In Praga, a Suburb of Warsaw
When I was born, the czar still reigned over the great Russian empire and
Poland was a mere trinket hanging from his belt. He had so many subjects that
nobody ever tried to count them. He didnt even ask them to register their
children. Or, at least, he didnt ask my mother.
At the end of the First World War, the czar of Russia tumbled down from his throne. His army of Cossacks left Warsaw. Poland became an independent country.
In 1918, obeying a decree of the new Polish government, my mother goes to the town hall in Praga, our Warsaw suburb, to register her four children.
How old are they? the man in the office asks.
What you say?
How old? Your children, lady!
She finds him hard to understand. Before the war, you had to learn Russian. Now its Polish. Why dont these government people ever speak Yiddish, the language of the Jews?
Schmiel Yankl, my first, he more than ten, sir.
More than ten years old?
Okay, lets say eleven. Ill register him as Schmiel Yankl Wisniak, born in 1907. Next one?
My daughter, Pola Kailé, she younger.
Of course. If he is your eldest. When was she born?
Schmiel, he walked already.
Lets say he was two. Pola Kailé Wisniak, born in 1909.
Then Anschel Leib come.
Did the daughter walk already?
Hmm . . . Yes, sir.
Ill write down Anschel Leib Wisniak, born in 1911. Is that all?
Also my last one, Moshe Azik.
Two years later?
No, sir. He young . . .
Your youngest, I understand. All right: Moshe Azik Wisniak, born in 1913.
This is the date written on my birth certificate and all my other papers, but my mother is quite sure I was born on January 17, 1915. Who can know better than she? This was the year of the great Spanish flu epidemic. My father died a few weeks after my birth.
Before my fathers death, we were poor already. Afterward, we became even poorer. My mother sews day and night near the window or under the light of the oil lamp. She is known as Myriam the seamstress. Her customers can barely pay her. As she doesnt eat enough, her milk is too watery to nourish me. I am very small. My legs are so thin and crooked that I cant stand up. I sit on the floor all day. I move, though: I glide around as fast as a stone on a frozen lake. Soon after my third birthday, my mother brings me to a healerthat is, a doctor who couldnt get a diploma on account of being a Jew.
He has rickets, he says. Give him two spoonfuls of cod-liver oil every day.
After a few weeks, I am strong enough to begin walking. They call me Monkey Moshe, because my legs are curved like a chimps. I am very thin.
If it werent for my brother Anschel, hunger would kill us all. He is clever. He sticks an iron pike at the end of a cane, then he steals potatoes on market days. On other days, he sits down in the street and weeps.
Why are you crying? people ask him.
Cause Im hungry.
Poor kid . . . Here, go and buy some food!
They give him loose change. He buys bread and brings it home. My other brother, Schmiel, has a job already. He cuts leather for one of my fathers cousins. He left school when he was ten, although he loved to study. Anschel will also leave school when he is ten. Already, he doesnt go too often, as he spends all day looking for food. The salesgirl at the grocers takes pity on him. When he asks for a quart of milk, she fills up his can, which contains half a gallon. One day, the grocers wife hears him buying half a quart of oil for the lamp. She comes out of her back shop and sees he is carrying a gallon-and-a-half jug.
Excerpted from The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif, Copyright © 2006 by Jean-Jacques Greif. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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