............. .. ........The Lamed-Vovniks
Man &endash; a member of the universe &endash; is a vital part of the community, having the ability to think, create, share with his loved ones and friends the fruit of his labor.
Happiness is not a lonely soul. Like love it gives and in turn is compensated, it is a heartwarming force, a motion in perpetuity.
How warm was Jacob's tent, how contented the dwellers, he a part of them jealously guarding their love, selflessly devoted to its unity, its wholesomeness, sharing a pocketful of sweets, an orange, an occasional banana, or a bunch of grapes the youngsters so enjoyed. To see their faces was so rewarding, so exhilarating.
But times have changed, his pockets are empty, he is utterly helpless, waiting for his ration of the dwindling food.
These were fearful days and sleepless nights, his heart stubbornly clinging to the past, chasing away the haunted thoughts of the present &endash; drifting into an unknown future, when out of chaos man made turbulence, a spark flickered, keeping the darkness wistfully alive.
A sleeping giant has awakened. The avaricious bear smelling the honey, his claws hugging, grasping undisturbed. The Red Army had crossed the Polish border and annexed territory from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. The fearful Cossacks of yesteryear in a dramatic twist of events turned into angels of mercy, liberating Wilno, Grodno, Lvov and Bialystok &endash; centers of commerce and industry. They stopped at the River Bug, thus forming a new boundary, a new demarcation line, a magnet attracting many to join the Russians, and time was of the essence.
It occurred to Jacob that he, too, must leave, an inner voice urging, impelling; it is the only rational solution. Maybe he'll succeed to save his family from this spreading conflagration, take them out of this nightmare.
The next days were crucial; Jacob was unable to make up his mind. It was Abramowich the next door neighbor, who left his wife and two children, and Goldman his young wife and baby, who decided for him. They were the catalysts.
October 16, 1939, was a restless day, Jacob painfully avoiding his mother's eyes. Only after the children had gone to bed he blurted out:
"Mother, Father, I am leaving. Tomorrow morning I am joining Abramowich and his friend, and going to the Russians," saying it in one breath.
"My decision was not sudden. I did a lot of thinking, but under the circumstances I could not find one to my satisfaction. This is the only course of action left.
"I want you to know that I am only leaving this place, not you, and will not rest until you'll join me.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some packing to do."
An uneasy quiet had settled, his mother half facing him, his father nearby, a shadow casting on his untimely white beard, Laibl, the new master of the house, Mayer, Moishe &endash; agape, and Jacob's heart like a drum pounding tearing it apart.
It was his mother who broke the silence, whispering, then gradually becoming more resonant.
"Yankele, my child," she said, weighing each word, "your father and I have expected this &endash; it was no surprise. So, if you feel that way, then let it be, and may God be with you."
This wise woman knew that his mind was set, that nothing could change it.
She filled his rucksack with underwear, shirts, a heavy sweater, socks and handkerchiefs, hid a large silver coin in one of the shoulder pads in the only new suit he owned, and sewed a bill between the interlining of his winter coat.
It was a long, sleepless night. At dawn Jacob kissed the sleeping children, and embraced his younger brothers. His father, heartbroken, walked him to the door, whispering blessings between sobs, and he left. Laibl at one side and his mother at the other, like in a funeral procession, they walked the desolate streets, sobbing, whispering endearments long after the other women had said goodbye to their mates.
At last he quickly joined his company, the day passing without incident, stopping only for a snack.
"It's getting cold," said Abramowich, "too chilly to be outside, we need to get off our feet. Tomorrow we might not be that lucky."
There was a hut, a flicker of a kerosene lamp from afar, and as the youngest Jacob was delegated to scout the place, relieved to hear Yiddish, share a hot bowl of soup, a warm corner. At dawn they were handed a few lumps of sugar and continued, arriving late in the afternoon at the River Bug.
This was unexpected. They had hoped to find a small brook, but the Bug was wide, deep, and hostile. They had a problem, and decided to try their luck, cross the pontoon bridge, a hastily erected structure, a score of feet away from its ruined, rusted metal frame, like arms dangling in mid-air.
Jacob approached the bridge, the heavy shoes hanging over his shoulder, the others following &endash; a few more steps and they'll be on the other side, safe.
