They were coming. Feigl felt it in the November wind. Yet another night of the bezshentses, the refugees. She laid out the bowls for the evening stew and sliced the pumpernickel. She had no appetite. Since September, the people of Zaromb had not been alone. The Germans came first in their trucks. They stayed only two weeks. The Soviets then arrived and stayed.
She ladled out the stew and sat at the head of the table. She was the head now, since her older brothers moved away and since Mama and Tata died in that awful accident.
There was only one sibling left at home now, her brother Yankel Dovid. He joined her at the table. “They’re coming,” he said, soaking his bread in the sauce. “You’ll hear their shuffled feet and muffled mouths.”
“I know. Hurry up and eat.”
The routine had become all too familiar. Feigl stacked the plates and brought them to the sink. About her brothers Mendel and Aron she did not have to worry. They were in New York, in America. The ones here in Poland, that was another thing altogether.
The night was pitch black. No moon. The ground was dry and wouldn’t hold tracks. Refugees would need to worry about all the sounds of trespass. The field grass wasn’t tall enough now after harvest to hide most of them anymore. Maybe tonight would be the night her oldest brother, Isaak, ten years her senior, would return to her.
The wind picked up with eerie howls, rendering the Grynspan electric mill inaudible. A knock sounded on the door. “Come,” someone shouted, “come.”
Feigl grabbed her shawl. “Get the buckets,” she ordered, and Yankel Dovid handed her two pails, and then took two for himself from the corner of the kitchen. They left the house and turned left toward the marketplace.
Reb Yehudah, the lumber merchant, stood in front of the fish store, chanting, “Come, come.” He waved a lantern. Feigl hurried to the opposite end of the square to the communal water pump. The women filled the pails and trudged back to the fish store.
At first it sounded like a wedding procession, klezmer band and all. Feygl saw them, dozens, coming from the direction of Malkinia forest. The first line of the refugees—boys no more than Yankel Dovid’s age, sixteen—held red flags. One held a portrait of Stalin. They stopped in the marketplace.
A Soviet commander, Petrovsky, his red epaulets glinting in the firelight, navigated through the throng on horseback. “People of Zaromb,” he said gruffly, using the Yiddish name for their village, “you know the regulations. You may help these people, but may not house them overnight. They must get on their way.”
Feigl exchanged glances with her brother. They knew the laws—they ignored them. They would hide a family or two in the loft. Or the synagogue. Or the mill.
“We know, we know,” said Rabbi Levin. Feigl searched the faces for Isaak. She needed him now. Someone to rely on, someone to take charge. It was he who held her head in his lap while she suffered through cholera, he who held her hand while saying kaddish at their parents’ funeral, he who vowed they would all join together in America one day.
At eighteen, she was too young for this responsibility. In days past, she was satisfied with watching young children at the water pump, laughing and squirting each other and tipping slightly-filled enamel pails over one another’s heads. Feigl herself would run through the town’s streets—all four of them—cutting through the alleys to round up her brothers for dinner and prayer.
Yankel Dovid took two pails and set them and a ladle to the side. Feigl did the same with the other two. It was the least they could do. Zaromb filled most nights with the bezshentes, their tattered shoes, suitcases held together with spit. Each morning the town emptied to the train station and by night, new arrivals needed to be fed and cared for, arms or faces bleeding from underbrush, barbed wire, or Nazi bullets.
Tonight Reb Shmuel monitored activity from his tavern, the open door revealing a warm fire. “Come in,” he beckoned. Before long, the tavern filled, faces pitted against the windows, breath fogging them.
“The synagogue,” Feigl said, as she guided others out of the square onto Czyżewska Street. She opened the doors and was nearly overcome by the dank air of sweat and urine, combined with smoke from kettles and pots on small stones. Children wailed and the old ones moaned.
“We can’t hold more people,” the rabbi said from behind her. “The congregation and the shtetl are at their breaking point.”
