Chapter the twenty first.
My relative Mr. Hilel Fried. - Doing badly on an examination. - Pessimistic thoughts. - A war between "Turks" and "Russians". - I am an emperor. - A hole in the head - I paid for it. - Fried's business. - Polyakov. - Fried's house. - They give me work. - The old Governor. - Fried's daughter. - Grodman. - Lipshits. - A story about a document.
As mI said before, I only got to see my relative late in the afternoon, after the funeral. They had already informed him that he had a visitor: a young man, a relative.
He entered the room, formally greeted me and asked me "with whom he had the honor" [vi di mode iz]. When I told him who I was he kindly shook hands with me again and proceeded with a more difficult, stickier question: "What had brought me to Charkov?"
I told him about my peregrinations, my wanderings, that I hadn't found my calling yet; how I had been a lessee-farmer, a shopkeeper, even a teacher, without settling on a vocation. I told him I had wife and children, God bless them, but that my pockets were empty. I needed a job. May be he had a job for me? Couldn't he give me a job somewhere?
"A job?", my relative said frowning, "Well, my bookkeeper just died. He made two thousand rubles a year. Would you be interested in that job?"
I sensed a touch of irony in his words.
I had to say: "I am not bookkeeper."
And he, giving me a penetrating glance, retorted: "Well, what can you do?"
I didn't know what to answer.
He went on saying: "I am a rail-road contractor and have over thirty clerks, each heading a different sector [R. distantsya]. But it seems that you are a complete stranger to any of the duties involved. Sure, an unmarried man [R.kholostoy - unmarried, single>Hark. khalstoy -bachelor. single man], starting out at a low position and working there for a couple of years, might, provided he has the capacities, work himself up slowly. But a married man, with children and moreover someone who isn't at all familiar with my trade, - what good is such a person to me?"
Actually, Fried was right. What use did he have for me?
Noticing that I was sitting there completely defeated he invited me for tea.
In the evening several people arrived to talk business. He spoke with all of them. The room was tumultuous, the usual thing with business tycoons.
Ah! how well did I know this kind of hustle and bustle!
When Fried had finished with his affairs he called me into his office. We had a long talk there. In the end he told me I shouldn't despair, not worry, he might find something for me to do eventually. The thing was, his wife's relatives had taken all the jobs.
The house of the governor would be renovate soon. Possibly I could get some job with that. It would be a major alteration.
"And in the meantime", he said, "stay with us and be jolly".
Though Fried ostensibly succeeded in calming me down somewhat, when I went to bed my thoughts were far from optimistic. What kind of "job" could Fried possibly give me? Big deal, I might hang around for a few months at the governor's place, but after? After that it would be winter and in winter time he wouldn't have any work at all, he would not pay me and what would become of me then? What was I going to do? Just stay with him and eat from his table?
It seemed to me, while I was laying there in that big luxurious room, not able to fall asleep, that I reached a frontier, a dark,wide and desolate shore, the place where I would find my own end.
I became quite melancholic and all kinds of pleasant, happy, care-free moments from my youth popped up in my mind spontaneously, from a time when I knew nothing of misery, of job-hunting.
For example, it's Lag-boymer1and I have organized a war between boys.
All the boys in town were summoned by me.
Every boy was to come to the war with a tinned-iron sword. I had ordered these swords from a tinsmith for thirty kopecks a piece.
For myself I had a special sword made, for the price of sixty kopecks. Representing two enemies the boys were divided into two armies, into two nations, namely Turkey and Russia. Of course we also had two emperors2.
I was crowned czar of Russia and my army was thirty three man strong, symbolizing Lag-boymer; there was the same number of Turks. Both groups of soldiers set out for the hills, a verst from Kamenits. There I took up position with my army on one hill, while the Turkish emperor, Avromele, the son of Leybe Polyakevitsh, stood with his army on the other hill, looking haughtily at me over in my camp.
Before long we all started charging down into in the valley. To fight a battle was not, God forbid, one of our strategic aims. We only had [text: fedarft=bedarft] to run from the valley to the top of our hill and whichever army was the fastest would be the winner.
