occasions: as his mother lay dying (“my hot tears mingled with hers”); lying on his straw pallet unable to sleep the first night in the army barracks; on his departure from Grodno, at the end of his service, to face a bleak future. He does not apologize for his tears because they are not easy; they are justified by circumstances and by his “nature”—he is one of those who weep at the injustice of things, and at his own hopelessness. He cries for himself and he cries for others.
Throughout the memoir, H.’s indignant sympathies go out to two groups: to Russian Jews, of course—but also to the Russian peasants, so easily exploited by absentee landlords, kept in a state of ignorance and illiteracy, befuddled with liquor made easily available by the regime, incited to violence (against Jews) by police agents and bigoted priests who manipulate the peasants’ love of Holy Russia. The peasant unhesitatingly serves in the Czar’s army (until the debacle of the Russo-Japanese war). But H. understands that military service, though simply another form of the same old servitude to new masters, has concrete advantages which the peasants appreciate:
There was . . . a sharp contrast between the peasant serfs inside the army and those outside. Where civilian peasants went about in filthy rags, soldier peasants were resplendent in clean uniforms. The army kept them in good health so that they could fight.
Still, peasant and Jew can help one another even in the army. It is a peasant sergeant who affords H. an escape from the rigors of Russian army life—and the opportunity to live what, amazingly, are to be the happiest days of his life. As luck would have it, the very same education that the czarist regime distrusts in its Jewish population proves to be H.’s salvation.
His rescue comes out of the blue, after only two months of the odious barracks life, the drudgery, boredom, demeaning anxiety (“to please our superior officers, we scanned their faces for indications of what it was they now desired”). His top sergeant
made a fearsome impression. A tall, powerful, fair-haired man with piercing blue eyes, he was the stereotype of a regular in the czar’s army. The severity of the face, the strong, harsh, bass voice shouting orders—every move, every gesture . . . in the reactionary Russian army mold. But how wrong I was!
One very cold day, H. is called into the sergeant’s office, whither he marches at double time in fear and trembling (“What had I done wrong? What would be the punishment?”). To his astonishment, the sergeant gives H. permission to sit down—a clear breach of discipline, which permitted no fraternization between ranks, however private the occasion.
But after a few words, the mystery is solved. Looking through H.’s records, which have just come to his desk from staff headquarters, the sergeant has discovered that H. was graduated from the Gymnasium with high honors. And now the sergeant asks H. as a personal favor (“no one must know of this”) to help him out in his own studies. He is bucking for a promotion and is weak in mathematics—which it just so happens is H.’s strong subject. In return for this hush-hush service, the sergeant offers to do everything in his power to make life in the service easier for his Jewish tutor.
H. hastens to agree. He becomes a porter assigned to the sergeant’s office. There he alternates between pushing a broom when others are around and tutoring his pupil-master when they are alone. (It is a Chaplinesque alternation of roles that H. finds comical “to this day.”) When his sergeant passes his exams, he keeps his word and rewards H. with a sinecure assignment as medical orderly in a hospital in the large city of Grodno.
There, relieved of barracks restrictions, in his liberal free time, H. quickly becomes part of a group of “intelligent, well-read, and friendly” young Jewish men and women. He joins them in their summertime outings, picnics, songfests (to the accompaniment of the guitar), boating. During the winter they go skating together, visit the Yiddish theater, the movies—and meet in their homes for “readings or political discussions.”
Ah, those halcyon days! They explain why H. had such fond recollections of his peacetime service in the Czar’s army. Those two years were the high spot of his life. They were the one time when all his needs—for security, companionship, status—were taken care of. And all because of a peasant Russian sergeant and his own superior education, however incomplete. The world was not completely dark.
What were those political discussions held in private homes by the Grodno Jewish youth group? In telling the story of his life, H. devotes at least half of his memoir to the public life of the times, as seen from a “progressive” standpoint. (In Boston, H. shared the sentimental Communism of the readers of Morgen Freiheit, even after the Soviet purge trials of the Stalin period.) He writes of the background of the pogroms, of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and its revolutionary aftermath—the short-lived Duma, the assassination of the “dreaded” premier Stolypin.
This is the stuff of textbook history. But H. enlivens the familiar outlines with anecdotes and “inside” information—the underground rumors of the times. This is second- and third-hand material, not formal history checked and double-checked against “reliable” sources. It is not data; it is only “what people say,” often inaccurate, always tendentious, but all the more important for its indication of what people are ready to believe and to repeat.