“Till dawn,” Feigl said. “Let them stay till dawn.” Among the huddled bodies, she spotted Berel, distributing fistfuls of bread. He was a good man, her Berel. He had been apprenticed to her father, may he rest in peace. She had looked forward to being near him when she had brought Papa his lunch. He had always looked up at her when she came in and smiled in such a way that lit up his face—and hers. Even now without the smiles, he was like that wooden windmill by the Brok, generating his own energy, drawing her to him. Papa had liked him. He would not have been opposed to a match. Isaak would have approved, too.
Every night she looked for Isaak among the refugees, but she never found him. Maybe he had already been killed trying to cross the border. Or arrested for some irrational cause. She felt in her bones, though, he lived still.
Cries and whimpers quieted when the refugees filled their stomachs a bit. Feigl surveyed the floor—like slain bodies in a battlefield.
“Feigl Shlafmitz,” a female voice whispered. A woman toward the side of the floor picked herself up and tiptoed between heads and feet to her.
“Nesha? Nesha Liberman?” They had been friends until Nesha’s family sent her for seasonal work in Warsaw. “You’ve come home?”
They kissed each other on both cheeks. “No, I’m just passing through. I’ll be at the train station tomorrow, going east.”
“No Germans. No guns. See that woman over there?” Feigl followed Nesha’s gaze to a woman keening. “Her two girls disappeared at the border three days ago. One minute they were each holding one of her hands, the next minute, she was alone. After the gunshots.”
Nesha did not need to say more, but Feigl needed to do more. She stepped up the pace of handing out food and water and gave comfort where she could. But she couldn’t reunite families or raise the dead.
“I have to go back,” the childless woman ranted. “Better in the rubbish heap with my own family, ever within range of Hitler.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Berel said, sidling close to Feigl. “You have to have hope.”
“You know what you can do with your hope?” The woman spit, just once, on the floor. “If my daughters are dead, I might as well be dead, too.”
Nesha drew an arm around her. “We can help you look for them in the morning. But if you’re not rested, you’ll be of no use to them.” The woman nodded and leaned against Nesha’s shoulder.
Feigl sniffled away her tears. She wanted to lean into Berel. She wanted him to say everything would be all right. But she knew nothing would be all right, at least not in Poland, no matter where she lived on the frontier of No Man’s Land, that strip between Nazi-occupied and Soviet-occupied towns.
“We have to leave Zaromb,” Berel said as he walked Feigl home.
“I can’t. What if Isaak comes looking? What about Yankel Dovid?”
Berel stopped on the path and turned to face her. “They would both want you to be safe. We need to take the next train deeper into Russia. We’ll get married first, of course.”
Maybe Berel was right. Maybe they should marry and go east into the Soviet Union. She studied her pin curls in the mirror, surprised and delighted that he wanted to get married at all. But the Soviet Union, that was a big place, stretching across Europe and Asia, so she heard. Hitler and Stalin had made a pact. The Soviet Union was safe for now, but who could really trust either of them? Neither had a good record
All Feigl had to worry about was Yankel Dovid. She could not send him to Ostrova and Isaak. Perhaps he would go with her and Berel. The possibility put her at ease. She primped her curls one more time, proud that they came naturally with no pins necessary. One day they would all arrive in America and be together again. Someday.
The care packages stopped coming from Zaromber Relief in America just as the Soviets took control. But they had, in their own way, done the town some good. The Soviets had enlarged the mill and built a new cultural club where the old synagogue had once been before the Great War. She only hoped their actions hadn’t been a ruse. They were the only protection against the Nazis.
Feigl hurried through the square and turned toward the lonely graveled path to the pine forest and the train station. She could spot the queues of refugees taking their next steps away from the Germans. She murmured a prayer for their safety. She never got to say goodbye to Nesha.
Back at home, she percolated the grain for a kind of coffee. At least the drink would be hot. She prepared her brother’s midday meal and could hear him going about his morning routine, including the cursing when he cut himself too closely while shaving, what few strands he had to shave. He entered the kitchen with pits of tissue stuck to his cheeks, chin, and the skin above his upper lip. Feigl stifled a laugh.
“Good morning,” she said, pouring the makeshift coffee into his cup. Yankel Dovid mumbled something and grabbed his bread, dunked it in his cup, and chewed.
