Falikman, Ikhil Shmulevitch
You are about to embark upon reading a short story, that is while fictional is based on actual events that took place during World War II, in what was then USSR. In his telling the story, the author uses geographical and given names that have meaning, which he sometimes explores in his vivid descriptions. To simply translate the proper names, would have taken away from the story's historic and cultural significance, while a transliteration, by itself, would have left an English language reader wondering what he or she is missing. In the present translation, I have chosen to use transliterated proper names throughout the text. However, whenever possible, I have also added an approximate English equivalent (enclosed in the square brackets) on the first occurrence of the transliteration. Some proper names have no obvious meanings in modern Russian, and are therefore not so explained. Much of the story is written in passive voice. Some sentences are painfully long and appear to be run-on. The author often uses colloquialisms, changes tense, style, interrupts himself taking a detour or changes a voice in which the story is being told, at times in the middle of a sentence. This adds character to the story, and is therefore an integral part of it. In my English translation, I have tried to stay as close to this "Yiddish Story Teller Style" as possible, even preserving punctuation marks at the expense of "Proper English." In short, I tried to preserve the "look and feel" of the original. I hope that you find this translation flavorful, yet readable.
Evgeny Jake Berzon.
Some will say, that this is a coincidence, others will see a symbol here, but everything happened just like this.
Our division charged forth from a rocky Noviy [New] Lyubar bank of the river Slootch, where velvety, polished by rains and winds cliffs upspring from under red clay mass their mighty backs, and they are protected by the hanging like spirals of barbed wire thorny bushes, intertwined with dry stalks of last year's nettle and burdock,-- so anyway the division crossed over Slootch, this year as it happens not very wide, as the bridges in the dam between the two mills -- little, pink one, and large, five story, rolling mill, -- were blown up. After crossing the river, we entered Stariy Lyubar, which spread out in a large valley immediately behind swampy floodlands, covered yet again with last year's broken rush. Those who have been to this town -- Stariy Lyubar -- before, would not recognize it now, because in the two winter months, that our corps stood at the edge of the hilly new town, here, at the bottom, where every house, every yard were visible as on the palm of a hand, landed plenty of artillery fire, and the Stariy Lyubar burnt from edge to edge... And now here, among the piles of burnt brick, among the heaps of gray ashes and black clay, gun commander Berl Mazhor [Major] or, as he was called in the division, Boris Mazhor, found the remains of his burnt down home. It was neighboring the yard of a local photographer Koyfman, and in this backyard remained a distinguishing mark -- an unusual well, made up of a regular barrel with five holes drilled at the bottom, to the edges stuffed into the black swamp -- in the spot, where from its bottom broke through a spring with cold and tasty water. So, by this well sergeant-major Mazhor, tall and thin, with bulging light-blue eyes, found his yard and, hiding the gun behind a lonely protruding on the deserted ashbed half fallen apart wood stove with a high chimney, behind the trunk of an old acacia, fallen as it happens here and leaning against the stove's chimney, he started sending from behind this unsophisticated cover shot after shot across the western edge of town, called Kazyennaya Gromada, [Large Government Housing] there, where behind the blue teeth of the forest begins a long, striped by last year's plowing ridge of fields. There the Germans were hanging on to the positions they prepared in time. And, but of course, it is not a coincidence, and not at all a symbol that, the surname of the sergeant-major -- Mazhor. His ancestors were musicians. Town musicians even in the olden times knew, what is major, and what is minor, and he, who was the first to take on such a surname or else received it as a nickname, was, one has to assume, not inclined towards minor.
So here he stood, Boris Mazhor, a little to the side of the gun, in the middle of his home yard. Much did he see here, among the black debris, much did he bitterly think. Anyhow, his thoughts had to be concentrated only on one thing: on that, which was being screamed out by an artillery man, bent over in the shell hole, on the stone steps, remaining from a destroyed cellar. After every shot Mazhor had to intensely listen to the telephone operator's screams and right away give new coordinates, new reference points to his artillery men, winding like bindweed around the one hundred fifty second [gun]. Artillery men were working full force; the backs of their field shirts were covered with dark spots, from sweat. The Spring has only begun -- cold, damp, under the half-burnt logs packed snow could be seen, next to the wattle-fence remains -- both snow and melting ice. But in the heat of the battle everything has to be executed immediately and precisely, and this is easier done with the overcoat shed.
Artillery men were working full force -- also simply because, a battle is a battle, and also because they knew, yes, they knew this very well: there, on the ridge, upon which they were firing, on the Peschana [Sandstone] (Apparently soil on it is indeed sandy, the ridge appeared ash yellow from a distance), in the earth covered pits lie women and children of the Stariy and Noviy Lyubar -- two thousand killed, and among them -- Mazhor's mother and two little sisters, schoolgirls. The men of both towns -- they are only called New and Stariy Lyubar, -- all the men, beginning with teenagers and ending with old men, all those, that could in the heat of the moment grab an ax, a metal rod or a stake, and among them sergeant-major Mazhor's father, Germans shot several days earlier on a different location , in Yurovka, on the eastern edge of Noviy Lyubar, next to a windmill with a single sail. Artillery men went there, to the one-lobed windmill, to take a look at the two elongated mounds, barely raising under the cover of then deep and fluffy snow. Now it was possible to give some thought to -- and somebody like Mazhor, most likely, indeed was thinking about this -- how deep down in the earth goes the fougasse and at what depth there lie, in earth, remains of people...