Equally important are the events H. does not report. Nowhere in his memoir is there reference to two major movements among the Jewish intellectuals of Russia at that period, each of which addressed both the “Jewish question” and the larger socioeconomic ones: Zionism and Jewish socialism. The Grodno discussion groups must have argued over those burning issues of the day. The Zionist and Jewish socialist movements had become active in response to the wave of pogroms that swept Russia in the 1880’s, after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. They were in full swing a generation later, when H. was a young man serving in the army.
Abraham Cahan, the long-time editor of the socialist and later social-democratic Jewish Daily Forward newspaper in New York, describes in his own autobiography the lively debate in Russia in the pages of three Russian-language Jewish weeklies between proponents of two parties, the “Americans” (Am Olam) and the “Palestinians” (BILU). As a result of the 1881 pogroms (in the Ukraine, where H. lived), Cahan explains, “a section of the young Jewish intellectuals concluded that Russia could never be a home for Jews, and that it was necessary to find a true home for the Jewish people elsewhere. But where? Some were for America, others advocated Palestine. The nationalist movement began to make inroads among young Russian Jewish intellectuals at that time. . . . However, the proportion of nationalists to the total Jewish intellectual movement was inconsiderable.” Cahan himself, facing the choice of flight to America or to Palestine, chose America—explaining that he was a socialist and did not believe in the Palestine solution.
H. speaks only in general terms of the politics of the underground dissidents whom he so admires—though it is clear from his nomenclature (“masses,” “exploitation”) that he was influenced by Marxist as well as populist ideology. One incident in the memoir points to the non-Jewish provenance of his sympathies. The same sergeant who was his benefactor confides to H. that as a child he had been enlightened by an itinerant carpenter who had visited his village. The carpenter went out of his way to instruct bright peasant children in their ABC’s and—more than incidentally—in the tenets of revolution. He was eventually picked up by the secret police and imprisoned as a member of the underground Narodnaya Volya movement, which believed in (and practiced) “going back to the people” (i.e., the peasants). The sergeant himself had joined the Russian army in order to bore from within, rising from the ranks in preparation for the revolution. H. surmises that the sergeant “was one of the many Russian officers who at the end of World War I played an important role in the Russian army’s overthrow of the Czar and the destruction of the monarchist regime.”
H.’s preference for the Narodniki is supported by Abraham Cahan’s note that many young Jews of this period were attracted by the Narodnikis’ terrorist program.
Zion makes but one appearance in the memoir, and that a pathetic and derisive one. In telling the story of one of his shlemiel uncles, a typical ex-yeshiva student incompetent at business and hence unable to support his family, H. comments:
He was something of a know-it-all and it hurt his pride no end to look like a comic fool. . . . Impecunious, he saw himself burdened with small children and a nagging wife. He could not endure the ignominy. One fine summer night, he told his family that he was going out for a walk and some fresh air and didn’t come back.
His uncle goes off to Palestine, to spend the remaining years of his life studying in the Holy Land. But three years later, he turns up again in the shtetl, unnerved and depressed, in a persistent state of melancholy. Suddenly, he falls sick and dies before he is forty.
H has no patience with pious fools, but he knows very well from his own experience the pain of humiliation, of social depreciation. He applies this psychological insight to an explanation of Russian political-social actions. It was “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind” that impelled czarist Russia to free its serfs:
Russia in the second half of the 19th century could no longer look with indifference at the consequences of the important changes taking place in the outside world: the French Revolution, in whose aftermath despotic monarchies were overthrown all over Europe, and the American Civil War, which culminated in the freeing of the Negro slaves. The struggle for freedom throughout the civilized world cast fear in the hearts of the Russian autocracy. They felt that international public opinion opposed them, that they were regarded everywhere as barbaric, wild Asiatics.
This sounds culturally correct; the student of the Russian language learns very clearly that the epithet ni-kulturniye (“uncultured,” i.e., barbaric) is both condescending and insulting.
Equally convincing is H.’s summary of the gist of sermons preached from the pulpit against the “Christ-killers” during the celebration of Easter:
After the customary service, the priest would deliver a long sermon. He would preach that the Jews were a danger to the Fatherland and the Czar. They were unbelievers and hostile to the holy Russian religion. It was the duty of every citizen to keep a sharp eye on his Jewish neighbors. They must be placed under close supervision. They were all, great and small, every man, woman, and child of them, all revolutionaries and criminals. Every person possessing information about suspicious Jewish activity should inform the police immediately. This report would enable the police to arrest the suspect in time to prevent disaster.
