Night in the Pale: Easter Monday, 1903

It’s getting dark and Vera is falling asleep. Yet the five-year-old is the first to hear a noise. She struggles to open droopy eyes. Fuzzily she figures she's dreaming when out the window she seems to see snow falling. Big, white, fluffy snowflakes wafting past her window. How could silent snow have awakened her? Yet this is all she can see: a blizzard of fat white snow--strange snow because it is well past winter's end.
            For a while no one else seems to notice anything unusual outside. Vera's little brother Mendel stays asleep beside her on the feather mattress. She loves it when she and Mendel have the bed all to themselves, before the bigger children crowd in. With all the whispering and jostling, teasing and pinching, they usually wake her. Then she says something grouchy, which only makes them laugh and tease her more so that she falls back asleep with a frown on her face. Mendel generally sleeps through it all, because he is only a baby, not even two yet. Anyway, it's still early. Everyone else is in the other room.
            Vera smells the cigarettes Papa is smoking and hears the crinkling of paper as he reads the Bund newspaper from Odessa. She hears him say, "Bring me a glass of tea," and knows he's talking to seventeen-year-old Ruchl, the eldest child, and that Ruchl, dutiful and quiet as always, moves quickly toward the kettle. Piano keys tinkle softly. That must be Mama.
            Then Hersh's voice: "Papa, the strategy is all wrong. I repeat, on the national question your beloved Bund has the wrong approach entirely. You are putting not only the class struggle but the Jews ourselves at risk."
            Vera is used to political debates between her big brother, next oldest after Ruchl, and her father. Yet she hears something new in Hersh's tone tonight. Beneath the stridency, is that fear? Vera's skin prickles. She comes fully awake. Without moving enough to lose her view of the snow she shifts a little so she can peek past the sheet that hangs dividing the rooms. She doesn't like to miss anything if she can help it. Sure enough, there's Malke, who is ten and in Vera's opinion a complete nudnik. Malke, on the other hand, considers herself a wit of the highest order. She's standing behind Hersh, silently mimicking him with exaggerated expressions and gestures. Little ripples of air wisp through Papa's bushy black beard—this is how the children know Papa is amused, this chuckle that ripples his beard, this is the closest thing to laughter they ever get out of him--and the chuckling beard infuriates Hersh into further fine-tuning his political argument.
            "How can you laugh when we're talking about the future of the Jews? And on a day like this, especially. A day, let me add, that we should have started by being down there at New Marketplace with our brothers defending our people, appealing to the goys as fellow workers, organizing against the pogromists, not staying by ourselves, not trusting to some fekokteh god--"
            "Be quiet,"Mama suddenly spits. "You'll wake the babies. I want them to sleep through this night. And leave Papa alone," she hisses.
            Why is everyone talking about this day, this night? A thin sliver of fear glides through Vera's breastbone. It lodges inside her like a tapeworm. Still she stays behind the hanging sheet, peering at her family as their bickering continues.
            Mama rises from the piano. She strides to Hersh, lifts his chin so he meets her eyes and, with a tight smile, says, "Number one, keep your voice down. Number two, be glad Papa can laugh on a day like this."
            "But Mama, what are we doing?" Hersh's tone is querulous. "I mean, we're just sitting here. All day it's like we're waiting for them to come get us."
            "We are hoping things have settled down since yesterday. We are doing what we do in the evening. Solomon is rehearsing. You are pestering Papa. Malke is driving you meshugeneh," Mama says. "What else can we do?"
            What had been a dull drone from over by the eating table lifts to a sonorous speech now, drowning out any answer Hersh was preparing. It is Solomon reciting Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy. He's rehearsing for his leading role in the school play, in which he will declaim the Bard in Yiddish. Mama's expression softens. The Shakespeare was her idea, eagerly adopted by Solomon's progressive-minded teacher at the otherwise not exactly progressive school for the children of Jewish workers. Mama volunteered to be drama coach, which has turned into something she loves--no, anyone can see it's more than that, something through which she finds herself transported into a dreamy realm far removed from this loud, gritty, drafty place that is itself far from her home-- but it has also become yet another household dispute. Papa says Solly, at 12, should be studying for his bar mitzvah with Mr. Sislvicz, the shammes at the run-down shul on Skulianskii Turnpike who for a discount fee tutors workers' boys to chant their bar mitzvah Haftorah passage. Papa has been trying to pin Mama down for two months now on setting a date for Solly's bar mitzvah so he can make a deal with Sislvicz and the rabbi, but Mama has been putting him off one way or another.