“You’ll make someone a great husband,” Feigl said, smiling.
Yankel Dovid shrugged. “I saw Nesha Liberman last night. So, she’s back from Warsaw.”
“On her way to Russia.”
“We’re Russia now,” he said. “We’re on the frontier, a border town.”
“She has a good idea.”
Yankel Dovid stopped chewing and stared. “Go east? Leave Zaromb?”
“Yes, I think we should go.”
“What about Isaak? What if he comes here looking for us and we’re not here? We can’t abandon him.”
“We can leave word with someone, Reb Yehudah maybe or the rabbi. You must see none of this is going to end well.”
“I have a different plan for myself,” Yankel Dovid said. He stood up and removed the pieces of tissue. “The Polish militia. You get an armband and a rifle.”
“Look how well that worked out in September,” Feigl said. “How long did it take Hitler to treat himself to Poland?” She could just as well as said Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia.
Yankel Dovid took her hand in his. “We have to fight back. It’s the only way to stop the madness.”
But all the refugees were Jews like them. Ripped from their families and homes. Or worse.
“Berel wants to marry me—now. And take the train east.”
“Next year in Jerusalem,” Yankel Dovid said. He tipped his cap to her and left for the mill.
The thought of her family further disintegrating reminded her of the coffee grounds. Makeshift, a poor substitute for the real thing.
For as long as Feigl could remember, Zaromb—while her home—had not been much of a place. Ravaged by the Great War and boycotts of Jewish trade in the last ten years or so, there was really nothing to hold her here except memories of what could have been. She reached under her iron-wrought bed for Tata’s old suitcase, the one he used when he moved from Ostrova to marry Mama.
The matchmaker had died years ago, leaving no one to carry on the traditions. All she and Berel would need, she imagined, was the rabbi. Or maybe they should seek the local magistrate and have a civil marriage.
The breakfast dishes cleaned and stowed, she strode to the cemetery on the locksmith’s street. There in front of her parents’ gravestones, she said her prayers and goodbye. Mama and Tata would be with her always, in her heart and her memories. There was nothing Feigl could have done to help them, nothing to do when the news arrived that their wagon had fallen into the Brok during a storm. Their bodies were not pulled out for days—it was over the holidays—and when they were, they were swollen and unrecognizable.
They had never allowed photographs of themselves. Feigl resembled Tata with his darker coloring, while Yankel Dovid took after Mama’s pale features and somewhat squat nose. She wondered what Isaak and her American brothers—Mendel and Aron—now looked like. Did they wear beards or were they clean-shaven in the modern way? She searched for stones to place on the graves and wanted to find good, solid rocks that could last as long as the tar paper on their roofs. She located a few near the edge of the river and gathered them into her apron. She lined up the rocks on the graves: This one was for her, this for Yankel Dovid, this for Isaak, Mendel, and Aron. She kept an extra one for her suitcase so she should always remember.
She resumed her place on the stoop, waiting for life to happen. Reb Yehudah headed toward her. “You heard the news?”
“The Germans are opening the border for fifteen minutes tonight. Commander Petrovsky informed the town council who informed me as head of the light brigade. Anyone who can is going to run for his life through No Man’s Land to come here. What a tumult this will be. I have notified my guides.”
Feigl had only one thought: This would give Isaak the chance to escape. Then he could travel with them through the Soviet Union. As the eldest brother, he could maybe talk some sense into Yankel Dovid. But there was more to it than that. She needed to know that the brother, who now headed up the Shlafmitz family, was safe. She closed her eyes briefly and prayed.
“Tonight, you say? With no one chasing them? Are you sure this isn’t some kind of trap?”
Reb Yehudah answered, “It’s real. Fifteen minutes only, then the border closes like the Red Sea. We’ve got to make ready.”
They trickled in at first, their bodies frail. But then so many arrived and so fast, Feigl had trouble telling one refugee from another. She searched their faces, as she always did. A hint of red hair and a reddish graying beard that would distinguish Isaak. He would have upheld the traditions. Finding no one who matched his appearance, she busied herself giving outstretched hands a drink of water and a slice of bread, just baked today. When she thought she was done, more hands reached for her. The momentum was unending.