H. follows with a detailed, circumstantial account of the careful preparations for the pogrom: the pleading, self-serving arguments of Jewish community notables (“we are not all malcontents”) the hypocritical promises of protection offered by city officials (with instructions in their pockets from Moscow not to intervene); the dilemma of helpless Jewish army recruits forced to look on during the pogrom: “There they stood, heads downcast, tears in their eyes, nervously pressing the rifles in their hands. How easily they could have dispatched this riff-raff. . . . With loathing they regarded the smiling faces of their officers, who had ordered them not to interfere, whatever happened.”
This has the true ring of first-hand observation—particularly the impotent rage of Jewish soldiers nervously pressing their rifles. But one is not sure that H.’s ideological bias has not distorted his reporting when he goes on to explain why the chief victims of the pogroms were the workers and shopkeepers living in the poorer Jewish neighborhoods. The regime, he declares, considered those Jews to be the most inimical because they were more likely to be dissatisfied with the oppressive system that kept them in poverty. The richer Jews, he argues, were generally protected from the effects of the pogroms. They were considered more loyal to the regime; they would identify with the upper class, whose interests the regime defended. So the police drove away any hooligans who showed up in the wealthier Jewish neighborhoods, and even went so far as to arrest them.
One suspects rather that the police were bribed to protect the better-off Jews, who were distrusted and hated as much as were the poorer ones. After all, the underground dissidents and revolutionaries themselves came, as always, from the middle and upper classes, and were university students and graduates, the children of the “richer neighborhoods,” rather than of poor shopkeepers—and the czarist regime knew this very well, just as the present-day Soviet regime knows that its opposition comes from the brains of its society, the Sakharovs and Solzhenitsyns, not from the brawn. It is the ordinary worker who can be coopted by free or very cheap vacation resorts, deafened into insensibility and drunkenness by unremitting propaganda, intimidated by threats of concentration camps and loss of jobs—not the Brodskys and Sinyavskys. And indeed, H. makes this quite clear elsewhere in speaking of the revolutionary propaganda leaflets smuggled into Russia from abroad and distributed to indifferent “masses” in factories and public places:
Most of the people who found this literature, distributed at risk to life and limb, refused to read it. The ignorant masses spat on the pamphlets and trod them underfoot as the work of Jews, the bitter enemy of the Fatherland, who were always preaching anarchy and revolution.
But the revolutionaries have their day during the 1905 revolution. H. describes underground leaders, who had come into the open after years of lying low, addressing mass audiences “proudly, with heads high” (one is reminded of the familiar enormous posters of Lenin, beard jutting, head thrust forward). H. had a good eye for significant detail (in retirement, he painted careful decorative tiles).
Czar Nicholas II is represented as “that half-mad, idiotic, alcoholic figurehead” who obdurately refuses to sign the manifesto granting a Duma until “eventually on the third day of the general strike, his counselors got the Czar dead drunk and prevailed on him to sign the manifesto.” So much for Hollywood’s Anastasia sentimentalism!
H.’s account of the assassination of Czar Nicholas’s “much-hated” premier Stolypin is melodramatic. Stolypin accompanies the Czar to a patriotic opera being offered in Kiev on the occasion of the Czar’s visit. Police, militia, detectives both inside and outside the opera house. Everyone is frisked. Despite these precautions, at the beginning of the third act, a young man springs up in the front row, pistol in outstretched hand, runs to the Czar’s loge where Stolypin is sitting at his master’s side, and fires two shots, wounding the premier fatally. Panic breaks out. Women scream and faint. The audience begins running toward the exits. But disaster is averted by the patriotic presence of mind of the “artistes” on stage: they fall to their knees and, turning to the pale, frightened Czar, sing the national anthem, “God Save the Czar”!
H. fills in the background of this extraordinary event with details that are both lurid and homely. The assassin was a university student, member of an underground cell, who had been assigned to murder Stolypin. He had managed to infiltrate the police—hence the singular permission granted him as a secret agent to carry a pistol into the opera house. H. adds parenthetically that the assassin was the son of a rich sugar-factory owner—perhaps a hint that this university student was a Jew as well (early in his memoir H. has told us of Jewish sugar-factory entrepreneurs in southern Russia). His final comment on the event is ruefully realistic: “Unfortunately, Stolypin’s death did little to improve matters. The Czar’s friends and advisers easily chose from among themselves another premier of the same ilk as Stolypin.”