I am not just bragging if I tell you that my army reached the top of the hill first. But the "Turkish" emperor refused to acknowledge it and started shouting that I had cheated him: I had pre-selected a hill that was much lower than his hill and that was why I had arrived first.
Naturally we felt this to be an insult of the Turk, and a war was the result. One cannot just swallow an insult while surrounded by one's men. Both armies started throwing sand and dirt from one hill to the other, with such fervor and speed that the skies blackened. Well, sand and dirt are the kind of stuff you cannot hurt each other with much, it only caused our noses to get stuffed up.
It became only bad when one of the Turkish soldiers picked up a stone and actually made a hole in my head, a real hole, a bleeding one.
At the sight of blood both armies became frightened and we all ran home. We were lucky that we weren't attacked by rough kids with dogs on the way home, or our peace-full Lag-boymer game would have ended in a real tragedy.
My father soon learned what had happened and sent a note to the rebbe, ordering him to give me a good trashing.
The Rebbe didn't have to be asked twice and executed the sentence straight away.
This was the only time I ever got a trashing; probably because I had aspired to be an emperor.
Such stories kept going through my mind while I was laying there in that unfamiliar, luxurious house, but they failed to bring me in a better mood.
I felt bitter, sour.
Several days went by before I took notice of my surroundings.
Fried's children were well brought up. Two sons went to university and one of his three daughters was a world-famous beauty. People called her "the Northern Belle".
Besides, she could sing and gave very successful recitals; she was very well accomplished in every respect.
Fried took care of his affairs brilliantly and the dozens of clerks in his employment carried out their duties with strict regularity, like the cog-wheels in a machine.
Later I found out that during the weeks that there wasn't any work the clerks brought the house to life with merry excitement so it was full of stir and bustle and everybody had a chance to experience that house with envy, that seat of such big, rich business, that home of such accomplished children.
Fried himself had once been a student at Volozhin. He had spent six years there and he been well known as a great Talmud scholar. His father, Mr. Simkhe-Zalmen, a grandchild of Mr. Khaim of Volozhin, had also been a Talmud scholar and a rich man and had been known as a sage.
Later Fried married a daughter of Tseytlin of Mohilev. This Tsaytlin was a big contractor and gave his daughter a dowry of five thousand rubles, which had been met with a thousand rubles by Mr. Simkhe-Zalmen.
Fried had learned the contracting business at Tseytlin's side, but at that time Tseytlin had gone bankrupt and Fried himself had hardly any money left. He had five hundred rubles left. With this sum he went to see an engineer in Charkov who had worked with his father-in-law Tseytlin during the good days.
In Charkov this engineer gave him a "contract" for the delivery of brooms to clean away the snow from the tracks. Within two weeks Fried made fifteen hundred rubles.
The engineer, realising Fried's abilities, was satisfied with him and soon after handed over the delivery of stones for the tracks to him. Next fried had made sixty thousand roubles within half a year.
With such a sum at his disposal his affairs advanced smoothly and quickly He took on one contract after the other and in one year's time amassed a fortune of two hundred thousand rubles.
His first expenditure was buying Polyakov's house, the house where Polyakov had lived before leaving for Moscow.
It was a magnificent place with a beautiful garden, in the style fashionable at the time with Russian estate owners. Rare types of trees, rare kinds of flowers, winding (getokt) paths, artificial ponds and a stunning bathing house [R. kupalnya].
They kept flowers there, there were wall-paintings, the water was clear and everything looked inviting.
There was a sign on the wall, indicating when the Governor took his bath and at which times Fried's family or some Lord, etc.
Fried, as I observed in time, squared the sails to the wind and spent a great amount of money; it was said that he went through forty thousand rubles yearly.
But his lifestyle was very Jewish: he would say prayers early in the morning and study after that. He kept the Shabes strictly. He even had a beautiful 'suke'3, painted and decorated like a miniature palace, with two lofty wings [mit tsvey hoyge fliglen = fligel-tir?]