            Now oy oy oy, Vera hears him mutter between Hersh's sniping, which has resumed, and Solly's trilling. "Oy oy oy, this is what I get for marrying a modern woman. She'd rather turn her boy into a Shakespeare reader, an actor, a faygeleh most likely, this she'd rather than a Haftorah reader who becomes a man when he's thirteen like every Jew has for the last 5,000 years--"
            "Not every Jew, Leib," Mama says. "Not the women."
            "Fine, now you're going to start in on me about women's equality, Lena? Please, enough already. Please may I have a little peace and quiet before I go back to kill myself in the jute mill tomorrow?"
            "I am not the one who threatens your peace and quiet," she says. "So please stop with the oy oy oys. I've really had quite enough of them today and to tell you the truth for the rest of my life."
            Vera yawns, relaxing again. This she's used to. For here in the Resnikoff household on Munchestskii Road in the mud-poor Jewish section of the Skulanska Rogatka neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Kishinev, the capital city of Bessarabia, southwestern province in the czarist empire, here live people who would rather express to the highest possible degree of accuracy their various thoughts, observations and opinions than let the chance to do so pass. Vera glances out the window again. The snowfall seems to be thickening. Again she yawns. So maybe her family drives each other crazy a little. It doesn't bother her--especially on a night like this, when, despite tendrils of brisk April breeze that squeeze through gaps in the plank walls, it feels wonderful to be home, inside, snug and warm under a blanket. Vera is comfortable, contented, before the chill comes. Before she decides to get out of bed and shuffles into the main room to announce, "It's snowing."
            Before Hersh looks at the big window and says, "That's not snow." Before the window suddenly shatters. Before Ruchl falls.
            Vera's brooding big sister is on the floor, an inert, crumpled heap at Papa's feet. Her silence is deeper than usual. Papa himself is bleeding from the temple. Rocks fly through the window. Everyone is paralyzed for a moment before everything speeds up.
            All Vera's senses are under attack. First she feels the cold. Her fingers are icy  with April wind whooshing in full force through the broken front window. She tries breathing on them to warm them up.
She looks outside. The air is thick with white particles falling from second-, third- and fourth-floor windows. She sees now that they aren't snow flakes at all, as Hersh saw right away. They're feathers--goose feathers, duck feathers, the downy insides of hundreds of pillows and mattresses. The bedding of every family on Muncheshtskii Road. Tiny wisps of down tickle her nose. She sneezes. Why is it snowing feathers? There's a full moon and it's a clear night but Vera has to squint to see through the thick shower of feathers. She looks across the narrow yard at the wood-frame apartment house where ten families live. Young roughs are flinging bedding out the upper-storey windows. She doesn't know them, they don't live there, she wonders who they are and why they're tearing up her friend Gilda Markowitz's mattress, and then oh Mama she whispers as she sees that one of the men has Gilda herself, he's holding her out the window, upside down by her feet, he's laughing and now he drops her too, just lets go and she flutters down amid the down.
