In the Pale of Settlement, 1919:by Philip Sultz
Fragments from the Chronicles
of the Unwanted
There are no pot shards on the banks of the Bug River
to piece together a glorious bowl of grander times.
For generations, Jews of eastern Europe were forced
into the narrow corridors of self expression, into
the structures of anti-semitism.
Events are lost in the past
as those who died
are lost in the events.
Others like my father
took their indelible traces of horror
into the diaspora,
their souvenirs of organized killing.
We are forever longing for the impossible.
In the Pale of Settlement, 1919:
Fragments from the chronicles
of the Unwanted
by Philip Sultz
The transitions of autumn
Give way to swift extremes.
Hide the rabbi from the Denikin.
Hide the women from the Cap’e.
Hide the grain from the Makhno.
Hide the livestock from the Petlura.
Hide the village from the istino Russkii.
Private armies bring devastation to the Pale.
Seeds of hatred spread like fire
among bands of vigilantes,
many of whom just yesterday were ordinary neighbors.
The earth falls away.
What have we done?
Who will die in Kovno?
Those who poison Russia will die in Kovno.
And who will die in Vitebsk?
The rabbi and his followers will die in Vitebsk.
And who will die in Mogilev?
Those who mix our blood in their matzohs will die in Mogilev.
And who will die in Vilna?
Those who cannot outrun the horses will die in Vilna.
And who will die in Grodno?
All the men vermin will die in Grodno.
And who will die in Minsk?
All the Christ killers will die in Minsk.
And who will die in Kiev?
The people with the cloven hooves will die in Kiev.
And who will die in Volhynia?
Those who refuse to eat pork will die in Volhynia.
And who will die in Kherson?
Those who arouse pogroms will die in Kherson.
And who will die in Chernigov?
Those who exploit the peasants will die in Chernigov.
And who will die in Poltava?
All the Jews will die in Poltava.
A boy is hiding in the cemetery
enduring the memory of victims,
the long common graves,
and the expedient shrouds that sanctify
While he sleeps, he dreams of rescue attempts,
the last embers in the ashen ruin,
the tinted illusions of childhood.
Denikin horses having seen enough killing,
drown their bandit riders in a river crossing, if only so,
or wild boars finish them off while they sleep, if only so,
or a forest fire burns up the lot of them, if only so,
or they choke on bowls of contaminated soup, if only so,
or the men of Cap’e quarrel over their Jewess captives
and kill each other off, if only so,
or cannons mysteriously appear to fight off
the attackers, if only so,
or the villagers hide in every conceivable place,
in stoves, in chimneys, in mattresses and are
not found, if only so.
But finally night fantasies turn to
permanent sorrow while
events come into focus in the black book
of his dreams.
Sokolifke bridge and for the rest of his life
a trail of blood dripping from wagons,
victims stacked one upon another,
digging trenches, family grief,
The living bury the dead.
The dead bury the living.
From the sky
the cawing crows see everything,
flying it seems to the corners of the land.
Advance parties on horseback
cross the shallow tributary of the Bug River.
A man with a beard is walking
into the devil’s mouth.
“Say cookarusa,” the bandits demand,
and the startled man replies and is quickly
and unceremoniously put to the sword.
Asked to say cookarusa, a Jew they know
will likely say cookachuza.
So those who say cookarusa will live,
and those who say cookachuza will die.
Bandit solutions in endless verse,
Between a plague and a Jew
There is no difference.
Between a dog and a Jew
You can keep a dog clean.
“Zhid idyot” the Jew is upon you.
“Zhid idyot” the Jew is upon you.
Two men are allowed to enter
Uman prison to complete a minyan.
Later, they will see the eight other
lying dead in the street.
In the state of Kiev
the six hundred bandits of Denikin
enter the village of Ustingrad.
The village rabbi is found and
without ceremony put to death.
Later the men of the temple
will meet the same fate.
Darkness invades the land.
Ordinary people, like the moths of autumn,
are gone the next day.
Jews are hiding in the cemetery
lying under sheet metal lids
that cover graves.
Some are waiting to die,
others are through waiting.
A boy is discovered by a lone bandit
no older than himself.
While the bandit draws his sword,
someone else is attempting to flee
and refuses an order to halt.
Outraged, the bandit mounts his horse
and gives chase.
The boy runs into the village
and climbs into a public latrine
where he stands in waste through the night.
Horses and gunfire,
smoke and distant noises.
Children in the grain fields,
hiding, waiting for a sign.
Where will they go?
There are no distant towns for them,
only nearby places.
With bonfires raging
The bandits of Denikin leave Ustingrad.
Where is the blacksmith and his four sons
who live on the edge of the village?
They were the first to die.
Where is Moishe, the rabbi’s son?
In every room of the house they say.
Where are the girls who went to the temple?
Fur hats and daggers swallowed them up.
Where is the peddler and his wagon?
Look in the wagon, you won’t find wood.
Where are the old folks, where are
the young men?
The old folks are burying the young men.
Where is the boy who makes bathtubs and samovars?
The following day
he finds his father in the morning mist
standing in a shorn field with
his beard and face caked with blood
having suffered a beating reserved for old men.
They wash on the river bank
as the sun rises.
Papa, are we cattle? The boy asks.
No we’re not cattle, the father replies.
Are we wild animals?
No we’re not wild animals.
Are we cattle papa?
No, we’re not cattle.
Are we chickens papa?
No, we’re not chickens.
What are we papa, what are we?
We’re Jews my son, we’re Jews.
The father with open palms
as if to shield the sun from his eyes
looks up and says some words.
Days are shorter.
Survivors are crossing the Konela River.
Some fall through the ice and drown.
Others go on.
Upstate New York, 1979
The cemetery road
makes its way through the expanded city
as it once did through the countryside.
Photographs are attached to old headstones
encased in glassy oval brooches,
some scraped away,
dark evidence of continuity.
The untidy rows strain for uniformity
as we try to lift a fallen headstone.
Silhouettes of braided cedar fall away
toward the red lace of night.
Transfixed, we stand among the allied trees.
as the long view darkens.
The enduring earth.
Zylyonz, Denikin, Cap'e, Makhno, Petlura were bandit leaders who brought death and destruction into to the Pale of Settlement.
Kovno, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Vilna, Grodno, Minsk, Kiev, Volhynia, Kherson, Chernigov and Poltava are districts in the Pale.
cookarusa, Russian for corn
Ustingrad rabbi, Pinchos Rabinowitz
Pine Hill Cemetary, Cheektowaga, (suburb of Buffalo) New York
Both Ustingrad and Justingrad were used. I chose Ustingrad since both are pronounced Ustingrad.
istino Russkii, ordinary citizens
Uman, city, 20 miles south of Ustingrad