When they eventually put me to "work", that is, with the renovation of the Governor's house, I suffered a lot at the hands of Fried's supervisor, a very rude and savage man who always shouted, who was always angry.
I remember that I couldn't stand his rude shouting and he sometimes would make me really cry.
But nothing could be done about it, because he, this supervisor, was a very competent man who understood his job very well and Fried was most content with him.
Everyone suffered under his treatment, but you had to keep silent. Fried's affairs flourished because of his supervision and even Fried's wife, who often was the target of his curses and shouting, had to remain silent about it.
Just like her I had to bite my lips and keep my mouth shut . Who could oppose the almighty supervisor? On the other hand, I did take a great interest in the Governor, a very decent and liberal person. His wife and children were abroad an he personally, in a
easy going and quiet way, took care that the renovation job wasn't bungled.
"A small chain here, may be? How about a bracket there? Perhaps give this an extra coat?" he would ask in a childlike way.
Furthermore he would give everybody encouragement like: "See, that's it, well done, young man [R. vot, tak, tak, molodyets]."
I was especially impressed with his bedroom. It was a singularly beautiful room. The wall behind his bed was covered with hangings and on these carpets all kinds of armory: swords, poniards, sables [kinzhalen], rifles, pistols etc were hung. Many of these various daggers and swords were souvenirs from several emperors. This armory shone with the gold and silver, with the pearls an diamonds that the handles were beset with.
I worked for a day in this bedroom. The Governor showed me everything I had to do and while doing his bidding I kept looking at the tapestry with the arms. You couldn't take your eyes off them.
I lived in Fried's guest-house. I was not a very happy man, but they certainly knew how to live.
Fried's daughter, the famous beauty, went to Jalta. Not that she was short of anything, God forbid, but she went in quest of even greater and possibly more worldly pleasures.
She was a good horse-woman. On the Krim she would go riding every day out in the high mountains in the company of important Russians. Her Krim-trip cost her father quite a penny.
When she had returned from Jalta she went with her father to Petersburg, He went to get contracts and stayed there for about a month. He had taken a large amount of goldwith him . He threw money left and right and lived lavishly. If you were out for contracts, you couldn't appear stingy.
When my work at the Governor's was finished Fried put me in an office, at the Charkow station, where his supervisor was always present. I didn't like that at all.
This supervisor, Grodman, had come to the Governor every day early in the morning for only a quarter of an hour. He would assign my task for the day and check what I had done during the previous day.
But now I had to pass all day suffering his evil eye and malicious tongue. Sometimes it became too much. But I had to suffer in silence. I had wife and children at home.
Grodman bore a grudge against me because I was a refined person in comparison with his clerks. My being well mannered, my being clumsy, my white hands, angered him and drove him to make my life as miserable as he could.
The impact he made on his workers may be illustrated by the fact that we had only one topic of conversation: Grodman.
As soon as he took off we sighed in relief and went through the routine: "Grodman is a beast!" "Grodman is a brute!" "The man has no heart!" "It's a terrible fellow!" And so on, just like slaves, when the whip is taken way from them for an instant.
I spent all my evenings at Fried's. There it was cheerful. They organized balls, attended by rich young people. Long tables would be put up in the dining room with food on them fit for a king.
Beautiful Bertha played the piano, playing extremely well and her younger sister gave imitations of Sarah Bernhardt4who she had probably seen perform somewhere.They sat in silent ecstasy around Bertha; around the other laughing happily.
Sometimes the younger one would do an imitation of a slowly dying woman.
They turned down the oil-lamps a bit, she would stretch herself slowly onto a couch, deadly pale and silent. The light in her eyes dimmed, a last movement of her hand, a twitch of her brow and no more movement, dead.
Probably she had stolen this act from Sarah Bernhardt as well, nevertheless it made a strong impression on the audience.
That is how they spent their evenings.
But this merriment stuck in my throat. I only loved Bertha's playing. It sometimes sounded so sorrowful that it wonderfully blended with my melancholic thoughts. It made me forget my troubles for a while, like I melted away into the sound.