            But Gilda doesn't drop quietly like the snowy feather storm. She screams, one long shriek as she falls, and now Vera hears a thousand sounds at once. Screams everywhere--Gilda, and Gilda's mother, who stands at the window howling as her daughter falls, and in the next window Mrs. Damnovner chanting, "Oy Gott Oy Gott Oy Gott" over and over. Now a series of rhythmic dull thuds, each accompanied by a cry, from the window above the Damnovner apartment, a girl Ruchl's age it sounds like, maybe it's Ruchl's best friend Sorah Lieboff, she's crying in pain as though something is pounding into her her over and over and over then suddenly her cries stop and now Vera realizes the loudest noise of all is here, beside her, below her, where Mama lies on top of Ruchl, keening, kissing her, holding her, sobbing. Malke is crying, too, and Solly, and now Vera hears Mendel whimpering as he toddles into the room. Papa whimpers also. Little wisps of air disturb his beard like when he laughs. He bends over Mama and Ruchl and lets out a deep moan. He starts rocking, swaying, murmuring the plaintive opening notes of the Kaddish prayer for the dead. There are shards of glass stuck in his hair. Blood seeps down from his forehead through his beard, drips onto Ruchl's body.
            More sounds--windows breaking, things tearing, something cracking, soft surfaces being pounded. Bellowing laughter. Feral howls. They sound like battle cries but Vera doesn't understand the words. It's Moldavian, the language of the goys.
            They are approaching. Close, too close, they're outside, in the yard, they're next door. Soon they'll be here. Vera tastes iron and realizes she has bit her lip open.
            A whirlpool swirls around her. She is the still, silent center. Maybe if she doesn’t move the next thing won't happen.
            But it does. "Come on," Hersh yells. "Papa, we've got to get out of here. We've waited too long already."
            Hersh is taking charge. Now he's the eldest, Vera realizes.
            He grabs Papa's shirt, actually lifts him up, shakes him. "Take Malke and Solly," he says. "Run out to the back, into the alley, and see if you can find somewhere to hide them. Maybe in Grillspoon's carpenter shed up the alley."
            Papa looks down at Mama and says, "Lena, we've got to go. They'll be here any minute."
            "Go on!" she screams. "I stay with my Rucheleh!"
            "But the other children--"
            "They're all dead!"
            Hersh intervenes again. "Papa, just take Malke and Solly and go." Then, harshly, "Now!"
  So Papa does. Now four live Resnikoffs are left in the tiny flat along with the dead one. The noise outside grows louder, nearer. Snapping. Cracking. Dishes? Windows? Bones?
            "Mama, we are going right now," Hersh says. "Get up and take Mendel."
            He thrusts the crying, confused toddler at Mama. Vera holds her breath. Does Mama really think they're all dead? Will she take Mendel? Will she leave with them before the monsters come?
            "All right, Hersh," Mama finally says. She straightens up. Her voice is like ice. "Give me Mendel. I'm coming. We'll leave Malkeleh here alone."
            Then she turns to Vera. The child stands rigid, breathing fast and shallow. Fear chokes her. Fear siphons her dry.
            Holding Mendel, Mama whispers, "Vera, we have to go now."
            Vera starts toward the sleeping room. Hersh grabs her from behind by the shoulder. "What are you doing?"
            His rough handling shakes Vera. She's on the verge of tears. "Getting dressed," she says. Like Mama always tells her to, neatly, nicely, because a Jew must always make a good impression when she goes out.
            "There's no time, Vera." He turns her around so she’s next to Mama, facing the back window. "Now, Mama, take her! Go!"
            Vera takes Mama’s hand, which is limp.
            "Hurry!" Hersh nudges them forward. "Run, Mama!"
            "Where, Mama?" Vera asks. "Where are we running?"
            Mama looks blank. Hersh stands in front of his mother, takes her chin into his hand, lifts so he can see into her eyes. They're dull.
            He slaps Mama's cheek. Her head jolts back. A curdled roar spurts out of her. For an instant silence splits the room, then an answering, much louder roar of many deep voices comes from just outside the front door. Mama looks wildly at her son.
            "Take them," Hersh commands. "Now."
            Mama nods. She moves toward the back window with Mendel and Vera. "And you?" she asks the teenager.
            "I'll see you later. I'm going to go into town and find the comrades."
            Another slight nod dips Mama's head. Hersh hugs her, taking in the two little ones and blocking their view of Ruchl's body. He helps them out the window, hisses again, "Run!"
            Where are they running? Vera must know. She turns back toward the window, reaches inside, grabs Hersh's arm and asks. He tells her, "Into the woods. Help Mama and Mendel get there. Run fast, Veraleh."