Nevertheless, ignoring the ineffectiveness of their violent tactics, the terrorists (like their counterparts nowadays) resume their activities—and the authorities respond in kind, in the familiar pattern:
To raise money for the underground activity, the movement carried out forays on banks and post offices. The attacks were well-planned, and large sums of money were taken. There was a flare-up of revolts and attacks on the police. The police, militia, spies, and agents provocateurs were kept busy. So many were arrested that the government had to build new prisons.
Ten years later, World War I breaks out. It finds H. struggling in the pharmacy he had set up in his father’s home in the shtetl. For a second time, the Russian army disrupts H.’s attempts at an orderly, productive life. He had been called into service in 1908 while he was studying as a university extern, his education permanently halted. Now, six years later, news of the war comes to a completely unprepared shtetl and to a fearful young man desperately trying to keep his head above water:
One fine summer day in July 1914 when I got up in the morning and stepped outside, I gathered that something untoward had happened. The streets were full of people. It was hectic. People milled about, despair in their eyes, talking. They stood in front of posters that bore the tragic announcement: Russia has declared war on Germany. It was incomprehensible to us. In czarist Russia, the newspapers printed very little news about world politics. The country’s foreign policy was never explained. Now, suddenly, war had been declared, and no one was prepared.
Soon after this point the memoirs come to an end. H. is called up as a noncombatant medical orderly and is temporarily quartered in a large monastery awaiting assignment. The monks feed the soldiers ample portions of wholesome vegetarian food. We never learn what happened to H. during and immediately after the war, whether or not he ever came under fire. Did he eventually return to the shtetl which he had left in the same state of isolation and immobility as on the day he was born? What happened when the long-awaited revolution finally came? He left the country in the early 20’s; his anticipations of a new life must have been dashed in the turmoil and uncertainty of that period. Still, the family word is that H. left Mother Russia, that angry stepmother of his, very, very reluctantly.
In 1920, at about the same time that H. half-heartedly left Russia for America, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who abominated America as the country from which “empty, indifferent things crowded over to us, counterfeit things, the veriest dummies,” was writing in a series of letters about H.’s two preoccupations: the Russian peasant and the “Jewish dilemma.”
Some twenty years earlier, Rilke had accompanied Lou-Andreas Salomé, the celebrated intellectual, intimate of Nietzsche, disciple of Freud, and Rilke’s lifelong confidante, on a visit to her native land, Russia. That visit was to be the capstone of his life. The patient faith of the Russian peasant, which H. regarded as sadly symptomatic of the peasant’s enslavement by state and church, Rilke interpreted as a symbol of sublimated independence. Russia, Rilke wrote, had become
my spiritual home. . . . The Russian has shown me in so and so many instances how even an enslavement and a visitation that continually overwhelms all powers of resistance need not necessarily bring about a degeneration of the soul. There exists, at least in the soul of the Slav, a degree of submission which deserves the epithet perfect because even under the most massive and annihilating pressures it creates for the soul a secret arena, a fourth dimension in which, however grievous conditions become, a new, endless, and genuinely independent freedom can now begin.
Rilke believed that his own experiences as a schoolboy at a “brutal” military high school attested to that fourth dimension of genuine freedom. At St. Polten’s, he wrote to a one-time instructor, though seemingly buried under “a solid mass of misery,” he had yet “accomplished a similar absolute surrender.” He could not “point to any other means by which I could have survived that monstrous, over-life-size injustice.” He had early been influenced by Dostoevsky (a visit to Tolstoy was unsatisfactory) and now, despite the triumph of the Bolsheviks, he accepted Dostoevsky’s daughter’s
most marvelous and visionary interpretation of the present state of things in Russia: the Russian moujik, who is the enduring and constructive element of Russia, is already at work creating vast and profound relationships with the East, and Bolshevism is only being used as a “scarecrow” to hold off the Westerner and his destructive and interfering dogmatism. . . . Things must come sooner or later, and then the whole world will have to stand and pause. Of all future movements . . . this will be the most magnificent and the most just.
Rilke had been deeply stirred by the sight of the Russian monk, whose historic, communal, unmediated religion (not faith) he perceived to be a purer, more authentic form of spiritual life than his mother’s conventional, pseudo-aristocratic Central European Catholic monasticism. In a letter to a Jewish friend, Ilse Blumenthal-Weiss, Rilke linked the Greek Orthodox Russian with the Arab and the Jew as “an example of [the] grandeur and dignity” of one “favored by the inborn unity of his nationhood and religion, which time and again has secured him an obvious advantage.” Rilke asserted his “indescribable trust in those peoples who have come up against God NOT through faith, but who experienced God through their own nationhood, in their own tribal sources. Like the Jews, the Arabs, and to a certain extent the Orthodox Russian—and then, in a different way, the people of the East and of ancient Mexico. For them God is Origin and hence also Future.”
