Jacob G. Rosenberg: East of Time
A Song of Books
Books were the pride of a Jewish home. Seldom could a Jewish dwelling be found without at least a small library: Tanach (Bible) and Talmud, some prayer-books, and a few volumes of scriptural commentary. At the dawn of the twentieth century, our everyday spoken Yiddish was transformed by the flowering of a new literary Yiddish and this became the major cause of mind-boggling harvest of books - books of wisdom, philosophy, poetry, history, art, science. Before long, the literary tongue had become the medium for hundreds and thousands of alluring translations of the Russian, French, German and English classics, opening the door, for the Yiddish reader, to a new sense of belonging, a whole new consciousness and sensibility.
On 12 February 1940 the skies swirled with grey clouds and white snow. At day break, from every corner of the city of the waterless river, came the Jews. They trudged obediently through terrain bleached white by the weather, trod behind little carts packed with their possessions, towards the ghetto that had been established for them by the Germans.
As I stood on the kerb observing the procession of mourners behind hearses bearing their own lives, I noticed a man on the opposite side. He seemed frozen to the spot. He had three small children and a woman beside him, her face a tapestry of murdered dreams. They stood defeated next to a broken-down cart. I offered my help, and together on the slippery cobbles we pushed their crippled wagon, tilting on one wheel and loaded with the family's' past. And of course there were books; many, many books.
Within an hour we were well acquainted. Michael Rosz was in his late forties, with brows so thick I could hardly make out his eyes. He was an educated man, an avid reader of both scripture and Yiddish literature. "I was once a successful textile manufacturer," he told me in a whisper so intense that he might have been imparting me in a state secret. "We lived well, but what awaits us now only God can know.
The road grew weary, our footfall heavy, and daylight longed for a rest. As we pushed the cart onwards I experienced something rather strange: I thought I could hear words coming from among the books! The fatigue must have really got to me, for I was sure I could even hear them arguing and conversing together . . . .
The Roszes were allotted a little hut in the yard of a tenement block. It was cramped and cold, and its roof in need of repair, yet they were grateful. I helped them to unload their fine furniture, stacking some things on top of others, and left them to settle in. Over the months that followed I became a frequent visitor. On many an occasion I assisted Michael in chopping up the once-treasured pieces of his household to feed his sooty black stove.
The end of the year brought another sharp winter. The temperature fell to 18 below zero. Michael was bedridden, there was snow everywhere, but no bread and nothing left for the monster, which hadn't been lit for weeks. Michael's desperate wife kept eyeing the books. "Don't," the sick man pleaded. "Don't. A Jew who burns books might as well burn himself."
"But some of them are damaged."
"Books are living things," Michael insisted. "When they are injured, they must be cared for. If they're beyond help, they have to be given a proper burial. Cremation is out of the question."
Before long the Roszes received their "wedding card", or resettlement notice. I went to say goodbye. Although Chaim Rumkowski, the ghetto Eldest, assured them that they would be better off where they were headed, Mrs Rosz wept bitterly. Overnight their hut had become a palace. But there was nothing they could do, their fate was sealed. As we embraced, Michael whispered, "if you can, please take care of my books."
I was never to see the Rosz family again.
A few days later, after dusk, I revisited their sad-looking hut. It seemed alive with an eerie emptiness. The books were strewn all over the dirty floor, some of them with pages torn out. I sat down amid the wreckage of my friend's precious library, and I must have dozed off, for I fell into a vivid dream.
Out of a battered volume of Sholem Aleichem, a heartbroken Tevye emerged. Throwing his arms apart, he shouted: "We are burning, burning! . . . The flames!" At that moment I knew precisely what had happened to Michael, his wife and their three children.
I awoke with a jolt. It was almost midnight. "Time to go" I said to myself.
But as I touched the door, I imagined I could still hear Michael's torn-up Tevye calling from the floor: Take me with you, please, take my song. Sing it to those who don't see, sing it to those who won't know . . . .
Jacob B. Rosenberg: East of Times - First published by Brandl & Schlessinger Pty Ltd 2005
ISBN 1 876040 66 1
Cover: Talmud students, Trnava, Czechoslovakia, 1937 © Roman Vishniac
Author photo © Shoshi Jacobs