            Vera tries to push down the terror and breathe. Into the woods they’re going? Into the place where she is never, ever allowed, not even at the very edge, not even to play? The place with wild animals and crazy goys who are like animals if you have the misfortune to run into one of them? We're going to the forbidden, dangerous place? Without even getting dressed properly?
            How can this be?
            But how can any of this be? How can that silent dead thing left behind on the floor be her big sister Ruchl? How can Mama's eyes too be so silent, so dead? Mama's hand so limp?
            No time to make sense of it. The screaming, the crashing, all the sounds rise up again around her. Vera thinks she hears something from inside her own house, where she was asleep it seems just moments ago. Where is Hersh? Is he inside, still? Fighting the Jew killers? Or has he already slipped away? More glass breaking, now yes it's definitely from inside Vera's house. Maybe it's Mama's special Passover glasses, and now oy oy oy there's no mistaking the sound, horrible music as the keys fly off the piano, someone is smashing it, pound, crash, wood cracks, wires pop. Oy Gott they're destroying Mama's piano, the only fine thing we own Mama often says. How can they do this to her beautiful mother? Vera feels Mama wobble, looks at her stunned, immobile face, and realizes it's up to her to get the three of them to safety. Where are Papa and the others? Vera hopes they're waiting in the woods. Suddenly tonight, the trees don't loom so scary. It seems that all the vicious animals are here. In Kishinev. In her house. Now the Jews belong in the woods.
            Vera runs. Pulling Mama forward, she keeps a tight hold on her hand, checking that Mama in turn is keeping hold of Mendel. Mama does manage to hold him--but not to keep him quiet. His whimpers erupt into wails. The fear all around him, the screaming, the sounds of destruction--the two-year-old is tumbling into panic. Mama has no free hand to cover his mouth. As they run, Vera and her mother and her baby brother, they are anything but inconspicuous. They never make it to the woods, not even to the edge where, Vera has been hoping, they might blend in with the other forest creatures and be safe until Papa arrives to take them home. In fact, they never make it out of their own rear yard with its familiar jumble of wooden buildings. As they hurry past the ramshackle carpenter's shed, its door opens and Papa shoots out. He grabs Vera brusquely, breaking her hold on Mama's hand, and shoves her into the shed. Then he pulls Mendel from Mama, takes his wife's hand, and closes the door behind them as they enter the shed.
            It’s very dark in here but even so Vera can feel the presence of many people. No one makes a peep, however. Except Mendel, who’s still howling. Papa rocks him. Whispers, "Sha, sha." Finally puts his hand over the toddler's mouth.
            Too late. Mendel's wails have been heard. The shed's door is ripped open, hands reach in, grabbing people, dragging them out. Now the screaming starts up again. Sobs, cries, appeals to god. In that other language some thug yells something and laughs, and the others start shouting merrily. Papa and some other men rush forward, out of the shed, begin fighting the Moldavians, trying to pull the children and women back from them. Mendel's weeping is now only one note amid a discordant chorus, Yiddish laments mixed with calls of "Kill the Jews," the meaning clear despite the language barrier. So many voices, in the shed, outside. Twenty-five people have been hiding in Grillspoon's shed. Mostly children and their mothers. The mob that has at them numbers fifty or sixty. Men and teenaged boys. Some with pipes and clubs. Some with knives and hacksaws.
            It goes fast. Papa, Mr. Grillspoon and the other men try to fight off the mob. Outnumbered, without weapons and unused to fighting, they go down one by one. Mr. Grillspoon and three others are clubbed to death. Bella Grillspoon--kind Mrs. Grillspoon, their neighbor, the one who always chucks Vera under the cheek and gives her a hard candy--doesn't have it so easy. Just outside the shed's open door she is set upon--by four, five, six brutes, how is it possible? Vera doesn't know the word for what she sees but she sees it with her own eyes. Cowering in the front corner of the shed with Mendel she watches, the moon shining a spotlight on Mrs. Grillspoon. Some time after the third or fourth assailant, the old woman ceases to resist or even flinch. Still she lives; Vera hears her rasping breaths. Then, after the last one finishes, he kicks Mrs. Grillspoon over and over. When he moves away Vera doesn't hear her breathe anymore.