If Bertha wasn't playing I preferred to sit in a corner with whoever happened to be there.
I lived together with a special character. Lipshits was his name. He had a well-oiled tongue and was a gifted flatterer [krikher iz er geven eyner bay got].
One day he wrote a letter to the Governor-General of Charkov, the famous Loris-Melikov5.
In this letter Lipshits stated [hot gemakht gepeygrt az] that he was a Jew and he asked the Governor-General for nothing less and nothing more than a government position, on the grounds that he was a citizen of Gods world and had, sorry to say, nothing to eat.
Loris-Melikov replied that Lipshits should visit him on a certain day and hour to get his post.
But when Lipshits arrived at the appointed time he was not admitted, so he protested loudly to the official: "What is this! Who has ever heard of such a thing, a Governor-General not keeping his word? That's something you only expect from a mean character! This is really too bad. His word ought to be pure as minted gold!
This was the best comparison he could think of and because of his shouting the cabinet of the Governor-General issued an order to the official to arrest him for two days.
They grabbed this fellow under the arms of course and "put him away".
By the time they let him go he was even more excited and he "whipped up"[ongekatevet] a long letter Jewish style to the count.
The tone of this letter was controlled, but full of flowery expressions [melitse], puns and illustrations, in a style that was used in the good old days.
He read this letter to a whole bunch of students among whom I was also present. He put it in an envelope in our presence, glued it shut and wrote the address on it.
The students, lively, care-free young people, took him on the shoulders.
Some days later an officer arrived with a document from the Governor-General. I was in his room at the time. In the document it was written, that the Count sent him a hundred rubles for his letter, but that he could not give him a job.
Lipshits politely thanked him but didn't take the money. This made a big impression on the officer. "You won't take the money? But I beg you ...", the officer pleaded with Lipshits. "But don't write the Count any more letters, you shouldn't make fun of a Governor-General."
"No, I wont write any more.", promised Lipshits.
And Lipshits kept his promise.
This story, a good anecdote as it was, became very popular uamong my acquaintances. Sometimes Lipshits would mix in to say,not without pride, "Even a Jew can get the better of a minister."
It is very doubtful whether he would have any success nowadays. Now anybody as clever as Lipshits would be well advised to emigrate to the States.
1Lag-boymer: The thirty third day of the 'sfire', the 'counting' of the 'omer', the forty nine day period from the second day of Peysekh till Shvues. On Lag-boymer, the 18 day of the month 'Ier' (April/May) the uprising against the Romans by Bar-Kokhbe (131-135 C.E.) is commemorated. It is celebrated by outings.
2Kotik, born in 1847, must have been reenacting the Crimean war (1853-1856) fought by Alexander II, ending with the fall of Sebastopol in Sept. 1855 and the Peace of Paris (1856). At the time Kotik would have been about 9 years old. Without going into detail about the present day value of a kopeck from that period, it is clear that the amount of twenty one rubles, eight kopecks, spent by Kotik on tinned-steel swords, was considerable.
3suke: a 'booth' with an open roof, erected during the eight days of Sukes, where meals are taken during this high holiday. An example of an early 19th century Sukkah from Germany is found in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. It has walls painted with local scenes and Jerusalem and there are two windows with shutters. A picture is found in "The Jews in Literature and Art.", ed. Sharon R. Keller, Koeneman, Koeln, 1992. (Pl. 93).
4Sarah Bernhardt (born: Rosine Bernard), (1844-1923). Famous French actress.
5Loris-Melikov: Count Mikhail Tarielovich Loris-Melikov, 1826-88, Russian general and statesman. He was created count for his services in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and in 1880 was made minister of the interior by Alexander II.
Following the murder attempt on czar Alexander II on 2 April 1879 three temporary governors general (in St. Petersburg, Charkov, and Odessa) were added to the existing three (in Moscow, Kiev and Warsaw).Loris-Melikov became governor General of Charkov on April 7 1879. In 1880 he was made minister of the interior.
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