VILNA: August, 1939
He started printing pamphlets,
not for what they say, but for love
of the printing craft. A schoolboy,
he needed one month to master the complex profession
of typesetter and printer. Understandable what ensued--
police coming to the house of the rich Jew.
Father being out of town, Mother rose
in a stately manner from her rocker
to meet her guests. They told her
Moses, her treasure, her son,
associated with lowlife scum. A search ensued.
Not even the mistress' bedchamber is spared,
except for the nightstand, where the whiteness
of the chamberpot marked the boundary of official duty.
The police left, with polite excuses and a salute.
"You need to keep an eye on your son.
He seems to be a wise guy. . ."
Dragging her swollen legs,
the mother returns to the bedroom and moves
the chamberpot aside. A batch of paper
hidden in the nightstand. As for the text--
it was tedious--advocating close solidarity
between Russian, Polish and Jewish workers
for the sake of whatever.
The pamphlets are used to fuel the ornate white tile stove.
Father, on his return, had to take drastic action--
the son is exiled to Vilna, to his uncle the publisher.
As Rabbi Schraga Mendlowitz used to say:
"Within each sin lies the seed of a successful career."
Moses inherited his uncle's business
and made good money. From the publishing house
issued reprints of the works of the great sages,
the Babylonian Talmud, commentaries to the Torah--
For Moses himself, the Law of Moses
remained a closed book, printed unread.
His motto was, "Never read what you print!"
But all is not as it seems--the weighty tomes
were only part of the business. General reading
(even frivolous romance) also was printed there,
though published under another label.
A certain someone, not even a stockholder,
received a pittance to be owner of record.
Moses did skim some of these publications,
attracted by the sex scenes, the more lurid
and implausible, the better.
Moses was a physical man and undiscriminating.
Shulamith--a rare beauty--takes off her clothes.
She says, "Turn your back, you lecher!"
He pretends not to see; or more precisely, he looks
out the window at the gothic roofs, but sees
simultaneously the marvelous sunset city and
the chiaroscuro play in the folds and hollows
of her voluptuous body.
He called this "split vision"--a sympton
of his split personality. Moments like this,
he thought about the easel, rather than the bed,
but the easel was lost in the attic
and the bed was found at hand.
He worked what he called his "crankshaft"
efficiently, but nothing came of it--
both of his marriages were childless.
His many women often asked him for money,
for clothes and entertainment, but never for abortions.
So much did he enjoy the penduluming,
gently rocking back and forth,
that he failed to notice when life went askew,
swinging wildly out of control.
Like an antique clockwork
with dozens of drive wheels
clutched with copper cogs, spinning
on their shafts in different speeds and directions.
The springweights slowly wind down--
a spectacle incomprehensible
to one who ignores the clockhands.
He thought the Soviet invasion was good luck.
For some reason he believed the Bolsheviks
were a Jewish regime which would
straighten the brains of Polish anti-Semites.
Then came the arrests. He managed to buy them off.
Shulamith grew somber, chewing on her lips,
the chapped crust showing under the lipstick,
as if Shula already knew how it all would be.
Later, on the eve of the German occupation,
Moses went into a frenzy. His door was open
to anyone, anytime, to drink for nights on end.
They laughed and swore,
making pathetic plans for flight.
Once, during a round-the-clock binge,
Moses went up to Shula and said,
"Shula--take off your clothes!"
"What--in front of everybody?" she asked.
His answer was a slap in the face.
Shula burst into tears and took off her dress.
Moses' intention soon became clear.
He took from the sideboard two round goblets
(recent acquisitions of theirs). A champagne cork
hit the ceiling; fragile foam hissed in the goblets.
Shula's job was to bend over so her nipples
dipped into the goblets. Then, laughing,
they sent the goblets round the table. The men drank
the beauty's health. Shula sat in the armchair
chewing on her lips--four years with Moses,
enduring much, but this was too much.
I have no idea why she wrote about all these things
to a sister-in-law she barely knew, whose Odessa address
she copied from an envelope, but that letter turned out
to be the last news anyone had of those two desparate people.
The wheel began to turn faster.
A dimple appeared on the surface of time,
as when bathwater drains from a cast iron tub.
* * * * *
A couple walks along a noisy Vilna street.
He is much older, but still carries himself well.
Both wear macintoshes in current fashion.
He wears a beret, she, a round hat with a veil.
* * * * *
Everthing has vanished, even more irretrievable than usual.
© 1996 Boris Khersonsky. All rights reserved.
Translation by Ruth Kreuzer and Dale Hobson.