            Vera turns the other way and there is Papa lying on the ground. Blood all over his face. One leg bent at a strange angle.
            Vera wants to scream and scream but she knows it's too dangerous. She must stay still. She must not draw attention to herself. She must pull herself in as tightly as she can. Become small. Invisible. And keep Mendel quiet. Which is no longer hard. He's gone silent, stiff. Finally Vera understands all Mama's fears, all her warnings to Vera and the other children. These goys are like animals, it's true after all. Or worse.
            Near the corner where Vera crouches with Mendel, Solomon and Malke have been hiding too, under the carpenter's big work table along with Feya Wouller, a girl Solly's age, and Feya's eight-year-old sister Dvora. After finishing outside, a pack of men howling like wolves sweeps into the shed, kicking children, grabbing women. They topple the table and see the four underneath. Two of the men make a beeline for dark-eyed thirteen-year-old Feya Wouller; a third rights the table; they lift her onto it, tear at her dress, start at her. Solly leaps forward, screaming, kicks at the men. One grabs him, punches him in the gut, keeps hold of him while Solly hunches forward. As Solly catches his breath, he starts thrashing, trying to break loose. Meanwhile the ruin of Feya Wouller progresses. One after another, they tear into her. After the fifth she is unconscious. Solly calls out to Malke and Dvora: "Run!" As the girls hesitate, the thug punches Solly again, this time hard in the face. The boy crumples.
            Two sets of grimy hands grip Malke and Dvora. The men push the girls back down onto the floor. As Malke's assailant reaches up to loosen his belt, the shed is filled with a guttural cry in no known language. Mama lunges at the beast atop her daughter. She is not completely human herself. A creature of instinct, an enraged, wounded animal, a she-devil rising up to defend her child. This is Mama, carpenter's awl in hand, no language left but fury, and she brings the awl down hard onto the rapist's back, gaping a tear into him that staggers him backward, off Malke. While Malke is spared, the gang rape of Feya Wouller proceeds on the table. Vera smells something foul as the men destroy her. A dozen of them. The thirteen-year-old is already dead as the last two take their pleasure.
            Then the thug Vera's mother bloodied shouts something. Many men--the same dozen who just finished off Feya? fresh troops surging into the shed?--swoop toward the center of the shed. They swipe the body off the table, its skin catching wood splinters as it slides down. Several drag the corpse outside and Vera hears the hacking sounds of an ax breaking it apart. The table cleared, a hundred hands lift Mama onto it. One by one, they rape her too. This time Vera does not see or hear. Malke has joined Mendel and her in their corner. With shaking hands she pulls Vera's face against her chest and covers her ears. Mendel has long since rolled himself into a fetal ball. The three children hide and wait for it to end.
            For what seems like hours, Vera, Malke and Mendel wait in the carpenter's shed. They stay silent, hidden, almost molded into the rough, slivered wall until long after the mob peters out. Russian police come. They carry Mama out, and Solly and the others. They don't see the still, silent shadows in the corner. At last, when the children hear no more movement, no more voices, Malke gets up. She struggles to pick up Mendel, takes Vera's hand, and leads them out of the shed into the yard.
            Vera tries to keep her eyes closed, thinking this will maintain her invisibility, but she keeps stumbling on the debris--torn clothes, pieces of wooden plank, a metal rod--so she resigns herself to opening her eyes. She slips and nearly loses her footing on some slick red gunk on the ground. She's holding Malke's hand so tight her sister says "ouch" and tells her to let go, but Vera cannot let go, no she will not, she must hold on. Look what happened when she lost hold of Mama's hand.
            And so they make their way across the yard and back to their home. They climb in through the same window they'd left by.  Malke and Vera gasp at the wreckage. Nothing is the same. Pieces of dishes, glasses, windowpanes on the floor. Cutlery tossed all around. Clothes strewn, furniture overturned. And the piano barely recognizable as such.