At the time Rilke wrote this letter, a Jewish homeland in Palestine was a burning issue of the day. (Perhaps Frau Blumenthal-Weiss had asked him what he thought of Zionism.) Rilke had obviously given the “Jewish question” considerable thought. The situation of European Jews was in many ways very much like his own. (W. H. Auden, whose early work shows clear evidence of Rilke’s influence, was to write of modern poets: “We are all Jews.”) Of Austrian origin, Rilke, like Franz Kafka, had grown up in Prague. Like Kafka, he was a member of a German-speaking and writing minority in a society that was historically Czech. He shared with Kafka and understood perfectly the sense of confinement, isolation, estrangement, and marginality of an ethnic minority in Central Europe. And like Kafka, too, he was impressed by the possibilities of Zionism.
In his writings, Rilke refers time and again to the overriding significance of the Old Testament; for him, the religious implications of the return of the Chosen People to the Promised Land had an importance for both God and the world like the Bolshevik revolution, that “scarecrow” set up by the Russian moujik to scare off Western materialism.
This was not grandiose persiflage for Rilke; it was part of his deepest intuition. For Rilke was a mystic God-seeker; he sought in his poetry to unite his own inner, personal reality with external, spiritual reality. In a poem written in the late autumn of 1899, a few months after his return from “Holy Russia,” he had identified the presence of God with his own physical existence. This remarkable poem begins, Was wirst du tun, Gott, wenn ich sterbe? (“What will you do, God, when I die?”)
Rilke’s letter to Ilse Blumenthal-Weiss is in the medieval Church tradition, with its melancholy persuasion of the “spiritual vagrancy” of the Wandering Jew, and of the “distortions . . . wayward, perverse obstinacy” of the “race” that had refused to acknowledge the divinity of its greatest son. But it concludes with an ungrudging admiration for the strength of Jewish “endurance” and an anticipation that the growth of the Jewish people on the new-old soil of Palestine would produce a new “massy harvest . . . an irresistible fruitfulness in God.” The parallel with the Russian moujik in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution is, as we have noted, more than incidental.
H of course did not think in such exalted, world-encompassing terms. He was neither a visionary poet, nor an ardent nationalist, nor a revolutionary activist, only a modest man whose ordinary, everyday need—to be a productive, self-respecting citizen in his native country—was frustrated on every hand by the anti-Semitic policy of Rilke’s Holy Russia. True, H. was not a forceful person; but many shy people can and do get along perfectly well in the sheltered environment of a civilized society. Eventually, he did emigrate to America, but it was too late. By then he was a broken man, and life here was freer but much too hard for a frightened newcomer. There were many immigrants like him, as Oscar Handlin has reminded us.
Would H. have done better in Palestine? One doubts it. To him Zion was out of the question. It was the refuge of those who lived in the past, the place to which a ne’er-do-well uncle had fled, abandoning wife and children, when his pathetic pride was hurt, and whence he had returned, broken and discouraged, to a youthful shtetl death. There was, of course, another path open in Palestine for idealistic young colonists determined to build a socialist cooperative society based on agriculture. But life was just as hard in the early Zionist days in Palestine as it was in New York; read the accounts of the pioneers of the first kibbutzim and other settlements, and of their tribulations: malaria, marauding Arabs, stony soil.
It was even harder later on for those who came not out of a burning conviction but out of necessity, out of an absence of choice. Theodor Herzl’s noted dictum, “If you will it, it is no legend,” assumes a direct connection between the personal, natural will and national, supernatural goals. But this connection also presupposes a third element a willed faith—if not a spiritual affirmation of God’s living and continual presence, then a general humanistic conviction that life has meaning.
Like most people, H. had no such faith, willed or otherwise. He anticipated no miracles being performed for him. Outside his native land, the land of his childhood and young manhood, even of his military service, his external life could have no meaning that might redeem his shattered inner life. The revolution that had come to Russia had not revolutionized his life.