And now before a new shot from the one hundred fifty second a short diversion occurred. Certainly, nobody, except for Timosha Beskonniy [Horseless], gunlayer, noticed a thing, and even if noticed, did not figure out -- what had happened. As even Timosha back than was not in the know, that sergeant-major placed the gun in his very own yard. So here it is -- the diversion: the telephone operator informed of the coordinates, Mazhor with his high cockerel, broken down light tenor ordered, which ammunition to load, where to aim, calculation he quickly did all complete, artillery men are waiting for the command "Fire!", but the commander, already with a raised right hand, for some reason is silent, directing his sight into the ground, into that spot, where a broken log splits apart. As soon as he put his foot on this log, it moved a little and revealed lying on the wet ground a small, flat, dull-gray object... The gun thundered with only a few seconds delay, tearing forward and immediately heavily rolling back. Artillery men were visible through the whitish smoke - every one in his own hurried movement: one rushed to the gunlock -- to yank out a used shell, another, who was in a hole, bent down to a case -- to get a new shell, the third simply turned away, holding his ears, while commander Mazhor -- this is precisely what was noticed by Timosha Beskonniy --took two steps to the split end of the log, hurriedly bent down, picked up from the ground a small flat gray object, looked at it for a second or two, then wiped it off with the bottom of his coat and put it in his army pants pocket.
-- A comb, you see, -- Timosha was telling me later, at a field hospital, lowering his voice to a whisper. He slightly lifted both his arms -- his hands were bandaged all the way up to the elbows, -- may be he wanted to show, how while one hand is combing the hair, the other is holding them in place, or may be he was simply trying with his twisted, black from earth and coagulated blood fingers, protruding from under the gauze bandage, to move his blond clumped from sweat hair away from his forehead. But he was unable to move his hands up to his head, scowled, bit his chapped lips, and his inflamed, full of suffering eyes became full of tears. -- The comb, -- repeated the gunlayer, -- mother's... Only I did not figure this out by myself...
Timosha was feverish. But the real fever, apparently, was only beginning -- as, besides the hands, he also had a bandaged stomach. Poor lad was in a hurry to tell me everything, it was very important to him, very necessary, that I understand him. He was in a hurry apparently because the only ambulance bus, having just driven off with Mazhor and several other wounded to the nearby station Pechanovka, now was going to return for him, Timosha, and the other five wounded, that were lying on straw in the half-dark field hospital. Now I was bidding farewell to Timosha, but only several minutes ago at the same here place I was bidding farewell to Mazhor, and of course in his, Mazhor's presence, the gunlayer was unable to speak of that, which he so wanted to tell me.
-- A comb, you see, thick, the type mothers use to comb out the heads of little kids after washing. You think, what did my mother use to comb me out? Also the same... I wouldn't have understood anything, if not for the old woman, Mazhor's neighbor. We were being transported here on the same buggy -- him and me. As it happens, we did not pullout far from Lyubar, only to Peschana. There we both got it. He caught it in an eye and the chest, he was choking, could not lie down, was half sitting -- a armful of hay was placed under his back. And I lay just, like now... The buggy passed a long street, and I recognized that spot, from which our gun was firing, -- the fallen tree, the chimney, the well - barrel in the swamp... Just here the old woman rushed to us. "Halt! -- she shouted to the driver. Halt!" Came up to the buggy and is looking. And suddenly to Mazhor: "Oy, that it is you yourself, Berko, Mazhor's son! And I was all persuading little Olga, -- we were already starting to peak out of the cellar, when we heard, that our troops were firing nearby, -- take a look, I tell her, take a good look, your eyes are young, -- right there, at the canon, isn't that our neighbor's eldest son, Berko, standing in the middle of his yard?" But little Olga retorted: "Ay, grandma, you always imagine things!" Little one, could have and forgotten, but I have old eyes... Now I am looking closely at every buggy -- are they carrying my Demid, let it be even if wounded. He, my son, went into the forest, G-d knows when, it was so long ago last year. And there were secret rumors flying around about him, that he was somewhere here, not far, in the Polonskiye and Shepotovskiye forests..." She was talking still more, this old woman. And she was following the buggy and was asking the driver, to wait a bit, to restrain the horses, she would bring us something from the cellar -- to keep our strength. She even ran into the yard, where the roof of the bungalow fell through at the very middle, the bungalow, consider it already not, but the driver -- who can wait! -- hastened the horses... Well, when we began descending to the river crossing, Mazhor pulled out the comb from his pocket. "Mother's -- he said. -- Eh, I should have asked the neighbor about my mother. Or maybe, I shouldn't have, ay?.."
Stariy Lyubar. My birthplace and Mazhor's.
Original text taken from "Family of Man". Novel and short stories.
Russian Translation from Yiddish. pp. 262 - 267
Copyright (c) 1975, "Radyanskiy Pismennik" - publisher, Kiev
Made by "Atlas" book printer, Lvov
1960s reunion photograph of former residents of Lyubar
(Ester and Mikhail Zelman are 1st from the left in the 2nd & 3rd row.)
English Translation from Russian by Evgeny Jake Berzon.
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