            The old upright's legs have been hacked off so it lies on its back. Most of the keys have been pried off; they're scattered around the floor with the other trash. Some stiff metal musical strings point out from the innards. Others, bent or cut or stripped, droop onto the floor. The dark wood is torn up. And it smells like someone has peed on Mama's piano.
            A wild wire of worry twists inside Vera. How will she tell Mama what they've done to her piano? The piano Mama calls her saving grace. The stool, also broken now, is Mama's special place, her protected zone, where she goes sometimes to play, sometimes just to sit and stare facing the friendly keys when she's weary or sad or at her wit's end. The household knows to leave Mama alone when she sits at the piano, Mama's piano, Mama's retreat and renewal, Mama's reminder of home, of her own mama and papa, the grandparents Vera has never met. One sweet spring evening Mama had explained her feelings for the piano to Vera. She said it was a precious remnant of her life in Odessa, the thrilling, cultured port city Mama left to come to this back-country provincial capital in the Pale of Settlement, the area to which Jews are restricted by the czar's decree, where Papa could find factory work. Mama had shown Vera a faded photograph of herself at eighteen, seated at the piano in the front room—Mama called it the parlor--of her parents--flat above their tailor shop. She told Vera people used to teasingly call her an "Odessa levone"--an Odessa moon, meaning she was stylish, even glamorous--and that the picture was taken on a special night, just before her parents took her to see a touring production of Hamlet in which the great Sarah Bernhardt shocked the world by playing the lead role, in men's knickers.
            Now where will Mama go when the shrying gevalt drives her mad? Vera is always able to wait quietly while Mama plays or just sits at the piano, because she knows that when Mama is ready she will reach out for her pet, draw her onto her lap, take Vera's hands into hers, place them on the keyboard, and then Vera, magically, is playing music. She knows it's really Mama playing, Vera herself wouldn't know what to do with her fingers without Mama guiding them, but still it swells her up with pride and love as she hears the notes thump out and feels the vibration rise from the stool up through Mama's lap into her tushy, which she clenches as she squirms with pleasure.
            With all that has happened this night, everything she has seen, the piano somehow seems the worst. The snapped wires draw her insides taut with anxiety. She frets over how to tell her mother about the piano's destruction. It doesn't occur to her that anyone else would tell, or that Mama might already know; or that her mother has more to grieve over than a musical instrument. No, Vera vows, Mama must never see this sight. She'll get Malke to help her finish dismantling the piano and drag its carcass out of the flat.
            If only she hadn't waited so long to tell them it was snowing. Guilt rises up through  Vera's throat. All of this is her fault. Maybe none of it would have happened if Vera had realized what was going on and warned her family. The piano would be okay. If only she'd told them earlier about the strange snow. The dishes would remain stacked in the cupboard, milcheche on the right, flaisheche in the middle, Passover on the left. Her parents' mattress would be fluffy and full, not torn up with feathers lying all around, and at the foot of the mattress inside the trunk the family's clothes would still be neatly folded and piled instead of torn up and flung all about, like that big, ungainly pile under the front window--
            Ruchl. Oh god. She lies where they left her. Vera takes it in. She wishes Hersh were here. He would know what comes next. Where is he? When was the last time she saw him? Her stomach rises to her throat. She swallows over and over. Suddenly she feels very sleepy. She's shutting down. She turns toward the sheet that, incongruously, still hangs between the two rooms, and stumbles onto what's left of the children's bed. Lying down, shivering, she sneezes as the loose downy fluff rises around her. The night wind lets itself in through the broken front window, tickles Ruchl's body, then washes over Vera. She yawns. She couldn't open her eyes if she tried. She feels Malke place Mendel at her back and ease herself down behind him. Malke has found the big blanket, untorn, and tucks the rough wool atop the three of them. Under it she lays her arm over Vera and Mendel. Vera stops shivering. Exhaustion trumps emotion, and the three youngest Resnikoffs sleep through what's left of the night.





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