Indeed, so far, Rilke’s prophecy of the spiritual redemption of the world through a post-Bolshevik revolutionary renascence led by Russian Orthodox peasantry and a Jewish post-biblical revival of a fundamentally national religion on ancestral soil, has not been realized. Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sinyavsky in Russia, and Ahad Ha-Am, Martin Buber, and A.D. Gordon in Israel, who shared similar visions, remain prophets without honor in their own lands.
Rilke himself, tragically, could not accomplish what Buber terms “the turning” to God. Rilke speaks of God as being at the center of all great embracing religions, like Judaism: “And Man, who lives at the outermost periphery of such a circle, belongs to this mighty center, even though he has only once, perhaps at dying, turned his face toward it.” But Rilke himself refused a priest as he lay dying.
Indeed, one senses in the lives and works of visionaries like Rilke an attempt to relive and revive a world that no longer exists or can exist—and they know it in the back of their minds (perhaps because it never did exist). In their over-insistence on the need to believe (though not on the leap of faith), to forge a new-old identity, to recreate an idealized past, we see an emphasis on the irresistible force of will that real life daily contradicts, for us as it did for H. Pace William James, the will to believe is not enough. H. was right: our fates are determined by our history, our nature, and—in the final analysis—by our individual luck.
Bruno Bettelheim and Victor Frankl have both described how, during the Holocaust, those victims who were profoundly committed to some transcendent idea—of God or of ideology or of ultimate meaning or even of a personal goal—were best able to keep their integrity intact. True. Yet in the final analysis neither such a commitment nor any lesser strength of mind or of body was decisive for survival. Fortune was, as ever, fickle. It did not matter how shrewd you were, how good a worker, what excellent connections you had. If you happened to be standing on a certain streetcorner when an SS man or guard got it into his head to shoot at the next person he saw and you were the person he saw, you were shot. The next person on that spot, however inferior to you, escaped. Of course, the true believer in another world or another life is not impressed with the value of survival—or of success—for its own sake. But for persons like H. and the multitudes who share his preoccupation with the here and now, consistently bad luck does matter.
The Englishman Leonard Woolf’s Edwardian ambience was completely different from that of his Russian-Jewish cousin, H., although for both men the period immediately preceding and following World War I was crucial in their development. H. too would have characterized himself, as Woolf did, as “mentally, morally, and physically a coward.” But where H. was an unknown nonentity, Woolf achieved a considerable contemporary reputation. We think of him nowadays, glancingly, as the stable support of his unbalanced but gifted wife, Virginia. But Leonard Woolf was in his own right an ardent Cambridge intellectual in the circle of the philosopher G.E. Moore. He was also a vigorous officer in the British imperial service, who would have won the highest distinction had he not left after seven years in Ceylon, in revulsion at Britain’s imperialistic policy. He became an imaginative formulator of the internationalist idea of a League of Nations, and—more than incidentally—a successful publisher of the Hogarth Press, which introduced literary moderns like T.S. Eliot to avant-garde readers. All in all, one might think, a man to be satisfied with his life, where action and intelligence had happily combined.
Yet in the introduction to the third volume of his autobiography, written at a ripe old age, Leonard Woolf speculates with a moving pathos on the very same theme we see underlying H.’s memoir: how our personal history screens our view of reality, perhaps obscuring it completely. Woolf begins by quoting a verse from Rilke, then goes on to relate it to the universal human inability to comprehend the world:
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
(“His gaze from going through the bars has grown so weary that it can take in nothing more. For him it is as though there were a thousand bars and behind the thousand bars no world.”)
—Rilke, Der Panther
I have often been haunted by the lines from Rilke’s superb poem, Der Panther. This volume is the record of my life during the first great war and all through the war one felt that one was behind bars, and now recalling those years it seems to me that one was looking at the world and one’s own life through bars. But then another thought, a terrible doubt, came to me. There are other bars, permanent bars of the cage of one’s life, through which one has always and will always gaze at the world. The bars of one’s birth and family and ancestors, of one’s school and college, of one’s own secret and sinuous psychology. Has not my mind, my soul, if I have a soul, for the last eighty-two years been pacing up and down like the panther, backward and forward, behind these bars and gazing through them until, so weary, I have seen, not the world or life, but only the bars—a thousand bars and behind the thousand bars no world?
H. would certainly have agreed that he was not alone in his failure to come to terms with, much less to dominate, the reality of his faulty character, horrendous times, implacable misfortune. And we, successful or not, lucky or unlucky, as human beings pace with Rilke, Woolf, and H. the same panther’s cage of history through whose bars we gaze at an uncertain reality.
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