Excerpt from The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Fighter

by Jean-Jacques Greif

The Fighter by Jean-Jacques Greif
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  • Published:
    Sep 2006, 288 pages

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“Oy, your mother gave you quite a big jug to carry just half a quart of oil. You seem to find it rather heavy. . . .”

My brother tells us about it.

“Lucky she didn’t look inside the jug! It would have meant the end of my scheme.”

Pola, my sister, finds him selfish.

“You think only about yourself. What about the salesgirl? She would have lost her job!”

We’re always hungry. When Anschel brings home a potato, he divides it into eight parts. Food is so scarce that we rejoice when we eat one-eighth of a potato or two.

The market comes to our courtyard on Tuesdays and Fridays. It isn’t a big one like they have in Warsaw. Peasants lay out their vegetables on the ground. They sell turnips, beetroots, beans, cabbage, pickled cucumbers in a bucket, homemade vodka—and above all, potatoes. The kids sing a ditty:

Sunday, potatoes

Monday, potatoes

Tuesday, potatoes

Wednesday and Thursday, potatoes

Friday, potatoes

Saturday, potato cake.

The courtyard is large, with houses on three sides and stables on the fourth. We live in a big room plus a small kitchen, on the second floor of a four-story building. At night, we stick two folding beds together and the five of us sleep there, as close as sardines in a can. They put me in the middle. In winter it’s warm and cozy, but in summer I’m too hot.

They say that rich people have pipes that bring water into their homes. In our courtyard, people gather at the fountain all day long to fill up pitchers, jugs, tin cans. We keep water at home in a barrel. In winter, it freezes during the night.

Four outhouses stand in the courtyard, just under our window. I imagine that stinking gnomes live underground in a huge palace, the outhouses being its turrets.

I like to sit near the window. I watch the fountain, the outhouses, and especially the stables. They contain twelve carts, which are just simple wooden platforms drawn by two horses. I admire the skill of the carters when they tie mountains of scrap or rags on their platforms. Ah, these carters are tough men. Every evening, they get drunk on vodka in a filthy tavern on this side of the courtyard, then they cross back to the stables, singing and staggering, to sleep with their horses. Some of them are Jewish. I know we’re Jewish, too, but I can barely understand them. The language they speak sounds like Yiddish, but it contains strange words. “It’s slang,” my mother says.

I notice that my brothers often come home with cuts and bruises all over their faces and bodies. Every other day, my mother sews up their old sweaters and their pants.

“The Poles attacked us,” they say.

“We ran, but they caught us.”

“They ambushed us at the corner.”

Why do the Poles attack the Jews? That’s a great mystery. For a long time, I thought that the word Jew actually meant “poor,” but in fact these Poles who are not Jewish are often as poor as we are.

My brother Schmiel says that in Warsaw, on the other side of the Vistula River, the Jews live together in neighborhoods where the Poles do not enter. Our neighborhood, Praga, is “mixed,” which means that we can’t escape the Poles. We must be careful.

I stay at home because of my crooked legs, but I walk better now. I’ll soon go out into the courtyard and the streets. I’ll have to face theses terrible Poles. My brothers are cowards. As soon as they see a Pole, they run away. I won’t give in. I’ll fight. I’ll be as strong as the carters. When a carter argues with a peasant, he comes right up to him and grabs the lapels of his jacket. The peasant falls to the ground right away. At first I didn’t understand what happened. Then, after seeing many fights from my window, I noticed that the carter gave a butt with his head or a kick with his knee between the peasant’s legs. The carter’s move is so fast that you hardly see it. I’ll grab the Pole by his jacket lapels and knock him out!

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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