“Where are you from?” she asked one woman, who held the hands of a small boy.
“Malkinia.” A Nazi-controlled border village. Maybe Feigl could find someone from Ostrova and ask after her brother.
She stood at the top of the square. It was black with people, the lanterns casting dim light on their shoulders. When was the last time these people had eaten a good nourishing meal—or even fresh radishes or mushrooms from the fields?
“They killed five hundred people,” a refugee said. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Feigl handed him his ration of water and bread. “Where are you from, old man?”
He pointed into the distance. “A world apart. Ostrova.”
Feigl swallowed hard. “Ostrova?”
“There were only about maybe five hundred, seven hundred of us left. The rest had already escaped. A Nazi set fire to a Jewish home and several other buildings burned, too. The Germans spread their lies that the Jews started the fire. They hanged Henoch Teitel with a sign that said, ‘This is the Jew who burned the city.’”
Feigl could not help but shudder at this. “What happened to the people?”
“They were taken to the cellar of city hall, the city jail, and the ice cellar of the Teitel brewery. Then they were driven out of town the following morning, to dig their own graves. The Germans used their machine guns to slaughter them. It was a slaughter.”
Feigl wanted to steady herself, but there was nothing for her to hang onto for support. Ostrova was not a village like Zaromb. It had been home to tens of thousands of people. Five hundred Jews were a fraction, but this man said that only five hundred were left.
“Did you…did you know Isaak Shlafmitz, the dry cleaner, on Brokowska Street?” Please say yes, please say he had already left Ostrova and was safe.
“No, I hadn’t been in Ostrova long before the Nazis came in with their planes and bombs. I should have stayed where I was.” He ripped his bread into thirds and placed two pieces into his pockets, then nibbled at the third. “I don’t know why G-d has forsaken us. Unthinkable.” He left Feigl and joined the crowd.
“Have you ever seen so many people?” Berel asked, coming up to her. “Tomorrow they’ll be gone again. If there are enough trains to carry them away.”
“At least they will be on their trains to safety,” Feigl said.
“We could be, too.”
Feigl stared at him. “That soon?” She was not ready. It was not that she had so much to pack, so much to prepare. It meant she would be leaving her home, her Zaromb—pitiful and swollen as it was—forever. The village was like an aging woman, who had borne too many children: expand, contract, expand, contract, never settling in its rightful size and never quite the same as it had been.
Past Berel, by the tavern, Feigl glimpsed a glint of red hair, a head taller than the rest. Her heart jumped. “Isaak!” she called out. She moved past Berel and tried to maneuver through the crowd. Bodies reeking of smoke, urine, and spoiled fish crashed against her on all sides. “Isaak!” she shouted again, but the din muffled her.
She had to get to him. She stiffened her upper body and her resolve and pushed into the throng. “Coming through,” she said, “coming through.” She reached the tavern, bruised and with one sleeve ripped at the shoulder. She did not care. “Isaak! Isaak Shlafmitz!”
No one responded and the red-haired person she had seen disappeared. She entered the tavern and found Reb Shmuel, the owner. “Did you see a tall red-haired man come in?”
“Not today, my girl, I’m too busy to look up.” Feigl merely nodded. She would never be able to find him in here. “Shlafmitz!” she yelled.
“Anyone here named Shlafmitz?” Reb Shmuel bellowed. Feigl was glad for his help, his voice could carry so much farther.
A few people coughed, one or two moaned, but no one answered the call.
She thought back to what the man in the square had said. Between five hundred and seven hundred Jews dead in Ostrova. They were the last remaining Jews. Isaak was no transient, but he did have small children. Chances were he and his family were among those killed. But maybe they had left and gone to Zambrow or Slonim like so many others. Why had he not come to Zaromb, where he had family, if he had gone to the Soviet side?
Feigl sighed and fought her way out of the tavern. Yankel Dovid waited for her outside.