That was the situation, the summary of two days of their odyssey. If luck until now was not a stranger, this had to decide. A deadly quiet prevailed, just the faint sound of the river. Suddenly there was a stirring; a half-asleep tall German soldier with a rifle appeared.
Jacob stopped, one foot in mid-air, the other glued to the spot. So close to freedom, almost tasting it, but not, like an animal trapped at the point of no return.
In a flash everything became clear. Now, he realized how much he wanted to get away. Instead his life was coming to an end, his remains scattered on the River Bug.
But to his surprise, the sentry said, "Haben Sie kein angst," his disarming smile, gentle voice urging, "Put on your shoes, it is getting cold, and tell your friends not to fear, I will not harm them." He gestured for them to go, but told them to beware of hooligans. Gladly obliging, the three of them still in mortal fear not to be shot in the back.
Thus they entered "Brok on the Bug," the city famous for the production of "Matzo," supplying millions with unleavened bread, and "Matzo Shmura."
Yesterday's pulsating city was in ruins. Tall chimneys, a remainder of the bakeries, were scattered like tombstones, a fetid stench lingering in the thick, heavy air.
They crossed one deserted street after another, then spotted men heading in their direction.
If the warning of that soldier was true, then they were in trouble, when out of the blue an elderly man in front of a half-gutted shanty invited them in.
Having no alternative, they could not refuse his offer, unaware of a trap. He let them in, and locked the door.
"Sit down, children," said the white-haired man. "Take off your loads, make yourselves comfortable.
"I know who you are. Most of my Jewish friends are dead, only a few escaped.
"I am an old man, and before I meet my maker I would like to help you." He left the room, returning instantly with a tray, a spread of bread and butter, cheese and boiled eggs still warm.
That was puzzling. It seemed as if he knew in advance of their arrival. Then, who were they to question?
"Eat, go ahead," he urged. "The hour is late, and don't worry. In the morning I will show you where to cross the border." He handed them a couple of blankets and the only pillow he owned, and bid them good night.
At dawn he served them a hot breakfast, and he filled their pockets with eggs. Then he pointed to three pine trees and said, "Continue until you'll see a wide road, with ditches on both sides. That is the border.
"One more thing. Beware of the border patrol. They pass the road every hour on the hour, so time yourselves. Now go, and may God be with you."
Soon they reached the ditches. Abramowich, in an exuberant mood, opened a bottle of wine and they drank "L'chaim," and good luck.
And luck was with them. Minutes later the German patrol passed the road, and they hastily crossed it going uphill into thick bushes, a clearing, and the Russian side.
Suddenly the quiet Goldman popped a question: "Do you, my friends, believe in 'Lamed Vovnicks'?"
"What is a Lamed Vovnick?" asked Abramowich.
"To understand it, some explanation is in order," said Jacob. "The Jewish alphabet contains 22 letters. Each letter, a numeral. Aleph stands for one, beth for two, vov for six, lamed for thirty, and so forth &endash; therefore Lamed-vov is 36. Thirty-six individuals chosen by God are scattered over the universe to assist those in dire need."
"Then tell me, whom do you have in mind, the soldier or the old man?"
"Both, so generously obliging," Goldman said. "I cannot understand it, nor will I ever forget it."
"Neither will I," said the smiling Abramowich. "But this I know, the whole escapade was a unique experience, too good to be true. I am mighty grateful for both of them. Maybe someone up there is watching over us."
A new world opened. Soldiers in long, unhemmed, coarse trenchcoats, wearing round furry hats with earlaps greeted them in an unfamiliar language.
Multitudes of people spread out on a huge field, waiting to register, others boarding a train, like swarms of bees on the doors of the Pullman cars, and roofs, anxious to leave.
But first Jacob had to inform his family of his safety. Polish couriers ran the border delivering mail for a price, and he knew his parents would gladly reimburse them upon recognizing his handwriting.
At dusk they were in Bialystok.
The city, famous for its textile industry, was flooded with refugees. The affluent had no problems finding quarters, fancy restaurants, but the poor, cramped into public shelters, stayed many hours in bread lines.
After two days, Jacob and his companions parted, he aimlessly walking in the deep mud, spending his last two zlotys on a pair of galoshes.
Terribly homesick, mesmerized by the parades of the Red Army and their songs, he, like many others, found himself at the railroad station on the top of a coal wagon, asleep.