“It’s crazy out there,” he said. “You have to help. There just are not enough of us. There are hundreds of them, hundreds.”
Feigl waved to Berel and the three of them pushed through the square and Farbasker Street to get to the outskirts and the fence. Feigl had never seen so many people. It seemed like all of Zaromb was out to help, although they were only a few hundred strong and no match for the number of refugees.
“Here, here!” a woman shouted in the darkness. The Soviets tried to control the crowd with their bayonets, but they were useless, too, against the sheer force of fear and desperation.
Feigl reached out for the woman’s bundle, an infant. Berel guided the woman over the fence.
Fifteen minutes never seemed so slow or so fast. Surely the border would close soon.
“Are you from Ostrova?” Feigl asked, handing her the swaddled baby.
“No, there are no Jews left in Ostrova now.”
Feigl fought back her tears as she reached to help another young woman with her children. No Jews left in Ostrova now. Her arms developed a rhythm: up, grab someone or something, pull over, arms down. Repeat. She could not bring herself to rip her clothing in mourning.
The bread, like the coffee, was a substitute. Still made of milled grain, but lesser quality. The harvests seemed to know others controlled the land and the land no longer cared to produce. Feigl took to making grain cakes, mixed with a little egg, a snip of a vegetable here and there for a little sustenance, and a dollop of shmalz which made anything taste better.
She packed a few cakes for Yankel Dovid’s midday meal. How long would he continue to work at the mill? The thought of him joining the militia scared her more than she wanted to admit. So naïve yet headstrong, he was sure to be among those quickly killed. He never listened. He needed his father—or at least an older brother. An older sister was of limited use.
Off in the distance a locomotive tooted. Whether it headed east toward Bialystok and into Russia or west toward Warsaw, she couldn’t know. She finished packing her suitcase, the candlesticks the last items. She would be gone by Shabbos. The featherbeds would have to stay. She would have to wear most of her clothing, a skirt and blouse under a dress, under another dress. She only hoped her coat would fit over the bulk.
The morning was gray and that suited her mood, although she knew she should be happy. A slight knock at the door brought her through the house.
“Are you ready?” Berel asked. His dark, curly hair was neatly parted and pomaded. He smelled of soap. Feigl closed the door behind her and they headed toward the square and the rabbi’s house.
“Don’t you want Yankel Dovid here?” the rabbi asked when they arrived.
“He’ll need all his wages for the day,” Feigl said. The rabbi brought in two witnesses—Khulke the ropemaker and Gershon the water-carrier—to oversee the signing of the marriage contract. The rabbi’s wife delivered glasses of tea and honey cakes into the study. This was not the wedding Feigl had dreamed of all her life. No klezmer band, no procession, no clucking of the women around her and no backslapping men around Berel. But nothing was as she had imagined and she could never have imagined her new reality.
Berel crushed the glass under his foot.
“Mazel tov!” the rabbi and his wife said together.
Mrs. Berel Wisniewsky. If only Mama were still alive to explain the bride’s duties to her. Feigl would have to learn for herself.
“You go ahead and get your suitcase,” Berel said. He touched her shoulder. He could do that now. As Feigl ambled into the marketplace she asked anyone she encountered, “Want an old house cheap?” A few refugees lingered and they were neither in the mood nor in the money to take her up on her offer. Only two men in Zaromb would have money: Reb Shmuel and Mr. Grynspan, owner of the mill. She entered the tavern. The stench of the refugees remained, although the bodies were no doubt on their way elsewhere.
She sat at a table and clasped her hands, staring at the slim gold band on her finger. She didn’t really feel any differently as a married woman. She supposed she should have shorn her hair and prepared for the day with a spanking new sheitl that would announce her married status to the world. Berel had not insisted and she was not eager to give up her own hair, her best feature besides her eyes.
“Reb Shmuel, I got an old house for sale. Cheap. You want it?”
He shuffled toward her from behind the bar. “And you’ll live where?” He brought her a glass of water.
“With my husband.” She showed him the ring.
“Ah, so you are now Mrs. Berel.”
“I could buy the house for the right price.”
“Furniture is included, featherbeds, too.” They negotiated a deal and he paid her one bill at a time.
“So rich you are?” she asked.
“In this place? Grynspan is rich. I make out all right. Some earn more, some earn less.”
The money would not even buy her a glass of tea in Warsaw, she imagined. She had never been there—she had never stepped one shoeless toe out of Zaromb. Maybe she should have sold the house to the Soviets. Rubles could stand her in good stead now instead of zlotys.
“And your brother?” Reb Shmuel asked while Feigl gulped her water.
“Maybe you would let him stay a few days in the house? He wants to join the Polish Army.”
“Oy gevalt.” Reb Shmuel looked toward the ceiling as if expecting a different answer from above.
“I know. I know.”
Feigl waved goodbye and crossed the threshold on Farbasker Street. A khaki and red cap lay on the table.
“Yankel Dovid,” she called out. “What crazy thing have you done?” The red star on the cap’s band could only mean one thing.
He came down from the loft with a bundle of his worldly belongings. He wore the uniform of the Soviet battalion. “Commander Petrovsky pointed out the advantages.”
Feigl had to admit he might have a better chance for survival with the Soviets than the Poles. Hitler had not conquered the U.S.S.R.—yet.
She kissed her brother on both cheeks. “Berel and I are heading east tonight.” She thrust her hand in front of his face. “We married this morning.”
“You could have told a fellow.”
“You were at work.”
“I quit this morning to join the army.”
“Nu, so we are both leaving. I sold the house to Reb Shmuel for practically nothing.” She doled out half the money to Yankel Dovid.
“Nothing is what it is really worth.” He pocketed the money.
“How will we stay in touch?” A part of her could not believe what was happening. One by one, the Shlafmitz family gave up Zaromb as its home. She and Yankel Dovid were the last members.
“Maybe through Mendel and Aron.”
She nodded and kissed him again. He did not push her away as he might have on any other day. “I will let you know where we settle, when we settle.”
Yankel Dovid placed his cap on his head. He held Feigl’s hand, squeezing it. “Feigele.”
“Yankele. Take care of yourself. Don’t do anything stupid, like get shot.” She fought back her tears. She was the older sister, now the older, married sister. She had to set an example. A dumpling-sized knot formed in her throat.
He stepped away from her, still holding her hand, then her fingers, her fingertips before releasing her. “Next year in New York.”
“Next year in New York,” she called out after him. She let the tears flow freely down her cheeks. She stood for a moment, half expecting him to come back, to change his mind. But there was only the stillness of the Brok in winter and the ticking of the mill. Feigl ran her fingers along the kitchen shelves. There was a time when she could not even reach them, when Mama showed her how to bake the Sabbath challah and how to singe the feathers off the chicken on the cookstove. She removed the salt box from its rusty hook. This she would take with her.
Berel yapped as they walked the three kilometers to the train station. She should be happy to leave this place and be excited about the future to come. She had a husband and she would have a new life. The station was filled with refugees. Feigl was one now, too, she realized, one of the bezshentses, who reeked of smoke and garlic.
Up ahead the oncoming locomotive announced itself with a roar, its five-pointed Soviet star a beacon. Atop the star, Stalin sat motionless in a full-color portrait, flanked by two red flags. Red banners and Russian slogans promoting Soviet power, Soviet hospitality, and greetings to the refugees decorated each car. “You will have good fortune in the land of the Soviets.”
The train came to a screeching halt and the pushing began. Berel held her arm.
“I can’t believe we’re leaving,” he said.
“Don’t turn back.”
But she did and spied a red-haired man a head taller than the rest. She tried to break away from Berel, but he held her fast. “Isaak! That was Isaak!”
She thought she heard her name at first. “Feigl, wait for me!” the wind whispered.
“Who are you yelling at?” Berel asked.
“Don’t you see him, hear him? It’s Isaak!”
“There’s no one there. No one called your name.” He continued to lead her to the train.
She paused on the steps.
No one was there. Just the bare pine trees of the forest and a ramshackle station that would swell again tonight with refugees.